Debussy and the “Tristan Chord”

On Monday, we heard the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a work which opened the door to the dissolution of tonality and the atonal sound world of the twentieth century. One composer who was profoundly influenced by this music was the young Claude Debussy. In 1887, Debussy called Tristan und Isolde “the most beautiful thing I know, from the point of view of the profundity of the emotion.” Yet, in a …

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“Dirge for Two Veterans” from Kurt Weill’s “Four Walt Whitman Songs”

At the end of June in 1913, 53,407 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg from both sides of the American Civil War returned to the hallowed ground in south central Pennsylvania where they fought. They were there to observe the 50th anniversary of the war’s bloodiest battle. The peaceful reunion was marked by an extraordinary sense of Union–Confederate camaraderie, as the photograph above illustrates. Similarly, the journalist John Nichols observes that Walt Whitman’s 1867 …

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Remembering Peter Schreier: Three Transcendent Recordings

The German opera singer and conductor Peter Schreier passed away in Dresden on Christmas Day. He was 84. Schreier will be remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest lyric tenors. In addition to appearances at the world’s leading opera houses, he specialized in German Lieder (songs) and other concert repertoire. He drew acclaim for his numerous performances of the Evangelist roles in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Passion. A common thread runs through …

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Mahler’s “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), Jessye Norman

Urlicht (“Primal Light”) forms the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. It occupies a striking position in the five-movement work’s progression towards ultimate and lasting transcendence. Suddenly, for the first time in this “Resurrection Symphony,” we hear the solitary human voice—a darkly veiled alto imbued with human tragedy and lament. In a symphony rooted in C minor and E-flat major, suddenly we find ourselves in the remote, ethereal world of D-flat …

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Remembering Jessye Norman: Eight Extraordinary Recordings

Jessye Norman, the legendary American opera singer and recitalist, passed away on Monday. She was 74. Norman was born in the segregated south in Augusta, Georgia. She was surrounded by music at an early age, listening to radio broadcasts of operas and singing in church as a child. At the age of 16, she was offered a full scholarship to Howard University where she studied voice with Carolyn Grant. She went on …

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“Lerchengesang”: Brahms’ Most Ethereal Song?

Lerchengesang (“The Lark’s Song”) from 4 Songs, Op. 70 must rate as one of Johannes Brahms’ most ethereal and atmospheric songs. The text, by Karl August Candidus, pulls us into a floating, twilight dreamscape of passing memories amid “ethereal distant voices” and the “heavenly greetings of the larks.” Unfolding in gently-lapping arpeggios, the piano line drifts into the delicate upper registers with a sense of eternal longing and lament. This recording, featuring Renée Fleming and pianist …

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New Release: Renée Fleming’s “Lieder”

Renée Fleming’s newest album features songs by Brahms, Schumann, and Mahler. Released on June 14, this is the four-time Grammy winning soprano’s first full-length Lieder album for almost two decades. The recording opens with a beautiful and hypnotic performance of Brahms’ famous Lullaby, Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4. Here are three additional excerpts: Brahms: 4 Lieder, Op. 43 – 2. Die Mainacht “The May Night” describes a shadowy scene of lonely wandering, endless …

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