Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”  No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in …

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David Diamond’s Second Symphony: A Mid-Century American Masterwork

Listeners who go in search of “the great American symphony” will be rewarded with a handful of often-neglected mid-twentieth century masterworks. They include the Third Symphonies of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, the First Symphony of Samuel Barber, as well as music by Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Peter Mennin, Lou Harrison, and others. These composers came to prominence in the 1930s and 40s, championed by conductors like Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky. Their musical …

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Brahms’ Third Symphony: “Free But Happy”

Three bold chords, rising in an expansive wind choir, set in motion Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F Major.  This powerful, attention-demanding proclamation flings open the door to a ferocious “con brio” first theme which seems to growl with intensity. Filled with wide, octave-exceeding leaps, it’s a theme which is always in motion, restlessly searching for a way forward, and veering continuously between major and minor. Rhythmically, it sets up our expectations, and then …

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Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Turns 50

As a child, I spent a year and many succeeding summers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where my father was a student of trombone professor Dr. Robert Gray. Some of my most vivid memories include attending concerts at the University’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where as a 9-year-old, I heard the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the University’s fine student ensembles. This weekend, the …

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This Scherzo is No Joke

In Italian, the word “scherzo” means “joke” or “jest.” Theodore Baker’s Schirmer Pronouncing Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (an invaluable resource my first violin teacher recommended to me as a child) defines the musical scherzo as 1. An instrumental piece of a light, piquant, humorous character. 2. A vivacious movement in a symphony, with strongly marked rhythm and sharp and unexpected contrasts in rhythm and harmony; usually the third movement. There are a host of pieces which fit these …

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Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony: A Haunting Farewell

A romantic myth has grown up around Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The composer’s final work has been cast as a kind of despairing musical suicide note. It is true that Tchaikovsky died just over a week after conducting the Symphony’s premiere on October 28, 1893, probably as a result of drinking cholera-infected water. But while Tchaikovsky’s personal battles and bouts with depression have been well-documented, he completed the Sixth Symphony on an emotional upswing. …

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Schumann’s Second Symphony: A Journey Towards Triumph

For several days drums and trumpets in the key of C have been sounding in my mind. I have no idea what will come of it. Robert Schumann wrote these words to his friend, Felix Mendelssohn, in September, 1845. We know now that the musical voices playing in Schumann’s mind were the first echoes of the Symphony No. 2 in C Major. (Actually, it would be Schumann’s third completed symphony. The D minor Symphony, completed …

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