Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: An Exhilarating Motivic Journey

“Short, short, short, long…” The four notes which open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony outline what is perhaps music history’s most iconic motif. It’s a motif which has been subjected to pop culture cliches and dubious superimposed poetic associations, such as “fate knocking at the door.” This motivic kernel, perhaps derived from Luigi Cherubini’s 1794 French Revolution anthem Hymne au Panthéon, is the seed out of which the entire Fifth Symphony develops. Preceded by a …

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Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony: Sunny Bohemian Pastures

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 is the music of sunny Bohemian pastures. Warm, effortlessly flowing melodies meet the fiery, exuberant rhythms of a Czech folk dance. A sense of blissful, bucolic grandeur permeates the entire Symphony. As the biographer Otakar Sourek noted, “it breathes the sweet fragrance and unspoiled beauty of Czech woods and meadows.” Dvořák’s first five symphonies can be heard as exercises in the mastery of the form. In the …

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Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905”: Revolution and Requiem

On January 22 [O.S. January 9], 1905, a date which is remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of peaceful, unarmed demonstrators marched to St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. They intended to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II. Many supported the Tsar and believed that he would help to address their economic, political, and social grievances. Assembled in the square, they sang God Save the Tsar; but a frightened Nicholas II had fled the palace. Inexplicably, …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major: Rousing and Rapturous

Franz Joseph Haydn’s triumphant second trip to London started off with a bang. On February 10, 1794, six days after the celebrated composer’s return to the English capital, Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major was premiered at the Hanover Square Rooms. A review of the concert in the Morning Chronicle read, The incomparable Haydn produced a new Overture [Symphony] of which it is impossible to speak in common terms. It is one of …

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Copland’s “Short Symphony”: Bounding into Rhythmic Adventure

From its opening bars, Aaron Copland’s Short Symphony erupts with an infectious exuberance. This music unleashes bright, playful conversations between instrumental voices. Its frolicking “characters” take us on a musical joyride filled with unending rhythmic adventure. Completed in 1933, the Short Symphony (technically Copland’s Second) is scored for a spare, classical orchestra. Its tantalizingly abstract harmonic language flirts with polytonality and serialism. Underlying all of this is a sizzling Mexican vitality. While working on the score, Copland …

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Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony: “Glorifying the Grandeur of the Human Spirit”

The January 13, 1945 premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major marked a momentous occasion. Fourteen years had elapsed since the completion of the composer’s Fourth Symphony. An expectant audience filled the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall. As Prokofiev raised his baton before the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in anticipation of the first movement’s opening bars, a barrage of celebratory artillery fire rang out through the city. The gunfire was a signal …

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Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: Nature and the Call of the Horn

The Fourth is the only symphony to which Anton Bruckner added a subtitle, “Romantic.” The word might bring to mind the mythical operas of Wagner and the triumph of the individual in a world filled with struggle and pathos. Yet, Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony inhabits territory which is more cosmic and elemental. It is the world of nature, punctuated by the mystical call of the horn, with its ancient hunting connotations. Many years after …

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