Janáček’s “In the Mists”: Four Coloristic Pieces for Solo Piano

In the Mists is a cycle of four solo piano pieces, written in 1912 by the Czech composer, Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). The pieces are intimate, fleeting, and tinged with melancholy. Vivid impressionistic colors blend with elements of Moravian folk music. They reveal psychological “mists,” perhaps of a composer who suffered the tragic death of his daughter. Harmonically, they inhabit distant, “misty” keys with five and six flats. Fluidly changing meters suggest music which …

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Debussy’s “La plus que lente”: A Sultry Homage to the Café Waltz

Claude Debussy composed La plus que lente in 1910, shortly after the publication of his Préludes, Book I. The brief waltz for solo piano ventures into the sultry, atmospheric world of Parisian café music. Lazy and hauntingly melancholy, it is a dreamy evocation of the sounds of a Gypsy café ensemble. Additionally, at moments, the music anticipates the bluesy strains of jazz. The same year, Debussy visited Budapest and, in a letter, commented on …

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The Ghosts of D-Sharp Minor: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue, BWV 877 and Scriabin’s Etude Op 8, No 12

In an 1806 treatise, Christian Schubart described D-sharp minor as a key which expresses “feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul.” Schubart concluded with the chilling statement, “If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.” In the early twentieth century, expressive variations between keys became blurred following the adoption of equal temperament in tuning. …

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Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829: An Exercise in Spiritual Delight

J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas, BWV 825-830 were conceived as exercises for the body, mind, and spirit. Composed between 1725 and 1731, these were the last of Bach’s keyboard suites. Yet, they were published by the Leipzig-employed composer as “opus 1,” and offered “to music lovers in order to refresh their spirits.” This collection of Partitas (richly contrasting Baroque dances) fuses technical advancement with spiritual delight. They influenced later composers, from Brahms to Bartók. Bach’s earliest biographer, …

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Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.” This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into …

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Remembering Lars Vogt

Lars Vogt, the renowned German pianist and conductor, passed away on Monday, September 5. He was 51. In March of 2021, Vogt was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in his throat and liver. Born in the town of Düren in the North Rhine-Westphalia region, Vogt rose to prominence after winning second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition. He went on to perform as a soloist with the world’s greatest orchestras. He …

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