Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration”: “From the Infinite Reaches of Heaven”

Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (“Death and Transfiguration”) grapples with the most fundamental questions of the human experience. What is the nature of life? What lies on the other side of death? What happens in that serene moment of ultimate repose as the soul melts into “the infinite reaches of heaven?” Ironically, this cosmic musical drama, concerned with the twilight of life, was completed in 1889 by the 25-year-old Strauss. …

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Berlioz’ “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture: The Romantic Artist as Hero

The opening bars of Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini Overture spring to life with all of the high-flying passion, exuberance, and boundless heroism of the idealized Romantic artist. Filled with wild euphoria and mercurial twists and turns, this initial theme encapsulates the spirit of the protagonist of the opera which follows. Berlioz’ ill-fated 1838 opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was based on a highly fictionalized depiction of the Florentine sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Although it appealed to notions of the …

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Saint-Saëns’ Most Seductive Aria: An Excerpt from “Samson and Delilah”

My heart opens to your voice like the flowers open to the kisses of the dawn. With these alluring lines, Delilah attempts to seduce Samson with the goal of tricking him into revealing the secret of his strength. Danger and betrayal mix with sensuality in this famous mezzo-soprano aria, Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix, from the second act of Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera, Samson and Delilah. Delilah’s trap is a deceitful attempt to lure Samson …

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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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Schicksalslied (“Song of Destiny”): Brahms’ “Little Requiem”

In the summer of 1868, while visiting his friend Albert Dietrich in the North German coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, Johannes Brahms was drawn to the poem, Hyperions Schicksalslied by Friedrich Hölderlin. Buried in the middle of a 1797 novel depicting the Greek mythical titan Hyperion, the poem’s two verses contrast the lives of eternally blissful Immortals enjoying “luminous, heavenly breezes” with the restless existence of human beings, who are subject to the cruel whims …

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Bruckner’s Third Symphony: Vindicated by Time

The premiere of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor stands as one of music history’s most infamous disasters. The performance took place in Vienna on December 16, 1877. It was to have been conducted by Johann Herbeck, an Austrian maestro who had led the posthumous premiere of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in 1865. But Herbeck died suddenly, and Bruckner—an accomplished organist and choral director but an inexperienced orchestral conductor—decided to take …

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Mendelssohn’s Fourth String Quartet: The Passion and Lament of E Minor

The key of E minor seems to have had special significance for Felix Mendelssohn. It opened the door to music filled with quiet anxiety, mystery, and haunting pathos. For example, consider the turbulent, windswept Romanticism of Mendelssohn’s song without words, the Albumblatt In E Minor, Op.117. Here, the pervasive melancholy of E minor is all the more striking when contrasted with the brief, sudden turn to sunny E major in the piece’s transcendent …

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