Webern’s Inaugural Opus: “Passacaglia for Orchestra”

Today marks the 135th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945). Along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern was part of the Second Viennese School, an early twentieth century movement in which atonal and twelve-tone music grew out of fading late Romanticism. In September, 1945, Webern became a casualty of the Second World War. While smoking a cigar on his porch, he was fatally shot by an American soldier during …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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Exploring the Prolation Canon

There is an interesting passage about four and a half minutes into the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 which may have caught your ear if you dropped by for Wednesday’s post: Did you hear that wandering, chromatic line which begins in the violins? Two additional lower string voices enter in succession with the same line at consecutively slower rates of speed. For a moment, before the episode is cut off by the …

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Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony: An Unsolvable Enigma?

“What does it mean?” You may find yourself asking this question as you listen to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in A Major. This final Shostakovich Symphony, written in a little over a month during the summer of 1971 as the composer faced declining health, is filled with persistent and unsettling ambiguity. First, there are the strange, inexplicable quotes and fleeting allusions to music of earlier composers, as well as cryptic references to Shostakovich’s previous …

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Clara Schumann “Romances for Violin and Piano”: Stefan Jackiw

Last week, I had the pleasure of performing with Stefan Jackiw. The young American violinist played the Beethoven Concerto with the Williamsburg (VA) Symphony Orchestra. Jackiw’s playing is characterized by an unusual sense of elegance and refinement. He paints with a wide array of colors and dynamics. In the most intimate passages of the slow movement of the Beethoven, he was not afraid to play just above a whisper. Jackiw’s elegant and stylish approach …

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Ravel’s “Mother Goose”: Entering the World of the Child

It has been said that Maurice Ravel saw the world through the eyes of a child. Although he had no children of his own, Ravel had a lifelong fascination with elaborate mechanical toys, and frequently read fairy tales aloud to the children of his friends. Two of these children were Jean and Mimi Godebski, the son and daughter of Cipa and Ida Godebski, a Polish couple who frequently brought together some of the greatest …

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Poulenc’s “Concerto for Two Pianos”: An Exuberant, Childlike Romp

A spirt of childlike exuberance permeates Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, completed in 1932, the same year that saw the premiere of Ravel’s G Major Concerto. It’s bright, ebullient music filled with teasing, innocence, and caricature. Strands of jazz mix with the sounds of the Parisian street cafe. As with Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony (1917) and the neoclassical works of Stravinsky, this double concerto arrives in a fresh, new place by looking …

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