Composers Datebook®

Libby Larsen for strings

Composers Datebook - 20231205


On today’s date in 1998, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Eiji Oue, premiered a new symphony by American composer Libby Larsen. This was her Symphony No. 4, a work scored for strings alone.

Larsen explained her decision to do without winds, brass and percussion as follows: “This symphony is both homage to strings and an essay about them. Strings, the core of the symphony orchestra, are supremely lyrical and supremely emotional. Yet, throughout the 20th century, perhaps marked by the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, orchestral compositions have tended to become more and more rhythmic and percussive and less lyrical.”

Larsen goes on to make this interesting observation: “In each century since the 1600s, the orchestra has added a new choir of sound to its ensemble: the Baroque orchestra consisted chiefly of strings; woodwinds were added during the 1700s; brass during the 1800s. The 20th century has added the percussion section.”

Larsen said her new symphony was an attempt to capture something of the melody and inflections of 20th-century American English, as it is spoken and sung, through orchestral strings alone.

Music Played in Today's Program

Libby Larsen (b. 1950) Symphony No. 4 (String Symphony); Scottish Chamber Orchestra; Joel Revzen, cond. Koch International 7481

On This Day


  • 1687 - Baptism of Italian composer, violinist and theorist Francesco Geminiani, in Lucca;

  • 1870 - Czech composer Vitezslav Novák, in Kamenice nad Lipou;


  • 1791 - Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadé (aka Amadeus) Mozart, age 35, in Vienna;


  • 1749 - Rameau: opera "Zoroastre," in Paris;

  • 1830 - Berlioz: "Symphonie fantastique" in Paris, with François-Antoine Habeneck conducting;

  • 1837 - Berlioz: "Requiem," in Paris, François-Antoine Habeneck conducting (Berlioz later claimed that at one point he had to jump on stage and take over when Habeneck stopped to take snuff, but some eyewitnesses denied this happened);

  • 1865 - Brahms: Horn Trio in Eb, Op. 40, in Karlsruhe, with two musicians identified only as Strauss (violin) and Segisser (horn), with the composer at the piano; The latest edition of the Grove Dictionary lists an earlier performance in Zürich, Swizterland, on November 28 that same year, however;

  • 1911 - Rachmaninoff: Piano Preludes, Op. 32 (Gregorian date: Dec. 18);

  • 1927 - Janácek: "Slavonic Mass," in Brno;

  • 1930 - Milhaud: Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra, in Paris;

  • 1930 - Sessions: "The Black Maskers" Suite, in Cincinnati;

  • 1947 - Barber: "Medea" Ballet Suite, Op. 23, by Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1952 - Menotti: Violin Concerto, with Efrem Zimbalist, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1991 - Zwilich: Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchesra, by the Louisville Orchestra with Lawrence Leighton Smith conducting, and soloists Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (violoncello);

  • 1998 - Libby Larsen: "String Symphony," in Minneapolis by the Minnesota Orchestra, Eiji Oue conducting


  • 1704 - George Frideric Handel (age 19) refuses to turn over the harpsichord to Johann Mattheson (age 23) during a performance of Mattheson's opera "Cleopatra," leading to a sword duel between the two; It is said that during the swordplay, Handel was saved by a button on his coat that deflected Mattheson's mortally-directed blade; The two reconciled on December 30 that year, dining together and attending a rehearsal of Handel's opera "Almira," becoming, as Mattheson put it: "better friends than ever."

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®