Temperature scales
The scales most frequently used to measure temperatures in science are the Kelvin and Celsius scales. The Celsius scale, developed by Swedish scientist Anders Celsius in the early 1700s, assigns a value of 0°C to the freezing point of water (at a pressure of 1 atmosphere), and 100°C to the boiling point of water (at the same pressure). The Kelvin scale is based on the triple point of water, the point at which water’s solid, liquid, and gaseous phases can coexist in equilibrium: 1 K is defined as 1/273.16 of the temperature of water at its triple point.

Kelvins are treated like all other SI units: a temperature of 100 K is read as “one hundred kelvins,” not “one hundred degrees kelvin.”

Differences on the Celsius scale have the same magnitude as differences on the Kelvin scale: a gap of 1°C between temperatures is the same as a gap of 1 K. Therefore the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero (0 K) is equal to -273.15°C, and (at a pressure of 1 atmosphere) water freezes at 273.15 K and boils at 373.15 K.

Mach number
Mach numbers measure speed. Based on a suggestion by Swiss aeronautical engineer Jakob Ackeret, it was named after Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist who studied—among other things—the Doppler effect, sensory perception, and the origin of inertia. The Mach number is defined as the ratio of the speed of an object to the speed of sound in the same medium. So an object moving at the speed of sound (which in dry air at 20°C is about 343 m/s) has a speed of Mach 1, and an object moving at twice the speed of sound has a speed of Mach 2.
Decibel scale
The decibel scale can describe any kind of power, but is most commonly used to describe the intensity of sound waves. The decibel (abbreviated dB) is one tenth of a larger unit, the bel (abbreviated B), named after inventor Alexander Graham Bell. The intensity of a sound in decibels is given by the formula I = 10 log(P1/P0), where P1 is the intensity of the sound being measured (in watts per square meter) and P0 is a reference intensity, which is based on the least powerful sound wave that can be detected by the average human ear (namely 10-12 W/m2). A 10 dB increase in sound intensity corresponds to multiplying the energy of the sound wave by 10. A normal conversation has a volume of about 70 dB.
pH scale
The pH scale, developed by S. P. L. Sørensen in 1909, is used to quantify acidity. The pH (power of hydrogen) of a solution is defined as the opposite of the (base-10) logarithm of the concentration of protons in a solution: pH = -log10[H+]. (The brackets are standard notation in chemistry for “the concentration of.”) Thus, greater concentrations of protons correspond to smaller pH values. At 25°C, the neutral (neither acidic nor basic) pH is 7; solutions with a pH less than 7 are considered acidic, and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are considered basic.
Richter scale
The Richter scale measures earthquake intensity. Developed by Caltech professor Charles Francis Richter, it measures the shaking intensity associated with earthquakes, as quantified by the amplitude of vibrations on a seismograph. A magnitude 5.0 earthquake will have an amplitude 10 times larger than that of a magnitude 4.0 quake. The energy associated with an earthquake is actually proportional to the 3/2 power of the magnitude: a 1-point difference on the Richter scale corresponds to a 103/2-fold (about 31.6) difference in energy. Because of difficulties in measuring the magnitudes of large earthquakes, the Richter scale has been superseded by the moment magnitude scale, which uses a different formula but retains the logarithmic nature (and correlates to measurements on the Richter scale).
Beaufort wind force scale
The first official use of the Beaufort scale was on the voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1831, which was led by Robert FitzRoy, who had been trained by the scale’s namesake, Sir Francis Beaufort, a rear admiral in the British Navy. The Beaufort scale is primarily based on wind speed, but also incorporates descriptions of wave height, sea conditions, and land conditions. It starts at 0, corresponding to “calm” winds with a speed less than 1 knot. In most parts of the world, it stops at 12, which is designated “hurricane-force winds.” Scores of 2 to 6 are called “breezes,” and scores of 7 to 10 are called “gales.” Since 1946 the median wind speed for each step has been defined as 1.87B3/2, where B is the number on the Beaufort scale.
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Fujita-Pearson and Enhanced Fujita scales
These scales measure tornado strength. The Fujita-Pearson scale was introduced in 1971 by Ted Fujita, a meteorology professor at the University of Chicago, and Allen Pearson, director of what is now the Storm Prediction Center. The original scale went from F0 (wind speeds lower than hurricane force, which should cause little to no damage) to F5 (wind speeds of 260 miles per hour, which should cause “incredible damage”). Fujita also included an “inconceivable damage” category for tornados exceeding 319 miles per hour (theoretically possible, but no such tornado has ever been observed). In 2007 the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale was introduced, narrowing the speed ranges for each category: an EF5 begins at “just” 200 miles per hour.
Mohs scale
Invented by Friedrich Mohs in 1812, the Mohs scale is based on the abilities of minerals to scratch one another. The original scale assigned a value of 1 to talc, which can be scratched by essentially every solid known, and a value of 10 to diamond, which (among naturally occurring minerals) can only be scratched by other diamonds. The steps are of arbitrary size, with a 1-point difference corresponding to anywhere from a 1.5-fold to a 4-fold increase in hardness; diamond is about 1600 times harder than talc. Following the discovery of more ultra-hard minerals, scientists have proposed extending the scale so that diamond is 15 instead of 10.)
Pauling scale
The Pauling scale, devised by Linus Pauling in 1932, is one of several scales that measure electronegativity, the attraction of atoms for electrons in chemical bonds. Higher values correspond to stronger attractions. Francium has the lowest value, about 0.7, while fluorine has the highest value, about 4.0. (Noble gases are not assigned values on the Pauling scale, since they were not known to form any bonds when Pauling devised it.) Differences in electronegativity characterize bonds: the greater the difference, the more ionic the bond.
Saffir-Simpson scale
The Saffir-Simpson scale is a measure of wind speed and damage from hurricanes. It was developed in 1971 by Herbert Saffir, a civil engineer, and Robert Simpson, then the director of the National Hurricane Center. It rates hurricanes on a 1-to-5 scale: a 1 corresponds to a wind speed of 74 to 95 miles per hour, which causes “some damage.” A 5 causes “catastrophic damage,” with wind speeds over 157 miles per hour and affected areas uninhabitable for weeks or months.
atomic symbol H, atomic number 1) is the first element on the periodic table and, by far, the most common element in the Universe. In addition to the main isotope (also called protium), there are two other significant isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium (2H or D), which has one neutron, and tritium (3H or T), which has two neutrons. It naturally exists as a diatomic gas (H2), which was discovered by British chemist Henry Cavendish. Hydrogen is highly flammable when exposed to high temperatures or electric current; a notable example of this was the Hindenburg disaster. It can react with nonmetals by losing an electron to form the H+ ion, or react with metals to form the hydride ion H-.
(He, 2) is the lightest noble gas and the second most abundant element in the Universe (after hydrogen). Discovered by Sir William Ramsey, Pierre Janssen, and Norman Lockyer, it has two stable isotopes, helium-3 and helium-4, with helium-4 by far the more common. Because of their different quantum properties (the helium-3 nucleus is a fermion, while the helium-4 nucleus is a boson), the isotopes of helium actually have significantly different physical properties. Helium-4 can exist in a zero-viscosity state known as superfluidity when its temperature drops below the lambda point. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element; liquid helium is used for devices that need intense cooling, such as MRI machines. Most helium on Earth results from radioactive decay, since the helium nucleus is equivalent to an alpha particle.
(O, 8) is, by mass, the most common element in Earth’s crust. It was discovered independently by Carl Scheele and Joseph Priestley; Priestley originally called it “dephlogisticated air.” Oxygen normally exists in elemental form as a diatomic gas (O2), but it can also exist in a triatomic form, ozone (O3), which is known for its role in blocking UV rays in Earth’s stratosphere. Diatomic oxygen is, despite having an even number of electrons, paramagnetic, meaning it has unpaired electrons. This points out a problem with traditional valence bond theories, which predict that oxygen should be diamagnetic; molecular orbital theory correctly explains this behavior. Because oxygen is easily capable of accepting electrons, reactions in which a species gives up electrons are known as oxidation reactions.
