A bust of Johannes Brahms in the palace gardens in Detmold. Brahms lived and worked in this small town for a couple of years. / Bernd Sieker via Flickr
Johannes Brahms was 43 when his First Symphony came out. By that age, Beethoven had already composed eight of them. Most important symphonists produced their first symphony sometime in their 20s or earlier. Sibelius, Bruckner, and Vaughn Williams wrote theirs in their 30s.
Why did Brahms take so long to produce a symphony?
As he explained it, “You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you.” He referred to Beethoven, but all 19th-century composers had Beethoven marching behind them. It appears that Brahms’ friend Robert Schumann laid a special burden on him. Continue reading →
La festa dei moccoletti a Roma (Shrove Tuesday of the Roman Carnival, in Via del Corso) / Jean Louis Baptiste Thomas (1817)
Tchaikovsky married in 1877 and quickly regretted it. He spent three years trying to escape the consequences, either staying in the countryside or leaving Russia entirely. The quality of his compositions suffered even longer.
In November 1879, Tchaikovsky and his brother Modeste escaped Russia, traveling to Italy via Berlin and Paris. The recent death of his father and the 25th anniversary of the death of his mother further added to his turmoil.
Tchaikovsky had a special love for Italy. He wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, “This country is a gift of God!”
Among the advantages over Russia (or Paris, where he had spent some winters), Rome offered sunny blue skies and mild temperatures where he didn’t need a heavy coat.
It also offered beautiful scenery, fascinating Roman ruins, and music on every street. Continue reading →
Lithograph of Robert Schumann / Joseph Kriehuber, 1839
Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony has long been a staple in the orchestral repertoire. Its one-movement structure is practically unique among symphonies.
Music history textbooks label most of the nineteenth century as the Romantic era. In fact, Schumann was one of the few composers who identified so completely with literary Romanticism that he described himself as a Romantic composer.
Among other characteristics, Romantic music broke away from the formal restraint of the Classical period. Emotional expression replaced formal structure as the focal point of musical composition.
Following his year of songs (1840), Robert Schumann turned his attention to orchestral music in 1841. It took him all of four days in January to complete the first draft of his First Symphony. The Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, presented the premiere to great acclaim on March 31.
Schumann started on his second symphony, which turned out to be his fourth in order of publication, on May 30. The next day, his wife Clara noted in her diary that it would be a symphony in one movement. He completed it during the first week of June and finished the orchestration early in October. Continue reading →
Anonymous, undated portrait of Stravinsky (1920s or 1930s)
Igor Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments marks the beginning of his so-called neo-classical period. Not for the first or last time, it marks great discontinuity with what audiences expected of him.
Stravinsky’s earliest works show the influence of his teacher Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian nationalistic school. The impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned his breakout work, the ballet Firebird. Its premiere in Paris in 1910 made Stravinsky an international celebrity.
He followed that success with two more very Russian ballets, Petrushka (1911) and Rite of Spring (1913). When the First World War broke out, Stravinsky was stranded in Switzerland and needed money. So he intended his small-scale drama The Soldier’s Tale to provide some, but a flu epidemic prevented its performance after the premiere. In this piece, Stravinsky deemphasized Russianness.
After its premiere in Lausanne (1918), no one heard it until its Paris premiere in 1924. The Octet received its premiere in 1923. Another deliberately un-Russian piece, it confused at least some of its audience. Continue reading →
Tragedy and comedy masks, Scarbrough Hotel, Bishopgate, Leeds
Johannes Brahms composed only two concert overtures, Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture. And he composed both of in the summer of 1880. Describing them to a friend, he wrote, “One weeps, the other laughs.”
He composed the laughing piece in gratitude for receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau. He chose to compose the weeping piece at the same time, saying, “I simply could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for tragedy.” Continue reading →
Of all the symphonies in the orchestral repertoire, French composers contributed only a few. But important symphonies by Saint-Saëns, Lalo, and d’Indy all appeared in 1887. Perhaps that’s why César Franck decided to start composing his Symphony in D Minor the following year.
Today’s audiences love Franck’s symphony so much that it’s hard to understand how universally the French musical establishment hated it. And hated all of Franck’s music except his organ music. Only a handful of students believed in his music during his lifetime. The wider public began to appreciate it soon after his death.
We think of César Franck as a quintessentially French composer. Actually, he had to be naturalized as a French citizen. He was born in 1822 in the now Belgian city of Liège. The Kingdom of Belgium was established in 1830. It had been part of the Austrian empire until the French annexed it in 1795. But France never considered it part of France or regarded its inhabitants as French citizens. Continue reading →