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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Fauré and Debussy: Two Charming Settings of Paul Verlaine’s “Mandoline”

Gabriel Fauré’s 1891 song cycle, Cinq mélodies “de Venise”, Op. 58, begins with music which is as charming and infectious as it is brief. Mandoline is a setting of a poem from the 1869 collection, Fêtes galantes, by the French Symbolist, Paul Verlaine. The poem was inspired by a series of paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicting (as Robert Gartside writes) “18th century nobility in their fêtes champètres, those elegant picnics redolent of a mixture of gaiety, …

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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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