Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dvořák - String Quintet No. 3 In E-flat Major, Opus 97

Dvořák's String Quintet In E-flat Major was a product of his stay in the United States as the director
of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. During the summer of 1893 he stayed in Spillville, Iowa where there was a community of Czech immigrants.  Dvořák was a man with deep roots in his homeland, and the few months he spent in Spillville helped to aleve some of his homesickness. He wrote a letter to a Czech friend and described Spillvile:
Spillville is a purely Czech settlement, founded by a certain "Bavarian", "German", "Spielmann", who christened the place Spillville. He died four years ago, and in the morning when I went to church, my way took me past his grave and strange thoughts always fill my mind at the sight of it as of the graves of many other Czech countrymen who sleep their last sleep here. These people came to this place about 40 years ago, mostly from the neighbourhood of Pisek, Tabor and Budejovice. All the poorest of the poor, and after great hardships and struggle they are very well off here. I liked to go among the people and they, too, were all fond of me, and especially the grandmas and gran dads were pleased when I played to them in church "God before Thy Majesty" and "A Thousand Times we greet Thee".
It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer's nearest neighbour is often 4 miles off, especially in the farms (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don't meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very "wild" here and sometimes very sad, sad to despair .
He wrote the String Quartet No. 12 In F Major (American) as well as his 3rd String Quintet and other chamber music during his stay in Spillville.  The quintet was first performed in New York City in January of 1894, and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non tanto -  Dvořák's quintet is a viola quintet, that is to say it has an extra viola added to a standard string quartet. The viola was Dvořák's instrument, and the first movement opens with a short theme for solo viola. This theme is picked up by the cello and played in the minor mode. This is all by way of introduction to the actual beginning of the movement with the playing of the first theme by the violin. While  Dvořák was in Spillville, he saw a troupe of Native American Indians that were passing through. He heard their songs and dances and was inspired to use some of the rhythms as in the second 'drum' theme of this movement. The exposition is repeated. The drum rhythm is used in the development section along with the other themes. The recapitulation leads to a coda that has a reference to the material heard in the introduction before the movement ends quietly.

II. Allegro vivo - A solo viola begins the second movement which is in B major. More rhythms reminiscent of drum beats punctuate this scherzo as the themes are played. The trio section is in B minor and is a long, rather sad melody played by the viola.

III. Larghetto - The third movement is a set of variations on two themes, the first in A-flat minor and the second in A-flat major. This double variation movement has 5 variations for each theme with the themes ending the movement in their original form.

IV. Finale. Allegro giusto - The last movement is a rondo filled with attractive melodies and more examples of how American music influenced Dvořák, and no doubt reminded him of his own beloved native music with the common factor in each being the pentatonic scale.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elgar - Piano Quintet In A Minor, Opus 84

Edward Elgar's father was a piano tuner, organist and professional grade violinist. His mother instilled in her son a love of nature and the arts. All of the Elgar children had musical training from local teachers, with Edgar excelling in violin and organ playing.  But in the social class structure of 19th century Victorian era England, the common social standing of Elgar's family didn't help with his desire to become a composer. This combined with the fact that he received very little formal training outside of lessons from local teachers (and none at all in composition) made him feel like an outsider.

After a short time as a clerk in a law office, Elgar resigned and made a living by giving organ and violin lessons as well as being an accompanist and composing. He also took the job as conductor of an attendant's band at a local insane asylum where he gained practical knowledge about other instruments. He became proficient in other instruments as well, and continued to learn his craft as a practicing musician in many venues and performing groups.

Elgar's reputation as a composer began with works for chorus, a favorite music genre in England. He is most well known for his works for orchestra that include two symphonies, a violin concerto, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Pomp And Circumstance Marches (including the ubiquitous trio from March No. 1 that is played at high school commencement ceremonies) and many other works. He was highly regarded in his lifetime by the public as well as other composers. In 1931 Richard Strauss called him the "first progressivist in English music".

