Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, 1968

He swallowed it whole…He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness. This is how Sergei Rachmaninov described Vladimir Horowitz’ performance of his Third Piano Concerto- a piece so difficult to play that it even intimidated the composer. Rachmaninov and Horowitz came face to face at New York’s Steinway Hall in January, 1928. It was the violinist Fritz Kreisler who brought them together, telling the composer “some young Russian plays [the] Third …

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The “Philadelphia Sound” in Five Historic Recordings

These days, the professional orchestra world is characterized by unparalleled technical skill, dutiful attention to historically-informed performance practice, and a general homogenization of sound and style. Musicians are expected to transition, instantly and seamlessly, from the lush Romanticism of Tchaikovsky to the lean purity of Mozart, with the mixed meters of Stravinsky and John Adams thrown in for good measure. In many ways, it’s the best of times. Perhaps what has been …

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“Francesca da Rimini”: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Opera

On Wednesday, we heard Tchaikovsky’s thrilling 1876 orchestral tone poem, Francesca da Rimini. The composer was fascinated with the story from Dante’s Inferno, and first considered turning it into an opera. When that project failed to materialize, Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, persuaded him that the subject was ripe for a dramatic tone poem. Sergei Rachmaninov’s opera, Francesca da Rimini, set to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, premiered thirty years later in January, 1906. It’s a short work …

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The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels. This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone …

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The Eighteenth Variation

Last week we heard a sample of music inspired by Niccolò Paganini’s solo violin Caprice No. 24, which included Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Let’s return to the Rachmaninov and “drop the needle” at one of its most memorable moments, the Eighteenth Variation. This stunningly beautiful melody seems far removed from Paganini’s original bouncy theme in A minor, but it actually develops from the motivic seed of Paganini’s first five notes (the top …

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Paganini’s Catchy Tune

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the …

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La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. …

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