R. Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life)

Notes by TŌN violinist Sophia Bernitz

The Inspiration
Written in the summer of 1898 while staying in a Bavarian mountain resort, Ein Heldenleben depicts a hero conquering his enemies. Strauss was convinced that Beethoven’s great “Eroica” (Heroic) Symphony was underperformed, and that it was his job to eradicate this injustice with his own homage to “Eroica.” “Thus to fulfill a pressing need I am composing a largish tone poem entitled Ein Heldenleben, admittedly without a funeral march, but nonetheless in E-flat major, with lots of horns—which is always a measure of heroism,” he wrote.

The Music
The work is made up of six movements played without interruption. In “The Hero” the E-flat major theme ranges upwards of five octaves. “The Hero’s Adversaries” are signaled by a very sarcastic flute melody. “The Hero’s Companion” is a substantial portrait between solo violin and the orchestra. I will be playing the solo violin part, which is a portrayal of Strauss’ wife, Pauline Maria de Ahna. She is a complex woman with many sides to her—“never twice the same,” as Strauss said. “The Hero’s Deeds of War” is the climax of the work. It uses eight horns, three offstage trumpets, and a significant amount of percussion. “The Hero’s Works of Peace” is where the hero shows off his “accomplishments” by presenting themes from eight of his other great works, most famously Don Juan, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, and Death and Transfiguration. If you are familiar with any of these works, it is fun to try to find them! And finally, in “The Hero’s Retirement,” the motive from the second section returns with a ferocious episode, followed by a calming theme in the English Horn. This leads into the peaceful ending, where the violin solo and the home key of E-flat major return, signifying the Hero’s completion and fulfillment.

The Reception
After its premiere, some called Ein Heldenleben “revolutionary in every sense of the word,” while others thought it was far too egotistical. In later years, Strauss denied that he was the hero depicted in this work. However, it is fairly obvious that that is a falsehood. Nonetheless, it is one of the most challenging and fulfilling pieces in the orchestral repertoire to this day. This is my first time playing it, and I am so fortunate to be able to portray Pauline’s wild personality for all of you, along with the rest of this great work with my colleagues.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection

Notes by TŌN cellist Pecos Singer

Mahler produced his second symphony in short bursts of creativity over a six-year period. The inspiration was a visceral, emotional response to a room full of flowers after a performance. Mahler suddenly imagined that he was attending his own funeral and soon after began writing a tone poem titled Totenfeier (“Funeral Rite”) based on the experience. The title page of the manuscript reads, “Symphony in C minor/First Movement,” implying that he always intended it to be part of a larger work. The piece eventually became the first movement of his Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.

The second movement of the symphony is noticeably lighter in character and texture than the symphony as a whole. In the program Mahler wrote to accompany the symphony, he describes the movement as attending a funeral of a close friend and “the picture of a happy hour long past arises in your mind,” nearly distracting you from the somberness of the occasion. Mahler eventually withdrew his own programmatic text, evidently preferring the audience to develop their own reactions to the music.

As with many composers, much of Mahler’s inspiration stemmed from vocal music. The inner movements of the symphony drew from a set of songs for voice and piano that Mahler wrote based on German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Mahler describes the third movement as an abrupt end to the “nostalgic daydream” of the previous movement. Upon waking you are struck with horror, and “life can seem meaningless, a gruesome, ghostly spectacle, from which you recoil with a cry of disgust!” The fourth movement of the symphony is a reworking of one of the Wunderhorn songs for mezzo-soprano soloist and orchestra.

Musicians are no foreigners to harsh criticism, and Mahler was no exception. Upon hearing Mahler play the first movement on the piano, the celebrated conductor Hans von Bülow reportedly covered his ears and said, “Beside your music, Tristan sounds as simple as a Haydn symphony!” Deeply wounded by this criticism, Mahler set the work aside for several years. Coincidentally, the music for the final movement was inspired by events from Bülow’s funeral six years later. During the memorial service, Mahler heard a children’s choir perform Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. Mahler’s close friend, Josef Förster, recalled finding him after the service, having just jotted down the germ for the fifth and final movement, in which Mahler calls for a full chorus singing the text from the first eight lines of  Klopstock’s poem, Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). The rest of the words Mahler wrote himself.

What to Listen for?
Mahler is particularly skillful in his ability to move smoothly between passages with a massive orchestration to others that highlight smaller groups within the orchestra. This “chamber music” approach to symphonic writing is a hallmark of Mahler’s style and adds to the deeply personal and moving character of his music, especially evident in the fourth movement with the solo violin and voice.



Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection

Notes by TŌN tuba player Jarrod Briley

Death Served as Inspiration
In 1888, after finishing his first symphony, Gustav Mahler completed a single-movement symphonic poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). In 1893 after a five-year hiatus, Mahler completed the second and third movements, but became stuck on the finale. He knew he wanted to add a choir but struggled to find an appropriate text, noting it had to be just right to avoid being seen as an imitation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer turned to his colleague Hans von Bülow, an esteemed German conductor and admirer of Mahler’s, for advice on the work. In 1894, at Bülow’s funeral, Mahler heard a setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). Instantly, the composer knew he had found his finale. He wrote of the experience, saying: “Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale.—It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for—“conceiving by the Holy Ghost!

Wunderhorn Influence
Most of Mahler’s music is inspired by and based upon traditional folk music: his most notable work besides his symphonies are his settings of German folk poems from a collection titled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Mahler set twelve of the songs for voice and piano, and regularly used these in his orchestral music. The third movement of his Second Symphony was originally a voice and piano duo based on the Wunderhorn song “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” The fourth movement is another from the Wunderhorn set, the famous “Urlicht” (Primal Light) movement. His use of the mezzo-soprano soloist in this movement harkens to his lieder, and also serves as foreshadowing to the choral component of the final movement.

The Program Dilemma
Mahler’s opinion on program music changed drastically over his lifetime. In his early years, the composer wrote and even published programs to his symphonies, yet by the time he was composing his Fifth Symphony Mahler had abandoned all programming and descriptive titling and had retracted his early programs. The Second Symphony, however, remains a programmatic piece both in inspiration and nature. Mahler was notably fascinated with existentialism and metaphysical aspects of life, and his original programming displays that in this symphony. The first movement asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; subsequent movements question the meaning of life, the importance of its experiences, and the finale gives the listener hope of happiness and transcendent renewal.



Music From Home: Regina Brady

TŌN oboist Regina Brady played the world premiere of a movement of COVID OBOE VIOLA OVID for oboe and viola with her partner, Jonah Sirota (who is also the composer!), on tonight’s episode of Living Music with Nadia Sirota.

Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition Episode 15

Episode 15 of Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition — Tune in for a classics-inspired world premiere! Mai Tais! A pregnant cockroach! LITERAL GLENN KOTCHE! SIBLINGS!! It’s all tonight at 9pm eastern. Whip yourself up something fruity, garnish garishly, and watch with friends! Starring Jonah Sirota, Regina Brady, Du Yun and Glenn Kotche! More info at livingmusicshow.com

Posted by Living Music with Nadia Sirota on Thursday, May 7, 2020


Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica

Notes by TŌN bassist Justin Morgan

In 1969, people from every part of the world paused to turn their gaze skyward as the Apollo 11 crew took their first steps on the moon. It represented a monumental triumph not only for the United States, but for all of humanity. Our innate drive to discover and explore unknown territories has always been competitive in nature and, indeed, the race to the moon was a fierce global contest. But nearly a half century before the race to the moon, there was a worldwide challenge to reach another white, frozen, inhuman, extreme landscape: Antarctica.

Britain’s heroic but ill-fated attempt to conquer the South Pole is the subject matter for Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. While the Terra Nova Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, ultimately succeeded in reaching the South Pole, they arrived a month after a Norwegian party had already done so. Moreover, Scott and his four companions tragically perished on the return journey.

Although the work draws heavily from the composer’s score to Scott of the Antarctic (1948)—a film about Scott’s doomed expedition—the symphony should not be viewed as a suite from the film score, but rather as a unique concert work in its own right. Sinfonia Antartica represents some of Vaughan Williams most illustrative music and is an excellent example of how music can paint vivid pictures.

Pay attention to how the musical phrases of the Prelude expand, break up, and reform like drifting ice sheets in the Antarctic Sea. Do you hear the theme as heroic? Or terrifying? Perhaps both? Later in the movement you’ll hear an eerie, wordless, off-stage melody in the solo soprano and small women’s chorus. When I hear this, I imagine arctic sirens attempting to seduce Scott and his crew into danger with their sickly-sweet voices.

Deep, percolating harp and percussion sounds can be heard bubbling underneath quiet, frozen dissonances in the flutes and horns at the beginning of the third movement, “Landscape.” The muted, inexpressive, and glasslike textures in the orchestration not only give a vivid description of the landscape, but the atonality and lack of harmonic grounding also gives a sense that Scott and his crew are truly lost in this lifeless icescape.

