In 1829 Frédéric Chopin was still Fryderyk—a 19-year-old Polish pianist of some acclaim. On November 1 of the following year, he would leave for a concert tour to Vienna and end up exiled after a rebellion against the Russian Empire failed, making a return home untenable. Both his piano concertos were written in his last years in Poland, and 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.
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.
It took Holst almost four years to complete The Planets and then it was another three years before a complete performance was staged. The piece quickly became extremely popular, and the shy and humble Holst achieved a level of celebrity he never really sought nor wanted.
This violin concerto was likely premiered by Bologne with the Concert des Amateurs, and was published around 1775 by Antoine Bailleux. Look out for the sudden entry of peasant pipes and fiddles, crashing the elegant ambiance—a musical anticipation of the French Revolution to come.
In this work, Saariaho captures the sweep and depth of the winter sky, its stinging cold and clarity, the slow drift and play of the constellations as they rise and set, and the immensity of it all.