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ClassicsOnline Home » 101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 3
A sensitive musician of relatively humble parentage, Elgar has come to be identified
with the heyday of English imperialism. His popular patriotic Pomp and Circumstance
Marches support this view of a composer who, whatever his love of country pursuits,
was no typical Edwardian gentleman.
Brahms, the son of a Hamburg double-bass-player, made his home in Vienna, where
he was greeted by some as the successor to Beethoven. Like the latter he completed
only one concerto for solo violin and orchestra, in the same key, and in its
final Allegro giocoso movement introducing an element of Hungarian energy. The
concerto was written in 1878, immediately after the first two symphonies of
Brahms. It was composed for and with the collaboration of the great Hungarian-born
violinist Joseph Joachim, a friend of Brahms since 1853.
The Russian composer Glière's Russian Sailors' Dance is taken from the
1927 ballet The Red Poppy, set in China, and stressing the unity of the proletariat
throughout the world. A revolutionary coolie leader is saved from death by the
heroine of the piece, which introduced a new populist political element into
ballet in Russia.
Born in the German city of Bonn and a leading exponent of Italian opera, Handel
finally made his home in England, where he remained from 1712 until his death
47 years later. His Water Music was written for a royal entertainment in 1717
on the River Thames, with barges full of musicians accompanying the German King
George I to dinner up-river and back again. The Hornpipe rhythm is characteristically
National feeling grew throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century.
In Russia a group of five composers, of which Rimsky-Korsakov, a former naval
officer, was one, busied themselves with the creation of a specifically Russian
musical style. At the same time there were occasional excursions into more exotic
oriental musical territory, as in Rimsky-Korsakov's version of the Arabian Nights,
Sheherazade. The picture is a general one, interrupted from time to time by
the solo violin, the voice of the heroine herself, as she tells story after
story in an attempt to delay her execution.
Inspired by the poet Mallarmé, Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of
a Faun evokes an ancient, sensuous pagan world, in the heat of noon. The music
was used by Nijinsky for a notorious ballet, in which his own sensual performance
shocked the Paris audience in 1912.
The social summit of Bach's career came early. From 1717 until 1723 he was
Court Director of Music to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, in
charge of a small group of players, and largely relieved from responsibilities
for church music, his preoccupation in Leipzig from 1723 until his death in
1750. Two concertos for solo violin and strings survive from the Cöthen
period of Bach's life in their original form. The third and final movement of
the Violin Concerto in A minor is in the customary rhythm, derived from the
A diffident man, Tchaikovsky was appalled when the head of the Moscow Conservatory,
Nikolay Rubinstein, condemned the new piano concerto that had been played through
to him. Tchaikovsky had studied in St. Petersburg, before taking a position
on the staff of the Conservatory in Moscow, with duties that he gladly relinquished
when circumstances allowed it a few years later. Nowadays the concerto is one
of the most popular of all compositions. The brilliant final movement opens
with a theme borrowed from a Ukrainian folk-song.
The Serenade in G, more usually known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night-Music,
was written in 1787. The year had brought the death of Mozart's father in Salzburg
and was to see the completion of the opera Don Giovanni for performance in Prague.
The Serenade, of which the Romanze is the slow movement, is almost a miniature
symphony, a work of limpid charm and beauty.
It was during his own Grand Tour of Europe that Mendelssohn, the son of a prosperous
Hamburg banker, started work on his Italian Symphony, which he completed three
years later, in 1833. The last movement of the symphony is in a rapid Italian
dance form, the Saltarello, which had become very popular in Rome and its environs.
The energetic dance has something of the Tarantella about it, a dance which
some attributed to the effect and some to a cure for the bite of the tarantula
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101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 3