Vaughan Williams’ “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus”: English Folk Song Reflections

Last week, we listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, a piece in which the orchestra’s string section often seems to be transformed into a vast, celestial choir. A similar sound emerges in Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, scored for string orchestra and harp. It’s music in which rich sonic layers unfold with the lush majesty of the rolling, hedgerow-stitched English countryside. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Vaughan Williams …

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Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony: “The Celestial City”

The “Symphony of the Celestial City…” This is how biographer and classical music scholar Michael Kennedy poetically described Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5. Indeed, this music, completed in 1943 as the Second World War raged, moves into an alternate world of radiant light, quiet serenity, and sublime mystery. Following Vaughan Williams’ ferocious and dissonant Fourth Symphony, it returns to the eternal, pastoral reassurance of England’s metaphorical “green and pleasant” countryside. The term “Celestial …

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“The Lark Ascending”: Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Romance

The Lark Ascending, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal Romance for violin and orchestra, was written in 1914 on the eve of the First World War. But unlike the composer’s Pastoral Symphony, completed seven years later, this music seems light years away from the alienation and shell shock of the battlefield. Inspired by a poem by the English Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith, The Lark Ascending inhabits a hazy, serene dreamscape. The final, ephemeral tones of its concluding violin cadenza …

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Remembering Sir Neville Marriner

Every great conductor started out as an accomplished instrumentalist. Look at the biography of Sir Neville Marriner, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92, and you’ll be reminded of this truism. In the 1950s, Marriner performed as a violinist in two celebrated orchestras: the Philharmonia and the London Symphony. For 13 years, he served as second violinist of the Martin String Quartet. He first picked up a baton around age 40. …

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Dona Nobis Pacem: Six Musical Invocations of Peace

The phrase Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us Peace”) comes from the Agnus Dei section of the Roman Catholic mass. It’s a simple, yet eternally powerful, invocation which has come to life in countless musical settings, from the serene simplicity of the traditional canon to the melodic perfection of Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major. At the end of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, it emerges as a triumphant celebration. In the twentieth century, it becomes a …

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Le Tombeau de Couperin: Post-Apocalyptic Ravel

Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield. But, interestingly, …

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Rattle Heads to London

Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment …

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