Schumann’s “Nachtlied,” Op. 108: The Gentle Approach of Sleep

Robert Schumann’s Nachtlied, Op. 108 for eight-part chorus and orchestra drifts into the serene, magical world of sleep. Schumann composed this autumnal choral song over the course of a week in November, 1849. It is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) in which death is met first with fear and then with acceptance. The song begins with a sense of haunting mystery, with the obsessive repetition of a short, disjointed motif. There …

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Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major: A First Farewell

Johannes Brahms intended for the String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111 to be his final piece. In a December, 1890 correspondence with his publisher, Simrock, the 57-year-old composer slipped in the message, “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” Around the same time, Brahms told a friend that he “had achieved enough; here I had before me a carefree old …

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Sibelius’ “En Saga”: Mystical Landscapes

The music of Jean Sibelius evokes the rugged, desolate beauty of the Finnish landscape, the distinct cycles of darkness and light in extreme northern latitudes, and the ancient folklore of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Sibelius’ music feels spacial and metaphysical. It changes our perception of time. The 1892 tone poem, En Saga (“A Fairy Tale”), does not depict a programmatic story related to the Kalevala. Instead, Sibelius described the work as an “adventure in an …

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Grieg’s Holberg Suite: Baroque Dances in the Scandinavian Woods

In December of 1884, the city of Bergen, Norway celebrated the 200th birthday of one of its most famous natives, the satirist and playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754). In honor of the event, Edvard Grieg, Bergen’s most famous composer, was commissioned to write a festive cantata and an instrumental work. While the cantata is now largely forgotten, the Holberg Suite became one of Grieg’s most enduring works. The five-movement suite, titled “From Holberg’s Time,” was written …

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Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Prelude to Act I: A Shifting Kaleidoscope of Color

Richard Wagner’s 1850 opera, Lohengrin, is based on medieval German legend. The fairy tale story involves the distressed Elsa (unfairly accused of murdering her brother, the rightful heir to the kingdom) and Lohengrin, a disguised Knight of the Holy Grail who comes to her aid on a boat drawn by a swan. Wagner’s Prelude to the first act of Lohengrin is a dreamlike kaleidoscope of orchestral color. It begins in the highest register of the …

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Norman Bailey Sings Wagner

Norman Bailey, the internationally renowned British operatic bass-baritone, passed away on September 15 at the age of 88. Bailey made his debut in 1959 at the Vienna Chamber Opera, performing the role of Tobias Mill in Rossini’s one-act opera, La cambiale di matrimonio. His association with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre (later the English National Opera) beginning in 1967, launched a major career. He was particularly associated with the operas of Wagner, including the title role …

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Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36, Harriet Krijgh and Friends

The British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey called the String Sextet No. 2 in G Major “the most ethereal of Brahms’ larger works.” Indeed, there is a sense of mystery and haunting celestial beauty underlying this music. Who could have imagined that G major can feel this melancholy and unsettled? Brahms was 31 years old when he wrote this music in 1864. In contrast to the warm, songlike Sextet No. 1, completed four years earlier, …

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