Category Archives: Classical

Beethoven’s Fifth – The World’s Most Famous Symphony

Is it possible for a work of art to become too famous for its own good? Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Beethoven’s Fifth is a work that has been so often reproduced, excerpted and remixed that it has become as easy to ignore a as flashing web banner. I will never forget the first time I heard Walter Murphy’s 1977 disco instrumental “A Fifth of Beethoven” as a freshman music major foraging for dorm-friendly comestibles in a tiny grocery store on Manhattan’s upper Upper West Side.

At first puzzled to hear the opening four notes of Beethoven’s famous symphony in a setting where Muzak was de rigueur, I soon realized that all was not as it seemed. This was yet another example of the seemingly endless adaptations of the world’s most famous symphony, along with the bleeding chunks of the first movement hewn together with the semblance of a baby-animal-in-danger storyline in Disney’s Fantasia 2000, a film about a lovable Saint Bernard, internet cat videos (one of which I admittedly posted to the Houston Symphony’s Facebook page in the interminable quest for more likes) and even a cartoon about Beethoven’s wig (even though wigs were totally out of style by the time Beethoven grew up):

Many might argue that these allusions to Beethoven’s symphony are signs of the work’s continued relevance to modern-day popular culture and are perfect examples of the postmodernist aesthetic of quotation and sampling. Others, though, might argue that they risk turning music that was once perceived as shocking and revolutionary into something familiar and banal. Perhaps the most difficult layer of shellacked meaning to scrub off of this war horse is the way in which Beethoven’s Fifth has come to represent Classical Music and modern Western Culture in general. The Fifth Symphony was used by the allies in WWII as a symbol of victory, since the opening “da-da-da-dum” rhythm happens to translate as the letter “V” in Morse Code. Thanks to Carl Sagan, Otto Klemperer’s recording of the first movement is spiraling ever further away from us in outer space on board the Voyager spacecrafts’ Golden Records. Also, many of you may remember KULTUR Video International’s use of the Fifth as intro music for its classical music, opera, and ballet videos.

While many of these uses of this piece can add layers to our understanding and appreciation of Beethoven’s symphony, they can also cause us to lose sight of the music itself and its message (if music without words can have a message). Just for a moment, let’s step back and think about how this symphony must have sounded before YouTube, television and interstellar space travel.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had a long and difficult birth. Beethoven began his earliest sketches of it in 1804 and did not finish it until 1808, a four year stretch that also saw the completion of the Appassionata piano sonata, the three Razumovsky string quartets, the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony, the Mass in C and the first version of Fidelio. Writing music comes easily to some composers—Mozart, for instance, could write a symphony in a few days—but Beethoven was not one of them. He relentlessly sketched, reworked and revised the Fifth Symphony, and the transformation his original ideas underwent is astonishing. Beethoven wrote that for him, composing “begins in my head [with] the working-out in breadth, height, and depth. Since I am aware of what I want, the fundamental idea never leaves me. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.”

Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope's hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David's "The Coronation of Napoleon."

Napoleon infamously snatched the crown out of the Pope’s hands and crowned himself emperor, as depicted here in a detail from Jacques-Loius David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon.”

Aside from Beethoven’s usually arduous process of composing, there were other factors that may have presented difficulties for him. For instance, Napoleon, Beethoven’s sometime hero turned nemesis, defeated Austria and occupied Vienna in 1805. Beethoven had initially been sympathetic to Napoleon and the ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité that he seemed to represent as he promised to spread the French Revolution to all of Europe, toppling the ancient privileges of the aristocracy. Beethoven even planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon. When Napoleon infamously crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven scratched out his name on the title page and rededicated it “to the memory of a great man.”

While Napoleon was bombarding Vienna, Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement with pillows stuffed over his ears, fearing that the explosions would further destroy his deteriorating sense of hearing. Beethoven’s loss of hearing was slow and painful: he first began to notice a ringing in his ears in 1796 at the age of 26, and gradually it got worse and worse. First the highest notes fell silent, more and more disappearing as time passed. As a pianist, Beethoven would have been painfully aware of where on the keyboard his hearing ended. By 1802 it was interfering with his ability to follow conversations, and during a retreat in the town of Heiligenstadt, he even contemplated suicide. Fortunately for all music lovers, he ultimately decided to persevere, writing, “such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.”