Vaughan Williams’ choice to use a massive orchestration—including voices, piano, organ, celeste, mallet percussion, bells, and a wind machine—added to the palette he used to illustrate the landscapes charted by Scott and his crew. As you listen, don’t worry about trying to match the episodes of Scott’s expedition with each phrase of the work—instead, relax and allow your mind to paint its own pictures.

Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica

Notes by TŌN trumpet player Samuel Exline

The Background
“I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint.” This quote from Captain Robert Scott’s last journal epitomizes his party’s doomed expedition to the South Pole of Antarctica. The Terra Nova Expedition of Captain Scott serves as the basis for Ralph Vaughan William’s Symphony No. 7, but before completing his pictorial masterpiece of the now infamous journey, Vaughan Williams composed the score to Scott of the Antarctic, a 1948 British Technicolor film produced by Ealing studios and directed by Charles Frend. Inspired by the narrative and imagery evoked, Vaughan Williams composed much more music than necessary for film production, and thus in 1949 began composition of his aptly titled Sinfonia Antartica utilizing themes and materials unused in the film, but also creating a work unique in its own right. 

The Symphony
Sinfonia Antartica can be thought of less as a traditional symphony and more of a symphonic journey or concert suite. The manuscript, now housed in the British Library, gives a glimpse into Vaughan Williams’ vivid imagination of various scenes from the expedition: “Heroism,” “Ice floes,” “Penguins,” “Pony march and blizzard,” “Amundsen’s flag at the Pole,” “Death of Oates,” “Only 11 miles.” Completing composition in 1952 and premiering on January 14, 1953, the symphony is structured into five movements and is scored for large orchestra including a three-part women’s chorus and solo soprano. Other lesser seen auxiliary instruments in the orchestration include vibraphone, side drum, wind machine, and organ. Also unique to the symphony are the literary quotations present at the start of each movement. These quotations have at various times in performance and recording history been narrated throughout the performance of the work, although Vaughan Williams did not specify whether these quotations were intended to be narrated or not. The above quotation from Scott’s last journal, for example, serves as the opening quotation to the fifth movement – Epilogue. Overall, Sinfonia Antartica is a work that is the sum of one man’s imagining of both the heroism and tragedy of a real-life event, encapsulating both the human spirit and humanity’s relationship with nature.

d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air

Notes by TŌN violinist Esther Goldy Roestan

The Composer
Vincent D’Indy was a French composer and teacher. He was born on March 27, 1851 and died on December 2, 1931 in Paris. He grew up in an aristocratic, royalist, and Catholic home. His primary instrument was the piano, and he absolutely knows how to write for pianists. In the 1870s he visited Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, who were not only legendary composers but also pianists. During his lifetime, he loved opera, especially all the big romantic operas such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy. His deep connection to and love for orchestral composition and music in general allowed him to have a lot of freedom and range.

The Music
Symphony sur un Chant Montagnard Francais, also known as Symphony on a French Mountain Air, is a very unique piece. Even though the staging looks like it’s written for solo piano and orchestra, it’s not; both the pianist and the orchestra play equally important roles. This is a three-movement work. It begins with the wind section solos, and a bed of string sounds which is absolutely perfect for such a scenic piece. The second movement is more mellow; it focuses more on the flamboyant piano and string sounds. And finally the third movement is the most joyous, folksy, and open part of the piece. D’Indy went all out with this movement, we can clearly hear the melody in each of the sections—the winds, piano, strings, and brass—and it takes us to the open mountains during good weather.

Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain

Notes by TŌN bassist Amy Nickler

One of the First Symphonic Poems
Composed in 1845–47, César Franck’s What You Hear on the Mountain is considered to be one of the first symphonic poems ever created, even though there is no record of the piece being premiered until 1987. Franck derived his piece from Victor Hugo‘s poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Historians argue that Franz Liszt had worked independently in creating his own first large and generalized “orchestral meditation” on the exact same poem, but since his work was premiered before Franck’s, Liszt is given credit as the first composer to create a symphonic poem. Franck was inspired by his former pupil and true love, Blanche Saillot Desmousseaux, to create a large orchestral meditation in her honor using the poet’s verse from Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. Hugo’s poem dwells on the loneliness of man confronted with nature, a loneliness reflected in his voice when opposed to the voices of natural phenomena. This symphonic poem portrays Hugo’s poem with the opposing voices of nature and humanity, and begins with a significant summoning of the natural world’s immensity. 

