Roy Harris’ Third Symphony: Sounds of the Rugged American Frontier

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was born in a log cabin on the Oklahoma prairie and grew up as a farmer in the rural San Gabriel Valley of Southern California. He went on to write what the legendary Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky called “the first great symphony by an American composer.” That work was Harris’ Symphony No. 3, completed in 1938 and premiered the following year by Koussevitzky and the BSO. It’s music …

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Copland’s Third Symphony: American Threads

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony begins with a single melodic thread which seems to emerge out of thin air. Crystalizing as a shimmering pastel blend of high strings and winds, this restlessly searching eight-note motif develops with a self-organizing inevitability. It feels like we are experiencing a “composition in progress” as the motif shapes itself, painstakingly trying out each possibility. Built on the intervals of fourths and fifths, its outline gives us a sense …

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Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony: A Sunny Bohemian Adventure

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major inhabits a sunny, pastoral world filled with Bohemian folk melodies, rustic peasant dances, distant horn calls, and echoes of the birdsongs of the forest. It’s an enchanting world of exuberant celebration and quiet, lamenting nostalgia. Following the restless and stormy Seventh Symphony, Dvořák remarked that the Eighth, completed in the autumn of 1889, was “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out …

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Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony: A Requiem

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is filled with distant, lamenting voices. It was written with remarkable speed during the summer of 1943 when Shostakovich was staying at an isolated retreat maintained by the Soviet Composer’s Union. The composer’s distance from the horrors of the Eastern Front and the siege of Leningrad could not block out the sense of alienation, gloomy futility, exhaustion, sardonic humor, and raw terror that pervades this music. …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, “La Passione”

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 in F minor is shrouded in ominous, gray clouds. It’s filled with the dark drama and turbulence of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), a movement that swept through German literature and music from the late 1760s to the early 1780s as a precursor to Romanticism. Beginning with a solemn Adagio, the Symphony’s four movements follow the structure of the church sonata (slow-fast-slow-fast), a baroque form that was already …

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Mahler’s Seventh Symphony: A Journey Through the Night

The Seventh may be the most strange and enigmatic of Gustav Mahler’s nine completed symphonies. Its five symmetrically arranged movements take us on a mysterious and haunting journey into the night. This is music that attracted the young Arnold Schoenberg, who heard the crumbling of romanticism in the Seventh Symphony’s daring and sometimes disquieting modernism. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, completed in 1906—a year after Mahler completed the Seventh Symphony—contains many themes built …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 97 in C Major: Celebratory Trumpets and Drums

Symphony No. 97 in C Major was the last of the six initial “London” symphonies Franz Joseph Haydn composed. It was first performed at London’s Hanover Square Rooms on the third or fourth of May, 1792. The young Beethoven used this music as the model for a C major symphony which he never completed. Boisterous and festive, Symphony No. 97 is filled with the celebratory sounds of trumpets and drums. A single, emphatic …

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