Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto: An Honest, Neo-Romantic Voice

I myself wrote always as I wished, and without a tremendous desire to find the latest thing possible… – Samuel Barber in a radio interview near the end of his life An unwavering and unapologetic honesty characterizes the music of American twentieth century composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). This is in contrast to the prevailing winds of the academic establishment of the time, who were interested in advancing the musical language in search …

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“Music for a Scene from Shelley”: Samuel Barber’s Haunting Tone Poem

… nor is it I alone, Thy sister, thy companion, thine own chosen one, But the whole world which seeks thy sympathy. Hearst thou not sounds i’ the air which speak the love Of all articulate things? Feelest thou not The inanimate winds enamoured of thee? — List! [Music. –Prometheus Unbound (Act II, Scene 5), Percy Bysshe Shelley These lines were the inspiration for Samuel Barber’s Music for a Scene from Shelley, written in …

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The Tesla Quartet Plays Haydn

Last month, we explored excerpts from the Tesla Quartet’s newly-released debut album. In addition to music by Ravel and Stravinsky, the recording includes Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major Op 54 No.2. Written in 1788, this piece is so daring and adventurous that it fits in perfectly on an album otherwise made up of twentieth century music. You’ll hear this spirit of adventure immediately in the Quartet’s opening bars. The home …

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Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: A Dramatic Departure

Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers? Gustav Mahler wrote these poetic words in a letter to his wife, Alma, following the first rehearsal for the …

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“I Am Lost to the World”: Mahler’s Song of the Solitary Artist

I am dead to the world’s tumult, And I rest in a quiet realm! I live alone in my heaven, In my love and in my song! These are the final lines of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I Am Lost to the World”), a poem by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) which Gustav Mahler set as the fourth song of his Rückert Lieder in the summer of 1901. Mahler was personally drawn to the poem, …

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Don Shirley: Three Historic Recordings

During the 1960s, African-American jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley (1927-2013) left the comfort of his spacious, eclectically-appointed apartment above New York’s Carnegie Hall and undertook a series of concert tours which included the segregated, Jim Crow-era south. He hoped to break down the barriers of prejudice through music. Following the hostile treatment of Nat King Cole in Alabama a few years earlier, Shirley hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his …

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Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” Prelude: Currents in E-Flat Major

Das Rheingold, the first opera in Richard Wagner’s mythic Ring Cycle, begins as a distant, barely-audible rumble in the dark, murky depths of the orchestra. Entering one by one in cool, overlapping sonic currents, eight horns announce the Ring‘s expansive, rising “nature” motive. It’s a gradual, primal awakening- 136 bars and over four minutes of pure, unending E-flat major. We’re forced to confront the power and majesty of the basic, fundamental elements of …

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