Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy”: A Grand Hybrid

It’s part piano improvisation, part piano concerto, and part grand chamber work. Oh yes, and there’s a full chorus at the end. Beethoven’s Fantasy for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80, a piece I played over the weekend, is a fascinating and genre-defying hybrid. It was written for a benefit concert that was performed on December 22, 1808. At the end of the concert, Beethoven pulled together the evening’s disparate forces with this …

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Remembering Robert Mann

Violinist, composer, and teacher Robert Mann, a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet, passed away on Monday at his home in New York. He was 97. Born in Portland, Oregon, Mann began taking lessons at the age of 9. Early on, he was attracted to chamber music, which he described as “the social phenomenon of making music among equals.” Cooperation and service to the music over virtuosity and technical display remained central …

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Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata: Saying Goodbye in Three Chords

Listen carefully to the three opening chords of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a. For Beethoven, these chords outlined the three broken syllables of the word “Le-be-wohl,” or “Fare-thee-well,” which he inscribed in the manuscript. If the music from Monday’s post is still in your ears, you’ll notice the tantalizing similarity between this opening and the three chords which open Brahms’ choral lamentation, Nänie -another “farewell” piece. Beethoven’s opening chords suggest the wide-open intervals …

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The Orion Quartet in Concert: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9

“We now join our regularly scheduled program, already in progress.” That’s the message that could accompany the opening of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C Major. An F-sharp diminished chord emerges out of thin air at the beginning of this piece. This is the  last chord we would expect to hear at this point. It sounds like the stern conclusion of an earlier, unheard musical statement. The strange, harmonically ambiguous introduction which follows is …

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Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata: Isabelle Faust

A continuous vibrato is one of the key elements of modern violin playing. So it’s easy to forget that there was a time when vibrato was used much more sparingly as an ornament. Listen to German violinist Joseph Joachim’s 1903 recordings of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 and No 2 and you’ll hear this older approach to sound. In a 2011 interview, German violinist Isabelle Faust discusses Joachim’s insistence on strict tempos and limited vibrato in Brahms’ …

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10 Musical Adaptations of “God Save the Queen”

On Monday, Britain celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Sapphire Jubilee, marking her 65 years on the throne. At 90, Her Majesty is the world’s longest-reigning monarch. The milestone reminded me of the nearly 140 composers who have created musical adaptations of God Save the Queen, an ancient melody that may have originated in plainchant long before it was attributed to the English composer and organ-builder John Bull in 1619. Here are ten of the most …

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Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony: An Overlooked Gem

When it came to writing symphonies, Beethoven seems to have ascribed to the wisdom of moderation. Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies (especially, beginning with the Third) were big, heroic game changers. The first audiences must have been stunned by their bold innovations and their often ferocious, titanic energy. By contrast, the often-neglected even numbered symphonies are sometimes described as more “classical.” They open up a strikingly different, but equally thrilling, world. One of …

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