Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wieniawski - Légende For Violin And Orchestra

Henryk Wieniawski was one of the most famous of the 19th century violin virtuosos, and like many virtuosos of the time he composed music for his own use. While he spent some years as a teacher, Wieniawski lived the life of a traveling virtuoso for most of his life, which was not the most conducive style of life for composing as he has only 24 opus numbers to his credit, but some of those pieces are staples of the literature for the violin.

He composed his Légende For Violin And Orchestra in Leipzig before he accepted an invitation from Anton Rubinstein to come to St. Petersburg to perform and teach. The story behind the composition is a romantic one. Wieniawski wanted to marry Isabella Hampton, but her parents did not think marrying a traveling musician would be good for their daughter and made their disapproval known. Isabella's parents heard Wieniawski play the piece in concert and as a result the beauty and heart-felt emotion of the piece changed their minds. Wieniawski and Isabella were married in 1860 with the parent's blessing.

The work is in ternary form with the first section in the key of G minor. Playing andante, two bassoons begin the work in a mood of tense motion, playing in tandem a 6th apart.  The soloist enters and plays a melancholy theme while the orchestra lightly accompanies with fragments of the tense motive first played by the bassoons. The bassoons return and the first section repeats itself until the soloist takes up the tense motion of the bassoons which leads to the second section of the work. This middle section is in two beats to the bar, the key changes to G major and the tempo changes to allegro moderato.  The mood of the music has changed as the orchestra plays in a march-like rhythm while the soloist outlines a new theme in double stops and chords. This new theme continues until it reaches a climax in the orchestra. After a chromatic downward scale for the soloist and short transitional material, the music reverts back to three in a bar, G minor and andante tempo as the first section is repeated.  The soloist once again plays the tense motive of the bassoons which leads to the orchestra playing a soft accompaniment while the soloist plays gentle arpeggios. Everything slows as the soloist reaches a G high in the stratosphere of the violin's range, and the music softly ends.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Draeseke - Piano Concerto In E-flat Major

While Felix Draeseke was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory his ardent admiration of the music of Richard Wagner shook up the conservative establishment of the school. He ended up leaving the conservatory in 1855 and in 1857 wrote essays on the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. Draeseke defended Liszt's music with fervor and courage, but his was not merely an empty advocacy. He addressed many of the charges against Liszt directly with the knowledge and ability that a modern musicologist would. His essays about Liszt and his music are some of the most definitive ones ever written until the 20th century. Liszt met him, took an interest in his music and expressed his gratitude for the essays. They remained friends until Liszt's death in 1886.

Draeseke's admiration for Wagner evidently was not reciprocated by Wagner, who detested Draeseke's music. Wagner did spend some time with Draeseke (at the request of Liszt) and came to like him as a man while still disliking his music. After Draeseke moved to Dresden in 1876 he slowly lost interest in the New Music of Wagner. Before that he had already disapproved strongly to Wagner the man after Wagner and Liszt's daughter Cosima began living together (she was still married to Hans von Bülow at the time).  Draeseke  gradually became more conservative while in Dresden, so much so that after Liszt heard some of his current compositions remarked that "It seems our lion has turned into a rabbit." His only piano concerto was written in 1885-1886. It was premiered in June of 1886 with Liszt attending. It was the last time the two friends would meet as Liszt died six weeks later.

The concerto has the traditional three movement structure:

I. Allegro moderato -  The main theme of the movement is played straight away by the orchestra. The soloist interrupts the theme with octave runs up the keyboard. The soloist then plays a short cadenza. The theme returns in the orchestra, as well as the soloist's octave runs followed by another short cadenza. This theme accounts for much of the movement's material, as Draeseke uses Liszt's thematic transformation technique.  Orchestra and soloist explore the theme at length until a brilliant coda ends the movement.

