The Well-Tempered Clavier: Bach’s Sublime Exercises

For more than 250 years, Das wohltemperierte Clavier has trained the fingers of innumerable keyboard players, and has also trained the judgment of composers seeking to understand the complex relationship between creative freedom and formal discipline. – Davitt Moroney There’s an interesting irony in the fact that the ultimate creative freedom often grows out of rules and constraints. This is something architects, who embark on projects with a detailed program outlining the client’s needs and …

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Beethoven’s Wordless Recitatives

Ludwig van Beethoven may not be the first composer who comes to mind when considering recitative- the sung dialogue that links arias and other musical numbers in an opera or oratorio. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, which uses more spoken dialogue than recitative. He spent almost ten excruciating years revising the work, writing four different overtures, and enduring harsh criticism, until finding success with the final 1814 version. So it’s interesting that operatic …

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Maria João Pires and the Poetry of Chopin

There’s a really interesting moment at the end of the middle section (più lento) of Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 2 when the music stops. Throughout this section (which begins around the 2:40 mark), a recitative-like conversation between two contrasting voices has been unfolding. “A tyrant commands, and the other asks for mercy” is how Chopin described it. But then, with one haunting, heart-stopping chord (You’ll hear it at 5:02 in the clip below), all of the swagger …

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Tchaikovsky for the First Day of June

Vivaldi and Glazunov were not the only composers to depict the seasons musically. In 1875, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a set of twelve short character pieces for piano, The Seasons, Op. 37 a. Each piece is related to a month of the year. You might expect June to depict sunny optimism, but Tchaikovsky’s music is a melancholy barcarolle. The score contains this epigraph by nineteenth century Russian poet, Alexey Nikolayevich Plescheev: Let us go to the …

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Happy 150th Birthday, Erik Satie

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Satie (1866-1925), the colorfully eccentric French avant-garde composer whose work anticipated later movements such as Surrealism, Dadaism, and late twentieth-century minimalism. Satie described many of his pieces as “Furniture music.” This music purposely stayed in the background, stripping away any hint of overwrought emotion. In the century between Haydn’s twenty minute-long classical symphonies and Wagner’s eighteen-hour-long Ring Cycle, concert music generally grew bigger, louder, …

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Schumann’s Musical Descent into Insanity

On Monday, we listened to Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 “Spring,” a sunny piece written in the “springtime” of Schumann’s life, shortly after his marriage to Clara. Now let’s hear a different, darker side of Schumann: two strange, haunting works from the final years of the composer’s life, written as he descended into insanity. It’s now believed that Schumann suffered from tertiary syphilis, a disease which appeared gradually over time and produced a host of …

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Helene Grimaud’s New Album: “Water”

Here is a taste of Water, a new album by French pianist Hélène Grimaud which came out at the end of January on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The recording showcases water-inspired solo piano music, mostly from the twentieth century, including Luciano Berio’s haunting Wasserklavier from 6 Encores for Piano, Toru Takemitsu’s atmospheric Rain Tree Sketch II, and Debussy’s  La cathédrale engloutie. Beyond assembling a great collection of music, Grimaud wanted to draw attention to the fragility of this fundamental and …

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