He composed chamber works from his earliest years until his old age, and while staying in the country over the summer of 1918 he worked on three of his last works for chamber ensemble; The Violin Sonata in E Minor Opus 82, String Quartet in E Minor Opus 83, and the Piano Quintet in A Minor Opus 84. Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the prominent English music critic and writer Ernest Newman, and after completion of the first movement wrote to the dedicatee:
Your Quintet remains to be completed, the first movement is ready and I want you to hear it, it is strange music. I think I like it-but-it’s ghostly stuff.
The Piano Quintet was premiered in May of 1919. It is the longest chamber work that Elgar composed and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - Allegro - The first movement is in cyclic/sonata form that begins with a strange introduction. There is an often told story of a possible inspiration for this movement that was brought about by a group of twisted and gnarly trees in a park that was near the cottage that Elgar stayed in on his summer vacation of 1918. These trees were said to give off ghostly shadows at night, and one of Elgar's friends related a tale that the trees actually contained the remains of Spanish monks that held unholy ceremonies in the area years before. A far-fetched tale with no basis of truth, for there is no record whatsoever of any Spanish monks ever being in the area. The introduction leads to a quickening of tempo and the first theme, which is derived from the opening introduction. A fragment of the introduction appears and leads to the second theme that is more introspective and quiet. After this plays through, a third theme comes forth that sounds like Victorian salon music, quite a contrast to what has preceded it.  A short repeat of the introduction leads to the development section, a vigorous fugato on the first theme leads to the recapitulation. Themes are reheard, along with the enigmatic introduction at the end of the movement, and as it quietly ends the careful listener discovers that the themes within the movement all grew from the introduction.

II. Adagio - The middle movement has been called the heart of the quintet, and begins with a mellow theme played by the viola. The entire movement is music of nostalgic late Romanticism, but a sense of tragedy and mystery is heard through the sections of slow piano wanderings that are punctuated by tremolo strings. The climax of the movement arrives close to the midway point, after which the music returns to the viola theme as well as the piano and tremolo strings sections. Fragments of themes from the first movement are heard as the adagio slowly draws to a quiet close.

III. Andante - Allegro -  The first movement introduction returns at the beginning of the finale, and leads to a less serious theme that is still attractive to the ear. The piano then introduces another theme, one that is syncopated. The music builds in intensity until the opening movement introduction and other themes are repeated. The main theme of the finale returns and leads to a coda before the music ends in a rousing finish.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Smetana - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 15

The death of his oldest daughter in 1855 affected the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana profoundly. She had shown great aptitude for music despite being only 4 years old. He had lost a younger daughter in 1854,  and yet another daughter only eight months old in 1856. Smetana  dedicated his only piano trio to his oldest daughter Bedřiška  in 1855. Some twenty years later Smetana wrote about the trio to a friend:
The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose a chamber work in 1855, my Trio in G minor. This was performed the same year, in December, in Prague. The audience was unresponsive and the critics hated it.
The work was revised and played about a year later with Liszt in attendance. He was so impressed with the work that he helped to get it performed in other countries of Europe.

The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato assai -  The trio was a way for the emotionally devastated Smetana to deal with his grief, and the first movement begins with an anguished cry from the violin played on the G string of the instrument:
The first theme is drenched in G minor and grows from the violin solo into a passionate outpouring. The second theme is more lyrical and is thought to be one of the favorite tunes of his oldest daughter. The first theme is expounded upon in the development, and when the second theme is taken up, a rather ominous pizzicato accompaniment from the strings plays along until there is a section for solo piano before the recapitulation begins.  The tragedy continues until the end of the movement.

II. Allegro, ma non agitato - A scherzo in G minor that has two trios, or as Smetana called them alternativo. The scherzo skitters along until the first alternativo, which is a more mellow tune played by the violin and cello with a simple piano accompaniment. The scherzo plays through again until the second alternivo, a somewhat ponderous march that alternates heaviness with lightness. The scherzo makes one last appearance before the movement quietly.

III. Finale: Presto - The frantic opening theme that pits two notes versus three in the accompaniment. The second theme of the first movement makes another appearance among the alternating sections separated between the frantic opening. The first theme gets wilder until the music grows more introspective. The introspection turns to total sorrow as the music morphs into a short funeral march in G minor, complete with the tolling bell of death in the bass of the piano:
 But Smetana doesn't dwell on the march very long. The music turns frantic again and dashes towards the ending in G major.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Röntgen - Piano Trio In C Minor, Opus 50

 Julius Röntgen was born in Leipzig, but in 1877 when he was 21 years old he chose to go to Amsterdam instead of Vienna. He became active in the musical life of the city and helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Royal Concertgebouw concert hall.

Röntgen was a friend of Grieg, Brahms, and many other composers and musicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1919 he became a Dutch citizen, and in 1924 he retired from public life and devoted the last 10 years of his life to composing.  He wrote in all of the genres of traditional classical music except opera, and wrote his first compositions when he was 9 years old. Röntgen's compositional output was considerable; over 600 compositions of all types.  Röntgen had a multi-faceted career of teacher, piano soloist, chamber music performer, conductor and composer.

He is most well known for his works for chamber ensembles. He wrote his opus 50 piano trio in 1904 and dedicated it to his friend the Dutch composer Carl Nielsen. The trio won a prize in a competition held in Paris, and Nielsen wrote about it in a letter to the composer:
The new trio is the most characteristic of the works of yours I learned when you were in Denmark. It is carried along by an extremely individual and compelling musical current, which despite its modern content seems to have its roots in the vicinity of Schubert.
The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo e serioso -  The trio begins with a short introduction, followed by the first theme played by violin and then cello. The second theme is more lyrical as well as being longer. A third theme begins rather abruptly and plays until fragments of previous themes are heard at the end of the exposition. There is no repeat of the exposition as the short development section takes up material from the introduction.  The recapitulation is followed by a coda that brings back the introductory material again as well as shortened versions of the themes.

II. Andante - The middle movement begins with the violin and cello playing a duet of a folksong-like melody as the piano plays a simple accompaniment:
Röntgen made a study of Dutch folksong, and this tune reflects that. Röntgen shows his skill and imagination in a set of variations on the tune for the remainder of the movement. The influence of Brahms shows in some of them, as well as Röntgen's own late Romantic style.

III. Allegro non troppo - The finale begins with an agitated section before it blooms into more drama with a theme that swells until the music becomes more subdued with a second theme. These two themes repeat in Röntgen's version of sonata form until the music goes into a coda that wraps up a well crafted piano trio.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Chopin/Liszt - Six Polish Songs

Franz Liszt and Chopin met each other in Paris about 1831, and they performed in concert together a few times. The two composers developed a somewhat uneasy friendship for many reasons, perhaps mostly because of their differing personalities. Liszt was the most dynamic piano virtuoso of the time, and had a huge stage presence and charisma. Chopin was never the towering virtuoso that Liszt was, and his piano playing was more suited to the salon than the concert hall. But Liszt showed no hesitation in showing his admiration for Chopin's compositions, and Chopin admired Liszt's playing abilities.

Chopin was a composer that attended opera on a regular basis and helped create a singing style of
Frederic Chopin
piano playing, but his output for voice is very small. He wrote only 19 completed songs in his lifetime, and a few others that remain incomplete. And though many tried to persuade him to try his hand at opera, he refused. None of his songs were published in his lifetime. It wasn't until 1853 that one of his songs was published. The Opus 74 set of 17 songs was first published in 1859, and it is not a song cycle as there are no connecting themes to the poems. Each song is independent of the other.

After Chopin's death in 1849, Liszt wrote a biography of his friend and transcribed six of Chopin's songs for solo piano. The six transcriptions helped make Chopin's songs better known, and became popular encore pieces. 

I. The Wish, The Maiden's Wish - In the original song, the title is simply The Wish. Liszt gives the song a German title that translates to The Maiden's Wish.  Liszt deftly combines the piano part with the vocal part, and gives three variants of the melody. Liszt's transcriptions can be described as paraphrases. He used the term himself on occasion, and it meant that the work in question was not being literally transcribed, but passed through the filter of Liszt's tremendous genius, sometimes to the benefit of the work, sometimes not.  With Chopin's songs, Liszt makes new pieces of them that are complimentary related to the original. 

II. Spring - For a song titled Spring, the mood is decidedly forlorn as the lyrics to the original song tell of a person lamenting the death of a lover. Liszt reinforces that mood by adding the tempo designation of Andantino maliconico. Liszt doubles the vocal line with octaves.

III. The Ring - Liszt's highly decorated version adds spice and movement to a song about a man seeing the engagement ring he got his former lover still on her hand after she married someone else.  Hardly a sad song, but some of the anger that the man has does come through.