(N, 7) is the most abundant element in Earth’s atmosphere. Nitrogen, which was first isolated as “noxious air” by Daniel Rutherford, exists primarily as a diatomic molecule containing two triple-bonded nitrogen atoms (N2). Because nitrogen gas is extremely stable, N2 is unusable for many biological and chemical purposes. To make it useful, it often undergoes fixation to convert it into usable nitrogen species such as the ammonium ion (NH4+)—as it is by bacteria in the root nodules of legume plants—or ammonia gas (NH3), as is done industrially in the Haber-Bosch process. Conversely, its stability makes it useful in preventing unwanted combustion reactions. It also has a relatively low boiling point (-196°C), which makes liquid nitrogen useful as a refrigerant.
(Hg, 80) is one of just two elements that is a liquid at standard temperature and pressure (the only other one is bromine). It has been known since antiquity, and is found in ores such as cinnabar. Older names for it, reflecting its liquid nature, include hydrargyrum (the source of its symbol) and quicksilver. Because it is a very dense liquid, it is commonly used in barometers to measure atmospheric pressure; the pressure exerted by the atmosphere equals the pressure exerted by a column containing 760 millimeters of mercury. Alloys of mercury with other metals are called amalgams, some of which have been used as dental fillings. Chronic exposure to mercury can cause psychological problems; its use in hatmaking led to the expression “mad as a hatter.” More recently, concerns about mercury exposure have led to the banning of mercury in thermometers.
S, 16) was widely known in the ancient world, and is referred to in the Bible as brimstone. Its nature as an element was first recognized by Antoine Lavoisier. Its most stable allotrope is an eight-membered ring that exists as a yellow solid. It is most often isolated by injecting superheated steam into the ground in the Frasch process. As an element, it is used in the vulcanization process to cross-link the polymer strands of rubber to increase rubber’s strength; similarly, sulfur-sulfur bonds hold many proteins together. Industrially, though, the majority of sulfur is used to make sulfuric acid, H2SO4 (in fact, sulfuric acid is the most widely produced chemical in the chemical industry). Sulfur compounds are noted for their strong and unpleasant odors; small quantities of hydrogen sulfide, H2S, are frequently added to natural gas, which is normally odorless, to help detect gas leaks.
(Fe, 26) is the most common metal in the Earth, and one of the major components of the core as well. Iron was known to the ancients; its atomic symbol Fe comes from the Latin name ferrum. Iron is the namesake of ferromagnetism; one of its ores is magnetite, Fe3O4, which contains iron in both of its most common oxidation states, 2+ and 3+. Iron(II) sulfide, FeS2, is formally known as pyrite, but because of its appearance has long been known as fool’s gold. Iron can react with oxygen in the air to form iron(III) oxide, Fe2O3, in a relatively slow but exothermic process; this process is used in “all-day” heat patches. Hydrated iron(III) oxide is better known as rust; rust only forms when iron is exposed to both oxygen and water. Its isotope 56 is “doubly magic” in that its nucleus has 28 protons and 28 neutrons; 28 is a magic number that carries special stability. As a result, iron-56 is one of the most stable of all nuclei, and it is the heaviest nucleus that is normally produced during stellar nucleosynthesis. The largest use of iron is in steel.
(C, 6) is found, by definition, in all organic compounds. It is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe. It has three major isotopes: isotope 12, which is stable; isotope 13, which is used in NMR spectroscopy; and isotope 14, which is radioactive and is the basis of carbon dating. Carbon’s ability to form four chemical bonds means that it has many different allotropes. The best-characterized natural isotopes are diamond, which consists of a tetrahedral network of carbon atoms, and graphite, which consists of planes of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons. Fullerenes such as buckyballs and carbon nanotubes, on the other hand, are generally produced synthetically; buckyballs are roughly spherical. More recently, graphene, which is a single layer of atoms shaped like graphite, has proven to have remarkable properties; for example, it is nearly transparent while being about 200 times stronger than an equivalent mass of steel
(Al, 13) is the most common metal in Earth’s crust, and the first metal in the p block of elements. First isolated by Hans Christian Oersted, its primary ore is bauxite, from which it is refined using large amounts of electric current, via electrolysis, through the Bayer and Hall-Héroult processes. (Because aluminum exists only in a +3 oxidation state, it takes three moles of electrons to produce one mole of aluminum; as a result, it has been estimated that 5% of all electricity in the U.S. goes to purifying aluminum.) It is found in the mineral corundum, which is found in many gems, including sapphires and rubies; the specific impurities found in a gem determine its color. It is also found in aluminosilicates such as feldspar.
Au, 79) was known to the ancients as a relatively inert metal. Its atomic symbol Au comes from its Latin name, aurum. It is resistant to attack by most acids, but it (along with platinum) will dissolve in aqua regia, a mixture of concentrated nitric acid and hydrochloric acid. Among all metals, it has the highest electronegativity and electron affinity; it occasionally is found in a -1 oxidation state as Au-. Widely used in jewelry, it also has a number of scientific uses. Ernest Rutherford’s gold foil experiment demonstrated the existence of a positively charged nucleus. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) often requires that specimens be “sputtered,” or thinly coated, with gold atoms to allow imaging. Suspensions of gold compounds have been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Igor Stravinsky
(1882-1971). He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov and completed two grand ballets for Diaghilev, The Firebird and Petrushka. His Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring (1913), however, is what inaugurated music’s Modern era. A pagan story featuring polytonal music, The Rite of Spring shocked the audience so much that riots ensued, leading a stunned Stravinsky to pursue rational, “neoclassical” music, such as his Symphony of Psalms. In 1940 he moved to Hollywood, where he composed his one full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress, with libretto by W.H. Auden. Late in life, he adopted the serialist, twelve-tone style of Webern, producing the abstract ballet Agon (1957).
Arnold Schoenberg
1874-1951). This Austrian pioneered dodecaphony, or the twelve-tone system, which treated all parts of the chromatic scale equally. Schoenberg’s early influences were Wagner and R. Strauss, as evident in his Transfigured Night (1900) for strings. Yet by 1912, with the “Sprechstimme” (halfway between singing and speaking) piece Pierrot lunaire, he broke from Romanticism and developed expressionist pieces free from key or tone. His students, especially Alban Berg and Anton Webern, further elaborated on his theories. Fleeing Nazi persecution in 1933, he moved from Berlin to Los Angeles, where he completed A Survivor from Warsaw. The first two acts of his unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, are still frequently performed.
Benjamin Britten
(1913-1976). Reviver of the opera in the U.K., most notably with Peter Grimes (1945), the story of a fisherman who kills two of his apprentices. Britten broke through with Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), a tribute to his composition teacher, and wrote incidental music for works by his friend W.H. Auden. With his companion, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and wrote operas such as Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice. Britten’s non-operatic works include The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946) and War Requiem (1961), based on the antiwar poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed during World War I.
Aaron Copland
(1900-1990). At first a modernist, he was the first American student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1920s; there he finished his Organ Symphony and Music for the Theater. By the 1930s, Copland turned to simple themes, especially the American West: El Salón Mexico was followed by the ballets Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring (1944), the last containing the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Copland’s Third Symphony contained his Fanfare for the Common Man, while Lincoln Portrait featured spoken portions of the President’s writings. Copland wrote several educational books, beginning with 1939’s What to Listen For in Music.
Sergei Prokofiev
(1891-1953). He wrote seven symphonies, of which the First (Classical, 1917) is the most notable. While in Chicago, he premiered the opera The Love for Three Oranges, based on Italian commedia dell’arte. Prokofiev moved to Paris in 1922, where he composed works for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, including The Prodigal Son. In 1936 he returned to the USSR, where he completed the popular children’s work Peter and the Wolf and the score for the film Alexander Nevsky. When Stalin denounced Prokofiev as “decadent,” the composer was forced to write obsequious tributes to the premier. Prokofiev survived Stalin, but only by a few hours (both died on March 5).
Dmitri Shostakovich
(1906-1975). His work was emblematic of both the Soviet regime and his attempts to survive under its oppression. Shostakovich’s operas, such as The Nose (1928) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, were well received at first–until Stalin severely criticized his work in Pravda in 1936. Fearful for his security, Shostakovich wrote several conciliatory pieces (Fifth, Seventh/Leningrad, and Twelfth Symphonies) in order to get out of trouble. He made enemies, however, with his Thirteenth Symphony (Babi Yar). Based on the Yevtushenko poem, Babi Yar condemned anti-Semitism in both Nazi Germany and the USSR.
