Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 1-6

In the world of art and artists, The Well-Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach occupies a lofty position of influence.  The work consists of two volumes, each containing 24 preludes and fugues written in all the major and minor keys.  Bach wrote a preface to the work that reveals he meant it to be used by students as well as an amusement for the already skilled keyboard player -
The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach. p.t. Capellmeister to His Serene Highness the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, etc. and Director of His Chamber Music. Anno 1722.
What Bach meant exactly by his use of the term well-tempered is still being discussed almost 300 hundred years after it was written. The tuning of keyboard instruments was far from standardized in Bach's time. There were various methods and tuning systems in use that attempted to make it possible to play in tune in all the keys, which was not possible if the instrument was tuned exactly to pitch. For example, the key of C major has no sharps or flats, so if there was any change of key within a piece of music, it could only modulate to closely related keys. The further away from the home key, the more dissonant the sound became. Closely related keys for C major would be F major (one flat), G major (one sharp) A minor (no sharps or flats).

That's a very simplistic example, but the point is that whatever Bach's exact tuning method, his goal was to give examples of pieces that would be in tune on the keyboard in all the major and minor keys. The Well-Tempered Clavier had to wait until 1801 for its first publication, but there were hand written copies circulating among musicians during the 50 years between Bach's death and publication. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were profoundly influenced by The Well-Tempered Clavier as well as many other musicians.

The first six preludes and fugues of Book One -

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 In C Major BWV 846 -   The pedagogical nature of The Well-Tempered Clavier begins with the C major prelude which is comprised entirely of arpeggiated chords.
With the absence of any kind of theme, this prelude is an example of how a constant pattern of music can be made beautiful by shifting harmonic content. This is the simplest of preludes, but that doesn't mean that it is easy to play. This prelude is one of Bach's most well-known and many a piano student has played it.

The 4-voiced fugue flows along with many repetitions of the subject (the theme that begins a fugue and that returns in different keys and voices throughout it) or the answer (the repeat of the subject in a different key).  There are no episodes (a short section that does not contain either subject or answer) in this fugue, a feature that makes it a little easier to understand aurally, but not any easier to play.

Prelude and Fugue No. 2 In C Minor BWV 847 -  The beginning of this prelude was originally written in a notebook for Bach's oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann, with Bach adding material to the end of the original. The pastoral feeling of the first prelude is not to be heard in this agitated and tense prelude of running sixteenth notes in both hands.
A sense of dramatic tension builds over 24 measures until single line arpeggios play a section that ends on a low G in the bass. Bach then marks the next section with a rarity in any of the pieces of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a tempo designation. The tempo changes to presto (which gives an indication of what the tempo of the previous 24 measures should be) as the hands return to the running sixteenth notes of the beginning.  Then there is a one-measure cadenza and another tempo change, this time to adagio. The tempo changes yet again to allegro as the prelude winds down chromatically until it ends in C major.

A 3-voiced fugue follows with the subject played in the soprano register of the keyboard. The fugue develops and includes six episodes where the subject is not heard. A striking feature of this fugue occurs in the 28th measure. The three voices are occupied with the summing up of the fugue, all three voices are halted abruptly with the insertion of an eighth rest:

The voices then continue to move to the end of the fugue in C major.

Prelude and Fugue No. 3 In C-sharp Major BWV 848 - With all the notes in the C-sharp major scale being raised a semitone, the key signature of seven sharps must have been rather daunting to many musicians in Bach's time. C-sharp major was thought of as being more of a theoretically possible key than a practical one. But Bach continues his chromatic climb through the keys with this prelude that has a two-part structure, at least what on the surface appears to be a two part structure. The right hand plays a motive that is drenched in C-sharp major while the left hand plays a simple accompaniment. This motive is seven measures long, and after two measures of transition, the motive is taken up by the left hand in G-sharp major while the right hand takes up the simple accompaniment. Bach modulates through many of the sharp keys, major and minor in this prelude and creates interest and contrast. The magic of the piece occurs in the 87th measure as the two lines converge and transform into a section that has a syncopated feel to it. The music proceeds to arpeggios and the final cadence.

The 3-voiced fugue that follows begins with the two-measure subject. This subject is heard numerous times along with other counter-subjects (a secondary motive that is played in counterpoint with the subject) and episodes. Bach uses all of these in creating interest, tension, and resolution in all of the pieces in The Well-Tempered Clavier. How he uses them makes each of them a work of art.

