Wagnerian Brawn: “Siegfried’s Forging Song”

In celebration of Labor Day, here is one of opera’s greatest displays of heroic physical labor and brawn. It’s “Siegfried’s Forging Song,” which concludes the first act of Wagner’s Siegfried, the third music drama in the Ring Cycle. Disgusted with the dwarf Mime’s lack of progress in reforging the broken pieces of Nothung, the sword that will slay the dragon Fafner, Siegfried takes up the task himself. The music takes on a frightening, almost violent, …

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Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”: Anne Akiko Meyers

Smile, composed by Charlie Chaplin as the love theme for his 1936 film, Modern Times, was inspired by the soaring, romantic melodies of Puccini’s Tosca. Here is an excerpt from the film with the music in its original form. Lyrics were later written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and the song became a standard. It was first recorded in 1954 by Nat King Cole. Later, it was performed by artists including Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, and Michael Jackson. Violinist Anne Akiko …

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Stravinsky’s Jazz-Inspired “Ebony Concerto”

Earlier in the month, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s 1949 Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, a uniquely-American hybrid of classical music and jazz, written for Woody Herman’s big band. (Due to the band’s 1946 dissolution, Benny Goodman gave the piece’s premiere). This reminded me of the Ebony Concerto, a similarly jazz-inspired work written for Herman by Igor Stravinsky a few years earlier in 1945. Stravinsky developed a fascination with jazz as early as 1916 when he said, I …

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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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Bernstein at 100: “West Side Story”

Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). As a conductor, Bernstein brought a distinctive, youthful dynamism to the podium, producing performances which sizzled with “edge-of-your-seat” energy. He championed adventurous new American works during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (from 1958 to 1969), and sparked a revival of interest in the music of Gustav Mahler. As a composer, he synthesized a variety of musical styles, from …

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Bernstein at 100: “On the Waterfront”

The 1954 American crime drama, On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, is set amid the union violence and corruption of longshoreman working on the docks of the Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront. The film, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, was ranked the eighth-greatest movie of all time by the American film institute. It was Leonard Bernstein’s only foray into the world of Hollywood film scoring. Bernstein found the collaborative nature of film scoring frustrating artistically. …

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Bernstein at 100: “Fancy Free”

From the moment the action begins, with the sound of a juke box wailing behind the curtain, the ballet is strictly wartime America, 1944. The curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side-street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying backdrop. Three sailors explode onto the stage. They are on twenty-four-hour shore leave in the city and on the …

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