Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor: An Escape to a Better World

Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Trio in the spring and summer of 1914 as Europe descended into the First World War. Swept up in the fervor of the moment, Ravel rushed to complete the work in order to enlist, “working with the sureness and lucidity of a madman,” as he wrote to a friend. In a letter to Igor Stravinsky, Ravel wrote, “The idea that I should be leaving at once made …

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Vaughan Williams’ “The Wasps” Overture: Raising the Curtain on Stinging Satire

In 1909, the Cambridge Greek Play committee invited Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose incidental music for a production of Aristophanes’ comic satire, The Wasps. The play, first produced in 422 B.C., is a caustic commentary on the Athenian judiciary system. Vaughan Williams’ music, later arranged in a suite, includes the witty March Past of the Kitchen Utensils. A year earlier, Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel. Later, Ravel commented that Vaughan Williams …

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Three English Phantasies: Music of Vaughan Williams, Purcell, and Britten

The fantasia is a genre which spans more than four hundred years of English music. It flowered in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, with the viol consort music of composers such as William Byrd, John Jenkins, and Henry Purcell. Emerging from the word fancy, these compositions are free in form and feature an intricate, polyphonic dialogue between instruments. A predecessor to sonata form, the fantasia grew out of madrigals and vocal motets. Twentieth …

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Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory. We …

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Olivier Messiaen: Three Mystical Reflections for Holy Week

“My faith is the grand drama of my life,” wrote the French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). “I’m a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith.” Indeed, Messiaen’s music revels in the awe and wonder of the divine. Often, it drifts into haunting, deeply meditative territory where time seems to be suspended. From the bright, angelic colors of the human voice to the muted rumble …

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Contrapunctus XIX: Berio Meets Bach

The Art of Fugue was one of J.S. Bach’s final monuments to musical posterity. Written during the last ten years of the composer’s life, the collection is made up of 14 fugues and four canons which develop from a single, sublimely simple musical subject. As the work unfolds, Bach moves from double, triple, and mirror fugues to a quadruple fugue in an increasingly complex and technically varied exploration of contrapuntal possibilities. The music …

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George Crumb’s “Dream Images”: Echoes of Faintly Remembered Music

In the score of his Dream Images (Love-Death Music) (Gemini), the American composer George Crumb (b. 1929) writes, “musingly, like the gentle caress of faintly remembered music (flexible and expressive).” This fleeting and atmospheric work for solo piano is the eleventh of twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac which make up Crumb’s 1972 collection, Makrokosmos, Volume I, modeled after Bartók. In addition to its reference to astrology, the poetic title suggests the Liebestod (“love death”) of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Notated without …

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