Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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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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Music of Romantic Obsession

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must …

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Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by …

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Rachmaninov and the "Philadelphia Sound"

Above: Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s website). Great orchestras develop an institutional collective memory. As conductors and players come and go, they often leave a subtle mark on the sound, style, and soul of the ensemble. New players are assimilated into a dynamic, ever-evolving team. The esteemed history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a case in point. For years the …

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La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

Good composers borrow. Great ones steal. -Igor Stravinsky La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it …

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