II. Adagio -  The piano plays an extended solo that begins with a long theme that resembles a hymn. An interlude follows for muted strings. The piano then begins a set of variations on the hymn theme as the cellos and double basses add a very subtle accompaniment. The second variation is marked scherzando as cellos and basses play pizzicato along with occasional coloring by the woodwinds. The third variation has the orchestra play the theme with interrupting comments by the soloist. There is then a section for soloist and orchestra that is more of an interlude than a variation which leads to an extended interlude for solo piano. This leads to the next variation proper of the theme, again by the piano playing solo. The orchestra enters and continues playing this variation as the piano plays a rippling accompaniment. The piano plays a short lead in to the next variation where Draeseke shows his orchestrating skill and feeling for tonal color as he  divides first and second violins and has them play the theme and light contrapuntal accompaniment while the piano plays pianissimo three note figures high in the piano's register. This variation proceeds with magical effect until the piano plays a short cadenza that leads to the peaceful close of the movement. 

III. Allegro molto vivace -  A loud, powerful outburst from the orchestra and soloist begins the final movement. After the piano plays a short solo, the orchestra joins the piano in the initial statement of the main theme. The second theme that maintains the dance-like atmosphere is heard in the piano and taken up by the orchestra. These two themes also adhere to the thematic transformation technique as they are thoroughly explored in the movement. The feeling of constant movement, sometimes to the point of  massive rushing, is finally resolved in a brilliant ending that is drenched in the home key of E-flat major.

Draeseke's music was popular during his lifetime and at one point he was held as an equal to Brahms as a symphonist.  He composed for the rest of his life. He had ongoing serious ear infections for most of his life and spent the last two years of his life almost totally deaf. He died in 1913 at the age of 77.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bach - Violin Concerto In E Major BWV 1042

Johann Sebastian Bach spent 6 years as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, which was a small town in Northern Germany. Despite the small backwater location, Bach's employer was a music lover of the first order who collected first-rate musicians for his band. The prince was mostly interested in secular music so many of Bach's instrumental works may have been written while he was there.

Bach was an eternal student and studied the works of many different composers by copying their works out for his own use. It was a method he had used since he was a child and copied out other composer's music by moonlight from a book of his brothers. Bach got in hot water for the deed as his brother had forbade him access to the book, but Bach's curiosity trumped his brother's orders.Bach had been an admirer of Vivaldi's music before he went to Cöthen, but while he was there he wrote concertos in the Italian model of three movements versus the old concerto grosso form of four movements.

There are only two concertos for violin that can be authenticated, and one concerto for two violins. Scholars believe he wrote more than that, and that most of his harpsichord concertos were arrangements of what were originally written as violin concertos.  There is no positive indication that Bach himself played his violin concertos as soloist, but it is known that he could play the violin, as his son C.P.E. Bach wrote:
As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness. In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.
 Violin Concerto In  E Major BWV was composed sometime between 1721-1723 and is in three movements:

I. Allegro - Bach begins the work by drenching the music in E major, as the first measure has each of its
Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen
three beats play the notes of the E major triad.  Bach has the soloist play almost continually, either playing the same notes as the first violins or as soloist. Bach follows the ritornello form of a Vivaldi concerto in general, but Bach has a few surprises for the listener. Many time a concerto movement in ritornello form has the tutti and soloist alternate in playing material, but Bach interlaces the two as he expands the material heard at the beginning. After the material has been worked out in a type of development section, there is a short cadenza for the soloist, after which the entire first section of the movement is repeated, thus making the first movement a hybrid form of  da capo aria and ritornello.

II. Adagio - Written in C-sharp minor, the main theme is first heard in the bass at the beginning and continues throughout the movement save for a few short sections. The theme doesn't leave the bass, but there are fragments of it that appear in the solo part.  The music of the solo violin slowly floats its music over the accompaniment in a most beautiful aria.

III. Allegro assai -  The final movement has Bach write in another hybrid type of form that contains elements of ritornello and rondo form. The theme remains in E major and is repeated by the orchestra between contrasting episodes for the soloist.

Handel - Organ Concerto In D Minor, HWV 304

With modern day technology and state of the art communication capabilities, events that happen anywhere can be flashed across the world for all to know as soon as they happen, often times while the event is still happening.  But the speed at which this can happen is a relatively modern thing. Not that many years ago the communication capabilities we now take for granted did not exist. Within my own lifetime the strides in communication technology have been tremendous.  Looking back to the time of the Baroque era composers, a time period that corresponds roughly the years 1600-1750,  it may appear that it was a primitive time, for without modern means of communication the 'world' for most people was the distance they could walk or ride a horse in a day.

