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.
In summer 1903, Mahler was at his happiest time of life. Married to the beautiful Alma and father to two healthy daughters, it doesn’t seem like the time when one would compose a symphony often called the Tragic. However, in an eerily prescient stroke, this is exactly what Mahler does. In the years that followed, Mahler suffered the death of a child, the loss of his position in Vienna, and learned of his debilitating heart disease—three blows of fate predicted by the blows of the drum that fell the Hero at the close of Symphony No. 6.
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.
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.
Mahler's 7th is sometimes called "The Song of the Night," but it's really a journey from night into day, with some very interesting stops along the way.
Mahler’s last complete work, the Symphony No. 9, was composed following a whirlwind period of great loss and supreme achievement, including the composition of his “symphony without a number,” Das Lied von der Erde. Symphony No. 9 reaches the greatest apex of Mahler’s compositional catalogue, exhibiting his characteristic subtle transition, expansion, and continuous variation at their fullest.
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.
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.
Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony made him a war hero, but his Eighth Symphony still got him in trouble with the Soviet government, perhaps because it was less a hymn to heroism than a prayer for peace
At the close of the nineteenth century, Finnish natives were enjoying a renaissance of their native culture, in opposition to their Russian occupiers. Jean Sibelius was swept up in this nationalistic fervor, and composed several patriotic tone poems, including Finlandia. Symphony No. 2, misinterpreted at its premiere as a commentary on the Finnish political conflict, was composed mostly in Italy, where Sibelius was renting a studio. Working with fragments and sketches intended for four separate tone poems, Sibelius then assembled the pieces into this full-fledged symphony.
Upon visiting Stravinsky in late 1910, expecting to find him immersed in composing the Rite of Spring, Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russe, was quite surprised to find him instead composing the ballet of an anthropomorphized puppet. The story recounts the rise and fall of mischievous Petrushka, a puppet brought to life by a magician as he courts the Ballerina and fights the Charlatan. The work was premiered one hundred years ago, with Nijinsky dancing the title role. Former SFS Music Director Pierre Monteux conducted the work’s world premiere.
The Fourth Symphony was a product of the most turbulent time of Tchaikovsky's life - 1877, when he met two women (Nadezhda von Meck, a music-loving widow of a wealthy Russian railroad baron, and Antonina Miliukov, an unnoticed student in one of his large lecture classes at the Moscow Conservatory), who forced him to evaluate himself as he never had before.
"Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was about passion, inspired by passion, and made possible by passion. That passion changed the course of Western music history."
For many, the sound of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" is the sound of American classical music.
In his fantasy opera "L'enfant et les sortileges," Maurice Ravel brings together his love of children, animals and fairy stories in a magical, musical mix.
With his piece "Street Song" for brass ensemble, Michael Tilson Thomas - the composer - celebrates both his past and his future.
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.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony team up with iconoclastic organist Cameron Carpenter to release a one-of-a-kind recording of Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning spatial composition, Ice Field. Put on your headphones for a unique Dolby Atmos immersive experience that allows us to hear Brant’s work as it was intended: as a vast acoustical soundscape for 100 players scattered throughout Davies Symphony Hall.
When Mozart went to Paris, he may not have found the job he was looking for, but he still found success, with his stylish Symphony No. 31.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov traveled the world as a naval officer, but it was his musical journey into the world of the Arabian Nights that became one of his most colorful and enduring masterpieces.
When Johannes Brahms wrote his first Piano Concerto, he was worried about the judgment of history. By the time he wrote his second Piano Concerto, he was making history.
Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 contains some of his best-known music, including the beautiful "Air on the G String." But it also contains the origins of the modern symphony orchestra.
Bach's Orchestral Suite
3 contains some of his best
known music, including the beautiful "Air on the
G String." But it also contains the origins of the modern symphony orchestra.
Brahms's Symphony No.2 is generally thought of as his most lighthearted, but it's actually built on the contrasts between light and dark, between sunshine and clouds. Kind of like life.
