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

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

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

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

When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music

During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way. Nineteenth-century New … Continue reading

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?

I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

The beginnings of American concert music

The earliest American orchestras appear to have formed for a single concert. A little later, the larger cities saw the formation of rehearsal orchestras, where members got together to play through the symphonies of Haydn and similar music. Some of them presented occasional public performances. Beginning in the 1820s, musicians in several cities attempted to establish permanent concert orchestras. Every one of them failed until the founding of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1842. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Fry, and George Bristow attempted to establish a reputation as American composers of symphonic music and opera. They hoped … 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

What’s in a number? (Schubert)

In an earlier post, I looked at the numbering of  Dvořák’s symphonies. He wrote nine, but chose to publish only five of them. A thematic catalog of 1955 included all nine and renumbered them. That numbering is now universally used, but it caused some confusion when it first appeared. Older publications and recordings with the old numbering system catch people off guard now. Franz Schubert’s symphonies present similar problems. What is the correct numbering of his last two symphonies? It is important to remember that none of his symphonies appeared in his lifetime. The first critical edition of his works … Continue reading