Our music for this week – and the fifth installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music – is the famous Symphony No. 9 by Dvorak, popularly known as the “New World Symphony.”
Internationally-renowned Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emigrated to the United States in 1892 to take conservatory teaching position in New York. This was right around the time that the country was exploding with new inventions. Carnegie Hall had just been built, baseball was the country’s new favorite pastime, and steam engines were the greatest power source to yet arrive (although Henry Ford was closing in fast on his Model T). Dvorak was overwhelmed. After getting his bearings, he penned the symphony you will hear today, titling it “From the New World.”
Within months of his move, Dvorak became obsessed with the musical genre of black spirituals. He began incorporating many of these tunes into his music. For instance, if you listen closely you will hear the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the first movement of the “New World Symphony.” Likewise, the second movement “Largo” – although not originally a spiritual – was later rewritten by one of Dvorak’s students and set to words in that genre. This melody has become so popular that it is frequently found in hymnals and other compilations of religious tradition. However, it has transcended its genre and been used for many other contexts. For instance, it was played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford’s funerals and was the inspiration for pianist Art Tatum’s 1949 “Largo Swing.”
The famous Largo (second movement) starts at minute 12:56. Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the best conductors on earth, has said that this melody perfectly encapsulates the idea of homesickness. Others have said it describes longing, and still others have said that it is the musical expression of restfulness. Regardless of what it means to you, I can assure that you won’t soon forget it.
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The third installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar, performed by Jacqueline du Pre.
First, the concerto. Elgar’s cello concerto is a tour de force. Its soaring heights and delicately-shaped melodies hardly suggest the fact that while he wrote it, Elgar was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. As he transitioned back to his home in Brinkwell, England, he spent the majority of every day of the summer of 1919 writing this concerto. His work was interrupted only by daily firewood-chopping duties.
Unlike most concerti, Elgar’s cello concerto is not always flashy or powerful. In fact, it can sometimes seem quite timid, almost too private. The opening roar of the cello solo, as spine-tingling as it is, quickly gives way to an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to find. Even the passion of the Adagio in the first movement (the main theme of the concerto) is reserved at points. This is a reflection of Elgar’s waning health, his wife’s impending passing, and the loneliness that he dealt with later in life. It is interesting that he chose to use the cello to convey these very personal emotions – not the more common violin or piano. Perhaps he saw something in the dark, rich colors of the cello that spoke to him.
Second, the cellist. Jacqueline du Pre is one of the most beloved musicians of all time and one of the most talented cellists to ever live. Her performing career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28 (she later passed away at 42 years old), but we are fortunate to have video and audio recordings of her performances of the Elgar concerto. In this video, she is only twenty years old. It is sadly fitting that she is the performer of a concerto that is part expose, part poetic epithet, part elegy.
Our music for this week is “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from George Frederic Handel’s 1748 oratorio Solomon. The entire oratorio is almost never performed, but “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” which was the opening interlude of Act III, is played quite often. It is a popular wedding recessional and is regularly featured as the background music for luxury car advertisements. It was even played as part of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
As its name belies, Solomon was written about the life and times of the biblical character King Solomon. During this time in history, King George II of England (Handel’s employer) wanted to hold dramatic presentations of biblical stories at his palace, but the Bishop of London disapproved of a public drama based on a biblical subject. Handel was therefore commissioned to write oratorios like Solomon as musical substitutes for the dramatic wishes of the King. They eventually became so popular that Handel stopped writing operas and focused entirely on oratorios.
Listening Tip: It can be helpful to sometimes take a step back and think about where a piece of music fits in the larger historical picture of the development of music. There are generally five periods of music that we will listen to: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and Modern. This music is a perfect example of the Baroque period of classical music, which spans from approximately 1600 to 1750. Some of the primary characteristics of this era include (among others) (1) small ensembles, (2) minimal brass and timpani, (3) period instruments like harpsichords, (4) biblical or mythological themes, and (5) an overall light, airy sound. Other composers who lived and wrote their music during the Baroque era include Bach and Telemann. If you listen to their compositions and keep in mind the characteristics above, you’ll quickly see a multitude of similarities.
Our series on famous duets continues with the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter* on the violin and Maximilian Hornung on the cello.
In my opinion, the most amazing thing about this concerto is that Brahms didn’t play a single stringed instrument. He was a pianist. While this certainly makes Brahms’ compositional ability even more impressive,** it is helpful to know that he was very strongly motivated to compose a piece that included a violin part. Brahms’ friendship with virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (who had premiered Brahms’ monumental violin concerto) had recently become strained after Brahms testified on behalf of Joachim’s wife in a divorce proceeding. Historians believe that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto as a reconciliation gift for his friend.
The Double Concerto is jam-packed with dense and complex melodies. Brahms does a masterful job of balancing the rich colors of the cello with the bright colors of the violin, and the two become, in his hands, a unified voice. There is a certain harmonic glow about this piece that is characteristic of Brahms’ later years. This is particular evident in the lovely second movement, which begins at 18:51 and soars to new heights of color through a unison melody shared by the two solo instruments.
*Those of you who know my unabashed trepidations about the artistry of Anne-Sophie Mutter may be surprised by the choice of this video. However, I must give credit where credit is due. While Mutter may not be my choice for Beethoven or Mozart, her ultra-Romantic style is absolutely perfect for playing Brahms. I think she does an incredible job of capturing the rich core of this powerful violin part.
**Brahms himself was concerned about his lack of experience writing for stringed instruments. He wrote a letter to Clara Schumann expressing doubt about his ability to properly write a double concerto, and it was her encouraging reply that motivated him to continue composing.
Welcome a new series on the music of the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein! We’ll explore his greatest hits, his movie scores, his Broadway songs, and some of his more obscure works that (I believe) deserve more attention than they get.
Leonard Bernstein is one of the most important figures in American music. He was a composer, conductor, educator, and humanitarian. After training with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s legendary conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Bernstein embarked on an incredible career at the helm of the world-renowned New York Philharmonic.
While Bernstein is probably most famous for his score to West Side Story, he wrote many other compositions that were just as spectacular. One of these is the 1949 film On the Town (adapted from the 1944 Broadway play by the same name), which starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin on a 24-hour exploration of New York City. The lyrics tell us that New York is “a wonderful town” and “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” While the lyrics and the upbeat tune are the deserving focus, the music itself is not as basic as it may seem. Bernstein actually composed the entire film score for On the Town based on a single theme. In other words, every song is a variation on the same set of tonalities. Even within this tune, Bernstein creates a variation on the opening theme by adding sixteenth (faster) notes to the last iteration of the theme.
We are returning this week to our series on the
symphonies of Johannes Brahms. This week we will hear his second symphony,
performed by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
Brahms composed this symphony in less than a year, which is astonishing given that the first symphony took fifteen years to complete. It seems that Brahms gained confidence after publishing his first symphony, perhaps because it finally freed him from the shadow of Beethoven.
The symphony begins very simply. The cellos carry the first three notes (D, C sharp, D), and the French horns lay a melody over this foundation. Throughout the course of the symphony, Brahms expands on these three notes in a variety of ways. Listen for the many ways he uses this miniature motif (hint: it gets recycled quite often in the winds and brass). The cellos also open the second movement, but this time the theme is darker and more complex. The third movement, much like many of his violin and cello sonatas, departs completely from the somber tones of the earlier movements and juxtaposes a solo oboe line with cheerful pizzicato in the strings. The fourth movement combines the dark atmosphere of the second movement with the energy of the third.