Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Borodin - String Quartet No. 2 In D Major

Borodin was a higly respected chemist, physician and teacher that was also an extremely gifted composer. Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Russian noble who had the child registered as the son of one of the nobleman's serfs. The nobleman saw to it that the child had a good general education as wel las music lessons. Borodin entered the Medical-Surgical Academy and upon graduation spent a year as an army surgeon, aftedr which he studied in Europe. He went back to St. Petersburg and became a professor of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. Borodin was an advocate for women's rights and was instrumental in establishing medical courses for women.

The 2nd string quartet was written in 1881 and it is one of the few works that didn't take years to complete, as it was written while he was on a vacation.  He dedicated the quartet to his wife on their 25th anniversary.
The quartet was popular during his life but it reached its peak of popularity in the early 1950's when some of the themes from the quartet (along with themes from other Borodin works) were used in the Broadway musical Kismet. The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The quartet opens with a delicate theme in the key of D major. This theme segues into the second theme that is slightly more robust but maintains a lyrical quality. The development begins with the first theme heard in the cello. The recapitulation follows the same general plan of the exposition, but the second theme is first heard in E-flat major before it modulates to the home key of D major. Borodin manages to keep the lyrical quality throughout the first movement with just enough contrast to keep the interest of the listener.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  The scherzo begins in F major with a rapid first theme. The second theme appears and it was one of the themes used in the musical Kismet in a song called Baubles, Bangles and Beads.  The movement is not in the traditional form of a scbherzo, but it is in sonata form. After the two themes are played at the beginning, a development section has both themes played in counterpoint, sometimes both are incorporated at the same time. The recapitulation has the themes repeated with the second theme modulating to F major. A short coda brings sthe movement to a quiet close.

III. Notturno: Andante - The cello plays the beautiful theme first, and then the violin takes it up. This theme was also used in the musical. The middle section the tempo quickens slightly into a dance. The opening theme appears again, this time with modulations to minor keys that bring a sense of drama to the duet between cello and violin. The two instruments respond with a contrapuntal duet of the theme.  The theme is developed and repeated until the instruments reach a serene and quiet end to the movement.

IV. Finale: Andante, Vivace - The movement begins with an odd question and answer introduction that has the main theme of the movement presented in two sections, the question )played by the violins) interrupted by short sections, the answer (played by cello and viola). The pizaccato cello leads the beginning of the movement proper and the music increases in tempo. The movement is in sonata form, and the second theme maintains the speed of the first theme. The development section begins with the question (this time in the cello and viola) and answer (this time in the violins) as the exposition. The recapitulation begins with the question and answer, but this time all 4 instruments play it. Both themes are played and a short coda rounds off the quartet in the home key of D major.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Franck- Piano Trio No.1 In F-sharp Minor Opus 1 No. 1

César Franck's first composition acknowledged by him was a set of Piano Trios which were composed in his last years as a conservatory student. He was eighteen when he began the 1st Piano Trio in F-sharp minor in 1840. Franz Liszt saw the set of piano trios and offered constructive criticism and encouragement. Liszt performed them after he settled in Wiemar asKappelmeister to the court there.  In 1845  Franck composed an oratorio that had a private performance for Liszt and other musicians. The work was a mild success, but when it had its first public performance a year later it received harsh criticism. Franck shelved the work and took up the life of a teacher, accompanist and composed a few smaller works on commission.

The 1st Piano Trio is Franck's early attempt at writing in cyclical form in which an entire composition is based on a few themes that keep returning in each movement. He was to perfect the form in his later compositions beginning in 1872. The 1st Piano Trio is in 3 movements:

I. Andante con moto - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the lead in to the first theme in F-sharp minor that is taken up by the cello. This theme is played three times during the movement. Franck relieves some of the monotony of the theme with expanding the theme, and one of the repeats has the theme treated fugally. The second contrasting theme is in F-sharp major and is played and developed twice in the movement. These two themes are not especially notable, but tension is built up by the contrast between the two.  The first theme comes back to finish the movement abruptly.

II.  Allegro molto - A scherzo in B minor that has two trio sections, with the second trio being a reworking of the second theme of the first movement. The first theme of the opening movement returns after the second trio and leads directly to the last movement.

III.  Finale: Allegro maestoso - The final movement is in F-sharp major sonata form with the first theme being a variant of the first theme of the opening movement. The second theme is written in D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major, the dominant of the home key of the movement. The plodding first theme returns and leads to a section in D major, which in turn leads to the recapitulation.  The movement ends in F-sharp major.

