The opera Cavalleria rusticana is musically gorgeous, dramatically gripping, slyly inventive, and historically significant. “It was like a door that suddenly blew open onto a sealed room. A fresh, cool wind from the country blew away the faint smell of mildew,” remembered one Italian critic.
While sailing to America, Prokofiev wrote the libretto for The Love for Three Oranges, an opera based on a Russian comedy based on an 18th-century Italian commedia dell’arte play.
In 1829 Frédéric Chopin was still Fryderyk—a 19-year-old Polish pianist of some acclaim. His piano concertos became passports to success in Western Europe.
Samuel Barber is perhaps our only orchestral essayist: he wrote three between 1937 and 1978. The Second Essay is his peak Jimmy Stewart-era entry, written in 1942. It develops personal convictions into a common-sense argument, and then an impassioned speech. It suggests a kind of civic-minded idealism without an ounce of jingoism.
It’s not the Enigma that has made Edward Elgar’s Variations endure for more than a century. It’s the warmth and sincerity with which he portrays real people who were important to him.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was always a composer of the long 19th century, but he had become a man of the 20th, interested in cars, speedboats, and airplanes. In these dances, he allowed some of that streamlined luxury into his plush Romanticism.
“Why not begin by remembering the strangely mystical satisfaction of stretching my arms over the piano keyboard and bringing forth—not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a chord…”
Long before a symposium was a dry, academic conference, it was an after-dinner party with a lot of wine. Plato’s Symposium, written around 360 BCE, imagines such a party, and it became the framework for Bernstein’s multi-movement work for solo violin and an orchestra of strings and percussion.
Sibelius’s Second Symphony is tightly composed with a compelling yet abstract trajectory. The rippling opening bars propel everything that follows, unfurling into a first movement that is inevitably called brisk or bracing.
If you think Beethoven looms large over classical music today, imagine being a young composer in 1853—just 26 years after his death—and being declared his second coming.