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Composers Datebook®

with host John Birge

Saturday, November 2

First — and last — orchestral pieces by Brahms and Harrison?

Synopsis

On today’s date in 1873, a new piece by the German composer Johannes Brahms received its first performance by the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece was titled “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” and was a big success at its premiere. Brahms must have heaved a great sigh of relief.

For the previous 18 years, Brahms had struggled to complete his First Symphony, unconvinced that he had “the right stuff” to pull it off. In the summer of 1873, he wrote his “Haydn Variations” as a kind of personal test to see how audiences would react—and to bolster his own confidence. Lucky for us, it worked: Brahms returned to work on his First Symphony and went on to write four symphonies in all!

On today’s date in 1990, the Fourth Symphony of American composer Lou Harrison received its premiere by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Much of Harrison’s music has been influenced by non-Western traditions, especially the Javanese gamelan music, and his Symphony No. 4 is no exception.

Harrison was 73 when this symphony premiered, and he dubbed it his “Last Symphony” —apparently agreeing with Brahms that four was enough when it came to symphonies. When asked what would happen should he decide to write still another, Harrison quipped, “I’ll call it the ‘VERY Last Symphony.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Variations on a theme by Haydn, Op. 56a Cleveland Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnanyi, cond. Teldec 8.44005

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) Symphony No. 4 (Last Symphony) California Symphony; Barry Jekowsky, cond. Argo 455 590

Additional Information

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