Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Saint-Saëns - String Quartet No. 1 In E Minor, Opus 112

Camille Saint-Saëns was no stranger to chamber music. He wrote 26 pieces for different chamber ensembles between 1851 and 1898 that included works for violin and piano, cello and piano,  2 piano trios, 2 piano quartets, a piano quintet; even a septet for trumpet, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. Conspicuous by its absence is any works for string quartet.  Student, friend, and fellow composer Gabriel Fauré said that, "Saint-Saëns had a fear of it and only risked himself there towards the end of his life."

What could have caused Saint-Saëns,an accomplished composer of orchestral works, operas, and all of his previous chamber works, to shy away from  writing a string quartet? Fauré had his own similar fear of the form, as he didn't write but one string quartet himself, at the age of 79 in 1924, and thought the Beethoven string quartets should strike fear into any composer. And even Beethoven himself composed chamber music for other ensembles besides string quartet until he thought he was worthy to carry on the tradition set down by Haydn and Mozart. Perhaps it was the same with Saint-Saëns, as tradition can be a daunting thing. But the form itself is challenging.

There is no room for fluff, no room to hide any inferior music thought in a string quartet. It is music laid bare. Not to say that the string quartet is not capable of amazing color, verve, excitement, solemness, and emotion. But where a clever bit of orchestration can add flavor and color to music, the string quartet is limited. 

Saint-Saëns composed his first string quartet in 1899 when he was 64 years old, and dedicated it to the young Belgian violinist Eugène  , who perhaps encouraged the writing of it, and played in the premiere of the work. Saint-Saëns wrote a letter to his publisher about the quartet:

If I hadn’t written this quartet, the aestheticians would have drawn all kinds of conclusions from this omission, and they would have found what it was in my nature that had stopped me from writing one and why I was incapable of writing one! Have no doubt about it, I know what they’re like. And all the while I had not accomplished this necessary task, I was afraid of passing away too soon, I could not rest easy. Now I don’t care about any of it.

I. Allegro -  The strings all have their mutes on as the quartet begins with an F-sharp in the 1st violin, and the successive notes in the other three instruments of E, C, and A. Theoretically, this could be a F-sharp minor 7th flattened 5th chord (that's a mouthful!) , which for the home key of E minor of the quartet does not make a lot of harmonic sense. But by using enharmonic change the F-sharp to a G-flat, and the result is an A minor 6th chord. As A minor is the dominant chord in the key of E minor, it makes perfect sense. It would have been bad form for Saint-Saëns to use a G-flat as the time signature already states that all F's are sharp. There is a strong tendency for the dominant chord to lead to the tonic key, and so it does. After a few bars of the A minor introduction, the home key states a somewhat wistful theme that winds its way until the mutes come off and a more powerful section begins, skirts a few other keys in the process, and leads to a more mellow theme that is first stated by the cello and makes its way to the other instruments.  Themes eventually return in various guises, especially the more powerful one that leads to the end of the movement. 

II. Molto allegro quasi presto - Leave it to Saint-Saëns to call for music to be played molto allegro - very fast - quasi presto - sort of even faster. Perhaps he was concerned about excessive speed, and once the music begins it makes more sense. The movement is in 2/4 time, and has a metronome setting of quarter note = 184 beats per minute, a quite brisk tempo indeed, but taken any faster there would be the danger of the quirkiness of the syncopation being blurred. The first violin plays a simple theme that begins an eighth note before the accompaniment, and is tied across the bar line to the next bar. The other instruments play pizzicato.  After the first round of the theme, it is repeated in triplets. All 4 instruments join in the syncopation in a section that leads to the main theme once more, until a middle section in E major is reached. The tempo remains quick as a 4-voiced fugue comprises the middle section. The syncopation returns and plays until there is a slight slowing of the tempo and the key changes for a short section in E major. After that, the syncopation returns, with all instruments playing pianissimo. The 1st violin joins the others pizzicato as the movement quietly ends.

