Sunday, June 11, 2017

Liszt - Grandes Études de Paganini

The influence that the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini exerted on composers and performers of the early 19th century cannot be overestimated. Never had any performer demonstrate the total mastery of an instrument as Paganini did on the violin. He also had a level of showmanship that helped make him world famous.

Franz Liszt was already an accomplished concert pianist when he first heard Paganini in Paris in 1832, and was determined to do for the piano what Paganini did for the violin. He began to practice the piano even more strenuously until he had become the most acclaimed pianist of his time.

It was natural that Liszt would use the music written by the man who inspired him in some way, and the result was the first version of the six Grandes Études de Paganini of 1838, which  contained technical difficulties that were impossible for anyone else to play but Liszt, Eventually in 1851 he revised them and made them less technically demanding, but to this day the revised version contains some of the most technically demanding pieces in the piano repertoire.

I. Étude No. 1 In G Minor (Tremolo) - Among the first published works of Paganini's opus 1 were the famous 24 Caprices For Solo Violin. These works revolutionized violin technique. Paganini opened up possibilities for the violin that were unheard of before his time, and Liszt used some of these works as inspiration for his etudes. The first one in G minor begins with a introduction taken from the 5th Caprice of Paganini and begins with arpeggios. The main body of the etude is taken from the 6th Caprice and consists of a theme placed against tremolos. The piece ends with another arpeggiated reference to the 5th Caprice.

II.  Étude No. 2 In E-flat Major - Taken from the 17th Caprice of Paganini, The theme of this etude is a rather simple one, but the accompaniment and manner of its presentation bristles with scales, arpeggios and all manner of keyboard acrobatics as does the original version for violin.

III.  Étude No. 3 In G-sharp Minor (La Campanella) - This etude is taken from the finale of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 In B Minor. The nickname translates to 'Little Bell', and Liszt gives the impression of a little bell by playing in the piano's high register. It is the most popular of the set.

IV.  Étude No. 4 In E Major (Arpeggio) - Taken from the 1st Caprice of Paganini, this etude is written all in the treble clef on one line in imitation of solo violin music. The lowest note in the piece is the first G below middle C, which is the lowest note on the violin.  


V.  Étude No. 5 In E Major (La Chasse) - From the 9th Caprice of Paganini, this etude has the horn calls and excitement of the translation of its subtitle, The Hunt,



VI.  Étude No. 6 In A Minor -  From what could possibly be the most well known piece of music written by Paganini, the 24th Caprice, a set of variations on an original theme. Liszt was the first among many composers that used this theme for a set of variations. Liszt's version is a kind of translation of the original to pianistic terms, but isn't as inspired as Paganini's original. But Liszt wrote this set of etudes on the music of Paganini to push the boundaries of piano technique and to dazzle audiences, and they have accomplished both.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Debussy - Préludes For Piano Book Two

As with the first book of preludes, Claude Debussy wrote the second book of twelve in a few months between 1912 and 1913.  They are similar in mood to those of the first book, but the music itself is more complex harmonically and there is a greater emphasis on technique. During Debussy's lifetime, Book I sold more copies than Book II, possibly because the nature of the music was that much more unique. Debussy followed the procedure of Book I by placing his descriptive titles of the pieces at the end of the preludes of Book II.

The second book of preludes was Debussy's penultimate foray into music for solo piano. After the set of 12 Etudes written in 1915, Debussy composed no more major works for piano solo.


1) Brouillards (Mists) -  Debussy utilizes bi-tonality to depict layers of mist as the left hands plays on the white keys while the right hand plays on the black keys. This is a sort of visual representation (for the performer at any rate) of mixing while with black to create Debussy's gray colored mist. The music begins in 4/8 time and shifts meter to 3/8, 3/4 and back to 4/8 periodically throughout the piece, adding to the drifting and changing direction and speed of the mist.

2) Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves) -  Supposedly written after an autumnal walk taken by Debussy, this prelude is not morbid in any sense of something dead. It is more like the shifting colors of leaves that have taken on the colors of autumn. It is a subtle depiction of colors through changing tonalities.

3) La puerta del Vino (Wine Gate): Mouvement de Habanera - Carrying on the love of Spanish music by French composers, Debussy composed a companion piece to La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) of Book I.  The wine gate in question is one located in the Moorish Palace Of The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The rhythm of the habanera dance runs throughout in the bass.
Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens 

4) Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) - Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens was the inspiration for this prelude, in particular a depiction of fairies tight-rope walking on a spider's web. The music begins with fast music that may refer to the fairies flying, with the spider web walking coming a little later.

5) Bruyères (Heather) -  A representation of the simple flower of heather. Its pastoral mood and folk song simplicity is similar to La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) of Book I.

6) Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk - An example of Debussy's liking of contemporary popular performers. Ed Lavine was an American juggler performer that was billed as General Lavine, The Man That Has Soldiered All His Life. Among his reported tricks was to play the piano with his toes! Debussy saw the General perform in Paris in 1912 and enjoyed his performance so much he immortalized him in this prelude. Debussy wrote other pieces in American ragtime style, with one of them being Minstrels of Book I.

7)  La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) - There is little in the way of description or source of inspiration concerning this piece. It is pure Debussy. Whatever he meant by the title doesn't matter much. It is music of Debussyian sensuality, power and beauty.

8) Ondine : Scherzando - Ondines are mythological Scandinavian water nymphs that sang and danced on the water's surface that could also lure fisherman away from their labors. Debussy shows them playing on the rippling water as well as outbursts that depict their mischievous intent to divert fisherman.

9) Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick) - Debussy made a few trips to England where his music was well received, and he was an avowed Anglophile. This music is a tribute to the English author Charles Dickens, a favorite of Debussy's. Debussy doesn't let his love of everything English prevent him from parody as he begins the prelude with a rude rendition of God Save The King. Various other styles emerge, along with a jig tune towards the end.

Canopic jars
10) Canope (Canopic jar) - Canopic jars were used by ancient Egyptians to hold the vital organs of the deceased while the body and heart were mummified. The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were each kept in separate jars for safekeeping and use in the afterlife. The lids of these clay jars were made in the forms of Egyptian gods, and Debussy had some of these lids on his mantle in his house.

11) Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) - This is in the style of his set of Etudes that were to be written in 1915. The title says it all, as it is comprised of alternating thirds throughout. The musical effect comes from changes in dynamics as the musical elements are rather straightforward.

12) Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) - The final prelude of the entire set of 24 is a grand finale and continuation of all that has gone before. With rapid scales, repeated notes, large chords and glissandos, Debussy depicts skyrockets and other fireworks that are set off on the French Independence Day, July 14th - Bastille Day. The final shooting of massive skyrockets is depicted by a double glissando - the left hand down the white notes, the right hand down the black notes. After the last sparks die away, the Marseillaise rumbles quietly in the background.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421

Joseph Haydn was not the first composer to write for two violins, viola and cello, but he did develop the ensemble into a form that has engaged many composers from his time to the present. His 68 string quartets show an unending imagination and creativity. They became the standard to which all other string quartets were judged by.

Mozart's first of 26 string quartets was written in 1770 when he was 14 years of age. As his experience and expertise grew, his quartets began to be inspired by those of Haydn. From 1782-1784 Mozart wrote a set of six string quartets that was dedicated to Haydn. They were published in Vienna in 1785 as Mozart's opus 10, and carried the following dedication from Mozart to Haydn:
To my dear friend Haydn:   A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father's eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,     W.A. Mozart
Haydn himself began the tradition of releasing string quartets in sets of six, which was also followed by Beethoven with his first six quartets. There was usually one quartet in a set that was in a minor key, and Mozart's 15th string quartet, the second one of opus 10,is in the key of D minor. It consists of 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - Each of the 6 quartets dedicated to Haydn are individual works in character and spirit, with this one being defined to a great extent by its D minor tonality. The first movement begins with a theme in the first violin with an octave drop on the home note of D:
Mozart seldom has only two contrasting themes in his sonata form developments. Such is his gift of melody, he uses what is called theme groups, and the contrast can come between these groups. Minor and major keys are juxtaposed and create a variety of emotion and tension in the exposition, and are expanded naturally in the development section, in some sections contrapuntally. The recapitulation emphasizes minor over major, and some of the brightness of the second theme group has been darkened as a result. The movement ends in D minor.

II. Andante -  The first movement goes from dark to light and back to dark again, and despite being in the key of F major, the second movement is not all sunshine. The music doesn't flow as smoothly, and seems a tad disjointed. The middle section is in the minor, and the mood turns accordingly. But it is a brief time before the music turns back to the mood of the beginning of the movement.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto - The third movement returns to D minor in a rather serious minuet punctuated by chromaticism:

The trio is in D major, and is in stark contrast to the minuet in the delicacy of the theme played in the first violin to pizzicato accompaniment. When the minuet returns, it sounds even more stark after the gentle trio.

IV. Allegretto ma non troppo -  The final movement is a set of variations on a theme in 6/8 time. Only one variation, the last one, is in a different key from the tonic. This final variation is in D major, and gives a little bit of solace before the sadness returns in a coda that adds intensity and drama to the theme. At the very last, the music shifts to D major and ends with a picardy third, which oddly enough adds a feeling of irony and resignation instead of brightness.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zarębski - Piano Quintet In G Minor, Opus 34

The musical world has had its share of composers who have died young. A short list of the most famous and influential: Franz Schubert at 31, Wolfgang Mozart at 35, Georges Bizet at 37, George Gershwin at 38, and Frederic Chopin at 39. There are many others who are less well known, and the Polish pianist and composer Juliusz Zarębski falls into this category as he died in 1885 at the age of 31.

Zarębski was a child prodigy with his mother being his first piano teacher. When he was sixteen he went to Vienna to study. After a few years he then moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies and ended up in Rome as a student (and friend) of Franz Liszt.  He began his career as a virtuoso performer in 1874 and performed in many major cities in Europe. In 1883 he retired from performing due to tuberculosis, and devoted the remaining two years of his life to teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and to composition.

Most of his compositions are for the piano, but in 1885 he composed the piano quintet, the musical masterpiece of his young life. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Although written in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt, the quintet was not published until 1931 in Poland. The first movement begins with the solo piano playing softly as the strings enter slowly. Although Zarębski was a piano virtuoso of the highest order, his writing for the instrument in the quintet is as a partnership between all five instruments  There are two main themes in the movement, with other secondary fragments of melody that Zarębski blends together into a flowing, passionate opening movement. The development section takes them to far afield keys distant from the home key of G minor. The recapitulation ends with a powerful coda.

II. Adagio - The second movement opens quietly with muted strings and quiet piano in an impressionistic tonal ambiguity. The first theme in B-flat major emerges in the low register of the first violin as the rest of the strings slowly join the piano accompaniment. This theme is expanded upon by the strings. The tonality shift to G major as the piano ushers in the second theme in the strings. This second theme is an offshoot of material in the first movement. The themes return in a development section of passion mixed with delicacy. The recapitulation of the main theme grows ever more passionate until the tonal vagueness of the introduction to the movement returns. The main theme is gently heard one more time, and the movement ends quietly.

III. Scherzo - The scherzo crackles with energy and continues Zarębski's wide modulations to far-off keys. The movement begins in C minor with rhythmic figures in the strings. The piano enters in octaves and adds to the rhythmic energy. The first of two trios shifts to G-flat major as the piano repeats a G-flat major figure throughout as the strings play a folk - like melody. The scherzo returns and leads to the second trio, which shifts to G major as the trio theme is repeated in the piano to string accompaniment. String harmonics add to the charm of the trio. As the trio seems to be winding down, the theme undergoes a short fugal treatment. The music becomes expressive in a section just before the return of the trio theme and the scherzo.

