Category: Orchestral/Choral/Chamber






In the same way that many musicians automatically and immediately think of Bach and Handel when they think “Baroque”—those two composers towering over the multitude of other composers who lived during the late baroque era—we often think of just three names when thinking of the “Classical” era—Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Of these three, Haydn would be the grand old master. He was Beethoven’s teacher during Beethoven’s critical twenties. And he was an older and helpful colleague to Mozart, for whom he had the greatest admiration. His largess of spirit was demonstrated when he told Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang’s father), “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute. He has taste and what is more, the greatest skill in composition.”

Haydn had stumbled into what many consider an idyllic life for a composer, becoming court composer at Esterhazy when he was 28 years old. The Esterhazy family was one of the richest in all of the Hapsburg empire. They had multiple palaces throughout Hungary, and lived, essentially, as royalty. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, for whom Haydn was employed, was a music lover. Music played an unusually prominent place in his life and his affections. At the Eisenstadt palace—where Haydn was to be employed for the rest of his life–the prince had a glasshouse converted into a theatre in the palace park—just one performance venue that Haydn could choose from.

During Haydn’s years in the prince’s employ, his reputation as a first-rate composer, conductor, and teacher became well-known all over Europe. The prince had no problem with allowing Haydn to write works that were to be played elsewhere (most prominently, in London) and to go there to conduct them.

Haydn’s duties were to 1) continually compose works for performance in the palace theatre(s), 2) hire and fire all court musicians, 3) take care of all instruments—there was an in-house orchestra for which Haydn could compose, 4) archive all the music scores, and of course, 5) to perform and conduct. In his contracts, it was also stipulated that Haydn should know his place—that even though he was the third highest paid individual in the entire palace—indicating the value that the prince placed on him—he was still in fact a servant, and needed to dress and behave accordingly!

At Esterhazy, among the voluminous compositions that Haydn was to write were 52 piano sonatas and about a dozen piano concertos. The harpsichord was still the keyboard instrument of choice when Haydn began his work at Esterhazy, but by the time he composed his final piano concerto (this one, in D Major), the performer was given the choice of harpsichord or fortepiano. The concerto has become the most popular of all his keyboard concertos. It is a delightful work.

I have two memories associated with this concerto. It was the first piano concerto I ever learned. I would have been ten years old. I am certain my playing was not as refined as Sin A Ma’s in the exquisite performance I am linking to. But I always considered myself lucky to have had THIS piece be my entry into the world of piano concertos!

And secondly, I have mentioned my hobby—at one point, an obsession—of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts. About thirty years ago, I was tuning around the dial one night and came upon a particular frequency that I knew was used by Radio Austria. They were playing the most beautiful, heavenly piano concerto—articulately played, energetic, communicative, fun!—WHO and WHAT was this? For whatever reason, in that moment, I was hearing the Haydn D Major for the first time—however it came about, I had no idea what I was listening to. It would be, I suppose, meeting someone on the street that you hadn’t seen for a long time—but who you also hadn’t thought of for a long time—and only after engaging in conversation for a minute did you realize who you were talking with. It was a full thirty seconds before I realized what I was hearing—but those thirty seconds were so delightful that I’ve not forgotten them to this day.

Well, a long and self-indulgent story, sorry.

There are a number of fine Haydn D Majors on YouTube. I’m posting this one, though, not only because it features a young player, but because I think she captures the essence of Haydn better than the other versions I have heard. This was the first prize performance for Sin A Ma, a young Korean pianist, in the fourth international Franz Liszt competition for Young Pianists. She is really superb. She makes it easy for me to visualize Haydn himself playing this with his Esterhazy musicians. I have to say, I am also very impressed with this orchestra, comprised of young players from a Weimar performing arts high school!

Images are Haydn and the music hall at Esterhazy.

Movement timings:
1st movt – 0:00
2nd movt—8:42
3rd movt—15:50







Niccolo Paganini was the great violin virtuoso of the 19th century. He is only inadvertently the subject of this post, but what a colorful person he was! Born in 1782 in Genoa, his musical ability was quickly discovered and encouraged. Although he was equally fluent with both violin and guitar, it was for his violin playing that he became famous. His influence on all violinists was profound. He expanded violin technique well beyond what it had previously been.

In 1813, when he was in his early thirties, he began touring all over Europe, astonishing audiences everywhere. His compositions were all written as vehicles intended to impress listeners with his violinistic pyrotechnics. He was not known to be a good teacher—in fact, pretty much the opposite—but violinists and other composers learned very much about the possibilities of their instrument from his works.

One such work was his 24 Caprices, each one of which was designed to show the unlimited technical possibilities of the violin. The reason that classical pianists—who perhaps have never—and will never—hear a note of Paganini’s violin music—the reason pianists know about him is that he had a profound influence on Franz Liszt. As a young man, Liszt heard Paganini when he played in Paris, and this happening turned out to me very consequential for the history of piano music.

