Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F Major: Delightfully Deceptive

An awe-inspiring musical drama unfolds in J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540. Developing with a sense of sublime inevitability and self-organizing structure, it is hard to believe that any mortal could have written such powerful and perfect music. The monumental Toccata is an exuberant celebration of canonic counterpoint. An unrelenting two-part canon expands across 108 measures over an unflinching pedal tone. Harmonically, the music pulls away from its firm foundation in F …

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Keith Jarrett’s Improvisation on “Danny Boy”

With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, this seems like a good time to pause and take in the sublime beauty of Keith Jarrett’s improvisation on the ancient Irish melody, “Danny Boy.” This melody has been a rich source for jazz musicians, from the jubilant virtuosity of Art Tatum, to the sultry soulfulness of the Oscar Peterson Trio, to the far-reaching development of Bill Evans. Jarrett’s approach finds a songful simplicity and a celebration of the moment. Listening to …

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“To the Distant Beloved”: Schumann’s Obsession with a Beethoven Song

In the final movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, an unassuming but persistent motivic cell emerges which propels the Symphony towards its majestic and triumphant culmination. Around three minutes in, all of the music’s forward momentum comes to a halt on a somber C minor cadence. Then, this motive is introduced by the woodwinds. It repeats in other voices throughout the orchestra and develops into an exalted and joyful proclamation. …

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Rubinstein Plays Chopin: Three Legendary Recordings

Today marks the 132nd anniversary of the birth of the Polish-American pianist, Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982). In its obituary for Rubinstein on December 21, 1982, the New York Times pointed out a remarkable lineage: Undeniably, part of the Rubinstein manner (and mystique) was his pianistic pedigree, which went back to many legendary 19th-century musicians. Rubinstein’s first big-name enthusiast was Joseph Joachim, the violinist friend of Brahms. His early piano training came from Karl Heinrich Barth, a pupil …

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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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Change Ringing: St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol

Queen Elizabeth I described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”  This Christmas Eve we go to the over 900-year-old St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, UK to hear a spectacular example of English change ringing. The church’s fifteen bells are ordered in a series of seemingly-endless mathematical permutations, known as “changes.” This clip will give you an idea of the precision required in this type of bell ringing. With today’s …

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Messiaen the Mystic: “The kiss of the Infant Jesus”

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the French composer, organist, and ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). A deep religious mysticism inhabits the music of Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic who described himself as a “rhythmician, ornithologist and theologian.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus”), a collection of short solo piano pieces written in 1944 during the final months of the German occupation …

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