Tuesday, August 26, 2014

20th Century Symphonies

The 20th-century brought more changes to the symphony. One major movement that developed is known as neoclassicism. This term refers to the attempt to reach back to older musical forms from the Baroque and Classical periods as a reaction to the dramatic, emotional compositions created during the Romantic period. Many composers used chamber ensembles to perform their symphonies (similar in size to those used during the early classical period) rather than orchestras of 200 musicians. Some used elements including counterpoint and fugue in their work, combining it with modern ideas of tonality. Stravinsky and Hindemith are examples of neo-classical composers.

Still other composers expanded on symphonic ideas by adding quotations from other popular tunes (Ives), simplifying and repeating rhythms through minimalism (Glass), using newly-invented electronic instruments (Messiaen) amongst many other new techniques.

Today I would like to take a closer look at one 20th-century symphony written by William Grant Still: his Afro-American Symphony. Living during a time when African-Americans were excluded from the classical music world, Still achieved great things by becoming the first African-American to conduct a symphony orchestra in the U.S. as well as the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company. His symphonic writing incorporated many American idioms within the European symphonic design (four-movements). Several of the uniquely American characteristics Still incorporates include jazz elements and plantation spiritual references.


Tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony features Still’s Afro-American Symphony. Give it a listen and let me know if you hear these distinctly American elements.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Romantic Era Symphony: Tchaikovsky's Fourth

Following Beethoven’s expansion of the symphonic model, composers of the Romantic period (roughly 19th-century) sought to create longer and larger symphonies with heightened passion. The number of composers and symphonies from this period seems endless so we’ll focus on just a few major names in today’s discussion.

At this point in history, it was not uncommon to see an orchestra of over 200 people! Composers began to expand movement lengths and some even added one or even two movements to the standard four-movement model. Some composers used vocalists in their symphonies (Mahler) while some attempted to create national idioms (Borodin, Sibelius, Dvorak). Some created programmatic music that told audiences a story (R. Strauss, Berlioz), while some created what is known as absolute music, sticking to the standard symphonic tradition of music for music’s sake (Brahms, Schumann, Schubert). Some composers even added non-orchestral instruments to their works such as Saint-Saens in his Symphony No. 3 “Organ.”

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is a great example of a symphony from the Romantic period. You may remember it from the Cincinnati Symphony’s One City, One Symphony concert this past fall. The symphony is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s best friend and patron, Mrs. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow with whom he passed many letters but never met. It contains a program that assists audiences in following the symphony’s message.

Tchaikovsky describes the first movement of the Symphony No. 4 as having an introductory theme that represents fate. This main theme returns throughout the work. During this movement, Tchaikovsky depicts his desire to escape into daydreams rather than facing the reality of life. The “fate” theme returns, however, reminding him of the truth of his gloomy circumstances that may have included his failed marriage to Antonina Miliukov or even his questions regarding his sexual orientation.

The second movement depicts feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, pain, longing, and reflection on distant memories. The solo oboe at the beginning is meant to portray a lonely person. A march in the middle of the movement takes the listener away from the feelings of isolation exhibited thus far. The longing, lonely melody always returns in various instrumentations.

The third movement contains a series of arabesques that represent strange, unrealistic, unconnected dreams. Many of the themes show-off a particular instrument’s technique (example: piccolo solo).

The fourth movement reflects the joy that comes from surrounding yourself with other people when you are depressed (opening melody). To help depict the sense of community, Tchaikovsky uses the Russian folksong “In the Field a Birch Tree Stood.” The reminder of fate (main theme from first movement) always returns, however, bringing you back to reality and discontentment.

Tchaikovsky considered this his best symphonic work saying, "It seems to me that this is my best work…What lies in store for this symphony? Will it survive long after its author has disappeared from the face of the earth, or straight away plunge into the depths of oblivion? I only know that at this moment I... am blind to any shortcomings in my new offspring. Yet I am sure that, as regards texture and form, it represents a step forward in my development..."

You can listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 here. How do you think Tchaikovsky expanded upon the symphonic model built a century earlier?



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Beethoven: A Turning Point in the History of the Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven: a pivotal figure in music history. But why? We cannot properly discuss the historical development of the symphony without mentioning Beethoven and his contributions to the music world.

Beethoven lived during a period of change and struggle. The French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment are all things that may have influenced the composer and his work. With various changes in society came changes in music. Beethoven’s personal life exhibited its own sense of struggle as he fought deafness. Fighting to overcome this trial, Beethoven reflects this will to overcome in his Symphony No. 3, known as the “Heroic Symphony.”

Beethoven’s symphonic output expanded the length of the symphony as well as the size of the orchestra. His scores often times called for piccolo, trombone, and extra percussion and strings in comparison with composers of the classical period.

His most triumphant and influential work is the Symphony No. 9. Using a chorus in the final movement, Beethoven used Schiller’s Ode to Joy as the text. The grandeur, emotional complexity, and innovativeness of this piece are what make it memorable. Nothing like the Symphony No. 9 had ever been created and, in my opinion, nothing like it has been created since. Beethoven raised the bar high for symphonic composers who followed him, making it difficult to expand on his accomplishment.

You can listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 here. It’s a long one so hang tight! After you finish listening, let me know your thoughts. Can you see how this piece is known as a pivotal point in music history?