Samuel Barber’s Nocturne, Op. 33: Aftertones of Chopin

Samuel Barber gave his Nocturne, Op. 33 for solo piano the subtitle, “Homage to John Field.” Field (1782-1837) was the Irish pianist and composer who is credited with inventing the nocturne. Barber’s piece, written in 1959, is as much a dreamy reflection on the Romantic nocturne itself, with all of its atmospheric allusions to the poetry of the night. Perhaps it is the spirit of Frédéric Chopin, whose twenty-one nocturnes pushed the …

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Chopin’s Nocturnes, Op. 27: Enharmonic Dreamscapes

Frédéric Chopin’s Op. 27 Nocturnes inhabit a serene, sensuous, and melancholy dreamscape. The two pieces for solo piano, composed in 1836, are among twenty-one surviving Nocturnes written by Chopin. The form originated a generation earlier with the English composer-pianist, John Field (1782-1837). Chopin’s Nocturnes become magical and atmospheric “songs of the night.” They are bel canto arias without words, in which the piano is transformed into a singing instrument. They are harmonically …

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Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552: An Expression of the Trinity

In 1739, J.S. Bach published the Clavier-Übung III, a monumental collection of liturgical organ works which is sometimes called the German Organ Mass. The compilation begins and ends with two mighty musical pillars which have been catalogued as the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552. The latter has been nicknamed the “St. Anne” Fugue because its subject is strikingly similar to William Croft’s English hymn of the same name. The Clavier-Übung III is filled with …

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Remembering Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire, the acclaimed Brazilian pianist, passed away earlier this week at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 77. Born in Boa Esperança, Freire began playing the piano around the age of four. One of his earliest teachers, Lucia Branco, studied with a student of Franz Liszt. At the age of 12, Freire performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and was a prizewinner at the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition. Shortly thereafter, he …

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Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”: A Diabolical Landscape

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9, completed in 1913, inhabits a haunting, diabolical landscape. The single-movement work begins with distant, mournful descending chromatic lines which outline Scriabin’s iconic “mystic chord,” a hexachord built on fourths which the composer described as “smoky.” In its purest form, the “mystic chord” dissolves harmonic function, leaving us with blinding sound. The marking, Legendaire, over the first bar suggests that we are being lulled into an unsettling dream …

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Bach’s Musical Offering: The Ricercars

J.S. Bach’s monumental chamber music collection, Musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering), was inspired by a momentous meeting. It began on May 7, 1747 when Bach met Frederick the Great in Potsdam. At the time, J.S Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was employed as one of the Prussian King’s most prized musicians. Frederick gave the elder Bach a tour of his palace, showcasing his vast collection of instruments, among which was a novel new keyboard …

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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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