The Symphony’s free Program Note Podcast Series highlights a great work being performed each week by the orchestra. Hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, the podcasts feature music from Symphony concerts and recordings, and commentary based on our award-winning program notes by James Keller and Michael Steinberg. You can hear them on the way to the concert, on your smart phone or computer. Listen here, and subscribe to get future episodes automatically.
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On his conceptualization of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin recalled: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer…and there I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the rhapsody...I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
The Budapest Opera approached Bartók in March 1913 to suggest that he consider writing a ballet. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes had visited Budapest in 1912, performing avant-garde works, including Stravinsky’s Firebird, that were received with great enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that Bartók had not shared, since he was in the back-country collecting folk songs. A year later, he commenced work on The Wooden Prince, finally completing the orchestration in January 1917.
At the close of the nineteenth century, Finnish natives were part of a cultural renaissance inspired by their opposition to the Russians occupying their country. Jean Sibelius was swept up in this nationalistic fervor, and composed several patriotic tone poems, including Finlandia. Symphony No. 2 is the result of his fusing together fragments and sketches originally intended for four separate tone poems.
Download a podcast of audio program notes about the Rite of Spring, specially prepared for the San Francisco Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival in June 2013.
Despite his family’s financial turmoil, the year 1806 was extraordinarily productive for Beethoven. He wrote many of his great works, including the Razumovsky string quartets, Piano Concerto No. 4, and Symphonies No. 4 and 5. Symphony No. 4 - a return to the grace and relative simplicity of his earlier style - is perhaps Beethoven’s least frequently performed symphony. A passage in the middle of the second movement was called “one of the most imaginative passages anywhere in Beethoven” by musicologist Donald Francis Tovey.
While composing his Missa solemnis, Beethoven looked to the past. He obtained a copy of the score to J.S. Bach’s unpublished B Minor Mass, and studied the sacred music of C.P.E. Bach. After countless sketches and spiritual preparation, Beethoven composed this work for large orchestra and chorus, dedicating more time to it than any other of his works. Written simultaneously with the Symphony No. 9, Missa solemnis is considered one of the most significant mass settings in classical music.
Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Rhenish, completed in 1850 after his much celebrated appointment as Municipal Music Director in Düsseldorf, reflects his optimism in the face of new challenges. Filled with spirited, glorious themes, Rhenish marks the high point in the life of a composer who struggled with mental illness.
Beethoven spoke of setting out upon a fresh path with his Second Symphony, and even included veiled musical jokes, which shocked the sensibilities of many critics. Produced between the widely popular First and the revolutionary Eroica, Symphony No. 2 forged new territory with development of theme and architecture, and would eventually take its place among Beethoven's great works.
Drawing on themes of contrast and opposition and likely influenced by the aftermath of World War I, Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 uses a nontraditional two movement structure. The first movement is a battle between the orchestra and a renegade snare drummer, silenced by the full forces of the orchestra in the final bars. Movement two takes dramatic and unexpected turns before resolving in triumphant affirmation.
In June 1891, Antonín Dvořák was invited to direct the newly-formed National Conservatory in New York City. Leaving four of their six children behind in Bohemia, Dvořák and his wife made their new home on East 17th Street in cacophonous Manhattan, just a few blocks from the new school. Through his diverse student body and the advent of the polyrhythmic ragtime, Dvořák first encountered African American and Native American music. He was particularly taken with those cultures’ spirituals. He borrowed musical elements from diverse popular sources for many of his compositions, including his Symphony No. 9, From the New World.
The Eroica opened the floodgates for the symphonic outpouring of the nineteenth century – for Beethoven himself, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and the rest. The Eroica was the longest symphony ever written when it was unveiled, and listeners and critics commented widely on that fact, to the composer’s frustration. By 1807 nearly all reactions to the piece were favorable, or at least respectful, and critics were starting to make sense of its more radical elements.
In the space of nine weeks in summer 1788, Mozart produced the last three of his symphonies, including Symphony No. 39. Started within a month after his opera Don Giovanni opened to a less than enthusiastic audience in Vienna, the symphony opens with a reflection on the opera’s overture.
An often criticized social misfit during his time in Vienna, Bruckner's success with his Symphony No. 7 came as a happy and restorative surprise to the composer, described by his friend Gustav Mahler as "half simpleton, half God." Speaking to today's audiences with singular directness, Bruckner 7 remains the most loved of his nine symphonies.
During a period of both personal tragedy and momentous achievement, the Ninth Symphony is the last score Mahler completed. Some part of him would have wanted it so. With Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth in mind, he entertained a deep-rooted superstition about symphonies and the number nine. But for all the annihilating poignancy which this symphony ends, Mahler cannot have meant it as a farewell. Within days of completing it, he plunged into composing a Tenth, which he never finished before his death in 1911.
The technical prowess required and the sublime melody of Strauss’ Oboe Concerto causes a stir among oboists. During occupation of his village in World War II, an elderly and impoverished Strauss met an American soldier and oboist, who suggested he write it. His answer was an emphatic “NO,” but he did complete a last bundle of masterpieces, of which the Oboe Concerto is one.
Composed alongside fellow distinguished Russian composers at a House of Creative Work northeast of Moscow, Prokofiev’s renowned Fifth Symphony saw its premier in January 1945, as Soviet armies had begun their final push to victory over Germany. As Prokofiev raised his baton in the silent hall, the audience could hear the gunfire that celebrated the news, just arrived, that the army had crossed the Vistula and driven the German Wehrmacht back past the Oder river.
