Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto: Written for Mstislav Rostropovich

In 1943, the 16-year-old Mstislav Rostropovich was in Dmitri Shostakovich’s orchestration class at the Moscow Conservatory. When Shostakovich heard the young cellist play, he was overcome with praise, commenting on the “the intense, restless mind and the high spirituality that he brings to his mastery.” Later, he wrote, Mstislav Rostropovich, never resting, always searching and growing—is of such significance that it seems already possible to claim his name will come to be given …

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Debussy’s “Rêverie,” Zoltán Kocsis

Rêverie (“daydream”) is music of the young Claude Debussy. Written in 1890, this atmospheric piece for solo piano anticipates the composer’s later works. At the same time, I hear a fleeting echo (perhaps coincidental) of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. As with Saint-Saëns, who downplayed his 1886 Carnival of the Animals suite as frivolity, Debussy later turned his back on Rêverie, writing to the publisher Fromont, I regret very much your decision to publish Rêverie. I wrote it in a …

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Arvo Pärt’s “Pari intervallo”: Geometry Unfolding in Time

Musical lines evoke strict geometry in Arvo Pärt’s brief but cosmic meditation, Pari intervallo (Latin for “in the equal distance”). Throughout the piece, two parallel voices seem to drift quietly into infinity. A continuous and inevitable process unfolds which gives rise to occasional unexpected but delicious harmonic dissonances. In the score, Pärt inscribed a quote from Romans 14:8: “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto …

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Stravinsky Meets Tchaikovsky: Reimagining “The Sleeping Beauty”

Tchaikovsky’s fairytale ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, was first performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on January 15, 1890. Among the audience members of this premiere production was the eight-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who later noted it as a formative musical experience. For the first time, the young Stravinsky was struck by the majesty of the orchestra, and well as the music of Tchaikovsky, a personal friend of Stravinsky’s father. In January of 1941, Stravinsky received a …

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Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements: Rhythmic Delirium

Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is a delirious celebration of rhythm. This bright, exuberant music leaves behind the rapturous, primordial jabs of The Rite of Spring to enter the crisp, spare world of neoclassicism. Witty and spirited conversations unfold between instrumental voices. Quirky, irrepressible ostinatos propel the music forward amid unpredictable and swiftly changing rhythmic currents. The outer movements hurtle forward with the hyper, unrelenting energy of an action film, whisking us from one …

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Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”: The First Television Opera

On Christmas Eve, 1951, opera moved into the television era. On this evening, the premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was broadcast live from NBC’s studio 8H in Rockefeller Center. The NBC Opera Theatre performance was seen by an estimated five million viewers across the country. Set in one act, it was the first opera to be composed specifically for television. Menotti was inspired by The Adoration of the Magi, a …

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Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony: Probing Psychological Depths

Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor enters a dark, austere, and occasionally terrifying sonic landscape. At first listen, it is undoubtedly the strangest and most unsettling of Sibelius’ seven symphonies. Its four movements probe frigid, mysterious depths. Yet, upon entering this forbidding territory, we are rewarded with glimpses of rugged beauty and awe-inspiring power. Sibelius called the Fourth “a psychological symphony.” It is the stuff of Expressionism, murky dreams, and …

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