Howard Hanson’s “Nordic” First Symphony: A Majestic, Neo-Romantic Soundscape

At one time, twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was dismissed as a hopelessly conservative musical renegade. In the 1950s and 60s, at a time when atonality was dominant among the academic establishment, Hanson’s music embraced a warmly melodic, Neo-Romantic sound world. Born in the small prairie town of Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson wrote music which grew out of the austere harmonic language and dark, brooding orchestration of Scandinavian …

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Messiaen the Mystic: “The kiss of the Infant Jesus”

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of the French composer, organist, and ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). A deep religious mysticism inhabits the music of Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic who described himself as a “rhythmician, ornithologist and theologian.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus”), a collection of short solo piano pieces written in 1944 during the final months of the German occupation …

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Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”: Wandering, Rebirth, Exultation

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” wrote Igor Stravinsky, provocatively, in his 1935 autobiography. Listen to Stravinsky’s monumental Symphony of Psalms, completed five years earlier in 1930, and you may disagree. There is nothing remotely sentimental in the cool, neoclassical architecture of this music. It would be hard to put into words what is being “expressed.” Yet what emerges is powerful, moving, and transcendent. Set in …

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Webern’s Inaugural Opus: “Passacaglia for Orchestra”

Today marks the 135th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945). Along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern was part of the Second Viennese School, an early twentieth century movement in which atonal and twelve-tone music grew out of fading late Romanticism. In September, 1945, Webern became a casualty of the Second World War. While smoking a cigar on his porch, he was fatally shot by an American soldier during …

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“Happy Birthday” Arranged by…Stravinsky and Copland?!

Occasionally during an orchestra rehearsal, the oboe’s tuning note transforms into a surprise, impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday in celebration of a musician’s birthday. You can find clips of more organized examples for conductors David Robertson and Gustavo Dudamel. (In that last example, notice the distinctly Latin American flavor of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra’s rendition). Interestingly, a few great twentieth century composers put their stamp on Happy Birthday. Undoubtedly, these composers dashed off these lighthearted miniatures quickly and with …

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“El Salón México”: Aaron Copland Conducts the New York Philharmonic

Today marks the 118th anniversary of the birth of American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990). In celebration, let’s listen to a clip of Copland conducting his exuberant orchestral tone poem, El Salón México, as part of a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert, recorded on November 12, 1960. In the episode, entitled Happy Birthday Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein stresses the youthful, distinctly American vitality of Copland’s music, from An Outdoor Overture, to the Hoe Down from Rodeo, to excerpts from Early American Songs, …

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Philip Glass’ “Études”: Víkingur Ólafsson

Philip has often said to me: ‘I don’t agree with the way you play this piece, but it’s compelling, so I don’t want you to change it…’ – Víkingur Ólafsson, Breaking Glass: The Musical Journey of Víkingur Ólafsson Philip Glass’ twenty Études for solo piano, written between 1992 and 2012, continue in the footsteps of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Ligeti. On one level these Études (or “studies”) function as technical and compositional exercises. Glass has …

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