Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major: Dynamic and Miraculous

According to legend, during the premiere of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, a chandelier fell from the ceiling at London’s Hanover Square Rooms. Moments earlier, enthusiastic audience members rushed the stage to catch a better glimpse of Haydn, who conducted from the pianoforte. As a result, everyone escaped serious harm. Shouts of gratitude rang out. “Miracle! Miracle!” Symphony No. 96 earned the nickname, The Miracle.  In fact, this harrowing event occurred four …

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Borodin’s Second Symphony: Solemn, Celebratory, Heroic

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), the great Russian Romanticist, once said, “I’m a composer in search of oblivion; I’m always slightly ashamed to admit I compose.” By day, Borodin was a brilliant research chemist and a distinguished professor at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. When he was not passionately investigating aldehydes, he was creating some of the most innovative Russian music. The small catalogue of works he left behind includes two completed symphonies, two …

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Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sixth Symphony: A Communion With Nature

Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were completed in the same year of 1808, and were premiered at the same under-rehearsed, four-hour-long concert. Yet, the two works stand as diametric opposites. The Fifth Symphony takes a dynamic journey towards transcendence. It is filled with ferocious, crackling energy and a sense of heroic struggle. Set in the bucolic key of F major, the quieter Sixth Symphony inhabits the stable, enduring world of nature. Beethoven gave it the subtitle, …

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Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony: An Awe-Inspiring Contrapuntal Edifice

“Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music,” said the eighteenth century German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major may be the most architectural symphony ever written. Constructed with monumental building blocks which are assembled according to principles of balance, proportion, and repetition, its four movements add up to a majestic and soaring musical structure. It takes us on a gradual, time-altering procession which requires that …

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Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”: A Choral Symphony Inspired by Poe

During a vacation in Rome in 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov received an anonymous letter which contained an intriguing text. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, The Bells, freely translated and adapted by the Russian symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont. Included was a note from the mysterious sender which suggested that the verses were ripe for a musical setting and that they were well-suited to the composer’s temperament. After Rachmaninov’s death, it was revealed that the …

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Schumann’s Third Symphony, “Rhenish”: A Majestic Musical Portrait

In 1850, Robert Schumann moved with his family to Düsseldorf to accept a position as music director of the city’s orchestra and chorus. The composer, who from birth had lived in Saxony, reveled in a new, picturesque landscape dominated by the majestic Rhine River. In her diary, Clara Schumann described a cruise down the river which revealed the Gothic splendor of the still unfinished Cologne Cathedral. She wrote, “We were enchanted…by the …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Sinfonia Antartica”: From Film Score to Symphony

In a 1944 essay titled Film Music, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote, “I still believe that the film contains potentialities for the combination of all the arts such as Wagner never dreamt of.” Beginning in 1940, Vaughan Williams composed scores for eleven films. Among these was the 1948 Technicolor adventure film, Scott of the Antarctic, which told the story of the ill-fated 1912 British expedition to Antarctica, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. The venture went south …

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