Carnival Overture, Opus 92 1891 | 10 mins
Antonín Dvořák was still laboring in poverty and obscurity as he approached middle age. His lucky break came in 1877, when an influential music critic encouraged him to send some scores to famed composer Johannes Brahms. That eminence was so delighted with what he received that he recommended Dvořák to his own publisher, Fritz Simrock. Carnival depicts the high-spirited tumult of a festive carnival setting—barkers and vendors, boisterous crowds, and even, in a gentle passage, what Dvořák said was “a pair of straying lovers.” DID YOU KNOW? In a letter to Simrock, Brahms remarked that “music directors will be thankful to you” for publishing Dvořák’s overtures—and they are.
Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453 1784 | 34 mins
1784 was the height of Mozart’s popularity in Vienna. He gave nearly twenty concerts in two months, and several involved new works. The new concertos were, as Mozart reported to his family, works to make one sweat—“at least this way I can’t get out of practice,” he said. K.453 features a characteristically Mozartian mix of gaiety and melancholy. Throughout, we find ourselves thinking, “Wait—did I really hear that?” LISTEN FOR: This concerto's operatic “finalewithinafinale” is Mozart at his greatest and funniest.
Vltava from Má Vlast 1874 | 12 mins
In 1874, Smetana began losing his hearing, and by October, he had lost it completely. Although he could no longer perform music, he could still write it. He plunged into composing the first two movements of Má Vlast. The subject of the second movement, Vltava, is the Bohemian river that flows north through Prague on its way to join the Elbe, which in turn leads its waters to the North Sea. LISTEN FOR: Visiting there, Smetana heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams. . . . and within him sounded the first chords that intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.
Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra 1915/18 | 23 mins
Nikolai Gogol's brilliantly written novella, Taras Bulba, on which this piece is based, is a powerful—if not unpleasant—piece of romanticized history. The hero of the story, an older Cossack and the father of two sons, is a devout believer in a few basic values: War and bloodshed are good, but peace is a tiresome bore that offers men no worthy occupation. An extremely devout Christian, he is ever ready to defend the Orthodox church. His wife is but a mechanism for the bearing of male children, and loyalty to the tribe matters more than love of his sons. Janáček set to music three episodes from this story. His musical ideas are epigrammatic, and their comings and goings are frequent and rapid. His musical language is that of an artist who can be unpredictable to the point of hovering on the edge of eccentricity, but whose discourse is entirely logical, lucid, and persuasive.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.