Thursday, August 28, 2014

What is your favorite era?

Now that we’ve spent the last month watching the symphony progress over time, what would you say is your favorite era for the symphony? Do you have a favorite symphonic composer or piece?

My favorite era has to be the Romantic period (roughly the 19th-century). As far as a favorite piece, I always say you cannot go wrong with Beethoven! However to avoid sounding cliché, I will go with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” I enjoy Dvorak’s ability to create nationalistic music and, though not from America, I believe he creates an outstanding American idiom in this piece. 

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?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Symphony of W.A. Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was another prominent composer working during the latter part of the 18th-century. Though younger than Haydn, people actually became accustomed to his name earlier because he toured as a child prodigy along with his father and sister.

While Mozart’s early symphonies followed the early-classical model containing a three-movement structure, his later symphonies fell into the four-movement format. Mozart’s compositional style stretched performers by creating ambitious parts for (now common) wind sections. Sometimes, he would even tag on a slow introduction to the opening fast movement. These introductions are typically written in the style of a French overture and may create suspense for audiences who have no idea what Mozart intends next. Mozart’s orchestra size was similar to that of Haydn, much smaller in number than what we are used to seeing in concert halls today.

As mentioned during our 21 Days of Bach this past March, Mozart was also known to combine his classical-era style with idioms from the Baroque period. His Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” for instance, draws on the Baroque fugue in its final movement.

Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony will be tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony. Written for a concert in that city, it is certainly one of Mozart’s great works that exhibits the symphonic style of the late classical era. How does it compare with the Haydn symphony you heard on Tuesday?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Haydn: "Father of the Symphony"

This month, we are exploring the development of the symphony throughout history. Entering the latter half of the 18th-century, we have prominent composers such as Haydn and Mozart who added their own individual marks to this ever-evolving orchestral genre.

Known as the “father of the symphony,” Joseph Haydn spent the greater portion of his life working for the royal Hungarian Esterházy family. This explains Haydn’s extensive output as he was expected to compose a variety of works at any given moment for court entertainment.
Esterháza Palace
Courtesy of

 Following Stamitz’s model, Haydn typically employed the four-movement structure in his symphonies. He was known to create various themes that he would then develop and vary throughout the rest of the work. He also sought to create tuneful, expressive compositions. His orchestra, though perhaps a bit larger than those earlier in the century, still had no more than twenty-five to thirty-five members compared to up to one hundred found on stages today.

Haydn was known as a jokester, this quality exhibiting itself throughout many of his works. His Symphony No. 45 “Farewell” was written as a hint to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy to allow his orchestra members to return home to see their families after an extended stay at the prince’s summer home. During the final part of the symphony, members of the orchestra gradually begin to put their instrument down and walk off the stage, leaving only two violins at the end!

Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 is known as the “Surprise” symphony. Do you know why? Tune in for tonight’s 6 o’clock symphony to hear this fun work and let me know what you think.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Johann Stamitz and the Orchestra at Mannheim

We cannot discuss the early development of the symphony without mentioning Mannheim. The Mannheim court was known to have an excellent music scene, the orchestra led by composer Johann Stamitz. The orchestra at Mannheim was known for its excellent dynamic control, particularly the sudden crescendos (growth from soft to loud). As a composer, Stamitz was known to use this “Mannheim Crescendo” in his work.

Mannheim Court
Courtesy of 

Significant to the development of the symphony, Stamitz was the first composer to consistently use a four-movement structure when composing rather than the three-movement plan that was standard at the time. Adding a minuet and trio movement between the slow movement and the final fast movement became standard with many prominent composers to follow later in the era.

Another significant change to the symphony within the Mannheim court was the addition of wind instruments including oboe, horn, and even an occasional clarinet!

Listen to Stamitz’s Sinfonia in E-flat major here: 

What new features do you notice about this symphony in comparison with the Sammartini symphony we looked at last time? 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sammartini and the Early Symphony

Giovanni Battista Sammartini was one of the early classical composers who worked on writing symphonies. As mentioned on Monday, I often find it easy to mistake an early symphony score for a string quartet.

Scored for four-part strings with a possible harpsichord, Sammartini’s Symphony No. 32 in F major has the standard three-movement structure of that time period (see Monday’s post). Unlike standard symphonies of today, this work takes less than ten minutes to perform with a much smaller orchestra than what we’re used to seeing on stages today.

Here is a recording of Sammartini’s symphony:

What are you initial impressions based on your modern-day experience with symphonies?

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Symphony: What is it?

Listening to WGUC each day, you may notice the ample amount of symphonies played. You may also notice the extensive variety among the various symphonies, many differing from one another based on the time period during which they were composed. This month, let’s explore the history of the symphony, mapping out a timeline that will show just how the symphony developed throughout history.

The symphony is a large orchestral work that developed in the mid-eighteenth century. Divided into a specified number of movements, we will soon see that the standard number of movements changed over time. The early symphony was thought to have its roots in the Italian opera overture (known as sinfonia), which typically used a three-movement format:

Movement 1: Fast tempo
Movement 2: Slow tempo
Movement 3: Fast tempo

They symphony also was thought to resemble a classical sonata, only written for an entire orchestra rather than a solo instrument with possible accompaniment.

Looking at a musical score, I find that often times it’s easy to mistake a string quartet for an early classical symphony. Why? Most early symphonies were scored for four-part strings, just like a string quartet. It wasn’t until a bit later that various wind instruments began to enter the orchestral scene.

Join me Wednesday as I explore one of the earliest symphonic composers, Giovanni Battista Sammartini. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

What's your favorite Gershwin work?

With the instant success of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra performed the piece an additional 83 times that year. The Victor Blue label decided to record the work and it ended up selling over one million copies. People across the nation heard it either in live performance, on the radio, or through recordings. Gershwin was even surprised to see that the sheet music was a hit! Print reviews continuously raved that this new work bridged the gap between serious and popular music.

With its great success, it’s no wonder that we see melodies reminiscent of those in Rhapsody in Blue pop up in some of Gershwin’s later songs. Some of these titles include “The Man I Love,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Bidin’ My Time,” and “Embraceable You.”

Rhapsody in Blue was not only a hit among classical music listeners, but it became somewhat of a popular American icon as well.  One popular modern-day usage of Rhapsody themes can be found in United Airline advertisements. United bought the rights to Gershwin’s work in 1987 for $300,000 per year.

Is Rhapsody in Blue your favorite of Gershwin’s works? If not, what other piece do you prefer?

Al Hirschfeld Drawing of George and Ira Gershwin 
Courtesy of pinterest .com