Liszt was taken by two things—#1, the extraordinary technical demands that Paganini placed on himself—and #2, he was impressed by the audience’s reaction to Paganini, the continual ovations and the outpouring of adulation. Liszt seized on this inspiration, and the rest was history: Liszt became the Paganini of the piano, expanding the way pianists and composers have thought about the instrument ever since. One cannot think of Liszt without simultaneously thinking of the technical difficulties involved in playing his music. And of course, to this day, playing Liszt impressively in public is almost a guarantee of a standing ovation.

The very last one (#24) of the Paganini Caprices, in A Minor, is, after all these years, still considered by many to be the most difficult work ever written for violin. It incorporates a simple and catchy melody that has caught the attention of many composers, only the first one of which was Franz Liszt. These composers have used this particular melody as the basis for some profoundly difficult-to-execute works. Liszt in his 6th (and final) “Paganini” etude; Schumann’s arrangement of all the Caprices, including #24; Brahms in his mind-blowingly (!) difficult set—actually two lengthy sets—of Variations based on the melody; and closer to our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Variations, and Lutoslawski’s Variations for Two Pianos. Over fifty prominent composers, generation after generation since Paganini’s time, have composed works based on this melody. It has almost become a litmus test for a composer’s creativity, particularly as it relates to writing technically difficult works.

Perhaps the most beloved of all these Paganini-inspired works is Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini. Written in 1934, the Rhapsody is in fact the fifth and last piano concerto that Rachmaninoff would write. In 24 variations for piano and orchestra—a very tightly configured interrelationship—Rachmaninoff wrote one of the most beloved works of the 20th century. These 24 variations, played without interruption, nevertheless correspond well to what would be a traditional 3-movement concerto structure, with variations 1-10 being the “first movement”, numbers 11-18 being the second, and numbers 19 to the end being the third.

It is very possible that, at some point in your life, your heard the famous 18th variation—far and away, the lushest and most “romantic” variation of the bunch—in which Rachmaninoff simply turns the them upside down, transposes it into a distant major key, and fires away—you may have heard it in long-ago commercials for sets of “Classical Favorites”: “These great classical pieces will give you HOURS of pure listening pleasure, folks—ALL of the greatest classical music on just THREE long-playing records—EVERYTHING from Bach’s Air on a G String to Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata to Brahms lovely Lullaby to Rachmaninoff’s piercing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—don’t delay, folks, this is a limited-time offer!”

Well, you might not remember those commercials, but I certainly do.

The concerto is certainly right up there with Rachmaninoff’s earlier Third Concerto in terms of technical difficulty. The different character and mood with which Rachmaninoff imbues each and every variation—making each one a separate and endearing piece—is quite impressive. The “Rach-Pag”, as pianist refer to it, has always been high up on the list of must-learn concertos for every player.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear the work many times in person, but for me—for Tiraje and me—the cream of the crop performance was by pianist Misha Dichter with the Cincinnati Symphony. Tiraje and I choose to sit within ten feet of the piano soloist in concerto performances (if possible) and Dichter’s performance was as inspiring as any I’ve ever heard, unforgettable actually. I can remember it now as if it just happened.

However, I think that opinion might have changed—in 2013, the year of the attached link—had I been ten feet away from pianist Steven Hough in this performance with the BBC Symphony. Don’t deprive yourself of hearing the whole work by heading for the 18th variation in order to hear it all by itself (it’s at 20:20)—but if you do, please make sure you come back to listen to the whole work. In my opinion, it is the fastest 25-minute concerto every written, so quickly does the time fly by! (Also, Hough’s comments in the interview which precede the performance are informative and very well worth listening to. As you’ll hear, he speaks about music with a naturalness that equals his playing.)

This is SUCH a great concerto, every listening experience to it is as good as one’s first! And this is a truly superb performance.

Images are Paganini, Rachmaninoff, Steven Hough.








Thus far, I’ve posted the first seven of the Beethoven piano sonatas—7 of 32, each one of which I can call a “favorite”. Beethoven wrote 5 piano concertos, in which the pianist performs as soloist with an orchestra. Of these, I can only say that 3 of them are favorites of mine—numbers 1, 3, and 4—music that has slipped into my subconscious mind forever, and those are the ones I plan on posting. Today, I’d like to start with the Third Concerto in C minor.

We have seen, in previous posts, Beethoven’s attraction to the key of C Minor and how the pieces that he chose to write in that key are universally dramatic, each one making emphatic, definitive “statements”. These pieces include three piano sonatas, his fifth symphony, the “choral” fantasy, and the 32 variations for piano. C Minor obviously must have had special psychological meaning, and special utility, for Beethoven.  The Third Concerto belongs to this particular group.

There is actually still some speculation about the exact year Beethoven composed the Third Concerto. For quite a long time, the year 1800 was the date given for its composition, but that date is now in question. We know that the piece was not premiered until 1803, with Beethoven himself as soloist—this, of course, simply being the way it was in those days: composers played their own works. The day of the concert pianist, who made a living playing the works of others, was still decades away. Because the work was premiered in 1803 and not published until the following year, there are some who feel that the year 1800 is simply too early, that Beethoven would not have waited three whole years until having the work performed.

