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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This fourth installment in our Top 25 series is the Blue Danube Waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss.
You’re more likely to hear the Blue Danube Waltz
on New Year’s Day than on October 5th, but it has to be on this countdown
because is one of the most popular and well-loved pieces ever written. As a
result of this waltz’s success, Strauss was nicknamed “The Waltz King.”
However, the New Year’s Day tradition in which the Vienna Philharmonic performs this waltz to listeners around the globe belies the less-than-pleasant circumstances of its writing. Strauss essentially wrote the waltz to cheer up his country. Austria had just been defeated by Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War and was in the midst of a post-war economic downturn. He based it on a Karl Beck poem that included the line “By the Danube, the beautiful blue Danube,” and made it his mission to lift the spirits of Austria with a upbeat and memorable waltz.
There are five distinct themes in this waltz. The delightful
video for today’s music does a fantastic job of displaying these five themes
Since the summer is winding to an end and we will soon (for those of us in non-tropical climates, at least) be surrounded by orange and red leaves, I thought it was a good time to bring back a piece that we’ve heard before that will get us in the mood for fall. Today you will hear the fantastic violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn from Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” on a 15th-century Italian Guarneri violin. She is accompanied by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
here’s a quick refresher on the “Four Seasons” (or, for those of you who are
just joining us, an overview of what it is about). The “Four Seasons” are
essentially a set of four violin concertos (or, in the more appropriate Italian
plural form, concerti) in which each concerto represents one of the four
seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi,
who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling
As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the (incredibly helpful) subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.
We return this week to our mini-series on the piano trios of
Felix Mendelssohn to hear his Piano Trio #2 in C Minor.
You will hear four movements in this piece. They follow the
usual Romantic-era format: allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale. Mendelssohn
wrote this trio only two years before his untimely death in 1847 at the age of
This trio counteracts the lyricism and sublime beauty of the
first piano trio with a sombre, foreboding tonal scheme. Storms seem imminent
as the cello and piano trade their dark colors underneath violin’s tumultuous
worrying. The harmonic structure is never satisfied and shifts from one
tonality to another with unrelenting pace. Even the delicate second movement
contains these deep, dark sound colors.
However, the tumultuousness of the first three movements is dissipated in the upbeat finale (4th movement), which features as its main melody a tune that many know as the “Doxology,” a hymn often sung in churches around the world. Mendelssohn’s musical hero, J.S. Bach, apparently used this melody in one of his cantatas, and the young composer desired to use this melody as a form of homage to the father of classical music.
To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.
Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.
continue our series on the great duets in the classical music repertoire, we
turn this week to Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite, performed by Christoph
Eschenbach and Lang Lang.
Petite Suite is written for one piano and four hands. Debussy premiered it himself, in collaboration with fellow French musician Jacques Durand. There are four movements (not all of which are present in this performance, unfortunately) that evenly feature both pianists.
You will notice that the piece is quite simple and not technically difficult; Debussy is reported to have intended it for an amateur piano-lesson-type audience. It is particularly interesting to note that he wrote this piece shortly after being told by his Paris Conservatory piano instructor that he should focus on composition because he would never make a good pianist.
One of the things that I find most interesting about this composition is its historically anomalous nature. Debussy was a late Romantic-era composer, closely preceded by colleagues who wrote thundering symphonies (Brahms) and soaring concerti (Tchaikovsky). It is therefore curious to experience the simplicity and – as one critic put it – “delightful plainness” of the Petite Suite.
Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.
Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).
It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.
are as follows:
“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine With the roses entwined together On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning Let us descend together!
floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine Ah! calling us Together!”
Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich,
performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.
As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.
The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.
The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.
Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.
“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.
movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and
freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful
and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike
most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very
start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which
help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the
definition of Romantic-era lyricism.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.