Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody: The Wanderer Finds Solace

Early photographs of Johannes Brahms capture a solitary, contemplative figure. Brahms was a lifelong bachelor whose personal motto, Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”), found its way into the opening three pitches of the Third Symphony in the form of a musical cryptogram. The loving, platonic relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, and its creative influence, has been well-documented. Yet, scholars believe that for a period of time Brahms also harbored a deep, …

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Olivier Messiaen: Three Mystical Reflections for Holy Week

“My faith is the grand drama of my life,” wrote the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). “I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.” Indeed, Messiaen’s music revels in the awe and wonder of the divine. Often, it drifts into haunting, deeply meditative territory where time seems to be suspended. From the bright, angelic colors of the human voice to the muted rumble …

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Bruckner’s Te Deum: A Hymn of Praise

Each of Anton Bruckner’s nine symphonies can be heard as a reflection of the divine. Bruckner seems to have approached composition with the tireless discipline, devotion, and humility that he brought to his steadfast Catholic faith. Each of his symphonies sets out on the same expansive and meditative journey, reveling in awesome, cosmic Powers, haunting mystery, and an ultimate sense of serene majesty. The Te Deum, completed in 1884, compliments Bruckner’s symphonic output …

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Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus,” The Cambridge Singers

As a hart longs for the flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. -Psalm 42:1 Palestrina’s motet, Sicut cervus, is a setting of this poetic text. Serene and sensuous, its four-voice Renaissance polyphony evokes the flowing water that promises to satisfy the thirsty deer. Its expansive, continuously aspiring lines suggest a deep sense of longing and lament. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) composed six books of motets, along …

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“Resonet in Laudibus”: Music of Lassus, Praetorius, and the Moosburg Gradual

Resonet in laudibus (“Let the voice of praise resound”) is a Christmas carol which dates back to the 14th century. Popular throughout Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the melody found its way into the choral motets of composers such as Orlande de Lassus and Jacobus Gallus. In 1550, Georg Wicel called it “one of the chief Christmas songs of joy.” Let’s explore the evolution of this exuberant melody through two Renaissance motets. In both …

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Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: A Cosmic Expanse of Space and Sonority

The late works of Beethoven are filled with mystery and revelation. They leave behind historical style and convention and assume a timelessness which speaks to posterity. This is the strange, spiritual landscape of the Ninth Symphony, the late string quartets, and the Missa solemnis, Op. 123. While the Ninth Symphony takes an outward journey, culminating with the Ode to Joy’s declaration of universal brotherhood, the Missa solemnis (“solemn mass”), completed around the same …

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Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”: “From Harmony, from Heavenly Harmony”

Sunday marks Saint Cecilia’s Feast Day on the Roman Catholic calendar. Saint Cecilia, one of the most famous martyrs of the early church, is the patron of music and musicians. Her spirit is celebrated in George Frederich Handel’s cantata, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which was first performed on November 22, 1739 at London’s Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The cantata’s text is a setting of a 1687 poem by John Dryden based on the …

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