3 Iconic Classical Music Compositions and Their Interesting Backstories

A classical music composition.
From dreams of devils playing violins to riots in theaters, the world of classical music is as dramatic as the stories it tells. (Image: Wai Chung via Dreamstime)

The beauty and complexity of classical music are timeless. Even today, these musical pieces continue to inspire creativity, evoke emotions, and tell a story. From feelings of joy to tales of sorrow, these compositions from many years ago still carry the unfading impact they have and express the many complexities of life in the form of music.

With each classical masterpiece comes an interesting backstory.

The great stories behind 3 musical compositions

1. ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata’ (1713) or Violin Sonata in G Minor

This piece, by Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini, certainly has an interesting title with an even more fascinating backstory. While it isn’t new for artists to take inspiration from dreams, Tartini’s story of dreaming of a devil masterfully playing the violin is more than unique.

Monument to Giuseppe Tartini at the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua.
Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini’s classical masterpiece was inspired by a dream about a composer who made a pact with the devil. (Image: Didier Descouens via Wikimedia)

In his dream, the composer makes a pact with the devil in exchange for his soul. When he handed over his violin to ask if the devil could play something, he was shocked to hear the devil play such a beautiful sonata.

The piece was so impeccably enthralling that Tartini woke up from the dream in astonishment and scrambled to get his violin to retain and recreate the spectacular music he just heard. Thus, the Devil’s Trill Sonata was born.

Staying true to the inspiration that it was created by the hands of the devil, this sonata is not an easy piece to play. It is full of technical challenges, wicked trills, quick double-stopping, and rapid register changes. 

2. ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ or Quatuor pour la fin du temps

French composer Olivier Messiaen created this masterpiece, which is scored for clarinet, piano, cello, and violin, while he was at the hands of enemy forces. During the Second World War, Messiaen was captured in May 1940 and sent to a camp in Poland for prisoners of war called Stalag VIII-A. 

Despite his struggles and experiences in the camp, he found music again when he met other professional musicians in the same position as he was: clarinetist Henri Akpka, cellist Étienne Pasquier, and violinist Jean le Boulaire. 

Messiaen himself was an amazing pianist, and from his initial trio composition, he worked on and developed it into the quartet that it is known as today. The piece was premiered in the Stalag in January 1941, and although the musicians played on damaged instruments, their audience of around 400 people listened attentively and with appreciation. 

Grand piano in a music hall full of Renaissance and early Classic era paintings and wall murals depicting various religious scenes.
Messiaen himself was an amazing pianist, and from his initial trio composition, he worked on and developed it into the quartet that it is known today. (Image: Mihail Ivanov via Dreamstime)

Messiaen’s masterpiece drew inspiration from the Book of Revelation and is dedicated in homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse. Quartet for the End of Time has eight titled sections or movements, each representing parts of the sacred text. 

3. ‘The Rite of Spring’ (1913)

This dramatic masterpiece by Igor Stravinsky is a ballet and orchestral piece that showcases abstract Russian folk tunes and a radical musical energy. While Stravinsky surely had talent for composing, The Rite of Spring became famous in a special but not exactly positive way, turning into a big, scandalous riot.

Compared to his previous works like The Firebird and Peroutka, The Rite of Spring leaned more into the complex side, with the orchestral score being more jarring, violent, and, all in all, texturally dense and rhythmically complicated.

May 29, 1913, marked the day it premiered at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées and perhaps the most famous scandal in the history of the performing arts. It is said (based on eyewitnesses and some reports) that the place was in chaos as a riot broke out. The audience was divided into two factions, with angry Parisians all around.

Despite the disorderly incident that made it the most talked-about piece of 20th-century music, the performance remarkably still continued to completion. 

To this day, the debate continues as to why the riot started in the first place. Was the music to blame? Or the dance? We do know that it became a memorable classical piece, although not for the reasons you would expect.

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  • Arianne Ayson

    Arianne is a Philippine-based content writer who specializes in creating blog posts, articles, scripts, and webpage content. When she's not busy writing, she's your regular Anime enthusiast (and K-Pop fan) who enjoys surfing the interwebs while being a full-time butler to her outdoor cats.