Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Haydn - Symphony No. 59 In A Major 'Fire'

An attempt at a comprehensive catalogue of the works of Joseph Haydn was done by Anthony van Hoboken, who was a collector of early editions of classical music, over 5,000 items of which 1,000 were of Haydn's music. His catalogue was published in 1957 and 1971, and his numbering system is still being used, although there have been additions and corrections made by later musicologists.

Haydn's symphonies had already been catalogued by Eusebius Mandyczewski in 1908. There were 104  symphonies numbered in the chronological order that was known at the time.  Further scholarship by Hoboken and other musicologists discovered that some of the symphonies were actually numbered out of chronological sequence, but the earlier numbering system was so widely used that Hoboken retained it, and he also discovered 4 more symphonies that brought the total to 108.

Symphony No. 59 In A Major is one of the symphonies that was numbered out of sequence and given a higher number than works written around the same time. Musicologists have determined that it was written ca. 1768, about the same time that Symphony No. 48 in C major, Maria Theresa was written,

Anthony van Hoboken
Fortunately the work has a nickname, Fire or The Fire Symphony, which makes it more identifiable among the other 107 symphonies, but the history behind the nickname is another example of tradition confusing the real story. For many years the work was thought to have been specifically written to accompany a theatrical work. Indeed, some of the movements were used for a dramatic stage work, Der Feuersbrunst by Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann, which was given at the Eszterháza palace where Haydn was employed. The drama was given sometime between 1774 and 1778, thus the symphony had already been written beforethe play was performed. The symphony is in four movements:

I. Presto -  A tempo indication of presto is unusual for the first movement of a symphony at the time, but Haydn was ever flexible and original in his compositions. The violins create spirited restlessness as they repeat the tonic note of A, and the entire orchestra plays forte.  The spirit of this opening movement may have been the original inspiration for the nickname fire. The exposition is repeated. The exposition has two other quite short and secondary snatches of themes, but it is the crackling first theme that stands out. The development section begins with a short working out of the first theme, and a brief expansion of a secondary theme. The recapitulation follows the general plan of the exposition with the obligatory modulations of secondary themes. As is the case with Haydn's early symphonies, he directs the development and recapitulation to be repeated. Some conductors do, some don't but as short as the movement is, it makes sense if it is repeated. In contrast to the loudness of the fire at the beginning of the movement, the fire dies away at the end.

II. Andante o piu tosto - Allegretto -  Written in A minor, the first theme is a minor key minuet while the second theme is in C major and also has the feeling of a minuet. The development section expands the second theme and briefly returns to the opening theme. The key changes to A major as the oboes and horns (which have been silent) join with the strings as the second theme is played in the new key. It is briefly interrupted by the first theme, but quickly returns and finishes out the movement.

III. Menuet e Trio -  This movement not only retians the time signature of 3/4 of the previous one, but its main theme is an A major variant of the A minor theme of the second movement. The theme of the A minor trio flows through the violins while the lower strings play a pizaccato accompaniment.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The movement begins with a dialogue for horns and oboes. The strings join in in music that returns to the spirit of the first movement.  A secondary theme is more lyrical, but it doesn't last long as the music for the most part maintains the fast pace Haydn preferred for many of his last movements.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Schumann - Symphony No. 4 In D Minor

The 4 symphonies of Robert Schumann were written from 1841 to 1851, and have been just outside the standard orchestral repertoire. The reasons for this are many. Schumann's technical knowledge of some of  the instruments of the orchestra, especially the brass section, wasn't the best. He was in the process of learning more and polishing his technical handling of the orchestra, but his progress was cut short by mental illness that left him unable to compose. But there were other issues as well.  Problems with form and balance (real and imagined) many times were corrected by conductors and resulted in performances of Schumann's symphonies that contained much that he did not write.

One of his problematic symphonies was the one written shortly after the Symphony No. 1. This symphony was originally Symphony No. 2, but after a very unsuccessful premiere the work was shelved until Schumann revised the work in 1851. By that time he had completed two other symphonies, so the symphony was numbered Symphony No. 4.