Prelude and Fugue No. 4 In C-sharp Minor BWV 849 - Many editions of The Well-Tempered Clavier had tempo indications added by editors. Bach's use of them was very limited. He tended to use them when there was a marked contrast within a prelude that he wanted to make sure the player did not miss (as in the C minor prelude). The nature of music in Bach's time was such that a piece of music revealed the tempo it should be performed at when the player studied it. This interpretive skill was taught by Bach and other teachers, so tempo indications were not necessary within the style of the times. This prelude is an obvious example of a piece that contains the secret of the proper tempo within the music itself. Time signatures also gave a further clue to the tempo of a piece, and this prelude has a time signature of 6/4, which is a variant of two beats in a measure. Thus the tempo should not be too slow, but in a moderately slow tempo and a calmness of mood.

The 5-voiced fugue that follows is one of the most complex ones within The Well-Tempered Clavier. The subject consists of only 4 notes:
This subject appears in the fugue 29 times, according to  musicologists. Combine that with Bach's imagination, uses of episodes and counter-subjects, this piece would be amazing enough. But consider that this piece is also considered a triple fugue. That is, a fugue with three distinct subjects! This fugue is like an intricate, decorative knot with different colors and textures of thread woven through it, but Bach is a master weaver of notes instead of thread. I don't pretend to understand all of the intricate workings going on, but a good listener attuned to the art of music doesn't need a limitless understanding of the technical machinations of the art of fugue. Bach helps our ears, if they are keen enough, to make sense out of it all whether we can explain it or not.

Prelude and Fugue no. 5 In D Major BWV 850 -  Running sixteenth notes in the right hand are accompanied by a bass line of a repeating eighth note-eighth rest figure. The 2nd and 4th bass line eighth note can give the impression of combining with the fifth and thirteenth note in the right hand to make a two-note chord:
The music continues until it reaches the last line of the prelude. After a rapidly arpeggiated chord, the right hand plays a cadenza that increases the tension and leads to two large chords. The tension is finally releases with the final cadence and tonic chord.

The 4-voiced fugue that follows is in the French Overture style with a subject that is just a little over a measure long:
The impression given by the subject as well as Bach's treatment of the other components of the fugue suggest a stately tempo.

Prelude and Fugue No. 6 In D Minor BWV 851 -  Another prelude that is developed by harmonic means rather than melodic. There are snatches of motives that come through, but it is the harmonic shifting that gives this piece its drive. It sounds like a dramatic gigue to my ear as the relentless right hand continues right into a chromatic section that provides the final cadence in D major.
  The 4-voiced fugue has a subject that is two measures long. This subject is repeated many times throughout, and Bach manipulates this subject by inverting it, that is the notes of the subject go in the opposite direction as the original. When the notes go down in the original, they would go up an equal distance in the inversion. That is a very simplistic explanation and not exactly accurate in all cases, but it does give the listener a general idea of one of the many ways Bach created variety and interest within a fugue:

Subject D Minor Fugue

Inversion of Subject
In the next to the last measure of the fugue, dotted half note D's are held while thirds in contrary motion lead to the ending in D major.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Haydn - Piano Trio In G Major, No. 39 'Gypsy' Hob.XV:25

Near the end of  Haydn's second trip to London in 1795, he composed three piano trios. Piano Trio No. 39 In G Major was the 2nd one of this set which was dedicated to Rebecca Schroeter, a widow that lived in London. Haydn had met her on his first trip to London when she requested music lessons from him.

Despite Rebecca being twenty years younger, she soon fell in love with Haydn, as she had previously done with Johann Schroeter, a German composer and pianist that she married 16 years before. There were numerous letters back and forth between the two and Haydn had dinner with her at every opportunity. There was no possibility of marriage between the two as Haydn was already married (in what traditionally has been considered an unhappy one) and divorce was not allowed by the church.

Haydn wrote 45 piano trios in his life. His first trio was written in 1760, the beginning of the Classical era of music that saw the obsolescence of the basso continuo in favor of separate parts for specific instruments. Even with that, the piano dominates as the titles reflect with the piano being the first instrument mentioned: trios for piano, violin and cello. The violin accompanies and on occasion has the melody trusted to it while the cello mainly reinforces the bass line.

But this doesn't mean Haydn's piano trios are fluff. The early ones are simpler in texture and are more like serenades, but Haydn's imagination and skill is used to good effect, especially in the later piano trios. Piano Trio No. 39 is in 3 movements:

Rebecca Schroeter
I. Andante -  The first movement is not in sonata form, but rather a set of variations on a simple theme that is stated by the piano and violin while the cello doubles the bass. The variations alternate
between major and minor modes. The andante tempo is held throughout, but the shorter note values of the final variations give the illusion of a faster pace.

II. Poco adagio, cantabile -  The gentle second movement is in E major. After the initial statement of the theme by the piano, the violin gets the spotlight in the middle section as the piano and cello accompany.

III. Rondo a l'Ongarese: Presto - After two gentler movements, the finale begins in a breakneck presto tempo.  Haydn was the first composer to use music based on Hungarian tunes in his compositions, something that became something of a fad a few decades later. These tunes aren't so much Hungarian but were derived from itinerant Gypsy musicians who were prevalent in Hungary. Haydn would have come in contact with these Gypsy musicians during his tenure as Music Director at Eszterháza Castle where Gypsy musicians often played. This is some of Haydn's most recognizable music and has been transcribed for other combinations as well as solo piano. The movement is a heavily accented, fierce Gypsy dance that shifts from major to minor that is over in a flash.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 5 In A Major, Opus 18, No. 5

The beginnings of the string quartet, a standard ensemble in classical music that consists of two violins, viola, and cello, are difficult to determine. Some musicologists think the genre originated with the trio sonata of the Baroque era. Despite being called a trio sonata, many times more than three instruments played. The name 'trio' designates the number of voices and not necessarily the number of instruments. Indeed,  J.S. Bach wrote trio sonatas for solo organ where the three different parts were distributed between the hands and feet.

But the basic trio sonata was usually written for two solo melodic instruments and bass continuo, three parts and instruments. In many cases, there would also be in the ensemble a bass instrument such as cello or bassoon that played the single notes of the continuo part, along with the continuo played on an instrument capable of harmony such as a keyboard or lute, and the two melodic solo instruments. Musical styles changed and the practice of basso continuo was considered old fashioned so composers wrote out their music for specific numbers of instruments, with the string quartet becoming a standard ensemble.

Early instances of works for 4 string instruments with no continuo were the sonate e quattro of the
Italian composer Allesandro Scarlatti, written in the early 18th century. From these early examples as well as others written by various composers, Joseph Haydn added his imagination and skill to form a standard that was popular with amateur musicians. Mozart was inspired by Haydn and added his genius to the form as well. It was the standards in artistry set by Haydn and Mozart in string quartet writing that inspired Beethoven to write his own string quartets.

Prince Lobkowitz
Beethoven's Opus 18 consisted of 6 string quartets that were commissioned by his patron Prince Joseph von Lobkowitz and were written  between 1798 and 1800. Beethoven purposefully issued his first string quartets in a set of six to emulate Haydn's practice of doing the same. Beethoven was an ambitious young composer and may have wanted to invite comparison of his quartets with those of Haydn. Beethoven took his role as the new kid on the block very seriously, and he considered the premiere of his string quartets as a right of passage.

The String Quartet No. 5 In A Major of the set was intentionally modeled on a quartet by Mozart (K.464) that was in the same key and followed the same general outline. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The first theme is a light tune that is contrasted by a second group of themes that delves into the minor and is punctuated by motives that follow one another in counterpoint. There is a summing up before the exposition is repeated. The development section begins with a variant of one of the motives of the second theme group until the first theme is then dealt with. Beethoven seamlessly leads into the recapitulation. A short coda ends the well constructed and tuneful first movement.

II. Menuetto - A graceful minuet has a bit of individuality thrown in by the way of dark minor rumblings towards the end of the first statement.  The trio throws the ear a curve by accenting the third beat in the measure.

III. Andante cantabile - Mozart's example of a set of variations is also followed by Beethoven in the third movement, but the music is all Beethoven. The theme is a simple one in D major that rises and falls, with not much to recommend it as the basis for a set of variations:
The first variation begins with the solo cello and the other instruments enter in contrapuntal fashion.
The second variation has the first violin play an elaborate version of the theme while the other instruments offer a simple accompaniment.
The third variation has the second violin chatter a simple accompaniment while the other instruments comment on the theme.
The fourth variation is a contemplative variation on the theme that is high lighted by passages in the minor.
The fifth variation picks up the pace as the cello oompahs the bass line while the viola and second violin play a rhythmic variant of the theme. The first violin plays trills above them, and joins them a few times.
A coda continues to comment upon the theme in a slower pace until the music rises to a forte. After a brief pause, the first violin slowly plays the theme, the other have their final say, and the music ends pianissimo.

