Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in Two Shades

We explored Maurice Ravel’s magical 1917 suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in a previous post. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it is music that retreats into the graceful motion and elegance of Baroque dances such as the Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. It pays homage to the keyboard suites of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733), while serving, simultaneously, as a memorial for friends Ravel lost in the war. When listeners commented …

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Ravel’s Sonatine: Crystalline Classicism Made-to-Order

Musical Competition: Compose the first movement of a Pianoforte Sonate in F sharp minor, not to exceed 75 bars in length. A prize of 100 francs will be given for the winning composition. This advertisement, placed in the Weekly Critical Review in March of 1903, was the impetus for Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for solo piano. Ravel entered the competition at the urging of his close friend, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a contributor to the short-lived, Anglo-French cultural publication. In …

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Bartók’s “Out of Doors”: Ancient Rustic Sounds

The vibrant hum of nature blends with distant, ghostly echoes from ancient Hungarian villages in Béla Bartók’s Out of Doors (Szabadban). Written in 1926, the work is a collection of five brief and atmospheric pieces for solo piano. Taken together, the movements unfold in a symmetrical arch form, a structure Bartók used in multiple pieces, including the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, Concerto for Orchestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the Second Piano Concerto. Bartók …

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Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117: Autumnal Lullabies

Composed in 1892, the three Intermezzi for solo piano, Op. 117 are among the final works of Johannes Brahms. Filled with wistful nostalgia, they were written two years after Brahms’ formal retirement at the age of 57. The critic Eduard Hanslick described these brief autumnal works as “monologues” of a “thoroughly personal and subjective character…pensive, graceful, dreamy, resigned, and elegiac.” Brahms once described them as “three lullabies to my sorrow.” Along with …

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Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, Jean Rondeau

Listen carefully, and you may hear echos of Bach’s big, hearty belly laugh in the opening of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052. This is music filled with ferocious vigor and an irreverent, reckless abandon comparable to a sports car driver speeding around a sharp curve. It begins as a single musical subject, played by all of the instruments in octaves, which unfolds with wild leaps and crazy, jagged rhythmic surprises. This …

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Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” Leon Fleisher

In January we explored Jerome Kern’s extraordinary 1939 ballad, All the Things You Are. It’s one of the most beautiful and harmonically sophisticated songs to come out of the Broadway theater. Allusive and dreamy, it’s a melody which floats from one key to another, taking a magical journey part way around the circle of fifths through a series of continuous modulations. The late Leon Fleisher included his version of All the Things You Are on a 2014 Grammy nominated …

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J.S. Bach: Three Adventures in B Minor

On Wednesday, we explored J.S Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, a festive and celebratory collection of Baroque dances that is nonetheless shrouded in veiled, mysterious B minor. (It’s the only one of Bach’s four Orchestral Suites to be  set in a minor key). The nineteenth century Austrian pianist, composer, and educator Ernst Pauer believed that each musical key embodies a distinct atmosphere. He called B minor “that very melancholy key” which “tells …

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