Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”: Wandering, Rebirth, Exultation

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” wrote Igor Stravinsky, provocatively, in his 1935 autobiography. Listen to Stravinsky’s monumental Symphony of Psalms, completed five years earlier in 1930, and you may disagree. There is nothing remotely sentimental in the cool, neoclassical architecture of this music. It would be hard to put into words what is being “expressed.” Yet what emerges is powerful, moving, and transcendent. Set in …

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Bach’s Unopened Résumé: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

In each of J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, a new and distinctive cast of musical “characters” take the stage. They spring to life and converse in the thrilling drama of the concerto grosso, a popular Baroque form in which groups of solo instruments interact with the full (“grosso”) ensemble. In the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach took this form, developed by Italian composers like Vivaldi, to bold new heights. Concerto No. 5 in D …

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Webern’s Inaugural Opus: “Passacaglia for Orchestra”

Today marks the 135th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945). Along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern was part of the Second Viennese School, an early twentieth century movement in which atonal and twelve-tone music grew out of fading late Romanticism. In September, 1945, Webern became a casualty of the Second World War. While smoking a cigar on his porch, he was fatally shot by an American soldier during …

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Pierre Monteux: Five Historic Recordings

You may give an excellently played, genuinely felt performance of a movement, but because the engineer is not satisfied, because there is some rustling at one point, so you do it again and this time something else goes wrong. By the time you get a “perfect” take of the recording the players are bored, the conductor is bored, and the performance is lifeless and boring. … I detest all my own records. …

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Wagner’s “Die Walküre”: Magic Fire Music

At the end of the third and final act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Loge, the Norse god of fire, creates a protective circle of fire around the rock where she lies. Only the bravest of heroes will be able to penetrate the fire. At the opera’s 1870 premiere in Munich, the special effect of the flames terrified the audience. From the beginning of this …

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Haydn’s Symphony No. 88: Seeds of Romanticism?

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G Major, completed in 1787, is undeniably firmly rooted in the classical tradition. Set in the standard four movements, it offers all of the courtly elegance, charm, and witty good humor we would expect from this innovative and prolific “father of the symphony.” At the same time, this Symphony, written two years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, contains some fascinating foreshadowings of music to come. …

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New Release: Ólafur Arnalds’ “re:member”

Pulse, pattern, and expansive, ambient soundscapes blend into an intoxicating brew on re:member, an album released last August by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds (b. 1986). In an earlier post, we explored the similarities between the gradual, hypnotic inevitability of Arnalds’ looping patterns and the music of minimalist composers like Steve Reich. Here, Arnalds takes the leap into a brave new world of computer-influenced composition. The music of re:member was written using Stratus, a new software program the composer helped …

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