Schumann's revision of the symphony did not change the unique form of the symphony; all four movements are played without a break. He made the transitions between movements smoother, made the overall orchestration richer, and other technical changes that reflect the knowledge he had gained since writing his first symphony ten years previous.

Schumann's wife Clara was as devoted to her husband after he died in 1856 as she was when he was alive. She promoted his work and his memory and acted as editor for his collected works that were published in 1882. She used the revised version of 1851 in the edition as this was the one she preferred, going so far as to say that the first version of 1841 survived only as sketches. Johannes Brahms on the other hand, knew better and preferred the first edition of 1841 and acted as editor when he published it in 1892, much to the objections of Clara. But it is the revised version of 1851 that has become the standard and is most often performed.

I. Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft -  The movement begins with a slow introduction that contains the seed for many of the other themes heard in the work. Schumann took the hints at cyclic form from Beethoven and expanded them into one of the first symphonies composed in the form. Slowly, the introduction gives way to the first lively theme built loosely on the theme within the introduction. Other themes are heard in the exposition, but these are not as well formed as the first one. The exposition is repeated. The development section initially concerns itself with the working out of the first theme. Other themes are heard and expanded, until Schumann begins the development section again in a different key. After this second development has played through, a truncated recapitulation is played which leads to a coda and a segue to the second movement

II.  Romanze: Ziemlich langsam -  A solo cello and solo oboe play a sweet melody that vaguely resembles material heard in the introduction of the first movement, after which a short orchestral interlude leads to a middle section where a solo violin laces its way through the orchestra. The solo cello and oboe return with the opening theme of the movement, which ends with a quiet segue to the third movement.

III. Scherzo: Lebhaft -  Primitive and accented off the beat, the scherzo changes the mood immediately. After the scherzo, the trio contains music for the violins that is similar to the middle section of the second movement. In all, the scherzo and trio are played twice. After the trio, the music slows down into a mysterious segue to the last movement that contains a reference to the primary theme of the first movement.

IV. Langsam; Lebhaft -  A slow crescendo grows as the violins play the same reference to the primary theme of the first movement until the orchestra comes to a short pause, after which the primary theme of the finale, which is related to first movement material, is played. This fragment which was originally in D minor has been transformed to D major. Secondary themes are played and Schumann develops them in free fashion. A final new theme is played near the end, after which the music scurries to a close in D major.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mendelssohn - String Symphony No. 7 In D Minor

Francis Bacon, 17th century English statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, author and philosopher wrote in his essay titled Of Studies:
To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study...
Natural ability such as Mozart and Mendelssohn possessed only became mastery after much work, study and diligence. For Mozart, it was his good fortune to be born into a family with a father that was a consummate musician and teacher who was wise enough to know the wisdom of Bacon's words. The young Mozart did his share of necessary exercises in harmony and counterpoint, the pruning of his natural abilities.

Mendelssohn's situation was a different matter. His family was headed by a father who was a banker and a mother who was from a prominent family. Felix's talent was noticed by his parents and other members of the family. Felix's family could afford private music teachers, and the youngster also had the added benefit of having his early works played by a small orchestra that gathered at the Mendelssohn family home. Thus Bacon's words rang true for Felix as well, including the tempering of study by experience.

When Mendelssohn was twelve years old he began to write a series of symphonies for string orchestra as exercises in composition for his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, and for performance at the concerts at his home. He wrote a total of twelve string symphonies in two years. The first six string symphonies had three movements, but with the String Symphony No. 7 the movements increased to four.

