Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
William Tell Overture
composed in 1829
Rossini’s William Tell was the last of his 39 operas and after its premiere in 1829 he went into semi-retirement. He continued to compose vocal music in various genres. The opera is a musical portrait of life in the Swiss Alps.
The 12-minute overture is in four parts, each following without pause. The prelude, representing dawn, is articulated by five solo cellos, along with double basses. It begins in e minor with a solo cello, which is in turn, is answered by the section cellos and the double basses. Toward the end of the section, two hushed timpani rolls resembling distant thunder announce an impending storm. The section ends with the first cellist, playing a very high sustained pitch.
The second section portrays a storm, played in a minor mode by the full orchestra. It begins with strings and woodwinds, breaking into a full storm with the entry of the brass and bass drum. Eventually the storm subsides, and the section ends with solo flute. The third section is a pastorale, signifying the calm after the storm. It beautifully features a solo English horn and flute in dialogue.
The fourth and final section, the March of the Swiss Soldiers, is a high-speed gallop, featuring the trumpets. It alludes to the final act, which recounts the Swiss soldiers’ victorious battle to liberate their homeland from Austrian repression. Although there are no horses or cavalry charges in the opera, this segment is often used in popular media to denote galloping horses, a race, or a hero riding to the rescue. Most people will recognize this section as the theme from the television series, “The Lone Ranger.”
Aleksandr Arutiunian (1920-2012)
Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major
composed in 1950
Along with Aram Khachaturian, Alexander Arutiunian is ranked among the most important Armenian composers of their generation. As with Khachaturian, his style is quite approachable, exotically colorful, and features folk-like Armenian traits and catchy melodies.
Arutiunian was appointed artistic director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in 1954, a post he held until 1990. He managed to avoid falling into disfavor with Soviet cultural bosses in the post-Stalin era, not necessarily an easy task, by composing unadventurous, though well-crafted works like his Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1951) and a symphony (1957). A horn concerto (1962), achieved some popularity.
In 1965, Arutiunian joined the faculty of the Yerevan Conservatory where he taught composition for many years. While there he produced his popular quintet for brass, Armenian Scenes, and his tuba concerto (1992).
Arutiunian composed his Trumpet Concerto in 1949-50. It is his sixth major composition, a virtuoso showpiece, featuring Eastern European lyricism and harmonic textures. Arutiunian’s engaging and idiomatic trumpet concerto was quickly assimilated into the standard trumpet repertoire worldwide, earning highest international praise from audiences, critics and performers. In an interview with Allan Kozinn of The New York Times, Philip Smith, the principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic, observed “one of the reasons this piece has become so popular is just that it’s a flashy piece. It has a very Russian, Armenian, yet gypsy-ish kind of sound, with very soulful, beautiful melodies and plenty of exciting rapid-tonguing.”
Arutiunian conceived this work as a single-movement concerto, consisting of seven major sections which are all performed without break: Andante, Allegro energico, Menomosso, Tempo I, Menomosso, Tempo I, closing with Cadenza and Coda. The melodic and rhythmic characteristics of Armenian folk music strongly influenced all of Arutiunian’s work, but all of the melodies contained in the trumpet concerto are original, with nothing borrowed.
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
composed in 1889
Dvořák was a Romantic era composer from the Bohemian region of today’s Czech Republic. Dvořák is considered a “nationalist” composer because his melodies capture the spirit and character of Czech – Bohemian folk music.
Dvořák composed Symphony No. 8 between August and November 1889 during a period of relative calm and reflection. It premiered in Prague in February of 1890, with the composer conducting. With his growing reputation across Europe and the United States as a composer, his own sense of peace and contentment is evident in this well-crafted work of warmth and relaxation, with boundless melodies.
The first movement opens with a melody of reflective yearning, played in a minor mode by low strings and winds, followed by a hopeful melody in the solo flute in a major key. The violas and cellos, later repeated by the winds, state the second theme. Utilizing the customary sonata-allegro form (exposition, development, restatement), Dvořák meshes high drama with beautiful melodies in this masterful first movement.