But this little musicological quandary aside, the Third Concerto is as compelling a piece to listen to as anything Beethoven would write. It has always been my favorite Beethoven concerto. On a personal note, the Beethoven Third was the first concerto I ever played with an orchestra. And although the experience of playing any concerto with an orchestra is thrilling, I will always have special feelings associated with this exciting and dramatic work.

Mozart had developed the piano concerto into the major formal structure that it ultimately became. Beethoven picked up the baton, so to speak, and pushed the form well beyond anything Mozart had imagined. This is not a critique of Mozart, of course, it is just something that was inevitably going to happen. Regarding the Beethoven Third, there are a couple of things to note:

• Tuttis. The opening part of a concerto—and anywhere in a concerto where the orchestra is playing by itself—is called a “tutti”. Beethoven extended the length of the opening “tutti” of the third concerto to four minutes, underscoring the fact that his concertos were NOT simply vehicles for a pianist to shine as soloist, but were highly integrated orchestral/piano works. Brahms, in his First Concerto, would extend the opening “tutti” even further to four and a half minutes (or five if the orchestra is lacking vitality)—which feels like an eternity to the pianist who is just sitting there, waiting to enter. Brahms himself referred to his concertos as “symphonies for orchestra and piano,” so tightly integrated had the form become.

• There is a somewhat humorous story attached to the first performance of the Third Concerto. Composers in Beethoven’s time performed with the music in public. The day when doing this was seen in a negative light—when playing everything by memory while playing in public became de rigueur—would not occur until Franz Liszt’s time, some thirty years in the future. Turning the pages for Beethoven during the very first performance was Beethoven’s friend Ignaz von Seyfried, who later wrote: “I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper.”

Annie Fischer (1914-1995) was a Hungarian pianist, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. She had won the International Liszt competition when she was just 19 years old. A Jew, she fled Hungary for the safety of Sweden during the war years, returning to Hungary in 1946. Her playing was greatly admired in Europe, and she performed with all the great conductors. She was reluctant to make recordings, feeling that any recording made without the presence of an audience would be artificially constricting. Nevertheless, her recordings of the entire set of Beethoven sonatas, made over a period of 15 years, are one of the treasures of classical piano recordings.

This video of her performance of the Beethoven Third has deservedly been praised ever since its first appearance, which I believe is from some time in the 1950’s. There is a depth of feeling and simplicity of interpretation in her playing that I find really appealing.

Images are Beethoven and Annie Fischer.







Four horns! Plus a lot more….

Aside from playing Mozart Piano Concertos and Sonatas while growing up, my acquaintance with Mozart—in his totality—came about in two spurts later in my life—and is now ongoing. While studying for doctoral oral exams a long time ago, I listened to some of Mozart’s “greatest hits” works—symphonies, chamber works, concertos for instruments other than piano, and so on—things that I might get asked about during the exams. Then, sometime around 15 years ago—and especially while I was making the 100-mile round trip between Dayton and Cincinnati while teaching at CCM—I made it a goal to listen to everything he had written (626 works!). It was great driving therapy.

It would be nice, I suppose, and convenient—if I could just quickly rattle off my favorite Mozart—maybe ten or twenty works—or even, being very liberal, fifty or so. But the truth is, it is far easier to list works of Mozart that I don’t care for.

There are not many.

One of my favorites, then—among hundreds of favorites—is the Divertimento in D Major. A divertimento was a work specially composed for a particular social event—not exactly background music, but also not serious, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-listen-to-this music. It was music composed for a small ensemble—not orchestra size, but bigger than, say, a string quartet. It was meant to be entertainment, not heavy-duty.

“Divertimento” was the most commonly used term for these multi-movement works, they were also known as serenades, cassations, and notturnos. Sometimes divertimenti were played outdoors.

This particular divertimento is in six movements, and was composed when Mozart was 16 years old. It is a work in “concertante” form. This means that Mozart contrasted one group of instruments (violins, violas, and bass–the strings) with another group (flute, oboe, bassoon, and four horns–the winds).

Yes, four horns. The work may have been written for a wedding, or it may have been written for some important social event in Salzburg. The presence of four horns is extraordinarily unusual, and by itself suggests that we don’t know enough about the work’s circumstances. Just HAVING four good horn players available for a performance in Salzburg—let alone for a performance at a social event—would have been unusual.

This recording by Neville Marriner and the AOSMITF is, like all Marriner recordings, urbane and polished. I love the entire work, each movement. But, I would specifically recommend the first, second, and sixth movements, which occur, respectively, at 0:00, 5:14 and 24:19. This is happy, carefree music that absolutely should not be dismissed either because it is not “serious” or because it was written by someone so young.

It may interest you to know that Mozart was not fond of the sound of the flute. Yet the flute plays a prominent, and oh-so-happy role here—as it does in countless other Mozart works.

The first and sixth movements feature those four horns. The second movement is a string serenade of exquisite calmness.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes there are individual moments in pieces that appear so beautiful as to take one’s breath away every time you hear them, regardless of how many times that is. In the sixth movement here, that moment occurs for me is the eight seconds (!) between 28:26 and 28:34—the aural equivalent of a sugar overdose, or the visual experience of seeing a field of sunflowers. These measures may do nothing for you—but they are one reason I keep returning to K. 131.

