Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” Symphony: An Artist in Society

In 1934, as the Nazis rose to power in his native Germany, Paul Hindemith worked concurrently on an opera and a symphony, both of which emerged from the same musical source. The opera, Mathis der Maler (“Mathias the Painter”), is a fictional account of the life of the German Renaissance painter, Mathias Grunewald (c. 1475-1528). It is set during Central Europe’s Peasants’ War of 1524, a brief, but tumultuous, rebellion which was …

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Stravinsky’s Suites Nos. 1 and 2 for Small Orchestra: Jubilant Miniatures

As the First World War raged throughout Europe, Igor Stravinsky lived in exile in Switzerland. In the years leading up to the war, Stravinsky had created immense and colorful orchestral scores, which included The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913) for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. Now, with changing circumstances, Stravinsky’s music became smaller, with more intimate instrumentation. These included eight charming piano duets with “easy right hand.” Stravinsky composed Three Easy Pieces (1915) …

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Holst’s “The Planets”: Seven Astrological Mood Pictures

Take a moment and consider the most evocative excerpts from John Williams’ Star Wars film scores, the hypnotic, meditative tones of electronic ambient music, and the late twentieth century pop song’s formulaic concluding “fade out.” It could be argued that all were vaguely anticipated by Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1917. Described by the composer as “a series of mood pictures,” the movements depict the astrological character of all …

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Harrison Birtwistle’s “Silbury Air”: Building Imaginary Landscapes

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of Britain’s most celebrated composers, passed away on April 18. He was 87. Birtwistle was an uncompromising modernist who created music that was infused with “sonic brashness.” His 1995 work, Panic, for alto saxophone, jazz drum kit, and orchestra caused a minor scandal when it was premiered at BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. As with many of Birtwistle’s works, the inspiration for Panic grew out of mythology. Additional prominent works …

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Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Fairytale Poem”: The Dreams of a Piece of Chalk

In her youth, the Soviet-Russian composer, Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), was censured by the cultural authorities and urged to abandon her “mistaken path.” It was a path which led far from the conventions of Soviet Realism to explore 12-tone serialism, alternative tunings, and the improvisational Eastern influences of her native Tatarstan. With gratitude, Gubaidulina remembers her 1959 meeting with Dmitri Shostakovich in which the older composer said, “My wish for you is that …

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Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto: Enter the Enfant Terrible

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10 is music of the audacious, young Sergei Prokofiev. Completed in 1911 when the 22-year-old composer was still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the Concerto’s brash, spirited energy elicited strong public reactions. The August 7, 1912 premiere in Moscow marked Prokofiev’s first appearance with an orchestra and showcased his dazzling keyboard virtuosity. In a letter, Prokofiev recalled that “the outward success was …

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Debussy’s “Bruyères” from Préludes, Book 2: Krystian Zimerman

Composed between 1909 and 1913, Claude Debussy’s twenty four solo piano Préludes are divided into two books. Unlike the Preludes of Chopin or J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, they do not form a sequential harmonic procession. Instead, they float ephemerally between traditional tonality and modal harmony, and the pentatonic and whole tone scales. They emerge as dreamy, atmospheric vignettes. Bruyères is the fifth Prélude from Book II. Translating as “heather,” it “evokes pastoral bliss, an Arcadian …

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