Béla Bartók
(1881-1945). A young girl singing a folk tune to her son in 1904 inspired Bartók to roam the Hungarian countryside with Zoltan Kodály, collecting peasant tunes. This influence permeated his music, including the opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) and the ballets The Wooden Prince (1916) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1919). A virtuoso pianist and an innovative composer, Bartók refused to teach composition, contributing to financial problems, especially after he fled Nazi-held Hungary for the U.S. in 1940. Bartók wrote many prominent instrumental pieces; best known are six string quartets, the educational piano piece Mikrokosmos, and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936).
Charles Ives
(1874-1954). He learned experimentation from his father George, a local Connecticut businessman and bandleader. Ives studied music at Yale but found insurance sales more lucrative; his firm of Ives and Myrick was the largest in New York during the 1910s. Privately, Ives composed great modern works, including the Second Piano (Concord) Sonata (with movements named after Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau); and Three Places in New England (1914). His Third Symphony won Ives a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, while his song “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” was based on a Vachel Lindsay poem. Poor health ended both his insurance and music careers by 1930.
Maurice Ravel
(1875-1937). His Basque mother gave him an affinity for Spanish themes, as evident in Rapsodie espagnole and his most popular piece, Bolero (1928). Ravel produced Pavane for a Dead Princess while a student of Gabriel Fauré, but was frustrated when the French Conservatory overlooked him for the Prix de Rome four times. He completed the ballet Daphnis et Chloe (1912) for Diaghilev, which was followed by Mother Goose and La Valse, and also re-orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. His health declined after a 1932 taxi accident; unsuccessful brain surgery ended his life.
George Gershwin
1898-1937). Known at first for producing popular songs and musicals with his older brother Ira, Gershwin successfully melded jazz and popular music with classical forms, most famously the Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (1925), and the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), based on a story by DuBose Heyward. Gershwin’s first major hit was 1919’s “Swanee,” sung by Al Jolson, and his 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing was the first to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38.
John Cage
(1912-1992). An American student of Arnold Schoenberg, Cage took avant-garde to a new level, and may be considered a Dada composer because he believed in aleatory, or “chance” music. His Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) used twelve radios tuned to different stations; the composition depended on what was on the radio at that time. The following year’s 4’33” required a pianist to sit at the piano for that length of time and then close it; audience noise and silence created the “music.” Cage also invented the “prepared piano,” where he attached screws, wood, rubber bands, and other items to piano strings in order to create a percussion sound.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(RAIF) (1872-1958). Best known for reviving the Tudor style and folk traditions in English music, as exemplified in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1909). Vaughan Williams completed nine symphonies, the foremost his Second (London) in 1914; other principal symphonies included the First (Sea), Third (Pastoral) and Seventh (sinfonia antarctica). His orchestral work The Lark Ascending was based on a George Meredith poem, while Sir John in Love (1924) was a Shakespearean opera that featured the “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Hugh the Drover and The Pilgrim’s Progress are other major Vaughan Williams operas.
Sergei Rachmaninoff
(1873-1943). A highly skilled pianist and conductor, Rachmaninoff twice turned down conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He failed to reap the monetary benefits of his early pieces (notably the C-Sharp Minor Prelude of 1892), because he sold them cheaply to a publisher. Treated by hypnosis in 1901, Rachmaninoff began a productive period with his Second Piano Concerto (known affectionately by Julliard students as “Rocky II”) and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909). He moved to the U.S. in 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution. There his output decreased, though he did complete the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934.
(Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Ghislanzoni, 1871) Aida is an Ethiopian princess who is held captive in Egypt. She falls in love with the Egyptian general Radames and convinces him to run away with her; unfortunately, he is caught by the high priest Ramphis and a jealous Egyptian princess Amneris. Radames is buried alive, but finds that Aida has snuck into the tomb to join him. The opera was commissioned by the khedive of Egypt and intended to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal, but it was finished late and instead premiered at the opening of the Cairo Opera House.
(Georges Bizet, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, 1875) Carmen is a young gypsy who works in a cigarette factory in Seville. She is arrested by the corporal Don José for fighting, but cajoles him into letting her escape. They meet again at an inn where she tempts him into challenging his captain; that treason forces him to join a group of smugglers. In the final act, the ragtag former soldier encounters Carmen at a bullfight where her lover Escamillo is competing (the source of the “Toreador Song”) and stabs her. The libretto was based on a novel of Prosper Merimée.
The Marriage of Figaro
(Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lorenzo Da Ponte, 1786) Figaro and Susanna are servants of Count Almaviva who plan to marry, but this plan is complicated by the older Marcellina who wants to wed Figaro, the Count who has made unwanted advances to Susanna, and Don Bartolo who has a loan that Figaro has sworn he will repay before he marries. The issues are resolved with a series complicated schemes that involve impersonating other characters including the page Cherubino. The opera is based on a comedy by Pierre de Beaumarchais. Be careful: Many of the same characters also appear in The Barber of Seville!
The Barber of Seville
(Gioacchino Rossini, Cesare Sterbini, 1816) Count Almaviva loves Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo. Figaro (who brags about his wit in Largo al factotum) promises to help him win the girl. He tries the guise of the poor student Lindoro, a drunken soldier, and then a replacement music teacher, all of which are penetrated by Dr. Bartolo. Eventually they succeed by climbing in with a ladder and bribing the notary who was to marry Rosina to Dr. Bartolo himself. This opera is also based on a work of Pierre de Beaumarchais and is a prequel to The Marriage of Figaro.
William Tell
(Gioacchino Rossini, unimportant librettists, 1829) William Tell is a 14th-century Swiss patriot who wishes to end Austria’s domination of his country. In the first act he helps Leuthold, a fugitive, escape the Austrian governor, Gessler. In the third act, Gessler has placed his hat on a pole and ordered the men to bow to it. When Tell refuses, Gessler takes his son, Jemmy, and forces Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell succeeds, but is arrested anyway. In the fourth act, he escapes from the Austrians and his son sets their house on fire as a signal for the Swiss to rise in revolt. The opera was based on a play by Friedrich von Schiller.
Don Giovanni
(Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lorenzo Da Ponte, 1787) Don Giovanni (the Italian form of “Don Juan”) attempts to seduce Donna Anna, but is discovered by her father, the Commendatore, whom he kills in a swordfight. Later in the act, his servant Leporello recounts his master’s 2,000-odd conquests in the “Catalogue Aria.” Further swordfights and assignations occur prior to the final scene in which a statue of the Commendatore comes to life, knocks on the door to the room in which Don Giovanni is feasting, and then opens a chasm that takes him down to hell.
(Richard Strauss, Hugo Oscar Wilde, 1905) Jokanaan (a.k.a. John the Baptist) is imprisoned in the dungeons of King Herod. Herod’s 15-year-old step-daughter Salome becomes obsessed with the prisoner’s religious passion and is incensed when he ignores her advances. Later in the evening Herod orders Salome to dance for him (the “Dance of the Seven Veils”), but she refuses until he promises her “anything she wants.” She asks for the head of Jokanaan and eventually receives it, after which a horrified Herod orders her to be killed; his soldiers crush her with their shields.
Boris Godunov
(Modest Mussorgsky (composer and librettist), 1874) The opera’s prologue shows Boris Godunov, the chief adviser of Ivan the Terrible, being pressured to assume the throne after Ivan’s two children die. In the first act the religious novice Grigori decides that he will impersonate that younger son, Dmitri (the (first) “false Dmitri”), whom, it turns out, Boris had killed. Grigori raises a general revolt and Boris’ health falls apart as he is taunted by military defeats and dreams of the murdered tsarevich. The opera ends with Boris dying in front of the assembled boyars (noblemen).
La Bohème
(Giacomo Puccini, unimportant librettists, 1896) This opera tells the story of four extremely poor friends who live in the French (i.e., Students’) Quarter of Paris: Marcello the artist, Rodolfo the poet, Colline the philosopher, and Schaunard the musician. Rodolfo meets the seamstress Mimi who lives next door when her single candle is blown out and needs to be relit. Marcello is still attached to Musetta, who had left him for the rich man Alcindoro. In the final act, Marcello and Rodolfo have separated from their lovers, but cannot stop thinking about them. Musetta bursts into their garret apartment and tells them that Mimi is dying of consumption (tuberculosis); when they reach her, she is already dead. La Bohème was based on a novel by Henry Murger and, in turn, formed the basis of the hit 1996 musical Rent by Jonathan Larson.
