Summertime, by George Gershwin

Is it even conceivable that any series of outdoor orchestra or concert band concerts (at least in the US) has never presented someone singing “Summertime”? If a series has lasted more than five or ten years, its audiences have probably heard it sung multiple times—not to mention instrumental arrangements on those or a wide variety of other concerts. It’s one of George Gershwin’s best-loved works, and certainly his most recorded. Some people regard Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. Too many professional critics dismiss him, looking askance at the fact that he devoted most of his energy to (shudder) popular music. … 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

From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons: She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education. Women as well as men comprised the student body. The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American … Continue reading

Warsaw Concerto, by Richard Addinsell

The Warsaw Concerto is a piece of film music. It is much more popular than its movie ever was. How many people know who composed it? Music has been associated with theater for centuries. So it’s no wonder that movies needed music even before it became possible to add sound to them. Film music Composers who wrote mostly concert music also began to compose film music–Aaron Copland, for example But every studio of any pretension has its own staff of composers and arrangers. With notable exceptions, these musicians labor in anonymity. If their names have ever become familiar to the … Continue reading

Les Préludes, by Franz Liszt

Les Préludes, d’après Lamartine is the third of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems. It was 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 of Les Préludes For Les Préludes, Liszt prepared a prose interpretation … Continue reading

Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies

Peter Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies have such a firm place in the repertoire that perhaps no one misses the first three. They appear on concerts much less frequently and certainly get less air time on the radio. Some music does not receive many performances because it is mediocre music, or perhaps because it is unreasonably difficult to perform. Neither is the case with Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies. Early in his career, Tchaikovsky struggled with the absolute disconnect between western European musical forms, especially sonata form, and traditional Russian culture. Russian culture created static forms, unlike the goal-oriented sonata form. Tchaikovsky himself … Continue reading

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, known as no. 8

In his youth, Schubert easily wrote six symphonies after the manner of Haydn and Mozart, the last of them in 1817. They are not considered among his major works. When he decided to write symphonies in the manner of Beethoven, though, he ran into trouble. During the remaining eleven years of his life, he began several symphonies, but only completed one of them. It was not performed in his lifetime. He sketched two movements of a symphony in D major (D. 615) in 1818, began another symphony in D major (D. 708a) some time after 1820, sketched a symphony in … Continue reading

The barbed wit behind the barber: Beaumarchais

Every opera buff knows and loves Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Perhaps even the most casual opera goers realize that they share many of the same characters. That’s because they were based on plays by the same person: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The one-time royal watchmaker had served time in prison over a failed business deal and developed intense hostility toward the French legal system by the time he wrote his satirical and somewhat autobiographical play The Barber of Seville (1775). In the character of Figaro, Beaumarchais portrayed himself–perhaps not quite how he had lived, but … Continue reading

Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez

The orchestra I play in is working on Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez. Since I have written quite a bit in this blog about building an audience for new “classical” music, I am very proud to present this fairly recent (1994) crowd pleaser by a Mexican conductor who is a little younger than I am. Who says composers have to be dead in order to write good music. (Well, my father has been known to say that, and I’m sure plenty of concert goers agree with him.) Márquez, son of a mariachi musician and grandson of a folk musician, … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Middle String Quartets. op. 59 no.1 in F major

The three quartets of Beethoven’s op. 59 are known as the Razumovsky string quartets, because they were commissioned by Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Austrian emperor. The first two of them quote Russian themes, and the third has a theme that seems to have a Russian flavor. These quartets are also the first three of the five string quartets from Beethoven’s middle period. Six of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (no. 3-8) dominate the works of the middle period. As radically different as they are from any earlier symphonies, his string quartets and piano sonatas are more radical still. They … Continue reading