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.
The Four Ritual Dances from Michael Tippett’s opera "The Midsummer Marriage" follow the opera’s lead characters on their journey to integrate light and shadow and become whole; a path that mirrored the composer’s own.
Beethoven’s first symphony premiered when he was 30. Schubert wrote his first at 16, and Mozart’s was composed when he was only 8. But Johannes Brahms, at 43, had yet to finish his Symphony No. 1, which he’d begun writing more than twenty years previously. A notorious perfectionist, he burned many of his early works and sketches; it was not easy living in the shadow of the giants before him. His many years of preparation were worth it—upon the work’s premiere in 1876, the Vienna press called it “Beethoven’s Tenth.”
A Soviet artist's reply to just criticism"—that was the official government response to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. But was the composer really bowing to the Soviet music authorities? Or was he secretly thumbing his nose at them?
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.
Mozart composed his Symphony No. 40 during the very productive summer of 1788, when he also completed his Symphony No. 39 and Symphony No. 41—the last symphonies he would compose. After a series of revisions, including Mozart’s addition of clarinet parts for his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, numerous versions existed (including an autograph score, with clarinets, that ended up in the hands of Johannes Brahms), confusing editors until their eventual straightening out of the parts in 1930. Symphony No. 40 is in the key of G minor is one of only two symphonies Mozart wrote in a minor key, and according to Robert Schumann, has a “weightless, Hellenic grace.”
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.
Richard Strauss just wanted to give the people in the concert hall a good laugh. His tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks turned out to be one of the most sophisticated pieces of musical humor ever created.
Charles Ives' music is the archetypal "mash-up" of classic Americana. His Symphony No. 3 was inspired by the gentler, more spiritual side of the religious revivals he attended with his family as a child.
Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4 is the classic mash-up of 19th century Americana: hymns, anthems, marches and dance tunes all woven together in a collage that is by turns messy, complicated, sentimental and chaotic, but ultimately transcendent—kind of like life itself.
Mahler's sunny Symphony No. 4 ends with a song—a child's description of heaven. But it is also full of reminders of the vastness of his musical universe.
Witold Lutosławski was one of the great cultural figures of 20th century Poland, and his Concerto for Orchestra– based on a simple folk tune –was one of his first great successes; perhaps because his personal history mirrored that of his native land.
Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his first symphony while he was still a student, but it contains all of the elements of his mature work: the comedy and the tragedy.
Leonard Bernstein based his Symphony No. 2 on W.H. Auden's Pulitzer Prize-winning poem The Age of Anxiety. Auden didn't think much of the work, but for Bernstein, it was very personal.
Leos Janáček based his rhapsody Taras Bulba on one of the most brutal and unpleasant fictional characters ever created. But as a political symbol, it inspired him to write some of his most powerful music.
Shostakovich's 10th Symphony is a vivid depiction of a life of not-so-quiet desperation in the old Soviet Union. It is as powerful a portrait of terror as has ever been composed.
A man spots a woman across the room at a party and falls instantly in love with her. In a fit of despair over his unrequited love, he poisons himself and fantastic dreams and visions result. This is the story, inspired by his own love for the actress Harriet Smithson, that Hector Berlioz portrays in his Symphonie fantastique, premiered in 1830. Using recurring musical motifs to represent characters and brand new instrumental colors, Berlioz worked on foundations laid by Beethoven to bring music fully into the Romantic era.
Following the relative unpopularity of his Piano Concerto No. 1, Bela Bartók returned to his roots for the composition of his next piano concerto, which he called an “antithesis” to the first. This second concerto takes more of a classical form, with a sonata structure and a simpler treatment of the themes. Bartók was well-versed in this kind of writing, having himself made several student editions of music by Bach, Scarlatti, and Couperin. Despite the more traditional form, Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra still maintains the folk music-infused sonorities that have been a consistent hallmark of his music.
Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story received its first Broadway performances in 1957. The musical tells the story of an impossible romance between two star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of 1950s New York City.
The premiere of Symphony No. 7 was perhaps Beethoven’s greatest rock-star moment. Buoyed by the excited troops in whose honor the concert was being performed, he "tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder . . . at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air" (according to orchestra violinist and composer Louis Spohr).
Originally composed for solo piano (and later orchestrated by Ravel), Pictures at an Exhibition was written by Modest Mussorgsky after he visited a retrospective exhibit of the works of his friend Victor Hartmann. The collection of pieces represents a promenade from painting to painting, pausing in front of works called The Gnome, Ancient Castle, and Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky was a member of a nationalistic, anti-conservatory group of young musicians, and he had an unusual ability to interpret visual art in musical expression.
Inspired by a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet starring the same Harriet Smithson who inspired his epic romantic tale Symphonie fantastique, Hector Berlioz set out to compose a totally new kind of orchestra and chorus work: his Romeo et Juliette. In the forward to what he was careful not to call an opera but a “symphonie dramatique,” Berlioz tells of his decision to voice to the characters’ most intimate and sublime emotions not through words but “instrumental language, which is richer, more varied, less fixed, and by its very flow incomparably more powerful.” From the starting Allegro, depicting the warring houses of Montague and Capulet, to the Finale’s oratory oath of reconciliation, this work uses the (then new) language of programmatic orchestral writing to tell the oldest love story in the world.
In The Unanswered Question, Charles Ives tries to find the meaning of life, in a work that was decades ahead of its time.
Beethoven's first piano concerto took Vienna by storm, and set the stage for even more musical revolutions to come.
Listen to a podcast of audio program notes about the The Rite of Spring, specially prepared for the San Francisco Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival in June 2013.
Scotland—the country that gave us haggis, bagpipes, golf and Sean Connery among other world treasures—was also the inspiration for two of Mendelssohn's best-known works: his Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony. There are no actual Scottish tunes in the Symphony; in fact, Mendelssohn professed to dislike all Scottish music, especially the bagpipes. But it's hard to imagine the source of this tuneful work being anything other than the windswept heather of the Highlands.
Perpetually self-conscious, Tchaikovsky worried in spring 1888 that his imagination had dried up, and that he had nothing left to express through music. Vacationing at his home in Frolovskoe provided all the inspiration he needed, and by August, his Symphony No. 5 was complete.
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