Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony: A Requiem

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is filled with distant, lamenting voices. It was written with remarkable speed during the summer of 1943 when Shostakovich was staying at an isolated retreat maintained by the Soviet Composer’s Union. The composer’s distance from the horrors of the Eastern Front and the siege of Leningrad could not block out the sense of alienation, gloomy futility, exhaustion, sardonic humor, and raw terror that pervades this music. …

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“Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s “Xerxes”

George Frederick Handel seems to have had an affinity for expansive, majestic melodies. Consider the stately opening movement of the Violin Sonata in D Major, HWV 371, or the regal splendor we encounter in so many movements of the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.  Perhaps there is no better example than Ombra mai fu (“Never was a shade”), the opening aria from Handel’s 1738 opera, Xerxes, or Serse as it was known in Italian. The aria’s setting is a lush garden …

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Returning to Mahler in a Time of Crisis

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. -Leonard Bernstein in an address following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, November, 1963 On Friday, November 22, 1963, Leonard Bernstein was at Philharmonic Hall, reviewing scripts for an episode of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, scheduled to be televised the next day. When initial reports of the President’s assassination came in, …

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New Release: Víkingur Ólafsson’s “Debussy-Rameau”

Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy meet as virtual contemporaries on Debussy-Rameau, a new album by the Icelandic pianist, Víkingur Ólafsson. Surprising common threads emerge as we listen to the music of Rameau (1683-1764), one of the most important French baroque composers and theorists, alongside the rule-shattering impressionism of Debussy (1862-1918). Ólafsson believed the juxtaposition would “create a dialogue that might show Rameau in a futuristic light, and find Debussy’s deep roots in the …

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Brahms’ Variations on a Theme (Not) by Joseph Haydn

The “theme and variations” may be the most fun-loving and exuberant of all musical forms. Its attributes include cleverness, virtuosity, and surprise. We can only imagine what it might have been like to hear Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert spinning a stream of improvised keyboard variations, each taking the listener on a new and unexpected adventure. There was an element of sport to these popular gatherings. Improvisational duels allowed for a game …

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Remembering Lynn Harrell

The American cellist Lynn Harrell passed away unexpectedly on Monday. He was 76. Years ago when I was a student one summer at the Chautauqua Institution, I attended Harrell’s masterclass and recital. His down-to-earth, irreverent sense of humor, powerful, singing tone, and profound musicianship are etched in my memory. During a career that spanned six decades, Lynn Harrell appeared regularly with the world’s top orchestras. He will be remembered also as an accomplished …

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