Madama Butterfly
(Giacomo Puccini, unimportant librettists, 1904) The American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is stationed in Nagasaki where, with the help of the broker Goro, he weds the young girl Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) with a marriage contract with a cancellation clause. He later returns to America leaving Cio-Cio-San to raise their son “Trouble” (whom she will rename “Joy” upon his return). When Pinkerton and his new American wife Kate do return, Cio-Cio-San gives them her son and stabs herself with her father’s dagger. The opera is based on a play by David Belasco.
West Side Story
(Leonard Bernstein; Stephen Sondheim; Arthur Laurents; 1957). Riff and Bernardo lead two rival gangs: the blue-collar Jets and the Sharks from Puerto Rico. Tony, a former Jet, falls in love with the Bernardo’s sister Maria and vows to stop the fighting, but he kills Bernardo after Bernardo kills Riff in a “rumble.” Maria’s suitor Chino shoots Tony, and the two gangs come together. Notable songs include “America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Adapted from Romeo and Juliet, it was made into an Academy Award-winning 1961 film starring Natalie Wood.
The Phantom of the Opera
(Andrew Lloyd Webber; Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe; Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber; 1986). At the Paris Opera in 1881, the mysterious Phantom lures the soprano Christine Daae to his lair (“The Music of the Night”). Christine falls in love with the opera’s new patron, Raoul, so the Phantom drops a chandelier and kidnaps Christine. They kiss, but he disappears, leaving behind only his white mask. Adapted from the eponymous 1909 novel by Gaston Leroux, it is the longest-running show in Broadway history.
My Fair Lady
(Frederick Loewe; Alan Jay Lerner; Alan Jay Lerner; 1956). As part of a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, phonetics professor Henry Higgins transforms cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. After Eliza falls for Freddy Eynsforth-Hill, Higgins realizes he is in love with Eliza. Eliza returns to Higgins’ home in the final scene. It is adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.
(Andrew Lloyd Webber; T.S. Eliot; T.S. Eliot). The Jellicle tribe of cats roams the streets of London. They introduce the audience to various members: Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Old Deuteronomy. Old Deuteronomy must choose a cat to be reborn, and he chooses the lowly Grizabella after she sings “Memory.” It is adapted from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.
(Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice; Tim Rice; 1978). Che Guevara narrates the life story of Eva Peron, a singer and film actress who marries Juan Peron. Juan is elected President of Argentina, and Eva’s charity work makes her immensely popular among her people (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) before her death from cancer. It was made into a 1996 film starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas.
The Mikado
(Arthur Sullivan; W.S. Gilbert; 1885). The Mikado [Emperor of Japan] has made flirting a capital crime in Titipu, so the people have appointed an ineffectual executioner named Ko-Ko. Ko-Ko’s ward, Yum-Yum, marries the wandering musician Nanki-Poo, and the two lovers fake their execution. The Mikado visits the town and forgives the lovers of their transgression. It includes the song “Three Little Maids From School Are We.”
The Sound of Music
(Richard Rodgers; Oscar Hammerstein II; Howard Lindsey & Russel Crouse; 1959). Maria, a young woman studying to be a nun in Nazi-occupied Austria, becomes governess to the seven children of Captain von Trapp. She teaches the children to sing (“My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi”), and she and the Captain fall in love and get married. After Maria and the von Trapps give a concert for the Nazis (“Edelweiss”), they escape Austria (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”). It was adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1965 film starring Julie Andrews.
Fiddler on the Roof
(Jerry Bock; Sheldon Harnick; Joseph Stein; 1964). Tevye is a lowly Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia (“If I Were a Rich Man”), and his daughters are anxious to get married (“Matchmaker”). Tzeitel marries the tailor Motel (“Sunrise, Sunset,” “The Bottle Dance”), Hodel gets engaged to the radical student Perchik, and Chava falls in love with a Russian named Fyedka. The families leave their village, Anatevka, after a pogrom. It is adapted from Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem.
(Richard Rodgers; Oscar Hammerstein II; Oscar Hammerstein II; 1943). On the eve of Oklahoma’s statehood, cowboy Curly McLain and sinister farmhand Judd compete for the love of Aunt Eller’s niece, Laurey. Judd falls on his own knife after attacking Curly, and Curly and Laurey get married. A subplot concerns Ado Annie, who chooses cowboy Will Parker over the Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Featuring the songs “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'” and “Oklahoma,” it is often considered the first modern book musical.
(Fred Kander; John Ebb; Jon Masteroff; 1966). Cabaret is set in the seedy Kit-Kat Club in Weimar Berlin, where the risqué Master of Ceremonies presides over the action (“Wilkommen”). The British lounge singer Sally Bowles falls in love with the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, but the two break up as the Nazis come to power. Adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1972 film starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, it is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
The Music Man
(Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey, 1957). Swindler Harold Hill attempts to con the families of River City, Iowa by starting a boys’ band. While there, he falls in love with the librarian Marian Paroo. The scheme is exposed, but the town forgives him. Notable songs include “Trouble” (the origin of the phrase “trouble in River City”) “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Shipoopi,” “Gary, Indiana,” and “Till There was You.”
(Jonathan Larson, 1996). Rent tells the story of impoverished artists living in the East Village of New York City during the AIDS crisis circa 1990. It is narrated by filmmaker Mark Cohen, whose ex-girlfriend Maureen just left him for a woman (Joanne), and whose recovering heroin addict roommate Roger meets the dying stripper Mimi. Mark and Roger’s former roommate and itinerant philosopher/hacker Collins comes to town, where he is robbed, then saved by the transvestite Angel, with whom he moves in. Meanwhile, the former fourth roommate of Mark, Roger, and Collins – Benny – has married into a wealthy family and bought the building Mark and Roger now live in, from which he wants to evict them. An adaptation of Puccini’s opera La bohéme, Rent won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and includes songs like “La Vie Bohéme” and “Seasons of Love”.
Guys and Dolls
Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows, 1950). Nathan Detroit runs an underground craps game but needs a location. To make enough money to use the Biltmore garage for his game, he bets notorious gambler Sky Masterson that Sky can’t convince a girl of Nathan’s choice to go to Havana with him for dinner; Nathan chooses the righteous missionary Sarah Brown. Sky wins the bet but ends up having to bring a dozen sinning gamblers to a revival meeting. As Nathan attends the meeting, his long-suffering fiancé Adelaide, a nightclub dancer, is increasingly frustrated that their fourteen-year engagement has not led to marriage. At the meeting, Sky bets a large amount of money against the gamblers’ souls, winning, and eventually convincing Sarah to marry him and Nathan to marry Adelaide. Adapted from short stories by Damon Runyon, the musical includes songs like “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Les Misérables
(Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer, 1985). A partial retelling of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, this work follows Jean Valjean, who was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. He breaks his parole and is doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert. Several years later, the lives of Valjean, his adoptive daughter Cosette, her lover Marius and his former lover Éponine, and Javert become intertwined on the barricades of an 1832 student rebellion in Paris. The longest-running show on London’s West End, it features the songs “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Master of the House,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, “One Day More,” and “On My Own.”
Annie Get Your Gun
(Irving Berlin, Herbert Fields, and Dorothy Fields, 1946). Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes to town, and performer Frank Butler challenges anyone to a shooting contest. Annie Oakley wins the contest and joins the show. She and Frank fall in love, but Frank quits out of jealousy that Annie is a better shooter than he is. The title role was originated by Ethel Merman, and songs in the show include “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” and “Anything You Can Do.”
The Pirates of Penzance
(W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, 1879). Frederic, having turned twenty-one, is released from his apprenticeship to the title pirates. Reaching shore for the first time, Frederic falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley. Frederic realizes that he was apprenticed until his twenty-first birthday, and, having been born on February 29, he must return to his apprenticeship. Mabel vows to wait for him. The Major-General and the police pursue the pirates, who surrender. The pirates are forgiven, and Mabel and Frederic reunite. As the work is actually a light opera, most of the songs are simply titled after their first lines; the most memorable ones include “Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry” and “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”
H.M.S. Pinafore
(W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, 1878). Aboard the title ship, Josephine promises her father, the captain, that she will marry Sir Joseph Porter, but Josephine secretly loves the common sailor Ralph Rackstraw, and the two plan to elope. A peddler named Buttercup reveals that she accidentally switched the captain and Ralph at birth: Ralph is of noble birth and should be captain, while the captain is nothing more than a common sailor. Ralph, now captain, marries Josephine, and the former captain marries Buttercup. Like The Pirates of Penzance, songs are named after their first lines; they include “We sail the ocean blue,” “I’m called Little Buttercup,” and “Pretty daughter of mine.”