The second movement embraces several moods and atmospheres, starting with commentary from the strings, answered by a bird-like call in the flutes. The sometimes major/sometimes minor alternations of themes help create a sense of various pastoral settings, as though the themes are conversing among themselves. As in Beethoven’s Pastoral the music evokes the landscape of a tranquil summer day, briefly interrupted by a thunderstorm. In the end, all is well.
The third movement, a Minuet and Trio, features a melancholy theme in a minor mode, played by the violins, followed by commentary in the woodwinds. A gorgeous violin melody in the style of a Bohemian folk dance, in a major key, dominates the trio. A playful section in 2/4 time ends this radiant movement.
The final movement opens with a brass fanfare followed by a reflective theme in the cellos, beginning a series of variations. The drama returns with the sudden increase in the tempo, setting the tone for the heroic last movement.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 101 in D Major
composed in 1794
In addition to composing 104 symphonies, numerous operas, oratorios and concertos, Haydn “fathered” the string quartet by adding viola to the established string trio. He composed 69 string quartets, creating a new medium that is still popular today. Haydn acquired the endearing nickname “Papa Haydn” from admiring colleagues and students.
Working under the patronage system of the time, Haydn was engaged as court composer for Prince Esterházy, where he served as staff musician, along with the other servants. When Haydn retired, Johannes Salomon, a famous impresario from London, invited him to London to compose and perform his music. While in London, Haydn was able to make use of the largest orchestra he had ever encountered. All of his later symphonies, from No. 93 on, were composed in London, where, contrary to his previous position as servant, he was treated like a royalty. Humble by birth and position, in the end he was greatly revered.
Composed in 1794 at the age of 62, Haydn’s Symphony 101 is a delightful work of high energy and sparkling creativity. A solemn introduction alternates between the minor and major tonalities, eventually settling on the major. The first theme is a dance-like melody in 6/8 time, followed by a second theme that is much quieter but similar in rhythm. The development section uses fragments of both themes, sometime using a question/answer format in the upper and lower forces.
This symphony is nicknamed “The Clock,” because of the tick-tock writing in the pizzicato strings and bassoons, which opens the second movement. Flutes later join in the tick-tock writing. A middle section in a minor key is heard with full orchestral forces. The delightful first theme is restated for the closing section, but watch out for the ever-playful Haydn as he throws in a silence to keep the audience guessing.
The third movement is a stately minuet and trio. In the trio, drone-like sounds in the strings accompany the sweet flute solo, with commentary from the brass and tympani. The last movement, composed in rondo form, begins softly and sweetly, soon to be followed by a response from the full orchestra.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
composed in 1918-19
From Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 until Edward Elgar premiered his Enigma Variations in 1899, the English music scene lay dormant – a musical drought of more than 200 years. Only then did England re-establish itself as a major force in classical music composition. Perhaps that is why English composers felt compelled to compose a number of symphonies– Elgar, three; Vaughan Williams, nine – to make up for the lost representation during the 18th and 19th centuries, even though by the 20th century the symphony format was passé.
Composed in 1918-19, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is written in four movements, more like a symphony rather than the customary three-movement concerto. He was living part of the time at his cottage in Sussex. He was ill during this time, and, like much of Europe, the ravages of the World War depressed him, so his piece is contemplative with elegiac, autumnal qualities. He seems to be longing nostalgically for a world that has gone by, yet in the fourth movement, some optimism is heard. The work did not become popular among cellists and the public until Jacqueline du Pre performed the concerto in the 1960s.
The first movement opens with a recitative for the solo cello, immediately followed by a short answer from the clarinets, bassoons and horn. Soon the full orchestra speaks broadly in the minor mode. The solo cello and individual members of the orchestra seem to be carrying on a conversation. The slower first movement moves directly into the second movement, which the solo cello opens with pizzicato chords. Then, the solo cello plays the main motive of the Allegro molto section and scherzo-like music, with resting points, dominate the rest of the movement.
The slow third movement starts and ends with a lyrical melody, which runs through the entire movement, flowing directly into the finale with no pause. The fourth movement begins with a noble fanfare-like statement from the orchestra, followed by commentary from the solo cello, which then plays the fanfare as the first theme. The orchestra echoes the cello’s music. In this movement the mood of the piece is brighter, more optimistic. Fast sections of music alternate with solo cello reflection. At one point the music from the third movement returns, as if to remind the listener that all is not well. Near the end of the piece, the first movement’s recitative is heard again. This flows into the return fourth movement’s main theme, which closes the piece.
