Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim”: A Celestial Meditation

Hymn of the Cherubim is an excerpt from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 41, a sacred, a cappella choral work Tchaikovsky completed in 1878. It was the first “unified musical cycle” of settings of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, one of the central eucharistic services of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The core of the text is attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 5th century. “A vast and untrodden field of …

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Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto: “The Heart’s Jewel”

In 1906, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim offered an assessment of what remain four major pillars of the solo violin repertoire: The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s. Indeed, Felix Mendelssohn’s …

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Bernard Haitink’s Farewell

Bernard Haitink, one of the world’s most esteemed maestros, conducted his final concert at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on Saturday. In January, it was announced that the 90-year-old Dutch conductor would take a sabbatical. In a recent interview with de Volkskrant, Haitink suggested that this would most likely be retirement. Haitink became chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, a position he held for 27 years. Additionally, he served as principal conductor of the London …

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Mahler’s Third Symphony: A Progression to the Divine

When Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius met in Helsinki in 1907, the two composers laid out radically contrasting conceptions of the symphony. Sibelius found beauty and ultimate meaning in the symphony’s “severity of form” and “profound logic.” “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything!”  No Mahler Symphony gives us a greater sense of this cosmic scale than the Third. Set in six movements, it remains the longest symphony in …

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“Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March”: Klaus Tennstedt and the LPO, Live in 1988

The final act of Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), the last of the four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is about annihilation and renewal. The gods are brought down by their desire for absolute power. As Todd Sullivan writes in his program notes, The whole world of the gods crumbles in Act III of Götterdämmerung. The long-awaited hero, Siegfried (the misbegotten son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin offspring of the god Wotan), …

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Brahms’ Violin Concerto: Oistrakh, Klemperer, and the French National Radio Orchestra in 1960

This is one of those recordings that reminds us why David Oistrakh (1908-1974) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest musicians. The Soviet violinist’s 1960 studio recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Otto Klemperer and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française makes us forget about violin technique. Instead, we’re left with pure music. Every phrase “sings” with the ultimate sincerity. My former teacher, the Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa, …

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Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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