Elgar’s “Nimrod”: Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, completed in 1899, are the musical embodiment of the idea that our lives are all shaped by a close circle of friends and acquaintances. Elgar offered the following description in 1911: This work, commenced in a spirit of humour and continued in deep seriousness, contains sketches of the composer’s friends. It may be understood that these personages comment or reflect on the original theme and each one attempts …

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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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Beethoven and the Power of Four Notes

“Long…short, short, short…” This is the spirited little cell that quietly opens  Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. The entire piece grows from this almost sneaky opening in a way not unlike the famous, ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As you listen to the first movement, notice all the ways these four notes return. Sometimes they’re hidden or played in quiet pizzicato. At other times you’ll hear the motive in the …

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Mozart’s Wordless Operas

Listening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching …

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