Saturday, August 30, 2014

Schubert - Der Erlkönig Opus 1, D.328

Franz Schubert wrote in all the musical genre of his day, but by far the form he is best known for is German Lieder. He wrote over 600 German art songs for voice and piano in his short life, some of them becoming standards of the vocal repertoire. His most famous song, Der Erlkönig,  is set to a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most eminent poet, writer, playwright and statesman. The poem was written in 1782 as part of a German Singspiel and it was Goethe's intention for it to be sung. The poem was sung to a simple tune that was created by the actress that was to sing the poem.  Schubert wrote the first version of the song in 1815 and continued to revise it until he finalized the fourth version of it in 1820. It had a private hearing that same year and its public premiere in 1821.

Johann Goethe
The poem tells a story about a father riding a horse through the night with his sick child cradled in his arm whose life is threatened by the Erlkönig, which is a supernatural being from Danish folklore that is similar to the Grim Reaper, at least in Goethe's retelling of the folktale.  The child hears the Erlkönig's voice trying to lure him to go with him. The child tells his father who tries to reassure the son by saying it is only the rustling of the leaves in the wind. The father finally reaches his destination after a hard ride, but it was in vain for his son is dead.  

Schubert has 5 distinct representations of people or things in this mini-tone poem, 4 of which are taken up by the singer:
Narrator -Opens the song with the voice being in the middle range of the singer and in a minor key.
Father - Sings in the low register of the singer and in both major keys.
Son - Sings in the high register of the singer and in minor keys.
Erlkönig - Sings up and down the range of the singer in major keys in a lower dynamic.

The fifth representation in the song is the horse that the father is riding, and that part is taken up by the piano. It is this very representation of a horse's beating hoofs in the fathers frantic urging to get the child assistance that is heard first in driving triplets in the right hand:
 The left hand plays a simple figure in triplets going up and quarter notes going down that does nothing more astounding than to outline the chord of G minor, the key of the piece, but which sounds very ominous combined with the right hand triplets. The tempo designation given in the above example, schnell, means fast. The metronome marking (quarter note = 152 note a minute, an editor's addition) is an extremely rapid tempo, for each beat is subdivided into three beats, which means the right hand is pounding out 456 notes a minute, which is roughly 8 notes a second. The right hand keeps up the triplet figuration in octaves and chords practically throughout the entire piece with the exception of a few very brief places and the ending measures. So this piece is not only difficult for singers in that one singer has to convey 4 different entities, but the pianist has a real workout for the roughly 3 1/2 minutes of this piece.

 Below is a translation of the song into English with parts labeled for clarification;
Der Erlkönig
[Narrator]Who rides so late through the windy night?
 There is the father with his child,
he has the boy safe in his arm.
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

[Father]"My son, why do you hide your face?"
[Son]" My father, don't you see the Erlkönig
with his crown and tail?"
[Father] "My son, it is the fog"

[Erlkönig]"You dear child, come with me!
Such lovely games I'll play with you;
Many colorful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many golden robes."

[Son]"My father, my father, can not you hear,
What the Erlkönig quietly promises me? "
[Father]"Be calm, stay calm, my child,
 in the dry leaves the wind is rustling."

[Erlkönig]"Will you, sweet boy, will you go with me?
My daughters shall wait upon you;
My daughters lead the nightly dances.
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep. "

[Son]"My father, my father, don't you see the
Erlkönig daughters in the dark?"
[Father]"My son, my son, I see it well,
it is the old gray willows."

[Erlkönig]"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
If you're not willing to go, I will force you."
[Son]"My father, my father, he seizes me!
The ErlKing is hurting me! "

[Narrator]The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
holding in his arms the moaning child.
The father reaches his courtyard with toil and hardship;
In his arms the child was dead.

Schubert's song was orchestrated by a few composers such as Berlioz and Reger. Below is a version for orchestra. I'm not sure who did the orchestration, but I think it is by Berlioz:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Schumann - Symphony No. 3 In E-flat 'Rhenish'

In 1850 Robert Schumann accepted the Director Of Music position in the town of Düsseldorf situated in the lower valley of the Rhine river.  It was the first time Schumann had lived outside of his native Saxony, and shortly after his arrival he set to work on new compositions. The scenery of the Rhine river inspired  the 3rd Symphony (hence its nickname) and with characteristic swiftness Schumann wrote the work in about a month, from early November to early December of 1850. Schumann conducted the premiere of the symphony in Düsseldorf early in 1851.

