Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni, Voces8

Before the rich counterpoint of J.S. Bach, there was the seamless, contrapuntal polyphony of the Italian Renaissance composer, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594). The sacred music of Palestrina greatly influenced Bach and the composers who followed. Bach studied and hand-copied Palestrina’s first book of Masses and adapted parts of the Missa sine nomine. Felix Mendelssohn noted Palestrina’s influence when he wrote, “I always get upset when some praise only Beethoven, others only Palestrina and still others …

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Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata: Oistrakh and Richter in 1969

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, Op. 134 was completed in the autumn of 1968. The title page bears the inscription, “For the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh.” Shostakovich had attempted to commemorate the great Ukrainian violinist’s 60th birthday a year too early with the Second Violin Concerto. Oistrakh explained, Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error …

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Berlioz’ “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture: The Romantic Artist as Hero

The opening bars of Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini Overture spring to life with all of the high-flying passion, exuberance, and boundless heroism of the idealized Romantic artist. Filled with wild euphoria and mercurial twists and turns, this initial theme encapsulates the spirit of the protagonist of the opera which follows. Berlioz’ ill-fated 1838 opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was based on a highly fictionalized depiction of the Florentine sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Although it appealed to notions of the …

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Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in Two Shades

We explored Maurice Ravel’s magical 1917 suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in a previous post. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it is music that retreats into the graceful motion and elegance of Baroque dances such as the Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. It pays homage to the keyboard suites of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733), while serving, simultaneously, as a memorial for friends Ravel lost in the war. When listeners commented …

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Takemitsu’s “A String Around Autumn”: Entering an Imaginary Landscape

Alex Ross once used the phrase “intense repose” to describe the music of the twentieth century Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996). At the heart of Takemitsu’s music is the traditional Japanese concept of Ma, literally “negative space,” or “powerful silence” as the composer defined it. As with water droplets at the crest of an ocean wave, this music often seems to emerge out of silence and then dissolve back into it. What we hear in between seems …

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Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony: The Art of Moderation

Within Beethoven’s catalogue, Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major is sometimes overshadowed by its odd-numbered neighbors, the “Eroica” and the Fifth Symphony. Robert Schumann called it “a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants.” It’s a testament to the sense of moderation that seems to characterize Beethoven’s symphonic journey. The odd-numbered symphonies are often ferocious, mighty and revolutionary, while the even-numbered works retreat into a world of sunny intimacy. Both offer equally rich rewards. …

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Ravel’s Sonatine: Crystalline Classicism Made-to-Order

Musical Competition: Compose the first movement of a Pianoforte Sonate in F sharp minor, not to exceed 75 bars in length. A prize of 100 francs will be given for the winning composition. This advertisement, placed in the Weekly Critical Review in March of 1903, was the impetus for Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for solo piano. Ravel entered the competition at the urging of his close friend, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a contributor to the short-lived, Anglo-French cultural publication. In …

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