Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”: Beyond Sketches and Riddles

“A man is known by the company he keeps,” said the ancient Greek fabulist, Aesop. For Sir Edward Elgar, it was associations with a circle of friends, each with their distinct personalities and quirks, that inspired the orchestral masterwork, Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36, popularly known as the Enigma Variations. According to the story, it began on an October evening in 1898 at Elgar’s home in the Worcestershire countryside. Puffing on a …

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Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Dark and Tempestuous Adventure

In 1720, J.S. Bach applied for the post of music director at St Jacob’s Church in Hamburg. As part of the audition, Bach performed an organ recital lasting more than two hours. In the end, establishment politics prevented Bach from winning the job, but the level of his playing left the audience stunned. After hearing Bach’s improvisations, the 97-year-old Dutch organist, Johann Adam Reinken, said, “I thought this skill had died out, …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music”: “Such Harmony is in Immortal Souls”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was conceived in 1938 as a tribute to the conductor, Sir Henry Wood. The piece endures as a shimmering and sensuous celebration of music itself, set to the majestic words of Shakespeare. The work’s Royal Albert Hall premiere, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Woods’ first concert, was a uniquely collective musical celebration. The ensemble included members from three major London orchestras (the LSO, LPO, and BBC Symphony), …

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Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894: Paul Lewis in Concert

The music of Franz Schubert inhabits a unique and magical world, distinct from any other composer. While Beethoven often grabs us roughly by the collar and throws us onto an exhilarating and ferocious musical rollercoaster ride, Schubert gives us a radically different experience. He invites us into a quiet, sensuous space filled with crystalline melodies, conversing voices, and moments of deep mysticism. Sudden, effortless harmonic shifts and modulations open up new, unexpected dramatic vistas. …

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Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio: A Haunting Elegy

Dmitri Shostakovich completed the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor in 1944, shortly after composing the “wartime” Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Shostakovich had scarcely finished the first movement when he received word of the sudden death (at age 41) of his close friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, a brilliant musicologist, critic, and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. For nearly twenty years, Sollertinsky had been one of Shostakovich’s most loyal defenders. His influence included introducing …

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Arvo Pärt’s “The Beatitudes”: Meditative Minimalism

“Time has a deep meaning, but it is temporary, like our lives. Only eternity is timeless.” -Arvo Pärt Sound, silence, and time are mystical properties in the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). Pärt’s early music inhabited the complex, twelve-tone world of twentieth century modernism. Then, in the late 1960s, he entered eight years of compositional silence, creating little more than musical fragments jotted in a notebook. When Pärt began …

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Three Excerpts from “Das Wunder der Heliane,” Korngold’s Glorious Flop

When it came to the fickle whims of public taste, Erich Wolfgang Korngold may have been a composer who was born twenty years too late. At a time when Stravinsky had already created a riot with his primordial The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School was exploring brave new twelve-tone frontiers, Korngold’s early music hovers in the warm afterglow of Romanticism. It is music of vibrant autumn colors, hinting at the poignant nostalgia …

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