Mahler and the Cuckoo

Even as a child I was struck by birdsong. -Gustav Mahler The call of the cuckoo, often associated with spring, has long inspired composers. For example, the cuckoo’s harmonious falling major third can be heard in Handel’s Organ Concerto No.13 in F Major, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and Frederick Delius’ shimmering 1912 tone poem, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. The cuckoo’s call also finds its way into the music of Gustav …

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Mahler’s Final, Haunting “Wunderhorn” Songs: “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell”

In Monday’s post, we listened to Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a work which grew out of the 1892 song, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”). The Symphony was written primarily during the summers of 1899 and 1900 shortly after Mahler was appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera. As a follow up, let’s listen to two songs which compositionally bookend the Fourth Symphony- Revelge (“The Dead Drummer), composed in July of 1899, and Der Tambourg’sell (“The …

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Remembering Dmitri Hvorostovsky

The Russian operatic baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky passed away this week following a two-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer. He was 55. Here are some highlights from his distinguished career: In the aria, Ja vas lyublyu, from the second act of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Prince Yeletsky pours out his love for Liza while lamenting her inability to trust him fully. Listen to the way this aria moves from majestically soaring passion to the depths of despair as the …

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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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