Britten’s “Peter Grimes”: The Individual Against the Crowd

Benjamin Britten’s 1945 tragic opera, Peter Grimes, is a dark story of isolation and alienation- the solitary social outcast set against the collective insanity and “mob rule” of the crowd. For the composer, a homosexual, staunch pacifist, and conscientious objector during the Second World War, it was a subject very close to my heart — the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual. The …

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Ned Rorem’s “Early in the Morning”

Arguably, no artist grows up: If he sheds the perceptions of childhood, he ceases being an artist. -Ned Rorem Early in the Morning, an art song by American composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923), is filled with wistful nostalgia. The text, by the poet Robert Hillyer, offers a distant memory of a far-off summer morning. Both the words and the music are shrouded in a dreamlike haze. We’re presented with the ephemeral- sights and smells of the morning- …

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A Sublime Moment from Khachaturian’s “Spartacus”

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Soviet Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). In celebration, let’s listen to a lushly beautiful excerpt from the second act of Khachaturian’s 1954 ballet, Spartacus. This soaring adagio occurs at the moment when the Thracian king, Spartacus, and his wife, Phrygia, celebrate their newfound freedom from captivity. This music is filled with the “exotic” modal scales of Armenian folk music. For example, listen to the clarinet’s statement around …

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Webern’s Piano Quintet and the Spirit of Brahms

What happens when the harmonic language of Brahms meets a dissolving tonal center? The answer might be Anton Webern’s Quintet for Strings and Piano.  Written in 1907, this is one of Webern’s early works. It’s set in a single movement which lasts just over ten minutes. There are tantalizing echoes of the music of Brahms, who died ten years earlier in 1897. We hear the same expansive voicing and soaring, Romantic phrases. But …

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Britten’s “War Requiem”: Libera me

In observance of Memorial Day, here is the final segment of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  One of the defining works of the twentieth century, the War Requiem combines the traditional Latin Mass for the dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen in the trenches of the First World War. It was premiered on May 30, 1962 on the occasion of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The original fourteenth century structure (pictured above) …

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Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, 1968

He swallowed it whole…He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness. This is how Sergei Rachmaninov described Vladimir Horowitz’ performance of his Third Piano Concerto- a piece so difficult to play that it even intimidated the composer. Rachmaninov and Horowitz came face to face at New York’s Steinway Hall in January, 1928. It was the violinist Fritz Kreisler who brought them together, telling the composer “some young Russian plays [the] Third …

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Aftertones of Gymnopédie: Channeling the Spirit of Satie

Yesterday marked the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the colorfully eccentric French avant-garde composer, Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie had a profound influence on later composers, from Debussy, Ravel, and Milhaud, to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky. Even more amazing is the way Satie’s music anticipates the minimalist and ambient styles of the late twentieth century. The three serene Gymnopédies for solo piano, completed in 1888, remain Satie’s most famous and powerfully evocative works. With sublime, …

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