Tips for the Listening Exam

As on the last test, the question I would like you to ask yourself when you are listening to a piece is “What am I hearing?” I think a really good way to start is to listen for characteristics that might narrow down your choice to one or two possible genres. This exam is similar to Exam 2 in that there is a mixture of vocal and instrumental music so the first thing to determine is whether or not there is singing.

I Hear Singing

If you hear singing then that immediately rules out the instrumental genres such as Program Symphony or Nocturne. It must be an opera, requiem, or an art song. How do you narrow it down? Again, ask yourself “What am I hearing?”

I hear a male soloist with orchestra.

This narrows it down to two pieces, both of which are tenor arias. Don’t let this similarity worry you, however. These two arias are quite different from each other.

  • La donna è mobile, La Traviata. First of all this is a very familiar tune that I suspect most of you have heard. It has become such a part of our culture that it’s not just a concert piece. It’s been featured in television commercials and comedy sketches many times. Another musical element to listen for is the “boom-chick-chick” accompaniment of the orchestra. This is a classic Verdi accompaniment, though in this case it is meant to represent the Duke, the character singing the aria, strumming his guitar. Lastly, the tempo is moderately fast and the piece has an energetic swagger to it. You can almost picture the Duke strutting around the stage as he sings.
  • Che gelida manina, La Bohème. This piece has a very different quality as compared with the aria from Rigoletto. It has a slower tempo and a smooth, flowing feel. There is not a clearly defined and frequently repeated catchy tune. The music builds gradually to an emotional climax near the end.

I hear a female soloist with an orchestra

This also narrows it down to two pieces, both of which are soprano arias and feature moderately slow tempos. The differences between these two works are subtle, so you’ll want to listen for a combination of less obvious musical elements.

  • Die Liebestod, Tristan Und Isolde. The first thing I suggest you listen for in this piece is the importance of the orchestra. Remember that Wagner gave his all-important leitmotifs to both the orchestra and the singer, so both entities are on an equal dramatic footing. The orchestra is almost singing a duet with the soprano. In the other two pieces, especially the Mahler, you’ll get a stronger sense that the orchestra is backing up (or accompanying) the singer, not standing side by side with her as it does in Liebestod. Second, in Wagner’s operas we do not hear separate recitatives and arias. He strove for an “endless melody” that I think is particularly evident in Liebestod. As you listen to the piece you don’t get the sense that particular phrases of text, or individual melodic ideas have begun then ended. The music seems to flow continuously toward the emotional climax heard around the 5-minute mark that follows the text “In dem wogenden Schwall, in dem tönenden Schall” (In the growing swell, the surging sound).
  • Si, mi chiamino Mimi, La Bohème. Puccini, like Wagner, preferred to blur the distinction between recitative and aria. Unlike Wagner, you will hear clear phrases begin and end. This fits the setting of the piece. The poor seamstress Mimi is introducing herself to Rodofo after he has sung “Che gelida manina.” They are having a conversation, so it is fitting that in the beginning of “Si, mi chiamino Mimi,” the singing is more speech-like and syllabic (one note per syllable of text). As the piece progresses the intensity builds and the melody soars in the longer notes and emotional heights we’d expect from any aria. In addition to the more conversational delivery and clearer phrasing, there is a lighter, more hopeful emotion being expressed than in the Wagner. Listening for these differences in character and phrasing should assist in the identification of this piece.

I hear chorus and orchestra

Once again we have multiple pieces that fit this description. There are three works that feature orchestra and choir: two Requiems and a Choral Symphony.

