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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Haydn’s Symphony No. 29: Humor, Surprise, Ingenuity

Richard Atkinson, a Boston-based composer and forensic pathologist, offers a fascinating analysis of the wild rhythmic ingenuity found in some of Franz Joseph Haydn’s lesser-known symphonies. Atkinson’s YouTube channel is filled with insightful videos which take a look “under the hood” at music from Bach and Bruckner to Shostakovich. In this installment, Atkinson begins with the Finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 29 in E Major, detailing the way the music continuously throws off our perception of phrase and meter. …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony: Freedom in Exile

Sergei Rachmaninov spent much of his life in exile, both literally and as a composer. In December of 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his wife, Natalia, fled Russia, eventually building their Villa Senar on the idyllic shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Symphony No. 3 in A minor during the summers of 1935 and 1936. His work on this final symphony was interrupted by an …

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Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: A Dramatic Departure

Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers? Gustav Mahler wrote these poetic words in a letter to his wife, Alma, following the first rehearsal for the …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 88: Seeds of Romanticism?

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G Major, completed in 1787, is undeniably firmly rooted in the classical tradition. Set in the standard four movements, it offers all of the courtly elegance, charm, and witty good humor we would expect from this innovative and prolific “father of the symphony.” At the same time, this Symphony, written two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, contains some fascinating foreshadowings of music to come. …

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Rachmaninov’s First Symphony: From Despair to Posthumous Triumph

The world was not ready for Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The disastrous premiere of Symphony No. 1 in D minor in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897 shattered the 23-year-old composer’s confidence, plunging him into a psychological breakdown. For three years he would compose no music, emerging in the autumn of 1900 with the soaringly melodic Second Piano Concerto only after extensive psychotherapy. “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov …

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Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony: An Unsolvable Enigma?

“What does it mean?” You may find yourself asking this question as you listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A Major. This final Shostakovich Symphony, written in a little over a month during the summer of 1971 as the composer faced declining health, is filled with persistent and unsettling ambiguity. First, there are the strange, inexplicable quotes and fleeting allusions to music of earlier composers, as well as cryptic references to Shostakovich’s previous …

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