Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”: Releasing Old Demons

There is a fascinating moment of emotional release near the end of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Completed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, this was Rachmaninov’s final composition. This music, which Rachmaninov described as “my last spark,” stands as an extraordinary musical summation. It reflects on the past with wistful nostalgia, yet we also get the sense of a spirited and joyful march into the sunset. In …

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Ravel in Triple Meter: “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and “La Valse”

As a composer, Maurice Ravel was drawn to the waltz. For example, consider the hazy serenity of the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, or (most famously) La valse, the composer’s haunting, dreamlike remembrance of the Viennese waltz, as heard through a perfumed French filter. Around 1920 while writing La valse, Ravel described his fascination with the waltz to the musicologist and writer Jean Marnold: You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I …

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Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5: Horowitz at the Met, 1981

Let’s finish the week where we began, with a powerful live-concert recording of the legendary Russian-born American pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). This performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 concluded Horowitz’ November 1, 1981 recital at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Completed in 1901, the Prelude in G minor opens with the same kind of spirited march we hear in the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Moments of soaring, heroic bravura are a reminder of …

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Exploring the Prolation Canon

There is an interesting passage about four and a half minutes into the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 which may have caught your ear if you dropped by for Wednesday’s post: Did you hear that wandering, chromatic line which begins in the violins? Two additional lower string voices enter in succession with the same line at consecutively slower rates of speed. For a moment, before the episode is cut off by the …

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Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony: An Unsolvable Enigma?

“What does it mean?” You may find yourself asking this question as you listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A Major. This final Shostakovich Symphony, written in a little over a month during the summer of 1971 as the composer faced declining health, is filled with persistent and unsettling ambiguity. First, there are the strange, inexplicable quotes and fleeting allusions to music of earlier composers, as well as cryptic references to Shostakovich’s previous …

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Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony: A Quiet Farewell

The Seventh was Sergei Prokofiev’s final symphony. Completed in 1952, a year before the composer’s death, it ventures into a sparkling, colorful world of innocence, fantasy, and wistful nostalgia. At the time this music was written, Prokofiev was battling deteriorating health as well as denunciation by Stalin’s cultural police, who banned the Sixth Symphony on the grounds of the work’s perceived “decadent formalism.” Prokofiev offered a letter of apology which was published widely. Perhaps to placate …

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Ravel’s “Mother Goose”: Entering the World of the Child

It has been said that Maurice Ravel saw the world through the eyes of a child. Although he had no children of his own, Ravel had a lifelong fascination with elaborate mechanical toys, and frequently read fairy tales aloud to the children of his friends. Two of these children were Jean and Mimi Godebski, the son and daughter of Cipa and Ida Godebski, a Polish couple who frequently brought together some of the greatest …

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