A New Approach

After a break of more than a month, during which my wife and I have been adjusting to having an infant in our house, I am beginning to reevaluate what I want this blog to be.

I love classical music, but having little training in the field I find myself inadequate when discussing the music itself. While I will still occasionally provide my opinions on pieces I am planning on shifting the focus of this blog towards the history of the music. Aside from the music itself, one of the aspects I find fascinating is the context in which a piece was written in. What was happening in the composer’s life? What was happening in the world around the composer? I’ve hinted at these things in a few posts, but I would like make it more of a priority. I haven’t decided if I will backtrack to flesh out symphonies we’ve already covered, but I’ve begun research on the next symphony on our list and will soon attempt to fit it into the larger context of world history.

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94: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was written in 1930 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Orchestra’s conductor Serge Kussevitsky requested Stravinsky write a symphony to commemorate the occasion and commissioned the work. Although written for the BSO, it was first played in Brussels by the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles under Ernest Ansermet in December. It would later be played in Boston for the American premiere about a week later.

The piece was written during Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. During this time he turned his passion for experimental composing to a reinvention of the classical style, drawing inspiration from composers such as Mozart and Bach.

The subject matter of the piece reflects Stravinsky’s new-found devotion in his faith, having become involved in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1926 after years of separation from religion. Stravinsky would remain a devout Christian throughout his life.

Stravinsky approached the use of the Psalms very intentionally. Of the piece, Stravinsky said, “It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.” The piece incorporates the Latin Vulgate translations of three passages:

Psalm 39:13-14

Exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam. Auribus percipe lacrimas meas. Ne sileas.
Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei.
Remitte mihi, ut refrigerer prius quam abeam et amplius non ero.
English Translation
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling: hold not Thy peace at my tears.
For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more.

Psalm 40:2-4 

Expectans expectavi Dominum, et intendit mihi.
Et exaudivit preces meas; et eduxit me de lacu miseriae, et de luto fæcis.
Et statuit super petram pedes meos: et direxit gressus meos.
Et immisit in os meum canticum novum, carmen Deo nostro.
Videbunt multi, videbunt et timebunt: et sperabunt in Domino.
English Translation
I waited patiently for the Lord: and He inclined unto me, and heard my calling.
He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay.
and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.
And He hath put a new song in my mouth: even a thanksgiving unto our God.
Many shall see it and fear: and shall put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 150 

Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus.
Laudate Eum in firmamento virtutis Ejus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in virtutibus Ejus. Laudate Dominum in virtutibus Ejus.
Laudate Eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis Ejus. Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus..
Laudate Eum in sono tubae.
Laudate Eum. Alleluia. Laudate Dominum. Laudate Eum.
Laudate Eum in timpano et choro,
Laudate Eum in cordis et organo; Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in cymbalis benesonantibus,
Laudate Eum in cymbalis jubilationibus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum, omnis spiritus laudet Dominum, omnis spiritus laudet Eum.
Alleluia. Laudate, laudate, laudate Dominum.
English Translation
O praise God in His holiness:
Praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him in His noble acts:
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Praise Him in the sound of the trumpet:
Praise Him upon the strings and pipe.
Praise Him upon the well-tuned cymbals,
Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.
Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.

The recording I’ve been listening to is Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Posted in 1900-1950, Igor Stravinsky, Russian, Symphonies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

95: Rachmaninoff’s The Bells Symphony

The Bells was the third symphony written by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1913. He considered it to be his third symphony after writing it, but later wrote and instrumental Third Symphony. The composition is based on a loose translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells by Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter in 1907 containing the text of Balmont’s poem suggesting it would lend itself well to a musical setting. (It was later found out that the letter was sent by a young cello student at the Moscow Conservatory named Mariya Danilova.) Poe’s original poem was in four sections, each section becoming darker and darker, from ‘the jingling and tinkling’ to the ‘moaning and the groaning’. Rachmaninoff’s symphony shares this structure with a four movement sonata form. The movements are ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’, ‘The Mellow Wedding Bells’, ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’, and ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’.

Posted in 1900-1950, Russian, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphonies | Leave a comment

Steve Reich’s Different Trains

As a young child in 1940’s America, Reich spent a lot of time riding trains between New York and California. Later in life, riding trains in Boston, he had the realization that as a Jew, had he been born in Europe he would have been riding different trains. From this realization he was inspired to write his string quartet Different Trains which he completed in 1988. Reich won a grammy for the piece in 1990.

Reich interviewed his governess and a porter about train travel before the war, and three holocaust survivors about their experiences during and immediately after the war. He took snippets of the interviews and transposed them into notes. The quartet is a series of voices speaking short phrases and an instrumental rendition of the phrase which is built upon until a new phrase is introduced.

The piece is in three movements. The first, “America Before the War” uses the interviews of the porter and his governess. American train whistles, perfect fourths and fifths, are heard throughout. The tones of the voices become darker and darker as they approach the coming war. The second movement “Europe During the War” is darkened by the accounts of the holocaust survivors, air raid sirens, and harsh triadic European train whistles. The third movement “After the War” is beautifully optimistic using phrases from all of the interview subjects and again using the American train whistles in the background.






What strikes me about this piece are the beautiful and complex melodies derived from something as simple as the human voice. It picks out the music that is in our speech every day. So much is expressed simply by tone, speed, and the rise and fall of pitch; expressing truly horrific episodes in life and unparalleled joy. It is a piece that encompasses the darkest moments in human history and rises again to hope. It somehow reminds me that we are all human and whether we hate or love is up to us.

