Symphony No. 39 in Eb

Symphony No. 39 in Eb

This is first of Mozart’s last three symphonies, all of which he composed in 1788 in the miraculous span of just six weeks. Each of the three (No. 39 in E-Flat, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C Major) is a masterwork in its own right.

The E-flat Symphony is unique for its wind orchestration (one flute; clarinets instead of the usual oboes; bassoons; horns; trumpets), which gives it a mellow timbre and tone quality. It has a sunny character, full of optimism, stateliness and joy.

It opens with a grand adagio introduction, full of sweep and nobility. The following allegro has an 8-note theme interwoven among all sections of the orchestra. This theme becomes the basis for an impassioned development interspersed with violin scales.

Much of the second movement is based on a rising 4-note motif, to which are added impassioned violin outpourings and reflective wind choir passages. The Menuetto opens with a sweeping upward figure in the violins,interspersed with a graceful violin motif; the Trio has a folk-song Ländler quality, featuring clarinets, flutes, bassoons and horns.

The violins open the allegro Finale with a fast 8-bar melody, taken up in turn by the entire orchestra. After an entertaining development (with sudden forays into keys wildly unrelated to E-Flat!), a final recapitulation brings the symphony to an optimistic and dramatic close.

Symphony No. 8 in G Major

Symphony No. 8 in G Major

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.

Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 5

In 1936, after a performance of “Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District,” an article in “Pravda,” the Russian newspaper of the time, publically denounced Shostakovich. The article, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, entitled “Muddle or Music,” claimed that Shostakovich had “missed the demands of Soviet Culture to banish crudity and wildness from every corner of Soviet life.” It went on to say, “The danger of this tendency in Soviet music is clear. Leftist ugliness in opera is growing from the same source as leftist ugliness in painting, poetry, pedagogy, and science. Petit bourgeois ‘innovation’ is leading to a gap away from true art, science … literature.”

During this time period in Soviet history, all art was expected to fit within the confines of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism dictated that everything be in support of Communism. Music and art were to enhance and support the government, not cause tension or spur acts of rebellion.

Shostakovich feared for his life, as artists who flew in the face of social norms often found themselves executed or banished. Perhaps the only thing that saved him was the fact that in the early 1930’s Shostakovich had written a score to a movie entitled “Counter Plan,” which was released for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. One song from that score, “The Morning Greets Us,” gained international acclaim and became the first Soviet song to be considered a hit. This is perhaps the only thing that saved Shostakovich from a gruesome fate.

Composed between April and July of 1937, the 5th Symphony was Shostakovich’s response to the events of the year before. Premiered on November 21, 1937, it was received with thunderous applause that lasted more than half an hour.

Shostakovich had no choice but to claim that the piece was nationalistic in nature. In fact, Shostakovich likely viewed the piece as his chance to regain favor with the Communist party. The last movement quotes a song Shostakovich wrote earlier in the 1930’s, based on a poem by Pushkin, which deals with rebirth. Later on in his memoirs, however, he explained that he wrote the piece in direct response to the persecution and oppression that existed under Stalin’s rule. Since the time of its premiere this symphony has become one of the staples of the classical repertoire and is considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century.

As you listen, you will hear moments of terror, pain, pleading, and downright despair; but out of these moments, Shostakovich gives us wonderful glimpses of hope and in the last movement a feel of redemption and even victory.

(Christopher Hisey)

Symphony No. 35 in D Major

Symphony No. 35 in D Major

Mozart, arguably the greatest of all classical composers, wrote the ever-popular Haffner Symphony in a big hurry, like almost everything else he composed in his brief life. You’ll probably recognize the themes. It epitomizes the Classical period style—light, transparent, exhibiting controlled passion briskly. Like most Mozart, it is easy to play the notes, but difficult music to play because the transparency leaves nowhere to hide flaws.