IV. Finale - Zarębski introduces the final movement with a repeat of the scherzo theme in the piano, which is a surprise to the ear. Zarębski was a late Romantic musician that knew his Liszt and Franck well, for the quintet is a cyclical work with this introduction being the most obvious example of that. After a section of trying to find its way, the music settles into another folk-like melody. This theme grows more impressive until it yields to material from the first movement. Emotions and moods change throughout the rest of the movement as snippets of new and old material are blended together. The first theme of the first movement returns in the coda and Zarębski's treatment of it results in an exuberant ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Violin Sonata No. 1 In D Minor, Opus 75

In 1884 Saint-Saëns went on a concert tour with the violinist Martin Marsick, and perhaps that was the inspiration for the composition of his first violin sonata.  Saint-Saëns had written sonatas for the instrument in his youth, but this is the first one of his maturity.  The sonata was dedicated to Marsick.

The work is in 4 movements, but Saint-Saëns pairs them up in 2 sections as he was later to do with the movements of his 3rd Symphony so that there is only one pause between the second and third movements.

I. Allegro agitato - The first movement is in sonata form, with the first theme being a restless of shifting meters between 6/8 and 9/8 time:
The second theme is more lyrical for contrast. The development puts the first theme through some added tension before the piano and violin have a dialogue in counterpoint. The second theme is also expanded upon by key changes but basically retains its form. The recapitulation adds even more restlessness and tension to the first theme.  The second theme returns with a light, effervescent accompaniment. The second movement begins without pause.

II. Adagio -  The second movement is a tender conversation between the two instruments. The violin has the melody in the beginning, but the roles are reversed a little later in the movement. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes more decorated. The movement is all style and grace the moves with a sweet gentleness until it ends in the key it began in, E-flat major.

III. Allegro moderato -  This movement is a gentle scherzo in G minor. There is a feeling of the music being a little off balance due to the many subtle 5-bar phrases Saint-Saëns uses. In its own way, this movement is as gentle as the preceding adagio, and is a good contrast for the finale, which begins without pause.

IV. Allegro molto - Saint-Saëns had run-throughs of the sonata with two different violinists. The first had much trouble with the final movement, as did Marsick himself. But Marsick handled the difficulties as he and Saint-Saëns gave the premiere of the work after its publication. The metronome marking for the movement is quarter note = 168 beats per minute, with a flurry of sixteenth notes that makes the tempo even more difficult. Below are the first three lines of the violin part that in performance are over in a matter of a few seconds:
Saint-Saëns himself remarked to his publisher that it would be called “the hippogriffsonata”, because only a mythical creature would be able to master the final movement. Towards the end of the movement there is a brief return of the second theme of the first movement. It's not only the rapid sixteenth notes that are the difficulty of this movement. There are double and quadruple stops for the soloist as well as notes written in the extreme upper range of the violin. And the piano part is no easy task either. Saint-Saëns himself called this a 'concert sonata', and it became a popular work with violinists and pianists. The movement ends with a flourish in the key of D major.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mozart - String Quintet No. 4 In G Minor K.516

A string quintet ensemble is usually made up of a string quartet; two violins, viola and cello, with the addition of another cello or viola.  On occasion a double bass may be one of the extra instruments. The two string quintets Mozart wrote in 1787 have an additional viola added, because reportedly Mozart's favorite stringed instrument to play was the viola.

The pair of quintets are a study in contrast, as the one in C major is of a decidedly more sunny disposition than the one on G minor, a key that seems to be Mozart's key of passion and deep feeling. He wrote the pair of quintets around the time of the composition of his opera Don Giovanni, as well as the final illness of his father.