I. Allegro - Written in sonata form, the movement begins straight away with the first theme that is reminiscent of C.P.E. Bach's angular themes. Perhaps C.P.E.Bach was a strong influence as Felix's great-aunt Sarah Itzig-Levy took keyboard lessons from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and premiered some of C.P.E. Bach's harpsichord music. She was a wealthy woman and helped to support the widow of C.P.E. Bach and took a special interest in Felix's musical education. The second theme is more lyrical, and soon succumbs to the return of the first theme. The exposition is repeated. The development section begins with a working out of the second theme while a figuration from the first theme accompanies, until the first theme gains dominance and goes through its own section of being worked through. The recapitulation repeats with modulations of themes until a short coda is reached that introduces a new figure and a very short section of syncopation until a fragment of the first theme leads to the end of the movement - a D major chord.

II. Andante amorevole - Written in D major, the theme winds its way casually through the movement. The pace remains a leisurely walk with hardly any drama. The short movement ends in D major.

III. Menuetto - Mendelssohn returns to D minor for the minuet that is in the spirit of a Haydn peasant stomp. The trio section is in B-flat major. The minuet is not repeated after the trio. There is a short coda that follows the trio that focuses on material heard in the trio with not a trace of the music of the minuet, and the movement ends in B-flat major.

IV. Allegro molto -  An early example of the quick tempo music that shows up in Mendelssohn's music. It is a foreshadowing of the tarantella of the 4th Symphony written years later. A fugal section follows, and the pattern is repeated until the opening music returns and leads to a short coda that ends the work.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Weber - Symphony No. 2 In C Major

Carl Maria von Weber is mostly remembered in the classical music world as an opera composer. He wrote his first opera at fourteen and had his first success in opera in 1803 when he was seventeen years old.  Three years later he was working at the Breslau Opera as music director. He tried to reform the opera but the intrigues, drama and resistance were so great that he resigned. While he was at Breslau, he met with an unfortunate accident when he drank from a wine bottle that his father had stored engraver's acid in. It took him two months to recuperate and his pleasant singing voice was ruined.

He wrote his only two symphonies when he was twenty years old with the intention of having them performed by the small court orchestra of Duke Eugen Friedrich Heinrich von Württemberg-Öls, where Weber was Kapellmeister. Weber's time at court was also full of intrigues and troubles as he racked up huge debts. His father was charged with embezzling a large amount of the Duke's funds, and both Weber and his father were arrested and put in prison. Later both were released and banished from the Duke's lands.

Both symphonies are in C major. Symphony No. 2 was written in a week's time in January of 1807, and like the first symphony it has a prominent part for oboe, the instrument the Duke liked to play. The symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro -  The orchestra enters with loud chords that are answered by the woodwinds. This happens twice before the oboe plays the first theme of the movement.  Other lesser themes are played and lead up to the second primary theme being played by solo horn. A solo bassoon takes up this theme. The first theme returns and is expanded slightly, and then the exposition is repeated. At the end of the repeat, the horns mark the beginning of the development by playing a figure from the first theme, followed by the trumpets. A solo flute then plays the first them in a minor key. The drama increases in the development until it reaches a climax. Quietly the orchestra leads to the recapitulation. The usual modulation of themes to the home key follows, with the second theme this time being brought in by the oboe. A short coda beings the movement to a close.

II Adagio, ma non troppo - The horns begin the second movement with a short fanfare. The theme of the movement begins with a solo viola and is continued with the oboe. The theme is expanded until the horns begin a more elaborate repeat of the theme which develops as an operatic aria, no big surprise coming from a natural dramatic opera composer as Weber was. The movement is short, and ends quietly.

III Menuetto. Allegro -  Although labeled a minuet, this movement is in C minor and has the characteristics of a scherzo with its off the beat accents. A contrasting trio section in the major for accompanied oboe uses rests to maintain the off the beat feeling. The beginning of the movement is repeated, and this very short movement (under two minutes usually) ends.

IV Finale. Scherzo Presto - Labeled a scherzo, this movement begins with a short ascending figure in the orchestra followed by silence. The full orchestra a rhythmic theme that is continually being interrupted by rests. The second theme is for oboe and plays straight through without the interrupting rests. There is a third theme for horn in the minor before the quirky first theme returns, this time it plays for a time before asilence interrupts its progress. After the silence, the music builds up to a final climax followed by a silence that may seem like the end of the movement, but the figure that began the movement returns for one more swift and quiet appearance before this also very short movement truly ends.