Franck's 1st Piano Trio has been criticized for being monotonous. While it is true that this early attempt at cyclical form pale in comparison to his later works, the 1st Piano Trio does give a glimpse of things to come. Liszt has been given his due for his contribution to cyclical form, but he was far from the first composer to use it.  Franck was slow to develop as a composer, and no doubt he learned a great deal from Liszt's use of the form.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Brahms - Piano Trio No. 3 In C minor Opus 101

Brahms wrote his third piano trio in 1886 while vacationing at Lake Thun in Switzerland. The scenery inspired Brahms, for in addition to the piano trio he wrote a cello sonata and violin sonata. It was a time in Brahms' life when all but one of his orchestral works (the Double Concerto for violin and cello) had been composed. He grew more introspective in his final years, writing mostly works for voice, solo piano and chamber ensembles.

The Piano Trio No. 3 is one of Brahms' shorter chamber works.  All of the movements are short but full of intensity. This trio was a favorite of Brahms' good friend Clara Schumann who turned pages for Brahms when he played the work with his two good friends the cellist Robert Hausmann and violinist Joseph Joachim. It is in 4 movements and takes just over 20 minutes in a typical performance:

I. Allegro energico - The work begins with a shout to grab the attention of the listener as the first theme rolls out of the three instruments with passion. The second theme is more lyrical but the restlessness of the first theme lurks in the background. There is not repeat of the exposition. A very short development section and condensed recapitulation lead to an impassioned coda that brings this very terse movement to a close.  

II. Presto non assai - The violin and cello are muted throughout this movement.  The music is quirky but it also has an underlying sense of melancholy. The movement is short, and ends abruptly.

III. Andante grazioso - A mellow theme, the strings have moments when they play a duet without the piano, and the piano has its solo moments also. Brahms has time signature changes of 9/8, 6/8, 3/4 and 2/4, which gives a slight hesitating quality to the music. This movement also ends abruptly in the key of C major.

IV. Allegro molto - The passion of the the opening movement returns in C minor until near the end when Brahms writes in C major. The music maintains its hectic pace and passion despite the major mode all the way to the end.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Enescu - Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 In D Major

Pablo Casals, the great Catalan cellist and conductor considered George Enescu  "The greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart." Enescu was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher that proved to be so musically precocious after he was given a violin at the age of four, that he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. After he graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of thirteen, he went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris for four years.

His earliest composition was written when he was 5 years old, a work for violin and piano. Much of his music uses themes from his Romanian homeland and a particularly strong influence was lăutărească music, music that was played by the Romani (formerly known as Gypsy) people that lived in Romania. This style of music is different than Romanian peasant music, as  lăutărească music was a conglomeration of styles that the Romani came in contact with in their nomadic lifestyle. They derived rhythmic diversitiy from Turkish music, modal scales from church music of Byzantium as well as many other influences. Many Middle and Eastern European countries have their own specific  lăutărească traditions, with one of the most well known being the flamenco music of the Romani people of Spain.

Enescu was influenced early on by lăutărească music as he was the pupil of a Romani violinist and made friends with lăutărească musicians and learned many of their songs.  Enescu composed the two Romanian Rhapsodies in 1901, early in his career as a composer. Both are still popular with No. 1 more popular than No.2, and Enescu conducted them many times in his life and recorded them three times. He came to loathe both of the rhapsodies for their popularity prevented his other compositions from getting as much exposure.

The Rhapsody No. 2 is in D Major and is more subtle and reflective than No. 1 in A Major.  The rhapsody begins with a short introduction before the lush first theme is quietly presented in the strings under a gently throbbing accompaniment. This theme is played a two times with different instrumentation in the same quiet dynamics until the theme is repeated the third time in a louder dynamic. A short interlude of an improvisatory nature leads to a repeat of the introduction which flows into another interlude that is given an exotic coloring by the solo cor anglaise. The first theme returns in a different guise and tempo. A solo flute plays over a timpani roll which leads to a short dance for viola solo. The music swells and leads to a solo flute that brings the rhapsody to a quiet close over hushed, tremolo strings.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ives - Variations On 'America'

Charles Ives, 1889
Charles Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. His father George Ives was a U.S. Army bandleader in the Civil War and also led the Municipal Band in Danbury.  Ives' father was an unorthodox music teacher to his son as he encouraged him to explore nontraditional harmony and structure. Ives told a story that when he was five years old his father saw him pounding out the drum parts to George's band music on the piano with both fists. Instead of telling his son that was the wrong way to play the piano, George told him there's nothing wrong with playing the piano that way as long as you know what you're doing and sent him to a drum teacher.  Ives' father also would have two marching bands, one at each end of the town square and each playing different music in different keys, march toward each other. Charles Ives credited his father with being the most influential musical figure in his life.