III. Molto adagio - The next movement in A Major gives contrast by its calm sweetness, but this movement also has a section marked appassionato. The 1st violin has the most to say, and the movement ends in harmonics high in the range of all 4 instruments.

IV.  Allegro non troppo - The music returns to E minor and restlessness, somewhat in the vein of the 2nd movement, but not nearly so relentless. There is plenty of tension as different rhythms are explored, as once again the 1st violin takes the lead in virtuosity as in the third movement and other parts of the quartet. Saint-Saëns probably had Ysaÿe the dedicatee in mind, for he was one of the premiere virtuoso violinists of the time, and he not only wanted to give him something to show his abilities with, but his own capabilities of violin writing as well. The movement builds to the final section marked Molto allegro as the quartet comes to a passionate close.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Franck - Violin Sonata In A Major

After a youth spent in musical study, composition and performing, César Franck went the way of a family man as he married and settled down to make a living as a church organist and teacher. 

When he was hired as the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Franck began to compose more, and it was this time in his life when he wrote the works that he is most remembered for. The Violin Sonata In A Major was composed by Franck in 1886 when he was 63 years old and became one of his most popular pieces. The first public performance was in December of 1886, but a private first performance of this happened on the wedding day in September of the virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Franck had given the sonata to him as a wedding present, and after the wedding and a quick rehearsal, Ysaÿe and his pianist sister-in-law gave a performance to the wedding guests. Ysaÿe  kept the sonata in his repertoire for 40 years and helped promote Franck's music. The sonata remains one of the most popular works of Franck, as well as one of the most popular violin sonatas in the repertoire. The sonata is so popular that it exists in many transcriptions for other instruments, but the version for cello and piano is the only one sanctioned by Franck.

Franck didn't live to see much of his music become truly popular with the public. The handful of works that he is remembered for, among them the Symphony In D Minor, Piano Quintet In F Minor, and the Violin Sonata In A, were all written in the last years of his life. He was very influential with his students at the Paris Conservatoire, and they as well as friends such as Ysaÿe kept his music before the public. 

I. Allegretto ben moderato - The movement has but two themes, the first one is a sweet song for the violin as the piano accompanies. Originally Franck wanted this movement to be played very slowly, but it was Ysaÿe that convinced him by his performance of the piece to increase the tempo to allegretto. 
The second theme is for the piano alone. The themes go through various keys as was Franck's style at the time to be quite chromatic. The two themes don't merge together in the relatively short movement, but maintain their individual character with each repetition. The violin's theme especially reappears in other movements. The movement ends quietly in the home key.

II. Allegro - The next movement is in D minor and is essentially a scherzo for the piano with another layer added to it with the violin's part. The piano begins the movement and plays for 13 turbulent bars before the violin enters and reinforces the piano's theme that is there amongst the filigree passages. 
The music gradually becomes slower until a section marked Quasi lento, where parts of themes heard in the first movement are reminisced over. This section continues for a few bars until the music gradually shifts keys to C-sharp minor and the scherzo returns. The music shifts once again in key, this time to C minor as it works its way back to the key of D minor with continual references to themes heard in the first movement. Another key change to D major for a short section that leads to a section marked Poco piu lento. The violin part is labeled con fantasia and as the previous slow section, this is brief and leads to D minor returning as the scherzo slowly begins again. The violin as well as the piano becomes turbulent, and leads to a bright ending to the movement in D major. 

III. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia - The key signature is ostensibly A minor, but the chromaticism of the music doesn't dwell in any one key very long. The piano begins the third movement playing three bars with the violin entering near the ends of the 4th bar with the designation largamente con fantasia, which roughly means slowly and freely. The violin and piano are partners in music that does much chromatic roaming, with waxing and waning of tempo and feeling. The key shifts to F-sharp minor and the music becomes very tender and tranquil, and then turns more dramatic. Near the end a section has the violin play a very recognizable variant of the first theme of the first movement. The music grows quiet, and the movement ends.