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016)
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
composed in 1985
Davies composed An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise for the Boston Symphony Orchestra on commission; John Williams conducted the premiere on May 10, 1985. Established as one of Davies’ most enduringly popular pieces, the work is notable as one of the few pieces in classical repertoire to feature the solo appearance of a bagpiper.
This approximately 12-minute work vividly depicts the riotous celebrations after a wedding on the Orkney Islands, located on the northern edge of Great Britain. The piece closes with the entry of the bagpipes, which Davies describes as symbolic of the rising sun over coastal land just below the Orkney Islands called Caithness. In concert performance, the piper, dressed in traditional Scottish regalia, is required to enter from the back of the concert hall, parading to the stage and taking the soloist’s position only as the piece concludes.
The piece begins with fast 16th notes, so as to suggest much flurry and excitement. This is followed by commentary from individual woodwinds, which eventually morphs into an American hoedown. The material gets passed throughout the orchestra in soloist fashion for a while, but eventually, things quiet down in order to feature a solo violinist playing various segments of the main theme. To make sure that everyone knows this is a Scottish and not an American wedding, toward the end of the piece a bagpiper appears, playing the hoedown theme, bringing the wedding to a close.
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Russlan and Ludmilla Overture
composed in 1842
Considered to be the father of modern Russian music, Mikhail Glinka’s nationalistic Russian style was a seminal influence on all Russian composers who followed, from Rimsky-Korsakov to Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky.
Born into a wealthy family, in his late 20s Glinka left his life as a government bureaucrat so that he could pursue music. After studying in Italy and Berlin, in 1834 he returned to Russia and rediscovered his Russian heritage, reading the works of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. From this, he was inspired to write his first important work, the opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). The work drew on Russian and Polish folk themes, and also prefigured the use of the leitmotif (a recurring theme for a particular character) that Richard Wagner would refine in his operas.
A Life for the Tsar met with immediate popular success, and the director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg suggested that Glinka adapt Pushkin’s epic poem, “Ruslan and Ludmilla,” as his next opera. The poem tells of the abduction of Ludmilla by an evil sorcerer, Chernomor, from a party given for Ludmilla’s three suitors, one of whom is Ruslan. Each suitor rides off to save the girl, encountering a fantastic assortment of witches, hermits, magic castles, enchanted gardens, magic swords, and so forth, rather in the style of the tales of the “Arabian Nights.”
The sorcerer is vanquished in the end by Ruslan, who revives Ludmilla from a trance and wins her hand in marriage. The overture consists of two main themes, the first driving and rhythmic, the second more lyrical and reminiscent of courtly dances.*
*Glinka Program Notes courtesy of
Richland Symphony, CA.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3
composed in 1909
Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Piano Concerto No. 3 for an American tour in 1909-10 which turned out to be very successful, despite his initial reservations. He was well compensated and received additional offers to perform with both the Boston and Cincinnati symphonies, but wishing to return to Russia, he declined. Eventually, he moved to the United States, after the revolution forced him to leave Russia in 1917.
Piano Concerto No. 3 is one of the most revered and difficult concerti in standard piano repertoire. Pianist Gary Graffman said that he regretted not learning the piece as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.”
The piano opens the first movement with a single theme in octaves, followed by flourishes in the piano, while the orchestra hums the theme underneath. The middle section introduces a second and third theme, intertwined with woodwinds, horns and low strings, followed by a huge cadenza, part of which is sprinkled with responses from the woodwinds and horns. The coda begins with the restatement of the opening theme in the piano and quietly concludes.
The second movement opens gently with woodwinds, answered by strings, with combined forces of both just before the piano enters with a flurry of scales and arpeggios. The first theme is heard, followed by a cadenza-like section. This movement is rhapsodic in nature, with alternations of solo piano and woodwind/string interaction. A fast section in 3/8 time is followed by another slower section, then fast again, leading directly into the final movement.