Whether Weber's talent was to ever respond to the form of the symphony was never to be known as he died from tuberculosis at the age of 39. He had a great sense of melody and orchestral color, valuable assets for a composer of operas, and it may have been a genuine lack of interest instead of a lack of talent for the instrumental genre of the symphony.  His handling of sonata form in the two symphonies is not outstanding. But his lack of mastery of the form may be why the symphonies, especially the second one, are so quirky, in a good way.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 In F Major 'Pastoral'

Ludwig van Beethoven first worked on what was to become the sixth symphony in 1802 and there is evidence found in sketchbooks that he worked on the fifth symphony at the same time.  The two symphonies can hardly be more different (at least in feeling), but Beethoven usually worked on more than one composition at a time, at least early in his career.

Both symphonies also shared the same premiere date, in the same concert of December 22, 1808.  As well as the two symphonies the 4th Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasia and various other compositions of Beethoven's were played. The concert lasted roughly four hours, the theater in Vienna where it took place was unheated, and with only one rehearsal held the morning of the concert.

An account of this concert was given in the musical periodical  Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in January of 1809:
...However, as far as the execution of this academy concert is concerned, it could be considered lacking in all respects...Most noticeable, however, was the error that occurred in the last [Choral] Fantasy. The wind instruments varied the theme, which before, Beethoven had played on the piano. Now it was the oboes' turn. The clarinets--if I am not mistaken!--miscounted and set in at the same time. A peculiar mix of tones emerged; B. jumped up and tried to silence the clarinets, however, he did not succeed until he called out quite loudly and rather angrily to the orchestra: Silence! This will not do! Once more--once more! and the praised orchestra had to accommodate him and play the unfortunate Fantasy again, from the beginning--! The effect of all of these pieces on the mixed audience, and particularly of the pieces of the second section, obviously suffered from the amount and the length of the music. Moreover, it is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country...
The critical reception of any of the works in this concert never came to light as all the descriptions of it deal with the inordinate length and other happenings. As for the sixth symphony in particular, George Grove in his book Beethoven And His Nine Symphonies quotes from the Harmonicon the leading musical publication of the time, about an early performance of the work in London in about 1817:
"Opinions are much divided about its merits, but few deny that it is too long. The Andante alone is upwards of a quarter of an hour in performance, and, being a series of repetitions, might be subject to abridgment without any violation of justice either to composer or hearer."
The issue about the length of the sixth symphony caused it to be cut in some performances, a practice not thought of today. But over-length was not a complaint unknown to Beethoven. The same was said of the third symphony, the fifth, and other works.

The work gets its name Pastoral from the composer himself, for right after the dual dedication of the work to Prince von Lobkowitz and Count von Rasumovsky are the words:
Pastoral Symphony, or a recollection of country life. More an expression of feeling than of painting.
The symphony is far from the first example of program music. Bach and Handel to mention but two earlier composers used subtle musical references to things that evoked feelings in the listener. Beethoven used musical references too, but he also gave each movement a brief description. Beethoven knew the risk of musical scene painting and kept it to a minimum.  Beethoven was a nature lover and was well-known around Vienna for his long walks in the countryside where he would become so preoccupied with his thoughts that he could be seen as he sang and shouted, or stood in the middle of the street and jotted down a musical idea that had come to mind. The 6th Symphony 'Pastoral' has five movements, a novelty at the time:

I. Allegro ma non troppo 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside.' - Written in sonata form, the movement's first theme is partially heard straight away, and soon the orchestra plays the full theme in full. The rest of the thematic material of the movement consists of short motifs that blend into each other seamlessly. The exposition and repeated. The development section begins with the first theme as it goes through key and dynamic changes.  Other themes are expanded and varied until the return of the main theme which signals the recapitulation. Themes are reviewed and modulate. A coda begins by playing the opening of the main theme played in the 1st violins while the 2nd violins play in contrary motion with the violas and double bass. Woodwinds play a two-note figure over a simple accompaniment by the strings. A clarinet, violins, flute and finally full orchestra play the last gentle chords of the ending of a movement that in its organic growth of small melodic motifs reflects he organic growth in nature itself.

