Musical Cryptograms: Five Scores that Contain Hidden Messages

Imagine transmitting a secret message by using the pitches (from A to G) that are embedded in a musical score. It’s been the subject of mystery novels and television shows as well as Philip Thicknesse’s 1772 book, A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: with an Harmonic Alphabet. During the Second World War, codebreakers considered the possibility that German and Japanese spies might use musical notes as a …

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Remembering Soprano Heather Harper

The British operatic soprano Heather Harper passed away on Monday at the age of 88. Born in Belfast, Harper came to international attention when she stepped in at ten days notice for the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. (Galina Vishnevskaya, for whom the part was written, was denied permission by Soviet authorities on the grounds that Britten’s work was too “political.”) Harper went on to perform …

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Debussy, Ravel, and the Battle of the Harps

In 1904, Pleyel, the Parisian instrument manufacturing company, commissioned Claude Debussy to write a piece showcasing what they hoped to be a revolutionary new kind of harp. The harpe chromatique, invented in 1894 by Pleyel’s director, Gustave Lyon, was a cross-string harp designed without need for foot pedals. The standard harp, with its 46 strings and range of six and a half octaves, cannot play all possible half step intervals without relying on seven pedals which can be …

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New Release: Ian Bostridge Joins the Seattle Symphony for Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy

Song cycles by three French composers- Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy- come to life spectacularly on a newly-released album featuring the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The recording appears on Seattle Symphony Media, the orchestra’s innovative, Grammy-winning, in-house record label. Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été was recorded at a live concert at Benaroya Hall in November 2017. Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Le livre de Baudelaire, orchestrated by John Adams in 1994, are studio recordings. Here are a few excerpts: …

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New Release: The Tesla Quartet Plays Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky

The Tesla Quartet’s exciting debut album was released in September. The recording features two twentieth century works that look back at the classical era- Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major and Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet- as well as the bold, innovative String Quartet in C Major, Op.54 No.2 by Franz Joseph Haydn, who is often called the “father of the string quartet.” Additionally, we hear three Ravel piano miniatures- Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, Menuet antique, and Menuet …

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Pierre Monteux: Five Historic Recordings

You may give an excellently played, genuinely felt performance of a movement, but because the engineer is not satisfied, because there is some rustling at one point, so you do it again and this time something else goes wrong. By the time you get a “perfect” take of the recording the players are bored, the conductor is bored, and the performance is lifeless and boring. … I detest all my own records. …

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Ravel in Triple Meter: “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and “La Valse”

As a composer, Maurice Ravel was drawn to the waltz. For example, consider the hazy serenity of the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, or (most famously) La valse, the composer’s haunting, dreamlike remembrance of the Viennese waltz, as heard through a perfumed French filter. Around 1920 while writing La valse, Ravel described his fascination with the waltz to the musicologist and writer Jean Marnold: You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I …

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