Chopin’s Four Scherzos: Darkly-Veiled Jest?

On Monday, we explored five monumental scherzos from nineteenth and twentieth century symphonies. These ferocious works leave behind the original lighthearted concept of the “scherzo,” which means “joke” in Italian. The dynamic, sometimes terrifying, drama unleashed in this music is anything but a joke. Fryderyk Chopin’s four Scherzos for solo piano are similarly definition-shattering. They are filled with moments of haunting mystery, turbulence, soaring Romantic fervor, and intense drama. In his review of Scherzo No. …

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This Scherzo is No Joke

In Italian, the word “scherzo” means “joke” or “jest.” Theodore Baker’s Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (an invaluable resource my first violin teacher recommended to me as a child) defines the musical scherzo as 1. An instrumental piece of a light, piquant, humorous character. 2. A vivacious movement in a symphony, with strongly marked rhythm and sharp and unexpected contrasts in rhythm and harmony; usually the third movement. There are a host of pieces which fit these …

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Berlioz for Spring

Hector Berlioz’ song cycle, Les nuits d’été, Op. 7  (“Summer Nights”), based on the poetry of Théophile Gautier, dramatizes the progression of love from youthful innocence, to death, to ultimate rebirth. Villanelle, the first of the six songs, evokes the arrival of spring and the joyful exuberance of young love. The text celebrates the abundance of nature, from flowers and berries to the wildlife of the forest. Berlioz’ song, composed on March 23, 1840, teems …

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Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge”: From Teacher to Student

Last week, we listened to the vibrant orchestral tone poem Enter Spring by the maverick English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941). It was at the Norwich premiere of Enter Spring in 1927 that the 13-year-old Benjamin Britten first met Bridge, who would become Britten’s composition teacher and mentor. Britten recalled mammoth lessons: I remember we started at 10:30 and finished at tea time. Mrs Bridge came in and said “Really you must give the boy a break! …

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Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” Overture: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony

The legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was born on this date in 1867. Over the course of a career spanning nearly six decades, Toscanini served as music director of La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He presided over the premieres of works including Puccini’s La bohème, La fanciulla del West, and Turandot, and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and First Essay for Orchestra.  Between 1937 and 1954, …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

The American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 89 today. In Sondheim’s songs, music, lyric, character, and dramatic situation blend seamlessly and inseparably. The kind of plot-driven Broadway musical championed in the 1940s and 50s by Rodgers and Hammerstein reached its zenith of sophistication in the works of Sondheim, which include Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). These are symphonic scores filled with motivic threads. The songs …

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Frank Bridge’s “Enter Spring”: The Symphonic Poem as a Force of Nature

Enter Spring, a shimmering orchestral tone poem by the English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), blossoms like a force of nature. It evokes the bright colors, turbulent majesty, and joyful sense of renewal we associate with the seasonal change from winter to spring. It grows out of the English countryside— specifically the green rolling hills and chalk cliffs of Bridge’s native Sussex Downs on England’s south coast. But its harmonic language is also surprisingly daring, …

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