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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“Clocks and Clouds”: György Ligeti’s Sonic Dreamscape

In his 1966 essay, On Clocks and Clouds, the Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper considers a world poised between two opposing processes. “Clocks” are neatly ordered systems that can be measured and solved through reduction. “Clouds” are “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The essay’s title took on poetic significance for the Hungarian-Austrian composer, György Ligeti (1923-2006), inspiring the 1973 tone poem, Clocks and Clouds. Ligeti wrote, I liked Popper’s title and it awakened …

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“Dirge for Two Veterans” from Kurt Weill’s “Four Walt Whitman Songs”

At the end of June in 1913, 53,407 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg from both sides of the American Civil War returned to the hallowed ground in south central Pennsylvania where they fought. They were there to observe the 50th anniversary of the war’s bloodiest battle. The peaceful reunion was marked by an extraordinary sense of Union–Confederate camaraderie, as the photograph above illustrates. Similarly, the journalist John Nichols observes that Walt Whitman’s 1867 …

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Vaughan Williams’ “In the Fen Country”: A Symphonic Impression

The Fens are a bleak, desolate, and relentlessly flat marshland found in East Anglia on the east coast of England. They resemble a slice of the Netherlands, transported from the other side of the North Sea. Their austere mystery inspired Graham Swift in his 1983 novel, Waterland, to ask, “what are the Fens, which so imitate in their levelness the natural disposition of water, but a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates …

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Two Festive Overtures: Shostakovich Meets Glinka

On Wednesday, we explored Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, one of the most haunting and tragic works of the twentieth century. This is the kind of music we often associate with Shostakovich, a composer surrounded, for much of his life, by death, destruction, and grinding political oppression. Yet, there is a more lighthearted side to Shostakovich, perhaps most evident in the sparkling and zany 1927 orchestration of the Vincent Youmans song, Tea for Two, produced …

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Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony: A Requiem

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor is filled with distant, lamenting voices. It was written with remarkable speed during the summer of 1943 when Shostakovich was staying at an isolated retreat maintained by the Soviet Composer’s Union. The composer’s distance from the horrors of the Eastern Front and the siege of Leningrad could not block out the sense of alienation, gloomy futility, exhaustion, sardonic humor, and raw terror that pervades this music. …

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Returning to Mahler in a Time of Crisis

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. -Leonard Bernstein in an address following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, November, 1963 On Friday, November 22, 1963, Leonard Bernstein was at Philharmonic Hall, reviewing scripts for an episode of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, scheduled to be televised the next day. When initial reports of the President’s assassination came in, …

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