Music and Food: A Classical Emporium

My WOSU colleagues Boyce Lancaster and Beverley Ervine told me not long ago about a gigantic emporium of imported and artisinal foods. So, an incurable foodie, I went. Twelve hundred imported cheese labels, a dozen tanks of live (read: fresh) fish and four aisle-browsing hours later, I’m still reeling. What does this have to do with classical music, you ask. Well, what could be better than savoring a sweet Gorgonzola to a background of Bach, or sipping a Belgian abbey ale (if 21 or over) to strains of Beethoven?

Since returning from my alimentary adventure, I’ve been thinking about how composers and other musicians have paid musical homage to food. Here’s a little list of food-related compositions, an emporium of tasty musical tidbits that I hope will satisfy the cravings of your inner epicure.

Let’s start – where else? – with breakfast. Few musical works offer as compelling a picture of one’s culinary daybreak as Cats in the Kitchen by the American “alternative” classical composer Phillip Bimstein. In the first movement, “Eggs and Toast,” percussion instruments become cracking egg shells and a wire whisk scrambling yolks and whites in a glass bowl. The whisk strokes take on the character of a ticking clock, the sound that haunts all late risers. Bimstein originally included flute and oboe in his score, but rescored the work for tuba and euphonium at the request of the Symbiosisduo, whom you hear on this recording:


Eggs underway, the toast appears later in the same movement. We sharpen a knife, we slice a thick loaf of crusty bread right down to the wooden cutting board and, once our bread is toasted, we scrape on some butter:


Speaking of butter, Rossini wrote a piece about it. The fourth movement of his Four hors d’Å“uvres is a delightful theme and variations devoid of trans fat and full of zero-calorie fun:


But getting back to Bimstein’s whisks, bowls, knives and cutting boards, a foodie is only as good as his tools. Vaughan Williams gave us a “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils” in the incidental music he composed for a Cambridge University production of Aristophanes’ comedy The Wasps.  The movement is classic Vaughan Williams, reminiscent of British royal marches and tinted with the hues of the composer’s beloved English folk songs. In the hands of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor James Judd the work is extra “snappy,” like a crumbly Cheshire cheese that bites you back:


How about vegetarian  fare for lunch? A fruit and nut salad, perhaps? We return to Rossini, whose piano work Four Foods (Quatre Mendiants) has all the fixings – dried figs:


. . . antioxidant-packed almonds:


. . . iron-rich raisins:


. . . and hazelnuts. Mmm, Nutella:


But let’s not forget our veggies. The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra might well be the only orchestra in the world who make, play, then eat their instruments. Here they are, with pumpkin drums, carrot flutes and zucchini oboes. Be sure to catch the carrot-and-yellow-bell-pepper trumpet (of sorts) near the end of the clip:

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Whoever invented life in Italy was a food genius. Long lunches, laid-back afternoons that metamorphose into dinner time - these folks understand that one eats not just for sustenance, but for sensory gratification. Dinner in Italy can last all night, the main dish arriving on the table only after the antipasti and the pasta course - each often accompanied by a matching wine selection – have been consumed amidst leisurely (though often heated!) conversation. So what about that wine? Pinot griggio comes to mind. ”A Light Dry Table Wine,” the second movement of Rami Vamos and Randall Avers‘ Three Songs for Twelve Strings, hits the spot:

(the Newman & Oltmann Guitar Duo performs on this recording.)

Now that we’ve taken care of the essentials (food, schmood – it’s the wine that matters most at dinner), let’s dig in. The seventeenth-century composer Heinrich Biber left us a great dinner soundtrack in the suites of his Mensa Sonora, literally “Sounding Table,” a half-dozen instrumental suites Biber composed for his Salzburg employer, the Prince-Archbishop Maximilian Gandolph von Khüenburg, allegedly for him to use as dining music. Your mother would probably tell you not to dance to this lovely little balletta from Mensa Sonora‘s Suite in F major for at least half an hour after dinner. Chicago’s Baroque Band performs on this recording:


. . . and I guarantee you’ll chew each bite twenty times to this beautiful ciacona, from the Suite in A minor:


Hungry yet? Bon appétit . . . and happy listening!

- Jennifer Hambrick

  • Ben

    “a gigantic emporium of imported and artisinal foods”

    Dare we ask the location of this mecca?

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hi, Ben,

      Thank you for writing in! The “mecca” I wrote about in my post is Jingle Jim’s International Market, in Fairfield, Ohio. Don’t be alarmed by its enormous proportions – it’s excess in the grandest possible sense of the word. The place truly has a wealth of truly interesting and delicious items. Some of my favorite finds there: Lindt dark chocolate with fleur de sel (affordable!), a cremy vache de chalais cheese round (never had it before!) and, for jazz lovers out there, the Brother Thelonious Belgian ale, proceeds from the sale of which go to support the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Enjoy!

  • Mary Beth Paul

    Are you talking about Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati?

    If this is the place, it is all that and more! Worth a special trip. Bring a cooler or two if you plan on buying perishables. Wear comfortable shoes and go there hungry- they offer a LOT of samples.

    • Jennifer Hambrick

      Hi, Mary Beth,

      Thank you for your comment! You are absolutely right – it was Jungle Jim’s International Market, in Fairfield, Ohio, that I wrote about in my post. And all of your advice is perfect: we spent four hours in Jungle Jim’s, so the comfortable shoes turned out to be a necessity. It took us an hour and a half just to get through the cheese department (where there were samples of a lovely Danish bleu). Our cooler was packed for the drive back to Columbus. It’s a nice day trip from the Columbus area. While you’re there, be sure to watch “The Evolution of Jungle Jim’s” in the in-store move theater. It tells the very interesting story of how an outdoor vegetable stand became the Jungle Jim’s food experience. Enjoy! And thank you for reading our classical music blog!