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
Welcome to the second installment to our new series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music of All Time! Today we will be hearing Daniel Barenboim play Mozart’s piano sonata No. 11 in A Major. All three movements of this sonata are beautiful, but the third movement (starting at 18:50), called Rondo Alla Turca, is by far the most popular.
what you need to know:
The first movement is an Andante grazioso (which translates roughly to “walking gracefully”) based on a simple 8-measure theme that you will hear at the very opening of the movement. The rest of the movement is a series of variations on that theme. Listen to the various ways that Mozart uses running passages, chords, and rhythmic patterns to create variation!
The second movement is a two-for-one deal! Mozart includes a minuet and a trio in this movement. It begins just after minute 13. Listen for the switch between the two sub-movements.
The third movement – the famous Alla Turca movement – is one of Mozart’s best-known pieces. It translates roughly to “Turkish March” or “Turkish Rondo.” At the time he composed it, Mozart (along with most of northern Europe) was infatuated with Turkish music. Listen for the march-like section at around 19:30 that imitates the drums of the traveling Turkish Janissary bands that performed throughout Europe’s major cities during Mozart’s time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life.
Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.
The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.
The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.
The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.