Mozart hadn’t been living in Vienna all that long when a commission came from the Haffner family, in Salzburg, where his dad lived. It was the second commission from them. Dad Leopold wrote to his son in July, 1782, conveying a request for background music for a ceremony making the late mayor’s son, Sigmund Haffner, a nobleman. Despite being very busy at the time revising his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio—serving as his own impresario and staging it at the Vienna Burgtheater, moving to new, fancier, quarters, quarreling with his wife-to-be and reconciling, and generally living it up after his first flush of financial success on his own, Wolfgang wrote his father that he’d stay up all night until he got it done. He sent a score for an orchestral suite back to Salzburg in pieces as he finished each movement, but there is no record of whether or not it was performed. A month or two later, needing a symphony, Wolfgang asked his father for the score back,. Dad took his time sending it. By the time the score arrived in Vienna, Mozart had lived in the fast lane so much that he’d completely forgotten what he’d written and expressed delight at how good it was.

After that, he revised the score into the now-familiar symphony. The manuscript now resides at the Pierpont Morgan Library on 36th and Madison, along with a turquoise velvet and repoussé silver presentation case made for it when it was conveyed to King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1865.

The final form, in four movements, debuted March 23, 1783. The movements are Allegro con Spirito, Andante, Menuetto and Presto. The entire piece usually runs about twenty minutes. In the final movement, you may recognize some “Turkish” thematic material inspired by cross-pollination with the opera he was reworking at the same time.

Notes by Emily S. Plishner

“New World” Symphony

“New World” Symphony

Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was born in a village near Prague. Despite his father’s wishes for him to continue in the family business and become a butcher, Dvořák pursued his career in music and by the age of 18 was working as a fulltime musician. During his childhood he developed a deep passion for his heritage and fell in love with the native folk tunes and bohemian melodies associated with his village. It was these early influences that shaped Dvořák’s style. Much of his repertoire is based on Bohemian folk songs and melodies.

Dvořák moved to New York in 1892, after he was named the Director of the National Conservatory of Music. He lived not far from there, at 327 E. 17th Street, just down the street from where the Conservatory used to be (there is a high school there now). It was there that the “New World” Symphony and the Cello Concerto in B Minor were written. The “New World” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered in December of 1893 at Carnegie Hall. Because of his love for folk music, Dvořák was very interested in Native American and spiritual melodies and themes, and said upon his arrival here, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

Dvořák said of the “New World” the day before its premiere, “I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.”

Throughout this piece, the listener can pick out the influence of these themes on the symphony. The main theme in the second movement is perhaps the most famous melody that Dvořák wrote and has been used widely in TV and Film scores. It was played during the coverage of the landing on the moon and subsequent celebrations of that event.

Symphony No. 4 in Bb Major

Symphony No. 4 in Bb Major

Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60 in the summer and the fall of 1806. 1806 was one of the most productive years of Beethoven’s entire life. During this year, he completed his Piano Concerto No. 4, the Violin Concerto, Leonore Overture No. 3, Coriolan Overture, the Three Rasumovsky String Quartets, the Piano Sonata No. 23 “Apassionata” and the 32 Variations on a Original Theme in C minor.

Beethoven conducted the first private performance of the symphony at the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz in Vienna in 1807, and the first public performance in April 1808, in Vienna’s Burgtheater.

Although not as popular and not as frequently performed as the Third and the Fifth, the Fourth Symphony has a unique place in Beethoven’s catalogue. Today’s audiences, perhaps swept away by the works’ tragic and heroic power, tend to prefer the odd-numbered symphonies. However, Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies show equally profound and beautiful aspects of his genius. In a critical study of Beethoven’s symphonies, Berlioz said of the Fourth Symphony: “The general character of this score is either lively, alert and gay or of a celestial sweetness.” Robert Schumann compared the work to “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants,” having in mind the sequence of the Third, Fourth and the Fifth symphonies.

The first movement of the Fourth Symphony opens with a slow introduction (Adagio) in which we have the feeling that the time is standing still. The cold and motionless music from the introduction is “detonated” by the flamboyant chords of the sonata allegro (Allegro vivace) giving energy to a joyous and Haydnesque movement almost entirely based on the opening staccato notes of the first theme.