It was thus amidst the turmoil of war, revolution and personal crisis that Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony, a symphony that revolutionized music forever. From the opening four notes, gone are the powdered wigs, pastel colors and porcelain figurines of the eighteenth century, and we are plunged into a violent world of gunpowder and revolution. Beethoven obsessively pursues those first four notes—the entire first movement (and much of the others) is derived from them. Those first four notes have stuck in the ears of Western civilization because we’ve heard them before. The rhythm is a typical formula found at the ends of phrases in pieces by Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven strips away the trills and grace notes and imbues this driving rhythm with a brutal emotional power. The essence of Beethoven’s genius was that he could take the simplest building blocks of the classical style and construct radically new, monumental works with them.

The firsts of this symphony are impressive: it was one of the earliest symphonies to use trombones (and the one that made them stick as members of the symphonic orchestra) and the first symphony to bring music from one movement back in another. But more important was the new emotional character and arc of the music. In his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven takes listeners on a journey from the darkness and violence of the C minor first movement to the exultant triumph of the C major finale. Years later Beethoven wrote about this progression from minor to major in one of his conversation books:

“Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. Nego! On the contrary, I find that … the major has a glorious effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain.”

Beethoven as depicted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler in 1804-1805.

Beethoven as depicted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler in 1804-1805.

Beethoven first discovered this new “Heroic” style in the first movement of his Third Symphony (the one he almost dedicated to Napoleon). The Fifth Symphony takes the theme of heroic struggle that Beethoven first explored in his Third Symphony and expands it to cover the entire four movements of the symphony. These works (and others in Beethoven’s oeuvre) forever changed what people thought music could do, what music could be. Now, I do not want to imply that earlier composers like Mozart did not write emotionally powerful music (anyone who has heard Mozart’s Requiem can attest to that), or even that Beethoven was the first to end a minor key piece in major (Mozart did that in his D minor Piano Concerto, his G minor String Quintet and other works). Beethoven was the first, however, to make us feel that the major ending comes out of the minor beginning, to write music that embodies the emotions of triumph in the face of adversity.

If we ask ourselves what this piece must have sounded like when it was first performed, the answer would be…not so good. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808, as part of a four-hour concert of Beethoven premieres. By all accounts, the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and the audience was cold and exhausted. Beethoven’s legendary symphony thus probably went relatively unnoticed upon its first performance, sandwiched as it was between his Piano Concerto No. 4 and excerpts from his Mass in C major. However, after the symphony was published a year and a half later, E.T.A. Hoffman (perhaps most famous for writing the story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker) penned a rapturous review of the symphony and later wrote the following description.

“How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound.”

By the time the next generation of composers came into their own, the Fifth was a cornerstone of the newly forming standard repertoire, and the rest, as they say, is history. This kind of minor-to-major, darkness-to-light journey became a model for composers for generations to come. Brahms’ First Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Mahler’s Fifth immediately spring to mind as examples, and composers continue to be influenced by this symphony to this day.

So, what is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really about? Not a Saint Bernard, not animated butterflies in danger, not a wig, not disco fever, not victory for the allies, not a greeting for space aliens, not Western Civilization, Classical Music, Napoleon, or even Beethoven’s own heroic struggle to continue living and composing when faced with encroaching deafness. Beethoven’s Fifth is about triumph itself, about every hard won victory there has ever been or ever will be, even yours. Perhaps that is the real reason why Beethoven’s Fifth has come to be so famous and so symbolic of so many things. In the hands of a great orchestra and conductor like the Houston Symphony and Andrés Orozco-Estrada, we forget about the adaptations, the imitations, the symbolism and the history and experience triumph in its purest form for ourselves.

Don’t miss Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with the Houston Symphony!

Beethoven’s Fifth
November 14, 15, 16, 2014
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Frank Huang, violin

Buy tickets now!