Napoléon III’s Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris saw the premiere of this daring, grandiose work, for the opening of the Church of Saint-Eustache. The new organ, a wonder of engineering at the time, was a fitting pillar of what Berlioz described as a “colossal” and “Babylonian” performance with nearly one thousand singers and instrumentalists.
Improvised at the piano after a strenuous day of teaching, Enigma Variations established Elgar as the pre-eminent British composer of his time. Shrouded in mystery is the “enigma” intended by Elgar, a secret he took with him to the grave. Variation IX, “Nimrod (Adagio),” has become a cherished piece in the popular classical lexicon.
Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, written when he was 16, is one of the most popular of his works in this style. The finale uses counterpoint in a way that surprised his audiences and presaged the innovative delights of his later work. The Serenade No. 6, written four years later, was likely composed for dancing at parties during the annual Carnival celebrations in Salzburg.
Scandinavian classic, Peer Gynt, written by Henrik Ibsen, may be one of the world’s first great modern psycho dramas as it moves seamlessly across time and space and between fantasy and reality. Edvard Grieg’s incidental music for Peer Gynt captures its many moods and has become some of the most popular classical music of all time.
During childhood summers spent at the beaches at Cannes, Debussy learned to love the unpredictable and ever-changing sea. The most traditionally ‘symphonic’ of Debussy’s orchestral works, La mer is comprised of three sketches: From Dawn to Noon on the Sea, Play of the Waves, and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.
By the summer of 1809, Napoleon’s French forces, at war with Austria for the fourth time in eighteen years, reached the suburbs of Vienna. “Nothing but drums, cannons, human misery of every sort!” wrote Beethoven to his publisher in Leipzig. But by year’s end, he had completed his Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, a magnificent affirmation made in terrible times.
Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Symphony No. 2 while living in Dresden. At age 33, he was a sought-after conductor and pianist, and had relocated to escape the clamor for his talents. After completing the work, he declared he would never write another symphony, and waited almost thirty years to do so.
After nearly being expelled from conservatory and enduring the disastrous premiere of his first symphony, Rachmaninoff didn’t write a note of music for three years. But after trying out hypnosis therapy (“You will write a Concerto. . . You will work with great facility. . . It will be excellent”), Rachmaninoff composed his Piano Concerto No. 2.
Ever the brutal self-critic, Brahms did not write his first symphony until the age of 42. By the time he wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1885, he had reached the pinnacle of his orchestral composition—the music he had always wanted to write.
On an extended journey through Italy in 1830 and 1831, Felix Mendelssohn began work on his Fourth Symphony. A wildly talented composer who wrote his famous Octet when he was only sixteen, Mendelssohn was prompted to finish the work when the London Philharmonic Society requested a symphony from him (and offered payment of a hundred guineas). Mendelssohn called it the jolliest music he had ever composed. Although he remained dissatisfied with the symphony and planned numerous revisions, the Italian Symphony still stands as one of his most easily recognizable works.
A fascination with the music of Italy’s distant past led Ottorino Respighi to compose what is known as his Romany Triptych of tone poems— Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals. The Pines of Rome depicts the trees around Rome, which according to Respighi, “dominate the Roman landscape [and] become witnesses to the principal events in Roman life.”
In this episode, special guest host Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas talks about a work Mahler called a “foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound,” his Symphony No. 5.
Subtitled The Year 1905, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 uses many Russian folk, revolutionary, and prison songs to evoke the story of the massacre of hundreds of peasants protesting at the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The work is full of Shostakovich’s signature ambiguity, the result of his complicated relationship with the Soviet leadership.
Bruch worried that his first violin concerto was better labeled a fantasy. The work does not follow typical concerto form, instead alternating solo flourishes with chords from the orchestra, and using this same material later to sink directly into the second movement, the Adagio heart of the concerto. His friend Joseph Joachim, the star violinist of the time, assured him that with the inclusion of the fully developed Gypsy dance-like final movement his Violin Concerto No. 1 was a cohesive concerto. It remains Bruch’s most popular work.
Often called the greatest piece of music ever written, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was the last he would ever write. The first symphony to feature a chorus and vocal soloists, Symphony No. 9 also includes the famous “Ode to Joy.”
Rachmaninoff was already an admired conductor and pianist when he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 to bring along on his first tour of the United States. On that tour, he performed the concerto with the New York Philharmonic under their conductor Gustav Mahler.
Duke Bluebeard brings his new wife Judith home to his cold, dark castle, where she insists on opening the seven locked doors behind which Bluebeard hides his secrets. Bartók, the father of ethnomusicology, wrote this one-act opera in his native language and used the speech’s natural rhythm to lead the musical expression.
Considered at first to be a composer of popular music and not a great symphonist, it was Brahms who believed in Dvořák enough to set him up with an important publisher. Written for the London Symphony, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 is a personal catharsis and a masterpiece in tragedy.
Following the conventional success of his Symphony No. 5, written to pacify the Soviet leaders scandalized by his opera Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich composed the Symphony No. 6. Characterized by its unusual Largo opening and scherzo-like finish, the work exhibits Mahler’s influence on Shostakovich’s sound worlds.
To escape the city of Vienna, Beethoven often spent his summers in the rural counties surrounding it—a love reflected in his Symphony No. 6, Pastoral. With movements titled Awakening of joyful sentiments upon arriving in the country and Scene by the brook, the work depicts life in the country.
After becoming disenchanted with his position of Capellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt‑Cöthen, Bach prepared a special copy of six concertos to send to the Margrave of Brandenburg in hopes of employment. Now known as the Brandenburg concertos, the six works represent Bach’s musical resume.
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