Holst’s “The Planets”: Seven Astrological Mood Pictures

Take a moment and consider the most evocative excerpts from John Williams’ Star Wars film scores, the hypnotic, meditative tones of electronic ambient music, and the late twentieth century pop song’s formulaic concluding “fade out.” It could be argued that all were vaguely anticipated by Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite, The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1917. Described by the composer as “a series of mood pictures,” the movements depict the astrological character of all …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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Music and Humor

Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny. To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and …

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