The King and I
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1951). Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, travels to Siam (now Thailand) to teach English to the King’s many children and wives. Anna’s western ways, the looming threat of British rule, and romance between Lun Tha and the concubine Tuptim all weigh heavily on the traditional, chauvinistic King. As the King dies, Anna kneels at his side, and the prince abolishes the practice of kowtowing. Adapted from Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon and inspired by Anna Leonowens’ memoirs, it was made into an Academy Award-winning 1956 film starring Yul Brynner. Its songs include “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance?”.
Jesus Christ Superstar
(Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, 1971). In the week leading up to the crucifixion, Judas grows angry with Christ’s claims of divinity, and Mary Magdalene laments her romantic feelings for Christ. Judas hangs himself, and Christ, though frustrated with God, accepts his fate. Among the songs in this musical are “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” and “Trial Before Pilate.”
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, 1979). Sweeney Todd, a barber, returns to London from Australia, where the evil Judge Turpin, who lusted after his wife, unjustly imprisoned him. Sweeney’s daughter, Joanna, escapes Turpin – of whom she had been a ward during her father’s incarceration – and falls in love with the sailor Anthony Hope. A vengeful Sweeney begins murdering his customers, and his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, bakes them into meat pies. Sweeney kills the Judge but, in his fury, accidentally kills a mad beggar woman who was really his long-lost wife. Mrs. Lovett’s shop boy, Tobias, grows scared and kills Sweeney. Its famously complex score includes “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “The Worst Pies in London,” “Johanna,” and “God, That’s Good,” but the show is nearly sung through and it is sometimes nontrivial to identify distinct songs within it.
South Pacific
(Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan, 1949). During the Pacific Theater of World War II, Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse, has fallen in love with Emile, a French plantation owner. Emile helps Lt. Cable carry out an espionage mission against the Japanese. The mission is successful, and Emile and Nellie reunite. Featuring the songs “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” it is adapted from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
Traditionally, the tempo, or speed, of a piece is indicated through the use of Italian-language terms. Some of the most common tempo markings are largo (very slow), adagio (slow), andante (“walking speed”), allegro (fast), and presto (very fast). A work’s tempo may also be indicated by a metronome marking, which indicates the number of a certain type of note per minute (e.g., quarter note = 120). Tempos are often modified with Italian adjectives, such as allegro con fuoco (fast, with fire), which can make them more unique. Movements from larger works are often referred to by their tempo (e.g. “the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony”); entire works may also be named for their tempo (e.g., Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings)
The two most common types of scales are the major and minor scales, both of which are referred to as diatonic, meaning that they have seven notes between octaves and follow a repeating pattern of whole steps and half steps. While there is only one major scale, there are three common variants of the minor scale: natural, harmonic, and melodic. The individual notes within a scale are given numeric indications known as scale degrees, starting with “1” and moving up the scale note by note; the most prominent of these are the first degree, or tonic (the “home” pitch), and the fifth degree, or dominant. There is also the chromatic scale, which includes every note between two endpoints, including sharps and flats.
At the most basic level, intervals—the distance between two pitches—are described with ordinal numbers (second, third, etc.), with the exceptions of unisons (two of the exact same note) and octaves (eight notes apart). The easiest way to find the basic interval between two pitches is to start on the bottom pitch, label that line or space “1,” and then count lines and spaces upwards until the next pitch is reached; for example, the interval between C and F is a fourth: C is counted as “1,” the lines/spaces for D and E are counted as “2” and “3,” and the line/space for F is reached on “4.” Unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves may be classified as perfect, augmented, or diminished; seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths may be classified as major, minor, augmented, or diminished.
The most common types of chords are built of successive notes that are each a third above the previous. A triad consists of three notes referred to as the root, third, and fifth—the third and fifth being that respective interval above the root. Triads are classified as either major, minor, augmented, or diminished, based on whether the successive pitches are separated by major or minor thirds. Adding a successive pitch above the fifth results in a seventh chord (since that new pitch is a seventh above the root). Although many types of seventh chords are possible, the most common are the major, major-minor (or dominant), minor, half-diminished, and fully-diminished. Larger chords, such as ninth and thirteenth chords, appear commonly in jazz.
A piece of music’s key is the “home” scale of the work. The key is most often indicated by the work’s key signature, a collection of sharps or flats that appears at the beginning of the work and on each subsequent line of music (a list of key signatures may be found here). A pair of keys may be parallel (beginning on the same pitch, e.g., C major and C minor), or relative (having the same key signature, e.g., C major and A minor). Most works of music between the Baroque and Romantic periods end in the same key as they begin, with the exception that works in minor may end in the parallel major. A work’s key is often used as a descriptor in its title (e.g. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor).
Instruments that are in concert pitch, or “in C,” have their music written at the same pitch in which they sound. Concert pitch instruments include the piano, all string instruments, the flute, and nearly every woodwind and brass instrument that plays in bass clef. Other instruments are transposing instruments, meaning that their music is written at a different pitch than they sound. With few exceptions, music for transposing instruments is written above the sounding pitch, which can be determined by moving down the interval that the instrument’s key is below C. For example, the French horn is in F, a perfect fifth below C; thus, a French horn playing a written G natural would sound a C natural, the pitch a perfect fifth below G natural. Similarly, a B-flat trumpet playing a written D would sound a C, a major second below.
Dynamic markings indicate the volume at which music is to be played. The two most basic dynamic markings are forte, meaning “loud,” and abbreviated f; and piano, meaning “soft,” and abbreviated p. These indications are often modified by the word mezzo (abbreviated m); thus, mf indicates “mezzo forte,” meaning “medium loud.” They may also be modified by the suffix -issimo, meaning “very,” and symbolized by two of the same letter; thus, pp would indicate pianissimo, meaning “very soft.” Gradual changes in volume are indicated by a crescendo, meaning gradually getting louder, or a diminuendo (also called decrescendo), meaning gradually getting softer.
Articulation refers to the various techniques which may be used to modify the attack or performance of a single note or a series of notes. Some of the most common articulations include staccato, meaning light or short; tenuto, meaning a note is to be held its entire value; and legato, meaning a series of notes is to be connected to one another very smoothly. Single notes may be given extra force by an accent mark.
A work’s form, or overall structure, is often depicted via a series of capital letters, with each different letter representing a large section of contrasting material. Basic forms include binary form (“AB” or “AABB”), ternary form (“ABA”), and strophic form (“A” endlessly repeated, commonly found in folk songs or religious hymns with multiple verses). Other forms include rondo form, in which several statements of a single theme are each separated by contrasting material (e.g. “ABACA”). Forms not usually represented by capital letters include the various types of theme and variations, as well as sonata-allegro form (which at its most basic level includes an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation).
Twelve-tone technique
Twelve-tone technique was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s, and is one method of writing atonal music—music that has no key or tonic pitch. Twelve-tone works are based on a tone row constructed from each of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, each used only once. This row may be inverted and/or presented in retrograde (backwards), a combination of possibilities often represented in a twelve-tone matrix (for an example, see here; curious readers may experiment with creating their own row/matrix here). Twelve-tone technique is one form of serialism, the rigid structuring of various musical elements within a work. A work of total serialism applies the same process to dynamics, articulations, and other basic elements of music as well as pitch.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor
op. 67 (1804-08): The iconic opening motif of the Fifth Symphony—a descending major third followed by a descending minor third, in a short-short-short-long rhythmic pattern—has become ubiquitous in popular culture, though the claim that it represents “fate knocking at the door” is an apocryphal invention. The work’s third movement, a scherzo and trio in C minor, ends on a G major chord that proceeds directly into a C major final movement; that finale features one of the first orchestral uses (though not the first orchestral use) of trombones. The Fifth was premiered as part of a concert that also included the premiere of the Sixth Symphony.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral”,
op. 125 (1822-24): Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marks the first significant use of voices as part of a symphony, though they are only used in the final movement. The opening motif from the first movement reappears in altered form in a second movement scherzo, which itself is followed by a slow third movement that alternates between quadruple and triple time. The massive final movement, whose internal form closely resembles that of the entire symphony, utilizes both Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” and original texts by Beethoven himself. A typical performance takes approximately 75 minutes; the fourth movement alone takes 25.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”
op. 68 (1802-08): As the title implies, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is a programmatic depiction of rural scenes; it is the composer’s only truly programmatic symphony. The symphony’s five movements, rather than the traditional four, each include a short title or description of their content: “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country” (I), “Scene at the brook” (II), “Happy gathering of country folks” (III), “Thunderstorm” (IV), and “Happy and thankful feelings after the storm” (V). In the score for the second movement, Beethoven explicitly identifies several woodwind motifs as being based on bird calls.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica”
op. 55 (1803-04): Beethoven’s Third Symphony was composed during the first part of his middle stylistic period, often referred to as his “heroic decade.” Beethoven may have been influenced in the work’s composition by his personal confrontation with his growing deafness. The second movement is a solemn, C minor funeral march, while the finale is a playful set of variations on a melody Beethoven used in several other works. The composer originally intended to title the symphony “Bonaparte”; in a popular but possibly apocryphal story, Beethoven ripped the title page from the score upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor.
