Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, “With Organ”: Scaling the Summit

Following the completion of his Third Symphony in 1886, Camille Saint-Saëns made the following statement: I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again. Indeed, Symphony No. 3 in C minor takes us on an extraordinary dramatic journey which scales a mighty summit. It augments the sound world of the traditional orchestra with the addition of piano (four hands) and organ. …

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Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6: No. 2 in F Major: An Intimate Conversation

An economic calculation led Handel to compose his twelve Concerti Grossi (Op. 6) in the autumn of 1739. Italian opera was falling out of favor with the English public. The 1737 season had been disastrous for the opera company Handel directed, taking a toll on the composer’s finances and health. In an enterprising turn, Handel offered a new genre that would gain quick popularity—the English oratorio. In order to attract audiences and gain …

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Remembering Chick Corea

Chick Corea, the American jazz composer, keyboardist, bandleader and occasional percussionist, passed away on Tuesday following a brief battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 79. In the 1960s, Corea was a member of Miles Davis’ band. Following a brief collaboration with the avant-garde jazz ensemble, Circle, Corea founded the band Return to Forever in 1971. The group went on to pioneer the jazz fusion movement in the 1970s, opening the door to …

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Berlioz’ “Roméo et Juliette”: Scène d’amour

In 1827, Hector Berlioz witnessed a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Paris’ Odéon Theatre. The cast included Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who became Berlioz’ first wife and creative muse, as well as the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastique. Shakespeare’s tragedy had a visceral effect on the composer, who did not understand English but was affected by the pure sound of the poetry and the power of the acting. In his Memoirs he wrote, …

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Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses”: A Sonic Kaleidoscope

The title of François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses (“The Mysterious Barricades”) remains an enigma. One commentator has speculated that it may be a reference to continuous suspensions, or notes which hold over to create “a barricade to the basic harmony.” Others have suggested veiled references to freemasonry, masks worn by performers of Le Mystère ou les Fêtes de l’Inconnu (an event staged in 1714 by one of Couperin’s patrons), women’s eyelashes, or the wine barrels …

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Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Trio: Pristine French Brushstrokes

“Wagnermania” swept through Paris in the 1880s. In the years following Wagner’s death in 1883, his influence loomed large among French artists, writers, and composers, fueling a powerful intellectual and artistic movement. French composers made pilgrimages to Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s operas and wrote vivid accounts of their transcendental experiences. Camille Saint-Saëns, who founded the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871 with the purpose of promoting French instrumental music, observed with more …

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Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”: Entering a New Dimension

Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate” is modest by some measures. The work, composed in 1959, is scored for a chamber orchestra. It unfolds in a single movement which lasts just over twenty minutes. Yet once we move beyond this finite formal “container,” we enter a musical space which feels infinitely vast and timeless. Perhaps this is the serene, mystical, and ambient world on the other side of the “Celestial Gate” of …

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