Heroes & Villains Music


We love heroes – brave, honorable, willing to sacrifice themselves to defeat evil. But then, we're also attracted to villains. We admire their brazen self-confidence, their untamed personalities, their nastiness. The good and the bad  have inspired poets, painters and composers through the centuries. We meet them in operas, ballets, orchestral and keyboard works. In this fun Active Minds program, some famous – and not-so-famous – heroes will mix it up musically with some well-known villains. Come to cheer and boo them!


Mankind has long co-existed with evil as it desperately tries to hold on to good. The thought of that leads one to understand why the endless battle between the two has found its way into all manner of artistic expression: books, plays, operas, ballets, movies (endlessly and tirelessly in movies), etc. That struggle fills the pages of the Bible, as well as the works of Ancient Greek playwrights, Shakespeare and every gifted observer of our foibles ever since. Numerous musical works have honored the memory of national heroes, including compositions by Grieg, Beethoven, Copland and others. Those so remembered may or may not be familiar to listeners, but by framing their deeds in music (with or without stirring narration, such as Copland's “Lincoln Portrait”),  the message of their accomplishments shine through, reminding us of the rarity of greatness, often depicted in courageous acts of sacrifice – be they for country or for love. So, how to turn patriotic heroism into music? Hymns, marches, fanfares all do the trick. It helps if they're in a bright major key, traveling from darkness to light. Beethoven's “Egmont” Overture is a perfect example. This was part of the music he wrote for a play by the beloved German writer Johann von Goethe (1749-1832), who told the story of a Dutch martyr from years past as a way to straighten the spine of Germans facing the threat of Napoleon. The overture that preceded the play begins with an achingly painful theme set in the minor key, leading to passages of pure drama, pregnant pauses and then...in a slow and steady wind-up, the music becomes louder and higher until it explodes in triumph, even though the drama ends with the execution of Count Egmont. In opera, we find endless stories of lovers who sacrifice all for the sake of love: Aida sneaks into the tomb to breathe her last breaths with Radames. Now that's devotion. But what of the endless parade of villains – nasty, heartless, murderous, arrogant, just plain bad? Of course, there are hundreds of examples, because, deep inside, composers, writers, painters and poets are attracted to these characters, because we are. We're fascinated by their cruelty as we wonder how they got to be that way. In Shakespeare's “Richard III,” the future king speaks directly to us, noting his mis-shapen form and proudly reporting that, since he can't pose admiringly in front of a mirror –  and so can't be a hero, he will be a villain instead. Excuses, excuses. Motivations of greed or memories of a troubled childhood aside, these bad guys (and gals) become almost heroic in their misdeeds. The accompanying music can range from ominous, as in Verdi's “Otello”, when grinding low bass notes signal the murderous Othello's arrival at the bedside of Desdemona (though that opera's true villain is Iago!). The sounds of evil can also be terrifyingly loud, as in the scary finale of Berlioz's “Sinfonie fantastique,” with its end-of-the-world blasting of the foreboding Dies Irae chant. The Devil shows up quite often, notably in the human form of Mephistopheles, gleefully preying on human frailty to increase the population of Hell. He is a particular favorite of opera composers (Gounod's “Faust,” Boito's “Mephistopheles”), but the Devil is also depicted as a charming, playful sparring partner with a lonely soldier in Stravinsky's “L'histoire du Soldat.” In between the purity of selfless heroes and the ugliness of evil villains we meet characters who are not all good and not all bad – like most folks we know. The legendary lover Don Juan just wants to have fun, living the life of a vagabond in search of female conquests. He breaks hearts, usually after his ladies have become willing captives. Look at Mozart's version of the tale, “Don Giovanni.” In one scene, he shamelessly flirts with a bride-to-be, just to see if he can succeed (he almost does). Another attractive lovably naughty fellow is Robin Hood, who is praised for robbing from the rich to give to the poor – but he is a thief, no matter how good he looks in tights. Still, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's soundtrack for the Errol Flynn classic treats him as a swashbuckling hero – as does the film. Back in the mid-70s, singer/songwriter Warren Zevon penned an ode to those fabled outlaws of the Old West, Frank and Jesse James, insisting in his rollicking tune that they were simply misunderstood – two guys just doing the best they could. Were they heroes or villains? Maybe both.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were Sigurd Jorsalfar, Alexander Nevsky and Il'ya Muromets?
  • Who was the hero in Richard Strauss' tone poem, “A Hero's Life”?
  • Compare the figure of Mephistopheles in the operas by Gounod and Boito.

Reflective Questions

  • Can you think of villains that you sorta, kinda like?
  • Consider the motivations of the crowd calling for Barabbas instead of Jesus. How easily can we blur the lines between good and bad?
  • We've seen how our heroes often are revealed to have feet of clay – why is that?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • McLynn, Frank. Heroes and Villains: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History. PegasusBooks. 2010. 384 pages. A clear-eyed, detailed examination of such legendary figures as Spartacus, Attila, Napoleon and three others, never stooping to superficial analysis. Fascinating.
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  • Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton University Press. 2000. 400 pages. One of Beethoven's lasting contributions to music were his efforts in developing a so-called “Heroic” style, epitomized in the dramatic urgings of the “Eroica” Symphony. Burnham examines that, and other great works by the composer, explaining this ground-breaking approach that would influence composers in future generations.
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