There is some confusion concerning the numbering of Schumann's 4 symphonies, as the 3rd is actually the last one composed. What is now known as the 4th Symphony was written in 1841 but was withdrawn by Schumann after a poor reception. Schumann didn't return to this withdrawn symphony until 1851 which was after the 'Rhenish' had been published.

The 3rd Symphony 'Rhenish' is in five movements:

I. Lebhaft -  The rhythmic first theme begins the work in E-flat and its character has been compared to Beethoven's opening theme of his 3rd Symphony In E-flat 'Eroica'.  A short theme acts as a transition to the second more lyrical theme that is mostly carried by the winds. As the second theme continues, it is interrupted by fragments of the first theme until it takes over. The exposition is not repeated. The long development section concerns itself with the two main themes and the short transition theme of the exposition. Schumann modulates to other keys without returning to the home key of E-flat until the climax that leads to the recapitulation. The themes repeat, the first theme dominates the coda and the movement ends.

II. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig -  Written in the key of C major and called a scherzo, it is more in the spirit of a German Ländler. Schumann originally added the title 'Morning On The Rhine' to the movement but removed it. The  ländler is in two sections and is repeated before a trio section in A minor is played. Throughout the entire short movement there is an underlying, gently rolling quality to the music, perhaps revealing its debt to the rolling waters of the Rhine. After the trio section the ländler reappears and is slightly varied, and it leads to a gentle ending.

III. Nicht schnell - A lyrical, short interlude in A-flat major that lends a few moments of calmness to the symphony.

IV. Feierlich - Tradition has it that this movement was inspired by Schumann's visit to the Cologne Cathedral where he witnessed the installation of the Archbishop of Cologne. Whether this is true or apocryphal is moot. Schumann originally titled this movement 'In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony', so it may be a case of what Schumann admitted concerninig some of his other works with titles; that he composed the music first and the title was inspired by the music. All of this doesn't detract from the beauties of the music of this movement, perhaps Schumann's best work for orchestra. Written in E-flat minor, the music begins with a loud chord and proceeds in a solemn tone. Trombones that have been waiting silently the previous three movements make their entrance and add to the solemn progression as the music moves towards a new theme, a chorale. The complexity increases as the music makes its way to an ending that leads directly to the last movement.

V. Lebhaft -  The music makes an abrupt change in key (back to E-flat major) and mood as two themes are paraded through the orchestra. A theme from the preceding movement appears and is transformed from its former solemnity to one of brightness. Schumann rounds off the work with a short reference to the theme that began the symphony, and the work proceeds to end with chords in the home key.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Schubert - Symphony No. 9 In C Major 'The Great' D.944

Robert Schumann went on a trip to Vienna in 1837, ten years after the death of Franz Schubert and while there visited Schubert's older brother Ferdinand. While Ferdinand had possession of most of his younger brother's manuscripts, the manuscript for this final symphony was in the possession of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of The Friends of Music In Vienna). Schubert had dedicated the work to the Society and sent it to them on 1826 in hopes of a performance. The Society paid a small sum to the composer and had the parts copied, but after a few rehearsals the leadership of the orchestra decided the work too long and difficult.

Schumann's excitement over the lost work extended to Felix Mendelssohn who performed a version of the work in 1839. Schumann wrote a glowing review of the work and referred to its heavenly length.

Schubert wrote a work beyond the capabilites of his contemporary orchestras as well as orchestras of the near future, for it took many years before the work would be performed in its entirety. Even with cuts, many orchestras refused to play it. To add to the confusion it was first numbered as Symphony No. 7 when it was published in 1840, as Symphony No. 8 in the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe, and as Symphony No. 9 in the catalog of Schubert's works published by musicologist Otto Deutsch in 1951. The fact that many of Schubert's manuscripts were unpublished at his death and that he neglected to catalog his own works helped create confusion in the numbering of his works that continues today.