Happy listening (and that’s what it will be).








Although there may be other contenders—for the classical music tune that the most school children are familiar with even though they don’t know where it comes from—I am guessing that the “Ode to Joy” melody would win such a contest. It is the central theme around which everything else revolves in the fourth and final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Its simplicity—it moves up and down by scale degrees, making it easy to sing and easy to remember—has endeared it to many millions of music lovers, both serious and casual, for nearly two hundred years.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of writing anything about the Ninth Symphony. It is one of those cases where the more you know about it and the more you know about Beethoven, the less competent you feel in taking on the subject matter—there is just so much there. Beethoven finished composing the symphony in 1824, just three years—as it turned out—before he died, at the age of 57. It is such a towering masterpiece that its mere existence has intimidated all composers ever since.

I have always liked a good analogy. So–if one were to make an analogy, Beethoven’s Ninth would be the planet Jupiter. The works by the next two great symphonists (chronologically) after him—Brahms and Mahler—would be Saturn and Uranus. Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Schumann would be Neptune-sized; Dvorak and Sibelius Earth-sized; Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff Venus-sized; everyone else, Mercury. Or put another way, if it were a tree, Beethoven’s Ninth would be a giant redwood, and all the rest would be your regular forest pines and neighborhood oak trees. You get the idea. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was of such scope, and such depth—Beethoven’s compositional output, period, was of such breadth—that everyone coming after him did whatever they could to avoid the inevitable comparison.

Brahms postponed and postponed his own first symphony for fear of it being compared with Beethoven’s last symphony. Mahler, the great Austrian composer whose life overlapped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—had deep and unshakable superstitions regarding the composition of his own ninth symphony which were related to his feelings about Beethoven’s Ninth. Upon finishing his Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand (because of the large number of performers required for it)—he absolutely felt he would die at the conclusion of his next symphony—number 9. He felt that no self-respecting composer should attempt that magical number, it belonged to Beethoven. To do so would be, he felt, sacrilege, and would surely bring bad luck—it would bring death. He actually disguised his ninth symphony by naming it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Having felt he had thus cheated death, he went about composing his great own great ninth symphony. Halfway through the composition of #10, however, he did indeed die.

All of this is just to point out the stature of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and to give an idea of the esteem it was held in by composers who had to follow in his footsteps.

The symphony is written in four movements, and requires about 75 minutes to perform. With the composition of his Third Symphony, which requires about 50 minutes, Beethoven had already broken the bonds of symphonic length and form. In the Ninth, he adds a chorus to the final movement, the first major composer to do so in a symphony, thus creating what was, in its time, the longest symphony ever written.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the “Ode to Joy” melody—it probably appeared in one of my earliest piano books when I was seven years old. It is a melody that I could hear forever and not tire of. I first heard the melody in its appropriate context—as part of a symphonic recording—in the Toscanini/NBC Symphony Beethoven set while I was in high school. Like all of my Toscanini LP’s, I played it until it was unplayable.

Here, I’d just like to cover some salient points about the Ode to Joy movement.

• At the time of the Ninth Symphony’s premiere performance, Beethoven had not appeared in public—because of his hearing situation—for twelve years. As with all of his major works, the premiere took place in Vienna. But Beethoven had to be persuaded to allow the premiere to occur there. By this time—the 1820’s—quite a bit of the music heard, in this most musical of all cities, was Italian—Rossini operas, in particular. Beethoven had preferred, and planned on, the work being premiered in Berlin to an audience that he felt would have a deeper understanding of Schiller’s text. In the end, he was petitioned—by popular acclaim of the notables of the city as well as the general populace—to go ahead with the premiere in Vienna, and that is what occurred.

• The premiere at the Theater am Kärntnertor involved the largest number of performers ever assembled for a symphonic performance. I think it is important to imagine this first performance: Michael Umlauf, the Theater director, knew how disastrous it would be for the deaf Beethoven to attempt to conduct at all—which is what both he and the public wanted—let alone such a colossal work. So, a kind of dual-conducting arrangement was fashioned in which the orchestra was advised (by Umlauf) to ignore Beethoven’s conducting and follow Louis Duport—the actual conductor of the Philharmonic—with Duport occupying the conductor’s podium and Beethoven standing in front of it. Beethoven, of course, was hearing his composition in his mind, and would set the tempos before each movement by beating a silent measure for the players and singers to see.

But, he could not help himself from becoming physically involved in the performance. A description has come down to us: “Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.”

It was widely reported—enough times and from enough sources to appear credible—that, since he could not hear, Beethoven continued to conduct after the final notes were played. At that point, one of the female vocal soloists turned him around to acknowledge a staggering ovation from a packed house. The audience did not hold their applause to the symphony’s conclusion, though. They were stunned by every part of the symphony, and acknowledged Beethoven with standing ovations after every movement.

• Beethoven had hand-picked the four vocal soloists. It is interesting that the two female singers were very young women—ages 18 and 20—who would have only been known to Beethoven by the operatic reputations, not from his hearing them first-hand—Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.

• You may know the words to the melody as being “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” These English words were added to the melody in 1907 by an American, Henry van Dyke. This is the version found in countless hymnals around the English-speaking world.

