Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus” Overture: Music for a Ballet

In 1800, around the time of the premiere of his First Symphony, the 29-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven received a commission to write music for a ballet based on the Prometheus myth. Beethoven’s collaborator and librettist was the the Italian choreographer and dancer, Salvatore Viganò. Although Viganò usually composed the music for his ballets himself, this occasion was far too important. The Creatures of Prometheus, a “heroic and allegorical ballet” in two acts, would be …

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La Centifolia’s “Ciaccona!”: Music of Purcell and Pachelbel

Although its origins are murky, the chaconne appears to have originated in South America as a swirling dance which was “wild, fast, cheerful and often sung.” (Leila Schayegh) It was characterized by suggestive movements and mocking texts. (Alexander Silbiger) In the sixteenth century, conquistadors brought the chaconne to Spain. Evolving into a stately Baroque dance in triple meter, it spread quickly throughout Europe, and gained popularity with both aristocrats and the general public. …

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Strauss’ “Salome”: The Grisly Final Scene

Perhaps, as Alex Ross suggests in the opening pages of his bestselling book, The Rest is Noise, twentieth century music was born with the first scandalous performances of Richard Strauss’ 1905 opera, Salome. Set in one act, the opera was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s French play based on characters from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The imprisoned Jochanaan (John the Baptist) becomes an object of desire for princess Salome, the teenage stepdaughter of King Herod of …

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Chopin’s Nocturnes, Op. 15: Songs of the Night

Composed between 1830 and 1833, Frédéric Chopin’s three Op. 15 Nocturnes for solo piano are haunting, dreamy, and intimate songs of the night. They unfold as bel canto arias without words, in which the piano becomes a singing voice. Chopin’s 21 Nocturnes popularized and expanded a form which was developed a generation earlier by the Irish pianist and composer, John Field (1782-1837). They feature daring harmonic innovations which influenced later composers.  In …

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Samuel Barber’s “Let Down the Bars, O Death”: Conspirare

It was during the summer of 1936 that Samuel Barber composed the String Quartet that would give rise to the iconic Adagio for Strings. During the same summer, Barber created an a cappella choral setting of Emily Dickinson’s 1891 poem, Let Down the Bars, O Death. It unfolds as a somber, homophonic chorale. As with the Adagio, it reaches upwards in search of a searing climax. When the poem’s first line returns, the hushed opening phrase is transformed …

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Janáček’s “In the Mists”: Four Coloristic Pieces for Solo Piano

In the Mists is a cycle of four solo piano pieces, written in 1912 by the Czech composer, Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). The pieces are intimate, fleeting, and tinged with melancholy. Vivid impressionistic colors blend with elements of Moravian folk music. They reveal psychological “mists,” perhaps of a composer who suffered the tragic death of his daughter. Harmonically, they inhabit distant, “misty” keys with five and six flats. Fluidly changing meters suggest music which …

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Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Third Symphony: Landscapes and Ruins

In July of 1829, during his first trip to Britain, the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn embarked on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend, Karl Klingemann. After visiting the ruined abbey at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Mendelssohn wrote in a letter to his family, In the deep twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the …

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