The Music
The piece opens with the double basses pedaling a low E, the lowest note on the instrument without the additive extension, in a pianissimo marking. The cellos then augment the drone, and it is finalized with the violins entering on the E major chord, thus setting the key and the expansion of the world, with glistening harmonics. As this continues for the next 24 bars of the piece, this affect creates an orchestral colour with a variety of registers on the same tonic triad that many later composers have borrowed and implemented in their own pieces, such as Wagner’s opening of creatio ex nihilo in Das Rheingold. Franck’s symphonic poem is a unique piece that gives a sense of the world at large, thus showing humanity the realization of how insignificant our worries can be in this vast world.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, Scottish

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Matthew Griffith

The Scottish Castle
Despite its editorial number, Symphony No. 3 was the fifth and final symphony Felix Mendelssohn completed. He did not publish it with a nickname, but after his death it was famously dubbed the “Scottish” upon the discovery of its vivid origin story. Rarely can we trace a piece of fine art back to a single magical moment of inspiration, but we know from Mendelssohn’s letters that he conceived this work precisely on July 30, 1829 in a Scottish castle rich with history:

“We went, in the deep twilight, to the Palace of Holyrood, where Queen Mary lived and loved. There is a little room to be seen there, with a winding staircase leading up to it. This the murderers ascended, and finding [David] Rizzio in a little room, drew him out. Three chambers away is a small corner where they killed him. […] Everything around is broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in. I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony.”

There he sketched the work’s somber opening melody and little more, focusing most of his attention on other music for more than a decade. Eventually he returned his attention to this symphony leading to its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1842.

The Music
Symphony No. 3 is in four continuous movements which vary wildly in emotion, perhaps depicting the scenes of love, murder, and decay that Mendelssohn once imagined. The first movement begins with his original melody, a gloomy atmosphere from which the rest of the piece blossoms. After an anxious and fretful Allegro un poco agitato, welcome relief arrives with the second movement. It is well-known among woodwind players such as myself, as the jolly tune and inner technical passages are commonly asked in auditions. Conjuring the right attitude for this festive dance is certainly more difficult when the other instruments are nowhere to be found! The third movement relaxes into a serene stroll with lush melodies, alternating between pleasant tip-toeing and a more serious noble march. Turmoil returns in the fourth movement, more vicious and energetic than ever, driving us toward a dramatic tragic conclusion that never happens. Surprisingly, Mendelssohn’s original melody makes a triumphant return, wrapping a happy conclusive bow around this masterpiece. We hope today’s performance can similarly bring positive closure to your day.

Bach’s Magnificat

Notes by TŌN oboist Shawn Hutchison

Curious Dichotomies
The music of J.S. Bach contains many curious dichotomies which have, no doubt, contributed to its enduring popularity and appreciation. It is at once abstract yet approachable, specific in its intended audience yet overwhelmingly universal in its message, and grounded in the earthly toils of human life while pointing towards a transcendent spiritual reality. These seemingly oppositional forces find profound synthesis in Bach’s setting of the Magnificat canticle. 

A Mature Style
Initially composed in 1723 as a set of twelve movements with added Christmas hymns, the Magnificat BWV 243 was completed in its current form in 1733, during the height of Bach’s career as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig. As such, it exemplifies the composer’s mature style, exhibiting the flowing counterpoint, clever text-painting, and deep emotional pathos so central to his writing. The Magnificat occupies an intriguing place in Bach’s liturgical output, as it is (alongside the Mass in B Minor) one of the few large-scale sacred works which he composed in Latin; being himself a Lutheran and operating professionally within the context of the German Reformation, Bach primarily composed vocal works in German.

Refined Skills
The year 1723 is significant in the life of J.S. Bach as it marks the outset of his creative life in Leipzig, where he was appointed as the Thomaskantor, a position which included the duties of composing music for church services, leading the musical direction of church performing ensembles, as well as teaching at the adjoining Thomasschule. Prior to his arrival in Leipzig, Bach held myriad posts—both within the church and for secular patrons such as Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen—and it is from this extensive working experience that he refined his compositional skills to the heights reached in works such as the cantata cycles, the Passions, and the Magnificat.

Scroll down below the video for text and translation.


Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.Magnificat anima mea Dominum.

Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae;
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent 

Omnes generationes.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus.

Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.

Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.

Esurientes implevit bonis,
   et divites dimisit inanes.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.

Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros.
Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.

Gloria Patri, et Filio,
gloria et Spiritui Sancto!
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper
et in saecula saeculorum.


My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

For he has looked with favor on his humble servant;
From this day [they] will call me blessed

in every generation.

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
   and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.

the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever.