Friday, April 29, 2016

Chopin - Twelve Etudes For Piano Opus 10

An etude is a composition written for keyboard  that explores a specific aspect of technique, such as double notes, arpeggios, etc. The origin of the word is French, and means study or exercise.  There were etudes written before Chopin wrote his opus 10 set, but his are not only studies for specific aspects of technique. They are works that weld technique, musical expression, and substance into a new art form that revolutionized piano playing.

In 1829, Niccolò Paganini played some concerts in Warsaw, and a teenage Chopin saw and heard him play. The influence of Paganini's revolutionary playing of the violin had an influence on Chopin, and inspired him to try and do the same for the piano. Chopin wrote 27 etudes for the piano in his career; opus 10 and opus 25, both containing twelve etudes each, and three separate ones with no opus numbers.  The opus 10 set was published in 1833 and dedicated to his friend Franz Liszt (also influenced by the virtuosity of Paganini). The opus 10 etudes made a profound influence on the dedicator as Liszt revised his own set of etudes after studying Chopin's.  Chopin's etudes were the first to become staples of the recital literature and have never lost their appeal.

1. In C Major 'Waterfall' -  Over the years there have been names attached to some of the etudes, but none of them originate from the composer.  The first etude is a study in extended arpeggios for the right hand that cover 4 octaves or more. Chopin has lead off the set with one of the most difficult etudes, and follows in the tradition of J.S.Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. Prelude No. 1 In C Major by beginning with a piece in broken chords:

2. In A Minor - A study in chromatic runs for the 3-4-5 fingers of the right hand while fingers 1-2 of the same hand play two note chords. The left hand plays a staccato accompaniment of bass alternating with chords. This etude is not only technically difficult, but the musical problem of keeping the chromatic runs in the forefront (complete with crescendos and diminuendos) while cleanly playing the accompaniment is considerable:

3. In E Major 'Tristesse' (Sadness) - This etude is also known by the name 'L'adieu' (Farewell) Chopin recommended that his students hear the leading singers of his day so they could try and emulate the voice at the piano. This etude is a good example of what Chopin was trying to convey, as the lyrical melody sings above the accompaniment. An agitate middle section in parallel sixths brings the music back to the beginning. Structurally this etude resembles the slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 In C Minor 'Pathetique' in the first and last part. Whether Beethoven's music was a model or merely a coincidence, this etude is one of Chopin's most well known works:

4. In C-sharp Minor -  This melody of this etude switches from right to left hand throughout. With cascades of sixteenth notes, this etude embodies some of the difficulties of the first three. The pace is relentless, and ends with a downward chromatic run in both hands and arpeggios in the right:

5. In G-flat Major 'Black Key' - This etude has a melody played in chords of the left hand while the right hand plays an accompaniment in triplets using only the black keys. Chopin didn't think this etude one of his best, but it has been one of his most popular.

6. In E-flat Minor - An etude in the partsA melancholy melody plays over an accompaniment of a middle voice in sixteenth notes that winds under the melody while the bass gives support. The technical problems involve keeping the middle voice balanced as a secondary melody with the main melody in the right hand. The sadness of the music is lifted with the very last chord in E-flat major.

7. In C Major - A study in double notes for the right hand as the left hand plays the melody. The combination of shifting harmonies and repeated notes in the right hand makes this a difficult etude to make musically satisfying.

8. In F Major - Rapid sixteenth note runs scamper up and down the keyboard throughout while the melody is played in the left hand. The middle section darkens as the key changes to D minor, but only briefly. The piece ends with rolled chords in both hands in F major.

9. In F Minor -  A somber melody in the right hand is played over a wide spaced accompaniment in the left. In every six note figure in the left hand there is embedded a third element; a secondary melody in the 3rd and 5th note. The recognizing and playing of this secondary melody balanced with the main melody is a test of the ear and musicality of the performer. The ending of this etude is very quiet.

10. In A-flat Major - Written in apparently consistent patterns in both hands, Chopin mixes things up by shifting accents, touch and phrasing. One of the most difficult etudes musically.

11. In E-flat Major - An etude made up of rolled chords in each hand. The melody is in the top note of the right hand and is difficult to bring out when the piece is played up to tempo. Many of the chords are widely spaced and give added difficulty. The generally quiet dynamics of the piece make the rolled chords more difficult as well. The music reaches a crescendo with the closing notes and ends loudly.

12. In C Minor 'Revolutionary' - Tradition has it that this etude came about after Chopin learned about the Russian takeover of Warsaw. Whether this is fact or legend, the music itself is passionate and unsettling. It can be thought of as a summing up of the previous eleven etudes of opus 10, as it has many elements from each within it. The left hand has a relentless figuration of sixteenth notes as the melodyin chords shrieks from the right hand.
The piece grows more and more complex and passionate until the left hand figuration is heard in both hands fortissimo, in parallel motion before the piece ends in an unsettling C major:


Monday, April 25, 2016

Alkan - Piano Trio In G Minor Opus 30

Paris in 1837 attracted artists of all persuasions, not least of all some of the most well known names in classical music. Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin lived in the city, along with Charles Alkan. Alkan was a personal friend and neighbor of Chopin and the two composer/pianists spent much time together.

The majority of both composer's compositions are for piano solo or include the piano in ensemble.  Each wrote a handful of chamber music pieces early on in their careers which included a piano trio each. Chopin's Piano Trio In G Minor Opus 8 was published in 1829, Alkan's Piano Trio In G Minor Opus 30 was published in 1841 but may have been written earlier.  Both are written for the same combination of violin, cello and piano.

Alkan's Piano Trio is a relatively short work and lasts about twenty minutes. It is in 4 movements:

I.  Assez largement (Rather widely) - There is no doubt which instrument is the dominant one in Chopin's piano trio. Alkan also has the piano play a large role, but the two stringed instruments are closer to being active partners in music making. The first movement is in sonata form, but Alkan segues the sections almost imperceptibly. The piano begins the movement with a terse motive that the strings mimic after a few bars:
This plays out rather rapidly and leads to a short section of piano solo that leads into the second theme in B-flat major that is played by the violin with piano accompaniment:
This second theme is also taken up by the cello and the two stringed instruments have a short dialogue while the the piano plays a counter melody in the bass and continues to accompany in the right hand.  Then piano and violin join in a staccato flurry of sixteenth notes as the cello plays a fragment of the first theme:
This short section concludes the exposition of the movement and leads seamlessly to the development section. The two themes are played against each other until the development section and recapitulation merge into a type of hybrid with no clear delineation. A short coda has all three instruments pound out the note of G in triple forte.

II. Très vite (Very quickly) - A Beethovenian scherzo in G minor, the three instruments enter one at a time, all of them playing the note D, the piano in short staccatos, strings in pizzicato. The violin and piano join in a short motive while the cello plunks out an accompaniment:
Another eight bar phrase completes the section, which is repeated. The second part of the scherzo begins with the cello repeating the bare octave D's of the beginning while the piano plays running eighth notes. The violin takes turns with the cello playing octaves as the piano continues. The opening of the scherzo returns and is finished up by a short section with alternating octaves in the piano before the scherzo ends in a flurry. The trio section begins with the piano playing a short fugal section until the violin changes the mood with a melody in E-flat. The key changes to a short section in C minor until the scherzo is repeated. A short coda brings back the opening of the trio until a brilliant triple forte section is cut short by the quiet hint of a G minor chord.

III.  Lentement (Slowly) - Written in G major, the movement begins with the violin playing in double stops along with the cello. The theme is introspective, and continues until the piano interrupts with a section in G minor that is more agitated.  The piano goes silent again as the strings bring back the calm of the opening. The piano interrupts again, but not for as long. Slowly the three instruments start to blend together. The dialogue increases until the piano relents and joins in a chorale in tremolos with the strings.  The transfiguration is complete, the piano grows calm and then quiet as the movement ends in a whisper in the strings.

IV. Vite (Quickly) -  The piano part is as a perpetuum mobile as flurries of sixteenth notes spill out from the keyboard through most of the movement. The strings carry motives through the thicket of the piano until the key shifts to G major and the strings join in the scurry of sixteenth notes.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Röntgen - Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41

The list of teachers and acquaintances of Julius Röntgen reads like a who's who of 19th century classical music. He came from a family of musicians and showed tremendous natural musical ability early on. His father was a first violinist in the Gewendhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Julius' first piano teacher was Carl Reineke who was the music director of the orchestra. His talents were such that at age 14 he was invited to play for Franz Liszt in Wiemar.

While in Leipzig he became acquainted with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and it was through him that he met Brahms. He also studied piano with Franz Lachner, the conductor and composer that was good friends with Franz Schubert. Röntgen became a professional pianist at 18, and eventually moved to Amsterdam where he worked to create the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was in demand as an accompanist for singers and instrumentalists and toured with two of his sons playing piano trios.

Pablo Casals
Röntgen retired from public life in 1924 and dedicated himself to composition, but he composed throughout his life. He had an inner drive to compose that began in 1864 when he was 9 years old, and wrote music  at every opportunity. His list of works is long (over 650 works with and without opus numbers) and covers all genres, but he is most well known for his chamber music. He wrote 18 various works for the combination of cello and piano during his life, beginning in 1872 with the first cello sonata, opus 3. He wrote his 2nd sonata for cello and piano in 1900.  Röntgen wrote some of the cello sonatas for Pablo Casals and also accompanied Casals in performances of them. Casals thought highly of Röntgen's cello sonatas and continued to play them long after the composers death in 1932.

Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo ed affettuoso - The sonata begins with an A minor theme that appears throughout the sonata.
The piano plays a restless accompaniment to this dark theme until it has a solo turn with the theme. Both instruments extend the theme until it plays directly into the second theme of the movement in C major:
This theme is echoed in the piano until the music shifts back to the darkness of the first theme. But the darkness doesn't last long, as the third theme appears:
After this brighter theme plays itself out, there is a short section that returns the mood to the beginning of the movement. These three themes constitute the exposition of the movement. The development section begins straightaway with the return of the first theme. A climax is reached as themes and fragments of themes weave in and out. The recapitulation section is collapsed within the development as there is no formal return of themes. A coda brings the movement to a hushed ending to a very poetic and individual type of sonata form.

II. Vivace, ma non troppo presto - Written in 6/8 time, this is a scherzo in all but name. It trips its way through music of lightness and humor, especially the slurred pizzicato notes in the cello. The first and third themes from the first movement make a brief appearance in altered form before the movement quickly ends.

III.  Adagio - The piano plays a chorale in full chords before the cello enters with an altered repeat of the first theme of the first movement. This theme and parts of it dominate the music of this movement as the chorale and theme intertwine and develop.

IV. Allegro agitato - The rhythm and movement of the first theme resembles the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata In D minor, opus 31, No. 2 'Tempest'.  The other themes of the movement take their turn with this one as Röntgen varies each one. The form is similar to the first movement, as the themes are worked out in a type of  development/recapitulation hybrid.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Handel - Keyboard Suite In B-flat Major HWV 434

Handel was known in his own time primarily as a composer of Italian operas and oratorios, but early in his career he wrote music for keyboard as well.  In 1720 he published a book of pieces for keyboard, with some of them probably being composed earlier than that date. It was a very popular set and went through two printings during his lifetime.

There were two other sets of keyboard pieces brought out by Handel's publisher in the 1730's, but these were done without the composer's permission. While the pieces of the first set were ordered by key into suites, the later two sets were more of a hodge-podge of pieces thrown together. The Suite In B-flat Major was included in one of the later sets, and is thought by musicologists to have been written early in Handel's career. The suite as published has a minuet that directly follows the suite. Some modern performances include it for tradition's sake, and some do not.

Prelude and Sonata -  Handel opens the suite with a prelude that is notated in block chords that sketch out the harmony of the beginning, middle and ending of the prelude. This is a good example of what a prelude's original purpose was, that is to warm up the fingers and test the tuning of the instrument. There is a good deal of leeway for the performer to how these block chords may be played (the direction 'arpeggio' appears over the chords):
After the opening blocked chords, Handel writes out the arpeggios according to his wishes until more block chords are reached at about the middle of the piece, when the arpeggios are once again written out. The final measures return to blocked chords and the prelude ends on a B-flat major triad. The part marked sonata begins immediately in a rapid tempo and consists of sections that are repeated at the beginning and ending of the sonata with a middle section that develops the material heard in the repeated sections that resembles a very early predecessor or sonata form. 

Air and variations - This is the same air used by Johannes Brahms in his Variations and Fugue On A Theme Of Handel.  There are five variations on Handel's decorated air in his original:
By simply varying the air with running sixteenth notes, Handel gives the impression of a kind of counterpoint as a repeated bottom notes alternate with a rising note in the same hand. 

Menuet - As mentioned, this menuet is not actually part of the suite, but came directly after the suite in the set. As the menuet is in G minor, the relative minor of B-flat, it began to be played as part of the suite:
It is a typical Handelian menuet, highly decorated with a gently flowing melody with a simple accompaniment.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bach - French Suite No. 5 In G Major BWV 816

Many baroque era composers wrote suites of dances for keyboard. The elements contained in the baroque dance suite were inspired by actual dances, but by the time J.S. Bach wrote his dance suites they were no longer meant to be accompaniment for dancers, but for listening. Bach wrote three sets of dance suites with 6 suites in each set; the English Suites, Partitas, and French Suites.

The French Suites are thought by musicologists to have been written while Bach was Kappelmeister at the court at Cöthen between 1717 - 1723. Bach did not call these French suites. That is a name that came to be used after his death. Although many of the dances of the suite were popularized in France, the dances themselves came from different parts of Europe, so the suites are not particularly 'French' in style any more than his English Suites are 'English' in style. Later musicologists and editors kept up with the tradition of the names to help differentiate between the three sets of suites.

