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May 17: Satie’s Birthday

Erik Satie: Limp Preludes for a Dog
Standard titles for pieces in classical music are pretty boring, aren’t they? Suite No. 4. Symphony No. 1. Concerto in A. But there are some very notable exceptions. There’s nothing stale, for example, about “Unappetizing Chorale,” “She Who Talks Too Much,” and “Agreeable Despair.” It’s easy to imagine the avant garde, Belle Époque French composer Erik Satie was the man to come up with such odd names! Listen to one of his odder-titled pieces, “Limp Preludes for a Dog,” here.

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May 19: Classical Geography

Felix Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture, Op.26 “Fingal’s Cave”
In 1830, Mendelssohn sent his sister, also a composer, a letter containing the opening phrase of this piece during a trip to Fingal’s Cave on an island off the coast of Scotland. The cave is a mass of beautiful basalt columns, and one can hear mysterious echoing noises from inside. In the letter, Mendelssohn wrote: “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily The Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”

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May 20: Little Secrets

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto in F minor: I. Allegro moderato
Tubas are best known for bellowing out those low “oom-pah” sounds you hear from the back of large orchestras, so Vaughan Williams was at first maligned for his idea to compose an entire concerto centered on this large instrument. But Vaughan Williams got the last laugh: today, his tuba concerto is among his most popular compositions.

May 21: Little Secrets

Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op.32: Neptune
Gustav Holst originally wrote “The Planets” for a piano duet, but he couldn’t bear to hear his “Neptune” movement played this way. He believed Neptune was too distant and mysterious a planet to be represented by a piano, so he composed this movement for an organ. Later, he decided to score the whole work for an orchestra. Hear this performance, conducted by Eugene Ormandy—do you think it sounds as mysterious as Holst wanted it to sound?

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May 22: Nature in Music

Erich Korngold: Violin Concerto in D, Op.35: II. Romance
Though most stringed musicians today use strings made of steel or synthetic polymer, some contemporary musicians swear by catgut strings. No, “catgut” strings aren’t actually made of cats’ guts—they’re actually from intestines of other animals, including sheep and cows. If you can stomach that, you’ll be rewarded with a rounder, sweeter instrumental tone.

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May 10: Little Secrets

Leroy Anderson: Melody on Two Notes
Our English teachers always told us that great writing is saying what you mean with the fewest number of words. The American composer Leroy Anderson took this to the extreme—he created a melody using only two notes. The melody never gets boring thanks to a lovely harmony that floats peacefully underneath.

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May 11: Classical Celebrations

William Grant Still: Symphony No.1 “Afro American”
William Grant Still, the first African-American composer to have an orchestral work performed by a major American symphony, was born on this day in 1895. He wrote more than 150 pieces in different instrumental and vocal forms, and he drew on classical music, spirituals, opera, folk music and ballet for inspiration. Today, we celebrate this composer, the very picture of American music, on his birthday.

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May 12: What’s in a Name

Ildebrando Pizzetti: Piano Trio in A: III. Rapsodia di settembre: Vivace (non presto)
We admit it—we’ve never heard of Pizzetti until now! He is considered the greatest Italian composer of choral works since Pope Gregory wandered around the globe leading the way with his chants. He was a dramatist, composer and lover of opera. Take a moment to savor this genius:  the opening of his Requiem, composed in 1922, and a clip of his Piano Trio in A.

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May 13: Sullivan’s Birthday

Gilbert and Sullivan: The Pirates of Penzance: I am the very model of a modern Major-General
Most opera composers might challenge performers by writing fast rhythms or dizzyingly high notes. But Gilbert and Sullivan broke the mold by introducing a new challenge: the tongue-twister! Just try reading the title from this funny aria five times fast—we dare you!