French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) almost defies characterization in terms of musical style. He was a member of the famed composer group known as “Les Six” and played a prominent role in 20th-century music.

He wrote many well-known works for the stage (Les Mamelles de Tiresias, Les Biches, Dialogues of the Carmelites), as well as numerous chamber works and concertos.

His Sinfonietta is one of his few large-scale orchestral works. It was commissioned in 1947 for the BBC, and premiered the following year. While Poulenc originally conceived of it as a short, 15-minute work (hence the title), it blossomed into a more substantial four-movement symphony, full of vigor, beauty and wit, with equal prominence given throughout to strings, woodwinds and brass.

The first movement begins with a serious and dramatic minor-key opening, with subsequent rising motifs passed around the orchestra. There is an unusual slow interlude in the middle of the movement in which solo winds are prominently featured, and a calming major-key ending.

The second movement is a lighthearted scherzo, with three witty themes introduced by the strings. The Andante cntabile features winds and strings in melodies written by Poulenc in late-Romantic, almost Brahmsian, style. The Finale is a romp, with an abrupt introduction, several incisive and witty themes, and a surprise ending.

“Prague” Symphony

In the 1780’s, Mozart’s fame was, amazingly, already fading in Vienna; but in Prague, then capital of Bohemia, Mozart was celebrated as a rock star would be today. He made a triumphant four-week trip in January of 1787, to be present at, and later conduct, performances of The Marriage of Figaro and also to perform on keyboard and conduct a symphonic concert, as well as generally just to be the toast of Prague.

So popular was Figaro that Mozart remarked in a letter that its melodies were all one heard played, even by the street musicians around Prague. Later that year, Mozart would undertake to write the opera Don Giovanni for production in the city, and his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, would also be written for Prague.

The Symphony No. 38 has magic in every measure. His ability to retain both an overwhelming expression of his personality, plus classical stylistic grace, within a technique which allowed him to survey and synthesize influences even from different style periods, is nearly incomprehensible. In the Prague symphony, one can hear so many facets of Mozart’s musical expression and genius: total command of the symphonic style, elements of lyric and comic opera and vocally-influenced writing, a complete mastery of counterpoint, and on and on even a foreshadowing of the chromatic evolution of harmony.

The slow introduction of the first movement recalls Haydn-esque majestic treatment, but has also a developmental quality reminiscent of Mozart’s keyboard fantasias. The string color of the allegro reminds one of the opening of the beautiful symphony no. 29, but is suddenly interrupted by a spirited outdoor wind band playing a little fanfare reminiscent of “non piu andrai” from Figaro. The beautiful second movement has been said by one writer to have inspired the slow movement of Schubert’s first symphony, performed by the Broadway Bach Ensemble last year.

Unlike the late Haydn symphonies, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is only in three movements, as was early practice for Mozart and apparently still fashionable in Prague. Mozart’s last five symphonies are often grouped together and lauded as achieving new depth and accomplishment in the symphonic form. The wind instrument playing in Vienna at the time was said to be particularly advanced, and one can hear this in demanding passages and in the complex scoring of the symphony.

Zaslaw claims that symphonies had taken on a more serious role, that they were “expected to exhibit artistic depth rather than serving merely as elaborate fanfares to open and close concerts.” What reaches us so powerfully in the music of Mozart is perhaps his direct and disarming humanity: like many of the great ones, he had to deal with making money and relatives and on and on.

Nonetheless, his great accomplishments and proclivities in symphonic writing didn’t save him from some blunt fatherly advice. Leopold warned Wolfgang about writing at too difficult a level for orchestras. The “Father Knows Best” of his time told the composer that bad performances might result. “…for I know your style of composition — it requires unusually close attention from the players of every type of instrument; and to keep the whole orchestra at such a pitch of industry and alertness for three hours is no joke.” Well, dads will be dads, and what concerned Leopold just happens to be our delight.

Toy Symphony

Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a well-known teacher and composer in his own right in mid-18th century Germany. Although he composed conventional orchestral and choral works, he also composed a number of programmatic pieces with peasant or rustic themes.

