Berlioz’ Méditation “Grands Pharaons, Nobles Lagides” from “La Mort de Cléopâtre”: Jessye Norman

It was only after four unsuccessful attempts that Hector Berlioz won the Prix de Rome. The prestigious prize, awarded by Paris’ Academie des Beaux-Arts and funded by the state, guaranteed five years of financial support for studies in Rome. By the time Berlioz finally took home the prize in 1830, he had already completed the Symphonie fantastique, a piece far more groundbreaking and consequential than his winning entry, the cantata Sardanapale.  Berlioz …

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Martha Argerich Plays Brahms: The Rhapsodies, Op. 79

The title, “rhapsody,” suggests free and improvisatory music in which raw emotion supersedes formal structure. Johannes Brahms’ two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 for solo piano only partially conform to this definition. While both are passionately Romantic, they unfold with a clearly defined sense of structure—ternary or “ABA” in the first movement, and sonata form in the second. Brahms wrote the Op. 79 Rhapsodies during the summer of 1879 at the Austrian resort town …

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Brahms’ Second Symphony: Pastoral Sunshine and Shadows

When it came to writing his First Symphony, Johannes Brahms felt the anxiety of influence. The nine symphonies of Beethoven were so transformative that Brahms was haunted by the “footsteps of a giant” marching behind him. The situation was made worse by Robert Schumann’s enthusiastic public prediction that the young Brahms was destined to become “the heir to Beethoven.” He would carry forward the mantle of “absolute” music, as opposed to the …

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Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor: Spirited Bohemian Strains

Once, while reflecting on his music, Antonín Dvořák commented, “I myself have gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious works. Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiment of his people.” Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 overflows with the spirited strains of the composer’s Czech homeland. Bending sonata form and liberating the traditional structure of the concerto, …

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Schumann’s “Widmung”: A Love Song Adapted by Liszt

In September of 1840, Robert Schumann presented a collection of 26 songs, composed the previous spring, to his beloved Clara as a wedding gift. The cycle, Myrthen, Op. 25, contains intimate musical ciphers and codes which had personal meaning to the couple. Myrtle flowers, referenced in the title, are associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Based on a poem by Friedrich Rückert, the opening song, Widmung (“Dedication”), begins with the lines, …

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Berlioz’ “Les Troyens,” “Vallon Sonore” (Hylas’ Song): Ryland Davies

The aria, Vallon sonore, which opens the fifth act of Hector Berlioz’ sprawling 1858 grand opera, Les Troyens, is a dreamy song of homesickness. It is sung by Hylas, a young Phrygian sailor who, having arrived in the harbor of Carthage, longs to return to his “native valley.” The aria’s serene, hypnotic underlying rhythm evokes the “gently rocking” waves on which Hylas could sail home. Only briefly is the tranquillity interrupted by …

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Remembering Yuri Temirkanov

Yuri Temirkanov, the renowned Russian conductor, passed away last Thursday, November 2, in St. Petersburg. He was 84. From the time of his appointment as artistic director in 1988, Temirkanov was credited with restoring the brilliance of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 2000 and 2006, he served as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Additional titles included principal guest conductor of …

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