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:
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.
This symphony was composed by Dvorak in a short span of several months in 1889. A sunny, cheerful work, it alternates major and minor keys in each of its four movements.
Dvorak wrote this work in a new style, transitioning from traditional symphonic structure (exposition-development-recapitulation) towards a more poetic musical structure, stitching together many melodic and thematic fragments (particularly evident in the first movement).
The symphony opens with a wistful theme in G minor by ‘celli, clarinets, bassoon and horn. The violins lead an energetic transition to G Major; a clarinet theme in minor keys is interspersed several times in the movement, which ends on an optimistic note.
The second movement is more introspective. Beginning softly in the strings, upper winds join in to combine in a duet. Singing passages in C Major, first in the winds and then in the strings, lead to rousing climaxes featuring brass and timpani.
The third movement is a graceful waltz, bracketed by a folk-melody trio and a sudden vivace at the end. A rousing trumpet flourish starts off the last movement. A series of string variations feature ‘celli and violas, abruptly followed by a rousing orchestral Allegro. Midway through the movement, Dvorak gives the winds a contrasting restless theme in C minor. The “theme and variations” return in the strings and woodwinds; the main Allegro theme then reappears. Led by surging horns, trumpets and trombones, the symphony accelerates to a triumphant close.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Finland’s foremost composer, had a major impact on its national identity and musical life. His symphonies are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire, as are his tone poems based on Finnish myths and national themes.
The Karelia Suite had its origins in 1893, when Sibelius was asked by Helsinki University students to compose incidental music for a gala with historical pageants; these were based on historical events in Karelia province (the southwestern region of Finland next to Russia). His music for three of those pageants became the basis for the Karelia Suite.
The first movement, with its spirited march theme, depicts the gathering of taxes by a Lithuanian duke in the 14th century (!).
The second movement Ballade portrays a bard entertaining group of nobles in a medieval castle.
The jaunty Alla Marcia depicts the Swedish conquest of a Finnish town in the 16th century.
Tchaikovsky composed this short work in 1887 while tending a seriously ill friend in Germany. This experience affected him emotionally, and is reflected in the melancholy nature of this piece.
The opening is somber and impassioned; it’s then followed by a lyrical singing main theme. There is a sudden change into a virtuosic scherzo, with brilliant ‘cello passage work. After a return to the lyrical theme, the scherzo makes a final appearance.
Tchaikovsky doesn’t sound much like Mozart. The Russian composer wallowed in Romantic angst, unlike his self-confident musical predecessor from the Classical period a century earlier. Nonetheless, Peter idolized Wolfgang. The Mozartiana is Tchaikovsky’s homage to the Master on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Exposure to that opera as a child sparked Tchaikovsky’s entire musical career.
By serendipity, Tchaikovsky had a chance to view the original score of his favorite opera, owned by an acquaintance in Paris, the year before he composed Mozartiana. He used religious terminology when he wrote about handling the manuscript in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck: “I cannot describe the feeling which came over me when I looked through this musical holy of holies.”
Tchaikovsky didn’t just admire Mozart’s music, but revered Mozart, the person, as a genius and an ideal human being. In another letter to his patroness, who did not share his enthusiasm for Mozart, he described his hero as having “a wonderful, irreproachable, infinitely kind, and angelically pure nature… He was the incarnation of the ideal of a great artist who creates because of an unconscious stirring of his genius. He wrote music as the nightingales sing, i.e. without pausing to think, without doing violence to himself…Everyone loved him; he had the most marvelous, cheerful, and equable temperament. There was not a whit of pride in him… The purity of his soul was absolute. He knew neither envy nor vengefulness nor spite, and I think that all this can be heard in his music, which has reconciling, clarifying, and caressing properties.” In other words, Mozart’s putative flawless character was everything that the self-tortured Tchaikovsky’s was not, but that he yearned for.
For his Mozartiana Tchaikovsky didn’t dare borrow themes from the opera that occasioned the tribute or any of Mozart’s most important works. Instead, he decided to borrow lesser themes, hoping to avoid the charge of hubris for rewriting masterpieces in a contemporary idiom. Instead, he hoped people would see him as drawing attention to overlooked gems. Or something like that. Tchaikovsky is known for brooding emotion rather than cold logic.
The piece was written during a stay with his younger brother Anatoly in Tiflis, now known as Tbilisi, in Georgia. Originally, Tchaikovsky had intended to translate the libretto of Don Giovanni and collaborate on an essay on the composer he so venerated as well, but only the Mozartiana was completed.
Tchaikovsky viewed it as merely an orchestration or arrangement of the original Mozart pieces. “In the course of the orchestration I made minute enhancements and modifications to the harmony,” the composer wrote to his publisher. The original Mozart pieces were for piano, excerpt for the basis of the third movement, which was originally a motet (sacred choral piece for several voices). But the great Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt had transcribed the motet for piano, and Tchaikovsky worked from the secondary source. And for the fourth movement, a Theme and Variations for piano, Mozart had borrowed a theme from a very silly comic opera by Gluck, The Pilgrimage to Mecca.
You might forgive a listener unable to recognize the Mozart in Tchaikovsky’s rendition. It sounds more like The Nutcracker than like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. While most of the scoring is consistent with an orchestra from Mozart’s day, Mozartiana sounds richer and lusher than anything Mozart might have been familiar with. Tchaikovsky expands the percussion section (listen for the Glockenspiel in the final movement) and adds a heavenly harp to the third movement, Pregheira (Prayer). Yet some of the classical purity shines through, especially in the first two movements.
The first movement is a jig [Gigue], marked Allegro (fast and happy), from Mozart’s Eine kleine Gigue for piano (KV 574).
The second movement is a court dance, Minuet [Menuet], marked Moderato, from Mozart’s Menuett for piano (KV 355).
Preghiera-andante non tanto
The third movement, Prayer [Pregheira], is marked Andante non tanto (slower but not too much—walking tempo), after Mozart’s motet Ave Verum Corpus (KV 618) in a transcription for piano solo by Franz Liszt.
Theme and variations
The final movement showcases solo talent from throughout the orchestra, especially the principal violin. It is a Theme and Variations [Thème et variations] with the tempo marking Allegro giusto (truly fast and happy, with energy) from Mozart’s Ten Piano Variations on a Theme by Gluck, K. 455.
All four movements together add up to about 25 minutes of playing time, with more than half of that of that devoted to the last movement. Ballet lovers may find Mozartiana familiar, as George Balanchine choreographed it in 1981, although he reshuffled the order of the movements.