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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Hamburg’s New Elbphilharmonie: “Here Time Becomes Space”

Here time becomes space. This enigmatic line from Wagner’s Parsifal suggests the transcendent nature of the 1882 work, which dramatizes a twelfth-century knight’s quest for the Holy Grail. Parsifal goes beyond opera, transporting us into a mystical new realm. Foremost, it’s an experience. Appropriately, this line became the theme for last week’s inaugural concerts of Hamburg’s spectacular, new Elbphilharmonie- the long-anticipated home of the NDR Sinfonieorchester (North German Radio Symphony Orchestra), now renamed the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. In …

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The Struggle of Fidelio: Beethoven’s Four Overtures

Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside. -Ludwig van Beethoven The Italian opera composer Gioachino Rossini was, as the story goes, the ultimate procrastinator. He would often dash off the overture for a new opera the night before the opening. In the case of The Thieving Magpie, he waited until the day of the opening. Sometimes he reused a previously written overture, substituting one frothy musical joyride for …

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Celebrating Beethoven’s 246th Birthday

Beethoven was born on this day in 1770. His birthplace in Bonn, the Beethovenhaus, is pictured above. In celebration, here is a fiery performance of the Egmont Overture, Op 84, written to open a set of incidental music for the Vienna premiere of a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1754-1832). Beethoven received the commission in 1809, around the height of the Napoleonic Wars. In May of that year, Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement during the …

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Beethoven and the Spirit of Gratitude

Intense, heroic struggle culminating in transcendent exultation and joy- these are elements that we often associate with the music of Beethoven. But lately I’ve noticed that in rare, fleeting moments throughout Beethoven’s works another power seems to emerge, mysteriously. It can best be described as gratitude- a sense of surrender and a glimpse of the transcendent. It’s something we hear in the “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, …

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