Ligeti’s “Lontano”: Harmonic Alchemy

In Italian, Lontano means, “in the distance.” This is the title of a haunting orchestral dreamscape, written by the avant-garde Hungarian-Austrian composer, György Ligeti, in 1967. The piece unfolds in vast sonic waves. Tone clusters form and dissipate in a gradually shifting kaleidoscope of color. Terrifying dream images emerge and dissolve. Ligeti drew parallels between Lontano and parts of Bruckner’s majestically unfolding Eighth Symphony. In his program notes, he offered a technical description of the work’s …

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Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony: An Expression of Nature’s Divine Logic

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major begins with the breadth and majesty of a vast, unfolding Nordic landscape. A mystical horn call rises and falls in an expansive arc, which opens the door to all that follows. Picked up by the woodwinds, the motif begins to fragment, spin, and develop with a sense of self-organizing inevitability. In his famous meeting with Gustav Mahler, Sibelius expressed admiration for the symphony’s “style and …

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Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829: An Exercise in Spiritual Delight

J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas, BWV 825-830 were conceived as exercises for the body, mind, and spirit. Composed between 1725 and 1731, these were the last of Bach’s keyboard suites. Yet, they were published by the Leipzig-employed composer as “opus 1,” and offered “to music lovers in order to refresh their spirits.” This collection of Partitas (richly contrasting Baroque dances) fuses technical advancement with spiritual delight. They influenced later composers, from Brahms to Bartók. Bach’s earliest biographer, …

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Pēteris Vasks’ “The Fruit Of Silence”: VOCES8

The Latvian composer, Pēteris Vasks (b. 1946), began as “a young, angry and avant-garde” modernist. Over time, his music evolved to embrace consonance, simplicity, spirituality, Latvian folk influences, and “echoes of bird songs.” Composed in 2013, Vasks’ The Fruit of Silence is a choral setting of a prayer by Mother Teresa: The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is …

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Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy”: Two Legendary Heifetz Recordings

The German composer, Max Bruch (1838-1920), had a longstanding fascination with the “exotic” culture and rugged, enchanting topography of Scotland. Bruch read German translations of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and created musical settings for several poems by Robert Burns. The Scots Musical Museum was an influential collection of Scottish folk music which was compiled by Burns and the engraver and publisher, James Johnson, between 1787 and 1803. In addition to inspiring …

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Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”): Painting in Tones

In the spring of 1829, Felix Mendelssohn embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was a customary educational practice for young men born into affluent families in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the time, Mendelssohn was already a prodigious rising star, having composed works including the Octet, Op. 20 and the famous concert overture inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Additionally, in March of 1829, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted …

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Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.” This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into …

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