Les Préludes, by Franz Liszt




Les Préludes, d’après Lamartine is the third symphonic poem that Franz Liszt composed, the first to be performed, and the only one to find a permanent place in the orchestral repertoire. Liszt invented the symphonic poem, but audiences and orchestras alike found them difficult and forbidding. Symphonic poems have two basic characteristics. Musically, they contain all of the structural characteristics of a traditional four-movement symphony within a single movement. They also attempt to unite music and literature by means of a preface, or program, that Liszt provided. The program For Les Préludes, Liszt prepared a prose interpretation of a poem … Continue reading

Franz Liszt and the symphonic poem




Early in his career, no one would have guessed that Franz Liszt would ever become capable of writing symphonic poems like Les Préludes. He was a piano virtuoso, known for the flashy brilliance of his playing. Most piano virtuosos of his generation and earlier contented themselves with composing what Robert Schumann scorned as Philistine music. Schumann recognized that Liszt wrote musically more substantial pieces. Therefore it makes sense that out of all the famous virtuosos, Liszt would invent the symphonic poem. Franz Liszt, a different sort of piano virtuoso It appears that the most famous and notorious of these Philistine … Continue reading

Three generations of Sitkovetsky’s: a historic reunion




I recently attended a concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra (April 1), not knowing that it would be a historical event. Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky conducted only one number. Otherwise he played violin. The other soloists were his daughter, soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, and his mother, renowned piano virtuosi Bella Davidovich. That much I knew before I arrived. Guest conductor Stuart Malina announced that the concert marked Ms Sitkovetsky’s first performance with a professional orchestra and very likely Mme Davidovich’s last. Julia Sitkovetsky Ms Sitkovetsky is a second-year student at Queen’s College, Oxford. She has a very pleasant voice, which is … Continue reading

The Wagner tuba: the orchestra’s least known brass member




What is the most recently member of the orchestra? The tuba, invented in 1835 would seem to qualify, except that Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and some other very important works require an even newer instrument called the Wagner tuba. The invention of valves in 1815 led to the development of numerous new brass instruments. None of them produced the kind of sound Wagner envisioned as he started work on Das Rheingold. In 1854 he set out to find someone who could design something suitable. Playable specimens of the ancient Norse lur, when played by hornists of Wagner’s time had a … Continue reading

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring




By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird … Continue reading

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour




Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours. When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided they would play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some … Continue reading

Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?




According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive. Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along. Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video … Continue reading

Jeu de cartes by Igor Stravinsky




After beginning his career as a very Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky became an international composer in at least two very different ways. First, he decided never to return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917. Although he lived in France, he traveled a lot. By the time he moved to the United States in 1939, he had already made numerous contacts. Second, he opened himself to influences from all over the world. Despite the French title, Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes (Card Game) on commission from American choreographer George Balanchine and the newly formed American Ballet in 1936. By that … Continue reading

Second symphony, in D major, op. 73, by Johannes Brahms




Johannes Brahms composed his second symphony during the summer of 1877, only a year after finishing his first. Although close in time, the two symphonies differ greatly in character. The stormy and dramatic first symphony took Brahms an agonizing 15 years to complete. The warm and lyrical second symphony flowed easily from  his pen. As he wrote to Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” Brahms enjoyed teasing friends about the progress of his works with misleading comments, such as the following. The new symphony, too, is merely a Sinfonie, … Continue reading

The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives




One thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals. Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby. After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions. Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, … Continue reading