Of these, the best-known is the “Toy Symphony,” also known as the Kindersinfonie (Childrens’ Symphony) or “Sinfonia Berchtolsgadensis,” named after a village in the Bavarian Alps which was an important center for making cuckoo clocks and toy musical instruments in the 18th century.

This lighthearted 3-movement work features a small orchestra of strings, consisting of violins, ‘cellos and basses (but no violas). It also includes an assortment of “toy” wind and percussion instruments (the cuckoo, quail, nightingale, rattle, drum, trumpet and triangle), which are used with a good deal of melody, harmony and humor.

“London” Symphony

“London” Symphony

It is clear from the title that Joseph Haydn was a very prolific composer, and all of his symphonies are mature, brilliant and well-crafted works.

Haydn wrote this masterpiece in 1795 during his second triumphal visit to London. This symphony — his last — was one of twelve written for concerts given in London between 1791 and 1795. It is one of the great masterworks of the symphonic literature.

The first movement begins with a grand, dramatic introduction, played in unison, and intended to have the audience take notice. The graceful Allegro that follows is a complete contrast in mood. It starts very simply but soon builds tremendous momentum and excitement.

The second movement Andante is a series of contrasting variations, full of grace and wit. The singing Minuet and lilting Trio are typical of Haydn at his very best.

The final Spiritoso movement is based on a Croatian folk-dance, and builds to a rousing finale. The “London” symphony is a fitting climax to Haydn’s lifetime of symphonic achievement.

With works like this Haydn set the course of Austro-German symphonic tradition which would continue through Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms, Mahler and beyond.

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor

Revolutionary in its time, Beethoven’s 5th is seen by many as the quintessential symphony. Beethoven composed it in 1808 (at the same time as his “Pastoral” Symphony) and it was premiered in December of that year.

There have been apocryphal stories and descriptions read into this symphony – that it signifies “fate knocking on the door,” that parts of it may reflect his “immortal beloved,” etc. – but in the end, it is the nobility and innate humanity of Beethoven’s composition which have caused it to be universally embraced.

The first movement, dark and with a driving ferocity, is built upon the celebrated opening motif of three short notes and one long note. While there are intermittent lyrical respites heralded by the horns and bassoons, the movement is compact and concise, and otherwise built upon the 4-note opening.

The second movement, in the subdominant of A-flat, has a warm lyric theme introduced by the violas and ‘celli. This is followed by a martial theme by winds, brass and timpani, with ensuing variations on both themes. The third movement is again dark, but with a mysterious opening. A second theme introduced by the horns, with three short notes and one long note, recalls the first movement’s main theme. After a vigorous trio and reprise, the end of the third movement leads, via a hushed transition, to the glorious finale, in one of the defining passages of the symphonic canon.

The fourth movement opening must have come as quite a shock to Beethoven’s audience; it was the first time in which piccolo, trombones and contrabassoon had been featured together in an orchestral work, and they are part of the orchestral explosion which occurs after the crescendo at the end of the third movement. In contrast to much of the rest of the symphony, the last movement’s themes are optimistic and joyful. A momentary reprise of the third movement theme, and a recapitulation of the opening, lead to an accelerated coda and triumphant ending.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Franz Schubert grew up in the most important symphonic center of his time, Vienna. Schubert’s teachers, Salieri and Holzer, were primarily opera composers; but Schubert’s inner drive propelled him to an amazing and early symphonic output.

Schubert composed nine symphonies before he was thirty. Beethoven was already thirty before he wrote his first symphony. (Like Mozart when he wrote the A major violin concerto, Schubert was a teenager when he wrote the first symphony, a mere lad of 16.) Schubert, also like Mozart, was an accomplished violinist and played concertmaster in his school orchestra.

One can see the influence of the Viennese symphonic models his school orchestra rehearsed and performed — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven — especially in the rhythmic drive of the first movement. The second theme, particularly, carries an almost Eroica-like character.

The second movement is truly a bridge between the customary elegance of Mozart and the beginnings of a new consciousness in art of the time: a certain heavier, darker mood permeates this movement, whose depth is so startling for having been written by an adolescent. The third movement shows more of the experimentation in moving into remote key areas for which Schubert became known, particularly in his chamber music and songs.