• There have been far too many performances of the Ninth Symphony to celebrate this event or that circumstance to list here. Perhaps one performance in our recent collective memory is that of Leonard Bernstein conducting a multi-national orchestra, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

• One interesting music trivia fact is that the length of compact discs—CD’s—was originally formulated to be 74 minutes long based on the length of time it takes to perform the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The recording engineers at Philips and Sony felt that if a single CD could contain the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, that would suit everyone in the listening world. As a guide, they utilized the legendary 1951 recording of the Ninth by Wilhelm Furtwangler, which takes 74 minutes.


• The Ode to Joy poem was written by the poet Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Beethoven added some of his own text additions to the poem. Clearly, to the deaf, lonely, and big-hearted Beethoven, the words of this poem, which would form the nucleus of the final movement of his final symphony, were important. The poem is addresses the unity of all mankind:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.

Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.

• A formal analysis of the fourth movement has proven to be a subject of disagreement among music theorists and writers—and probably not of extreme interest to readers of these posts. I just want to give my own quick synopsis of the “Ode” movement as a possible listening aid.

0:00 setting the groundwork, reworking ideas from previous movements
3:16 first appearance of the Ode to Joy theme, low strings, unison melody only
4:00 first decorations of the OTJ theme, strings and bassoon
4:45 string orchestra – extremely lovely interweaving around the OTJ theme
5:26 full orchestra OTJ
7:55 melody sung by bass OTJ melody
8:40 soloists sing OTJ melody in ensemble, joined in by chorus
10:24 Turkish March – a different key, a laid-back version of the OTJ theme started by winds, then joined by tenor
12:00 orchestral fantasy involving music from previous movements
13:49 wonderful full chorus/orchestra treatment of OTJ
14:40 slower-paced choral/orchestra re-treatment of theme from first movement

From 19:00 to the end – Beethoven throws everything into the soup, snippets of the Ode to Joy theme continually interspersed in what can only be described as controlled frenzy.

Such brief remarks as these do not do justice to this remarkable movement, let alone the entire symphony. If you already know the Ode To Joy melody, this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic—some 187 years after they premiered it—should be a treat. If by chance you’re hearing it for the first time, it may be a revelation.







Can a symphony capture the essence of a nation?

When the title of one’s blog is “Music I Love,” then obviously, superlatives about whatever I’m posting will abound. So, here is yet another work about which I cannot find adequate words to describe how much I love this music.

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies. There is nothing wrong with any of the others—the fifth and the seventh are very often performed, and all of them have much to offer the attentive listener. The Second Symphony is the greatest of them all, however. And furthermore, it is simply one of the great symphonic works of the twentieth century.

My students all know that I am not one who easily equates music to “things”—whether they are people, places, or ideas. Nevertheless…there is something about this symphony that evokes the great forests and craggy sea inlets of Finland. Surprisingly to me, these are feelings that came to me immediately and unprompted upon hearing the symphony, some 46 years ago. There is a “northern-ness,” a certain intrinsic Nordic quality, to this music that is unmistakable.

I should also mention that this performance of George Szell conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of the Netherlands) has been, since 1964, at the very top of many reviewers lists as the very best recording of this work. I’ve heard many recordings of the work. This one is phenomenal. Szell’s ability to control the dynamics of the RCO—a legendary orchestra—is superb.

Jean Sibelius is Finland’s pride. He composed the Second Symphony 1901-02, shortly after the premiere of his popular Finlandia—another wonderful and obviously nationalistic work, but not quite the Everest represented by this symphony. Sibelius called his Second Symphony a “confession of the soul.” He conducted the inaugural performance of the work in 1903 with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Three sold-out performances—the first one scheduled and the additional ones by public demand—indicate the enthusiasm—and the pride—felt by native Finns for this music.

It should be mentioned that aside from the nationally-indigenous imaginings that the piece conjures up, the work—especially its final movement—became a focal point for the Finnish public in their desire for independence from Russia (Finland was part of Russia at this time). Serious music critics of the time were saying they heard the voice of an independent Finland expressed in this music, likening Sibelius to a shaman at work. The unmistakable Nordic sound of the Second Symphony caused it to be championed—by many who heard it—as the “Symphony of Independence.”

It is somewhat ironic—viewed in retrospect—that Sibelius was born into a Swedish family in Finland, and did not enter the Finnish educational system until he was eleven, learning the Finnish language during his teens. Nevertheless, he became a resolute Finn in spirit, and prided himself as a composer for writing music representative of the Finnish people. He was a Finn through and through.

The symphony is written in four movements, requiring 40-some minutes of listening time. As I have suggested before, if you think you might have an interest in hearing this great work—and do not have 40 minutes to spare—then I would listen to one movement at a time. If even this is not possible, then I would plead with you to just listen to the first movement. I do not see how you could regret this. (Plus, I think listening to it will “hook” you for the whole work.)

Sibelius was a master at writing for all sections of the orchestra, but perhaps this is most true of his writing for the winds. And among the winds, perhaps this is most true of his writing for bassoon. The darkness with which he writes for the winds here brings to mind—for me—those winter months in the high latitudes when the sun sets in mid-afternoon and there are less than six hours of daylight each day. The equality of the strings and winds in the first movement achieve a feeling of remarkable Spartan northern-ness.

