Celebratory Bach: From the E Major Partita to the Cantata, BWV 29

J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major for solo violin begins with the famous and iconic Preludio.  Sweeping forward in a continuous stream of sixteenth notes, it forms a celebratory musical announcement. The opening bars employ a virtual pedal tone which remains rooted in E major for more than half a minute. Then, the music leaves “home” and moves through a series of adventures, only to return, triumphantly, in the coda. We get …

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Arvo Pärt’s “Da Pacem Domine”: A Timeless Meditation

Time has a deep meaning, but it is temporary, like our lives. Only eternity is timeless. –Arvo Pärt A sense of mysticism and timelessness pervades the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Emerging from the currents of twentieth century minimalism, it is music which inhabits the quiet, meditative space of Gregorian chant and early polyphony. “The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity,” said Pärt, who …

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Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer, O Lord”: VOCES8

Westminster Abbey was a prominent fixture in the life of Henry Purcell. Purcell was born in 1659 in a notorious slum known as The Devil’s Acre, which fell in the shadow of the soaring Gothic edifice. At the age of twenty, he succeeded the composer John Blow to become Organist and Master of the Choristers for Westminster Abbey. Purcell’s grave lies in the Abbey’s north aisle near the historic location of the organ. …

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Three Bruckner Motets: “Virga Jesse,” “Tota pulchra es,” “Ave Maria,”

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are monumental musical edifices which revel in the mystery of the divine. As the musicologist Deryck Cooke noted, Bruckner’s symphonies are “elemental and metaphysical.” Their “majesty and grandeur” is revealed gradually, in a way similar to the experience of walking around a medieval cathedral and observing the same mighty structure from different vantage points. Bruckner’s sacred motets offer a microcosm of this experience. They occupy the timeless, ethereal sound …

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Schumann’s “Nachtlied,” Op. 108: The Gentle Approach of Sleep

Robert Schumann’s Nachtlied, Op. 108 for eight-part chorus and orchestra drifts into the serene, magical world of sleep. Schumann composed this autumnal choral song over the course of a week in November, 1849. It is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) in which death is met first with fear and then with acceptance. The song begins with a sense of haunting mystery, with the obsessive repetition of a short, disjointed motif. There …

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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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