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:

Monday, April 25, 2016

Alkan - Piano Trio In G Minor Opus 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Handel - Keyboard Suite In B-flat Major HWV 434

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

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

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

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

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


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