Carl Ruggles’ “Toys”: An American Art Song Miniature

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was one of the great American maverick composers of the twentieth century. A prickly and eccentric New Englander, he found kinship with such contemporaries as Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, and Charles Ives. His musical style, described as “dissonant counterpoint,” reflects the kind of brash and adventurous Yankee individualism we hear in Ives. Ruggles worked painstakingly slowly, sitting at the piano and playing each chord repeatedly to determine if it would …

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Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Too Hot Toccata”: An Exuberant Orchestral Romp

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) composed Too Hot Toccata in 1996. The six minute orchestral tour de force was written as a musical farewell to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the end of Kernis’ tenure as the ensemble’s composer-in-residence. It’s an exuberant and virtuosic romp in which individual instrumental voices take turns getting thrust, briefly, into the spotlight. Kernis describes the music as “a little hyperactive” with  “a horribly difficult honky-tonk …

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Charlie Parker at 100

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker (1920-1955), the American jazz saxophonist and composer. Nicknamed “Bird,” Parker grew up in the thriving Kansas City jazz culture of the 1930s where all night sessions featured such musicians as Count Basie, Lester Young, and Mary Lou Williams. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he is credited with the birth of bebop, an uptempo style characterized by intense virtuosity, complex harmonic progressions, and …

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Walter Piston’s Sixth Symphony: A Mid-Century American Masterwork

The twentieth century American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) is often remembered as an expert musical craftsman and academic. During his long tenure at Harvard (lasting from 1926 to 1960), his students included Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, and Leonard Bernstein. As a music theorist, he contributed three significant text books on the technical building blocks of music: Harmony (1941), Counterpoint (1947), and Orchestration (1955). Yet, the often-neglected music Piston left …

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Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, Jean Rondeau

Listen carefully, and you may hear echos of Bach’s big, hearty belly laugh in the opening of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1052. This is music filled with ferocious vigor and an irreverent, reckless abandon comparable to a sports car driver speeding around a sharp curve. It begins as a single musical subject, played by all of the instruments in octaves, which unfolds with wild leaps and crazy, jagged rhythmic surprises. This …

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Enescu’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, The Schubert Ensemble

George Enescu (1881-1955) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, and as the composer of the exhilarating, Gypsy-tinged Romanian Rhapsodies. Yet, a closer look at Enescu the composer reveals deep and substantive works that, strangely, remain hidden treasures. During Enescu’s lifetime, these pieces were overshadowed by the popularity and flash of the Rhapsodies. Later, they seem to have been lost in the shuffle as twentieth century music moved onward into …

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George Enescu and the Sounds of Romania

Today marks the 139th anniversary of the birth of George Enescu (1881-1955), the great Romanian composer, violinist, pianist and conductor. Pablo Casals described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.” Born in the small town of Liveni, Romania, he entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 7 and graduated with distinction before the age of 11. In 1895, he continued his studies in Paris, studying violin with Martin Pierre Marsick and …

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