Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony: “Pure Spring Water”

The Sixth may be Jean Sibelius’ most enigmatic symphony. It doesn’t offer the kind of heroic and triumphant journey we experience in the Second and Fifth Symphonies, or the strange, brooding darkness of the Fourth. Instead, it drifts through a soundscape which is shimmering, austere, and mysterious. “The Sixth Symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow,” said Sibelius in 1943. On another occasion, the composer spoke of the …

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Melodic Siblings: Mozart’s “Dove Sono” and the “Coronation Mass”

It’s one of Mozart’s most serenely beautiful melodies, evoking quiet dignity, nostalgia, and underlying sadness. “Dove sono i bei momenti” is sung by the Countess in Act III of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Amid all of the craziness, scheming, and entanglements of this whirlwind “day of madness,” she pauses to lament her circumstances—loneliness, betrayal, and humiliation as a result of her husband’s serial infidelity. In the shifting stream of consciousness …

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Schumann’s Fourth Symphony: A Continuous Drama in Cyclic Form

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor begins with a bold announcement in the form of a single, multi-octave-deep “A”. It’s a musical “call to order” which seems to establish the blank, open-ended canvas on which the Symphony will develop. The first brushstroke to fall on this canvas is a descending motif which is the seed out of which the entire Symphony grows. This is the famous “Clara Theme” we explored in …

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Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony: “The Celestial City”

The “Symphony of the Celestial City…” This is how biographer and classical music scholar Michael Kennedy poetically described Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5. Indeed, this music, completed in 1943 as the Second World War raged, moves into an alternate world of radiant light, quiet serenity, and sublime mystery. Following Vaughan Williams’ ferocious and dissonant Fourth Symphony, it returns to the eternal, pastoral reassurance of England’s metaphorical “green and pleasant” countryside. The term “Celestial …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 39: “Tempesta di mare”

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 takes us on a wildly exhilarating and tempestuous ride. It’s no wonder that this symphony, written in 1767 around the time Haydn became Kapellmeister for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, earned the poetic nickname, “Tempesta di mare,” or “storm at sea.” Set in a turbulent G minor, it is an early example of Sturm und Drang (translating literally as “storm and drive”), an artistic movement which swept through music and literature from the 1760s …

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Bernard Haitink’s Farewell

Bernard Haitink, one of the world’s most esteemed maestros, conducted his final concert at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on Saturday. In January, it was announced that the 90-year-old Dutch conductor would take a sabbatical. In a recent interview with de Volkskrant, Haitink suggested that this would most likely be retirement. Haitink became chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, a position he held for 27 years. Additionally, he served as principal conductor of the London …

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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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