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19. Suppé – “Light Cavalry” Overture

November 23, 2011

Not unlike other genres, classical music has a lot of one-hit-wonders too. The Romantic-era composer Franz von Suppé (1819-1895) is maybe a two-hit-wonder, or maybe one-and-a-half. Anyway, his “Light Cavalry” overture holds its place as one of the most recognizable pieces in classical music – of a certain category, perhaps.

For an initial road map of how to listen to this piece, listen for all the contrasting sections, joined together without “seamless transitioning” in most cases, and altogether expressing a very wide range of moods. You will definitely know the most famous part, the “cavalry” theme.

Probably by usage and association (and not necessarily the composer’s intent), the overture may be reminiscent of a 1920’s silent film. So I’ll suggest a hypothetical “script” to what each section may be depicting, and have that side-by-side with a more analytical rundown.

Performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, possibly the best conductor alive today:

Suppé – “Light Cavalry” Overture

Time Script Analysis
0:04 The good guys, with their heads held up high and sunlight shining above them, do their best to protect their citizens. They conclude with their “team good guys” pose. Trumpets playing rhythmically in arpeggios. It’s a very “military” reference.
0:24 But somewhere in the distance, bad guys are lurking, waiting to cause trouble. Similar, but the differences – much more muted french horns, quieter, more “obscure” than the brightness and brassy-ness of the trumpets. And of course, they’re playing in minor tonality.
0:47 Being a good guy is hard work. Woodwinds alternating with full orchestra, which eventually takes over. Development and buildup back to…
1:14 The good guys again. Trumpets playing the “military” motif again, this time with support from trombones.
1:54 Oh no, our village is being raided by hooligans, and other bad people! Help! Help! People running amok. Tempo increases, and lots of tension all of a sudden. “Unsteady” melody in the violins. Also, we’re in minor again. in 2nd grade, they tell you that “minor” is “sad,” but note the different qualities that minor tonality brings in different sections of this piece.
2:26 And here comes the cavalry! The good guys are here to save us! The “cavalry” theme – note the rhythmic element of the motif, which sounds like the galloping of horses. First played by the brass, and then the whole orchestra joins in. Like one big party now. And we are in major tonality
3:48 The good guys won and chased off the hooligans… but not before they did their damage. Sad-sounding clarinet solo, almost singing as a character in an opera, in a free-feeling tempo.
4:18 All the townspeople are crying. Our crops are destroyed! Our stores were looted! Some of our homes were burnt down! And they stole my cow! We are all very sad. What ever shall we do now? Alternating back to minor again. This emotion-drenched theme, played by all the violins, violas, and cellos in unison, is very Hungarian. The recurring sequence of notes at the end of each phrase is undoubtedly a Hungarian musical idiom.
5:45 But here comes the cavalry again! Somewhat abruptly, the “cavalry” theme returns once again.
6:38 The good guys chase the hooligans out of the town. And the people are safe again! Ending “coda” section – the “military” theme once more, in full orchestration.

Also, anybody ever heard of “Dudley Do-Right”? It’s this old cartoon from the 1960s, a spin-off/segment of Rocky and Bullwinkle, definitely before my time. The intro music for the show was very influenced by this overture. See if you can hear the connections!

Watch and listen here:

Dudley Do-Right theme song and intro

This didn’t really fit into my larger scheme of lectures, but wasn’t that a fun piece?

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One Comment
  1. I remember watching them after school when I was a kid. I grew up in the 60’s & 70’S

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