Debussy and the “Tristan Chord”

On Monday, we heard the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a work which opened the door to the dissolution of tonality and the atonal sound world of the twentieth century. One composer who was profoundly influenced by this music was the young Claude Debussy. In 1887, Debussy called Tristan und Isolde “the most beautiful thing I know, from the point of view of the profundity of the emotion.” Yet, in a …

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Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: Prelude and Liebestod

Culturally and aesthetically, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a game changer. From the moment the opera premiered at Munich’s National Theatre on June 10, 1865 (155 years ago this week), it elicited fervent and wildly conflicting reactions. Friedrich Nietzsche described “a lasting sense of ecstasy,” and proclaimed the work to be “the real opus metaphysicum of all art…[inspiring] insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death…it is overpowering in its …

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Poulenc’s Flute Sonata: Clara Andrada de la Calle in Concert

Francis Poulenc wrote his Sonate pour flûte et piano in 1957 in response to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the U.S. Library of Congress. The work is dedicated to the memory of Coolidge, one of the twentieth century’s greatest champions of chamber music. A sense of restless melancholy pervades the first movement (Allegretto malincolico) of Poulenc’s Sonata. It opens with an expansive melody filled with delightfully unexpected twists …

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Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, The Netherlands Bach Society

In 1711, a collection of violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi was published in Amsterdam under the title, L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”). It was a prime example of the Baroque concerto grosso form, in which a solo instrument, or small group of instruments, engage in continuous dialogue with a larger ensemble. The British musicologist Michael Talbot has called L’estro armonico “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the …

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“Clocks and Clouds”: György Ligeti’s Sonic Dreamscape

In his 1966 essay, On Clocks and Clouds, the Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper considers a world poised between two opposing processes. “Clocks” are neatly ordered systems that can be measured and solved through reduction. “Clouds” are “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The essay’s title took on poetic significance for the Hungarian-Austrian composer, György Ligeti (1923-2006), inspiring the 1973 tone poem, Clocks and Clouds. Ligeti wrote, I liked Popper’s title and it awakened …

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Three Purcell Snapshots: Tafelmusik

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) only lived to age 36, but he has long been regarded as one of England’s greatest composers. From age 20 until the end of his life, he served as the organist of Westminster Abbey, a position which afforded celebrity status at the time. He was also appointed chief harpsichordist for the court of King James II. His music, which includes the famous 1689 opera, Dido and Aeneas, continues to influence a wide …

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Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony: A Sunny Bohemian Adventure

Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major inhabits a sunny, pastoral world filled with Bohemian folk melodies, rustic peasant dances, distant horn calls, and echoes of the birdsongs of the forest. It’s an enchanting world of exuberant celebration and quiet, lamenting nostalgia. Following the restless and stormy Seventh Symphony, Dvořák remarked that the Eighth, completed in the autumn of 1889, was “different from the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out …

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