Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this …

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Music of Romantic Obsession

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must …

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The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt. History (this time recent) became …

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Over the Rainbow with Anne Akiko Meyers

  Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of accompanying violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. Meyers performed with the Williamsburg Symphonia, a chamber orchestra based in Williamburg, Virginia. You can hear her interpretation of the Barber on this recording, released in 2000. (She is accompanied by conductor Christopher Seaman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the second movement here). Anne Akiko Meyers’ family joined her in …

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Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting. Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on …

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Mendelssohn’s Orchestra Plays Melusine

Felix Mendelssohn’s overture, The Beautiful Melusine, was inspired by a legend which Max Derrickson describes: The legend of the half-mermaid, Melusine, appears to date back over nearly twelve centuries.  The arrestingly beautiful Melusine, born of a mortal father and water sprite mother, is cursed to take the form of a serpent from her waist down (a mermaid) one day each week.  This was done by her mother, furious with Melusine for entombing her father …

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Josef Gingold: A Rare 1944 Profile

Earlier in the week, a Listeners’ Club reader sent me a fascinating and rare slice of American violin history. Below is music critic Russell McLauchlin’s profile of a 35-year-old Joseph Gingold which appeared in the Detroit Jewish News on December 8, 1940. Gingold had just left Toscanini’s NBC Symphony in New York to become concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. Within a few years, he would go on to hold the same title with the Cleveland Orchestra …

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