II. Andante molto mosso 'Scene by the brook.' -  As in the first movement, this movement grows out of the seeds of small melodic motifs that are played by the 1st violins while the rest of the string section plays the murmuring depictions of a brook. The mood is placid as the music gently sways with motifs passed from instrument to instrument. The first inkling of a bird call is heard in the flute as the music grows while remaining placid. This is the movement that the London critic thought so oppressively long and repetitious! The  movement continues on its placed way until reaches a mild climax and then halts, after which the celebrated bird call imitations occur, with the Nightingale in the flute, quail in the oboe and cuckoo in the clarinet:
This is repeated, and the movement gently closes.

III. Allegro 'Merry gathering of country folk.' -  The movement begins with a scherzo of subtle humor that grows into a loud joke. The second part of the scherzo is one of wry humor as Beethoven imitates a village band with an oboe that plays a syncopated tune to a monotonous accompaniment by the violins, along with a bassoon player of such limited playing ability that his bass accompaniment consists of only three notes:
After the village band plays their tune, the tempo increases and the time signature to two in a bar in a rapid round dance. After the round dance, the entire scherzo repeats. With the end of the round dance, the scherzo makes an attempt at another repetition, but just as the village band is about to play yet again, the music segues to the next movement without pause.

IV. Allegro 'Thunder. Storm.' -  Agitated strings stir up the dust as droplets of rain as the approaching storm gathers momentum. With thunder in the timpani, whistling winds in the piccolo and a feeling of great tension the storm pelts the countryside. Beethoven has the cellos play 5 notes against 4 notes in the double bass for added rhythmic tension and confusion. The music begins to die away with distant rumbles of thunder as the music flows into the last movement without pause.

V. Allegretto 'Shepherd's song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.' -  The primary theme of this movement begins in the violins, and returns to the pastoral feeling of the first two movements, and also shares the building of a musical movement by the use of small, repeating parts. The coda reflects on the main theme a little more before it leads to the final close.

Beethoven wrote in one of his sketchbooks that, "All painting in instrumental music, if pushed too far, is a failure." The composers that used Beethoven's example of  program music as a justification to write their own did well to remember his words, and the master composers like Berlioz, Liszt and others did. If a little hint or written suggestion helps a work to be understood, so much the better.  A great musical work doesn't need a thousand-word explanation to be appreciated, for music is its own reward, its own explanation.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Haydn - Symphony No. 48 In C Major 'Maria Theresa'

Joseph Haydn wrote about 1,000 works in his lifetime, so it is not surprising that some of his most popular works were given a nickname by listeners, editors or publishers. A case in point is his 106 known symphonies. Considering that there are only 24 available major and minor keys to choose from (with very few works written in keys containing more than 3 sharps or flats that lessens the choice further), there were many symphonies written in the same key.

Symphony 48 In C Major is but one of 19 C major symphonies composed by Haydn, and for many years it was thought to have been written to commemorate Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria on her 1773 visit to the Esterháza summer palace where Haydn was employed. Subsequent research uncovered a copy of the symphony dated 1769, which discredits the notion.  Incorrect though it is, the nickname of the symphony remains and helps to identify it from the other 18 symphonies in C major.