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13 Pieces of Classical Music for Halloween

Happy Halloween! There are many great pieces of classical music that go perfectly with this spooky holiday. Whether they are inspired by ghosts, goblins, witches or other things that go bump in the night, these pieces are sure to put you in the mood for tricks and treats!

Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns

In this creepy classic, the violinist represents the figure of death, though Saint-Saëns’ grim reaper has a fair dose of Gallic suavité.

The Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s mysterious paintings, this piece (like many others on this list) is based on the Dies Irae, the traditional Catholic chant for the dead.

In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg

Perhaps Grieg’s most famous piece, this hair-raising number is from the Norwegian composer’s incidental music to Henryk Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. In this scene, the not-so-heroic Peer Gynt is in the hall of the troll mountain king surrounded by trolls who wish to kill him. Yikes!

The “Devil’s Trill” Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini

Here’s what Tartini had to say about this piece, his most famous composition:

“One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and – I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the “Devil’s Trill”, but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me.”

Le Streghe, or “The Witches’ Dance” by Niccolò Paganini

During his life, Paganini was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his wickedly good violin skills. While this tune may be familiar to many Suzuki Method violin students, the real piece is so difficult that only the best violinists can manage it. These variations are based on a theme by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, the composer who completed Mozart’s Requiem. Incidentally, the Houston Symphony will be performing Mozart’s Requiem this November.

Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”, Op. 68 by Alexander Scriabin

While Scriabin didn’t actually give  this sonata its nickname, he did approve of it. With its intensely chromatic harmonies, it certainly sounds demonic when played by Vladimir Horowitz!

The Noon Witch by Antonín Dvořák

A mother scolds her misbehaving child with tales of the Noon Witch, who appears at midday to steal naughty children. Little does she realize the witch is real…

The Water Goblin by Antonín Dvořák

A mother warns her beautiful young daughter not to go too close to the lake, lest the amorous water goblin try to make her his bride. So much for good advice.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas

Inspired by Goethe’s eponymous poem, this bewitching tone poem was made famous in Disney’s original Fantasia.

Death and the Maiden by Franz Schubert

In this song, death confronts a young maiden and attempts to coax her into his icy embrace. This song was famously the inspiration for the Andante of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor.

Der Erlkönig (The Elf King) by Franz Schubert

One of Schubert’s most famous songs gets a rousing orchestral treatment from Hector Berlioz. Inspired by a poem of Goethe (that master of the macabre), it depicts a father and son galloping on horseback through the forest as the child is haunted by the voice of the evil Elf King.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky

While Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s original material is the most famous version, the original version is even wilder. To read a famous literary version of the legend that inspired this piece, check out Gogol’s story St. John’s Eve.

Totentanz by Franz Liszt

In Liszt’s “Dance of Death,” the pianist represents the figure of death swooping down on defenseless denizens of the Middle Ages. See if you can recognize the Dies Irae in this one!

Did I miss your favorite? Post it in the comments below! Stay spooky, and Happy Halloween!

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Hans Graf Talks Ravel & Debussy

Maestro Hans Graf

Houston Symphony Conductor Laureate Hans Graf. Photo credit: Bruce Bennett

This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes back Conductor Laureate Hans Graf for a program of Debussy and Ravel. Recently, I got to ask Maestro Graf a few questions about this shimmering program of musical Impressionism.

Calvin Dotsey: Ravel is known as one of the greatest orchestrators of all time. In terms of orchestration, do you have any favorite passages in Mother Goose or the Piano Concerto in G that stand out to you as particularly ingenious?

Hans Graf: Mother Goose is very moderate in terms of Ravel’s orchestrations, modest and beautiful. It has a couple of characteristic moments, like the contra bassoon solo depicting the Beast asking Beauty for mercy. There is also the Sleeping Beauty Pavane, with its clean clarinet and flute lines that are unlike anything else Ravel composed. The concerto is more like a piece of chamber music. Ravel used the clean colors of the orchestra’s instruments instead of thick combinations, which results in some of the greatest soli for the winds in all of the orchestral repertoire! There are some particularly famous solo parts for piccolo​,​ trumpet, bassoon, and English horn. In fact, Ravel’s wind soli parts in the concerto are so virtuosic that they’re always on the excerpt lists for auditions!