IV. Allegro - The final movement begins with a theme that finds the instruments chasing each other until the second theme group begins in a more hushed tone. The development takes up the first theme and takes it afield in key and mood. Parts of the secondary theme group are interjected until the recapitulation begins. A coda deals with themes once more before the music ends very softly and rather suddenly.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Saint-Saëns - Septet In E-flat Major Opus 65

Camille Saint-Saëns composed the Septet at the request of a chamber music society called La Trompette, and Saint-Saëns (perhaps tongue in cheek) included a part for trumpet in the work. The trumpet is not often thought of as an instrument to be used in chamber music, but Saint-Saëns added it along with two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano. This rather odd combination of instruments is handled by Saint-Saëns with his characteristic fine craftsmanship as the bright tone of the trumpet does not dominate the work. Rather it is used for color and to punctuate the music.

Saint-Saëns was not only a great composer and performer, he was also a music historian and did much to revive the music of the past by editing and arranging modern editions of older composers, particularly French composers. The Septet was written in 1880 and takes the form of an 18th century suite of dances, music that he was very familiar with.  It is in 4 movements:

I. Préambule -  This was the first movement Saint-Saëns composed and it was originally meant to be a Christmas present to the music society and it was played at the January concert in 1880. Everyone was so pleased by the short work that Saint-Saëns promised to add more movements and complete the work. The finished work was first played in December of 1880 with Saint-Saëns at the keyboard. The movement begins with a flourish by the strings and piano, with the trumpet entering shortly. This changes to a section where a march-like theme is treated fugally. A calmer theme then is heard with a slightly restless accompaniment. The march returns and leads to the trills of the trumpet, the flourishes of the piano and the final chords of the movement.

II. Menuet - The trumpet takes the initial theme until the strings play a calmer second theme which the trumpet softly accentuates. The trio section is a masterful combining of the strings and trumpet over a piano accompaniment. The first section is repeated.

III. Intermède -  After two bars of introduction for piano and trumpet, the piano begins an accompaniment that continues through most of the movement while a somber theme is traded off between instruments.

IV. Gavotte et Final - The piano takes the lead in this dance that shows Saint-Saëns kept his piano technique (which was formidable). The theme is played over pizzicato strings. The trumpet enters with motives that sound like bugle calls that the strings take up. The gavotte returns until the piano and strings pick up the pace with a short fugue using material from the first movement. All the instruments join in a rush to the end.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Cherubini - String Quartet No. 1 In E-flat Major

Among all the composers alive Cherubini is the most worthy of respect. I am in complete agreement, too, with his conception of the 'Requiem,' and if ever I come to write one I shall take note of many things.
So said Beethoven when asked who, aside from himself,  he considered the best of his contemporary composers. High praise indeed from an artist that could be notoriously blunt in his opinion of others. Unfortunately, Cherubini's opinion of Beethoven was not as favorable. The two met in Vienna where Cherubini was staging one of his operas. Cherubini went to the premiere performance of Beethoven's opera Fidelio and was not impressed. He remarked in French that Beethoven was too rough for his taste.

Luigi Cherubini was born in Italy and was a child prodigy. He wrote operas at the beginning of his career, and after feeling stifled by the operatic traditions of his native country, he traveled to England and finally settled in France in 1790. He found the freedom his creativity needed in Paris and his operas became very popular for some years. The opera scene of the time was always in state of flux. What was popular today could become a flop tomorrow. Cherubini's operas felt the fickleness of the opera public as his operas fell from favor. He then turned to music for the church and chamber music. Cherubini was appointed director of the Conservatoire de Paris in 1822.  He was known to be somewhat of a cantankerous man and did not show as much of a gift for teaching as he did as a composer.

