Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116
by Béla Bartók
Bartók composed his Concerto for Orchestra during a two-month period in 1943 that most did not expect him to live through. Bartók already had a long history of chronic illness, but in April 1942 he began to suffer from 100-degree temperatures every evening. Despite performing numerous tests and examinations, his doctors were unable to determine a cause for the fevers, and during a series of Harvard lectures in March 1943, Bartók’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. He had been invited to present a series of nine lectures there during the spring semester, but a sudden collapse after the third lecture forced him into the hospital. The remainder of the lecture series was canceled. Bartók’s weight had dropped to a mere 87 lbs., and he was forced to spend the next seven weeks undergoing a litany of new tests. Doctors finally determined that he was suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia, but chose not to inform him of this terminal prognosis. Instead, they told Bartók that he had the blood disorder polycythemia—a disease that carried a much better outlook.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60
by Ludwig van Beethoven
The Fourth Symphony is one of the least performed of Beethoven’s orchestral works, having largely been overshadowed by his other monumental symphonies. It is a fairly traditional symphony, and as such suffered the unfortunate timing of falling directly between two of Beethoven’s most expansive compositions: Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ and Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. In fact, ambivalence towards the work actually began near the end of Beethoven’s own lifetime, once the public had witnessed the grandeur and scope of the composer's final symphonies. Robert Schumann even once remarked that the piece was akin to a “Greek maiden between two Norse giants."
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven still had very little experience composing for solo violin and orchestra by 1806, having preferred instead to focus on the genre of the piano concerto (his Fourth Piano Concerto was completed just that summer). The little experience he did have consisted only of two recently completed romances for violin and orchestra (Op. 40 in 1803 and Op. 50 in 1805), and a section of an unfinished C Major concerto that he worked on between 1790-92. The man whom Beethoven would finally write a full concerto for was Franz Clement, a highly regarded Viennese violinist and conductor who had premiered Beethoven’s Third Symphony the year before. The latter half of 1806 would turn out to be a very active compositional period for Beethoven—in addition to composing the Violin Concerto, he also completed his Fourth Symphony and 32 Variations for piano that fall, and began fully sketching out his Fifth Symphony that winter.
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
by Hector Berlioz
Like so many great works of art throughout the course of human history, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was inspired by—and created to impress—a woman. Berlioz, however, took things a step further by obsessively and compulsively trying to win the affection of a woman whom he had never even met. This woman, Harriet Smithson, was an Irish actress that Berlioz first saw performing in Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Juliet at the Parisian Odéon Theatre in 1827. The twenty-three-year-old Berlioz claimed to have immediately fallen in love with Harriet based on both her beautiful looks and moving performance (despite the fact that Berlioz didn’t understand a word of English at the time), and soon afterward began inundating the actress with emotional letters describing his intense, unrelenting feelings for her.
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
by Johannes Brahms
Brahms wrote his first and only violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim, a highly regarded violinist that the composer had known for over twenty years. This friendship allowed for a unique collaboration on the project, and Brahms frequently wrote to Joachim for his opinions and suggestions on how to improve the solo violin part and orchestration. There was an amount of trust between the two friends that allowed for honest criticism and exchange of ideas, and this proved to be crucial during the lengthy compositional process. When Brahms initially sent the first of the planned four movements to Joachim on August 22, 1878, he included a letter asking for whatever input the violinist could provide:
After having written it out I really don’t know what you will make of the solo part alone. It was my intention, of course, that you should correct it, not sparing the quality of the composition and that if you thought it not worth scoring, that you should say so. I shall be satisfied if you will mark those parts which are difficult, awkward or impossible to play.
