Britten’s “Peter Grimes”: The Individual Against the Crowd

Benjamin Britten’s 1945 tragic opera, Peter Grimes, is a dark story of isolation and alienation- the solitary social outcast set against the collective insanity and “mob rule” of the crowd. For the composer, a homosexual, staunch pacifist, and conscientious objector during the Second World War, it was a subject very close to my heart — the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual. The …

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Ned Rorem’s “Early in the Morning”

Arguably, no artist grows up: If he sheds the perceptions of childhood, he ceases being an artist. -Ned Rorem Early in the Morning, an art song by American composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923), is filled with wistful nostalgia. The text, by the poet Robert Hillyer, offers a distant memory of a far-off summer morning. Both the words and the music are shrouded in a dreamlike haze. We’re presented with the ephemeral- sights and smells of the morning- …

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Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann

Today marks the 208th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). On Monday, we considered the relationship between Anton Webern’s youthful 1907 Piano Quintet and the music of Brahms. Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, completed during the summer of 1864, was greatly influenced by Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44. With this work, written in 1842 during his “year of chamber music,” Schumann practically invented the heroic and often symphonic pairing of string quartet and piano. Notice how …

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A Sublime Moment from Khachaturian’s “Spartacus”

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Soviet Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). In celebration, let’s listen to a lushly beautiful excerpt from the second act of Khachaturian’s 1954 ballet, Spartacus. This soaring adagio occurs at the moment when the Thracian king, Spartacus, and his wife, Phrygia, celebrate their newfound freedom from captivity. This music is filled with the “exotic” modal scales of Armenian folk music. For example, listen to the clarinet’s statement around …

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Webern’s Piano Quintet and the Spirit of Brahms

What happens when the harmonic language of Brahms meets a dissolving tonal center? The answer might be Anton Webern’s Quintet for Strings and Piano.  Written in 1907, this is one of Webern’s early works. It’s set in a single movement which lasts just over ten minutes. There are tantalizing echoes of the music of Brahms, who died ten years earlier in 1897. We hear the same expansive voicing and soaring, Romantic phrases. But …

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Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2: Stephen Kovacevich

Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 pulls us into a world of dreamy nostalgia, quiet longing, and majestic, serene beauty. It comes from the set of Six Piano Pieces (Klavierstücke), Op. 118 from Brahms’ “autumnal” late period. Listen to the way those unlikely first three notes set the entire piece in motion. As it unfolds and develops, you may sense that the music is “searching” for a way forward, attempting to find …

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