Charles Ives took to the organ and became so proficient on the instrument that he was a professional church organist when he was fourteen, the youngest one in the entire state at the time. Ives attended Yale University and upon his graduation he was hired as an insurance actuary by a firm in New York. He made the insurance business his life's work. He excelled in the insurance business and composed in his spare time. Most of his music was neglected in his lifetime, especially in the years he was active as a composer. Ives ceased composing any new works after 1927, although he did revise some that were already written. His music began to get some performances in the 1940's and after a performance of Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music. He was also very active in financially supporting other 20th century composers and their music.

Ives' music won the support of a young Leonard Bernstein who conducted  Ives' Second Symphony on a live radio broadcast in 1951. Arnold Schoenberg, the great composer and teacher knew of Ives and after Schoenberg died in 1951 (three years before Ives), Schoenberg's widow found a note written by her husband in his desk that had been written in 1944:
There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.
One of his earliest pieces was Variations On 'America', written for organ in 1891 when Ives was 17 years old. It was written for a Fourth Of July celebration and the music shows how much his father had influenced the young man. The tune is also known as 'God Save The King' in Great Britain.

Introduction and theme- The work begins with an introduction to the tune that fragmentarily suggests parts of the tune itself.  The tune is finally heard in a straight forward arrangement for the organ.

1st Variation -  The tune is repeated over a running sixteenth note accompaniment in the first section, and an even more florid accompaniment of 32nd notes in the second section.

2nd. Variation - The pace changes slightly, along with the rhythm of the tune. At the end of the first section there is a descending figure of chromatic chords that gives the impression of a chuckle. The second section has subtle harmonic changes.

Interlude - A fragmentary rendition of the tune that Ives evidently didn't find worthy enough to call a variation, this interlude has one hand playing in the key of F major (the home key of the piece thus far) while the other hand and pedals play in D-flat major, an early example of bitonality.

3rd Variation - Ives gives a sprightly rendition of the tune, like music perhaps heard on a merry-go-round, all in the key of D-flat major.

4th Variation - Ives shifts gears and throws this variation in the key of F minor. He labels this variation a Polonaise, but it sounds like spirited Spanish dance to me.

Interlude - This time Ives has one hand play in A-flat major while the other hand and pedals play in F major.

5th Variation - Marked Allegro - as fast as the pedals can go, the pedals have the main variant.  The tune continues in elaborate dress that shows how good Ives' organ technique must have been. The variation leads to a coda that has fragments of the theme tossed off in full volume, along with pauses for good measure. The music gets more hectic until a full throated repeat of the tune ends the work.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Onslow - String Quartet No. 25 In B-flat Major Opus 50

George Onslow come from a long line of  English politicians, beginning with his Great-Grandfather Arthur Onslow who served as Speaker Of The House Of Commons for many years in the 18th century, while George's Grandfather (also named George) served in Parliament and was the first Earl of Onslow. George's uncle Thomas served in Parliament as did his father Edward.  The Onslow family remains involved in English politics as some hold seats in the House Of Lords.

George's father Edward Onslow quit Parliament after only one term amid a sex scandal that forced him to emigrate to France. While in France Edward married and had four children.  George Onslow was the oldest son and was born in 1784. The family had a good life in France until the French Revolution of 1789 when Thomas Onslow was jailed on account of his nationality and was eventually exiled from France in 1797. George joined his father as they toured Europe to provide young George with an education. They ended up back in London where George continued his to study the piano as well as history, art, horsemanship and other subjects befitting a young gentleman. He also learned to play the cello and spent time with friends playing the quartets of Mozart and Haydn.

Despite his piano studies, he never gave a public recital nor did he consider becoming a composer. It was an overture to a opera of Méhul that  inspired him to try his hand at composition. His first attempt was a set of three string quintets that were published and became popular. Through the encouragement of friends and his publisher, he got serious about composing and took composition lessons from Anton Reicha, French composer and teacher. Although Onslow wrote 4 symphonies and works in other forms, he specialized in chamber works at a time in France where opera was the most popular form of music. He wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets that were highly regarded in his lifetime. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn all placed him at the forefront of instrumental composers, and it was in Germany where his fame was the greatest and where  he was called The French Beethoven.

He had an international career, but remained loyal to France and lived most of his life there. He became a gentleman farmer that owned and ran a castle and was a good businessman in dealing with music publishers. Onslow's works sold very well and he profited by the competition among music publishers to obtain his newest works. For the most part he led a quiet and productive life. He died in 1853.

The String Quartet No. 25 was composed in 1836 and is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  The first theme is heard straight away and makes its way to a section that has a few sudden outbursts. The second theme has the cello playing a motive as a violin scampers after it. After a short transition to material related to the first theme the exposition is repeated.  The development transitions into an exploration of the first theme mainly by modulations to keys that are close to the B-flat home key. The recapitulation repeats the first theme with added transitional material so the second theme segues into the home key. A short coda adds a moderate amount of dash until the movement ends quietly.

