Tchaikovsky’s Sérénade Mélancolique: A Russian Lament

In January of 1875, Tchaikovsky met the great violinist and pedagogue, Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky, who at the time was putting the finishing touches on his First Piano Concerto, accepted Auer’s request for a piece for violin and orchestra. The result was the single-movement Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26. Auer’s initial rejection of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto led the composer to remove the dedication to Auer from both works. The first performance of the Sérénade …

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Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto: A Youthful Romp

An infectious lightness of spirit pervades Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102. It’s music which takes us on a brief, jubilant romp filled with youthful vitality, cheerful and quirky voices, and unabashed humor. It sparkles with a witty Haydnesque classicism. The lushly beautiful second movement moves into a space of dreamy intimacy and warmth. Shostakovich composed this music in 1957 in celebration of the 19th birthday of …

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Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”: Ghosts of the English Renaissance

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is filled with ghosts. Composed in 1910, this haunting single-movement work for string orchestra develops from a melody written nearly 400 years earlier by the English Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis. Tallis’ hymn melody, one of nine written in 1567 for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is tinged with a sense of quiet mystery and lament. With continuous harmonic and metric shifts, it feels mysterious …

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Three Bruckner Motets: “Virga Jesse,” “Tota pulchra es,” “Ave Maria,”

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are monumental musical edifices which revel in the mystery of the divine. As the musicologist Deryck Cooke noted, Bruckner’s symphonies are “elemental and metaphysical.” Their “majesty and grandeur” is revealed gradually, in a way similar to the experience of walking around a medieval cathedral and observing the same mighty structure from different vantage points. Bruckner’s sacred motets offer a microcosm of this experience. They occupy the timeless, ethereal sound …

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Brahms’ Handel Variations, Op. 24: A Monument Built on Baroque Foundations

George Frideric Handel’s Suite in B-flat Major, HWV 434, published in 1733 as part of a collection of keyboard works entitled Suites de Pièces, concludes with an Aria con variazioni in which five ebullient variations spin out of a sunny galant theme: This endearing music provided the seed for Johannes Brahms’ monumental Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, composed nearly 130 years later in 1861. Here, the original theme is followed by 25 adventurous …

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Sibelius’ “Lemminkäinen” Suite: Four Legends from the Kalevala

Lemminkäinen is a shamanistic figure from the frigid depths of Finnish mythology. Throughout the epic poetry of the Kalevala, where he represents an amalgamation of characters, Lemminkäinen takes the form of a young, heroic warrior. Occasionally described as a “handsome, arrogant and reckless” seducer, he is the son of Lempi, the Finnish goddess of love and fertility. The adventures of this epic hero provided the inspiration for Jean Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, a collection of four symphonic …

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Hovhaness’ “Fra Angelico,” Fantasy for Orchestra: Angelic Intelligences

The American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was one of the twentieth century’s greatest musical mavericks. As a student at Tanglewood in the 1940s, Hovhaness’ music was ridiculed by the establishment so severely that he withdrew from the school and abandoning his scholarship. Famously, over the course of two weeks in the 1930s, he burned some 1,000 scores that he considered to be mediocre. Following this purge, an authentic new voice emerged. A …

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