Debussy’s “Brouillards”: A Journey into Pantonality

On Wednesday, we explored Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, a piece which ends, unresolved, in two radically unrelated keys (C and B). When the brash, outspoken Claude Debussy heard another Strauss tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel, he compared it to “an hour of original music in a lunatic asylum.” Yet, in the early years of the twentieth century, Debussy pushed the dense chromaticism of Strauss and Wagner into even more adventurous harmonic territory. We …

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Chopin’s Four Ballades: Poetry in Music

The solo piano Ballade originated with Frédéric Chopin. In the early nineteenth century, the title carried literary connotations. In his Henle forward, the musicologist Norbert Müllemann defined the folk ballade as “a strophically-constructed poem that described a dramatic, often also a demonic or mystical scenario within a comparatively restricted frame.” Robert Schumann suggested that Chopin was influenced by the work of the Polish Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. As with Chopin, Mickiewicz fled political upheaval in …

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Liszt’s “Nuages Gris”: A Haunting, Atmospheric Soundscape

Franz Liszt’s Nuages gris (“Grey Clouds”) sounds as if it could have been composed for the film score of a psychological thriller. In fact, the brief, haunting work for solo piano was featured in a chilling morgue scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 mystery drama, Eyes Wide Shut.  It’s hard to believe that Nuages gris was written in 1881. The piece’s shockingly progressive harmony anticipates the music of Debussy and composers of the twentieth century. In his …

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“The Black Gondola”: Liszt’s Haunting Memorial to Wagner

Earlier in the month, we listened to music from Wagner’s iconic 1865 opera, Tristan und Isolde, and explored its influence on later composers such as Claude Debussy. With its distinctively dissonant “Tristan chord,” this is music which, for many theorists, marked the beginning of the “dissolution of tonality” and opened the door to the tone rows of the twentieth century. Franz Liszt’s haunting solo piano work, La lugubre gondola (“The Black Gondola”), is filled …

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Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Krystian Zimerman

La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) is the eighth piece in Book I of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes, written around 1910. The title was inspired by an 1852 poem by Leconte de Lisle. A single, meandering line pulls us into the ephemeral, dreamlike world this music inhabits. Listen to the way the harmony, built largely on the floating, static pentatonic scale, shifts around this melody in unexpected ways. Listening …

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Chopin’s Four Scherzos: Darkly-Veiled Jest?

On Monday, we explored five monumental scherzos from nineteenth and twentieth century symphonies. These ferocious works leave behind the original lighthearted concept of the “scherzo,” which means “joke” in Italian. The dynamic, sometimes terrifying, drama unleashed in this music is anything but a joke. Fryderyk Chopin’s four Scherzos for solo piano are similarly definition-shattering. They are filled with moments of haunting mystery, turbulence, soaring Romantic fervor, and intense drama. In his review of Scherzo No. …

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Chopin’s “Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major”: Krystian Zimerman

Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 feels dreamy and autumnal. Its serene, wistful, rocking rhythm transports us far beyond the Venetian gondolier associations we might typically expect in a barcarolle. Musical Romanticism is all about the moment, pulling us into the expressive pathos of a single chord. We get a sense of this mysterious process at work as this music unfolds, from the quiet, shimmering transcendence of this passage, to the shifting harmonic …

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