Handel’s Fugue in A Minor, HWV 609: Haunting Chromaticism

For a brief moment, Handel’s Fugue in A Minor, HWV 609 could almost be mistaken for a twentieth century tone row. The first haunting pitches of the fugue’s subject are disorienting because they leap wildly beyond an octave. The chromaticism which underlies the subject clouds the tonal center. In the second half of the subject, a descending chromatic line suggests a sense of deep mystery and melancholy. The fugue unfolds as an …

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Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse,” Pascal Rogé

The 1717 painting L’embarquement pour Cythère by Jean-Antoine Watteau depicts a merry party of lovers arriving on (or departing from) the Mediterranean island of Cythère. In ancient mythology, Cythère was known as the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of erotic love. The version of the painting which hangs in the Louvre shows the revelers flanked by bright dancing cupids and a serenely gazing statue of Venus. Watteau’s painting served as an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s …

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Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major: “The Harmonious Blacksmith”

George Frideric Handel composed the Eight Great Suites for harpsichord around 1718 when he was employed as house composer at Cannons in Middlesex, England. By 1720, he became aware of error-ridden pirated copies of the music circulating throughout continental Europe. When the set was published, Handel included the following  explanation in the preface of the London edition: I have been obliged to publish some of the following Lessons, because surrepticious and incorrect Copies of …

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Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 10: “The Sun’s Kisses”

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin once said, My Tenth Sonata is a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun…they are the sun’s kisses…How unified world-understanding is when you look at things this way. In science all is dis-unified, not made into one. It is analysis, not synthesis. For the deeply mystical Scriabin, the circle of fifths became a vibrant color wheel in which musical keys were experienced through synesthesia. Influenced …

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Ravel’s “Miroirs”: Reflections on the Nature of Reality

…the eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things. -William Shakespeare  Maurice Ravel was fascinated by this line from the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Perhaps these words, laced with mysticism and challenging the nature of reality, are not so far off from the French symbolist aesthetic of the late nineteenth century. The line between reality and reflection blurs in Ravel’s five-movement suite for solo piano, Miroirs (“Reflections”), written …

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Manuel de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat” Dances, Alicia de Larrocha

Manuel de Falla’s ballet score, El sombrero de tres picos (“The Three-Cornered Hat”) bathes in the bright colors of a searing Iberian sun. Filled with the infectious rhythms of Spanish dance, it is music which is sultry, exotic, and at times tantalizingly mysterious. The Three-Cornered Hat was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev in 1919 and premiered the same year in London by the Ballets Russes. It expanded on de Falla’s two-scene pantomime, The Magistrate and the …

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Chopin’s Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49: Elation and Sorrow

Frédéric Chopin wrote the following words in a letter from October, 1841: Today I finished the Fantaisie—and the sky is beautiful, my heart sad—but that doesn’t matter at all. If it were otherwise, my existence would perhaps be of no use to anyone. Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor for solo piano is music of persistent melancholy and soaring elation. As its title suggests, it is dreamlike, rhapsodic, and improvisatory. It was written …

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