Bartók’s Suite, Op. 14: The Percussive Piano

The piano music of Béla Bartók is filled with the hard edges and exhilarating, swirling motion of Eastern European peasant dances. It strips away Romantic embellishment in favor of something more direct, austere, earthy, and primal. The piano, with its hammer-striking mechanism, becomes a full-fledged percussion instrument. All of this can be heard in Bartók’s solo piano Suite, Op. 14, composed in 1916. In a 1944 radio interview, Bartók said, When this work …

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Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: The Unlikely Triumph of Freedom

In a public statement, Dmitri Shostakovich reportedly gave the Fifth Symphony the obsequious subtitle, “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” These are the words of a composer held hostage, both artistically and literally. The year was 1937, and the Fifth Symphony represented Shostakovich’s attempt to placate Stalin and his cultural censors. A year earlier, the composer’s racy and subversive opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was attacked as “muddle instead of music” …

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“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”: Excerpts from Shostakovich’s Censored Opera

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1932 opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, inhabits a grim world of “lust, loneliness, and murder.” Described by the composer as a “Tragedy-Satire,” it hovers somewhere between chilling terror and “grotesque vaudeville.” The dark plot, based on a novel of the same name by Nikolai Leskov, is centered around Katerina Ismailova, a bored and oppressed merchant’s wife who lives in a provincial town. As John Henken writes in his summary, …

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Ives’ “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”: The Eternal River of Time

On a June weekend in 1908, Charles Ives and his wife, Harmony Twichell, vacationed in the rolling Berkshire Hills. A hiking trip led the newly married couple by the Housatonic River near Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Ives recalled, We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks …

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Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata: Oistrakh and Richter in 1969

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, Op. 134 was completed in the autumn of 1968. The title page bears the inscription, “For the 60th birthday of David Oistrakh.” Shostakovich had attempted to commemorate the great Ukrainian violinist’s 60th birthday a year too early with the Second Violin Concerto. Oistrakh explained, Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error …

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Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in Two Shades

We explored Maurice Ravel’s magical 1917 suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, in a previous post. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it is music that retreats into the graceful motion and elegance of Baroque dances such as the Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon. It pays homage to the keyboard suites of the French Baroque composer, François Couperin (1668-1733), while serving, simultaneously, as a memorial for friends Ravel lost in the war. When listeners commented …

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Takemitsu’s “A String Around Autumn”: Entering an Imaginary Landscape

Alex Ross once used the phrase “intense repose” to describe the music of the twentieth century Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996). At the heart of Takemitsu’s music is the traditional Japanese concept of Ma, literally “negative space,” or “powerful silence” as the composer defined it. As with water droplets at the crest of an ocean wave, this music often seems to emerge out of silence and then dissolve back into it. What we hear in between seems …

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