Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony: An Unsolvable Enigma?

“What does it mean?” You may find yourself asking this question as you listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A Major. This final Shostakovich Symphony, written in a little over a month during the summer of 1971 as the composer faced declining health, is filled with persistent and unsettling ambiguity. First, there are the strange, inexplicable quotes and fleeting allusions to music of earlier composers, as well as cryptic references to Shostakovich’s previous …

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Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony: A Quiet Farewell

The Seventh was Sergei Prokofiev’s final symphony. Completed in 1952, a year before the composer’s death, it ventures into a sparkling, colorful world of innocence, fantasy, and wistful nostalgia. At the time this music was written, Prokofiev was battling deteriorating health as well as denunciation by Stalin’s cultural police, who banned the Sixth Symphony on the grounds of the work’s perceived “decadent formalism.” Prokofiev offered a letter of apology which was published widely. Perhaps to placate …

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Three Pieces from Schubert’s “Miracle Year”

1815 stands out as one of Franz Schubert’s most productive years. In fact, it has been called Schubert’s “miracle year.” The eighteen-year-old composer wrote more than 20,000 bars of music, completing two symphonies (Nos. 2 and 3), two Masses, a string quartet, two piano sonatas, and 145 songs (including the ghostly Erlkönig) , among other works. On one October day, alone, Schubert completed eight songs. That’s way too much music for one blog post! But …

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Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”: Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic

The Romantic era in music may have begun, unofficially, with the ferocious opening hammer blows of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. As the story goes, this monumental and revolutionary music was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven reportedly scratched out the dedication on the title page (shown above) and re-dedicated the Symphony to the Hero (“Eroica”), exclaiming So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, …

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Mozart and the Tragic Key of G Minor

Mozart wrote 41 numbered symphonies. Of these, only two are rooted in a minor key- in both cases G minor. The first is the exuberant, fiery Symphony No. 25, which we heard last week. The second and more famous is the “Great” G minor Symphony No. 40.  Last Friday’s post inspired me to consider the uniquely tragic significance of G minor throughout Mozart’s music. This is the key to which Mozart turns in the second …

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Mozart’s Symphony No. 25: Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). As a conductor, composer, pianist, and educator, Bernstein seems to have thrown his arms around the world of music. He brought a unique energy and dynamism to the podium, as well as to his compositions, which run the gamut from the Broadway theater to the concert hall. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the music of Leonard Bernstein. For …

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Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down”

It begins with a distant drumbeat in the night- a barely-audible triple-beat timpani summons. Then, a strangely amorphous scale in the brooding low strings rises out of the darkness. A vague remembrance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde blends into a gradually-shifting kaleidoscope of veiled colors. Icy dissonance opens out into a vast, magnificent, sonic expanse. These are the first, primal seconds of Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Actually, we don’t perceive this piece as having a …

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