Schubert’s “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern”: Song of the Spirits Over the Waters

At the Staubbach Falls, west of the village of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, an Alpine stream plunges over a jagged cliff and cascades 974 feet to the valley floor below. A visit to this topographical wonder in October of 1779 inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (“Song of the Spirits over the Waters”). Set in six stanzas, the poem compares the mystical journey of the soul to the cycle of …

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Schubert’s “An Die Musik”: An Ode to the Art of Music

An die Musik (“To Music”) is Schubert’s moving ode to the art of music. Composed in March of 1817, the song can be heard as a deeply contemplative prayer of gratitude. The vocal line engages in a canonic dialogue with an equally important voice in the piano’s lower register. The music is gently propelled forward by pulsating harmony. Using the most sublimely simple means, this brief song inhabits a space of dignity …

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The Artistry of Christa Ludwig: Two Songs from Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder”

During the summers of 1901 and 1902, Gustav Mahler wrote five Lieder based on poems written by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). Mahler did not intend the Rückert-Lieder (Songs after Rückert) to be performed as a cycle. Originally, the songs were published independently and later grouped together. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (“I Am Lost to the World”) is the dreamy soliloquy of the solitary artist, which concludes with the lines, “I live alone …

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Ives’ “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”: The Eternal River of Time

On a June weekend in 1908, Charles Ives and his wife, Harmony Twichell, vacationed in the rolling Berkshire Hills. A hiking trip led the newly married couple by the Housatonic River near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Ives recalled, We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks …

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“One Touch of Venus”: Excerpts from Kurt Weill’s Musical Comedy

On this date 77 years ago (October 7, 1943), the original production of Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. The musical comedy is a farcical spoof of the Pygmalion myth. The story is set in motion when a New York City barber, Rodney Hatch, places the engagement ring he intends to give to his fiancé on the finger of a statue of the goddess Venus at an art museum. …

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“Le Secret”: Fauré’s Mystical Art Song

Throughout Gabriel Fauré’s 1879 song, Le Secret, serene, hypnotically repeating chords in the piano toll like an immortal bell. We drift into a detached dreamscape which seems to anticipate the final, time-altering movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.  The song’s text is a setting of Paul-Armand Silvestre’s poem, Mystère, from the collection, Le pays des roses (1882). Its three stanzas blur the lines between dawn, day, and night. A sense of transcendental mystery is …

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Carl Ruggles’ “Toys”: An American Art Song Miniature

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was one of the great American maverick composers of the twentieth century. A prickly and eccentric New Englander, he found kinship with such contemporaries as Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, and Charles Ives. His musical style, described as “dissonant counterpoint,” reflects the kind of brash and adventurous Yankee individualism we hear in Ives. Ruggles worked painstakingly slowly, sitting at the piano and playing each chord repeatedly to determine if it would …

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