He composed 6 string quartets and a quintet from 1814 to 1837. His First String Quartet was written in 1814 but wasn't published until 1836. The quartet has very little in it from the quartet tradition of Haydn and Mozart, but is more of a reflection of Cherubini's operatic writing. Schumann reviewed the work after its publication and thought the form of it somewhat difficult to understand. It is in 4 movements:

I. Adagio - Allegro moderato -  A slow introduction prefaces the movement until the somewhat nervous first theme begins. Short snatches of motives weave in and out of the exposition until a secondary theme is played. The motives return and the exposition is repeated. Themes and motives are dramatically explored in the development until the recapitulation begins. and the movement ends in the tonic E-flat major.

II. Larghetto sans lenteur - The second movement is in B-flat and is a theme and variations. The theme is gentle in nature as are most of the variations except for a more dramatic outburst in the middle of the movement. After that, the music mostly stays quiet and calm until it ends in a gentle mood.

III. Scherzo: Allegretto moderato - The scherzo begins in G minor and has a subtle rhythmic drive that propels it along at a steady pace until it reaches the trio that is in G major and features rapid 16th notes in the violins. The scherzo returns and ends the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro assai - A short introduction leads to the first theme that is framed in a quirky rhythm. The second theme is a duet between violin and cello. A very short development section full of off-the-beat accents leads to the replaying of the two major themes, and after a short coda the quartet ends with a slight stumble.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Vivaldi - Trio Sonata Opus 1, No. 12 In D Minor 'La Follia' RV 63

For an Italian composer in the Baroque era it was somewhat of a tradition to compose a set of trio sonatas for two violins and continuo as their first published music. Vivaldi carried on this trend with his Twelve Trio Sonatas, Opus 1 published in 1705. They are his earliest known compositions, and with them Vivaldi showed a more impassioned style than his predecessors. Initially he was taken to task for his style by his conservative contemporaries, but after the publication of his Opus 3 set of 12 violin concertos titled L’estro armonico his music became known throughout Europe and influenced many composers with J.S. Bach being the most notable.

The 12th sonata of Opus 1 is a set of variations on the ubiquitous 'La Follia' melody. The melody itself was derived from the original chord progression. Folia (Spanish for folly) first appeared in print sometime in the 17th century, but the original may be considerably older. Over three centuries many composers have used the tune and chord progression, from Jean-Baptiste Lully in the middle of the 17th century to Rachmaninoff in the 20th century have found inspiration in the minor key theme. The actual number of composers who have used it is ongoing. There is a website called La Folia A Musical Cathedral that is attempting to list uses and derivations of the theme with a list of composers that is quite long as well as a history and chronology.

Vivaldi composed the sonata for two violins and continuo. The recording that is linked below has a continuo section that includes cello, keyboard and theorbo.  The theorbo is a long necked lute that made available more bass notes and was usually used as a continuo instrument.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mozart - Sonata For Piano And Violin In E Minor K.304

Mozart had traveled extensively in Europe as a child prodigy, and after visiting many of the capitals of 18th century Europe between the years 1762 to 1773, he settled into a position as court musician at Salzburg. His low wages and discontent at the court prompted him (with full encouragement from his father Leopold) to travel to other areas and look for a new position.

He resigned his position at court and began a trip with his mother in September of 1777. He traveled to Mannheim, Paris and Munich and on this trip he met many other musicians and continued to compose. The trip didn't end up with any new employment, and added to that disappointment was the death of his mother in Paris in 1778.  While he was on this trip he composed seven Sonatas For Keyboard And Violin as well as other music. Six of these sonatas were published in Paris in 1778.

There was once the thought that this sonata in E minor was written after his mother had died, but there is no evidence for that. Out of 36 Sonatas For Keyboard And Violin, it is the only one written in a minor key and the only instrumental work that Mozart ever wrote in E minor. The title of all of Mozart's works in this genre is a reflection of the era in which they were written. These were essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, but Mozart and other composers were changing the genre so that the violin was more of an equal participant. The Sonata For Piano And Violin In E Minor is in two movements:

I. Allegro -  Evidence of the equal partnership between keyboard and violin begins straight away with the first theme played in unison by both instruments:
The second dotted rhythm theme delves into G major, but the exposition is dominated by the first theme. The short development section is also concerned with the first theme. The recapitulation has the second theme modulate to the minor, and after a short coda the movement ends.

II. Tempo di minuetto - This movement also begins in E minor and makes excursions into other major keys. But it returns to the contemplative and graceful minuet melody. The middle section is music in the calming key of E major. The plaintive minuet returns and with a short coda the sonata is brought to a close.


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