This short overture and its accompanying march have an unusual history. The theme, first introduced by the piccolo, is based on a Chinese tune first noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de Musique in 1768. Described as an “Air Chinois,” the tune was brought to France from China in the 18th century by a French missionary.
The Turandot story itself was derived from Central Asian/Persian sources; it involves a prince who travels to China, falls in love with the Emperor’s daughter, solves deadly riddles to win her, and (after much travail) weds her in the end. The story has been used by (among others) Carlo Gozzi, an Italian 18th-century playwright, and most famously, Puccini in his 20th century opera.
In 1804 the noted German author Schiller translated Gozzi’s text into German. For the 1809 premiere, Weber wrote an overture and six related pieces as incidental music, with a unifying theme based on the “Air Chinois.” The overture develops the basic theme by exploring different harmonic and orchestral combinations, and features all sections of the orchestra.
Driving rhythms characterize this joyous symphony, described by none other than Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Premiered in Vienna 1813, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony received enthusiastic reviews, with the audience even demanding an encore of the second movement! Outside Vienna, reaction was not as favorable (the noted composer Carl Maria von Weber said that “Beethoven was ripe for the madhouse;” Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann’s father, called it “the work of a drunkard”). Little did they know; over time these critics were proved wrong, and this magnificent, powerful symphony has become one of Beethoven’s most enduring and well-loved works.
Each of its four movements is built around a specific rhythmic motif. After a contemplative introduction (almost a movement in itself), the opening Allegro’s three-note theme is introduced by the woodwinds, taken up by the strings in turn, and traded back and forth among strings, woodwinds and brass.
The famous second movement Allegretto is a somber march built around a five-note motif (long-short-short-long-long) starting in the lower strings, with a subtle singing countermelody taken up in turn by the rest of the orchestra. A lyrical interlude featuring clarinet and bassoon offers a warm ray of sunshine in the middle of the movement.
The third movement Presto is based on a relentless three-note motif, interspersed with a sonorous trio section featuring winds and brass. This combination is repeated several times (with surprise variations).
The energetic last movement has been described as “elemental fury unleashed.” It features driving 16th-note runs, offbeat accents, brass/wind fanfares and exclamation points, and a long coda culminating in a marking of “triple forte” (fff) — the first use of that marking in a Beethoven score. Accelerating driving passages bring this symphony to its triumphant conclusion.
This violin concerto is an early work by Bach, probably written in the 1720s while he was resident in Weimar. It is one of his most frequently-recorded and beloved works, and a masterful example of interplay between the violin soloist and string orchestra.
The first movement allegro starts off with a vigorous rising three-note motif, repeated in major and minor keys throughout, and contrasted with rising and falling 16th-note scales.
The second movement is a deeply felt and introspective adagio. Its main theme is an ostinato (repeating) figure in the ‘celli, basses and continuo, against which the solo violin weaves intricate figurations in an intimate musical exchange.
The last movement is a triple-meter rondo, in which the rousing string theme is interspersed with solo violin variations.
Composed in 1923, “La Création” is a fusion of jazz, blues and orchestral styles. Milhaud discovered jazz music while on a 1921 trip to London, and was enthralled by the new idiom. He traveled to the U.S. in 1922 on a concert and conducting tour, performing in various American cities. During his stays in New York he made it a point to frequent black jazz clubs in Harlem, and steeped himself in the music, its instrumentation and style.
Returning to Paris, he teamed up with the Ballet Suédois, the author Blaise Cendrars and the cubist artist Fernand Léger to compose music for an African-themed ballet of creation. While the ballet itself is rarely performed today, Milhaud’s scintillating score has become part of the concert repertoire.
Its 18-piece instrumental ensemble is unique: woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboe, bassoon, saxophone); brass (horn, trumpets, trombone); four solo strings (two violins, ‘cello, bass); piano; and percussion (five timpani, plus a large variety of percussion instruments).
“La Création” has six movements, played without a break. Jazz riffs, blues and syncopated rhythms abound.
The Overture starts with a sonorous melody played by the saxophone.
“Chaos” features a jazz fugue, starting with bass, trombone, saxophone and trumpet.
“Creation of Plants and Animals” begins with a somber woodwind motif signifying darkness; an oboe blues riff signals the birth of flora and fauna.
“Creation of Man and Woman” is introduced by the solo violins, then interspersed with syncopated passages (bassoon, saxophone, piano, bass). Another oboe passage heralds the creation of man and woman.
“Desire” brings the clarinet front and center in an extended blues riff, with sensuous oboe and piccolo/trumpet motifs in the middle. All of the instruments join in; the saxophone plays the main melody, and the others play their riffs with and against each other.
“Spring, or the Calm” reprises the opening theme and blues motifs before fading out with a sighing blues chord in the saxophone and strings.
