Christopher Rouse’s “Phantasmata”: Three Haunting Hallucinations

The sixteenth century Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, used the word “phantasmata” to describe “hallucinations created by thought.” Appropriately, Phantasmata is the title of an orchestral tryptic completed in 1985 by the late American composer, Christopher Rouse. It’s a piece which grew out of a series of haunting dream images. The opening movement bears the descriptive title, “The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia, 3 A.M.” It was inspired by an …

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Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest”: The 19th Century’s Greatest Film Score

No one was going to the movies when Tchaikovsky wrote his Shakespeare-inspired tone poem, The Tempest, in 1873. Motion picture technology was only in its infancy. Yet from a contemporary perspective, this music is deeply cinematic. Like every great film score, it gives us a visceral feeling of atmosphere. It seems larger than life, suggesting expansive and colorful vistas. Its recurring “love theme” doesn’t develop as pure music. Instead, it gives us a sense …

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Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Air”: A Love Letter to the Violin

In his program notes, American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) describes Air as “a love letter to the violin.” Written in 1995 for Joshua Bell, the piece is dedicated to Kernis’ wife, the pianist Evelyne Luest. It unfolds with a direct, songlike lyricism which warmly embraces tonality. Occasionally, there are echoes of the music of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and perhaps even late Mahler. The opening bars pull us into a lush, pastoral soundscape. …

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Fauré’s “Ballade in F-Sharp Major”: Bending Harmony

Gabriel Fauré’s Ballade in F-sharp Major, Op. 19 is filled with harmony-bending moments. For example, listen to the opening of the piece. The first phrase follows a graceful and beautifully consonant arc. Then at the 0:26 mark, we get a sudden, wrenching dissonance. Floating over a serene, hypnotically repeating rhythmic line, this music doesn’t seem far off from Erik Satie’s dreamy Gymnopédies, published ten years later in 1888, or the second movement of …

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Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto: Monumental and Heroic

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto begins with a bold and unexpected announcement. Four chords in the orchestra, outlining the most elemental harmonic progression (I-IV-V-I), stand as mighty pillars. Each initiates an expansive cadenza from the solo piano. A cadenza at the beginning of a concerto? This is not what the first audiences would have been expecting. These first bars establish the piano as a heroic, convention-defying protagonist. The orchestra launches into the expected introduction only …

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Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony: “Pure Spring Water”

The Sixth may be Jean Sibelius’ most enigmatic symphony. It doesn’t offer the kind of heroic and triumphant journey we experience in the Second and Fifth Symphonies, or the strange, brooding darkness of the Fourth. Instead, it drifts through a soundscape which is shimmering, austere, and mysterious. “The Sixth Symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow,” said Sibelius in 1943. On another occasion, the composer spoke of the …

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Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 852, Pieter-Jan Belder

The Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder considers Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (No. 7 from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier) to be a significant emotional departure from the preceding pieces in the set. “When you get to this Prelude, you’re in another world,” he says. Indeed, from the opening bars a sublime, ever-rising conversation unfolds between two voices—one high, and the other low. This opens the door to an expansive chorale …

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