CD: Ravel and Debussy are often grouped together on concerts, recordings and in music history books. What are some of the most notable differences in their styles?

HG: If I had to describe each composer in two words, Ravel would be precision and brilliance, and Debussy would be warmth and color. Debussy is more improvisational, full of the unexpected, not at all “square.” Ravel is much more strict. Both are exceptional composers!

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker

CD: Jon (Jackie) Kimura Parker is a pianist with whom you’ve worked a lot.  What is it about his playing and his approach that appeals to you?

HG: I know him as a pianist of vigorous brilliance! We have never performed the Ravel concerto together. Ravel’s writing is gentle and small, but quite brilliant and bright – on the other end of the spectrum would be something very heavy, like Rachmaninoff. The Ravel concerto’s piano part is glassy and clear, lean and precise. It will be very wonderful for Jackie, because he has such a controlled power and brilliance when he plays, which will lend itself perfectly to Ravel.

Don’t miss Hans Graf with the Houston Symphony!

Ravel & Debussy
October 23, 25, 26, 2014
Hans Graf, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano

Buy tickets now!

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How to Dress Like a Virtuoso: Issa’s take on Sarah Chang

Aside from being a world class violinist, Sarah Chang is also quite the classical music fashionista. In this post, local Houston fashion blogger Issa of we wear things discusses Sarah’s signature style and gives us a few tips on how to get that glamorous virtuoso look.



As you may have heard violin super star Sarah Chang will be in town performing with the Houston Symphony.  And while her talents will most definitely speak for themselves as you listen to her perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, I’m here to talk about her enviable taste in performance attire.

Style: "NOW"Sarah can be seen in classic full length gowns in a variety of colors, but always with a fitted bodice, which I think is not only most flattering but also helps with ease of playing.  You don’t want a big bulky gown to get in the way of your vibrato.  The dress pictured above happens to be my favorite, a classic gown with a trumpet hem to keep it fresh.  When asked about her fashion Sarah said:

“I adore fashion. I also think the whole concert experience is something very old-school Hollywood and special. I always think of the composer first and which piece I’m playing. Then I choose the color and the style of my evening gown to fit a specific composer. I believe that the concert-going experience is visual as well as auditory. The music comes first, but I also want my fashion choices to compliment the composer’s music, not distract from it.”

We should all take a cue from Sarah when it comes to symphony attire by keeping it classic Hollywood glam.

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How to Dress Like a Virtuoso: Sunday Beach on Sarah Chang

Aside from being a world class violinist, Sarah Chang is also quite the classical music fashionista. In this post, local Houston fashion blogger Lauren Mills of Sunday Beach discusses Sarah’s signature style and gives us a few tips on how to get that glamorous virtuoso look.

edp3982-007-MFThis weekend the Houston Symphony welcomes international violin superstar Sarah Chang to Houston for three performances of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Sarah has a strong sense of style and her love of fashion is evident in her concert wardrobe. She has become known for the gorgeous gowns she dons during her performances. Here’s what she has to say,

 I adore fashion. I also think the whole concert experience is something very old-school Hollywood and special. I always think of the composer first and which piece I’m playing. Then I choose the color and the style of my evening gown to fit a specific composer. I believe that the concert-going experience is visual as well as auditory. The music comes first, but I also want my fashion choices to compliment the composer’s music, not distract from it.


Simple silhouettes in solid colors dominate Sarah’s style. She wears minimal accessories, which I imagine is a necessity when playing an instrument. I love that her style reflects the music she performs. Take a cue from Sarah and dress like a virtuoso for your next formal event!

fashion blog photos

BaubleBar 360 Pearl Studs | Edie Parker Dottie Acrylic Clutch | Herve Leger Bandage Gown | BCBGMAXAZRIA Gracie Gown | Adriana Orsini Faceted Sterling Silver Earrings | Jimmy Choo Metallic Leather Heels

 -Lauren Mills

Don’t miss Sarah Chang with the Houston Symphony!

Sarah Chang Plus Copland
October 2, 4, 5, 2014
Cristian Macelaru, conductor
Sarah Chang, violin

Buy tickets now!


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