Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana




Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer. His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt. One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava … Continue reading

Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé




Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music. Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible. The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite. The few available … Continue reading

1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?




The U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war. The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display? Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture. It had to jump through … Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu




George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments. He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips. His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire. Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet




William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round




Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading

A Birthday Tribute to Benjamin Britten: The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra




Ordinarily when I write program notes, I focus on a single piece. Since this year marks Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to widen the focus and look at The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra within the context of Britten’s life at the time he composed it. His opera Peter Grimes becomes a very important part of the story. Benjamin Britten started composing at the age of 5. When he was 11 he met Frank Bridge at the Norwich Music Festival and became his pupil. Beside excellent technical skill, he learned about musical developments in Europe. When he … Continue reading

Firebird, by Igor Stravinsky




In 1909, Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russe, had a ballet based on two Russian legends in mind. Neither his resident composer Nikolai Tcherepnin nor Anatoly Lyadov accepted his request to compose the music. Therefore he turned to the virtually unknown Igor Stravinsky. The resulting ballet, Firebird, turned out to be a turning point in the careers of both men and one of the most successful pieces of twentieth-century music. Diaghilev had encountered Stravinsky’s music before, having asked him to orchestrate some Chopin pieces for an earlier ballet. But Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had only recently … Continue reading

Rodeo, by Aaron Copland




Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all. When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island? … Continue reading