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

L’histoire du soldat, or, The soldier’s tale by Igor Stravinsky




Igor Stravinsky didn’t set out to write a masterpiece when he composed L’histoire du soldat (or The Soldier’s Tale). The popular cliché of the starving artist came too close to home for him when World War One broke out. He needed cash. For that purpose, the piece utterly failed. … 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

Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky




Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a brilliant, but undisciplined composer who left many unfinished works at his death. His colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov finished many of them and had them published. Oddly enough, Mussorgsky finished Night on Bald Mountain three times. Rimsky-Korsakov finished it again, and it’s his version we most often hear. Mussorgsky’s original version was never performed until 1968. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain Mussorgsky may have considered writing an opera based on Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” as early as 1860. A friend of Mussorgsky’s wrote a play called “The Witch,” which included a witch’s sabbath scene on a bare … Continue reading

Symphony no. 7 by Sergey Prokofiev




I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now. Prokofiev as symphonist When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.  … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten




Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading

Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler




Gustav Mahler wrote very long symphonies. Only the First and the Fourth can be played in less than an hour. The symphonies also call for far larger orchestras than those of other composers. Some even require vocal soloists and/or chorus. By Mahler’s time, the symphony had already come a long way from the first symphonic masterpieces. Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that established the expectation of a four-movement work Sonata form, fast with or without a slow introduction Slow movement Minuet Fast movement They made sure that the structure of each movement could be clearly heard. Their sonata forms had … 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