Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Krystian Zimerman

La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) is the eighth piece in Book I of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes, written around 1910. The title was inspired by an 1852 poem by Leconte de Lisle. A single, meandering line pulls us into the ephemeral, dreamlike world this music inhabits. Listen to the way the harmony, built largely on the floating, static pentatonic scale, shifts around this melody in unexpected ways. Listening …

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“Daphnis and Chloe”: Ravel’s Shimmering “Symphonie Chorégraphique”

Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé was conceived as a ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes. It premiered on June 8, 1912, two years after Stravinsky’s The Firebird and a year before the same composer’s riot-inducing Le Sacre du printemps. Yet this radical and monumental work—the closest Ravel ever came to writing a symphony—boldly transcends its original purpose. Scored for a massive orchestra and chorus and unfolding in three parts with four recurring leitmotifs, Ravel referred …

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Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite in Two Flavors

J.S. Bach was a composer who wrote for the occasion more than for posterity. Often, this entailed an organ fugue or choral cantata for Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Bach was music director from 1723 until his death in 1750. Less often, Bach was called upon to produce festive, celebratory orchestral music. The four Orchestral Suites fall into this category. The Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 was probably composed around 1730 …

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Fritz Kreisler Plays “La Gitana”: 1938 Recording

Over the past few days, I haven’t been able to stop listening to this brief 1938 recording of the great Austrian-born violinist, Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962). There is something deeply alluring about Kreisler’s playing. Listen carefully to the distinct quality of his sound, with its warm soulfulness and far-off nostalgia. Also, notice the elegant phrasing and the way one note moves to another. Kreisler was fond of writing short pieces which imitated the …

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Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”  No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in …

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“Ode to Death”: Holst’s Haunting Walt Whitman Setting

English composer Gustav Holst completed Ode to Death, Op. 38 in 1919 as a memorial to friends lost in the First World War. The haunting and transcendent work for chorus and orchestra is a setting of the final lines of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy to President Abraham Lincoln. Holst drew inspiration from Whitman “as a New World prophet of tolerance and internationalism as well as a new breed …

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Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata: Five Key Recordings

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47—better known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata—was first performed on May 24, 1803. 216 years ago today, Beethoven and the Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860) premiered this convention-shattering music at Vienna’s Augarten Theatre. Beethoven was so late in completing the manuscript that Bridgetower was forced to sightread the performance, at times looking over the composer’s shoulder at the full score. Originally, the manuscript was inscribed with the lighthearted …

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