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 →
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy / lithograph by Friedrich Jentzen for Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 39 (1837), after a painting by Theodor Hildebrandt via Wikimedia Commons
Very often, when a symphony acquires a nickname, the composer has nothing to do with it. Think Mozart’s Jupiter or Tchaikovsky’s Little Russian, for example. On the other hand, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy composed Lobgesang (Song of Praise), and it became known as his Symphony no. 2 only after his death. He himself called it a symphony-cantata.
Lobgesang was among Mendelssohn’s most popular works during his lifetime. Although hardly neglected today, it remains one of his less-known major works. The duet “Ich harrete des Herrn” (I Waited for the Lord) for two sopranos and chorus, however, became a well-known standalone piece frequently performed by many church choirs.
After his death, his reputation plunged. Wagner’s screed “Judaism in Music,” with its assumption that Jews were incapable of true artistic understanding, led the attack. Mendelssohn was born Jewish, and it didn’t matter to antisemites that he was a devout Christian and proud German. Many critics, antisemitic and otherwise, saw Lobgesang only as a pale imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Understanding Lobgesang, then, requires understanding of Mendelssohn as a religious person and what models he had in mind as he conceived the work. 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 →
Interior of the Gewandhaus concert hall, 1845, location of the premiere of the Great C Major Symphony / Illustrirte Zeitung, 19. April 1845, p. 253
Franz Schubert started at least ten symphonies and completed seven of them. The last completed symphony is known as the Great C Major Symphony to distinguish it from the shorter Sixth Symphony, also in C Major. It has been variously numbered 7, 8, and 9.
None of his symphonies were known in his lifetime. Why? Did the Viennese musical establishment callously neglect the young composer?
Generations of critics leveled that charge. But it seems that Schubert’s own insecurities kept him from even trying to gain an audience for his symphonies until very close to his death. Continue reading →