Liszt’s “Les Préludes”: The Birth of the Symphonic Poem

At the dawn of the Romantic period, a dramatic new type of concert piece emerged that was infused with extramusical associations. This programmatic music, usually inspired by literary themes, crystalized with the thirteen symphonic poems (or tone poems) of Franz Liszt. Filled with passion, turbulence, pathos, and heroic exultation, this free-form music probed new psychological depths. Liszt’s Les Préludes, composed between 1849 and 1855, was the first piece to be called a “symphonic poem.” …

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Remembering Nelson Freire

Nelson Freire, the acclaimed Brazilian pianist, passed away earlier this week at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 77. Born in Boa Esperança, Freire began playing the piano around the age of four. One of his earliest teachers, Lucia Branco, studied with a student of Franz Liszt. At the age of 12, Freire performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and was a prizewinner at the Rio de Janeiro International Piano Competition. Shortly thereafter, he …

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Liszt’s “Les Adieux”: A Fantasy on Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”

On April 27, 1867, Charles Gounod’s five act opera, Roméo et Juliette, was premiered at Paris’ Théâtre-Lyrique Impérial du Châtelet. The same year, Franz Liszt composed Les Adieux (“The Farewell”), a solo piano work described as “a Rêverie on a motif from Gounod’s opéra Roméo et Juliette.” As the pianist and musicologist Leslie Howard writes, He really uses several motifs from the opera, all concerned with the partings of the lovers: the end of the …

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“Là Ci Darem La Mano” from “Don Giovanni”: Mozart’s Most Seductive Duet

Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) is one of literature’s most infamous seducers. In Mozart’s two act 1787 opera—a sublime blend of comedy, melodrama, and supernatural elements— the character takes on a new and intriguing complexity. As the cultural historian, James H. Johnson writes in his essay, Sincerity and Seduction in Don Giovanni, Mozart and the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, “deliberately employ a tone of sincerity that keeps to the surface in conveying Giovanni’s …

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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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Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto: Khatia Buniatishvili in Concert

Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto begins with a hauntingly romantic melody. We hear it first in the solo clarinet, accompanied by a woodwind chorale. For a composer whose music is often filled with larger-than-life virtuoso bravura, these quiet opening bars seem surprisingly unassuming, perhaps even lamenting. They open the door to the magic and mystery of the piano’s entrance a moment later, in which the melody is outlined in arpeggios which seem …

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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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