"Una furtiva lagrima" from Act II, Scene VII of L'elisir d'amore
by Gaetano Donizetti
Donizetti began work on L’elisir d’amore shortly after the Milan premiere of his opera Ugo, conte di Parigi in March 1832. Heavily edited during dress rehearsals by the Milanese censors, Ugo had been an unmitigated flop. In fact, the cuts enforced by the censors were so grievous that the librettist, Felice Romani, completely disowned the libretto upon learning of them. Unsurprisingly, Donizetti was eager to move on to a new work, and it was not long before he was commissioned to write an opera buffa for the upcoming spring season at the Teatro Canobbianin. Donizetti once again enlisted the talents of Romani, who adapted the plot from Daniel Auber’s 1832 opera Le philtre.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
by Paul Dukas
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was only Dukas’s third original composition after leaving the Paris Conservatoire in 1889. Dukas, who did not start composing until age fourteen, tried for three straight years to win the prestigious Prix de Rome during his studies at the Conservatoire. Frustrated after his third and final attempt, Dukas abandoned school and enlisted in the military. Though he continued to compose as a hobby, Dukas found a new creative avenue in music criticism, beginning with a review of Wagner’s Ring in 1892.
The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart decided to make Le nozze di Figaro into an opera for one main reason: Figaro was the sequel to an earlier, highly successful opera, which itself was based on a highly successful book. The opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, ovvero La precauzione inutile (The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution) by Giovanni Paisiello, was performed to huge crowds all across Europe, and at sixty performances became the most-performed opera in the history of the Vienna theater during the eighteenth century. Il barbiere di Siviglia was an opera adaption of the well-known play by Pierre Beaumarchais, so it is no wonder that Beaumarchais’ 1778 sequel La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figáro (The Wild Day, or The Marriage of Figaro) seemed like very promising source material to Mozart. The popularity of the German translation published in 1785 only made the decision to adapt it that much easier.
Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 'Haffner'
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart was pressured into composing what would eventually become his Haffner Symphony during one of the busiest periods of his life: not only was he busy conducting and arranging wind parts from his hit opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, but he was also entrenched in preparations for his contentious wedding to Constanze Weber. So it seemed particularly poor timing when Mozart’s father requested a new serenade for an upcoming festival celebrating the ennoblement of family friend Sigmund Haffner. In a letter dated July 20, Mozart replies:
By Sunday week my opera has to be completely arranged for wind instruments, or someone else will get ahead of me, and reap the profits: and now I am supposed to write a new symphony [i.e., serenade] too! How will it be possible?… Oh well, I will have to give up my nights to it, for it cannot be done any other way; and to you, my dear father, and I will work as fast as possible, short of sacrificing good composition to haste.
by Maurice Ravel
For Maurice Ravel, Bolero was essentially a compositional experiment that began with a commission from Ida Rubinstein for her dance company in Paris. According to his good friend Gustave Samazeuilh, Ravel came up with the melody one morning before a leisurely swim while noodling away at the piano with just one finger.1 Ravel turned to his friend and remarked:
Don’t you think this theme has an insistent quality? I’m going to try to repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.
Piano Concerto in G Major
by Maurice Ravel
Ravel began composing his G Major Piano Concerto shortly after returning home from an American conducting tour in 1929. The trip was such a success that Ravel soon began planning another, more ambitious tour to perform a new piano concerto he would compose himself. While work on the concerto as we know it began in earnest that year, much of the music had earlier origins.
Scheherazade, Op. 35
by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
The idea for Scheherazade came to Rimsky-Korsakov during the early winter months of 1888 as he worked to complete Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov’s output had diminished significantly since his appointment in 1883 as the assistant to his mentor, Mily Balakeriev, at the Court Kapella, and much of this time was spent editing and revising his older works along with those of colleagues like Modest Mussorgsky (who had died in 1881). It is possible that Rimsky-Korsakov’s inspiration for a work with an Oriental character came from the Polovtsian Dances of Prince Igor, but exposure to such soundscapes can be traced back to as early as Balakeriev’s Tamara. Indeed, the recurring solo violin sections of Scheherazade seem to be an idea that Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed unabashedly from the earlier symphonic poem of his teacher.
