Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”: Saying Goodbye to Romanticism

Richard Strauss lived long enough to witness the death of one world and the emergence of another. Consider that when Strauss wrote his first song, Weihnachtslied, in 1870 at the age of 6, Wagner was just hitting his stride with the premiere of Die Walküre, and Tchaikovsky had recently completed his gushingly romantic Overture-Fantasy, Romeo and Juliet. By 1949, the year of Strauss’ death, the atomic bomb had been dropped. The corinthian-column-studded Munich National Theater, where Strauss’ father Franz …

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Autumnal Ives

Earth rests! Her work is done, her fields lie bare, and ‘ere the night of winter comes to hush her song and close her tired eyes, She turns her face for the sun to smile upon and radiantly, radiantly, thro’ Fall’s bright glow, he smiles and brings the Peace of God! These lines may have been written by Harmony Twichell, the wife of Charles Ives. They form the text of Ives’ hypnotic 1908 song, Autumn. Listen …

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John Henry

According to legend, the African American folk hero John Henry was one of the strongest and fastest steel-driving men to work on the railroads in the post-Civil War era. The steel-driver’s work involved hammering a steel drill into rock. Explosives were placed in the crevice in order to blast away the rock to construct railroad tunnels. In the late nineteenth century, manual labor was replaced by the steam-powered hammer. John Henry entered …

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The Dreamy Nostalgia of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars… The opening line of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for voice and orchestra paints this dreamy, nostalgic scene of a summer, and America, long past. It’s a partial setting of James Agee’s autobiographical fragment …

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Mahler’s Evolution From Song to Symphony

Gustav Mahler’s music is full of sardonic humor- passages which seem, at once, frivolous and chillingly grotesque. You can hear this in the song cycle, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). The twelve songs, published in 1905, are drawn from a collection of 723 anonymous German folk poems, compiled between 1805 and 1808 by Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The 27-year-old Mahler was conducting in Leipzig when he discovered the anthology. …

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Shakespeare Turns 453

Sunday marks the 453rd anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. In a previous post, we listened to a small sampling of the many pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s works. This year, let’s hear two excerpts from English tenor Ian Bostridge’s 2016 album, Shakespeare Songs. The recording won a Grammy this year in the category, “Best Solo Vocal Album.” Here is English Renaissance composer Thomas Morley’s setting of It Was a Lover and His Lass from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Morley (1557-1602) …

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Benjamin Appl: Schubert at Wigmore Hall

As a followup to Wednesday’s post, here are three excerpts from an album of Schubert songs released last year by German baritone Benjamin Appl. The album was recorded live at London’s Wigmore Hall with pianist Graham Johnson accompanying. Am Bach im Fruhling In the 1816 song, Am Bach I’m frühling, D. 361 (“By the Brook in the Spring”), we can hear the flowing brook in the piano’s triplets. The brook seems to be a …

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