Handel’s Fugue in A Minor, HWV 609: Haunting Chromaticism

For a brief moment, Handel’s Fugue in A Minor, HWV 609 could almost be mistaken for a twentieth century tone row. The first haunting pitches of the fugue’s subject are disorienting because they leap wildly beyond an octave. The chromaticism which underlies the subject clouds the tonal center. In the second half of the subject, a descending chromatic line suggests a sense of deep mystery and melancholy. The fugue unfolds as an …

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Night Voyages: Salonen’s “Insomnia” and Sibelius’ “Nightride and Sunrise”

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2002 orchestral tone poem, Insomnia, takes us on a haunting nocturnal voyage. The opening bars slip into a restless, looping stream of musical “thoughts” which toss and turn with prickly persistence in the woodwinds. As the piece develops, the insomniac’s obsessive mental chatter becomes a colorful tonal dreamscape which is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. Gradually, restlessness dissolves into the serenity of near sleep in the final minutes, only to be interrupted …

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Sibelius’ “En Saga”: Mystical Landscapes

The music of Jean Sibelius evokes the rugged, desolate beauty of the Finnish landscape, the distinct cycles of darkness and light in extreme northern latitudes, and the ancient folklore of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Sibelius’ music feels spacial and metaphysical. It changes our perception of time. The 1892 tone poem, En Saga (“A Fairy Tale”), does not depict a programmatic story related to the Kalevala. Instead, Sibelius described the work as an “adventure in an …

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Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto: Parody and Sardonic Humor

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor is the musical equivalent of a smirking jokester. It is a rule-breaking, Neo-baroque romp filled with sardonic humor, parody, and fleeting musical quotes. Completed by the young Shostakovich in 1933, it is actually a double concerto in which the solo trumpet and piano converse against the backdrop of a string orchestra. (The alternate title is “Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra”). By …

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Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: An Exhilarating Motivic Journey

“Short, short, short, long…” The four notes which open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony outline what is perhaps music history’s most iconic motif. It’s a motif which has been subjected to pop culture cliches and dubious superimposed poetic associations, such as “fate knocking at the door.” This motivic kernel, perhaps derived from Luigi Cherubini’s 1794 French Revolution anthem Hymne au Panthéon, is the seed out of which the entire Fifth Symphony develops. Preceded by a …

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Grieg’s Holberg Suite: Baroque Dances in the Scandinavian Woods

In December of 1884, the city of Bergen, Norway celebrated the 200th birthday of one of its most famous natives, the satirist and playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754). In honor of the event, Edvard Grieg, Bergen’s most famous composer, was commissioned to write a festive cantata and an instrumental work. While the cantata is now largely forgotten, the Holberg Suite became one of Grieg’s most enduring works. The five-movement suite, titled “From Holberg’s Time,” was written …

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The Artistry of Sting: Five Great Songs

Gordon Sumner, the English songwriter and musician known as Sting, celebrates his 70th birthday tomorrow. Between 1977 and 1986, Sting was the lead singer, bass guitarist, and principal songwriter for the band, The Police. Later, his solo career blossomed. Sting’s songs are filled with fascinating harmonic complexity and depth. Here are a few examples. There are many others that are equally interesting, including the jazz-infused Englishman in New York (a track which features Branford Marsalis on soprano …

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