The second movement (Adagio) brought Berlioz to exaltation — “Its form is so pure and the expression of its melody so angelic and of such irresistible tenderness that the prodigious art by which this perfection is attained disappears completely.”

The third movement (another Allegro vivace) is based on the constant juxtaposition between duple and triple pulse. The entire movement is repeated twice, thus becoming a model for Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies.

The fourth movement (Allegro ma non troppo) returns to the sparkling and playful mood of the first movement. Here sudden dynamic contrasts and furious passages in sixteenths become the moving forces. At the end of the movement, Beethoven again pays homage to his teacher Haydn by lulling the listener to repose before the final outburst.

Symphony No. 9 in Eb Major

Symphony No. 9 in Eb Major

The Ninth Symphony is emblematic of the high-wire act required of a Soviet composer under Communist rule. Shostakovich’s transcendent musical gifts won him status as the Soviet Union’s leading composer, a stint as the president of the composers’ union, and international acclaim, despite two periods when he was out of favor with officialdom at home. As a young man, he ardently embraced socialist ideals, but later, after successfully responding to political criticism from the state with his Fifth Symphony, he tried to remain above the political fray. Even when he was out of favor with the Communist regime, he was never dispatched to the gulags. He remained an economically favored hero of the Republic with a country dacha and an active social life with his musical colleagues. In public, he never criticized Stalin or the Soviet government, but in private life he mocked the bureaucracy and its heavy-handed interventions in the creative process. As a result, a sarcastic tone permeates the Ninth Symphony.

Composed near the end of World War II in honor of the military victory in Europe (VE Day—May 8, 1945), Shostakovich adopted a surprisingly transparent neo-classical approach supplemented with a bombastic sneer. Reputedly, he was inspired by playing piano four-hand reductions of Haydn symphonies on a nightly basis with his friend and fellow Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky. Yet Haydn never used low brass and percussion the way Shostakovich does in the Ninth. That enables the Russian to infuse his symphony with a frantic, 20th-century edge that many have interpreted as subversive. Although initially well received, the symphony was banned in his home country in 1948 and not reprieved until 1955.

The Ninth Symphony is divided into five movements. The first, an Allegro in sonata form, is crisp and bouncy, with the upper parts classical. A snare drum adds a brisk military air, and the trombones add some insistent bombast. But even the very neo-classical upper parts, chock full of short, precise notes, are skewed with a scattering of extra beats, giving the rhythm a scrambled, off-balance feel. The Moderato movement opens with a plaintive clarinet solo, later taken up by the flute. It is very Russian sounding. Tension builds as the strings take up a slightly drunken-sounding ascending scale theme. The lonely flute and clarinet return with pizzicato string accompaniment, the theme is passed to the trombone, and the strings let out a descending sigh.

The Presto reprieves the rising and falling scales but against a very different them—evoking a bouncy, balletic tip-toeing with racing clarinet and piccolo. A heroic trumpet solo blasts through. The movement is followed immediately by a Largo, introduced by a melodramatic brass chorale, giving way to a mournful bassoon solo, which some identify as a Jewish theme, perhaps in protest of Stalin’s pogroms. The movement comes to a false cadence, then transitions into the Allegretto, starting with a playful bassoon romp, then building into a triumphal, mad rush to the end.

Notes by Emily S. Plishner

Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique

This monumental work was composed by Berlioz in 1830, just a few years after Beethoven’s death. At that time, Berlioz was an unknown 26-year composer who had fallen madly in love with an Anglo-Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, whom he had seen in the Parisian theater performing Shakespeare. He tried, but failed, to win her attention.

In despair, he poured out his soul in this symphony – a semi-autobiographical tour-de-force – which was revolutionary in its musical impact. Written in five movements, this “fantastic symphony” describes the dreams and imaginings of a love-sick young artist who, despairing of attaining the object of his love, has poisoned himself with opium. He sees visions in the form of musical imagery. His beloved is represented by an “ideé fixe” – a graceful melody which appears in every movement. The ideé fixe binds all of the movements together, although it appears in different guises in each.

