Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major: The “American”

During the summer of 1893, Antonín Dvořák took his habitual morning walks, not through the meadows of his native Bohemia, but into the vast, rolling prairie of northeastern Iowa. It was here, in the small Czech immigrant enclave of Spillville, that Dvořák completed the “New World” Symphony, and then, in just over two weeks, wrote his String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96. Having relocated from Prague the previous September …

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Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik”: A Cheerful Nocturnal Serenade

Mozart’s G major string Serenade No. 13, commonly known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), is among the most enduring popular music ever written. Responding to an unknown commission, Mozart dashed it off on August 10, 1787 in Vienna as he worked on the second act of the opera, Don Giovanni. Originally scored for string quartet and double bass, the piece is frequently performed by a string orchestra. German commentator Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote, “even …

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Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace”: The Kronos Quartet

American composer Ben Johnston (1926-2019) was a pioneer of just intonation (pure intervals tuned as whole number ratios) and microtonality (the use of intervals smaller than a half step). At the age of 17, following a concert of his music, Johnston gave an interview in which he predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” He went …

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Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor: Tempestuous and Dramatic

With the symphonies and other large-scale works behind him, Johannes Brahms was at the height of his artistic maturity when, during the summer of 1886, he composed the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108. The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas, Op. 108 is also the most tempestuous and dramatic. Unfolding in four movements rather than three, it is set in the turbulent key of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and …

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Stravinsky’s Eight Instrumental Miniatures: The Land of Children at Play

In 1921, Igor Stravinsky composed a set of simple piano pieces for children titled, Les cinq doigts (“The Five Fingers”). Charmingly spare and neoclassical, each of the eight whimsical keyboard exercises are built on five notes, played in the right hand. Stravinsky returned to this music in 1962 to create the 8 Instrumental Miniatures for 15 Players. It is music which inhabits the innocent, magical land of children at play. The brief …

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Brahms’ Trio in E-flat Major for Horn, Violin, and Piano: Music of Nature

In May of 1865, following the death of his beloved mother Christiane three months earlier, Johannes Brahms retreated to the picturesque seclusion of Baden-Baden in Germany’s Black Forest. It was here that Brahms composed his Trio in E-flat Major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40. He worked in a room which, in his words, “looks out on three sides at the dark, wooded mountains, the roads winding up and down them, …

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Fauré’s String Quartet in E Minor: A Mystical Farewell

The String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 was the final work of Gabriel Fauré. Completed in September of 1924, a month before the composer’s death at age 79, it is a quiet musical farewell, solemn, intimate, and lamenting. It unfolds in three movements, all of which return to the same mystical space. In contrast with Fauré’s earlier works, this music is hazy, austere, and less firmly rooted in its tonal center. …

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