I. Allegro - The movement begins straight away with a hushed, agitated theme played in the first violin to an accompaniment from the second violin and first viola:
This theme is traded between violin and viola, and is transformed into the second theme, which begins in G minor but shifts to B-flat major. Lesser motives are heard, but the minor mode lurks throughout the exposition. The development section begins with the first theme. It moves from instrument to instrument as the section remains for the most part in the minor mode. The recapitulation has both themes repeated in G minor, The conventions of the time more often as not would have called for the movement to end in the major mode, but Mozart keeps the music solidly in G minor all the way to the end.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto -  The second movement minuet is far removed from the original courtly dance. It is in G minor, and is punctuated by two loud chords heard on the 3rd beat of the 4th and 6th bar:
The trio is in G major, but still has a shade of melancholy over it.

III. Adagio ma non troppo - Played with mutes on all five instruments throughout its length, the third movement is in E-flat major. Mozart's chromatic transition to the second theme in B-flat minor is taken up again as this minor key theme transforms into B-flat major and is repeated. The music delves back into despair once more before the sweetness of E-flat major brings the movement to a close.

IV.  Adagio - Allegro - Mozart begins the final movement in the darkness of G minor once again. But after the music shifts tempo, key to G major in 6/8 time,  The preceding dark movements are balanced out by this rondo, as is in full keeping with the music aesthetic of the Classical era.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Verdi - String Quartet In E Minor

Giuseppe Verdi is most well remembered as a composer of operas. His first opera, Oberto had its premiere  in 1839, and his last, Falstaff was premiered in 1893.  Some of his operas are the most popular ever written and are still performed by opera companies around the world.

He was born in 1813 and showed great musical talent early on. By the age of 8 he was the official paid organist of the church of Busseto which was near the village where he was born. At twelve years of age he became a student of a maestro da capella at St. Bartolomeo church in Busseto and also became acquainted with the Philharmonic Society there. He played in local concerts to great success and began composing.

He traveled to Milan to enroll in the conservatory there, but was turned down possibly due to his age. He studied with a local teacher, and after that began a life of teaching and composing. His first opera was a success in 1839, and he went on to compose 28 operas in his long life.

Verdi was in Naples in 1873 to supervise a production of his latest opera Aida when the only string quartet of his career was composed. The lead soprano of the production became ill, so rehearsals were suspended awaiting her return to health. Verdi wrote the string quartet as something to keep busy with during the delay. After the delay had ended and the opera had been performed, the quartet was premiered in Verdi's house in Naples.  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Verdi's first movement shows that he well understood sonata form. He puts his own art and craftsmanship in the general outline of the form proves his mastery of it. The first theme reflects his gift for melody as it plays out in an undercurrent of chamber-music appropriate drama and urgency. The second theme contrasts with its more calm nature. The development focuses on parts of the main theme for the most part. The recapitulation gives equal time to the second theme to the exclusion of the first theme. The coda brings back the first theme and closes the movement in the tonic E minor.

II. Andantino - Verdi himself gave his quartet short shrift when he said:
I've written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don't know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it's a Quartet!
The above quote may give the impression that he thought little of his only string quartet. That he refused to have it published for three years after its composition may also add to that illusion. But his mastery of the form as shown in the first movement shows that he gave the work his best effort. Perhaps he spoke disparagingly of it so as to not invite any suggestion that he write more quartets. He was a composer for the stage first and foremost. That was where his talent and desire lay. Whatever his motivation, this second movement consists of a simple melody that is given an artistically subdued treatment. A little over halfway through the movement, a more aggressive theme brings the movement to a climax before the main theme returns for another section of development.

III. Prestissimo - The key of E minor returns in this rhythmically biting scherzo, the shortest movement of the quartet. The trio in A major is a song for the cello with pizzicato accompaniment.

IV. Scherzo Fuga: Allegro assai mosso - Verdi calls this a scherzo fugue, which means despite the use of the form, a certain amount of good humor is in the mix. Verdi shifts the tonal center chromatically often, and the music is constantly moving forward until the key of E major brings the work to a close.


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