  • Messa da Requiem, II “Dies Irae.” This piece should be easily recognized for its fast tempo and ferocious intensity. “Dies Irae” means “day of wrath” and in Verdi’s composition that wrath represents the fear in the hearts of the wicked on judgement day. There is relatively little in the way of dynamic or expressive contrast within this piece. It is loud and aggressive almost all the way through. When the choir is not singing you will hear extensive use of trumpets.
  • Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Ein Deutches Requiem. This piece provides quite a contrast to the Verdi. Contemplative in expression and moderate in tempo, this movement from Brahm’s German Requiem has none of the fire and brimstone of Verdi’s “Dies Irae.” There are contrasting textures within the piece. Homophonic sections alternate with polyphonic ones, with the second to last section of the piece featuring a mini-fugue.
  • Symphony No. 8, Finale. Mahler was not one to go for small gestures. He felt that the symphony was a musical universe that needed to encompass many other genres both vocal and instrumental on a grand scale. His 8th symphony is often called “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the size of both the orchestra and choruses – that’s right, multiple choirs. I think the massive size of the performing forces for this piece will serve as a means of distinguishing this piece from the other two choral/orchestral works. It’s also worth noting that this piece features vocal soloists along with the choirs. Depending on the excerpt you may hear those soloists. If you do that’s a dead giveaway for the finale of Mahler’s 8th symphony. While both the full works by Verdi and Brahms feature soloists, they are not heard in the movements on our playlist.

I hear a soloist with a piano

This is an art song. There are two of these on your exam, and there is a very straightforward way to tell them apart: the gender of the singer. Because of this I’m going to list them by that characteristic rather than by title as I did for the arias and the choral/orchestral works.

  • The singer is male. Schubert’s Erlking is the only art song that features a male (tenor) vocalist. That characteristic alone makes this an easy piece to identify, but again there are some other unique aspects to this song worth mentioning. First, it is a through-composed piece. That means that there are not multiple verses of text set to the same tune. The tune just keeps rolling forward with no structural repetition. There is a repeated figure in the accompaniment however. The piano keeps playing a rapidly repeated note in the right hand. This is meant to represent the horse’s hooves as the father and son gallop home through the forest. Speaking of galloping, this is a piece with a fast tempo. Lastly, this song features four different characters: narrator, father, son, and erlking. While there is only one singer, he sings each of these parts in a slightly different voice
  • The singer is female. Robert Schumann’s “Du Ring an meinem Finger” is the only art song that features a female (mezzo-soprano) vocalist. Once again the singer’s voice will give away this piece, but you should still keep an ear out for some of the other significant musical characteristics of the song. The meter is duple and the tempo is slow. It is written in rondo form (ABACA) which is a bit unusual for an art song.

I Hear Instruments Only

If you hear only instruments then that rules out the vocal genres like opera and art song/lied. As always, ask yourself “What am I hearing?”

I hear solo piano

This narrows it down to just one piece: Chopin’s Nocturne. All Chopin’s Nocturnes are generally brooding and introspective, and this piece is no exception. While the tempo of the piece is relatively slow, many students mistake the intensity and activity in the left hand as faster tempo. The basic pulse or beat of the piece, though it speeds up and slows down somewhat (this is known as rubato), is uniformly slow and restrained. There are three basic themes over the course of the piece. The first theme is the most subdued, and it both opens and closes the piece. With it’s melancholy quality, it best typifies the mood of all Chopin’s Nocturnes. The second theme and third themes become progressively more active and passionate. The third theme shifts from the minor mode of the earlier two themes to a more heroic major. But regardless of the theme, the instrumentation of the piece, solo piano, will make this easy to identify should it appear on your exam.

I hear a violin soloist playing against an orchestra

This is Brahms’ Violin Concerto, 3rd mvmt. You should not have difficulty identifying the piece as it is the only concerto on the listening list. If you hear solo violin vs. orchestra it’s got to be the Brahms. Though form may not be easy to hear in a short excerpt, remember that Brahms was a lateRomantic traditionalist, and as such made use of the traditional forms from the Classical Era. In this case that means rondo form for the final movement of a concerto, just as we heard in the Classical Era with Mozart’s concerto for horn. One more thing to listen for is the extensive use of double stops, the playing of two strings at once, by the violin soloist. Normally when we hear solo violin we hear one note at a time. Double stops make possible two notes at a time. This very difficult to do and this movement features some truly virtuosic playing.

