Morton Gould’s “Harvest”: Vibrant Midcentury Americana

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was one of the twentieth century’s most eclectic musical figures. The American composer, conductor, and pianist produced both “serious” and “popular” music. In his youth, Gould played the piano for films and vaudeville acts. He was hired as the staff pianist for Radio City Music Hall. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he was a prominent conductor and arranger for numerous radio broadcasts, which included “Cresta Blanca Carnival” and “The …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Silent Noon”: Serene, Pastoral Bliss

The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams returns frequently to the serene, pastoral majesty of “England’s green and pleasant land.” We hear these shimmering, sensuous allusions in Vaughan Williams’ 1903 song, Silent Noon. The song, which was later incorporated into the cycle, The House of Life, is a setting of a dreamy sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The poem evokes a kind of blissful harmony with nature, experienced by two lovers on a summer day amid the “long …

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Vaughan Williams’ “A London Symphony”: Ode to an Ephemeral City

Ralph Vaughan Williams recalled that the impetus for A London Symphony came during a fleeting conversation with fellow English composer, George Butterworth: At the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony – a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt – dominated my …

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Mario Lavista’s “Reflejos de la Noche”: Sonic Mirrors

Mario Lavista, one of the most acclaimed Mexican composers of his generation, passed away last Thursday at the age of 78. Born in Mexico City, Lavista studied with Carlos Chávez, Héctor Quintanar, and Rodolfo Halffter at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música. In the 1960s, he went on to study in Paris with Henri Pousseur, Nadia Boulanger, Christoph Caskel, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1970, he founded Quanta improvisation, an ensemble dedicated to spontaneous …

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Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 “Black Mass”: A Diabolical Landscape

Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9, completed in 1913, inhabits a haunting, diabolical landscape. The single-movement work begins with distant, mournful descending chromatic lines which outline Scriabin’s iconic “mystic chord,” a hexachord built on fourths which the composer described as “smoky.” In its purest form, the “mystic chord” dissolves harmonic function, leaving us with blinding sound. The marking, Legendaire, over the first bar suggests that we are being lulled into an unsettling dream …

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Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings: Folk Music Meets the Concerto Grosso

Béla Bartók wrote the Divertimento for String Orchestra over the course of fifteen days in August of 1939. The three-movement piece was commissioned by the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher, who provided Bartók with a comfortable chalet in the Alpine village of Saanen, Switzerland. Three years earlier, Sacher had commissioned the composer to write the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Now, he requested …

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Night Voyages: Salonen’s “Insomnia” and Sibelius’ “Nightride and Sunrise”

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2002 orchestral tone poem, Insomnia, takes us on a haunting nocturnal voyage. The opening bars slip into a restless, looping stream of musical “thoughts” which toss and turn with prickly persistence in the woodwinds. As the piece develops, the insomniac’s obsessive mental chatter becomes a colorful tonal dreamscape which is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. Gradually, restlessness dissolves into the serenity of near sleep in the final minutes, only to be interrupted …

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