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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Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor: Opening the Door to the Romantic World

The summer of 1788 was a low point for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both personally and professionally. In Vienna, Mozart’s popularity was in decline as the city’s notoriously fickle audiences turned their attention elsewhere. Funding from aristocratic patrons evaporated with the outbreak of the  Austro-Turkish War. As income dried up and creditors pounded at the door, Mozart and his family relocated from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. In June of 1788, Mozart’s …

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Schubert’s Fifth Symphony: In Search of “Magic Tones”

On June 13, 1816 the 19-year-old Franz Schubert wrote in his diary, This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear, and lovely one. Gently, and as from a distance, the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. With what alternate force and tenderness, with what masterly power did Schlesinger’s playing of that music impress it deep, deep in my heart! Thus do these …

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