The work got its nickname 'The Great' to differentiate between Symphony No. 6 in the same key of C major. Symphony No. 9 is in four movements:

I. Andante - Allegro ma non troppo -  Solo horns begin the extended introduction with the first theme which is then taken up by the strings. A secondary theme that is related to the first theme is played in the low strings, after which different versions of the two themes are repeated. The first theme returns and leads to transition material to the beginning of the exposition of the movement which begins with a theme in quicker tempo. The second theme is taken up by the woodwinds, then there follows a progression of thematic material.  Themes have their say in the development section in most creative ways before the recapitulation begins with the first theme and the others repeated. The final section of the coda recalls the opening theme of the introduction as the movement comes full circle.

II. Andante con moto - An extended, lyrical first theme is countered by a more rhythmical second theme. The themes are repeated, after which a more passionate version of the first theme grows until it comes to an end with a climax punctuated by timpani.  The two themes return in different guises until Schubert again comes full circle by ending the movement as it began in A minor.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace - Schubert's scherzo dances in C major, the trio a waltz in A major. As with the two previous movments Schubert fills the third movement with melodies that are played, repeated and developed at length.

IV. Allegro vivace - There are two main themes in this sonata form movement, but those themes consist of their own melodic parts. What Schubert has done in this movement and the entire symphony is to enlarge the themes and transform them into long, sometimes complex melodies. The first theme begins with a call to attention, continues with running strings accompanying woodwinds, and ends with a full close and short pause before the second theme begins. The second theme also has a running figuration for the strings while the woodwinds play the melody. There are further extensions of this theme until both main themes are heard again in their entirety. The development section deals with selected parts of the themes instead of the entire theme itself. The recapitulation repeats all the elements of the two themes with some getting a change of key. A coda continues to expand some of the melodic material with a short episode where strings, horns and bassoons hammer out an accented C for 4 measures with the full orchestra answering in different keys. Violins chatter away with the full orchestra until the final C major chord.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dvořák - Symphony No. 8 In G Major

Antonín Dvořák's father was the village butcher who was also an innkeeper and amateur musician. Antonin was born in a little town outside of Prague and was an apprenticed as a butcher in his father's shop for three years. But due to his natural abilities in music and the patronage of an uncle he studied music, played in an orchestra as violist, held organ positions and finally made a name for himself as a composer. He became one of the most well-known composers of his era and had an international reputation.

But at heart Dvořák remained a simple man. Two of his greatest pleasures were trains and nature. He memorized train schedules so he could meet the trains when they came into the station and loved to ride on them. He wrote some of his best and most famous compositions while he was in the countryside of his native Bohemia and at the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa when in the United States.

He wrote the 8th Symphony during the summer at his vacation cottage in the country in Bohemia in 1889.  The work has been called his Pastoral Symphony, and compared to his dramatic Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8 is a lyrical work is full of melodies and moods of his native countryside, but the work is much more than that.  Dvořák intended to use a different treatment of themes in his 8th Symphony, which he accomplished to mixed reviews.  Johannes Brahms was one who had mixed feelings about the work, as he spelled out in a letter to his publisher:
Too much that's fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece.  Everything fine, musically captivating and beautiful - but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician!
It is good to remember that Brahms helped Dvořák to get music published in his early days and was a friend. Brahms' genuinely liked and admired Dvořák's music, but that did not stop him from critiquing it through the filter of his own style.  But criticisms of a more biting nature have appeared over the years, which have added to the reputation that the 8th is not one of Dvořák's best works. But by listening to it with a careful ear, what seems at first hearing to be episodic and disconnected actually has a structure all its own. That it is a structure somewhat removed from the traditional is true, but that is what makes the work part of the triumvirate of Dvořák's three final great symphonies.  The 8th Symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro con brio -  The first movement begins not in G major, but G minor. This first theme also acts as an introduction, and is soon interrupted by a solo flute that is giving out the first hint of the second birdsong like theme in G major. The second theme is taken up by the orchestra and builds to a climax and is followed by a third theme. Themes two and three have a short dialog until the birdsong theme finally wins out. Another climax is reached with the second theme and yet another theme appears, after which fragments of what has gone on before leads to another climax. The music fades and the very first theme appears to signal the beginning of the development section. Bits and parts of themes are tossed about the orchestra during the development. The very first theme reappears as a lead in to the recapitulation.  Dvořák again throws out themes and fragments of themes as he builds up to the final chords of the movement.