The final movement was described by Patrick Piggot as “one of the most dashing and exciting pieces of music ever composed for piano and orchestra.” It can be divided into three segments, the first of which is the unifying link of the concerto, containing themes from the first movement. The second segment also recalls themes from the opening movement. The third section closes with the four-note rhythm that some believe to be Rachmaninoff’s musical signature.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 2 in c minor
composed in 1872
Tchaikovsky lived during the era of the reforms of Peter the Great, the dynamic young Czar of Russia (1672-1725), who brought Western European influences into his country. However, the latter half of the 19th century witnessed the rise of nationalism, so many Russian composers sought to rid themselves of European influences and focus more directly on things Russian. In terms of music, this meant avoiding the German, Italian, French and English traditions, including formal structures and technical features.
The leading group of Russian composers in this effort, known as the “Mighty Five,” included Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Cui, with Balakirev as the leader. Unlike his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky embraced European influences and was comfortable using the German formal structures and Italian and French influences in his orchestrations, so he never joined his colleagues in their pursuit, yet he became the most well known Russian composer in history.
This symphony is nicknamed “Little Russian” which at the time referred to the Ukraine. Two Ukrainian folk songs are used, one at the beginning of the piece, the other as the main theme of the fourth movement. The French horn plays the Ukrainian song, “Down by Mother Volga,” which opens the first movement and is heard once again in the development section. A more agitated second theme complements the plaintive first theme. The two themes serve as the basis of the first movement.
The second movement is a mild-paced march, said to be a bridal march Tchaikovsky wrote for an unpublished opera. The first theme is stated in the woodwinds, with the strings responding. Then he quotes the folk song “Spin, O My Spinner.” We’re off to the races in the third movement, and though Tchaikovsky does not include an actual folk song, his music has a folk-like character.
A grand fanfare opens the fourth movement, followed by the folk song, “The Crane,” which Tchaikovsky uses in increasingly intricate and colorful variations of the theme. A more lyrical theme from the strings provides contrast before the symphony ends in a rousing c Major conclusion.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9
composed in 1824
After completing his Symphony No. 8 in 1812, Beethoven began writing out ideas for his next symphony. But it would be 11 years before Symphony No. 9 would be completed. In 1817, Beethoven received a commission for a new symphony from the Philharmonic Society of London, and with some delay, he began work on the symphony in earnest in 1822, completing it in February of 1824.
Unique to this symphony is the use of a chorus and vocal soloists in the final movement, giving it the nickname, “Choral Symphony.” We take such undertakings for granted now, but including a chorus as part of a symphony in 1824 created quite the stir. Beethoven elected to include vocal elements as a rather last minute decision, and even had some doubts about doing so after the premiere. Fortunately, he didn’t let his doubts win him over.
Symphony No. 9 is considered by many to be one of Beethoven’s greatest works, and many consider it one of the greatest compositions in the western musical canon. The text is taken from a poem, “Ode to Joy,” written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785, and revised in 1803, with additions made by Beethoven. Today, Symphony No. 9 is one of the most performed symphonies, and the “Ode to Joy” theme is one of the most recognizable melodies ever composed.
The mood of the first movement is one of turbulence, probably reflective of the many unpleasant personal, political, medical occurrences going on in his life (by this time his tinnitus was so severe that he could hear very little of his masterpiece). The movement is a theme and variations with slow introduction. It opens with tremolos in the second violins and cellos, with short murmurs of sounds coming from the first violins, violas and basses. Some have suggested this sounds like an orchestra tuning, but from this suspenseful quietude emerges a motivic theme of power and authority that later drives the entire movement. This music transitions to a second theme introduced by flutes and clarinets, which flows into alternate sections of great dynamic contrasts; soon the introductory music is heard again. The movement follows the traditional sonata-allegro form.
The second movement is a delightful scherzo and trio. Listen for the explosive tympani parts. The meditative slow third movement is in a loose variation form, with each pair of variations progressively elaborating the rhythm and melody.
Agitated intervals of tri-tones open the fourth movement, the music speaks in fits and starts, with motives from the opening movement of the first movement, bits of the scherzo movement, but eventually we hear the “Ode to Joy” sung by the cellos and basses, then repeated with violas, flowed by violins and eventually the full orchestra led by the trumpets. The agitated tri-tone music returns to introduce the solo baritone.
Soon the chorus joins in the famous choral finale – Beethoven’s musical representation of universal brotherhood.