Hanson’s “Romantic” Second Symphony: A Cinematic, Cyclic Journey

The American composer, Howard Hanson, was born in 1896 in the small Nebraska prairie town of Wahoo. Hanson served as the director of the Eastman School of Music for 40 years, beginning in 1924. In the middle of the twentieth century, his influence was so great that he was hailed as the “Dean of American Composers and spokesman for music in America.” At a time when formalism and atonality ruled, Hanson’s warmly melodic, Neo-romanticism …

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Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia”: A Prayerful Fanfare

The American composer Randall Thompson (1899–1984) composed his famous Alleluia over the course of five days at the beginning of July, 1940. The work for a cappella chorus was first performed on July 8th of that year for the formal opening of the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center). Serge Koussevitsky, the festival’s founder and the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asked Thompson to write a celebratory “fanfare” for voices. …

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Wagner’s “Rienzi” Overture: A Glorious Remnant of Youthful Indiscretion

In his later years, Richard Wagner dismissed his five-act opera, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, as a “youthful sin.” Completed in 1840 when the composer was 27 years old, Rienzi stands in stark contrast with Wagner’s mature work. It was elaborately conceived as Grand Opera in the tradition of Meyerbeer. Wagner’s megalomaniacal intention was “to outdo all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance.” The premiere in Dresden on October 20, 1842 lasted over six hours with breaks …

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Korngold’s Five Songs, Op. 38: From Film Music to Lied

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the twentieth century’s great composers of melody. We hear this in the dramatic music of Korngold’s 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City), as well as in the soaring Hollywood film scores which followed. Additionally, Korngold was a clever musical recycler. Rich melodies, which were scattered throughout the film scores, formed the basis of Korngold’s 5 Lieder, Op. 38, completed in 1947. The first song, Glückwunsch …

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Korngold’s “The Sea Hawk”: Excerpts from the Film Score

With the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), Viennese Romanticism faded into a rich, shimmering twilight. As a child prodigy, Korngold attracted the attention of Gustav Mahler (who declared him a “musical genius”) and of Richard Strauss. Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), a ballet Korngold composed at the age of 11, became a sensation when it was performed by the Vienna Court Opera in 1910. Later, came the 1920 opera, Die tote Stadt …

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Borodin’s Second Symphony: Solemn, Celebratory, Heroic

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), the great Russian Romanticist, once said, “I’m a composer in search of oblivion; I’m always slightly ashamed to admit I compose.” By day, Borodin was a brilliant research chemist and a distinguished professor at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. When he was not passionately investigating aldehydes, he was creating some of the most innovative Russian music. The small catalogue of works he left behind includes two completed symphonies, two …

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Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major: Triumph Over Censorship

In the years following the Second World War, Stalin’s “propagandist-in-chief,” Andrei Zhdanov, drafted a series of resolutions that were designed to censor Soviet art, literature, film, and music. All art had to adhere to the ideals of Soviet “socialist realism.” The Zhdanov Doctrine proclaimed that “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.” First, Zhdanov banned the works of Anna Akhmatova, arguably Russia’s greatest living …

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