Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory. We …

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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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George Crumb’s “Dream Images”: Echoes of Faintly Remembered Music

In the score of his Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini), the American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) writes, “musingly, like the gentle caress of faintly remembered music (flexible and expressive).” This fleeting and atmospheric work for solo piano is the eleventh of twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac which make up Crumb’s 1972 collection, Makrokosmos, Volume I, modeled after Bartók. In addition to its reference to astrology, the poetic title suggests the Liebestod (“love death”) of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Notated without …

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Chopin’s Four Ballades: Poetry in Music

The solo piano Ballade originated with Frédéric Chopin. In the early nineteenth century, the title carried literary connotations. In his Henle forward, the musicologist Norbert Müllemann defined the folk ballade as “a strophically-constructed poem that described a dramatic, often also a demonic or mystical scenario within a comparatively restricted frame.” Robert Schumann suggested that Chopin was influenced by the work of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. As with Chopin, Mickiewicz fled political upheaval in …

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Chick Corea’s “Children’s Songs”: Simplicity as Beauty

The late jazz pianist Chick Corea began writing the solo piano collection, Children’s Songs, in 1971. The set of twenty short songs follows the model of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. In the preface, Corea wrote that the music was intended “to convey simplicity as beauty, as represented in the Spirit of a child.”  Each of the twenty songs opens up a magical new vignette, each with its distinct atmosphere. At the same time, a sense of motivic …

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Liszt’s “Les Adieux”: A Fantasy on Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”

On April 27, 1867, Charles Gounod’s five act opera, Roméo et Juliette, was premiered at Paris’ Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet. The same year, Franz Liszt composed Les Adieux (“The Farewell”), a solo piano work described as “a Rêverie on a motif from Gounod’s opéra Roméo et Juliette.” As the pianist and musicologist Leslie Howard writes, He really uses several motifs from the opera, all concerned with the partings of the lovers: the end of the …

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Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses”: A Sonic Kaleidoscope

The title of François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses (“The Mysterious Barricades”) remains an enigma. One commentator has speculated that it may be a reference to continuous suspensions, or notes which hold over to create “a barricade to the basic harmony.” Others have suggested veiled references to freemasonry, masks worn by performers of Le Mystère ou les Fêtes de l’Inconnu (an event staged in 1714 by one of Couperin’s patrons), women’s eyelashes, or the wine barrels …

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