Sibelius likened the second movement of the symphony to a feeling of broken-hearted protest against injustice, as though “the sun had lost its light and flowers had lost their scent”—a feeling of desolation. The quiet, plucked string bass at the outset, contrasting with the bassoon/oboe plaintive lament – is something one does not forget. Ecstasy via music is certainly something I experience each time within this movement.

The third movement starts off with an angry machine-gun figure for the strings. The winds are given plenty of action again here. One feels this movement is all about preparation for the fourth movement, to which it is conjoined. Some commentators feel a similarity between this last movement and the final glorious movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (Beethoven also conjoins his third and fourth movements in that symphony.) Its colossal and regal themes are indeed glorious, and are one reason native Finns saw this movement as an unsubtle call for Finnish independence.

Certainly a topic for future contemplation in these posts is composers who “quit while they were ahead.” We have often made mention of composers who died prematurely. But there have also been some cases of first-rate composers who simply made a decision to stop composing. Sibelius was one of these. Sensing, at the age of 60, that the kind of music he was writing was out of step with the “new” music of Schonberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok, he decided to simply rest of his laurels.

Sibelius died at the age of 91. His reputation as one of the great symphonists of the twentieth century was undiminished at the time of his death—and remains so.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony….

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 9:26
3rd movement 22:07
4th movement 27:51

Photos are the young Sibelius; TIME’s recognition of Sibelius in 1937; the opening measures of the symphony; Szell’s legendary recording.

[Even though I am in Istanbul at the moment, my (self-imposed) schedule of daily activities—museums, much time spent with friends, and our usual trek to Bodrum in southern Turkey—will necessitate my posting in the early mornings—as I always have. I hope this does not interfere with anyone seeing the next couple weeks of posts.]








Written 1723

The English translation of EIN UNGEFARBT GEMUTE is variously given as “An Open Mind” or “An Unstained Mind” or “An Unblemished Conscience”—the latter probably being closest to the true intent of the text.

Like so many of the cantatas that we’ve looked at thus far, this is yet another cantata—those weekly masterpieces that only Bach was capable of churning out—composed in his Leipzig years. 1723 was to be a banner year for his cantata-writing, as he felt obliged to impress his new employer—the St. Thomas Church—and to establish himself as someone to be reckoned with, compositionally. Christoph Wolff, the renowned Bach authority, in one of his many books, describes Bach’s project of composing a new cantata every week “an artistic undertaking on the largest scale” imaginable.

I think it is worth taking a step back and just observing the extent to which music was an overwhelmingly important part of the Lutheran Church in the century after Martin Luther’s life! Music occupied a very central and tightly integrated role in the Lutheran service, expounding upon whatever the sermon or Bible readings were for any given Sunday. Time-wise, the music of a service would ALWAYS be proportionate to—if not larger than—everything else. Just observing this—as a visitor from another planet might: here was a culture that, in their worship of their deity, in this time and place (18th century Europe) expressed themselves in lengthy, formalized and extraordinary MUSICAL offerings. It’s something to think about.

I am singling out the central choral movement, ALLES NUN, DAS IHR WOLLET (EVERYTHING NOW, THAT YOU WANT). This is another of Bach’s incredibly vital and propulsive choral works. It is the largest movement of the cantata, and is written in two halves: the first free-form, the second a strict fugue, very similar to a Bach prelude and fugue for keyboard. The entire movement is characterized by ceaseless, almost breathless, choral and orchestral activity. In addition to the precision of the chorus, one also hears substantial parts given over to the oboes and clarion (trumpet).

Once again, the forces here are Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra. The choral movement starts at 6:54 and ends at 10:05—three minutes and eleven seconds of your time that you will not regret giving to JSB.







Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote seven symphonies, six which are numbered, as well as the “Manfred” Symphony which is sandwiched in between symphonies number 4 and 5. While the sixth, fifth, and fourth are justifiably popular with general audiences—and which I love also—the first symphony has a special place in my heart.

And not for any special reason—there is no event I associate with it, I know it was never studied or played in any of my long-ago classes, and I can’t even remember how it came about that I purchased the LP featuring Bernstein and the New York Phil during those student days. All I know is that I loved it from first the first time I heard it.

Written in 1866, just after Tchaikovsky accepted a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 26, it is his earliest best work. He labored intensively over it, writing with white-heat intensity for days (and nights) at a time. He actually reached a point where he felt he would not live to see its premiere, such was his state of mental and physical exhaustion. A doctor declared him to be one step away from insanity.

Obviously, he DID finish the work, dedicating it to Nikolai Rubinstein, a co-founder of the conservatory, which was essentially, in 1866, a brand-new institution. (The conservatory now bears the name of its most honored composer—the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory).

