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Playlist: Gifts

As the gift giving season is upon us, we look at musical gifts composers have written for friends, family, lovers and royalty in our new playlist.

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Johannes Brahms – Serenade No. 2

Brahms famously declared that he took 21 years to write his first symphony (from first sketches to final version), so his two Serenades are both useful insights into his early orchestral writing. The second in particular was dedicated to Clara Schumann, the recent widow of Robert, and Brahms presented it to her on her birthday in 1859. The exact nature of the relationship between the Brahms and Clara is much debated, but there's no denying they were at least extremely close friends and you can hear Brahms's affection throughout this piece.

Richard Wagner – Siegfried Idyll

Old fashioned romantic Richard Wagner wrote this piece as a birthday/Christmas gift for his wife Cosima (her birthday was on the 24th December). She awoke on Christmas morning to the strains of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich performing the work on the stairs of their Swiss villa. She said “As I awoke … no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming … such music!” Maybe Kanye gets all his gift ideas from Wagner...

Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms & Albert Dietrich – The F-A-E Sonata

One of the very few collaboratively written pieces in classical music, the F-A-E sonata was written as a gift for the great violinist Joseph Joachim by three of his composer friends (all of whom also ended up writing concertos for him too.) F-A-E stands for Frei aber einsam or "free but lonely", which Joachim had adopted as his motto, and all three composers based their movements on those notes. Schumann wrote on the score "F.A.E.: In expectation of the arrival of their revered and beloved friend, Joseph Joachim, this sonata was written by R.S., J.B., A.D."

Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 2

A rare thing – a bright, cheerful piece by Shostakovich – the second piano concerto was written for his son, Maxim, for his 19th birthday and he premiered the piece at his graduation ceremony from the Moscow Conservatory. Shortly after completing the piece, Shostakovich wrote in a letter that it had "no redeeming artistic merits", although he still performed it himself many times, and indeed it has become one of his most famous works.

Leonard Bernstein – Five Anniversaries: No. 2, for Lukas Foss

Bernstein wrote a few of these 'Anniversaries' sets of piano works as gifts for his friends and family. Between them they total 22 names, ranging from Stephen Sondheim & Serge Koussevitzky to his wife Felicia and many more. This one in particular was for the composer, pianist and conductor Lukas Foss – Bernstein's old classmate from the Curtis Institute of Music (and conductor of the premiere of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.)

Felix Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto

Many concertos are written with a particular performer in mind, but this is such a famous example it deserves calling out. Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn's good friend and concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was not only the dedicatee of this piece but also instrumental (ha) in the composition of the work, maintaining a regular correspondence with Mendelssohn around particular aspects of the work. This has also been very useful for modern performers wishing to gain an insight into the piece, like Isabelle Faust in her recent recording. Go read our interview with her to find out more.

Igor Stravinsky – Greeting Prelude

Written for the 80th birthday of the Stravinsky's great friend (and conductor of the riotous premiere of the Rite of Spring) Pierre Monteux, the Greeting Prelude is essentially just a very Stravinskian remix of Happy Birthday, and has ever since been used by orchestras the world over to open birthday themed concerts.

Michael Tippett – Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles

A piece with a fairly self explanatory title, Tippett wrote this suite in 1948 to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Wales, following a grand tradition of new works composed for Royal children going back to before Bach. Tippett's suite ranges from grand processional moments, to gentle berceuse.

Gustav Mahler – Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

Mahler's most famous 10 minutes of music is this love letter to his wife Alma, thanks to it's use in many film soundtracks – most famously Death in Venice. The Adagietto is a stunning moment in a symphony otherwise characterised by large forces and grand gestures – the Adagietto is simply marked "Sehr langsam" (very slowly), and strips the orchestra right back to just strings and harp. Sadly, Alma wasn't able to attend the premiere of the symphony due to illness, much to Gustav's dismay.

Richard Strauss – Horn Concerto No. 1

Strauss wrote his first horn concerto as a birthday gift for his father, who was the principal horn player in the Munich Court orchestra at the time. The orchestral version of the piece is entitled "Waldhornkonzert" – implying the intention for it to be performed on the natural horn (with no valves). However, there's a general consensus that the work is pretty much un-performable on such an instrument, and some even suggest that Strauss did this on purpose to antagonise his old man.

Claude Debussy – La Chute de la maison Usher

Debussy loved to give musical gifts, although sometimes he was just too busy to write something bespoke. He wrote many pieces as birthday or Christmas gifts for his second wife Emma between 1905 and 1915, and while most are original works, 2 of them are sketches for works Debussy was already composing – the orchestral triptych 'Iberia' from 'Images', and his unfinished opera 'La Chute de la maison Usher', based on Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher'. At least he completed the gift, even if the opera went unfinished.

Bela Bartók – Mikrokosmos

OK, so this isn't strictly a 'gift' but it's worth including here anyway. Bartók's Mikrokosmos is a huge set gradually progressive short piano pieces, intended to take a new player from the basics right up to near professional level. Books 1 & 2 were written for his son Péter, and it's incredible how interesting Bartók is able to make his music, even when limited to the very basics of technique.