IV. Allegretto poco mosso - The violin's theme is tagged along by the piano a few steps behind. The mood of the movement is more or less pleasant in nature, but there are more passionate sections. 
More references to what has gone before appear, as Franck makes his way to the sunny ending.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Haydn- Symphony No. 101 'Clock'

The dozen symphonies Haydn wrote for Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario that coaxed Haydn to come to London, represent Haydn at his best. They are the culmination of many years of composition and Haydn made sure that they were the finest he could produce,  twelve masterpieces of the symphonic form that were written in London and Vienna over a five year period, for performance at Salomon's concerts.   Haydn made two visits to London, each time an extended stay that saw him not only giving concerts but meeting all kinds of people and being lavishly entertained at parties. He was a celebrity, the most famous composer in Europe at the time. He was a composer with a huge reputation that he was not aware of, due to his being isolated in the Esterhazy palace in the woods of Hungary. But his music had been known by many, and the English were particularly taken with his music.

I. Adagio - Presto - Symphony 101 begins with a dark, brooding introduction that has a sense of foreboding. But it ends up being one of Haydn's little jokes, as the music suddenly lightens in mood with the playing of the main theme.  The second theme is stated first in the violins, then the winds.  The development section has the themes being transformed and varied. The recapitulation leads to a short coda that rounds out the movement.

II. Andante - The second movement is where the nickname 'clock' come from, due to the pizzicato strings and staccato bassoon accompaniment sounding like the ticking of a clock. Haydn changes keys, expands and contracts the music and keeps interest in the music by the return of the 'clock' accompaniment, but this time it is played by the flutes and bassoons. After some more 'ticking' the movement draws to a quiet close.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto - The third movement  is marked minuet,  but it is far from the graceful dance of the French court. Haydn has written a heavily accented German peasant dance that merrily stomps its way until the more laid back trio, but the stomping appears here and there in the trio as well. Finally the peasant's happy foot stomping silences the trio, the dance is repeated and clomps to the end.

IV. Vivace - The finale's two themes are stated in the beginning, repeated, and then are woven through a development section until there is a fugal section that uses the first theme. The fugue works its way through the entire orchestra, and the movement ends with the first theme, and a short coda.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 2 In D Major Hob. VII/2

Haydn's employment by the rich and famous Esterhazy family at their hunting lodge palace deep in the forests of Hungary assured that he would have a ready-made audience,  and although Prince Esterhazy would have had other musicians visit on occasion, Haydn would be in relative isolation and as he wrote in his own words:

“My sovereign was satisfied with all my endeavors. I was assured of applause and, as head of an orchestra, was able to experiment, to find out what enhances and detracts from effect, in other words, to improve, add, delete, and try out. As I was shut off from the world, no one in my surroundings would vex and confuse me, and so I was destined for originality.”
The sheer amount of music Haydn composed in his thirty-odd year employment by the Prince is staggering. Symphonies, operas, chamber music, and concertos rolled off Haydn's pen one right after the other. The Cello Concerto No.2 also shows that Haydn had some top-notch players in his small symphony orchestra. Anton Kraft was a cellist in the Prince's employ and Haydn wrote the 2nd concerto to highlight his talents.  After the split up of the Prince's orchestra in 1790, Kraft went on to be regarded as the foremost master of the cello in Vienna, no mean feat in the city of music and musicians.

Haydn began composing the concerto in 1783, close to the time when Haydn himself had been startled to learn that while he may have felt isolated at the Esterhazy Palace,  the world had caught up with his music and he was a famous man. It was also about this time that he received the commission for the 'Paris' symphonies.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The first movement lacks the tension and contrast that Haydn's first movements can have. There is a leisure feeling to it,  and the orchestra never overshadows the soloist. Haydn' puts the spotlight firmly on the cellist.

