Arvo Pärt’s “Silouan’s Song”: “My Soul Yearns After the Lord”

Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song, composed in 1991 for string orchestra, reveals the sacred quality of both sound and silence. Inhabiting a meditative space which taps into cosmic expanses, it unfolds with the mystical bell tones of the Estonian composer’s tintinnabulation style. Pärt’s inspiration for the piece came from a text by the Russian poet and monk, St. Silouan (1866–1938), who spent much of his life at St Panteleimon on Mount Athos. Each phrase …

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Alec Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter”: Marlene VerPlanck and Keith Jarrett

American composer Alec Wilder (1907-1980) was a maverick and an eccentric whose music defied categorization. Born in Rochester, New York to a prominent family, Wilder was largely self-taught. For a few years, he studied composition and counterpoint privately at the Eastman School of Music, but he felt confined and stifled by the rules of the academy. As a young man, he moved into the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, an enclave …

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Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor: Tempestuous and Dramatic

With the symphonies and other large-scale works behind him, Johannes Brahms was at the height of his artistic maturity when, during the summer of 1886, he composed the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108. The last of Brahms’ violin sonatas, Op. 108 is also the most tempestuous and dramatic. Unfolding in four movements rather than three, it is set in the turbulent key of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and …

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Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”: At the Tonal Precipice

Famously, in the early years of the twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg plunged over the precipice into the world of atonality. A natural outgrowth of late Romantic chromaticism, the new music gave equality to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and abolished the kind of hierarchy that allowed for a tonal center of gravity. Schoenberg adapted the system of Serialism to manipulate the resulting twelve tone rows. Standing at the tonal precipice, …

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Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”: Sublime Simplicity

Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel insisted that Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, K. 618 is “too simple for children, and too difficult for adults.” Indeed, this simple choral, unfolding over 46 measures, imparts a cosmic “rightness.” It says all that needs to be said. The score is inscribed with a single interpretive marking—sotto voce, which implies a hushed, reverent tone. This motet was composed in the final six months of Mozart’s life, concurrently with The …

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Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major: A Magical Operatic Drama

Mozart wrote six piano concerti in 1784. Each distinct in atmosphere, they served as dazzling vehicles to highlight the composer’s skill as one of Vienna’s superstar keyboard players. Among these works, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453 has a special story. Mozart wrote it for his beloved student, Barbara (“Babette”) Ployer, the teenage niece of an adviser to the Salzburg imperial court, who lived outside of Vienna. Proudly, he …

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Jennifer Higdon’s Oboe Concerto: Majesty, Beauty, and Grace

Regarding her Oboe Concerto, composed in 2005, American composer Jennifer Higdon writes, “I have always thought of the oboe as being a most majestic instrument, and it was a pleasure to be able to create a work that would highlight its beauty and grace.” Unfolding in a single movement, the Concerto begins with the nostalgic, pastoral voice of the solo oboe, emerging on an extended B-flat over a serene, searching chorale in …

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