Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”: A Tone Poem in Black and White

In 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov saw a black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin. The haunting dream image depicts a solitary rowboat carrying a coffin, bound for a desolate, rocky island. The scene suggests the mythological River Styx and the transition of a recently deceased soul to the afterlife. The image affected Rachmaninov deeply and inexplicably. It was a powerful, immediate, and spontaneous creative …

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Remembering Mario Davidovsky

The Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky passed away on August 23. He was 85. Davidovsky will be remembered as a pioneer of electroacoustic music (the blending of traditional instruments with new, electronic sounds). In addition to his work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, he served on the composition faculty of, among other schools, the Mannes School of Music. Born in Buenos Aires, he emigrated to the United States in 1960 and studied with …

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Saying Goodbye to Summer with Gershwin’s “Summertime”

In observance of Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer, here is a landmark recording of George Gershwin’s Summertime, featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is an excerpt from their 1957 jazz studio album, Porgy and Bess. The album popularized Summertime and other music from Gershwin’s 1935 opera. (Two years later, a film version of Porgy and Bess was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge). Fitzgerald was a longtime friend of the Gershwins. Ira Gershwin once …

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Debussy’s Cello Sonata: A Celebration of Classical Form

In 1914, at the encouragement of his music publisher Jacques Durand, Claude Debussy set out to compose a cycle of Six Sonatas for Various Instruments. In a letter to the conductor Bernard Molinari, Debussy explained that, in terms of instrumentation, the collection would feature “different combinations, with the last sonata combining the previously used instruments.” The project was undertaken at a time when Europe was ravaged by the First World War and Debussy suffered from …

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Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp: The Land of Laughter and Tears

In 1914, with the encouragement of his music publisher Jacques Durand, Claude Debussy set out to compose a cycle of Six Sonatas for Various Instruments. In a letter to the conductor Bernard Molinari, Debussy explained that, in terms of instrumentation, the collection would feature “different combinations, with the last sonata combining the previously used instruments.” The project was undertaken at a time when Europe was ravaged by the First World War and Debussy suffered from …

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Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “A Tapestry of Life”: Four Atmospheric Snapshots

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 2007 orchestral tone poem, A Tapestry of Life, is set in four movements which feel like cinematic snapshots. Each movement inhabits a distinctly atmospheric world in which a vast, shimmering soundscape opens in front of us. The music unfolds in time, but it also gives us the same serene, floating sensation we might get looking out of the window of an airplane at the gradually-shifting view. Dreamlike associations with words and poetic …

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Debussy’s Violin Sonata: An Autumnal Farewell

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor was Claude Debussy’s last completed composition. It was written in 1917 at a time when the composer suffered from terminal cancer. Europe was plunged into the bleakness and devastation of the First World War, bringing food and coal shortages and economic hardship to Paris. Exhausted and watching the prewar world he had known slip away, Debussy wrote to a friend, I only wrote this …

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