A brief description of the movements follows, based on Berlioz’ own programmatic notes:

  1. Dreams and Passions: The young artist reflects on his melancholy, despair and anguish; his joyous elation when he sees his beloved, and the volcanic love she inspires. After a somber opening tinged with melancholy, violins and flutes open the passionate allegro section and introduce the ideé fixe. Delirious anguish and furious jealousy intrude, giving way to re-awakening love and, at the end, religious consolation.
  2. A Ball: He finds his beloved amid the tumult of a festive ball; the ideé fixe is glimpsed amid the gaiety.
  3. Scene in the Country: He imagines himself in the country on a summer evening, hearing shepherds’ pipes play the “Ranz des Vaches” to call in their flocks. The pastoral scene gives him a feeling of calm contentment. Suddenly, thoughts of his beloved intrude; his heart lurches, and he has grim forebodings should she betray him. A solitary shepherd plays his tune again without answer, giving way to distant rolling thunder and silence.
  4. March to the Scaffold: He dreams that he has killed his beloved, has been condemned to death and is being led to the scaffold through a jeering mob. A solemn march interrupted by wild passages accompanies him. At the scaffold, he hears the ideé fixe for an instant – which is interrupted by the death blow.
  5. Witches’ Sabbath: He dreams he is at an eerie gathering of horrible spirits, sorcerers and monsters who have come to attend his funeral. There are strange cries, groans, shouts and laughter. His beloved has been transformed into one of the revelers; a raucous clarinet plays the ideé fixe as a grotesque parody. She is gleefully welcomed and joins the infernal orgy. Funeral bells toll; low brass and bassoons play a parody of the “Dies Irae” from the mass of the dead. The witches begin their round-dance, heralded by different instrument choirs. The witches’ dance and the Dies Irae come together in a delirious finale, bringing this “fantastic symphony” to an end.

For Berlioz, the story did not end there. In 1832 he finally met Harriet Smithson – and married her a year later.

Symphony in D Minor

Symphony in D Minor

César Franck was 66 when he completed the Symphony in D minor, his only symphony.

It premiered the next year, on February 17, 1889, nine months before the composer’s death. Performed by the orchestra of the Paris Conservatory under the direction of Vincent d’Indy, it was a complete catastrophe. Only now, more than 130 years later, can we see that the features which caused the negative turmoil at the premiere are precisely what cause our admiration today: the symphony’s then atypical three-movement structure, its extremely dense (at times almost Wagnerian) texture, and its organ-like overall sound.

The symphony is in three movements with the first having probably the most peculiar structure of the three. It is a richly modified sonata movement in which, not the themes, but the two tempos (Lento and Allegro non troppo) define the development. The heavy and dark introduction sets the main question of the symphony and a quick answer follows at the beginning of the Allegro. The symphony’s first surprise occurs when, in the middle of the allegro exposition, Franck returns us to the very beginning of the story by reintroducing the entire introduction, this time not in D minor, but in F minor. A second Allegro non troppo takes over leading us successfully out of the darkness. The final appearance of the Lento at the very end of the first movement brings a bright apotheosis.

The second movement is a unique hybrid of an old ballad and a scherzo that is directly derived from the ballad material. The scherzo starts as a harmless tremolo in the strings and grows monumentally toward the end of the movement. The expressive solo of the English horn at the very beginning of the movement was only one of the specific reasons for the conservative audience of Paris rejecting the work — in those days an English horn solo would be expected in an opera but not in a symphony.

The third movement begins with a stormy tremolo in the strings that is quickly interrupted by five short and powerful chords leading us to a movement that is simply a triumph of thematic richness and formal fantasy. This is also the movement in which the global plan of the symphony is revealed to us in the form of the reappearing ballad, but now heroic and with full-pipe organ volume.

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