IV. Drinking Song - The previous song segues directly to this jaunty drinking song. Liszt boldly colors the bright and festive melody with glissandos, including a double glissando near the end.

V. My Darling - A passionate song about a beautiful woman and the love a man has for her. As he shows his affection by kissing her, Liszt adds to the original with decorations and short, expressive runs in this longest song of the set.

VI. The Bridegroom - The original song tells of a bridegroom furiously riding his horse to his lover, not knowing she has died. Liszt retains the rushing scale figures to represent the galloping horse, while the rest of the song is a dramatic piece, one inspired by Chopin's original, and transformed into a Listzian composition.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tausig - Das Geisterschiff (The Ghost Ship), Opus 1c

Carl Tausig was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1841. His father gave him his first lessons on the piano and when he was 14 his father took him to Weimar to meet Liszt. He became one of Liszt's favorite students, and went on to become friends with Wagner and Johannes Brahms.  Brahms admired his piano playing so much that he dedicated the Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini Opus 35 to Tausig.

Tausig was the most famous of Liszt's students, and his technique was equal to his teacher's. He opened up a piano school in Berlin in 1865, but he was ill suited to teaching and it soon closed, so he toured Europe extensively as a pianist and conductor. His interpretive powers were said to be equal to any other performer of the time and superior to most.  His repertoire for the piano ran from Scarlatti to his contemporary composers and he was known for his playing of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. As a composer he made piano transcriptions of orchestral works by other composers and wrote original works for solo piano and orchestra. His touring was so extensive that it undermined his health, and he died of tyhpoid fever in 1871 at the age of 29.

Moritz von Strachwitz
Das Geisterschiff was inspired by a poem written by German poet Moritz von Strachwitz (who like Tausig had a short life as he died in 1847 at the age of 25). The poem is about an encounter in a stormy North Sea between two ships, one with a human crew fighting to survive against a ghost ship of Vikings on another.  Tausig also wrote a version for orchestra, but it is lost along with his other orchestral works.

It is a work in the guise of the New Music of Liszt as Tausig uses extremes of the keyboard as well as a large dynamic range. Tausig uses the whole tone scale in a short section as well as what is thought to be the first example of a chromatic glissando on the piano, where the right hand plays a glissando on the white notes while the chromatic notes are filled in with the left hand:
Towards the end of his short life Tausig's music was showing signs that the fiery disposition he had shown in this piece was beginning to mellow. That he was able to have achieved so much in such a short life gives an indication of what may have lay ahead if he had survived.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wieniawski - Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust, Opus 20

The Germanic legend of Faust was first in book form  in 1587, with various retelling in the 16th and 17th centuries. The legend was used as the subject of a play written by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1604 that was taken from an English translation. The most familiar telling of the story is no doubt the one written by Johann von Goethe in two volumes that were published in 1808 and 1832 respectively.  Goethe's version appeared when the Romantic movement in literature was in full swing, and the movement was to have a profound influence on the art of music soon after.

The most well known opera based on the legend was written by the French composer Charles Gounod, from a libretto in French that came from an adaptation of Goethe's Faust, Part One. The opera premiered in 1859 but did poorly. In 1862 the opera returned to the stage and was a sensation. It went on to be one of the most internationally performed operas in the remainder of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.

Gounod's Faust is opera in the grand style, complete with dramatic action and tuneful melodies that mirror the action and emotion of the story, so it is no mystery why there are so many musical works that use some of these tunes as the basis of variations and paraphrases. In the tradition of the time, virtuoso performers as well as composers, would use these tunes to attract audiences to concerts and recitals. Two of the most well known violin virtuosos of the 19th century, Pablo Sarasate and Henryk Wieniawski wrote works based on Gounod's Faust. Sarasate wrote his Concert Fantasy On Themes From Gounod's 'Faust' in 1874, but Wieniawski wrote his Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust in 1865 while the initial success of the opera was still strong.

Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust is in one continuous movement that consists of five sections, each one incorporating different themes from the opera. The third section includes Méphistophélès's melody  Le veau d’or (The Golden Calf, a song about the greed of man) and the final section uses the waltz music from the second act. The work exists in two version, for soloist and orchestra, and for soloist and piano.


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