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ClassicsOnline Home » 101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, the Rhineland capital of the Archbishop
of Cologne, and spent the greater part of his life in Vienna, where he established
himself in 1792 as a virtuoso pianist and innovative composer. Increasing deafness,
which had become apparent by 1800, led to the gradual abandonment of the first
and the development of the second capacity. By the end of his life in 1827 he
had long been accepted as the most remarkable composer in the imperial capital,
his eccentricities tolerated in respect of his genius. The Overture Coriolanus
was written in 1807, not for Shakespeare's tragedy of that name, but for a play
by the Austrian dramatist Heinrich von Collin, based on the life of the Roman
The Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, son of an émigré French
father who had settled in Poland, won an early reputation for himself in Warsaw,
before moving in 1831 to Paris, which remained his home until his early death
from tuberculosis in 1849. At the beginning of his career he wrote two piano
concertos and other works for piano and orchestra, necessary equipment for a
virtuoso pianist-composer. He later preferred to perform in more intimate surroundings
than the concert-hall, the fashionable salons of Paris providing a more congenial
setting for his poetic style of composition and performance. The slow movement
of his Piano Concerto No.1, the second of the two he wrote, is characteristic
of his style. He himself compared it to dreaming in beautiful spring-time by
Bizet wrote the melodrama L'Arlésienne in collaboration with Alphonse
Daudet in 1872. The piece is based on the work of the writer Mistral, a drama
of love and jealousy, in which the girl from Aries of the title makes no appearance.
The melodrama failed to please the Paris audience, but the two suites derived
from the incidental music have enjoyed continued popularity. A farandole is
a dance from Provence, the source of the melody used by Bizet in his Farandole
for The Girl from Aries.
Johann Sebastian Bach spent happy years, from 1717 unti11723, as director of
music at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, before moving to
the relative drudgery of Cantor, responsible to the City Council for music in
the principal churches of Leipzig. The six Brandenburg Concertos were written
at Cöthen and dedicated in 1721 to the Margrave of Brandenburg, a nobleman
whose patronage seemed likely to promise something in the future. The final
movement of the second of these concertos, is introduced by a solo trumpet,
joined by solo flute, oboe and violin, and accompanied by a string orchestra
and harpsichord, and is characteristically energetic.
Beethoven completed only one violin concerto. As a boy he had played the violin
and viola, as well as keyboard instruments, and seems even to have taken further
violin lessons when, at the age of 22, he moved to Vienna from his native Bonn.
The concerto was written in 1806 and first performed in Vienna at a concert
on 23rd December that year by the young violinist Franz Clement, who also delighted
his audience by playing a set of variations with the violin upside down. The
rondo has a spirited main theme, which re-appears between contrasting episodes.
Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, had a distinguished career
in 19th century Russia as a professor of chemistry. He belonged to the small
group of five composers known as the Mighty Handful, most of them originally
in other professions, who were at the forefront of Russian musical nationalism.
In the Steppes of Central Asia is programmatic, as a group of merchants in this
exotic and distant part of the Russian Empire meet a passing camel caravan,
represented by an oriental type of melody.
Nationalism was politically and culturally dominant in the second half of the
19th century. Dvorák and his older contemporary Smetana are the two most
important Bohemian composers of the period. The former won popularity outside
his own region of the Habsburg Empire with his Slavonic Dances, originally for
piano duet, but orchestrated by the composer, who used Bohemian dance rhythms,
but original melodies.
In Norway the leading nationalist composer was Edvard Grieg, descendant of
an immigrant Scot. His delightful Suite from the Time of Holberg, for string
orchestra, recalls the period of the Norwegian-born playwright Ludvig Holberg,
who in early 18th century Denmark, won a reputation as the Danish Molière,
with a series of 32 satirical comedies. The lively Prelude to Grieg's Suite,
a work originally written for piano, does not attempt pastiche, although it
suggests the restrictions of Baroque form and texture.
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth as the son of a prosperous Hamburg banker,
Mendelssohn enjoyed a childhood and adolescence that brought contact with many
of the major musicians and writers of his time. The campaigns of Napoleon forced
the family to settle in Berlin, although Mendelssohn was eventually to find
his musical activity principally in Leipzig, where he founded the Conservatory
and conducted the Gewandhaus concerts. His incidental music for Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night's Dream was commissioned by the culturally ambitious King
of Prussia for performance of the play in Berlin in 1843. The Notturno accompanies
the sleep of the lovers, bewitched in the forest outside Athens through the
machinations of Oberon, King of the Fairies, and of his attendant spirit Puck.
The son of a jobbing Hamburg double-bass-player, Johannes Brahms moved south
to Vienna, where he established himself, in the eyes of some, at least, as the
successor of Beethoven. His symphonies were a long time coming, although Robert
Schumann in 1853, had prophesied their arrival, a public gesture that had increased
the young composer's diffidence. The first of Brahms's four symphonies was eventually
completed in 1876, and the fourth in 1885. The last movement of the work, marked
Allegro energico e passionato, energetic and passionate, is in the form of a
passacaglia, a traditional Baroque variation form. The eight-bar theme, which
makes use of an additional three trombones to add solemnity, is the subject
of a series of thirty variations.
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101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 1