Posted in 1950-2000, American, Steve Reich | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

96: Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D major

Symphony No. 6, written in 1880,  was Dvorak’s first published symphony. It was published as Symphony No. 1 by Fritz Simrock, but Dvorak considered it to be his fifth. It was written for the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter after a well received performance of Dvorak’s Third Slavonic Rhapsody. The premiere of the piece was postponed however, due mainly to Dvorak still being relatively unknown. The symphony was finally performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1881. It was one of Dvorak’s first pieces to garner international recognition and helped catapult him to one of the foremost European composers of the time.

A Few Things To Listen For: The Romantic influences of Brahms and Beethoven are heard throughout this piece as well as influences from Czech folksongs. The melodies are rich. The first movement is very reminiscent of classic romantic styles. The second is gentle and peppered with woodwind solos. The third movement is a lively Czech dance, and the fourth is the perfect finale to the piece. The symphony is richer than his fifth, and foreshadows the great symphonies he will write in years to come.

The recording I have is a great free download from the Musikkollegium Winterthur conducted by Jac van Steen. You can find the download through ClassicCat.

Posted in 1850-1900, Antonin Dvorak, Czech, Symphonies | Leave a comment

Why I Care…

Tchaikovsky was gay. Beethoven went deaf. Berlioz was tortured by love and plotted a murder. Mozart was poor and died mysteriously. Borodin taught science. Liszt was a playboy. Mussorgsky a drunk. Mahler was superstitious. Schumann tried to kill himself. Brahms had a secret love. Gershwin died young of a brain tumor. Wagner was antisemitic. Mendelsshon was a Jew. Strauss did what he could under the Nazi regime while Karajan submitted. Frank was devoted to God. Chopin died young. Handel and Ravel were in car accidents. Ravel suffered brain damage. Shostakovich wrote under communist rule and survived the siege of Leningrad. Part witnessed horrors from both sides of a war. Tallis wrote music under Henry VIII. Satie was slightly mad. Sibelius helped shape Finland. Stravinsky started a riot. Auber sparked the Belgian revolution. Vaughan Williams was a hero. Schubert was unappreciated in life. Schoenberg created a new system. Copland defined America. Greenwood was in a rock band. Ives was an agoraphobic. Rachmaninoff suffered from depression and died of melanoma.

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Maybe this seems obvious, but I can’t talk about classical music in films without talking about Fantasia. Within this film are all of my earliest memories of classical music. Fantasia was released in 1940. It began with the concept of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and, with help from Leopold Stokowski, grew into a full-length feature film. All the pieces are performed by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra except for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which was played by a hand picked orchestra in Culver City, California. The film was the first to be released in Stereo.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: It took me a little time to come to appreciate this segment. Bach’s piece, originally for organ, was set to abstract images. To be honest I used to fast forward through this piece to get to the good stuff.

The Nutcracker Suite: Excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite were set to dancing fairies, flowers, and fish. As the segment progresses we see the changing of the seasons.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: The segment that started Fantasia began as a Silly Symphony, but the production costs were too high, and it was expanded. Dopey the Dwarf was originally considered for the part of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but Walt Disney insisted on Mickey in a desperate attempt to renew his popularity. At the time Mickey was being overshadowed by Goofy, Donald Duck, and even Popeye. Paul Dukas’s piece is based on a poem by Goethe in 1797.

The Rite of Spring: The segment was my absolute favorite. What 10 year old boy doesn’t love dinosaurs and Stravinsky? When Stravinsky was contacted about the rights to the piece he offered to write a whole new version for the film. Stokowski organized and orchestrated the music instead and it is rumored Stravinsky hated the new version.

The Pastoral Symphony: Thanks to Fantasia Beethoven’s 6th is the symphony I am most familiar with to this day. One negative (and not the only negative I am sure) of having no reference outside of this movie is the fact that many of the pieces are abridged. The first time I heard the full version of this and The Rite of Spring was a bit of a shock. Nonetheless I still love this piece and it is near the top of my favorite symphonies list. Adding to the list of embarrassing moments in Disney history, the original included some dark-skinned centaur girls that seemed to be servants of the light-skinned centaur girls.

Dance of the Hours: Amilcare Ponchielli’s piece is actually from his opera La Gioconda, which I have never seen, but I’m pretty sure it is not about ostriches and elephants.



This guy's name is Chernabog and was based on a mixture of Bela Lugosi and a shirtless Disney animator.


Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria: Modest Mussorgsky’s music provides the backdrop for a little devil-worship to end the film. To this day, I’m not sure why my parents let me watch this segment as young as I was. (I believe there is even a bare-breasted devil/bat woman.) The only explanation I can come up with is the transition into Franz Schubert’s beautiful version of Ave Maria from his set of seven songs based on Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. I still love the way Stokowski blends these two pieces together, providing the classic Disney motif of good triumphing over evil. The filming of the monks walking with torches for Ave Maria was achieved by running the camera down 200 feet of painted glass. The filming had several set backs, including an earthquake, and was only spliced into the film four hours before the premiere.

Walt Disney had grand ideas for this film. Because of time he was forced to cut a segment set to Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune. He wanted to release different scents in the theater at particular moments of the film. He wanted to rerelease the film every year with a new segment replacing an old so no one ever saw the same version twice. He originally envisioned The Rite of Spring segment to run from the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the rise of mammals and the evolution of man. Maybe none of these came to fruition but Fantasia will always have a special place in the hearts of classical music dorks like me, not to mention all the teenagers who watched it tripping on acid and pot when it was rereleased in ’69.

Posted in Amilcare Ponchielli, Classical Music in Film, Franz Schubert, Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Modest Mussorgsky, Paul Dukas, Pyotr Tchaikovsky | Leave a comment