It’s the Autumn term and for every teacher it’s a slogathon. Mornings are dark, break times are drizzly and drives home are weary, so it’s high time the nation’s teachers’ favourite classical pieces of the Autumn term are shared to cheer us all up a bit, fortissimo style. And a huge hat tip to the ultimate blogger in this oeuvre, James Theobald. Click here for James’ art history blogs. They’re awesome.
Click on the video and listen while you’re reading each section. It’s worth it 🙂
The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870): October break times
Let’s start with a rollicking allegro piece and one that wakes up all teachers on a Friday break time. Things are beginning to get yampy on the playground and some proactive intervention is called for. Now if you have a leadership team who really are a Gesamtkunstwerk then this is a joy to watch: deputies and assistant heads appear from nowhere, galloping through the puddles, careering over the skiddling Pringles tins and cantering through clouds of mizzle. Listen to The Ride of the Valkyries and picture the triumphant scene where crowds are dispersed and football resumes. Wagner has carefully crafted the main theme played on the brass instruments after observing many an October break time: you’ll hear the call and response where one instrument plays a short phrase followed by another short phrase performed on another instrument, often in a contrasting rhythm. Here Wagner captures the seamless artistry between the members of senior team on their radios, usually in the form of “I’m going to move this one to stay with you for the rest of break – that OK?” “No problem, send them to me.” “And this one as well – we’ll remove their social time tomorrow too.” “No problem, send them to me.” This melodic phrasing builds up in sequence, moving up in pitch and building suspense: will the sanction be imposed? Of course it is.
Die Irae from Verdi’s Requiem (1874): Where’s my mug gone?
It’s a November non-uniform day and nerves are decidedly fraught. What was slightly irksome at the start of term is now a timpani-shattering crime against all teachers. Pretty much everyone has their favourite mug, right? Here Verdi expertly captures the Day of Wrath when someone’s favourite mug goes missing from the staff room and there’s nothing left to drink from but bowls with welded on remnants of mouldy cereal and microwaved soup. Verdi’s meticulous observations of teachers abound: the iconic almighty thwack on the bass drum symbolising our Everyteacher’s thunderous fist of frustration on the sticky top in the staffroom as he realises his plight. The sopranos soar above – a metaphor for the screamingly rising need for caffeine, with the tenors and basses creating an ominous undertone beneath as there’s only a thimbleful of milk left too. Verdi’s incorporation of low rumbling tremolos from the strings suggest that more wrath is to come (our Everyteacher hasn’t yet seen that Mocksted email). Thankfully the bell goes soon afterwards on this ultimate Dies Irae.
Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah (1741): Snow day
Ah, rejoice! Handel knows all too well us teachers have been slogging away for weeks in the far-flung and barbarous key of B flat minor, so here, in the jaunty and joyful Hallelujah chorus, he crafts the burst of unbridled elation from teachers across the land when a snow day is announced, quite a rare thing in Autumn term so all the more delicious when it happens. Handel builds from a deceptively light orchestral opening, perhaps representing the teachers’ uncertainty (How actually does the snow spider work?) through to a short, unison cantus firmus passage on the words “For the Lord Snow God omnipotent reigneth”; affirmation that the Lord Snow God is indeed the bringer of all snowy joys. And the glorious trumpets join in at “And He shall reign for ever and ever”, well, at least until February when maybe we’ll get another one.
Panis Angelicus by Franck (1872): Someone brings in donuts
Here, in quiet and careful observation, Franck brings us to the staffroom towards the end of a period 2 in late November. It’s chilly, the coffee’s almost run out and the microwave’s on the blink. It’s starting to rain, which means the kids will be tricky in period 3. But, lo!, Franck paints the musical picture of that kind, kind soul stealing unobtrusively into the staffroom just before the bell goes for break, setting down a box of sugary panis angelicus Krispy Kreme goodness. The dynamics in the piece call for a triumphant final statement of the words “pauper, servus et humilis”. And to that poor and humble servant bearing sugary gifts, we give thanks.
NB – the box is savaged within seconds and everyone goes to period 3 with hundreds and thousands in their hair.
The William Tell Overture by Rossini (1829): We’ve had The Call
Oh goodness. In stark contrast to Franck’s quiet, contemplative piece, here we have Rossini’s overture that captures the intense spark and fervour the afternoon before Ofsted arrive. The head’s just had a 90 minute new framework conversation, and when the phone’s put down things really kick in in earnest. Note how the composer crafts a fast-paced, high-intensity gallop to the photocopier. Rossini’s energy in the piece can be misconstrued as joyfully boisterous; if you listen carefully, he’s actually depicting the caffeine-fuelled WHAT DO WE MEAN BY OUR INTENT?? frantic convos and hurtlingly rehearsed curriculum sequencing lines committed to long term memory (just about). But there’s a rousing tutti finish with all staff pulling together, and the noble trombones really giving it some (we all thank you noble trombones – you know who you are).