Mozart and the Glass Armonica

Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, diplomat, politician, writer, printer, political philosopher, scientist, inventor, and all-around Enlightenment Renaissance man, was born on this date in 1706. Among Franklin’s inventions is the glass armonica (now better known as the glass harmonica). While visiting Cambridge, England in 1761, he was fascinated with the “celestial” tones Edmund Delaval produced by rubbing a wet finger around the rim of wine glasses filled with varying quantities of water. …

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Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor: “Free But Lonely”

Embedded in the four note motif which opens the first movement of Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 are the pitches F-A-E. These pitches form a musical cryptogram which corresponds to the phrase, “frei aber einsam,” (“free but lonely”), the personal motto of Brahms’ friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Brahms offered his own twist on this motto with the phrase, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”). This is another motif (F-A-F) which …

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Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor: “Leave this to the Professionals…”

In 1785, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, who had just opened one of Vienna’s first music publishing businesses, commissioned Mozart to write three piano quartets—at the time, a novel new form in which a viola augments the traditional piano trio. Hoffmeister wanted popular music—easy, instantly gratifying, and marketable. In an era long before recordings, that meant music that amateurs could play in their homes. Mozart was not above dashing off this kind of light …

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Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1: Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim

We call it a “Cello Sonata,” but the official name Johannes Brahms gave this piece, completed in 1865, is “Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello.” To stress further the equality between the two instruments, Brahms specified that the piano “should be a partner—often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner—but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” The E minor Sonata is dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, an Austrian music …

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Late Beethoven Revelations: String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131

In his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the late literary critic Harold Bloom made the bold argument that Shakespeare “went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it.” According to Bloom, Shakespeare’s complex and multifaceted characters “take human nature to some of its limits, without violating those limits” and open up “new modes of consciousness.” The drama that unfolds in the lines of …

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Remembering Mario Davidovsky

The Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky passed away on August 23. He was 85. Davidovsky will be remembered as a pioneer of electroacoustic music (the blending of traditional instruments with new, electronic sounds). In addition to his work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, he served on the composition faculty of, among other schools, the Mannes School of Music. Born in Buenos Aires, he emigrated to the United States in 1960 and studied with …

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Debussy’s Cello Sonata: A Celebration of Classical Form

In 1914, at the encouragement of his music publisher Jacques Durand, Claude Debussy set out to compose a cycle of Six Sonatas for Various Instruments. In a letter to the conductor Bernard Molinari, Debussy explained that, in terms of instrumentation, the collection would feature “different combinations, with the last sonata combining the previously used instruments.” The project was undertaken at a time when Europe was ravaged by the First World War and Debussy suffered from …

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