Francis Poulenc was part of a prominent group of early 20th-century French composers dubbed “Les Six.” A self-taught composer, his music is unconventional, with understated wit and simplicity. In 1918, while serving in the French army, he wrote a four-hand sonata for piano which was premiered in 1919 and revised in 1939. Darius Milhaud (also a member of “Les Six”) was much taken by Poulenc’s sonata, and orchestrated the last movement for a concert he conducted in 1923 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
It is a short, playful work. As a contemporary reviewer put, “High spirits, wit and animal grace break out of the merry brass in the ‘Overture.’”
The piece was written quite quickly during the summer of 1877. While Brahms had struggled for nearly two decades to complete his first symphony, his sunny, happy, second symphony was written within just a few months while he was on summer holiday in the quaint Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee.
The entire symphony is based upon a three-note motive first stated in the ‘cellos and basses in the very first bar of the piece (D-C#-D). You will hear this motive again and again throughout the entire work; it is almost like one of those “where’s Waldo?” puzzles. As you listen see if you can catch it in all of Brahms’ different settings, inversions, and changes of instrumentation.
The first movement captures the beauty of summer by the lake. After playing through the piece for the first time, one of Brahms’ colleagues wrote: “It is all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine, and cool green shadows. How beautiful it must be at Pörtschach.”
The second movement is a little darker and brooding in texture. It is thoughtful and reflective, and in the middle becomes more dramatic as it spins out the melody in triplets before returning to its opening theme. The third movement is light and has the character of a serenade. It is interrupted twice by an impatient musical motive that makes you want to tap your feet and dance a little.
The Finale is joyous and exciting. The ‘cello and bass parts are extremely difficult to play well (and tend to show up on all audition lists). The rich second melody makes us remember all those wonderful folk tunes that one often hears in the countryside. And, of course, if you listen carefully you will hear the first movement’s three-note motive moving in and out of the melodies. Brahms ends the piece triumphantly with a brilliant fanfare flourish of trumpets and horns.
Video performance by the Symphonie Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks Conducted by Mariss Jansons
Written by the young Strauss for his father, a virtuoso horn player, this concerto is one of the best-known and beloved in the French Horn solo repertoire. While not as musically complex as other Strauss compositions, it contains unmistakable harmonic and musical elements which instantly mark it as Strauss’ work.
Although formally divided into three movements, it is played as a continuous work with no interruption between movements. The first and last movements’ themes are based on a heroic horn arpeggio, picked up in each instance by the orchestra and leading to a quieter, more subdued horn melody. The orchestral texture is varied, ranging from a Germanic “full orchestra” sound to chamber music-like effects (e.g., solo horn accompanied by upper woodwinds and solo ‘celli). The middle Andante is harmonically the most interesting, with unusual key shifts between A-flat minor and E major supporting dramatic expositions of lyrical horn melody.
Although compact, this concerto explores the full horn range, is challenging for the orchestra, and enjoys a large popular following.
Here’s Barry Tuckwell in a performance with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1987. Movement 1:
On the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, I composed this work as the sun was rising over the ocean in the mornings and gently sifting through the clouds against the lingering fog. As the piece developed, it took on a shape of its own and gradually became centered around diminished chords and the interval of a tritone (diminished 5th). I love these chords for their angst and for their sadness, but also for their flexibility.
My piece is very textural in nature; and yes, it does have a melody of sorts, and yet this melody comes and goes, and is never quite grasped until the end. Portions of it are repeated and spun out creating layers of sound without the heaviness of form. It is indeed a depiction of mist, where one minute you see things and the next they are gone. As you move through the piece, you find that the trumpet is also an antagonist, creeping in with a haunting cry; a reminder of things unsettled. Throughout the piece, we are quietly searching. We search for a tonal center for stability, and also for a melody that will make us feel fulfilled. Once found, we hold them for an instant, and then like the clouds and like life itself, they are gone. We are warmed by their presence and saddened by their loss.
I hope that you will reflect upon your own memories of life’s quiet moments as we enjoy the New York premiere of this new work together. “Mist” is not a piece to be analyzed, but rather a piece to be experienced and absorbed. As you listen, release your mind, embrace your emotions, close your eyes, and allow the mist to creep in.
Victor Hugo wrote the play “Le Roi S’Amuse” (The King Amuses Himself) in 1832. Loosely based on historical figures, the plot involves a court jester to the king who schemes to help the king obtain a new mistress. The jester’s daughter is seduced by the king; upon discovering a plot to murder the king, she sacrifices her life for him. The play was banned in 1832 after just one performance (government censors believed that the play insulted the current king of France). Some 20 years later, the plot of “Le Roi S’Amuse” became the basis for Verdi’s Opera Rigoletto.
When the play was finally revived in 1882, the noted composer Léo Delibes wrote a ballet sequence of six charming dances and antique airs to be included as incidental music. They consist of a grand opening Gaillarde; a stately Pavane; a melodic Scène du Bouquet; Lesquercarde, a spritely tune; a sweet Madrigal; a wistful Passepied; and a final reprise of the Gaillarde.