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70
by Dmitri Shostakovich
Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony was composed over a short span of four weeks in August 1945—only three months after the Allied victory in Europe. It was not Shostakovich’s first attempt at the symphony, though, and he had actually performed ten minutes of the first version for his friend Isaak Glickman earlier that April.1Dissatisfied, Shostakovich set aside his initial attempt and proceeded to create the version of the Ninth Symphony that we all know today. Five days after the score’s completion, Shostakovich and Sviatoslav Richter premiered the piano reduction at the Moscow Composers’ Union. The orchestral premiere was given on November 3rd by the Leningrad Philharmonic as the headlining event in a festival celebrating the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28
by Richard Strauss
Strauss began composing Till Eulenspiegel in late 1894, five years after he had completed his last tone poem, Tod und Verklärung. During this five-year gap, Strauss had been completely preoccupied with writing the music and libretto for his opera Guntram. The opera, which premiered in May 1894, was an uncharacteristic failure for the twenty-nine-year-old Strauss, and it was only ever staged a handful of times during his lifetime. The next work that Strauss embarked on, Till Eulenspiegel bei den Schildbürgern, also began life as an opera. He originally intended it to take the form of a one-actVolksoper (folk opera) based on the folk character of the same name, but the project was scrapped with only a rough draft of the libretto ever completed. It is not entirely clear why Strauss abandoned this opera, but the recent failure of Guntram undoubtedly played a large role in the composer’s decision.
The Rite of Spring
by Igor Stravinsky
According to Stravinsky, the idea for The Rite of Spring2 came as a sudden vision while he was working to finish The Firebird. He recalls this moment of inspiration in his 1936 autobiography:
One day, when I was finishing the last pages of L’Oiseau de Feu in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in [my] imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps. I must confess that this vision made a deep impression on me, and I at once described it to my friend, Nicholas Roerich, he being a painter who had specialized in pagan subjects. He welcomed my inspiration with enthusiasm, and became my collaborator in this creation. In Paris I told Diaghileff about it, and he was at once carried away by the idea, though its realization was delayed by the following events.
by Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky was only twenty-seven years old when he received the commission for The Firebird from Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev, a ballet impresario, had previously hired Stravinsky to arrange a few short piano pieces for earlier productions at his Ballets Russes, and clearly recognized both the talent and potential of the young composer’s work. Initial discussions between Stravinsky and Diaghilev took place as early as the summer of 1909, but an official commission was not offered until December. Interestingly, Diaghilev actually offered the job to two other composers during this period, and only returned to Stravinsky after both of these earlier commissions fell through. Stravinsky, aware that he was not the first choice to produce the score, began composing anyway.
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky
By the start of 1877, Tchaikovsky had unofficially left his position at the Moscow Conservatory and become financially independent through the donations of Nadezhda von Meck. The affluent widow was not only Tchaikovsky’s primary patron during this time, but also one of his most trusted confidantes, sparking correspondences that have since provided a wealth of insight into the composer’s very private personal life. By mutual agreement the two never met, yet Tchaikovsky often shared his most intimate and deep feelings with her. Their close relationship continued until 1890, when von Meck—for reasons that remain unclear—abruptly ended her patronage.
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky did not begin work on his Fifth Symphony until an entire decade had passed since the premiere of his Fourth. Although Tchaikovsky continued composing for the orchestra during this long span, he also became more involved in conducting his own works, and embarked on his first European conducting tour at the start of 1888. It was during this tour that he was introduced to the elderly chairman of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society, Theodor Avé-Lallement, who may have provided at least some impetus for Tchaikovsky to finally begin a new symphony.
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 'Pathetique'
by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky
The genesis of the Sixth Symphony dates back to 1889, when Tchaikovsky expressed a desire to write a symphony for the czar that would be the grand conclusion to his compositional career. He set about writing this proposed symphony between 1891-92, but became suddenly dissatisfied with it, going so far as to destroy it and start completely anew. In a letter to his brother dated February 22, 1893, Tchaikovsky writes:
I told you that I had completed a symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.
Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg
by Richard Wagner
Wagner composed most of Tannhäuser between 1842 and 1845, saving work on the overture for last. The full title of the opera, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, suggests that Wagner used two separate sources for the opera: the fifteenth century German ballad Tannhäuserlied, and the early thirteenth century poemDer Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (The Song Contest at Wartburg). Wagner became familiar with each of these legends during a three-year stay in Paris, and was inspired to combine them during his trip back home to Dresden in 1842. On this trek, Wagner traveled through the valley of the Wartburg castle—the setting for Der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg—and envisioned one of the nearby ridges as the legendary Venusberg—one of the main settings of Tannhäuserlied.