Pops Goes the Orchestra


Made famous by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and now embraced by all of the world's great orchestras, this style of music can be a delightful change from heavier classical pieces. Characterized by familiar, hummable tunes, these works tend to be lighter and more "popular." Join Active Minds as we sample works by beloved music-makers such as Leroy Anderson, Tchaikovsky and Rossini, plus tunes you may know, written by composers you may not – Emil von Reznicek, Franz von Suppé, Jules Massenet, Pietro Mascagni and Émile Waldteufel. 


Most of the time, audiences shy away from symphony concerts for simple reasons: they're intimidating, and newcomers fear they won't understand what they're hearing, and they worry they'll applaud at the wrong moment. It's true that an understanding of the architecture of a piece is crucial to “getting it,” and in many instances, basic knowledge of who the composer was/is and awareness of the context of a work will bring that piece of music into focus. But then, what is there to know about a simple, joyful Mozart melody? Why do some think it's necessary to take a music history course in order to be moved by a stirring Beethoven finale? Is it impossible to feel the romantic gentleness of a Chopin Nocturne without consulting program notes? Questions for another time – here, we are dealing with music that is unblushingly intended solely to be enjoyed. Simple, really. In the world of orchestral pops, all that matters is a good tune that's not too long or complex. Pops is not about dumbing down to listeners (speaking of which, see our suggestion below for further reading). Selections penned in the last couple of centuries are meticulously crafted works that deserve serious attention. These symphonic bon-bons are meant to delight audiences, yet they are well-crafted and, in many instances, orchestrated brilliantly, to show the virtuosity of the musicians. That's a great way to excite an audience. But let's be honest, pops concerts are created to sell tickets. Regular classical concerts are just not able to pull in full houses (unless a superstar is guest soloist). Not that there's anything wrong with making some money. Selling tickets is necessary to help keep an orchestra afloat. So what if the music is fun? After all, Strauss waltzes, Brahms Hungarian Dances and bubbly operetta overtures were intended for 19th-Century listeners (and ballroom dancers) out for a good time. While the music dates back to olden days, the concept of a pops concert is a more recent phenomenon. A few decades back, Arthur Fiedler established the format when he took over the Boston Symphony in summertime, and renamed it Boston Pops. There were Strauss ditties, Sousa marches, Broadway songs, catchy tunes from Grieg, Dvorak and others – and, on the Fourth of July, Tchaikovsky's thrilling 1812 Overture. Those concerts introduced symphonic music to hundreds of thousands of Bostonians (as well as zillions of TV viewers and record buyers elsewhere). Consider this: Each summer, the Los Angeles Philharmonic offers outdoor concerts at Hollywood Bowl. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the program lists straight-forward classical masterworks, usually drawing 3,000-5,000 folks to the sprawling amphitheater. Not bad for a “serious” concert. But then, on Fridays and Saturdays, it's time for pops, for casual evenings that culminate in fireworks displays, or shows headlined by superstars from the popular-music world. Those weekend events often draw 15,000-17,000 per night, thus allowing the Philharmonic to even out its annual budget. Pops pays. Everybody wins, in the world of light classics. Music snobs need not attend. We'll have fun without them.

Exploration Questions

  • Who is Emile Waldteufel and why is he important?
  • What is the significance of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, and how did Brahms play a role in making them popular?
  • What role did the railroad play in popularizing Strauss waltzes in Europe?

Reflective Questions

  • Are you more inclined to attend a pops concert rather than a classical one? Why?
  • Everyone loves Strauss' Blue Danube (including Brahms!), but what are your other favorites by the Waltz King (and his siblings)?

More to Explore

  • 15 Classical Popular Pieces explained, videos Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Pogue, David. Classical Music for Dummies. For Dummies. 2015. 384 pages. OK, we know – this series of books has been around a long time and has endured all sorts of snobbish comments about dumbing down whatever subject is being covered. But the truth is, this particular book is well-organized, brightly written (with not a hint of condescension) and, thank goodness, is quite accurate and complete in treating the subject of classical music. Also, you can access a handy Website (dummies.com/go/classicalmusic) that includes musical examples and links to related musical subjects.
    Click here to order
  • Swafford, Jan. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music: An Indispensable Guide for Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music. Vintage Books. 1994. 624 pages. For the more serious reader, this is, as its wordy title suggests, indispensable for anyone wishing to learn the history of classical music.
    Click here to order