The symphony comes to a close in a vibrant movement which also shows the young composer’s emerging formal innovation. Yet, the personality of the master makes an unmistakable impression at the beginning of the last movement: it reminds one much of many of Schubert’s joyous song ideas.

Symphony No. 1 in C Major

Ludwig van Beethoven was aware that he was following in the footsteps of giants as he began composing his first symphony. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, already dead eight years in 1799, had blazed across the musical firmament like a meteor, leaving lesser composers despondent and scrambling to incorporate his stylistic innovations. Franz Josef Haydn, still active in Vienna, was famous as the “Father of the String Quartet” and brought the symphony to a perfection recognized in all the capitals of Europe.

Beethoven’s first effort at symphonic writing built squarely upon the work of these two models: four movements in the order Fast-Slow-Minuet-Fast; a texture in which the melody dominates, but with digressions into the older, contrapuntal style; harmonies which were clearly delineated, changed slowly, but served always to propel the music forward; above all, a sense of balance and proportion in all the aspects of composition. What Beethoven could only have suspected, but that we now know, is the craft, inspiration, power, and vigor that he poured into the form handed down to him.

The work we hear today is in no sense a youthful experiment, but it is instead a fully-developed masterwork by a young genius, and has earned a place among the great monuments of musical art.

“Italian” Symphony

“Italian” Symphony

The Italian Symphony is one of Mendelssohn’s most popular orchestral works. He began composing it while on a visit to Italy in 1831 (when he was only 22 years old!), but did not finish it until two years later.

It opens on a joyous note, after which a soaring violin melody rises against the backdrop of repeated wind notes. A second theme is then introduced by the clarinets and bassoons; in the development, yet a third theme is introduced by the second violins which is picked up by the other strings in a fugue-like section and combined with the other themes.

The second movement has the feel of a solemn pilgrims’ processional, with a spare melody (first played by oboe, bassoon and violas) juxtaposed against a steady ‘cello-bass background. The refreshing third movement is reminiscent of a menuet and trio, with the latter featuring horns and bassoons.

The fiery fourth movement is based on the Italian “saltarello,” a lively folk-dance characterized by leaps and skips.

“Jupiter” Symphony

“Jupiter” Symphony

In an astonishing burst of energy, Mozart composed his last 3 symphonies (Nos. 39, 40 and 41) in 1788 in a space of just six weeks.

The last of these three, the “Jupiter,” is grand and majestic in style. Written in C Major, it is complex in structure and form, as well as in its exploration of keys and harmonies. An imposing 5-note initial theme opens the work, setting the stage for rich musical development, alternately elegant and impassioned.

The poignant Andante cantabile opens with a lyrical rising theme by the muted violins. It is taken up in turn by the other instruments and interspersed against running scale-like passages.

After a refined Menuetto and Trio, the magnificent last movement opens with a transparent four-note theme in the violins. From this seemingly simple beginning, other themes are introduced, all of which in turn Mozart weaves into a complex tapestry of musical counterpoint. The total effect is at once grand, elegant, extraordinarily complex, and musically fulfilling.

“Pastoral” Symphony

“Pastoral” Symphony

This is one of the best-known and most programmatic symphonies in classical music.

Composed in 1808, it reflects Beethoven’s deep feeling for nature, no doubt due in some measure to his numerous walks in the countryside around Vienna. Each of the five movements is subtitled and reflects a particular mood.

The first movement allegro (“awakening of joyful feelings on arriving in the country”) is announced by the violins, and in turn taken up by winds and the full orchestra. “Scene at the brook” features a rustling accompaniment of second violins, violas and solo ‘cellos set against melodic motifs in the first violins and winds. Rustic dances are featured in the “happy gathering of the country folk” which follows.

The dramatic “thunder, storm” movement, with sudden bursts by timpani and brass, suddenly interrupts the country revels. Then the storm departs, the sun breaks through, and the “shepherd’s song,” with “happy and thankful feelings after the storm,” takes us to the end of this musical journey.

The second movement, as performed in May, 2014.

      Symphony No. 6 Mvmt. 2 - Beethoven