Remembering Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, one of the giants of the American musical theater, has passed away at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He was 91. Sondheim was the composer and lyricist for musicals including: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). …

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Art Tatum: “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

As the story goes, Vladimir Horowitz was once asked to name the greatest living pianist. “Art Tatum,” replied the Russian-American virtuoso without hesitation, adding, “If Art Tatum took up classical music seriously, I’d quit my job the next day.” The sentiment was echoed by Arthur Rubinstein, Arturo Toscanini, Sergei Rachmaninov, and others who flocked to Harlem clubs throughout the 1940s to experience Tatum’s unique artistry. According to one account, Horowitz worked on an …

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Morton Gould’s “Harvest”: Vibrant Midcentury Americana

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was one of the twentieth century’s most eclectic musical figures. The American composer, conductor, and pianist produced both “serious” and “popular” music. In his youth, Gould played the piano for films and vaudeville acts. He was hired as the staff pianist for Radio City Music Hall. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he was a prominent conductor and arranger for numerous radio broadcasts, which included “Cresta Blanca Carnival” and “The …

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Liszt’s “Les Préludes”: The Birth of the Symphonic Poem

At the dawn of the Romantic period, a dramatic new type of concert piece emerged that was infused with extramusical associations. This programmatic music, usually inspired by literary themes, crystalized with the thirteen symphonic poems (or tone poems) of Franz Liszt. Filled with passion, turbulence, pathos, and heroic exultation, this free-form music probed new psychological depths. Liszt’s Les Préludes, composed between 1849 and 1855, was the first piece to be called a “symphonic poem.” …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Silent Noon”: Serene, Pastoral Bliss

The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams returns frequently to the serene, pastoral majesty of “England’s green and pleasant land.” We hear these shimmering, sensuous allusions in Vaughan Williams’ 1903 song, Silent Noon. The song, which was later incorporated into the cycle, The House of Life, is a setting of a dreamy sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The poem evokes a kind of blissful harmony with nature, experienced by two lovers on a summer day amid the “long …

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Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony”: Ode to an Ephemeral City

Ralph Vaughan Williams recalled that the impetus for A London Symphony came during a fleeting conversation with fellow English composer, George Butterworth: At the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony – a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt – dominated my …

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Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552: An Expression of the Trinity

In 1739, J.S. Bach published the Clavier-Übung III, a monumental collection of liturgical organ works which is sometimes called the German Organ Mass. The compilation begins and ends with two mighty musical pillars which have been catalogued as the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552. The latter has been nicknamed the “St. Anne” Fugue because its subject is strikingly similar to William Croft’s English hymn of the same name. The Clavier-Übung III is filled with …

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