Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 10: “The Sun’s Kisses”

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin once said, My Tenth Sonata is a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun…they are the sun’s kisses…How unified world-understanding is when you look at things this way. In science all is dis-unified, not made into one. It is analysis, not synthesis. For the deeply mystical Scriabin, the circle of fifths became a vibrant color wheel in which musical keys were experienced through synesthesia. Influenced …

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Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings: Nocturnal Melodies

The word serenade brings to mind serene music of the evening. In the Middle Ages, the serenade was a musical greeting performed for a friend or lover. Later, it evolved into a divertimento with a series of contrasting movements. Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik may be the most famous example of this kind of light party music. Brahms’ two serenades were more weighty. They served as stepping stones for a composer who was dedicated to perfecting his …

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Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto: Youthful Charm

Of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, No. 2 in B-flat major is the least well known. Written primarily between 1787 and 1789, it is some of the composer’s most youthful and vibrant music. In terms of scoring and structure, it follows the model of Mozart. As with Mozart’s concertos, the solo piano and orchestral lines blend together into a sublime musical conversation. The premiere took place in March of 1795 at a charity …

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Michael Torke’s “Green”: Verdant Vibrations

What color is E major? This question will leave many listeners bemused. Yet, for the American composer Michael Torke, the key of E is inextricably linked with the color green. Torke experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition that Dr. Oliver Sachs defined as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” It’s a blending of the senses that other composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, Sibelius, and Duke Ellington reportedly experienced. Synesthesia inspired the …

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1938 Recording: Manuel de Falla’s “Spanish Dance No. 1,” Fritz Kreisler

Manuel de Falla’s 1913 two act opera, La vida breve (“Life is Short”), is rarely performed today. Set in Granada, it tells the story of a young gypsy girl, Salud, who falls in love with the wealthy and seductive Paco. Despite their vow of eternal love, Paco abandons Salud to marry a woman of his own social class to whom he was already engaged. At the end of Paco’s wedding reception, he denies knowing Salud …

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Ravel’s “Miroirs”: Reflections on the Nature of Reality

…the eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things. -William Shakespeare  Maurice Ravel was fascinated by this line from the first act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Perhaps these words, laced with mysticism and challenging the nature of reality, are not so far off from the French symbolist aesthetic of the late nineteenth century. The line between reality and reflection blurs in Ravel’s five-movement suite for solo piano, Miroirs (“Reflections”), written …

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Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” Overture: A Blazing Explosion of Color

Hector Berlioz’ 1844 Treatise on Orchestration provided all future composers with an instruction manual for the modern orchestra. The book, which remains influential, discusses the range and tone colors of the instruments. In his foreword to the updated 1904 edition, Richard Strauss wrote that Berlioz’ orchestration was “full of ingenious visions, whose realization by Richard Wagner is obvious to every connoisseur.” Nowhere does the modern orchestra spring to life with greater brilliance than in Roman …

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