Haydn’s Symphony No. 59, “The Fire”

Surprises lurk around every corner in Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 in A Major. Firmly fastened seatbelts are required for this exhilarating music filled with volatility, theatrical drama, and freewheeling innovation. Movements from Symphony No. 59 were used to accompany a performance of Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann’s play, Die Feuersbrunst (“The Conflagration”), at the Esterházy palace in 1774. That is probably how the piece earned the nickname, the “Fire Symphony.” Yet …

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Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Before Sleep and Dreams,” Anthony de Mare

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ 1990 solo piano suite, Before Sleep and Dreams, offers a surreal depiction of the process of putting a small child to sleep. It’s music filled with echoes of Debussy, Chopin, and other composers. Debussy’s 1908 Children’s Corner and Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15, (“Scenes From Childhood”) are obvious precedents. The final movement of Before Sleep and Dreams drifts off into a shimmering, ethereal soundscape. This is an excerpt from pianist Anthony de Mare’s 2005 album, Out of …

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Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor: “Leave this to the Professionals…”

In 1785, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, who had just opened one of Vienna’s first music publishing businesses, commissioned Mozart to write three piano quartets—at the time, a novel new form in which a viola augments the traditional piano trio. Hoffmeister wanted popular music—easy, instantly gratifying, and marketable. In an era long before recordings, that meant music that amateurs could play in their homes. Mozart was not above dashing off this kind of light …

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Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”: Three Devilish Sonic Fantasies

Sometimes the notation of a musical score becomes a work of art in its own right. Such is the case with a vast mural painted in the early 1970s on the exposed brick wall of the Schmitt Music Company building in downtown Minneapolis (pictured above). The mural was created after Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan called out the blank wall’s unsightliness. “You need to make that wall sing,” she wrote. The three-story-tall …

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Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto: An Autumnal Requiem

At first, Alban Berg was reluctant to accept the commission for what would become one of the twentieth century’s greatest violin concertos. When the Ukrainian-born, American violinist Louis Krasner approached Berg in February, 1935 with an enticing offer of $1,500, the Austrian composer was hard at work on the opera, Lulu. He even declared that he was “not a violin composer.” Although Berg began to take tentative steps towards the Violin Concerto, the …

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Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: The Hammer Blow of Fate

Gustav Mahler said, My Sixth will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received and digested my first five. In fact, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor remains an unsettling enigma. Completed in 1905 at one of the happiest times in the composer’s life (he had married Alma Schindler in 1902 and they already had two young daughters), the Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most dark and …

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Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1: Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim

We call it a “Cello Sonata,” but the official name Johannes Brahms gave this piece, completed in 1865, is “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” To stress further the equality between the two instruments, Brahms specified that the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” The E minor Sonata is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an Austrian music …

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