II. Adagio -  A solemn theme in C minor opens the movement, and soon flutes answered by clarinets lighten the mood somewhat. This is all by way of introduction to a folk-like theme in C major. The orchestra takes up the theme and increases the volume of it on its way to a climax. The flutes and clarinets take up their call and answer again in hushed tones that gradually die away. The strings play very quietly and the horns call out the beginning of a new theme that is vaguely related to the very first theme of the movement. This gives way to a more decorated version of the folk-like theme. A variant of the opening theme is heard as the music builds to a final climax before it fades away.

III. Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace -  A theme is played in waltz time in G minor. A new theme in G major is heard in the oboe in the trio section a tune that Dvořák had previously used in an early opera. The oboes and flutes carry the tune in two beats to the bar while the strings accompany in three to the bar, one of Dvořák's favorite rhythmic devices. The first theme is repeated and leads to a short repeat of the theme of the trio in a faster tempo, in 2/4 time with the full orchestra before the music fades away.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo -  A trumpet fanfare opens the movement after which a theme is played by the main theme of the movement. There are seven variations of this theme  inspired by Dvořák's beloved Czech folk music.  A slow, heartfelt variation leads to a vigorous repeat of a previous loud outburst and finishes off the symphony with a Czech furiant.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beethoven - Symphony No. 1 In C Major

Beethoven approached the composition of his first symphony with caution, as the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn were still in the ears of music lovers, and he knew that much would be expected of his first effort in the form.  The earliest documented evidence of when Beethoven began to compose his 1st Symphony dates from 1795.  Beethoven completed its composition and it was first performed in April of 1800 in Vienna.

Beethoven kept within the traditions of the two older masters, but also included his own style to the mix. The1st Symphony shows Beethoven's already strong penchant for the unusual. With extremes of dynamics, strong accents on and off the beat and harmonic peculiarities, Beethoven kept his contemporary audiences guessing. As the years progressed Beethoven continued to evolve and grow as a composer. In the 1st Symphony Beethoven pays homage to symphonic tradition while at the same time announcing to Vienna, the city of both Mozart and Haydn, that he had arrived.

I. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio –  Beethoven begins his debut symphony in tonal ambiguity. No doubt the experienced listener of his time expected something much different than what Beethoven gives them; an introduction that begins with a chord progression in the wrong key. The twelve-bar introduction leads to the first theme of the movement in the home key of C major. The second theme is in the expected key of G major, but Beethoven also throws in snippets of other themes in the exposition before he sticks with tradition and repeats the exposition. The development deals with the first theme. The recapitulation repeats the exposition with the obligatory key change of the second theme. The coda harks back to the first theme and rounds off the movement with repeated C major chords.

II. Andante cantabile con moto -  Written in F major, the second movement is also in sonata form. The first theme is played by the violins and repeated by the other strings contrapuntally. The second theme is a little lighter in feeling. After the development section deals with two themes, the recapitulation plays the music of the beginning of the movement with a few differences.  A coda develops the first theme slightly, after which the woodwinds have a short dialog with the strings and the movement ends.

III. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace - Although Beethoven calls this movement a minuet, the material and the tempo show this to be a scherzo. Beethoven uses passages of scales, syncopations and sudden changes in dynamics in this movement that doesn't have much in the way of genuine thematic material. But he makes good use of short motives and accents to convey a sense of rapidity and wit.

IV. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace -   In another surprise, Beethoven begins with a loud G played across the instruments of the orchestra, which is followed by snippets of a scale climbing upward in a slow adagio. This all is by way of an introduction to this finale which is also in sonata form. The scale passages end on a fermata and the first theme of the movement bursts onto the scene. The second theme by contrast is a dancing theme.  The finale emulates many of Haydn's rapid and witty symphony finales but is underlined by Beethoven's style (what some of the time would call excesses) of dynamic, rhythmic and harmonic variety.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mendelssohn - String Symphony No. 10 In B Minor

Felix Mendelssohn's natural musical abilities were recognized early.  He began piano lessons with his mother at age six, and learned so quickly that he had his first public appearance at age nine. Felix began composition and counterpoint lessons with the esteemed teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin about 1819. His teacher was an advocate of the J.S. Bach tradition and gave his student a thorough grounding in the works of the older master and other composers of the Baroque and Classical eras.

Mendelssohn's earliest surviving compositions date from 1820, and in 1821 he composed the first six of what was to become a total of twelve symphonies for strings. These were written as composition exercises for his teacher, and the completed the set in 1823 when he was 14 years old. The string symphonies were thought lost for many years but they turned up in a library in Berlin after World War Two. These dozen string symphonies quickly led to Mendelssohn's early masterpieces the String Octet written at age sixteen and the Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream written a year later.

