Beethoven in 1804, / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler
Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies have the reputation of being stormy and dramatic, while the even numbered symphonies seem more gentle and easy-going. For that reason, perhaps, the even numbered ones are less popular. Symphony no. 6, Pastoral, is easily the best known and most performed of the even numbered symphonies.
Beethoven worked on his Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies, among other major works, between 1806 and 1808. The latter two are the first of Beethoven’s symphonies with trombone parts.
Many symphonies and chamber works are known by nicknames that, more often than not, the composer never thought of. Beethoven himself supplied names for the Third Symphony (Eroica) and the Sixth (Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life).
Ordinarily, we know symphonies as symphony number whatever in whatever key. If we know them by a nickname, such as “Bear” or “Jupiter,” the composer seldom supplied it. Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique broke all kinds of molds. For one thing, it is the first of four of his symphonies, but not a one bears a number, and only two have the word “symphony” in the title at all. How did he become such a bull in a china shop? Continue reading →
Plenty of people have composed music as a hobby, but none more successfully than Alexander Borodin, a chemist by profession. As a hobbyist, he did not produce a lot of music, but his works include symphonies, chamber music, and an opera—some of the loveliest music in the repertoire. The opera, Prince Igor, includes the ever-popular “Polovtsian Dances,” which formed the tune of the Broadway hit “Stranger in Paradise.” Its success is remarkable, because he never finished the opera. Continue reading →
The United States Marine Band is the oldest professional musical organization in the country. John Philip Sousa, its most famous leader, elevated it from a town band in Washington D.C. to a national touring band.
In exploring Sousa’s accomplishments, it is necessary to describe the history of the Marine Band. As it turns out, the band would not have needed a leader of Sousa’s qualifications without the previous efforts of another remarkable musician, Francis Scala. Continue reading →
But how many of those belated hits have been based on music of a British composer working in a completely different genre with words by someone who had never met him? Only “Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates comes to mind. Coates composed it in 1930. It only became a hit twelve years later, and first on the other side of the pond. Continue reading →
Day and Night (1938) by M.C. Escher / Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber ranks among the most popular orchestral pieces by Paul Hindemith. The dry, academic, and perhaps even pretentious title belongs to an entertaining piece with unfailing good cheer.
As popular as it is, critics and scholars appear not to consider it a great work. For example, the biography of Hindemith in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians does not mention the piece. Nor does it appear in Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise.
Hindemith himself seems to be regarded among a multitude of composers who wrote some wonderful music but did not achieve greatness. Continue reading →