“Tapiola”: Sibelius’ Mysterious Final Tone Poem

In Pohjola there are thick, dark forests that dream wild dreams, forever secret. Tapio’s eerie dwellings are there and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight. – Jean Sibelius  Tapio is the mythological spirit of the mysterious, remote forests of northern Finland who figures prominently in the Nordic folklore of the Kalevala. This is the subject of the tone poem, Tapiola, Jean Sibelius’ last major work, written in 1926 on a commission from Walter Damrosch and the New …

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Remembering Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen, the influential British composer, conductor, and teacher passed away last Sunday. He was 66. As a conductor and teacher, Knussen will be remembered for his associations with Tanglewood (where he served as head of contemporary music activities between 1986 and 1993), the Aldeburgh Festival, the London Sinfonietta, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among other organizations. In a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle interview, Knussen talked about his life in music, including his aversion to composing up against deadlines. …

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“There is No Music”: Ira Gershwin’s Poignant Remembrance?

George Gershwin passed away on this date (July 11) in 1937 at the age of 38. Doctors diagnosed brain cancer as the the cause of death. The songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin produced over two dozen scores for Broadway and Hollywood. They are credited with elevating the sophistication of Broadway theater as an art form with shows such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Porgy …

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Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down”

It begins with a distant drumbeat in the night- a barely-audible triple-beat timpani summons. Then, a strangely amorphous scale in the brooding low strings rises out of the darkness. A vague remembrance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde blends into a gradually-shifting kaleidoscope of veiled colors. Icy dissonance opens out into a vast, magnificent, sonic expanse. These are the first, primal seconds of Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Actually, we don’t perceive this piece as having a …

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George Rochberg at 100

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005). An influential composition teacher and chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, Rochberg was originally an exponent of serialism and twelve-tone techniques. The turbulent Symphony No. 2, completed in 1956 and premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, is a prominent example of Rochberg’s atonal period. In the mid 1960s, following the tragic death of his …

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A William Schuman Fourth

In celebration of Independence Day, here is Chester, the final movement of American composer William Schuman’s 1956 New England Triptych. It’s a setting of one of the most famous hymn tunes of William Billings (1746-1800), America’s first choral composer. Originating in Billings’ 1770 songbook, The New England Psalm Singer, Chester became a marching song for the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Schuman’s Chester opens with a statement of the simple hymn melody before the music erupts into a spirited, celebratory …

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The Music of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”

Music was at the heart of the long-running PBS children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was reminded of this last week as I watched the timely new documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film opens with a youthful Fred Rogers, seated at the piano, relating far-flung harmonic modulations to difficult adjustments in children’s lives. Rogers, a talented pianist, wrote all of the show’s songs. Dialogue between characters in the “Neighborhood of Make-believe” …

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