Roy Harris’ Third Symphony: Sounds of the Rugged American Frontier

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was born in a log cabin on the Oklahoma prairie and grew up as a farmer in the rural San Gabriel Valley of Southern California. He went on to write what the legendary Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky called “the first great symphony by an American composer.” That work was Harris’ Symphony No. 3, completed in 1938 and premiered the following year by Koussevitzky and the BSO. It’s music …

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Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces: Adventures in Microtonality

Quarter tones occupy the narrow spaces halfway between the pitches of the chromatic scale. In other words, they are approximately half as wide as a semitone. Venture into their colorful domain, and you arrive in a wild new microtonal universe which expands the expressive possibilities of tuning and tonal color. Traditional Persian music is filled with quarter tones. These intervals also can be found in numerous works by twentieth century composers. Charles Ives’ father, George, …

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Copland’s Third Symphony: American Threads

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony begins with a single melodic thread which seems to emerge out of thin air. Crystalizing as a shimmering pastel blend of high strings and winds, this restlessly searching eight-note motif develops with a self-organizing inevitability. It feels like we are experiencing a “composition in progress” as the motif shapes itself, painstakingly trying out each possibility. Built on the intervals of fourths and fifths, its outline gives us a sense …

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Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments: Enter Neoclassicism

Igor Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet for wind instruments is a playful drama filled with zany, spirited voices. Its comic “characters” take the stage with endearing exuberance and sincerity. With witty allusions to Baroque and Classical form, it represents the beginning of Stravinsky’s dry, pared-down neoclassical period. When this piece was premiered at the Paris Opera in October, 1923, it was met with bewilderment and what Jean Cocteau called, “a scandal du silence.” Among the …

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Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”: Desires and Dreams

The flute’s gentle siren call emerges, solitary and alluring. It wanders freely from C-sharp down to G-natural and back again, drifting hazily into our consciousness, and beckoning us forward with quiet, seductive power. This is how we enter the sensuous dreamscape of Claude Debussy’s colorful and fleeting 1894 tone poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). Debussy’s inspiration arose from a poem by the French symbolist, Stéphane Mallarmé. …

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Debussy and the “Tristan Chord”

On Monday, we heard the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a work which opened the door to the dissolution of tonality and the atonal sound world of the twentieth century. One composer who was profoundly influenced by this music was the young Claude Debussy. In 1887, Debussy called Tristan und Isolde “the most beautiful thing I know, from the point of view of the profundity of the emotion.” Yet, in a …

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Poulenc’s Flute Sonata: Clara Andrada de la Calle in Concert

Francis Poulenc wrote his Sonate pour flûte et piano in 1957 in response to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the U.S. Library of Congress. The work is dedicated to the memory of Coolidge, one of the twentieth century’s greatest champions of chamber music. A sense of restless melancholy pervades the first movement (Allegretto malincolico) of Poulenc’s Sonata. It opens with an expansive melody filled with delightfully unexpected twists …

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