Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this …

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The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt. History (this time recent) became …

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Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting. Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on …

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Josef Gingold: A Rare 1944 Profile

Earlier in the week, a Listeners’ Club reader sent me a fascinating and rare slice of American violin history. Below is music critic Russell McLauchlin’s profile of a 35-year-old Joseph Gingold which appeared in the Detroit Jewish News on December 8, 1940. Gingold had just left Toscanini’s NBC Symphony in New York to become concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. Within a few years, he would go on to hold the same title with the Cleveland Orchestra …

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Happy Birthday, Yo-Yo Ma

The Listeners’ Club wishes Yo-Yo Ma, who turns 60 today, a happy birthday. Ma is one of a handful of front-rank musicians who can be described as a cultural ambassador. Over the years, he has been at home, not only at Carnegie Hall but also on Sesame Street (watch “The Jam Session,” “The Honker Quartet,” and “Elmo’s Fiddle Lesson”), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and at a presidential inauguration. At the age of seven he performed for President John F. Kennedy. …

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An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber. Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the …

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The Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks …

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