II. Scherzo: Vivace assai - The scherzo begins with a run that starts on B-flat and ends on a long G-flat, after which the music skips along in the home key with the phrase ending with three B-flat quarter notes one after the other descending in three octaves. The opening phrase is repeated but this time doesn't come to rest on G-flat but continues to scamper until the first section of the scherzo comes to rest on a high F. This first section has 20 measures in it, with the first eight measures making up two phrases. By phrase extension the other twelve measures give a a feeling of inequality to the first section that is reminiscent of Beethoven. The first section is repeated. The second section of the scherzo expands and modulates previously heard material until the opening run is heard and the section ends in the tonic. The second section is also repeated. The trio begins with an introduction, after which the time signature of the music turns from two flats to three as rapid pairs of identical notes are played as an accompaniment while the first violin plays a slightly halting theme. This section is repeated, after which the trio continues and material is expanded. Much of this section is played pianissimo which gives a rather eerie mood to it. After the trio the scherzo and trio are repeated, this time straight through without the repetition of sections. A short coda ends the movement in B-flat major.

III. Andante grazioso -  The slow movement is marked con simplecezza, with simplicity, which suits the gentle tune that is in F major. It proceeds to gracefully unwind at a steady pace until it reaches a minor climax. The accompaniment becomes slightly more complex as the tune continues on its gentle way until it grows more quiet and ends pianissimo in F major.

IV. Finale: Allegro vivace - The finale begins fortissimo with the instruments spitting out a fragment that returns throughout the movement. A second theme theme contrasts, the music bustles its way with the fragment reappearing in different keys and dynamics, but always maintaining a certain harshness, and the movement ends in the home key of B-flat major.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Brahms - Piano Quintet In F Minor Opus 34

Some of the early works of Johannes Brahms are dramatic works full of fire contrasted with moments of  great tenderness and beauty. The Piano Quintet In F Minor is one of those works, but at the same time some have called it the first work of his early maturity. The drama and fire are obvious, but what is not so obvious is Brahms inner workings of phrase structure, harmony and what has been called the principle of continuing variation.

Brahms began work on what was to become the Piano Quintet in 1862. He had recently visited Vienna and eventually made it his home. The work was originally written for string quintet; two violins, one viola and two cellos.  Brahms was a great admirer of Schubert and he may have used Schubert's String Quintet as a model for his own.  The following year Brahms revised the work and turned it into a sonata for two pianos. This was not the only one of his early works that went through growing pains, as his first piano concerto began life as a symphony and was also rewritten as a sonata for two pianos.  His great friend Clara Schumann expressed admiration for the two piano version, but suggested that it would benefit by being re-scored for different instruments. Finally in 1864 Brahms rewrote it as for piano and string quartet. Brahms was but 31 years old when the final version of the quintet was written, but the two piano version must have satisfied Brahms as well for that version was also published. The two years the Brahms worked on this piece entailed a struggle over what instrumental forces to use. The final version of the work had very few actual musical changes to it from the two piano version.

The Piano Quintet is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro non troppo - A fragment of what is to become the first theme is stated in unison by the instruments to open the movement. A dramatic section leads to the theme being played out completely and with more force.  The second theme is a lyrical contrast to the first, but there is still a feeling of tension.  There is a third theme that appears towards the end of the exposition that relieves some of the drama of the previous themes. The exposition is repeated. The development section has fragments of the first two themes slowly play off of each other until they slowly build tension that leads to the recapitulation. After the recapitulation, there is a brief calm before the storm of the coda that dramatically ends the movement.

II. Andante, un poco adagio - A Schubertian theme begins the movement. Brahms makes variations on the theme as it plays out. A middle section of gentle music leads to a repeat of the main theme which continues to be developed until the movement gently ends.

III. Scherzo : Allegro - The movement begins with a low C on the cello played pizzicato as a rising melody is played over it. A rhythmic section follows, after which a march-like motive plays. These  three motives make up the scherzo itself. They are repeated and developed until at the end of the scherzo the strings play a searing two sixteenth note fragment that alternates between D-flat and C as the piano plays C major chords. The trio is in C major and is inspired by the march-like motive of the scherzo.  This scherzo is one of the most impassioned movements that Brahms ever wrote. Near the end the strings lend an atmosphere of violence to the scherzo before the sudden resolution of it with the end chord in C major.

IV. Finale: Poco sostenuto - Allegro non troppo - Presto, non troppo - The movement begins with a slow, mysterious introduction that builds in intensity until the movement proper begins with a theme that has the mood of a Hungarian Dance. This theme is varied, which leads to a more lyrical second theme. The next theme is a lively dance. These three themes are repeated and varied as they vie for supremacy throughout the movement. The competition of themes is brought to a sudden halt as a short coda returns the mood to tragic as the work ends.


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