Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, “With Organ”: Scaling the Summit

Following the completion of his Third Symphony in 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns made the following statement: I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again. Indeed, Symphony No. 3 in C minor takes us on an extraordinary dramatic journey which scales a mighty summit. It augments the sound world of the traditional orchestra with the addition of piano (four hands) and organ. …

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Berlioz’ “Roméo et Juliette”: Scène d’amour

In 1827, Hector Berlioz witnessed a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Paris’ Odéon Theatre. The cast included Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who became Berlioz’ first wife and creative muse, as well as the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastique. Shakespeare’s tragedy had a visceral effect on the composer, who did not understand English but was affected by the pure sound of the poetry and the power of the acting. In his Memoirs he wrote, …

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Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”: Entering a New Dimension

Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate” is modest by some measures. The work, composed in 1959, is scored for a chamber orchestra. It unfolds in a single movement which lasts just over twenty minutes. Yet once we move beyond this finite formal “container,” we enter a musical space which feels infinitely vast and timeless. Perhaps this is the serene, mystical, and ambient world on the other side of the “Celestial Gate” of …

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Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major: Majestic and Celebratory

A string of superlatives characterizes the earliest-known audience account of a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. It comes from Iwan Anderwitsch, who attended an all-Mozart memorial concert in Hamburg in March of 1792, a year after the composer’s death: The opening is so majestic that it so surprised even the coldest, most insensitive listener and non-expert, that even if he wanted to chat, it prevented him from being …

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Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements: Rhythmic Delirium

Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is a delirious celebration of rhythm. This bright, exuberant music leaves behind the rapturous, primordial jabs of The Rite of Spring to enter the crisp, spare world of neoclassicism. Witty and spirited conversations unfold between instrumental voices. Quirky, irrepressible ostinatos propel the music forward amid unpredictable and swiftly changing rhythmic currents. The outer movements hurtle forward with the hyper, unrelenting energy of an action film, whisking us from one …

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Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica”: Music of Revolution

The music of Beethoven, perhaps more than any other composer, embodies the spirit of revolution. It is music filled with ferocious struggle and ultimate transcendence. Heralding the dawn of Romanticism, it signifies the ripping apart of an old order and the emergence of something new. Genteel, aristocratic elegance is replaced by edginess, disruption, and pathos. We hear the music of the court transitioning to the music of the public concert hall. An …

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Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony: Probing Psychological Depths

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor enters a dark, austere, and occasionally terrifying sonic landscape. At first listen, it is undoubtedly the strangest and most unsettling of Sibelius’ seven symphonies. Its four movements probe frigid, mysterious depths. Yet, upon entering this forbidding territory, we are rewarded with glimpses of rugged beauty and awe-inspiring power. Sibelius called the Fourth “a psychological symphony.” It is the stuff of Expressionism, murky dreams, and …

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