Tchaikovsky found himself to be occupying an odd place in the history of Russian music. Nationalism in music—nationalist sentiment and history being expressed in music—was sweeping all of the smaller nations of Europe (Italy, Germany, and France had no such need for it). Nationalist sentiment in the arts was current in Russia also. But Tchaikovsky was not of the nationalist camp like “The Five” were—Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin—all of whom attempted to write music that recalled the greatness of Russia and the Russian people, and whose composition techniques were completely unorthodox from a traditional western compositional perspective. These composers also felt that Moscow should be the legitimate center of music activity in Russia.

Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, was a St. Petersburg man. St. Petersburg was Russia’s window on the west, and for Tchaikovsky, nothing was more desirable or inevitable than that he would write in a traditional—western—manner. His composition models—those that he held in the highest esteem—were Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann.

So, here he was, clearly the most talented of all of these composers, yet with a western non-nationalist stance. Teaching at the new Moscow Conservatory—because he needed a paying job—put him far away from the center of gravity for him, which was St. Petersburg. Add into this situation the reality that for Tchaikovsky, writing within the time-honored (and very western) sonata form was really at odds with his own nature, which was always tilted in the direction of harmonic freedom and unending melody. He felt sonata form to be personally constraining. He longed to give names to his works—even symphony movements—not the kind of thing that was often done in the west. Even when he was trying the hardest to conform to western compositional tradition, he allowed Russian folksong to intrude—as in the fourth movement of this first symphony. It is like he was always being pulled in two opposing directions. He was a romantic’s romantic, if you will, with some angst in every step.

Finally, in addition to all of the above, Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, and this fact reverberated in a negative way throughout his entire life, forcing him to (briefly and disastrously) marry, and in general to live a life that was false.

One wonders how this great man, so brimming with creativity, lived as long as he did, with every fiber of his being, figuratively and continuously, exposed or in danger of being exposed. It was rumored for decades after his death at the age of 53 that he had committed suicide by purposefully drinking water he knew to be unsafe—and which did cause his death from cholera. This is most likely untrue, as he had just returned from a glorious opening of Carnegie Hall in New York, which featured him conducting his own works to overwhelming American praise.

Back to the first symphony: it is written in four movements. The first and second movements have titles: “Dreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.” I am not trying to be facetious when I say that Tchaikovsky, had he lived a century later, would probably have been the greatest film music composer in history. Like his ballet music and like all the other symphonies, there is just so much imagination at play here. I can certainly see him composing the soundtracks for all the Middle Earth movies.

Although there is a Mendelssohnian lightness about the first movement, I find that it conjures up the vast Russian plains in the dead of winter—not in a dreadful way, rather in a beautiful, picturesque image. Tchaikovsky’s mastery of orchestration in every movement is impressive for someone so young.

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) was a Russian composer and conductor. His recordings with the London Symphony of the first three Tchaikovsky have occupied the “top” spots for those works in record review journals for decades. It is hard to believe this sound is from 1963.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to make a listening suggestion, and not only for this symphony. If you have the time and the inclination: I think you will end up appreciating this work more—and any multi-movement work—if you listen to one movement at a time, perhaps returning to this movement or that as you feel inclined. Presenting lengthy works in my posts—which take time to listen to—is often at odds with what I want to accomplish with my posts in the first place—which is to make the music I love music that YOU also eventually love.

Timings for the four movements

1st movt 0:00 Dreams of a Winter Journey
2nd movt 11:04 Land of Desolation, Land of Mists
3rd movt 21:37 the most Mendelssohnian influence of all
4th movt 29:21 featuring a Russian folk song as its leitmotif







I have mentioned several times a particular cassette tape I made some 4 decades ago. Listening to it was a kind of happiness drug. On it, I had four selections: Beethoven’s First Symphony, the Bizet Symphony in C, the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I’ve posted the Bizet and Prokofiev symphonies. Moving toward completeness in talking about that cassette (!), today I would like to offer up the Beethoven First Symphony. (Appalachian Spring will be forthcoming.)

Beethoven’s First Symphony is a happy work.

Beethoven seems to have taken his time with this first symphony, working on it between 1795 and 1800. The work was premiered on April 2, 1800—just 218 years ago!—and was, for all intents, Beethoven’s inaugural concert in Vienna, the first time that the sophisticated Viennese would hear him. The concert took place in the illustrious Burgtheater (see photo).

The work is in four movements:

1st movt 0:00 Some people regard the first twelve measures as a bit of a joke because Beethoven is delaying the actual start of the piece until 1:36. In this introduction, Beethoven utilizes chords that take the listener further and further away from where he ultimately is heading—C Major—hence, the “joke.”

2nd movt 9:19 Also unusual for the time, Beethoven uses the full orchestra for the second movement. Up to his time, smaller forces had been used for the more laid-back second movement. Not that this movement is loud or over-bearing—it definitely is not—but to achieve the lyrical and lilting goal he had in mind, Beethoven used the full orchestra.

3rd movt 16:15 There is a lot of back-and-forth “conversation” going on in this movement between different groups of instruments. Listening here is like eavesdropping.