There was a fire in 1779 at the Esterháza summer palace and many of the manuscripts were lost for the seventy something symphonies Haydn had written up until then. Haydn made a trip to Vienna where he knew some professional music copyists had pirated his symphonies for their own profit. He bought a collection of his own orchestral works to replace his own copies. Some of the copies had parts for additional instruments written in them that were not by Haydn, probably to make them more attractive to the pirates' potential buyers. Symphony 48 was one of these works, as there are editions with timpani and trumpets that were not part of Haydn's original instrumentation. It must not have been too big of an issue with Haydn, for he allowed the additions to stand and the symphony is often performed with these added parts.  Perhaps this is one reason why this symphony is one of the few of Haydn's early symphonies that was available throughout the 19th century.  The symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro -  The work opens with a striking theme punctuated by horns, trumpets and timpani. The second theme is in the dominant G major and is more subdued in the beginning but grows agitated further along.  Transitional material leads to the repeat of the exposition. The development maintains a feeling of agitation along with leaps between notes in the strings. The recapitulation has the obligatory modulations of secondary material until the ending chords in the home key of C major.

II. Adagio - The adagio is in F major and the violins begin playing quiet music with mutes on,with some comments added by the horns. In the second part of the movement the horns again add interest along with the woodwinds. By the use of subtle and fleeting changes of key Haydn adds an underlying feeling of tension to a movement rich in melody.

III. Menuet: Allegretto & trio -  A simple minuet in C major that accents the upbeat in the second phrase with short trills. The second part has echo effects in the first violins, and a section of cross rhythm with eighth-note triplets in the woodwinds and timpani while the strings play 4 sixteenth notes. As contrast, the trio is in C minor with many dynamic changes.

IV. Finale: Allegro -  The finale is rapid with chattering violins and a stuttering chromaticism that keeps the music interesting. A finale of typical Haydnesque speed and movement.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Brahms - Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates)

Johannes Brahms personal library contained works by many composers, including music written by Baroque and Renaissance masters. He also collected autographs of earlier composer's works. These works were thoroughly studied by Brahms as his margin notes in them attest to. Brahms acquired his mastery of music by being the eternal student, but music was not his only interest. He was also a voracious reader of other subjects and was well acquainted with German literature, especially the works of Johann Goethe.

He was acquainted with many of the leading musicologists of his time and edited music of earlier masters and in his role as a conductor played many of the neglected masterpieces for orchestra and chorus. He made an intensive study of choral works from Palestrina to Bach, so it was natural that his first successful large work was for chorus, soloists and orchestra,Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) written in 1865-1868.

He continued to write works for chorus and orchestra throughout his career, with Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) being written in 1882.  The text he used for the work was taken from the play Iphigenie auf Tauris, a reworking of the Greek legend of Iphigenia  by Johann Goethe.  In the play, Iphigenia tell about a song that was sung by the Fates that warned humans about the cruel and moody behavior of the gods. This text is what Brahms used.

The work is for a six-voice choir as Brahms divides the altos and basses into two parts. The work is only ten to eleven minutes in duration, but Brahms uses a large orchestra for it. It is sung without pause. The work opens in D minor, and the mood stays rather somber, ominous and powerful, save for one short section where the music brightens temporarily.

The text is a little hard to decipher in any English translation I've ever read, but the original was written over 250 years ago, in German, in a much different environment, time and culture. But Brahms music is sublime.

Gesang Der Panzen by Goethe
The human race should tremble
before the gods!
For in their hands they
hold dominion over them,
and demand whatever
they please.

Those who have been exalted
by the gods should doubly fear them!
On cliffs and clouds
chairs stand on the ready
around tables of gold.

If dissension arises,
then the guests are hurled down,
despised and disgraced,
into the nocturnal depths,
and they wait there in vain,
bound in darkness,
for just judgement.

But the gods remain
at their eternal feast
at the golden tables.
They walk from mountain,
to mountain peak.
From the abyss of the deep
streams the breath
of suffocating Titans
as a light mist of a
burnt offering.

The rulers avert their
blessing-bestowing eyes
from entire races,
and avoid seeing, in the grandchild,
the once loved, silently speaking features
of the ancestor.

So sang the Fates;
The old banished one listens
in his darkened lair
to the songs of ancient ones,
thinks of his children and grandchildren
and shakes his head.


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