II.Adagio - The cello shows off its ability to sing when a master is playing it.

III.Rondo (Allegro) -  The rondo is built out of the motif first heard in the cello, and like the first movement there is very little tension. The work ends simply, but charmingly.

The cello concerto is not one of Haydn's most difficult pieces, but the solo part is very challenging in the first and last movements as Haydn demands playing in double stops and octaves. The concerto is meant to be played by a virtuoso such as Anton Kraft, someone who can throw off the covert virtuosity of the piece and make the cello sing.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Mozart - Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major K. 543

Research has shown that Mozart composed more than the 41 symphonies that have been traditionally attributed to him. There is no definite number that has been agreed upon, but it is over fifty. In 1788 from July until September, Mozart composed what is traditionally known as his final three symphonies, numbers; 39, 40 and 41, and for identification sake, it helps to think of them with those numbers, even if they're not accurate.

All three are more difficult than his previous symphonies as his style was getting more refined and his mode of expression was growing. It is hard to believe, but these three later symphonies must have been more difficult for performers and listeners alike because of their departure from conventions of the time. All three were longer than the usual symphony, just one aspect that made them the precursor of the mighty set of symphonies Beethoven was to write in his career.

I. Adagio - Allegro -  This the only mature symphony of Mozart's that does not include oboes. This gives the clarinets much more responsibility and contributes to the sound of this symphony overall. The symphony begins with a lengthy introduction, something that was rare with Mozart.

The double-dotted rhythm gives an air of majesty to the opening. It slowly moves its way until the first hesitating notes of the first theme are heard. It rapidly coalesces into the full theme. The music proceeds into the second theme group that maintains an air of majesty with a handful of motives. This enrichment of the second theme group gives Mozart more to expand upon in the development section. The exposition is repeated.

II. Andante con moto -  In A-flat major, the movement begins in the strings in a persistent dotted rhythm.

The woodwinds enter in a new section that is more energetic and dips into the minor mode. The dotted rhythm shows up throughout the movement in different instruments as transitions are made into different material. The orchestra takes a casual stroll through the movement until the A-flat major chord.

III. Menuetto - The minuet as Mozart and Haydn wrote it in their later symphonies was not the genteel, feminine dance of the Baroque era, but the forerunner of the orchestral scherzo, rhythmic and a little more rustic.
The trio shows how the clarinets make up for the lack of oboes as the melody is played by one at the top of its register while the second plays and accompaniment in its lower register.

IV. Allegro - A finale that is somewhat of a rarity for Mozart, in that the emphasis is on the main theme heard from the beginning of the movement in the violins.

The theme is subject for discussion within the orchestra, but it always returns unscathed. The Haydnesque theme does go through a dramatic phase during the development section, but it soon returns to its rapidly bright mood and ends the symphony abruptly.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Rimsky-Korsakov - Russian Easter Overture

This composition was based on Russian Orthodox liturgical themes found by Rimsky-Korsakov in an old book. His idea was to highlight the pagan origins of the Easter Festival and how the more modern Orthodox festival and tradition had its roots in the old pagan ways. Rimsky-Korsakov was a non believer but he seems to have had an interest in the music of the church.Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own program notes for the work, as written in his autobiography:

"This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture. . . . The rather lengthy slow introduction . . . on the theme “Let God arise” [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody “An angel cried out” [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the Holy Sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the Resurrection—in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro —the theme “Let them also that hate Him flee before Him”—led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ's matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dancelike tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton's rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest's reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, “Christ is arisen,” which forms a sort of subsidiary part of the overture, appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda."

The work was composed in 1887-1888 and the premiere was lead by the composer late in 1888. It was one of his last works for orchestra as he devoted his time almost exclusively to writing opera. The work is full of orchestral color and shows Rimsky-Korsakov a master of the orchestra.  It opens with the very different time signature of 5/2, and in the last section of the work time signatures of 3/1 and 2/1 are used.