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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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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Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto: An Eruption of Youthful Vitality

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto begins with a bold announcement. It’s a striking fanfare in the horns which evokes all of the ominous power of the fateful opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This fanfare unleashes an equally exuberant proclamation in the virtuosic solo piano, which erupts like a force of nature. Filled with audacious youthful vitality, this unstoppable sonic torrent seems to be saying, “My time has come, and nothing is going to get …

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Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: A Haunting Farewell

A romantic myth has grown up around Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The composer’s final work has been cast as a kind of despairing musical suicide note. It is true that Tchaikovsky died just over a week after conducting the Symphony’s premiere on October 28, 1893, probably as a result of drinking cholera-infected water. But while Tchaikovsky’s personal battles and bouts with depression have been well-documented, he completed the Sixth Symphony on an emotional upswing. …

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Schumann’s Second Symphony: A Journey Towards Triumph

For several days drums and trumpets in the key of C have been sounding in my mind. I have no idea what will come of it. Robert Schumann wrote these words to his friend, Felix Mendelssohn, in September, 1845. We know now that the musical voices playing in Schumann’s mind were the first echoes of the Symphony No. 2 in C Major. (Actually, it would be Schumann’s third completed symphony. The D minor Symphony, completed …

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