Olivier Messiaen: Three Mystical Reflections for Holy Week

“My faith is the grand drama of my life,” wrote the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). “I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.” Indeed, Messiaen’s music revels in the awe and wonder of the divine. Often, it drifts into haunting, deeply meditative territory where time seems to be suspended. From the bright, angelic colors of the human voice to the muted rumble …

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Contrapunctus XIX: Berio Meets Bach

The Art of Fugue was one of J.S. Bach’s final monuments to musical posterity. Written during the last ten years of the composer’s life, the collection is made up of 14 fugues and four canons which develop from a single, sublimely simple musical subject. As the work unfolds, Bach moves from double, triple, and mirror fugues to a quadruple fugue in an increasingly complex and technically varied exploration of contrapuntal possibilities. The music …

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George Crumb’s “Dream Images”: Echoes of Faintly Remembered Music

In the score of his Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini), the American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) writes, “musingly, like the gentle caress of faintly remembered music (flexible and expressive).” This fleeting and atmospheric work for solo piano is the eleventh of twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac which make up Crumb’s 1972 collection, Makrokosmos, Volume I, modeled after Bartók. In addition to its reference to astrology, the poetic title suggests the Liebestod (“love death”) of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Notated without …

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Elgar’s Violin Concerto: Venturing into the Inner World

Two worlds collide in the music of Sir Edward Elgar. Outwardly, there is heroism and swashbuckling adventure, tempered with a distinctly English sense of regal majesty. This is the composer of the brilliant tone poem, In the South, and the stately Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Yet, as this facade melts away, an intensely intimate inner world emerges in much of Elgar’s music. These moments are sometimes slightly unsettling, filled with haunting mystery, tenderness, nostalgia, and …

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Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”: Three Operatic Moments

Stephen Sondheim’s grisly 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, tells a story of blood-soaked, all-consuming revenge which ends in self-annihilation. The action is set in 1845, amid the gloom and hellish alienation of rapidly industrializing Victorian London. The barber, Sweeney Todd, has returned to London from exile in Australia. He was sent there on false charges by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who with the help of Beadle Bamford, tormented and raped …

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Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 18 in G Major, Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil

In 1778, Mozart and his mother, Maria Anna, left Salzburg and set out on a long journey which culminated in Paris. The 22-year-old composer was searching for new employment. He had become restless in his post as Konzertmeister to the Salzburg Court, a title that he had held since age 13. Mozart found his native Salzburg to be provincial and artistically stifling. He was paid a low yearly salary of 150 florins, and …

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Remembering James Levine

James Levine, the American conductor and pianist, has passed away from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 77. Levine served as music director of the Metropolitan Opera for 40 years from 1976 to 2016. He is widely credited with raising the artistic level and profile of that company. He was also music director of the Ravinia Festival (1973–1993) and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (2004–2011). Levine’s personal and professional reputation will be …

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