“To the Distant Beloved”: Schumann’s Obsession with a Beethoven Song

In the final movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, an unassuming but persistent motivic cell emerges which propels the Symphony towards its majestic and triumphant culmination. Around three minutes in, all of the music’s forward momentum comes to a halt on a somber C minor cadence. Then, this motive is introduced by the woodwinds. It repeats in other voices throughout the orchestra and develops into an exalted and joyful proclamation. …

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Bach’s Sinfonia in D Major: A Startling Remnant from a Lost Cantata

This wildly adventurous music likely served as the instrumental introduction to a festive cantata written by J.S. Bach in Leipzig sometime between 1742 and 1746. The cantata is long lost and we’re left with this single, enticing fragment which is known as the Sinfonia in D major, BWV 1045.  This music is startling on many levels. First, it is a virtual violin concerto superimposed on a full orchestra which includes three trumpets, timpani, and …

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From Flute to Violin: The Evolution of Prokofiev’s D Major Sonata

During the summer of 1943, Sergei Prokofiev escaped the war-torn Eastern Front for the isolation of the Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, where he was hard at work on the sprawling film score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. In the middle of this massive project, Prokofiev found himself drawn to music on the other end of the spectrum- something he described as a “sonata in a gentle, flowing classical style.” This piece was born as the Flute Sonata in …

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Eight of Prokofiev’s Quirkiest Ballet Melodies

Last week, the Richmond Symphony returned to the orchestra pit for five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s shimmering and comic 1944 ballet, Cinderella. Bringing off Prokofiev’s music, both technically and musically, often feels like solving a puzzle. Hovering somewhere between austere twentieth century Neoclassicism and moments of sudden lush Romanticism, this music is always keeping us off guard. We never know exactly how to take it. It is simultaneously humorous and sarcastic, cool and calculating (like …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 29: Humor, Surprise, Ingenuity

Richard Atkinson, a Boston-based composer and forensic pathologist, offers a fascinating analysis of the wild rhythmic ingenuity found in some of Franz Joseph Haydn’s lesser-known symphonies. Atkinson’s YouTube channel is filled with insightful videos which take a look “under the hood” at music from Bach and Bruckner to Shostakovich. In this installment, Atkinson begins with the Finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 29 in E Major, detailing the way the music continuously throws off our perception of phrase and meter. …

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Michael Praetorius: Four Renaissance Dances, Magnificat

It is believed that the German Renaissance composer, Michael Praetorius, was born on this day in 1571. In a strange coincidence, he died on the same date fifty years later in 1621. Active as an organist and music theorist, Praetorius was amazingly versatile. He published the four-volume Syntagma musicum, an influential treatise on music history and theory which remains a principal source for knowledge of 17th century music. Among his Lutheran chorale settings is …

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Dvořák’s Cello Concerto: Three Great Performance Clips

Following a youthful attempt at a Cello Concerto in 1865, Antonín Dvořák believed that the instrument was ill-suited to the concerto form. “High up it sounds nasal, and low down it growls,” the composer commented. Dvořák’s attitude changed in a flash on the evening of March 9, 1894 when the New York Philharmonic premiered Victor Herbert’s Second Cello Concerto. Herbert, remembered for frothy Viennese operettas like Babes in Toyland (1903), was on the faculty of New York’s National Conservatory of …

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