The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels. This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone …

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Four Musical Firsts

In celebration of the beginning of a new year, here are four pieces which qualify as musical “firsts.” Listen to the music on the list and then share your own favorite musical “firsts” in the comment thread below. Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” Let’s start with the birth of opera. Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is often credited with singlehandedly inventing the art form. In reality, opera gradually evolved out of Intermedio, music and …

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Arvo Pärt: Spirit in Sound and Space

In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussion, Spirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff. For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Knut …

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Evening Harmonies

Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 11,“Harmonies du Soir” is part of a set of twelve demonically difficult technical studies for piano. It appeals to a certain euphoria we feel in the presence of danger…the amusement park ride which seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but miraculously never does. In the case of Étude No. 11, danger comes in the form of furiously fast broken chords, quick jumps from one end of the …

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Can You Say Summertime?

The free-spirited Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) is an artist who refreshingly resists easy category. As a concert pianist, Say performs all of the standard repertoire with emotional warmth and effortless technique (here he plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G). As a composer, he has written symphonies, piano music, which draws on the prepared piano sounds popularized by John Cage and Henry Cowell (listen to the ethereal and sensuous Black …

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Paganini’s Catchy Tune

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the …

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Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor

The key of C minor held special significance for Beethoven. Emotionally intense and stormy, C minor evoked the turbulence of an age of revolution. It embodied a sense of heroic struggle, which would form the bedrock of Romaticism. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, American pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen suggests that Beethoven’s C minor compositions are closely linked to the Romantic idea of the artist as hero: [quote]Beethoven in C minor …

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