Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829: An Exercise in Spiritual Delight

J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas, BWV 825-830 were conceived as exercises for the body, mind, and spirit. Composed between 1725 and 1731, these were the last of Bach’s keyboard suites. Yet, they were published by the Leipzig-employed composer as “opus 1,” and offered “to music lovers in order to refresh their spirits.” This collection of Partitas (richly contrasting Baroque dances) fuses technical advancement with spiritual delight. They influenced later composers, from Brahms to Bartók. Bach’s earliest biographer, …

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Debussy’s “Voiles,” Préludes, Book 1: Sailing on a Whole-Tone Sea

The French word, “Voiles” translates as either “veils” or “sails.” This is the atmospheric title that Claude Debussy provided for the second of his twelve piano Préludes, published in 1910. Harmonically, Voiles is rooted in the whole-tone scale, in which each pitch is separated by the intervallic distance of a whole step. As a result, the hierarchy and tonal pull of the traditional major or minor scales is gone. Unmoored, the music drifts into …

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Remembering Lars Vogt

Lars Vogt, the renowned German pianist and conductor, passed away on Monday, September 5. He was 51. In March of 2021, Vogt was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in his throat and liver. Born in the town of Düren in the North Rhine-Westphalia region, Vogt rose to prominence after winning second prize at the 1990 Leeds International Piano Competition. He went on to perform as a soloist with the world’s greatest orchestras. He …

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Gershwin on Piano Roll: “Sweet and Lowdown” and “That Certain Feeling”

George Gershwin’s delirious foxtrot, Sweet and Lowdown, was written for the 1925 musical, Tip-Toes. With lyrics by Ira Gershwin, the farcical comedy centers around a three-member vaudeville act which, through duplicity, attempts to snare a wealthy millionaire. The melody exemplifies the high-flying euphoria of the Roaring Twenties, with jazz and blues harmonies and exuberant, tumbling rhythms. George Gershwin’s 1926 performance is preserved on piano roll: The song, That Certain Feeling, was also written for Tip-Toes. It’s …

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Brahms’ Four Klavierstücke, Op. 119: Progressive Meditations

Johannes Brahms wrote the Four Pieces for Piano (Klavierstücke), Op. 119 during the summer of 1893 in the Upper Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl. The brief character pieces are among the final, autumnal works of a composer who had announced his official retirement three years earlier. They inhabit an introspective world, at times filled with wistful nostalgia. The Klavierstücke, Op. 119 are preceded by three similar cycles (Op. 116, 117, and …

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Christopher O’Riley Meets Radiohead: “Fake Plastic Trees”

The American pianist Christopher O’Riley discovered the music of Radiohead in 1997 with the release of the British alternative rock band’s landmark third studio album, OK Computer. Immediately, O’Riley was drawn to the songs’ sophisticated counterpoint and “sensual harmonies that you’d find in Ravel, a harmony, a chord that makes your hair stand on end.” O’Riley’s acclaimed solo piano adaptions of Radiohead songs are far more than simple arrangements or covers. Following the tradition of Liszt’s concert paraphrases, or …

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