Beethoven’s Fidelio, op. 72
(1805; revised 1806 and 1814): This work is Beethoven’s only opera. The libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner, with revisions by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Treitschke. Leonore wishes to rescure her husband Florestan from the prison of the evil Pizarro; to do so, she disguises herself as a boy named Fidelio so that the jailer Rocco will hire her to help him, and thus grant her access to her husband. Beethoven struggled with his opera: he first presented it as a three-act work before cutting it to the present two-act form, and wrote four separate overtures. The opera utilizes some spoken (rather than sung) dialogue, and includes “O what joy,” a chorus sung by prisoners.
Beethoven’s Missa solmenis (in D major)
op. 123 (1819-23): Generically, a “missa solemnis” (“solemn mass”) is a setting of the Catholic liturgy on a more grand scale than a “missa brevis” (“short mass”). Although it uses the traditional text, Beethoven intended the work for concert performance rather than liturgical use. Beethoven became increasingly fascinated by the fugue during his third stylistic period; his Missa solemnis includes two immense examples that conclude the Gloria and Credo movements. The composer dedicated the work to his patron, the Austrian Archduke Rudolf. The Missa solemnis should not be confused with Beethoven’s earlier C major mass, op. 86 (1807).
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, “Emperor,”
op. 73 (1809-10): The “Emperor” concerto, composed near the end of Beethoven’s “heroic decade,” is the last concerto of any type that he completed. Beethoven defies traditional concerto structure in the opening movement by placing the most significant solo material for the piano at the beginning of the movement, rather than near its end. Beethoven did not give the work its title; it was first dubbed “Emperor” by Johann Cramer, who first published the work in England. The “Emperor,” which was premiered by pianist Friedrich Schneider, is the only one of Beethoven’s piano concertos that the composer himself never performed publicly.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, quasi una Fantasia (“Moonlight”)
op. 27 no. 2, (1801-02): As with the “Emperor,” Beethoven did not give the “Moonlight” sonata its nickname; it was coined several years after the composer’s death by Ludwig Rellstab, who commented on the first movement’s resemblance to moonlight on Lake Lucerne. Beethoven’s score calls for the sustain pedal to be held down through the entirety of the first movement. Often overshadowed by the ubiquitous first movement is the violent third movement, a Presto agitato sonata-allegro form with an extended coda, which on a larger scale serves as a recapitulation for the entire sonata. Beethoven dedicated the sonata to Giulietta Guicciardi, his pupil.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata,”
op. 57 (1804-06): Again, Beethoven had no hand in the popular title of this sonata: the “Appassionata” label was applied by a publisher some years after Beethoven’s death. The sonata begins ominously: a theme descends in open octaves to the lowest note of the contemporary piano before rising again in an arpeggio, immediately repeated a minor second higher. The second movement has no stable conclusion, instead directly leading to the third through the use of a diminished seventh chord. The final movement’s coda, which itself introduces new thematic material, is one of the most demanding and difficult passages in all of the composer’s repertoire.
Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory; or, the Battle of Vitoria
op. 91 (1813): Also commonly known as the “Battle Symphony.” This heavily programmatic work was originally written for the panharmonicon, an automated orchestra; Beethoven later revised the work for live performers. The work utilizes several familiar melodies—including “God Save the Queen,” “Rule Britannia,” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”—and calls for special effects such as musket fire. The work is generally regarded as one of Beethoven’s worst; even the composer himself acknowledged it as being a money-maker rather than serious art. Note that the piece specifically does not depict Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.
George Gershwin
(1898-1937) music blended classical traditions and genres with jazz and popular idioms. His “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) and “Concerto in F” (1925) both feature solo piano and orchestra, while “An American in Paris” (1928) and “Cuban Overture” (1932) were inspired by his trips abroad. The lyrics for his vocal works were often written by his brother Ira; two of his best-known songs, “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm,” appeared in his Broadway musical Girl Crazy (1930). His opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which included the song standards “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” featured an entirely African-American cast.
Aaron Copland
(1900-1990) was one of a litany of American composers who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, for whom Copland wrote the solo keyboard part in his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924; revised as Symphony No. 1 in 1928). “El Salón México” (1936) was the first of his highly successful “Populist” works based on folk or folk-like themes, which also included his three major ballets: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). His opera The Tender Land (1954) included the chorus “The Promise of Living.” Copland utilized modified serial techniques in his later works; he composed very little in his last 25 years.
Leonard Bernstein
(1918-1990) was a prolific composer and conductor who gave numerous televised “Young People’s Concerts” during his eleven-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1958-1969). His concert works include his Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah” (1942), and a jazz clarinet concerto premiered by Benny Goodman: “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” (1949). Bernstein is best known for his works for the stage, which include the musical West Side Story (1957), the ballet Fancy Free (1944), and the operetta Candide (1956; revised 1989). He also composed the score for the 1954 film On the Waterfront.
Arnold Schoenberg
(1874-1951) was an Austrian composer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1934. Schoenberg was the leading figure and mentor of the “Second Viennese School,” which also included Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who were Schoenberg’s students. In 1908, Schoenberg began composing atonal music, which has no tonic pitch or key center. He also developed the twelve-tone method of composition, one of the most influential musical styles of the 20th century and first fully realized in his Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (1923). His other musical innovations include the technique of klangfarbenmeoldie (“tone-color melody”), which was used in the third movement of his Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909).
Philip Glass
(1937-present) was a minimalist composer who is best known for his trilogy of “Portrait Operas,” which include Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1979), and Akhnaten (1983). Einstein on the Beach is particularly notable for its use of solfege syllables and numbers in place of a standard libretto. Glass’s style is heavily influenced by Indian musical traditions, and focuses on additive processes; this focus can be seen in his early minimal works “Strung Out” (1967) and “Music in Fifths” (1969). Glass is a prolific composer of film scores; his most prominent include his scores for The Truman Show, The Hours, and Notes on a Scandal.
Samuel Barber
(1910-1981) was a classicist composer best known for his “Adagio for Strings” (1936), which he adapted from his String Quartet, and which was premiered under the baton of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Other major orchestral works include his Piano Concerto (1962), his ballet score Cave of the Heart (1947) based on the Greek tale of Medea, and his single-movement “First Symphony” (1936, revised 1943). His vocal works include “Dover Beach” (1931) and “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1947). For much of Barber’s life, he maintained a romantic relationship with opera composer Gian-Carlo Menotti. His first opera, Vanessa (1958), won the Pulitzer Prize; his second major opera, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), was a flop.
Charles Ives
(1874-1954) was a modernist, experimental composer whose programmatic works often utilize polytonality (more than one active key center at a time), quote extensively from folk songs and earlier classical works, and have distinctly “American” themes. Ives, who worked in the insurance industry, was not widely-recognized as a composer until late in his life. His Piano Sonata No. 2 (1915), the “Concord” sonata, depicts four leading figures of the transcendentalist movement. His Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting” (1947), was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. Other notable works include the suite Three Places in New England (1914) and “The Unanswered Question” (1906).
John Cage
1912-1992) was an experimentalist composer whose works are known for aleatoric (chance-based) composition and other forms of indeterminacy. His best-known piece, 4’33” (1952), is created from the ambient sounds of the concert space while the performer(s) sits silently on stage. His Music of Changes (1951), as well as numerous other works, were written utilizing the Chinese I Ching to determine musical content. Cage’s other innovations include works for “prepared piano,” a piano which has had various objects inserted into its strings. A 639-year-long organ performance of his “As Slow As Possible” (1987) is currently underway in Germany, having begun in 2001.
