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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Pavel Karmanov’s “Cambridge Music” for Piano Quartet: A Post-Minimalist Joyride

The music of contemporary Russian composer Pavel Karmanov (b. 1970) falls loosely into a category known as post-minimalism. Influenced by the work of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others, this is music built on a strong, satisfying sense of pulse and a warm embrace of tonality. “Cambridge Music” for Piano Quartet, written in 2008, teems with sunny, youthful energy and bright, glistening colors. Its repeating bass lines and sense of “groove” seem to …

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Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 32: Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt

We now have the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua here—a very good violinist. She has much taste and feeling in her playing. I am just now writing a sonata which we will play together in the theatre on Thursday at her benefit concert. Mozart wrote these words in a letter to his father dated April 24, 1784. He referred to Regina Strinasacchi, a young Italian violinist, guitarist, and singer who emerged from Venice’s Ospedale …

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Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8: Midori at Carnegie Hall

Beethoven’s three Op. 30 Violin Sonatas were completed in the summer of 1802. The fall of that year brought the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, the despairing letter in which Beethoven acknowledged his increasing deafness, his contemplation of suicide, and his ultimate determination to overcome adversity: “I will seize fate by the throat— it will certainly not crush me completely.” We don’t hear any of this psychological turmoil in the sunny Sonata No. 8 in G Major, …

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Debussy, Ravel, and the Battle of the Harps

In 1904, Pleyel, the Parisian instrument manufacturing company, commissioned Claude Debussy to write a piece showcasing what they hoped to be a revolutionary new kind of harp. The harpe chromatique, invented in 1894 by Pleyel’s director, Gustave Lyon, was a cross-string harp designed without need for foot pedals. The standard harp, with its 46 strings and range of six and a half octaves, cannot play all possible half step intervals without relying on seven pedals which can be …

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“To the Distant Beloved”: Schumann’s Obsession with a Beethoven Song

In the final movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, an unassuming but persistent motivic cell emerges which propels the Symphony towards its majestic and triumphant culmination. Around three minutes in, all of the music’s forward momentum comes to a halt on a somber C minor cadence. Then, this motive is introduced by the woodwinds. It repeats in other voices throughout the orchestra and develops into an exalted and joyful proclamation. …

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