Scherzo fantastique 1907 | 11 mins
Stravinsky’s early compositions are performed so infrequently that listeners might imagine that his catalogue begins with The Firebird. But that extraordinary work did not emerge from a void. It’s actually very much prefigured in the swirling melodic figures, vivid orchestral colors, and driving momentum of several of Stravinsky’s earlier works, including this Scherzo fantastique from 1907. LISTEN FOR: Alert ears may be struck by a violin passage, about six-and-a-half minutes in, that calls to mind Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular, high-velocity tune Flight of the Bumblebee.
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) 1913/1947 | 35 mins
Stravinsky’s breakthrough to fame arrived when he embarked on a string of collaborations with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes, launched in Paris in 1909, quickly became identified with the cutting edge of the European arts scene. Thanks to the success of those collaborations, Stravinsky was already somewhat famous before May 29, 1913. But the events of that day—the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps and the accompanying riot by the Paris audience—catapulted him, and modern music, onto a path from which there was no turning back. Stravinsky described the piece’s scenario for its concert premiere: “Le Sacre du printemps is a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of creative power of spring.” Le Sacre du printemps has gone down in history as a seminal document of Modernism. LISTEN FOR: A fair amount of this music has some connections to folk melodies—including the famous, high-pitched bassoon solo that opens the piece, which traces its roots to a Lithuanian folk tune.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 15 1795 | 36 mins
When Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was written, the twenty-five-year-old was in Vienna making a name for himself as an exciting composer and pianist. Brilliant concertos were the road to success, and in this piece—with its grand scale (it would have been the longest piece of its kind that this audience had ever heard), its splendid orchestral style, and its impressively difficult piano writing—Beethoven gave the Viennese a humdinger. He scored the work in the festive trumpets-and-drums style of Mozart, and its first movement shares their march-like character. The inflections of the second movement set an expressive tone that was new in 1795: The scoring is delicate, and the orchestra’s solo clarinet plays the role of an important secondary hero. The finale is full of rambunctious humor, just on the edge of acceptable manners. The ending, with the soloist seeming to want to slide off the stage unnoticed, is quite a surprise.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.