But the arrogance of modern times can prevent us from understanding there was and has been a great deal of communication between different regions of the world for many centuries. Of course one of the main differences between now and then is the time it took to travel or communicate. A trip across the open sea took months (or longer)  in a wind-driven ship, but exploration (most often fueled by commerce) assured that sooner or later the world would be interconnected. 

In Europe in the middle of the 18th century, the dissemination of music was greatly aided by the advances in music printing made in Italy, and soon the music styles of different countries that had evolved were being discovered by musicians. J.S. Bach knew of the latest trends in French and Italian music, and composers such as Vivaldi were having an impact on the music of other countries.  The German composer Georg Philip Telemann's music was also being widely distributed with the printing of his Tafelmusik or Table Music, a multi-volume set of music pieces in most of the genres of the Baroque era; vocal works, sonatas, suites and overtures. As most of these works were for small ensembles (the Baroque orchestra itself seldom had more than eighteen players), tradition had it that they might be performed as background music while the aristocracy dined and entertained.  As Telemann was also a shrewd businessman, he may have used the traditional title with the thought of improving sales.

Georg Telemann
Telemann engraved and published these works himself. They were issued in separate volumes and those that could afford them subscribed to the ongoing series. They were printed in Hamburg, and Telemann had over 250 subscribers to the collection, with many outside of Germany. No doubt the new installments came to the subscribers at a snail's pace, but they did arrive. One of the non-German subscribers lived in London, England; George Handel.

All of which is by way of introduction to the Organ Concerto In D Minor, HWV 304.  Handel used parts of Telemann's Tafelmusik to create this organ concerto. Handel was notorious for cribbing previously written music (sometimes his own, sometimes others) for his new compositions. Music was a fleeting commodity at the time. The public was hungry for new music; music was only good for a single performance in some cases, and Handel was nothing if not a composer for the public. So the dictates of time, and the conventions of the era, led him to borrow and otherwise arrange music for his own use.

Handel's appearance at the organ during intermissions of his operas and oratorios probably sold as many tickets as the operas or oratorios themselves.  He wrote the concerto in 1746 for use with the premiere of his new oratorio Occasional Oratorio (which was put together slap-dash and contained some of Telemann's music, with most of it previously written music by Handel).  Contrary to Handel's usual practice of following the 4-movement concerto grosso form for his organ concertos, this one is in three movements:

Andante - This movement is taken from the opening movement of Telemann's Flute Sonata from Tafelmusik Part One.  The original is in B minor, Handel transcribes his arrangement to D minor.

Organo ad libitum - Fuga -  As the organ concertos were for Handel's own use, there is usually a movement in each that is so marked. In the spirit of the organ concertos, this was the time for Handel to showcase his tremendous organ playing and extemporizing abilities, so stylistically this movement needs to be of a substantial length. Handel would hardly play a few chords to lead up to the next movement. He was more of a showman than that. Handel was inconsistent as to what he wrote out for the organist to play. Sometimes he wrote out a figured bass, sometimes the melody, in some of his personal copies of the concertos he jotted down a few scribbles to help him remember, and sometimes he wrote out nothing. It is up to the player to fill in, and as there was only one Handel, the ad libitum sections in an organ concerto can be something of a problem that is solved by various means. Some players are up to the task to invent what amounts to a cadenza for soloist, while others opt to play other music that Handel wrote.  No single approach is ideal, that is why performances of the organ concertos can vary widely in the approach the organist takes.

Allegro - The final movement is taken from 4th movement of the same flute sonata. It is in 9/8 time, and has the character of a gigue, or jig, a typical form used for the end movement of a suite or other multi-movement work in the Baroque era.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spohr - Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor 'In modo di scena cantante'

Although few of his compositions are played today, Louis Spohr was a well respected and highly regarded violinist, conductor and composer in the early 19th century.  He wrote nearly 300 works in all musical genres but what reputation he still has is founded on his works for clarinet and orchestra and the violin concertos.

From 1803 to 1844 Spohr wrote 18 concertos for violin, of which only one is played with spring regularity, the Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor.  The subtitle of the concerto is Italian and translates as In the form of an operatic scene. Spohr was a contemporary of Paganini who tried to steer the concerto form away from the glitter and artificial technical display that was overtaking the form early in the century. While Paganini's Violin Concertos were not merely empty display pieces, Paganini did write his share of bravura passages for the soloist in them, thus Spohr made a conscious effort to counter the tendency other violinist composer's had to emulate Paganini. In his later concertos he attempted to create profound and memorable works by other means than empty display.

