“Nine Variations on a March by Dressler”: Music by the 12-year-old Beethoven

Here is Beethoven’s first published work, written in 1782 when the composer was twelve years old. It’s a set of nine variations on a simple, stately march melody by Christian Ludwig Dressler (1734-1779), a now obscure German composer, operatic tenor, violinist, and music theorist. First, we hear Dressler’s original theme, which is infused with military fanfare rhythms. Filled with a playful, improvisatory spirit, Beethoven’s variations begin with sly embellishments. Each becomes more adventurous …

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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: Five Legendary Recordings

Last Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995). Michelangeli has been called “one of the most enigmatic performers of the twentieth century.” A noted perfectionist, his concert repertoire was considered to be small, and he agreed to the release of relatively few recordings during his lifetime. He practiced eight to ten hours a day, telling students, “One has to work to feel your arms and back …

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The Bells of Zurich

Today’s post is in honor of the German-American musicologist Karl Haas, whose nationally syndicated radio show, Adventures in Good Music, aired from 1970 to 2007. Haas’ Christmas episode, The Story of the Bells, documented the distinct sounds of church bells throughout Europe, from the mighty cacophony of Zurich, to the pastoral serenity of the Alpine village of Arosa, to the highly ordered change ringing of Westminster Abbey. Here are the bells of St. Peter …

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Bach’s Chorale Prelude, “In dir ist Freude”: The Evolution of a Melody

Short-short-short-long… This is the motif which famously launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This brief, tightly wound kernel pervades the first movement, and then returns throughout the Symphony. Although Beethoven’s use of this motive may be the most memorable and persistent example, the “short-short-short-long” rhythm is a common building block throughout music. It’s infused with a natural sense of forward motion, moving “from here to there.” For example, listen to the majestic and expansive …

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Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Before Sleep and Dreams,” Anthony de Mare

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ 1990 solo piano suite, Before Sleep and Dreams, offers a surreal depiction of the process of putting a small child to sleep. It’s music filled with echoes of Debussy, Chopin, and other composers. Debussy’s 1908 Children’s Corner and Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15, (“Scenes From Childhood”) are obvious precedents. The final movement of Before Sleep and Dreams drifts off into a shimmering, ethereal soundscape. This is an excerpt from pianist Anthony de Mare’s 2005 album, Out of …

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Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”: Three Devilish Sonic Fantasies

Sometimes the notation of a musical score becomes a work of art in its own right. Such is the case with a vast mural painted in the early 1970s on the exposed brick wall of the Schmitt Music Company building in downtown Minneapolis (pictured above). The mural was created after Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan called out the blank wall’s unsightliness. “You need to make that wall sing,” she wrote. The three-story-tall …

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Fauré’s “Ballade in F-Sharp Major”: Bending Harmony

Gabriel Fauré’s Ballade in F-sharp Major, Op. 19 is filled with harmony-bending moments. For example, listen to the opening of the piece. The first phrase follows a graceful and beautifully consonant arc. Then at the 0:26 mark, we get a sudden, wrenching dissonance. Floating over a serene, hypnotically repeating rhythmic line, this music doesn’t seem far off from Erik Satie’s dreamy Gymnopédies, published ten years later in 1888, or the second movement of …

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