Three English Phantasies: Music of Vaughan Williams, Purcell, and Britten

The fantasia is a genre which spans more than four hundred years of English music. It flowered in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with the viol consort music of composers such as William Byrd, John Jenkins, and Henry Purcell. Emerging from the word fancy, these compositions are free in form and feature an intricate, polyphonic dialogue between instruments. A predecessor to sonata form, the fantasia grew out of madrigals and vocal motets. Twentieth …

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Weber’s “Oberon”: The Romantic Orchestra Springs to Life

Oberon, the final opera of Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), was premiered at London’s Covent Garden on this date in 1826. The three act opera, set in English with spoken dialogue, was described as “one of the most remarkable combinations of fantasy and technical skill in modern music.” Based on a thirteenth century French epic poem by Huon of Bordeaux, it tells the story of Oberon, the Elf King, who has argued with …

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Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory. We …

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Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”: At the Intersection of Nature and Man

In his novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche challenged fundamental ideas about religion, science, and the individual. Set in four parts, the allegory includes the famously provocative statement, “God is dead,” and puts forth the concept of “will to power,” suggesting that power and aspiration are the main driving forces which motivate the human race. As James M. Keller writes, “Nietzsche’s ideas went to the heart of human existence …

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Josef Hassid: Three Historic Recordings

A fiddler like Heifetz is born every 100 years; one like Hassid every 200 years. So said the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, after attending an impromptu concert at the home of the noted Hungarian pedagogue, Carl Flesch. The “fiddler” was the Polish teenage virtuoso, Josef Hassid (1923-1950). Kreisler was so impressed with Hassid’s playing that he lent him a fine instrument made in 1860 by the French luthier, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. Yet, Josef Hassid’s …

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Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ”: Meditations on a Sacred Text

In 1786, Franz Joseph Haydn received an unusual commission from a Spanish priest. It was for an orchestral work to be performed for the Good Friday service at the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, an underground church in the city of Cádiz. Haydn was asked to compose a series of slow, meditative “sonatas,” each relating to one of the seven last words of Christ during the crucifixion, as outlined in the Canonical …

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