John (Coolidge) Adams
(1947-present) was a minimalist composer whose music, like that of Charles Ives, often features an “American” program. Adams may be best known for his opera Nixon in China (1987), which dramatizes the 1972 presidential visit and meeting with Mao. His other operas include Doctor Atomic (2005), which is about the Manhattan Project. He composed “On the Transmigration of Souls” (2002) to memorialize the September 11th attacks; that work received the Pulitzer Prize. Other major works for orchestra include Harmonium (1980), Harmonielehre (1985), Shaker Loops (1978), and his Violin Concerto (1993).
Stephen Sondheim
(1930-present) is one of the most celebrated lyricists and composers in musical theater. Sondheim’s career has included 8 Tony Awards. He was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), and was the lyricist for West Side Story, working alongside composer Leonard Bernstein. Musicals for which he was both lyricist and composer include Company (1970), a series of scenes about an unmarried bachelor and his married friends; Sweeney Todd (1979), about a barber’s murderous quest for revenge; Into the Woods (1987), a dark mash-up of several fairy tales; and Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which portrays a fictionalized version of painter Georges Seurat and won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Mozart’s Piano Sonatas
One of Mozart’s best-known pieces is the “Rondo Alla Turca” from his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331. That sonata begins with a theme and variations that inspired Max Reger to write his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457, is often performed with the highly chromatic Fantasy, K. 475. Other notable Mozart piano sonatas include the dramatic No. 8 in A minor, K. 310; the Sonata “for beginners” No. 16 in C major, K. 545; and the “Hunt” or “Trumpet” Sonata No. 18 in D, K. 576, his last. Mozart also finished four sonatas for piano duet (also known as “piano four hands”) and one in D major for two pianos.
Piano Concertos
Mozart’s piano concertos are numbered from 1-27, though six of them are arrangements of works by other composers. The Concerto No. 8 in C major, K. 246, is named for Countess Lützow, for whom it was written, and No. 9 in E flat major, K. 271, is nicknamed “Jeunehomme” (although recent scholarship suggests the title should actually be “Jenamy,” after an acquaintance of Mozart named Victoire Jenamy). The first movement of the Jeunehomme” Concerto unusually (for the time) has the soloist start playing very early—in the second measure—and its last movement Rondo includes a slow minuet section. The Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, is often nicknamed “Elvira Madigan” because it was used in the 1967 Swedish film of that name. No. 26 in D, K. 537, is called the “Coronation,” because it was played at the coronation of Leopold II. Mozart also wrote concertos for two pianos (No. 10 in E flat major, K. 365) and three pianos (No. 7 in F major, K. 242, nicknamed “Lodron”).
String Quartets
Mozart, like most composers of his day, wrote most of his quartets in sets of three or six; he also wrote two standalone concertos for a total of 23. The most famous are probably the six “Haydn Quartets” (Nos. 14-19). The collection begins with the highly chromatic Spring Quartet in G major, K. 387, and ends with the even more chromatic Dissonant Quartet in C major, K. 465, which begins with an extremely dissonant Adagio introduction. The Haydn Quartets also include the Hunt Quartet, No. 17 in B flat major, K. 458, so named for its “hunting-horn” melodies. The other famous collection of Mozart quartets is the set of three Prussian Quartets (Nos. 21-23), dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, which make prominent use of the cello. Between these two sets, Mozart wrote the Hoffmeister Quartet, No. 20 in D major, K. 499, for his friend Anton Hoffmeister.
Serenades and Divertimentos.
These include two of Mozart’s most familiar pieces, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525, and A Musical Joke, K. 522. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, originally scored for string quartet and double bass, is often translated as “a little night music” (but more accurately as “a little serenade”); it includes a lovely “Romanze” second movement as well as the more famous first movement. A Musical Joke is exactly that: a parody of bad composition, ending with chords in four different keys, and including almost every possible kind of “mistake.” Mozart’s other Serenades include the “Gran Partita” for 13 instruments (No. 10 in B flat major, K. 361), as well as the “Posthorn” and “Haffner” (not to be confused with the symphony!).
Last Three Symphonies
Mozart wrote Symphonies Nos. 39-41 in about three months in the summer of 1788, for unknown reasons. (It is unclear if any of them were performed in his lifetime, although No. 40 probably was.) Of the three, only No. 39 in E flat major, K. 543, has a slow introduction; unusually, it omits oboes entirely. No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, on the other hand, was revised to reduce the oboe part and add clarinets; the last movement may have inspired the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. No. 41 in C major, K. 551, probably got its nickname of “Jupiter” from Johann Peter Salomon. Its first movement quotes Mozart’s aria “Un bacio di mano” (“A kiss on her hand”), composed for Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Il curioso indiscreto; its last movement presents five themes which are all brought together in a massive fugato at the end.
Other symphonies
Of Mozart’s first 38 symphonies, the “Little” G minor symphony (No. 25, K. 183) is the only one in a minor key. The “Paris” Symphony (No. 31 in D major, K. 297), written for that city, begins with a fast upward D major scale that can be classified as a “Mannheim rocket,” a popular opening device for symphonies. Mozart’s other notable symphonies include the “Haffner” (No. 35 in D major, K. 385), which is more familiar than the serenade; the Linz Symphony (No. 36 in C major, K. 425); and the Prague Symphony (No. 38 in D major, K. 504). There is no Symphony No. 37: Mozart added an introduction to a symphony by Michael Haydn (Joseph’s brother) and scholars did not notice that the rest of the work was not by Mozart until 1907.
The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K. 384).
While often called an opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, is, like The Magic Flute, actually a Singspiel with spoken dialogue (as opposed to sung recitatives). The action takes place at the home of the Ottoman Pasha Selim, and the music uses “Janissary” military instruments associated with “Turkish” music. Belmonte is trying to rescue his lover Konstanze from the Seraglio (harem); he is assisted by Pedrillo, his servant, while Osmin works for the Pasha. In the end, the Pasha releases Belmonte and Konstanze, much to Osmin’s chagrin. Famous arias include Osmin’s “O, wie will ich triumphieren” and Konstanze’s incredibly difficult “Martern aller Arten.” According to one story, Joseph II accused it of having “too many notes.”
Così fan tutte (roughly, They’re All Like That, K. 588).
This opera is, along with The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, one of Mozart’s collaborations with Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando, who love sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively, brag about the fidelity of their fiancées; in a coffeeshop, Don Alfonso makes a bet that he can make the sisters fall in love with other men in one day. Don Alfonso disguises the two men as Albanians after bribing the sisters’ maid Despina; at first they resist (see Fiordiligi’s aria “Come Scoglio”), but after Dorabella and Guglielmo trade a medallion and a heart-shaped locket, Fiordiligi is seduced by Ferrando. In the end, the sisters “almost” marry the wrong husbands, and only realize they’ve been tricked when the two men return to the stage half in disguise, half out.
The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, K. 620)
The libretto, by Emanuel Schikaneder, who took the role of Papageno at the premier, incorporates many Masonic elements (both Schikaneder and Mozart were Masons). Tamino is saved from a serpent by three maidens of the Queen of the Night, but Papageno, a bird-catcher, claims credit. Both are shown their counterparts—Pamina and Papagena—but must face several trials at the hands of the sorcerer Sarastro, who heads a cult of Isis and Osiris and is assisted by Monostatos, a treacherous Moor. The Queen of the Night, who has two very difficult arias (“O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” and “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”), attempts to stop Tamino and Pamina from joining Sarastro, but is magically exiled with Monostatos.
Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626, was his last composition; it was anonymously commissioned by the Count von Walsegg. Mozart died before he could finish it; many musicians have completed it, including Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and more recently Richard Maunder and Robert Levin. The scoring is notably for low-timbered instruments, omitting oboes and flutes and substituting basset horns for clarinets. The theme of the “Kyrie” was taken from “And With His Stripes We Are Healed,” a chorus from Handel’s Messiah. After the dramatic “Dies Irae,” the “Tuba Mirum” begins with a trombone solo. The circumstances surrounding Mozart’s death remain mysterious, and the (unfounded) rumor that Antonio Salieri murdered him gave rise to the Aleksandr Pushkin play Mozart and Salieri, which in turn inspired a Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov opera and Peter Shafer’s Amadeus, which became an Academy Award-winning film.
