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

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all. Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter. The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) … Continue reading

Trois gymnopédies by Erik Satie

Erik Satie, an eccentric composer of minor talent but great imagination, exercised enormous influence on twentieth-century musical thought. Above all a musical humorist, he issued his first published composition as op. 62. His longest work, Vexations, consists of just over a minute’s worth of music played 840 times without pause. The Gymnopédies, composed in 1888 for piano solo, exhibit a different kind of humor, based on Satie’s conscious and deliberate antagonism to verifiable facts. In ancient Greece, the gymnopedia, or festival of naked youth, was celebrated every year in Sparta to honor Apollo, Pythaeus, Artemis, and Ledo. The days-long festival … Continue reading

Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel

Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos. Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque … Continue reading

Le bourgeois gentilhomme, by Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss and Hugo van Hoffmannstthal had already achieved operatic success with Elektra and Der Rosenkavilier when Hoffmannsthal suggested Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme for their next collaboration. In that play, Jourdain, a social-climbing cloth merchant, wishes to be thought an aristocrat. A boorish fool concerned only with appearances, he hires teachers of music, dance, fencing, and philosophy so he can learn aristocratic ways. Hofmannsthal proposed to shape Molière’s hopelessly tangled plot into an opera within a play. In his version, Jourdain decided to patronize a struggling young composer and commissioned an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, and a burlesque, The … Continue reading

Rossini overtures

During the latter part of the nineteenth century until the latter part of the twentieth, most of Rossini’s operas (the chief exception being The Barber of Seville) disappeared from the repertoire. Many of their overtures, at the same time, became mainstays of the orchestral repertoire. It is therefore ironic that Rossini hated writing them and put them off as long as possible. In an undated letter he advised a young colleague: Wait till the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration like necessity, whether it takes the form of  a copyist waiting for your work or the coercion of … Continue reading