4th movt 20:04 The opening of the last movement is the most unusual facet of this symphony. Again, as in the first movement, Beethoven starts out by TEASING the listener: after an opening dominant chord–which is begging for a tonic resolution, but which Beethoven does not supply—after this loud opening exclamation, Beethoven writes a series of tentative, softly rising phrases: first G-A-B, then G-A-B-C, then G-A-B-C-D, then G-A-B-C-D-E, then G-A-B-C-D-E-F, and then FINALLY, a whole octave of notes G to G followed by the tonic resolution we’ve been waiting for. It’s real genius.

There are a number of credible video performances of this symphony on YouTube—more than one by Bernstein, as well as by Karajan, Thielemann, Solti, Jarvi, and others. While I always prefer to use performances that can be watched and appreciated as listening links, I like the performance by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra so much that I am using this as our listening link. Not only has the recorded sound (from 1964) stood up very well, but Szell is masterly with his tempos, never too fast or too slow.

I think if you were not in a happy mood before listening to this work, you will be afterwards. Such is the power of music.

Pictures are of the Burgtheater in Vienna, where this symphony was first performed, and conductor George Szell.






Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was considered to be, in his youth, on par with Mozart and Mendelssohn as a child prodigy. Born and raised in Paris, he gave his first public performance at the age of ten, performing as piano soloist with orchestral in the Mozart B-flat Concerto (K. 450) and the Beethoven Third Concerto in C Minor. Camille’s genius was apparent in other areas as well, while he was still a boy: French literature, Latin and Greek, divinity, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology and astronomy. Astronomy in particular became a lifelong interest. In this regard—his intellectual acumen and diversity of interests—Saint-Saens is much different than the previous musical prodigies he is often lumped together with.

He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen. It is interesting that at this time—mid-century at the Paris Conservatory—pianists—even the best pianists—were mandated to also study organ, as it was assumed that there would be more career opportunities for fine organists than pianists. Consequently, Saint-Saens became an excellent organist—in addition to being a pianist of the highest caliber—and a budding composer.

Saint-Saens did indeed become a renowned church organist upon graduation. Somewhat later in his life, though, he lost whatever enthusiasm for religious dogma—if he had ever had it in the first place—and leaving the church, he never played organ again.

Like all European—and especially French—composers, Saint-Saens entered a number of composition competitions. I have mentioned before about the Priz de Rome and how difficult a competition it was, and how some very famous names came up empty-handed when entering it. Saint-Saens entered it twice—at the age of 17 and once again when he was 29. He lost both times. But in 1867 at the age of 32, Saint-Saens entered the prestigious Grande Fête Internationale competition, which he won over a hundred other competitors. The jury was amazingly prestigious, including Gounod, Rossini, Berlioz, and Verdi. After this, Saint-Saens reputation and future career were quite secure.

Saint-Saens’ life—personal life and compositional life—was so long (86 years)and so dense with events that I will have to save some of this for future Saint-Saens postings. But a couple of things are, I think, important to know when reflecting on him.

He seemed to be a confirmed bachelor when all of the sudden at the age of 40, he married the 19 year old sister of a composition pupil. His marriage to Marie-Laure Truffot was not a happy one. Saint-Saens’ dominating mother insisted on living with them, which they did in Paris’ Latin Quarter. The couple had two sons. The first fell, at age 2, from a window ledge and was killed. The second, age six months, died of pneumonia just weeks later. Whether it was Marie’s fault or not, Saint-Saens blamed her, and the marriage soon disintegrated. They did not divorce, however. In 1878, while on a vacation with Marie in a French spa town, Saint-Saens simply walked away from their hotel and sent her a letter shortly after saying he would not be returning. He never saw her again, nor did he remarry or ever evince any interest a woman again.

It seems that the truest passion in Saint-Saens’ life—other than music—was travel. From the late 1870’s to the end of his long life, he made 179 trips to 27 countries. He had an insatiable appetite for experience and knowledge. If it is not already obvious, Saint-Saens was quite a complex man.

One of his favorite places to visit was Egypt. In 1896, while vacationing in Luxor, he happened to hear some Nile boatmen singing melodies that attracted him. He wrote a piano concerto—his last—based on these melodies. Back in Paris, he premiered the concerto on the 50th anniversary of that long-ago first public concert (Mozart and Beethoven, mentioned above) at the Salle Pleyel.

I have very fond memories of learning this concerto back in my student days. Although, of Saint-Saens piano concertos, the second gets the most play—followed by the fourth—there is something so ingratiating to me about the fifth. I am an Ancient Egypt fanatic and always have been, so that may be part of it. But, written at the age of 61 when he was already one of the greatest living French musicians, Saint-Saens no longer had to prove himself. There is an elegance and naturalness about this work that I feel draws the listener right in. The second movement, in particular, is the one that is “Egyptian” sounding. Who knowshow many thousands of years old those melodies were when Saint-Saens heard them? The outer movements are technical tour de forces.

Tiraje and I had the pleasure a few years ago to hear one of our favorite pianists, Jean-Ives Thibaudet, perform the Fifth Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony. I am pleased that a pianist of his stature has become a real champion of this piece, playing it all over the world.

I’ll be returning, at some point, with quite a bit more Saint-Saens—the Carnival of the Animals, the Danse Macabre, Samson and Delilah, and some of his songs.

I hope you will give the Egyptian Piano Concerto a listen.