Strauss’ “Metamorphosen”: In Memoriam

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, Richard Strauss was ambivalent at first. He only wanted to be left alone to compose the next opera. In a letter, Strauss observed, with grudging pragmatism, “I made music under the Kaiser…I’ll survive under this one as well.” For a while, Strauss placated the Nazis, attempting to use his position as a preeminent composer to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and her …

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Strauss’ Four Symphonic Interludes from “Intermezzo”: A Portrait of Matrimony

In a letter to his wife, Pauline, Richard Strauss listed the three areas which gave his life meaning: “nature, notes, and family.” (Bryan Gilliam) Musically, Strauss celebrated his stable family life with the autobiographical 1904 tone poem, Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53. When the work’s subject matter was criticized as trivial, Strauss responded, What could be more serious than married life? Marriage is the most profound event in life and the spiritual joy …

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Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace”: The Kronos Quartet

American composer Ben Johnston (1926-2019) was a pioneer of just intonation (pure intervals tuned as whole number ratios) and microtonality (the use of intervals smaller than a half step). At the age of 17, following a concert of his music, Johnston gave an interview in which he predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” He went …

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Finzi’s “Farewell to Arms”: An Ode to the Aging Warrior

English composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) was too young to fight in the First World War, but he experienced personally the results of the carnage. Within a span of two weeks in 1918, combat claimed the life of his only remaining brother, as well as his teacher, the composer and pianist Ernest Farrar. Finzi’s Farewell to Arms, Op. 9, a song in two parts for tenor and small orchestra, evokes melancholy remembrances of these …

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Arvo Pärt’s “Silouan’s Song”: “My Soul Yearns After the Lord”

Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song, composed in 1991 for string orchestra, reveals the sacred quality of both sound and silence. Inhabiting a meditative space which taps into cosmic expanses, it unfolds with the mystical bell tones of the Estonian composer’s tintinnabulation style. Pärt’s inspiration for the piece came from a text by the Russian poet and monk, St. Silouan (1866–1938), who spent much of his life at St Panteleimon on Mount Athos. Each phrase …

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Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 (Version for Choir): Valentina Peleggi and the São Paulo Symphony Choir

In a 1945 letter to the Bach Society of São Paulo, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote, The music of Bach is without question the most sacred gift to the world of art…Since Bach expressed his thoughts of God and the universe through his musical creations originating from his own country, he gave the most spiritual expression of human solidarity, we should also understand, love and cultivate the music that is born and lives, …

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Stravinsky’s Eight Instrumental Miniatures: The Land of Children at Play

In 1921, Igor Stravinsky composed a set of simple piano pieces for children titled, Les cinq doigts (“The Five Fingers”). Charmingly spare and neoclassical, each of the eight whimsical keyboard exercises are built on five notes, played in the right hand. Stravinsky returned to this music in 1962 to create the 8 Instrumental Miniatures for 15 Players. It is music which inhabits the innocent, magical land of children at play. The brief …

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