“Le Secret”: Fauré’s Mystical Art Song

Throughout Gabriel Fauré’s 1879 song, Le Secret, serene, hypnotically repeating chords in the piano toll like an immortal bell. We drift into a detached dreamscape which seems to anticipate the final, time-altering movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.  The song’s text is a setting of Paul-Armand Silvestre’s poem, Mystère, from the collection, Le pays des roses (1882). Its three stanzas blur the lines between dawn, day, and night. A sense of transcendental mystery is …

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“Appalachian Fantasy”: Tessa Lark Returns to Bluegrass Roots

In her debut solo album, Fantasy, violinist Tessa Lark returns to her Kentucky roots. The album, released last September, is an exploration of the musical fantasy, a type of piece which develops with a sense of spontaneous, improvisatory freedom. Alongside music of Telemann, Schubert, Ravel, and Kreisler stands Lark’s own Bluegrass-infused Appalachian Fantasy. It’s music which blends melodic strands of Schubert with echoes of American folk songs such as Cumberland Gap and Bonaparte’s Retreat. The result is spirited music …

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Carl Ruggles’ “Toys”: An American Art Song Miniature

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was one of the great American maverick composers of the twentieth century. A prickly and eccentric New Englander, he found kinship with such contemporaries as Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, and Charles Ives. His musical style, described as “dissonant counterpoint,” reflects the kind of brash and adventurous Yankee individualism we hear in Ives. Ruggles worked painstakingly slowly, sitting at the piano and playing each chord repeatedly to determine if it would …

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Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Too Hot Toccata”: An Exuberant Orchestral Romp

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) composed Too Hot Toccata in 1996. The six minute orchestral tour de force was written as a musical farewell to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the end of Kernis’ tenure as the ensemble’s composer-in-residence. It’s an exuberant and virtuosic romp in which individual instrumental voices take turns getting thrust, briefly, into the spotlight. Kernis describes the music as “a little hyperactive” with  “a horribly difficult honky-tonk …

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Walter Piston’s Sixth Symphony: A Mid-Century American Masterwork

The twentieth century American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) is often remembered as an expert musical craftsman and academic. During his long tenure at Harvard (lasting from 1926 to 1960), his students included Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, and Leonard Bernstein. As a music theorist, he contributed three significant text books on the technical building blocks of music: Harmony (1941), Counterpoint (1947), and Orchestration (1955). Yet, the often-neglected music Piston left …

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Enescu’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, The Schubert Ensemble

George Enescu (1881-1955) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, and as the composer of the exhilarating, Gypsy-tinged Romanian Rhapsodies. Yet, a closer look at Enescu the composer reveals deep and substantive works that, strangely, remain hidden treasures. During Enescu’s lifetime, these pieces were overshadowed by the popularity and flash of the Rhapsodies. Later, they seem to have been lost in the shuffle as twentieth century music moved onward into …

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George Enescu and the Sounds of Romania

Today marks the 139th anniversary of the birth of George Enescu (1881-1955), the great Romanian composer, violinist, pianist and conductor. Pablo Casals described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.” Born in the small town of Liveni, Romania, he entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 7 and graduated with distinction before the age of 11. In 1895, he continued his studies in Paris, studying violin with Martin Pierre Marsick and …

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