The standard baroque suite consisted of 4 dances, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. and could be augmented by other dance types of the era that could be inserted between the standard ones. French Suite No. 5 consists of seven movements, all of which are in binary form and the key of G major:

I. Allemande - Traditionally the first dance in a baroque suite, Allemande is the French translation of the word German. It is in common time and is in a moderately slow tempo. Bach's example here is in gentle, constantly moving sixteenth notes that weave in and out of the parts. As in all baroque music, ornamentation is part of the music, with some ornaments written in the music by the composer. But a performer of the time could also insert other ornaments in the music as long as it was not overdone and was in good taste  (a highly subjective thing that was most likely as overdone by some performers in that time as it is by some modern performers.)

II. Courante - A dance of French origin, the courante is a lively dance in triple time. The name itself means running, and this example does that in constant liveliness.

III. Sarabande - A dance of Spanish origin, it is also in triple meter. Thought to have evolved from a livelier (and some sources say an indecent) dance of the 16th century, the dance spread to France where it became a slow courtly dance. The lack of sustained tone of the harpsichord and the slow tempo of the sarabande, caused the sarabande to be more heavily decorated with ornaments to help fill out the music with sound.

IV. Gavotte - An addition to the standard suite, it is a danced of French origin that has four beats to the bar. It is moderate to somewhat faster in tempo, and begins on the 3rd beat of the first bar.

V. Bourrée - Another dance of French origin, it is written in 2 beats to the bar and is usually faster and livelier than the gavotte. It begins on the 2nd or downbeat of the first bar, and Bach's example is full of skips and jumps.

VI.  Loure - A slow dance of France, it was also known as the lente gigue, or slow jig. It is characterized by a dotted rhythm and is written in triple time, or as in Bach's example 6/4 time.

VII. Gigue - For the end of this suite Bach uses the last of the four basic dances, the Gigue or Jig, a dance of Irish/English origins. It is a lively dance, and Bach writes it in 12/16 time, which is a compound 2 in a bar meter. It is a 3-voice fugue and the subject is reeled off in sixteenth notes, 6 of them to each beat of the bar:
The subject is first heard in the soprano voice, then the alto, finally the bass. There are a few episodes and a final statement of the subject before the end of the first section, which is then repeated. Bach then turns the whole thing topsy-turvy in the second section as the subject is inverted and begins in the bass first:
After an episode, the inverted subject is played in the soprano. More episodes occur, and when the section reaches the end it too is repeated. It is a brilliant end to one of Bach's most familiar keyboard suites, one that balances enjoyable melodies with well-crafted counterpoint.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Schubert - String Quintet in C Major D. 956

Schubert's String Quintet In C Major adds a second cello to a standard string quartet setting instead of a second viola as Mozart and Beethoven did in their string quintets. No one knows why Schubert chose an extra cello for his quintet, but the result is music that uses the added depth and sonority of the second cello to good advantage.

Schubert composed the quintet in 1828, and wrote to a publisher offering it along with other works. In the letter Schubert says that rehearsals for the quintet were to begin in a few days, but it isn't certain if this ever happened. The music publisher refused the quintet, and it lay forgotten until it was rediscovered and had its first known public performance in 1850. It was published three years later in 1853, and came to be regarded by Schumann and a young Brahms to be one of the finest chamber music work ever written.

The quintet is like the other handful of masterpieces Schubert wrote in his last months of life that expanded the form and content of music.  It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo -  This is an example of Schubert's expanded first movement settings as it takes roughly a third of the playing time of the entire work. With a wealth of thematic material and a rich harmonic language, this movement alone takes about 19 minutes to play. It starts with a dynamic swell that begins on the chord of C major but at the crest of the swell the chord changes to what can be defined as a C diminished seventh, a minor chord.
A short section leads to a different tonally ambiguous chord exchange, and now the music  reveals that this is not an introduction, but a thematic group that continues in kaleidoscopic harmonies until a second theme in E-flat is stated by the cellos:

This theme moves to the higher strings and is repeated.  A section in G major brings the music back to the second theme and the exposition is repeated. The development section alternates between the serene and the dramatic as the music spotlights sections of themes in a dizzying array of major and minor keys. Schubert manages to segue from one to the other effortlessly until the recapitulation brings the music back to the beginning chords. Key changes continue as Schubert blends themes and keys as a painter blends colors and shadows. The coda gives a sense of continuing the themes even farther as the opening chords are heard again along with a modulation, but it is actually a summing up as Schubert winds down the movement and the music ends firmly in C major.

