Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations: Jubilant Explorations of an “Impossible” Theme

According to a popular story, Antonín Dvořák was once challenged by a friend to write a set of variations on a seemingly impossible theme. The year was 1877, and Dvořák had just completed the cycle, Choral Songs for Male Voices. It was the third and final song, Huslař (“The Fiddler”), which provided the theme for Dvořák’s orchestral showpiece, Symphonic Variations, Op. 78. The distinctive melody unfolds in an unusual and irregular metric structure of 7+6+7 bars. Harmonically, …

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Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Cycle: String Quartet No. 9 in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3

In 1805, Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, commissioned Beethoven to write three string quartets. At the time, chamber music was often conceived for the entertainment of aristocratic amateurs. In contrast, Razumovsky’s commission would be premiered by the Schuppanzigh Quartet, a group of highly skilled musicians who formed what was likely the first professional string quartet. The result was groundbreaking music which moved the string quartet decisively into the concert hall. …

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Liszt’s “Vallée d’Obermann”: Vivid Encounters with Nature

Obermann, an 1804 novel by the French philosopher, Étienne de Senancour, centers around the mediations of a young, melancholy recluse who retreats into the Swiss Alps to probe profound and unsettling questions. The novel unfolds as a series of letters written by Obermann, the ultimate solitary, Romantic hero. Filled with longing, he is both enthralled and mystified by Nature. He asks, What do I wish? What am I? What shall I ask of nature? I …

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Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major: From Youth to Maturity

Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8 exists in two versions. The first was published in 1854, only months after the 21-year-old Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann for the first time. Thirty-six years later, Brahms returned to the work during the summer of 1889 with the intention of trimming its “youthful excesses.” That September, he wrote to Clara Schumann, You cannot imagine how I trifled away the lovely …

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Nathan Milstein Plays Mendelssohn: 1962 Chicago Symphony Telecast

Nathan Milstein (1903-1992) was one of the most elegant and innately gifted violinists of the twentieth century. The biographer Boris Schwarz called his playing, “a rare combination of classical taste and technical perfection,” adding that “the effortless nonchalance with which he achieves sophisticated technical feats is amazing.” Born in Odessa, Milstein moved to St. Petersburg at the age of 11 where he became one of the last students of the legendary Leopold …

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Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sixth Symphony: A Communion With Nature

Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were completed in the same year of 1808, and were premiered at the same under-rehearsed, four-hour-long concert. Yet, the two works stand as diametric opposites. The Fifth Symphony takes a dynamic journey towards transcendence. It is filled with ferocious, crackling energy and a sense of heroic struggle. Set in the bucolic key of F major, the quieter Sixth Symphony inhabits the stable, enduring world of nature. Beethoven gave it the subtitle, …

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Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 in F Minor: Entering Symphonic Dimensions

Anton Bruckner’s mighty Mass No. 3 in F minor emerged at a pivotal moment in the composer’s life. In a way similar to the music which Beethoven composed following the Heiligenstadt Testament, it can be heard as a majestic expression of faith and gratitude. Beethoven’s contemplation and ultimate triumphant rejection of suicide in the face of progressive hearing loss is well known. A nervous breakdown in the spring of 1867 led to …

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