The 8th Concerto was written for a specific audience in mind, as Spohr was about to embark on a tour of Italy. He made the assumption that since Italy was the land of opera, it would be difficult to keep the attention of the Italian audiences with a more conventional concerto. He wrote the work as if the violin were a singer, and also kept the orchestral accompaniment uncomplicated as he had heard the orchestras in Italy were not as proficient as in France or Germany. The work was premiered at La Scala in Milan, and as Spohr wrote in his autobiography:
Uncertainty about how my playing and my compositions would please the Italians left me somewhat anxious … but with the first measures I noted that the audience was receptive. My anxiety disappeared, and I played without inhibition.
The concerto is in three main sections that are played without a break:

Recitative - Allegro molto - The work begins with a statement by the orchestra which is answered by an operatic-like recitative by the soloist.  The soloist continues to answer statements by the orchestra in this first section until a short transition leads directly to the next section.

Adagio - Recitative: Andante -  The orchestra plays preliminary material that is followed by the soloist's aria that is lightly accompanied. A contrasting section consists of a quickening of the tempo as the soloist plays in the low register of the violin. The aria returns and its closing leads to another recitative for the soloist. The final section follows without a break.

Allegro moderato - A full blooded theme is first presented by the orchestra. A short section of counterpoint leads to other thematic material for the orchestra. The soloist enters with the first theme, after which the second theme that consists of passage work for the soloist is played. The soloist and orchestra explore new thematic material until a recapitulation begins, after which a fragment of the first theme leads to a cadenza for the soloist.  The concerto's loose ends are tied up by the orchestra in a short ending.

Spohr was an important transitional composer who had one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era. The quite novel and nontraditional form that Spohr used in the 8th violin concerto influenced many later composers. Spohr seems to have been a very happy family man, far removed from the Romantic notion of the suffering artist.  He had a general curiosity about many things and at one time was one of the most popular composers and performers in Europe.

The time in which he lived was a time of upheaval in the arts as well as society. The European Revolutions of 1848 were a direct result of those upheavals, and along with his other interests Spohr was also a liberal believer in democracy and wasn't afraid to voice his disagreement with the repression and brutality that was common in his time.  The fact that he was physically a large man may have helped him be open with his thoughts. In an era when any man six feet tall was considered large, Spohr was six foot six and had large athletic hands that made the violin look small. This no doubt also helped him in his career as a conductor. The sight of him towering over the orchestra when he was on the podium must have been impressive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Brahms - Double Concerto In A Minor

Johannes Brahms was born and grew up in Hamburg Germany, a port city that had (and still does) some rough edges. As an adult, Brahms' personality was quite rough around the edges too. Whether this was due to events of his childhood is still under debate. Whether there will ever be any concrete evidence for any causes for his personality quirks, there is no denying he could be a difficult man to get along with, even with his oldest and dearest friends.

His dear friend, colleague and master violinist Joseph Joachim had been a friend since they first met when Brahms was nineteen years old.  There is bound to be friction between two such remarkably talented artists, but the major riff between them had nothing to do with music. Joachim, evidently a very jealous and suspicious husband,  had accused his wife of infidelity. Brahms wrote the wife a consoling letter telling her he believed she was innocent of the charges, and years later when Joachim sued for divorce Brahms' letter was read in court and helped the court to decide in her favor. It was the first Joachim had heard about the letter, and he became furious. He didn't speak to Brahms or associate with him for years, but continued playing and promoting Brahms' music.

Joseph Joachim
When Brahms offered Joachim the premiere of his Double Concerto four years later, Joachim relented and accepted.  Joachim, cellist Robert Hausmann and Brahms conducting performed the premiere of the work in October 1887.  Reviews of the work were mixed, not least of all from some of Brahms other friends. But Joachim was delighted with the work. The Double Concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The orchestra opens the work with a powerful but short statement. The cello enters with more introductory material until the orchestra winds silence the cello's passion with the first theme of the movement. Both of the soloists play their version of the theme, after which the orchestra returns with more thematic material. Brahms, a composer that was accused of being over-academic, changes thematic material each time it is repeated, a process Schoenberg called developing variation. Brahms was an academic in the sense that he revered and used the older forms of music, but he made changes within the form to suit the purpose of expressing himself.  The soloists play thematic material and the variations with and against each other while being accompanied by an orchestra that also does the same with the soloists.

