Wagner’s “Die Walküre”: Magic Fire Music

At the end of the third and final act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Loge, the Norse god of fire, creates a protective circle of fire around the rock where she lies. Only the bravest of heroes will be able to penetrate the fire. At the opera’s 1870 premiere in Munich, the special effect of the flames terrified the audience. From the beginning of this …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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Rachmaninov’s First Symphony: From Despair to Posthumous Triumph

The world was not ready for Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The disastrous premiere of Symphony No. 1 in D minor in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897 shattered the 23-year-old composer’s confidence, plunging him into a psychological breakdown. For three years he would compose no music, emerging in the autumn of 1900 with the soaringly melodic Second Piano Concerto only after extensive psychotherapy. “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov …

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Clara Schumann “Romances for Violin and Piano”: Stefan Jackiw

Last week, I had the pleasure of performing with Stefan Jackiw. The young American violinist played the Beethoven Concerto with the Williamsburg (VA) Symphony Orchestra. Jackiw’s playing is characterized by an unusual sense of elegance and refinement. He paints with a wide array of colors and dynamics. In the most intimate passages of the slow movement of the Beethoven, he was not afraid to play just above a whisper. Jackiw’s elegant and stylish approach …

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Brahms’ “Rain Song” and the First Violin Sonata

Regenlied (“Rain Song”) is the third of Brahms’ 8 Lieder, Op. 59, published in 1873. The text by Klaus Groth is a wistful remembrance of the dreams and sense of awe experienced in childhood. The fourth song in the set, Nachklang (“Lingering Sound”) returns to the same thematic material. In this text, raindrops are equated with tears. In both songs, the piano evokes the patter of gently falling rain. Notice the way the three-note dotted rhythm …

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Chopin’s “Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major”: Krystian Zimerman

Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 feels dreamy and autumnal. Its serene, wistful, rocking rhythm transports us far beyond the Venetian gondolier associations we might typically expect in a barcarolle. Musical Romanticism is all about the moment, pulling us into the expressive pathos of a single chord. We get a sense of this mysterious process at work as this music unfolds, from the quiet, shimmering transcendence of this passage, to the shifting harmonic …

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Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2: The Takács Quartet and Andreas Haefliger

The music of Antonín Dvořák is often filled with a quiet, wistful nostalgia, an embrace of nature, and subtle references to Czech folksongs. We hear all of this in the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, a work of profound depth and monumental scale which Dvořák composed in 1887, between the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. This fully mature music grew out of the composer’s unsuccessful attempt to revise an earlier piano quintet. In the …

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