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8.551146 - 101 GREAT ORCHESTRAL CLASSICS, Vol. 6

101 Greatest Orchestral Classics - Volume 6

Felix Mendelssohn was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the son of a Hamburg banker and grandson of the Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the family fortunes. In 1826, at the age of sixteen, he wrote an Overture depicting in music terms the fairy world of Shakespeare's magic play A Midsummer Night's Dream. As an adult he was commissioned in 1842 to provide music for a staging of the same play in Berlin, his famous Wedding March marking the final wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.

Mendelssohn's near contemporary Robert Schumann had hopes of becoming a great pianist, but these ambitions were thwarted through a weakness in his fingers, leading to a concentration on composition, with continuing literary proclivities as a music critic. His love affair with the young pianist Clara Wieck, the favourite daughter of his piano teacher, led to a law-suit, when her father sought to prevent the marriage, sensing, perhaps, the future mental instability that brought the composer's final breakdown and death two years later, in 1856. Victory in the court case allowed the couple to marry in 1840 and in the years that followed Schumann worked on a piano concerto for his young wife. The Allegro affettuoso is the first movement.

Vienna fostered a spirit of gaiety, represented musically by the Strauss family, a musical dynasty established in the second quarter of the 19th century by Johann Strauss with his dance orchestra, followed by his three sons, for whom he had planned quite different careers. Johann II and his younger brother Joseph were joint composers of the Pizzicato Polka, the newly fashionable dance, devised here for plucked strings.

Antonio Vivaldi, a leading violinist of his age, was among the most important figures in the musical world of Venice during the first forty years of the 18th century. Employed as violin teacher and later director of instrumental music at one of the Venetian girls' orphanages with a considerable reputation for music, he wrote some 500 concertos, many of them for solo violin and string orchestra. Of these the most famous, then as now, were the Four Seasons, programmatic works to which he later attached explanatory poems. Autumn starts with a celebration of the grape harvest.

The so-called Unfinished Symphony of Schubert is among the best loved orchestral compositions of all, although it lay undiscovered for years after the composer's early death in 1828. The son of a Vienna schoolmaster, Schubert spent his short life in the city of his birth, and had begun to gain some recognition. At his death at the age of 31 much else was left either unfinished or at the very least in some disorder. Two of the movements of the Unfinished Symphony, of which the Andante con moto is the second, were completed and sketches made for two more movements.

The cinema has provided opportunities for composers in the present century, although sometimes the music they have written passes unnoticed. The Russian composer Sergy Prokofiev's music for the film Lieutenant Kije has survived its origin, which was to accompany the story of a non-existent army officer, the result of a clerical error, whose fortunes were as unreasonable as those of any real officer who might have courted official favour and disfavour.

The Sicilienne or Siciliana is in origin a Sicilian shepherd dance, adopted by early 18th century composers as an instrumental form. Gabriel Fauré used the dance in 1893 in his incidental music for Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. In 1898 a version for cello and piano was published with a dedication to the English cellist W.H. Squire and the composer used the attractive melody again in incidental music for Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande.

Nationalism gained ground throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century. In Bohemia, part of the Habsburg Empire ruled from Vienna, Smetana and his younger contemporary Dvorák epitomized the mood, the latter not least in his Slavonic Dances, originally for piano duet but soon orchestrated.

In Russia Tchaikovsky, whose national origins were apparent to audiences abroad, represented something of a compromise between an uncultivated native Russian tradition and the techniques of Germany and Western Europe. His ballet Swan Lake, commissioned by the Moscow Imperial Theatres in 1875, suited his talents well, and raised ballet music to a new level in this period. The story, in which Prince Siegfried endeavours to rescue the enchanted Swan Princess, Odette, whether it ends in the death of hero and heroine or in the realisation of their love, has its origin in a German folk-tale.

Russian ballet under the impresario Sergey Dyagilev had a profound effect on Western European dance in the first decade of the 20th century. Young composers, designers and choreographers were recruited to create works with a new vigour and sometimes savage energy. Ravel, who had worked for Dyagilev before 1914, wrote his Spanish ballet-score Bolero for one of Dyagilev's successors, Ida Rubinstein, with choreography by Nijinsky. In the original ballet a Spanish gypsy dancer dances on a tavern table, exercising increasing fascination over her audience.

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