Mozart and the “C-D-F-E” Motive

Towards the end of the finale of Mozart’s last symphony (the “Jupiter,” No. 41), there’s an extraordinary moment when five independent musical themes combine to form an explosion of counterpoint unlike anything else in the symphonic repertoire. This dazzling display of musical fireworks culminates Mozart’s symphonic output with a celebratory bang. But one of this finale’s most prominent motives- the four notes, “C-D-F-E” which open the movement– has roots much earlier in Mozart’s writing. Go back and …

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Mozart’s Gift to Prague: Symphony No. 38

The first performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 took place in Prague on this date, January 19, in 1787. Intensely dramatic, celebratory, and bursting with counterpoint, this is music on a grand scale. Its premiere at the Bohemian capital’s Estates Theatre was the result of happy circumstances for the composer. While Mozart’s popularity was in decline in Vienna, The Marriage of Figaro created a sensation in Prague. Mozart arrived in the city as a rockstar, noting in a letter, …

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Mahler’s Fourth Symphony: Heaven Through a Child’s Eyes

The Fourth occupies a unique place among Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies. From its opening sleigh bells, it pulls us into a bright, exuberant drama- a song-symphony of occasional sardonic humor, frivolity, introspection, and ultimate innocence. Its instrumentation suggests a light, pared-down classicism in which the low brass voices of the trombones and tuba are conspicuously absent. It looks backwards as well as ahead. Mahler’s first four symphonies all grew out of song- in …

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Sibelius’ First Symphony: Romanticism and Structure

Music is, for me, like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces. -Jean Sibelius There’s a divine logic at work in the seven symphonies of Jean Sibelius. You get the sense of a self-creating structure- something Sibelius himself described in his famous meeting with Gustav Mahler as “style …

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Tchaikovsky, From Elation to Despair

Over the weekend, I found myself returning to Friday’s post to listen to Ja vas lyublyu, the famous aria from the second act of Tchaikovsky’s opera, The Queen of Spades. It occurred to me that the aria’s progression from soaring passion to gloomy despair is echoed throughout many of Tchaikovsky’s works. In many cases, this dichotomy of elation and despair relates to a reoccurring theme of doomed love. Besides The Queen of Spades, a dark, haunting tragedy based loosely on …

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The “Philadelphia Sound” in Five Historic Recordings

These days, the professional orchestra world is characterized by unparalleled technical skill, dutiful attention to historically-informed performance practice, and a general homogenization of sound and style. Musicians are expected to transition, instantly and seamlessly, from the lush Romanticism of Tchaikovsky to the lean purity of Mozart, with the mixed meters of Stravinsky and John Adams thrown in for good measure. In many ways, it’s the best of times. Perhaps what has been …

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Franz Berwald: The First Great Scandinavian Symphonist?

In Wednesday’s post, I made the assertion that Scandinavian composers, from Grieg and Nielsen to Sibelius, inhabited their own distinct sound world. They seem to have heard things in a different way, and their music often unfolds with a unique sense of flow and a distinct approach towards time. Perhaps it was a result of their relative isolation with fewer “mainstream” influences. Or perhaps it was the subconscious influence of the altered daylight …

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