Carl Zelter
The first six string symphonies are written in 3 movements with the later ones in 4 movements with the exception of No. 10 In B Minor which has one movement, and No. 11 In F Major which has 5 movements. No. 10 In B Minor may have had at least two more movements but they are lost.  The work was written when Mendelssohn was 14 years old. There are three tempo designations in the work:

Adagio -  A slow introduction begins this work with a nod to the music of J.S. Bach in feeling if not in construction. Towards the end the music lightens in mood and pays homage to Haydn and Mozart.

Allegro -  The beginning of the movement proper is a sudden shift in tempo and mood that reflects C.P.E. Bach's empfindsamer Stil with the first theme in early Haydn's Sturm und Drang style. The second theme has a rapid and busy quality that became a trademark of Mendelssohn's style. A third section adds additional material that leads up to the traditional repeat of the exposition. The development section repeats the two themes in various guises with few real surprises but a deftness in handling the material that is amazing for a composer of but 14 years.  The recapitulation begins with the first theme, and after a short section of transition the second theme returns in the home key of B minor.

Piu presto - The music increases in tempo and rushes breathlessly in a short coda that ends the work.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Field - Piano Concerto No. 2 In A-flat Major

John Field was an Irish composer that was known and respected by many early 19th century composers and performers. His music influenced Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann of his own generation and later composers such as Brahms.  He is most well known as the composer that got the credit for originating the nocturne, a form of music brought to perfection by Chopin.

He was a child prodigy and played his debut recital at the age of nine. His family moved to London where he began studies with the Italian pianist, composer and piano manufacturer Muzio Clementi. He was heard in concert by Haydn who praised his playing. He was also taught violin by J.P.Solomon, the violinist and impresario that had lured Haydn to London. 

He continued his studies with Clementi and became a representative for Clementi's piano firm. They both visited Europe and Russia, with Field staying in St. Petersburg. He remained in Russia living in St. Petersburg and Moscow  from 1802 until 1829 as a teacher, representative for Clementi's firm, composer and performer.  His health began to fail in the middle 1820's as he developed cancer of the rectum. He appeared less and less in public and traveled to London in 1831 to seek medical treatment. He was operated on and tried to resume his concertizing but with only moderate success. He went on tour in Europe and ended up back in Moscow where he died in 1837 aged 55 years. 

Fields wrote 7 piano concertos with the 2nd in A-flat being the most popular. It has never gone out of print and earned praise from Schumann and Chopin used it in his teaching. It was a staple of the piano concerto repertoire for many years but went out of favor after the turn of the 20th century. It was written about 1811, and is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato - Some musicologists see enough similarities in this first movement to think that it served as a model for Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra begins straight away with the first theme of the exposition. The theme is explored with an extended section for the orchestra until the strings introduce the second theme.  This leads to a repeat of the first theme, after which the piano makes its entrance in lyrical passage work that suits the theme, and as in its initial presentation the first theme is explored, but this time by the piano. The soloist takes up the second subject which leads to the development section. Field extends the development section considerably as both themes as well as snippets of new material go through modulations and piano configurations along with string tremolos, rarely heard outside of the opera house in 1811. The recapitulation begins with the orchestra repeating the first theme but in a highly truncated form of only a few bars before the soloist takes up the theme.  After the second theme goes through its modulations to the home key, trills close out the soloist part with no cadenza. The orchestra brings the movement to a close with a few bars.

II. Poco adagio -  A nocturne in everything but name, no doubt another great influence on Chopin. The movement is not only a contrast to the first movement by its material, but by its very short length. The nocturne gently throbs for a few minutes and gently ends.

III. Rondo: Moderato innocente - Fugato - Moderato -  The rhythmic theme of the rondo is played between episodes of other material, and is expanded and varied upon each repeat. Field uses devices found in music of his homeland such as the Scotch Snap, a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth. There are also grace notes heard in the winds that suggest the grace notes of a bagpipe. A section in counterpoint, a rarity for Field, appears close to the end. The theme makes its last appearance amid a highly decorated piano part. The strings play a drone as the piano weaves filigree passage work. The orchestra finishes the movement and the concerto.


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