Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 63: Passionate Romantic Currents

From the opening bars of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1, we are swept into a drama filled with soaring passion and turbulence. An expansive and restless melody emerges in the violin’s darkest register. It rises and falls, propelled by swift, ever-changing arpeggiating currents in the piano. Downbeats and phrase endings vanish amid swirling canonic counterpoint between the violin and the piano’s bass register. After reaching heroic and euphoric heights, the music …

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Chopin’s Nocturnes, Op. 27: Enharmonic Dreamscapes

Frédéric Chopin’s Op. 27 Nocturnes inhabit a serene, sensuous, and melancholy dreamscape. The two pieces for solo piano, composed in 1836, are among twenty-one surviving Nocturnes written by Chopin. The form originated a generation earlier with the English composer-pianist, John Field (1782-1837). Chopin’s Nocturnes become magical and atmospheric “songs of the night.” They are bel canto arias without words, in which the piano is transformed into a singing instrument. They are harmonically …

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Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique: A Russian Lament

In January of 1875, Tchaikovsky met the great violinist and pedagogue, Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky, who at the time was putting the finishing touches on his First Piano Concerto, accepted Auer’s request for a piece for violin and orchestra. The result was the single-movement Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26. Auer’s initial rejection of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto led the composer to remove the dedication to Auer from both works. The first performance of the Sérénade …

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Brahms’ Handel Variations, Op. 24: A Monument Built on Baroque Foundations

George Frideric Handel’s Suite in B-flat Major, HWV 434, published in 1733 as part of a collection of keyboard works entitled Suites de Pièces, concludes with an Aria con variazioni in which five ebullient variations spin out of a sunny galant theme: This endearing music provided the seed for Johannes Brahms’ monumental Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, composed nearly 130 years later in 1861. Here, the original theme is followed by 25 adventurous …

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Sibelius’ “Lemminkäinen” Suite: Four Legends from the Kalevala

Lemminkäinen is a shamanistic figure from the frigid depths of Finnish mythology. Throughout the epic poetry of the Kalevala, where he represents an amalgamation of characters, Lemminkäinen takes the form of a young, heroic warrior. Occasionally described as a “handsome, arrogant and reckless” seducer, he is the son of Lempi, the Finnish goddess of love and fertility. The adventures of this epic hero provided the inspiration for Jean Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, a collection of four symphonic …

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Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Cycle: String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1

Beethoven’s three Op. 59 String Quartets were revolutionary. Written in 1806, six years after the composer’s initial Op. 18 set, the so-called “Razumovsky” Quartets were more complex, expansive in scale, and emotionally dramatic than anything previously conceived in the genre. Earlier chamber works were written for the entertainment of aristocratic amateur musicians. With this music, the string quartet moved decisively into the concert hall. Commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador …

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Liszt’s “Les Préludes”: The Birth of the Symphonic Poem

At the dawn of the Romantic period, a dramatic new type of concert piece emerged that was infused with extramusical associations. This programmatic music, usually inspired by literary themes, crystalized with the thirteen symphonic poems (or tone poems) of Franz Liszt. Filled with passion, turbulence, pathos, and heroic exultation, this free-form music probed new psychological depths. Liszt’s Les Préludes, composed between 1849 and 1855, was the first piece to be called a “symphonic poem.” …

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