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ClassicsOnline Home » 101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 4
Ludwig van Beethoven, born in Bonn in 1770, spent the greater part of his career
in Vienna, where he died in 1827. He completed nine symphonies and of these
the Fifth, at least in its opening bars, is probably the best known. The composer
started work on the symphony soon after completing the Eroica Symphony, the
Third, but put it aside to deal with what is now the Fourth. The Fifth seems
to have been finished by February 1808 and was first performed in December of
that year. A chance remark by the composer -Thus Fate knocks at the door - has
led some to name the work the Fate Symphony, a title Beethoven himself would
not have recognised.
The clarinet, at least with its fuller range of notes, was a product of the
early eighteenth century , but only gradually took its place in the orchestra.
The first clarinettists in the Vienna Court Orchestra were the Stadler brothers,
appointed in 1787, after some years of 5 free-lance and wind-band work in the
capital. Anton Stadler developed a new form of clarinet, known as the basset
clarinet, with an even wider range in the bass, and it was for this instrument
and its inventor that Mozart, who had settled in Vienna in 1781 at the age of
25, ten years later, in the last year of his life, wrote a fine quintet for
clarinet and string quartet and an even more splendid concerto, of which the
Adagio is the slow movement.
Shakespeare fascinated the nineteenth century, his relative freedom and wide
scope appealing in particular to the romantic imagination. Felix Mendelssohn
had an early acquaintance with the plays and in 1826, at the age of sixteen,
had written an Overture with the title A Midsummer Night's Dream, translating
into musical terms some of the elements of the original play. In 1842 he was
invited to Berlin, where he wrote, to a royal commission, incidental music for
a German translation of the same play. The Scherzo is the epitome of fairy music,
apt accompaniment to the activities of the fairy kingdom found in a wood near
Athens, the setting of the magic play.
Among romantic piano concertos, the Norwegian Edvard Grieg's contribution to
the genre is among the best known. Grieg, Scottish by remoter ancestry, but
the principal nationalist composer of the late nineteenth century in his own
country, wrote his piano concerto in 1868 and revised it in the months before
his death in 1907. The attraction of the concerto, and particularly of its first
movement, lies in its variety of melodic material and its colourful harmonies.
Some composers have had the misfortune to write pieces that become so popular
that in the public mind, at least, they outweigh all else. The French composer
Claude Debussy was haunted by his famous Clair de lune (Moonlight), part of
a piano suite written in 1890 and revised in 1905.
Handel, German by birth, Italian in musical style and finally English by domicile,
wrote his Royal Fireworks Music to accompany a celebration of the Peace of Aix-Ia-Chapelle
that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. Held in London's Green Park in
April 1749, the display was not without mishap, when the pavilion constructed
for the pyrotechnic exhibition caught fire, to the dismay of its Italian architect.
Rejouissance, aptly named, is part of the Grand Overture of Warlike Instruments
that Handel was persuaded to write for the occasion.
Mozart as an infant prodigy enjoyed international fame as a child. In adolescence
in the 1770s he found himself for a time confined to his native Salzburg, where
his father was Deputy Director of Music to the reigning Archbishop. Mozart himself,
as much violinist as pianist, served as leader of the court orchestra and in
1775 wrote a set of five violin concertos for his own use or for that of colleagues.
The fifth of these ends with a refreshingly varied movement, one of its episodes
of a fashionably Turkish character.
Music for ballet in mid-nineteenth century Russia was not always of the best.
This changed when Tchaikovsky was commissioned to provide music for Swan Lake,
commissioned by the Moscow Imperial Theatres in 1875. Ballet, with its relatively
short musical forms, suited the genius of Tchaikovsky very well, with his gift
for melody and orchestral colour. The waltz for the enchanted Swan Princess
is among the most popular dances in the ballet.
Born in 1811 in Hungary, then part of the Habsburg Empire, Liszt was taken
as a child to Vienna and theo to Paris. France was the base from which he first
toured Europe as a virtuoso pianist, later moving to Weimar and finally to Rome.
Although at first ignorant of the language, he was accepted in the Hungarian
regions of the Empire as a national hero, not least for his Hungarian Rhapsodies,
evoking popular gypsy music, wrongly identified with folk music. Nevertheless
the suggestions of a vagrant gypsy life had a wide appeal in a romantic century.
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101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 4