Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Smetana - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 15

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

The trio is in 3 movements:

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

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

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

Monday, June 6, 2016

Röntgen - Piano Trio In C Minor, Opus 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Chopin/Liszt - Six Polish Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 9, 2016

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26

Johannes Brahms was encouraged to travel from his hometown of Hamburg to Vienna by his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. They thought it was important for someone of Brahms' musical talent to go to the  music capital of German music to expand his horizons in the city where Beethoven and Schubert had lived.

So in 1862 when he was 29 years old, Brahms made the trip to Vienna and took with him two piano quartets that he had written in Hamburg; Quartet No. 1 In G Minor (opus 25) and Quartet No. 2 In A Major (opus 26).  The first piano quartet with its fiery Rondo alla Zingarese finale was an immediate success, while the more introspective second quartet was not as enthusiastically received. Brahms' music may have been a tough nut to crack for the ears of the Viennese listeners that had already turned rather conservative.   He was a composer that revered the composers of the past , but his melodic and harmonic language along with his structural style were quite new. But Brahms wrote in more traditional forms, and that fact was a harbinger of the split in music that was to happen a few years later.  Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, the main figures in the New Music movement, wrote no chamber music or traditional symphonies, so Brahms by default became the leader of the opposing camp in what was to be called The War Of The Romantics.

Along with Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a major influence on Brahms' compositions.  Schubert was most known for his songs during his lifetime, but he left over 1,000 works in various forms after his death. His music was to become a great influence on many composers, including Brahms who made a study of some of Schubert's chamber music, especially the String Quintet In C Major that was written in 1828, the year of  Schubert's death.

Like Schubert's last works, Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26 is one of Brahms' longest works and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the main theme:
This theme is passed to the strings before it is taken up again by the piano in a fortissimo dynamic that retains the lyricism of the theme while increasing the intensity. There are other themes in this exposition, the number depending on who is doing the listening. Throughout, the lyricism is maintained, similar to the unending melodies of Schubert's late works. The exposition is repeated, and then moves smoothly into the development section. Again, the lyricism prevails as Brahms takes the ear through an adventure of key changes while snatches of themes are expanded upon. The recapitulation brings back the themes in seamless transposing of keys. Fragments of the main theme play in the coda as the movement winds down until it ends in forte.

II. Poco Adagio - The only movement of this quartet that is not in sonata form is this one. it is in rondo form. All the strings are muted as the piano plays in a soft register. In what may have been a tribute to his mentor Robert Schumann who had died a few years before this work was written, piano arpeggios add to the expressive coloration of texture as the music drifts to the gentle ending where the arpeggios sweetly accentuate the long notes in the strings.

III. Scherzo: Poco Allegro - A unique movement as the scherzo and trio are both in sonata form. The trio is in D minor, and a novel effect is made by Brahms by the use of grace notes:
The scherzo is repeated and the chromatic arpeggios in the piano make a fitting close to the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The first theme is accented off the beat, and has some elements of Gypsy music as the finale of the 1st quartet, but this time much less frantic. This movement is in sonata form mostly, but has elements of a rondo as well. The music continues in a lyrical vein until the intensity ramps up slightly for a fine finish to the quartet.


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:


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