I hear an orchestra

There are three purely orchestral pieces on this test. Two are clear examples of program music, namely the program symphony (Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) and the symphonic poem (Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). The third is an example of absolute music and nationalism, namely a symphony (Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9) meant to evoke American folk elements. Remember that even though Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 seems like it ought to be in this list, the finale, which is the piece on our listening list, features a choir and vocal soloists so it is not purely instrumental. Let’s talk about the characteristics of each and how you can tell them apart. Because there aren’t single characteristics, such as tempo or instrumentation, that makes these pieces clearly identifiable I’m going to list them by title and review each piece (just as we did with the operatic works).

  • Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, 5th mvmt. The fantastic, supernatural scene being depicted in this program symphony allows Berlioz to give free reign to one of his greatest talents: orchestration. Berlioz was a master at pulling all sorts of different sounds out of the orchestra. You’ll hear the idée fixe, a lyrical tune found in each of this symphony’s movements, transformed into a crude dance played by the clarinet; tolling funeral bells precede another preexisting tune, the dies irae, in the tubas and bassoons (low brass and woodwind instruments); and strings playing with the wood of the bow (col legno) create a crackling sound meant to depict the flames of hell. Knowing the story of the piece and listening for the unusual instrumentation used to depict it will help you ID this orchestral work. The overall tempo of this piece is fast, though to better tell the story it sometimes briefly slows down or pauses. Even in the slower moments, Berlioz maintains the intensity and foreboding for which this movement is so well known. That dark intensity, generally fast tempo, and unique orchestration sets the piece apart from all the other orchestral works on this exam.
  • Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The composer here has taken the well-known play and boiled its contents down to three themes. You should definitely familiarize yourself with all three, though the third theme truly stands out. The three themes each have their own tempo and character. The first theme is the Friar Lawrence theme, which is slow and sad (minor). The woodwinds are the dominant instruments in this theme. The second theme represents the Capulets and Montagues and their blood feud. The fast, agitated theme,complete with cymbal crashes is played by the full orchestra and calls to mind the various duels we see in the play. The third them, the love theme, is extremely well-known and probably the easiest to recognize. It is slow and sweeping, with an almost overpowering sweetness. You’ve probably heard it during a commercial or a comedic scene in a movie when two people are running toward each other in slow motion through a field. Unfortunately, in popular culture this orchestral theme has become the default soundtrack for any romantic moment that is over-the-top or cheesy. Don’t let that association ruin the piece for you (though it should make it easier to identify). This is powerfully expressive orchestral melodic writing by a composer that knew how to weave emotional music better than almost anyone else.
  • Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” 2nd mvmt. Like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, this movement has a theme that has taken on a life of its own. Many people know this tune as the song “Goin’ Home.” When they hear the symphony they think, “Oh he wrote that song into the symphony,” but of course they’ve got it backwards – the symphony came first. Only after the symphony had become popular was this theme separated from the larger work and turned into a song. This theme will be played by different instruments at different times (English horn, full strings, solo cello) so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the tune, not the instrumentation. The tempo of this movement is slow and the character is nostalgic and sweet. You will definitely not get this piece mixed up with the Berlioz.

Titles, Composers, & Genres for Exam 4

Title Composer Genre
Erlking Franz Schubert Art Song/Lied
Du Ring an meinem Finger Robert Schumann Art Song/Lied
Symphony Fantastique, 5th mvmt. Hector Berlioz Program Symphony
Romeo and Juliet Peter Tchaikovsky Symphonic Poem
Nocturne in C# minor Frederic Chopin Nocturne
La donna è mobile, La Traviata Giuseppe Verdi Opera
Messa da Requiem, II “Dies Irae” Giuseppe Verdi Requiem
Die Liebestod, Tristan Und Isolde   Richard Wagner Opera
Che gelida manina, La Bohème  Giacomo Puccini Opera
Si, mi chiamano Mimi, La Bohème Giacomo Puccini Opera
Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” 2nd mvmt. Antonin Dvorak Symphony
Violin Concerto, 3rd mvmt. Johannes Brahms Concerto
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Ein Deutches Requiem Johannes Brahms Requiem
Symphony No. 8, Finale Gustav Mahler Choral Symphony