Franz Liszt may have been one of the nineteenth century’s most exasperating underachievers, to say nothing of committing the unforgivable sin of success on a staggering scale, but he was a genius. This concerto can remind us. Begun in 1835 at the ripe old age of 24, Liszt did not complete his first piano concerto until nearly twenty years later. A final draft appeared in 1849, which was revised before the 1855 premiere (conducted by Hector Berlioz), and then revised yet again before its publication in 1856. Béla Bartók called the concerto “the first perfect realization of cyclic sonata form, with common themes being treated on the variation principle.”
In "Four Legends from the Kalevala," Jean Sibelius explored Finland's mythical past and found his own musical future.
Anton Bruckner grew up an unsophisticated teacher’s son. By the time he reached Vienna and the composition of his Symphony No. 5, he had a sound combining Beethoven’s sense of mystery and suspense, Schubert’s harmony, and Wagner’s breadth in unfolding, plus a symphonic vision all his own.
However you like your Messiah - big or intimate, modern or period, authentic or interpreted - when you listen you become part of an almost 300-year tradition of what may be classical music's most beloved masterpiece
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.”
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.
"Banned" and "boycotted" - whether by the state or by the public, "official" disapproval has long had the power to change composers' careers and their lives.
Dvořák's Symphony No. 8 is, in many ways, his most Bohemian - full of blue skies, but with dark shadows that make the sunshine that much brighter.
Ravel's Alborada del gracioso is a jester's song to his lady—a poignant love song surrounded by a miniature musical comedy.
Der Rosenkavalier was Richard Strauss' "Mozart opera," and its sparkle, wit, sentiment and infectious music—especially the waltzes—cemented his standing at the top of the operatic world.
music- especially the waltzes - cemented his standing at the top of the operatic world.Der Rosenkavalier
was Richard Strauss's "Mozart opera," and its sparkle, wit, sentiment and infectiou
music - especially the waltzes - cemented his standing at the top of the
operatic world.Der Rosenkavalier
The Rite of Spring wasn't the first piece of music to spark a riot, and it certainly wasn't the last, but it was the most significant.
Serge Diaghilev was turned down by four composers before turning to Igor Stravinsky to write the music for a new production by the Ballet Russe. Luckily, Stravinsky, eager to try his hand at a ballet, had already been working on the music for a month, and their artistic relationship went on to produce Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" was the perfect "cosmic trip" for the Summer of Love - even though it was written 60 years earlier.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 bridged the divide between East and West in Russian music; that may have been the reason it was the only one of his works that he was really satisfied with.
In 1854, Robert Schumann, friend and mentor to a young Johannes Brahms, attempted suicide by drowning in the Rhine River. Thrown into emotional turmoil by Schumann’s resulting institutionalization and his unrequited love for Robert’s wife Clara, young Brahms began sketching his first major orchestral work. Brahms reflects his struggle with a tormented opening, a slow movement which he described as a “lovely portrait” of Clara, and acceptance of reality in the finale. Perhaps afraid to attempt a form so masterfully executed by Beethoven, the work soon evolved into a sonata for two pianos and then finally became his Piano Concerto No. 1, in D minor.
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.
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.”
Sergei Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel—a medieval tale of demonic possession and its erotic overtones—was never produced during his lifetime. But he felt it contained some of the best music he had written, so he brought it to life in the concert hall as his dark, dynamic, and dangerous Symphony No. 3. How he got it past the Soviet censors is a mystery; you may find yourself looking over your shoulder after hearing it!
Gustav Holst's suite The Planets was inspired by his interest in astrology; the stars must have been aligned because it has been a hit ever since its first performance.
After a series of successful tone poems based on literary sources, Richard Strauss found a fascinating new subject to write about: himself. His Alpine Symphony is based on eventful day trip he took as a boy; an epic musical journey to the summit and back again.
Maurice Ravel called his score to the ballet Daphnis et Chloé a "great, choreographic symphony." The ballet lasted only a couple of performances, but the score has become—like the Greek gods—immortal.
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.
Constructing a winning chess match is not that different from constructing a musical composition. Sergei Prokofiev used both strategies in his Piano Concerto No. 3.
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.
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