Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor” and the Power of Repetition

A simple idea or statement, persistently repeated, can take on a unique power. The idea seems to come alive, gradually seeping into our consciousness and demanding our attention and respect. Perhaps this is part of the profound magic of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, written sometime between 1706 and 1713 when the composer was in his early twenties. It begins with that simple, repeating statement- a quietly unassuming, stepping passacaglia …

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The Architecture of Sound: Xenakis’ “Metastaseis”

Music, like architecture, is time and space. -Le Corbusier On Saturday, I attended the opening of Virginia Commonwealth University’s new Institute for Contemporary Art (pictured above). Situated at one of Richmond’s most prominent intersections, the collection of galleries will host “an ever-changing slate of exhibitions, performances, films, and special programs that translate our world into every medium.” The sculptural design by American architect Steven Holl has become an instant landmark. At night, …

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Apocalyptic Serenity: The Final Movement of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”

The eighth and final movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time fades into numb, detached serenity. It’s a quiet lament, simultaneously comforting and haunting. Messiaen wrote this music as a prisoner in the Nazi war camp, Stalag VIII at Görlitz, Germany. He was captured as a French soldier during the German invasion of France in 1940. The premiere took place on the cold, rainy night of January 15, 1941. The audience of around 400 was …

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Alan Hovhaness’ Mystical Tone Poem, “Meditation on Orpheus”

East meets west in the music of the Armenian-American twentieth century maverick composer, Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). Infused with a quiet mysticism and contemplative reverence, Hovhaness’ music is a melting pot in which “exotic” Middle Eastern and Asian scales, modes, and western counterpoint all bubble to the surface. Amid the mechanized turmoil of the modern world, Hovhaness found spiritual inspiration in trees and mountains. There is an ancient, eternal, soulfulness in his music which evokes …

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John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” and the Ghosts of Late Romanticism

A terrifying raw energy, released in thirty-nine unrelenting E minor hammer blows… So begins John Adams’ monumental 1985 symphony in three movements, Harmonielehre. This titanic opening statement, which Adams has equated to “a grinding of gears,” sprang from a strange and vivid dream. For Adams, it brought a sudden end to a “perplexing and deeply disturbing creative block” which had paralyzed him for eighteen months. In his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, the composer writes, At what seemed like the absolute nadir …

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David Diamond’s Fourth Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Masterwork

There’s a whole group of great American symphonists who came of age in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, flourished in the middle of the century, and then fell into relative neglect as atonality became the ruling doctrine of concert music. Their names include Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, and Roy Harris. David Diamond (1915-2005) is another significant composer from this group. Diamond’s music was programmed in the 1940s and ’50s by …

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Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”: Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony

This may be the newest recording of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings. It’s part of a Grammy award-winning album released last August by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Recorded live in concert at Heinz Hall, it’s paired on the album with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, another monumental twentieth century work written at virtually the same time. Adagio for Strings was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s 1936 String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11. Shostakovich …

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