II. Andante - Two measures of introduction lead to the statement of the main theme by soloists and strings:
The first bar of the initial 4-bar phrase of this theme gives the impression on the ear as if it is two beats in a bar - that is two 3-note triplets, contrary to the 3/4 time signature. The second bar returns to three in a bar, the equivalent of an optical illusion, but of the ear.  Brahms excelled at these subtle but effective methods of metrical shifts, especially in his later works. This gives a feeling of ambiguity to the basic meter of the movement that adds a richness to a melody that at first sounds like a lullaby. The movement has a slightly contrasting middle section before the theme returns, and as was Brahms' way, it isn't repeated verbatim.

III. Vivace non troppo -  Brahms had a fondness for dance music, especially Gypsy dance music. The main theme of this rondo/sonata hybrid is rhythmically strong, vibrant and is heard immediately in turn by first the cello and then violin.  There's much going on throughout the movement, with some of the thematic material turning reflective in nature, a characteristic found in most of Brahms late works.

The Double Concerto was Brahms final work for orchestra. The last years of his life were devoted to chamber music, music for voice and music for piano.  Brahms and Joachim remained on cordial terms for the rest of Brahms life, but they no longer had the same kind of friendship as before the riff.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 2 In G Minor

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his second piano concerto in 1868, ten years after writing his first piano concerto. By this time Saint-Saëns had met and worked with many of the leading composers of the time. He had been introduced to Liszt years before and the two became friends.  While Saint-Saëns was professor of piano at a French music school he caused a furor when he upset the usually conservative repertoire offered to students by including works of contemporary composers.

The reputation of musical conservative still follows Saint-Saëns, but that came about later in his long life when he became increasingly curmudgeonly towards Debussy and other younger composers. In his younger days Saint-Saëns was known as an innovator, with the second concerto being a good example.

The second piano concerto was written at the request of another one of Saint-Saëns' composer acquaintances, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was in the process of developing his reputation as a conductor. Saint-Saëns wrote the work in three weeks, and the premiere of the concerto happened so soon after completion of the work that Saint-Saëns complained that he had insufficient time to practice the work, as he was the soloist.  The concerto got a mixed reception at the premiere, but it went on to become Saint-Saëns most popular work for piano and orchestra and is still in the repertoire. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Andante sustenuto -  While Saint-Saëns first concerto kept to a classical model of a piano concerto, the second concerto shows its differences immediately as the soloist plays an extended cadenza in the very beginning of the first movement. The piano continues until the orchestra interrupts the cadenza with two loud chords and a short episode that prepares the way for the hearing of the first theme played by the solo piano.  The piano repeats the theme with orchestra accompaniment, after which orchestra and soloist engage in a dramatic dialogue, after which the music becomes more serene as the second theme is presented by piano and orchestra. The second theme expands slowly until it dissolves into a slowly building dramatic section. The piano thunders out octaves and the first theme returns.  The soloist introduces new material in another cadenza until material from the opening of the movement returns in hushed tones. The tension and drama change suddenly as the soloist plays forte, the orchestra repeats the loud chords from the beginning, and orchestra and piano join in as the movement ends.

II. Allegro scherzando - In an extreme example of contrast between movements, the second movement begins with a quiet rhythmic figure on the timpani. The soloist and orchestra take turns in a Mendelssohnian scherzo, with the first theme seeing the soloist playing fleet of finger figures with a light and rhythmic accompaniment. The second theme is first played by orchestra while the piano accompanies. The music remains light and delicate while themes come and go, until the woodwinds and timpani enter into a short dialogue based on the rhythmic motive of the opening. Everything winds down to a quiet ending.

III. Presto - Saint-Saëns returns to G minor for the last movement, a tarantella of great speed and passion. The main theme is repeated between episodes of other material, but as with the previous two movement Saint-Saëns made something different of the form. The tarantella eventually takes over as the piano frantically scrambles towards the end of the work with the orchestra running alongside until the thundering chords of the orchestra and running notes of the piano end the work.


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