Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp: The Land of Laughter and Tears

In 1914, with the encouragement of his music publisher Jacques Durand, Claude Debussy set out to compose a cycle of Six Sonatas for Various Instruments. In a letter to the conductor Bernard Molinari, Debussy explained that, in terms of instrumentation, the collection would feature “different combinations, with the last sonata combining the previously used instruments.” The project was undertaken at a time when Europe was ravaged by the First World War and Debussy suffered from …

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Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “A Tapestry of Life”: Four Atmospheric Snapshots

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 2007 orchestral tone poem, A Tapestry of Life, is set in four movements which feel like cinematic snapshots. Each movement inhabits a distinctly atmospheric world in which a vast, shimmering soundscape opens in front of us. The music unfolds in time, but it also gives us the same serene, floating sensation we might get looking out of the window of an airplane at the gradually-shifting view. Dreamlike associations with words and poetic …

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Debussy’s Violin Sonata: An Autumnal Farewell

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor was Claude Debussy’s last completed composition. It was written in 1917 at a time when the composer suffered from terminal cancer. Europe was plunged into the bleakness and devastation of the First World War, bringing food and coal shortages and economic hardship to Paris. Exhausted and watching the prewar world he had known slip away, Debussy wrote to a friend, I only wrote this …

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Charles Ives’ “A Set of Pieces for Theatre Orchestra”: Radical Sounds from 1906

In 1906, Gustav Mahler had just completed his cosmic Eighth Symphony, Sibelius’ final four symphonies were yet to be written, the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Firebird was still four years away, and Arnold Schoenberg had just begun to take the first tentative steps into atonality. The ethereal soundscapes of Olivier Messiaen and the jazzy, soulful orchestral scores of George Gershwin remained decades away. Yet listen to Charles Ives’ A Set of Pieces for Theatre Orchestra, written between 1899 and 1906, and …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus”: English Folk Song Reflections

Last week, we listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, a piece in which the orchestra’s string section often seems to be transformed into a vast, celestial choir. A similar sound emerges in Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, scored for string orchestra and harp. It’s music in which rich sonic layers unfold with the lush majesty of the rolling, hedgerow-stitched English countryside. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Vaughan Williams …

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Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony: “The Celestial City”

The “Symphony of the Celestial City…” This is how biographer and classical music scholar Michael Kennedy poetically described Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5. Indeed, this music, completed in 1943 as the Second World War raged, moves into an alternate world of radiant light, quiet serenity, and sublime mystery. Following Vaughan Williams’ ferocious and dissonant Fourth Symphony, it returns to the eternal, pastoral reassurance of England’s metaphorical “green and pleasant” countryside. The term “Celestial …

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New Release: Renée Fleming’s “Lieder”

Renée Fleming’s newest album features songs by Brahms, Schumann, and Mahler. Released on June 14, this is the four-time Grammy winning soprano’s first full-length Lieder album for almost two decades. The recording opens with a beautiful and hypnotic performance of Brahms’ famous Lullaby, Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4. Here are three additional excerpts: Brahms: 4 Lieder, Op. 43 – 2. Die Mainacht “The May Night” describes a shadowy scene of lonely wandering, endless …

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