II. Adagio - The second movement is in E major, and begins with a tender theme played by second violin and viola. The first violin plays an accompanying figure as the one cello adds harmonic depth to the theme while the second cello plays a pizzicato accompaniment:
The instruments blend together as the music gently and slowly flows on its way, getting even more quiet as it goes, until a crescendo of trills leads to an agitated middle section in F minor. A quiet section coaxes the tender theme back for a replaying, but this time with a varied accompaniment which adds a slight nervous edge to it. Near the end, the trilled crescendo that lead to the agitated middle section makes a brief appearance in the first violin, but as quickly as it came it retreats as the music comes to an end in E major.

III. Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Andante sostenuto -  Schubert returns to the home key of C major as he increases the loudness and sonority of the five instruments by playing 9-note chords at fortissimo in this boisterous scherzo:
The trio section generally is in contrast to the scherzo itself, but Schubert makes an extreme contrast, first of all with the key change from C major to D-flat major, a key that is quite remote from the home key. The tempo also slows as the mysterious music of the trio quietly hesitates its way to a repeat of the scherzo.

IV. Allegretto - Schubert's first theme of this movement is reminiscent of the dance music he was fond of. The movement is in the form of a rondo with elements of sonata form as well, a hybrid of the two forms. The key has returned to C major (although the theme begins in shadows of C minor), and the violin plays the theme as the other instruments give an accompaniment:
 The second theme is a graceful tune in G major played by the first violin and first cello:
Schubert's melodic gifts were second to none, so along with these two themes there are other tunes and parts of tunes that appear. After Schubert has ran his course with these themes, he builds up excitement by increasing the tempo in the coda. With a triple forte passage, Schubert leads to the final notes, a D-flat grace note before the final unison C, thus ends a work that constantly moves from profound beauty to despair and back again with an intensity that was the beginning of the Romantic era in music.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Debussy - Piano Trio In G Major


Most classical music lovers who have ever heard the name Nadezhda von Meck know it from her relationship with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. She gave Tchaikovsky financial support  so he could devote himself to composition. with an agreement that stipulated they never meet. This resulted in a remarkable exchange of letters (over 1,200 in thirteen years) in a long distant friendship that Tchaikovsky came to rely on for her intelligence and musically knowledgeable advice.

Nadezhda von Meck
Nadezhda von Meck was the widow of Karl von Meck, a German engineer who garnered a fortune by founding a network of railroads in Russia. When he died, eleven of their thirteen children were still at home, and Madam von Meck became devoted to them in the extreme. She maintained a huge household that included personal instruction for the children as well as a retinue of servants, governesses and house maintenance personnel. She would take the household to Italy every summer, and  the Paris Conservatoire of Music would send young students there for the summer to instruct and play music with her and her children. During the summer of 1880, an eighteen year old Claude Debussy was among the small group of students sent to Villa Oppenheim in Florence (now a hotel known as Villa Cora).

Debussy and other students would perform for the family every evening, and it was then thatDebussy's trio may ave been played. A letter from von Meck to Tchaikovsky mentions that Debussy was writing the trio, but there is no positive evidence that it was ever performed then. In fact, the trio may not have ever been performed in Debussy's lifetime. The work was not published until 1986 after the manuscript (which was considered lost) was found in 1982. Considerable editorial work was needed to piece it back together from various sources. The trio is in 4 movements;

Andantino con moto allegro - Debussy was still a student when he composed the trio and had very little training in composition, so while this movement can be thought of as in sonata form, it is a very loose and personal style of sonata form. It consists of attractive themes that are in the light weight salon style of the time. The beginning themes return towards the end in a kind of recapitulation, and the movement ends quietly.

Scherzo: Moderato con allegro - This movement shows more of what Debussy's style would become when he was a mature composer. The charm of the music is undeniable. The scherzo begins with a short introduction of pizzicato strings that alternate with the piano. The B minor theme itself begins with block chords in the piano. The graceful middle section is marked un poco piu lento and is in B major. The scherzo repeats and the movement ends quietly.

Andante espressivo - The piano sets the stage for the graceful theme that is first played by the cello and then by the violin. A slightly more turbulent middle section that includes some modulations into distant keys leads back to a repeat of the initial theme.

Finale: Appassionato - The final movement shows Debussy's inexperience in form (as does the entire trio) but the tunes are memorable throughout. His use of modulation may be a reflection of his knowledge of the music of Cesar Franck, a composer that showed considerable influence on young French composers at the time. Debussy was to go on to develop his own unique style of composition, but this piano trio is a pleasant listening experience despite his inexperience at the time.

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