Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes: Concert Music in Search of a Ballet

Igor Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes unfolds as an abstract ballet. Its quirky cast of instrumental “characters” become virtual “dancers” in a witty, neoclassical drama. The titles of its five movements evoke the sections of a ballet. Motion, elegance, and a joyful athleticism abound. Stravinsky had just emigrated to the United States and settled in West Hollywood when, in 1941, he received the commission from Werner Janssen for Danses concertantes. Janssen was an American conductor and …

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Remembering Ned Rorem

Ned Rorem, the American composer and diarist, passed away on November 18 at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He was 99. Born in Richmond, Indiana, Rorem composed three symphonies, numerous concertos, and other orchestral works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Air Music (1974). Additionally, he contributed a host of operas, choral music, and chamber works. Yet, he will be remembered most as the composer of song. The esteemed choral conductor, Robert Shaw, declared …

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Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”: From Ballet Score to Concert Suite

Character lies at the heart of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64. In the opening bars, the alternating forces of darkness and light become metaphysical “characters.” Demonic dissonances in the brass roar and subside, revealing an angelic string “choir” which seems to have been present all along. It is this battle between the baseness of the world and transcendent higher powers which underlies Shakespeare’s story. A heavy, groaning …

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George Crumb’s “A Haunted Landscape”: A Guide to Mysterious Places

Much of the music of the American composer, George Crumb (1929-2022), drifts into the atmospheric, spectral world of “night music.” Evoking the hum of insects and the distant murmurs of a summer night, these are the eerie, nocturnal sounds that we hear throughout the music of Béla Bartók. It is also the “night music” of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which Crumb called “very spooky music.” Crumb’s 1984 orchestral work, A Haunted Landscape, emerges over a nearly imperceptible …

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Anatoly Lyadov’s “The Enchanted Lake”: Painting a Fairy Tale Scene

The Enchanted Lake is a dreamy and fleeting 1908 tone poem by the Russian composer, Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914). Subtitled “fairy tale scene,” the piece unfolds as a shimmering, gradually shifting mirage of impressionistic color. Divided strings undulate with the majesty of a vast, tranquil sea, while the flute, celesta, and harp suggest the sparkle of twinkling stars. At moments, we hear the influence of the magical, coloristic orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov. The piece may have …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Sancta Civitas”: An Oratorio of Revelation

In a 1988 biography, Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote that her husband “was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.” Ironically, it was Ralph Vaughan Williams who helped the Anglican Church to compile, through the The English Hymnal of 1906, “a collection of the best hymns in the English language.” For Vaughan Williams, music inhabited the …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Three Shakespeare Songs”: The Stuff of Dreams

Following the 1948 premiere of his Sixth Symphony, Ralph Vaughan Williams was asked to provide the “meaning” of the work’s bleak, apocalyptic closing Epilogue. For many listeners, the music suggested a chilling portrait of a world decimated by nuclear war. The composer who had so vividly captured the pastoral glory of “England’s green and pleasant land” in earlier pieces, now seemed to deliver only alienation from nature in the face of twentieth …

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