The Ed Sullivan Show
(1948-1971): This long-running CBS variety show occupied the same time slot—Sunday night at 8 pm—for over two decades. For most of that time, it broadcast live from what is now called the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, which is currently the home of the Late Show with David Letterman. Among the characters it bequeathed to American popular culture were a Spanish ventriloquist known as “Señor Wences” and an Italian mouse puppet named Topo Gigio. In 1964, the Beatles appeared on the show for three straight weeks, appearances which are credited with launching the “British Invasion” in popular music.
I Love Lucy
(1951-1957): During its six-season run, I Love Lucy was one of America’s most watched shows. It centered on Lucy Ricardo, played by comedian Lucille Ball, and her husband Ricky Ricardo, who was played by Ball’s real-life husband Desi Arnaz. The show’s other major characters were the Ricardos’ neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz. In one of the show’s most famous episodes, Lucy was hired to do a TV commercial for a health tonic called “Vitameatavegamin”; after drinking too much of it, Lucy becomes inebriated and is unable to pronounce the word correctly.
The Honeymooners
(1955-1956): The Honeymooners is considered the first TV spinoff, as it centered on a character—Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden—who had previously been introduced on The Jackie Gleason Show. Ralph’s wife Alice was frequently the recipient of his bombastic threats, such as “Bang zoom, straight to the moon!”. Like I Love Lucy, the show also centrally featured a neighbor couple—in this case, Ed and Trixie Norton. Although The Honeymooners is now considered a classic sitcom, it was not very popular at the time, and only 39 episodes aired in its original one-season run.
(1955-1975): With 635 episodes that aired over 20 seasons, Gunsmoke was the longest-running prime-time series in American television history until The Simpsons overtook it. Set in Dodge City, Kansas in the late 19th century, it centered on U.S. marshal Matt Dillon. For several seasons in the early 1960s, it featured a young Burt Reynolds as blacksmith Quint Asper.
Mr. Ed
(1958-1966): This classic sitcom centered on the title talking horse—a palomino whose voice was provided by Allan Lane—and his owner, architect Wilbur Post. Much of the show’s humor derived from the fact that Mr. Ed would solely speak to Wilbur, which naturally led to hijinks. Mr. Ed should not be confused with Francis the Talking Mule, who would solely speak to his owner Peter Stirling; he appeared in a number of film comedies during the 1950s.
The Twilight Zone
(1959-1964): Rod Serling created this anthology series, whose iconic opening credits featured a theme composed by Bernard Herrmann and a narration warning that the viewer was “about to enter another dimension.” One of its most famous episodes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starred a young William Shatner as a salesman who becomes convinced that a gremlin nobody else can see is trying to crash the airplane on which he is flying.
The Andy Griffith Show
(1960-1968): One of the most popular TV series of its decade, The Andy Griffith Show starred its title actor as Andy Taylor, who was sheriff in the sleepy small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. The show is almost as well known for its distinctive supporting characters, including a gas station attendant named Gomer Pyle and Andy’s awkward deputy sheriff, Barney Fife. Ron Howard rose to fame as a child actor on the show, playing Andy’s son Opie, before going on to an adult career as a prolific actor and director.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
1970-1977): This sitcom centered on Mary Richards, a young woman who moves to Minneapolis, where she goes to work in the newsroom at WJM-TV. No fewer than three supporting characters eventually got their own spinoffs: Phyllis, which starred Cloris Leachman; Rhoda, which starred Valerie Harper; and Lou Grant, which—unlike both the other two spinoffs and The Mary Tyler Moore Show itself—was a drama rather than a sitcom. The show is considered groundbreaking for its portrayal of Mary as an independent single woman.
All in the Family
(1971-1979): Producer Norman Lear created this sitcom, which was based on the successful British series Till Death Us Do Part. It starred Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton as the central couple, Archie and Edith Bunker; Archie was notable for his prejudicial attitudes, while Edith—whom Archie would refer to as his “dingbat”—was his long-suffering wife. The show also featured Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson, who would later be given his own eponymous spinoff, The Jeffersons, in which he and his wife moved on up to a “deluxe apartment in the sky” on the East Side of Manhattan.
(1972-1983): Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family, M*A*S*H was a highly successful CBS sitcom that dealt with controversial social issues—in this case, war. Centering on the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea, it was adapted from the 1970 feature film of the same name directed by Robert Altman. Major characters included Hawkeye Pierce, a wisecracking surgeon played by Alan Alda; Sherman Potter, who was added to the show in season 4 after the previous commanding officer, Henry Blake, was killed off; and Corporal Klinger, who would dress in women’s clothing in an attempt to be discharged from the army.
Super Mario
The character Mario first appeared in the arcade game Donkey Kong, in which he was originally named “Jumpman.” Created by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario has since appeared in over 200 games, including the iconic Super Mario Bros., which launched with the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Mario, along with his brother Luigi, his nemesis Bowser, and his allies Yoshi, Princess Peach, and Toad, have also appeared in numerous spinoff series like Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, Paper Mario, and Super Smash Bros.
The Legend of Zelda
Also created by Shigeru Miyamoto. Games in the Zelda series star the green-clad Link, who typically must rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon (who sometimes appears in his humanoid form, Ganondorf). Recurring weapons in the series include the Master Sword, boomerang, bombs, and hookshot. Much of the series’s lore centers on the Triforce, a set of three golden triangles whose constituent parts represent power, wisdom, and courage.
Final Fantasy
A long-running Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) series, whose 15th main installment was released in November 2016. Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997, was a massive success and (at the time) a technical marvel that helped popularize the Sony PlayStation. Some notable protagonists from the series include Cecil Harvey (IV), Cloud Strife (VII), and Tidus (X). The series is closely associated with composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created the soundtracks for the first nine games as well as part of the tenth.
Series developed by Blizzard Entertainment that helped popularize the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, in which players fight against each other by constructing buildings and armies as quickly as possible. The first game in the series pitted Humans against Orcs; later games added Night Elves and Undead. The 2004 MMORPG (massively multiplayer online RPG) World of Warcraft, set in the same universe, has had over 10 million subscribers.
RPG series about animal-like “pocket monsters,” and the basis for the long-running Japanese animated series about trainer Ash Ketchum. Pokémon games are typically released in pairs that differ in which Pokémon are available, such as Red/Blue, Gold/Silver, X/Y, and 2016’s Sun/Moon. Notable Pokémon include Pikachu, Charizard, Lucario, Greninja, and Mewtwo. A mobile version, Pokémon Go, was released in 2016 to massive success.
Call of Duty
First-person shooter (FPS) series published by Activision. The first three games centered on World War II, while more recent editions—starting with 2007’s Modern Warfare—have largely taken place in contemporary and near-future settings, and have courted controversy for such things as a level in which the player kills civilians while participating in a terrorist attack. The series is celebrated for its multiplayer modes, including cooperative Zombie modes.
Another Blizzard RTS series, with a science fiction theme. The game features three playable races: Terrans (humans), Zerg (a single-minded collective of insect-like aliens), and Protoss (strong, humanoid aliens with psionic powers). StarCraft II, the series’s latest entry, was split into three parts whose stories each focused on one of the three races. Major characters in the series include Jim Raynor, a Terran leader, and Sarah Kerrigan, a former Terran psychic corrupted by the Zerg.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Flagship Sega franchise, starring a namesake blue hedgehog that runs at high speeds. Sonic first appeared on the Sega Genesis console in 1991, and is accompanied in later games by allies such as Tails (an orange, two-tailed fox) and Knuckles (a red echidna). The series’s villain is Dr. Eggman, known as Dr. Robotnik in the early Genesis games. Though the series has maintained popularity for over two decades, more recent games have had considerably less success than the first three Genesis games.
Grand Theft Auto
An immensely successful Rockstar Games series that has repeatedly drawn criticism for its level of violence. Grand Theft Auto games are played in open world “sandboxes” that give the player the ability to do virtually anything they want. The series is set in satirized versions of real U.S. cities, with GTA III and GTA IV taking place in the New York knock-off Liberty City, GTA: Vice City taking place in a fictionalized Miami, and GTA: San Andreas and GTA V taking place in Los Santos, a send-up of Los Angeles.
Madden NFL
The Madden series (which, prior to 1993, was simply known as John Madden Football due to licensing issues), has featured yearly installments since 1990 and is published by EA Sports (which also publishes the FIFA soccer series). Madden NFL traditionally features a different player on its box art each year; an apparent string of injuries to and poor seasons by players on the cover of that particular year’s game has become known as the Madden Curse.