Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: The Unlikely Triumph of Freedom

In a public statement, Dmitri Shostakovich reportedly gave the Fifth Symphony the obsequious subtitle, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” These are the words of a composer held hostage, both artistically and literally. The year was 1937, and the Fifth Symphony represented Shostakovich’s attempt to placate Stalin and his cultural censors. A year earlier, the composer’s racy and subversive opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was attacked as “muddle instead of music” …

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Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony: The Art of Moderation

Within Beethoven’s catalogue, Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major is sometimes overshadowed by its odd-numbered neighbors, the “Eroica” and the Fifth Symphony. Robert Schumann called it “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” It’s a testament to the sense of moderation that seems to characterize Beethoven’s symphonic journey. The odd-numbered symphonies are often ferocious, mighty and revolutionary, while the even-numbered works retreat into a world of sunny intimacy. Both offer equally rich rewards. …

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Bruckner’s Third Symphony: Vindicated by Time

The premiere of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor stands as one of music history’s most infamous disasters. The performance took place in Vienna on December 16, 1877. It was to have been conducted by Johann Herbeck, an Austrian maestro who had led the posthumous premiere of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in 1865. But Herbeck died suddenly, and Bruckner—an accomplished organist and choral director but an inexperienced orchestral conductor—decided to take …

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Walter Piston’s Sixth Symphony: A Mid-Century American Masterwork

The twentieth century American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) is often remembered as an expert musical craftsman and academic. During his long tenure at Harvard (lasting from 1926 to 1960), his students included Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, and Leonard Bernstein. As a music theorist, he contributed three significant text books on the technical building blocks of music: Harmony (1941), Counterpoint (1947), and Orchestration (1955). Yet, the often-neglected music Piston left …

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Sibelius’ Third Symphony: Classical and Austere

Jean Sibelius’ music is filled with the magic and mystery of ancient northern woods. It can be simultaneously icy, brusk, brooding, austere, and eternally soulful. Often, it unfolds in a way which feels static and circular, seemingly influenced by Finland’s land of the midnight sun, where the cycle of day and night is replaced by extended periods of light alternating with darkness and gloom. Similar circular, repeating phrases can be found throughout Finnish folk …

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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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