Sunday, January 24, 2021

Vivaldi - Violin Concerto In E Minor RV 278

The concertos for violin by Antonio Vivaldi (some 230 of the over 500 are for solo violin) contain some of the most recognizable and popular concertos for violin in music.  The set of 12 concertos called L'estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration) contained concertos for 4, 2, and 1 violin and were published in 1711. This set of concertos was some of the most influential music written in the Baroque period as far as string technique, musical form, and musical feeling. J.S. Bach transcribed 5 of these concertos, four of them shortly after they were published (he had access to the printed music while employed in Weimar) and one of them years later when he was employed at Leipzig, a concerto for four violins that he transcribed for four harpsichords. It was the transcriptions that Bach made that helped bring about the revival of Vivaldi's music in the 20th century, for by then his music had been forgotten. 

His set of 12 solo violin concertos, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (The Contest Between Harmony and Invention) the first four of which are the celebrated Four Seasons, was printed in 1725 and added to his contemporary renown.  What made his music popular then and continues to make it popular now are his melodic and harmonic invention, his use of musical representation of non-musical things and moods, and the drama of some of the music. Vivaldi was essentially a dramatic composer, and wrote over 46 operas in his lifetime. Vivaldi's style  annoyed some of the conservative leaders in the operatic hierarchy, so some of the operas were never staged. 

Vivaldi's opus numbers only reached to his opus 12 set of 5 violin concertos, so most of his compositions were not published in his lifetime. It wasn't until the 1970's that the RV numbering catalog of his works was implemented, which has helped identify many of the works. RV stands for Ryom-Verzeichnis catalog named after Peter Ryom, the Danish musicologist who created the system from previous catalogs and findings of manuscripts. 

Fame can be a fickle thing, even in Vivaldi's time, for his music began to lose favor in Venice and thus his livelihood was threatened. He made trips to Vienna and Prague around 1730 to stage some of his operas to earn some money. The Violin Concerto In E Minor RV 278 is not in any collection published during Vivaldi's lifetime, and musicologists believe the concerto was written on one of those money making excursions. The concert is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro molto - Largo - Allegro molto - Andante - The key of E minor seems to have been a dramatic and passionate key for Vivaldi. The Bassoon Concerto In E Minor RV 484 is but one more example besides this concerto.  This was written late in Vivaldi's career, and there is a dark atmosphere to it. The concerto begins with an outburst from the strings that doesn't last very long before there is a contrasting section of slow, melancholy music. This lasts but a short while as well as another outburst from the strings appears and leads to the entrance of the violin soloist. The soloist comments on some of the material already given, and is interrupted by another outburst from the tutti. It is interesting to notice that whenever the soloist appears, the basso continuo instruments are silent as the violins and violas give a simple accompaniment to the soloist. The outbursts get weight and depth when the bass instruments join in. The soloist never quite makes it to a climatic moment, as it either fades away or is interrupted by the tutti. And that is how the movement ends, with one more outburst.

II. Largo - The next movement begins with long notes in the violins and violas that  are accompanied by a dotted rhythm in the basso continuo. The dotted rhythm switches to the treble instruments as the bass takes up the long notes, and the soloist enters. As the soloist plays the sad tune, the dotted rhythm persists in the viols. This movement is an enigma, is short, and ends in E minor.

III. Allegro - The movement begins with the 1 violins playing the tune, 2nd violins playing the notes of the E minor chord, and the violas and bass play alternate sixteenth note - quarter note accompaniment. The soloist enters and is accompanied by the bass only for a section, then the other strings accompany while the bass is silent. As the soloist plays, it makes a statement and then changes the harmony for the next statement, but the accompaniment doesn't. This leads to a slight dissonance that spices up the music even more so. The tutti takes over again, with leaps in the violins. The soloist returns and its part gets slightly more complex with double stops. One of the strange things about this concerto is that the soloist never really has a grand moment as in some of Vivaldi's other concertos. There's no big finish to the first or third movements. The moods and  passions of Vivaldi are personified in this unique concerto.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Liszt - Malédiction For Piano and Strings

Franz Liszt was a musical genius, as a performer on the piano, conductor of an orchestra, and as a composer. He also had a tremendous drive to succeed and be all that he could be. He knew he was blessed with talent, and he felt obligated to develop that talent as much as he could. He first became a virtuoso pianist who also was one of the best sight readers of the time. He would put a manuscript copy of an orchestral work he had never seen or heard before on the music bench and play through it, arranging it as he went so it sounded well on the piano.  What seemed to come easy to him was a combination of natural talent and hard work. He spent countless hours at the piano developing one of the finest techniques of any pianist.

This is not to say he never composed. He began composing pieces as soon as he had learned the rudiments of music. He composed an opera when he was thirteen,  Don Sanche that was premiered in Paris when Liszt was fourteen.  And he composed his first version of the Transcendental Etudes for solo piano in 1826 when he was fifteen and composed many fantasies and paraphrases on opera tunes.  After the death of his father he lived in an apartment in Paris with his mother and made money for them both to live on by giving piano lessons dawn until dusk and did no composing.

He was a touring virtuoso for about eight years and only composed during holidays after the concert season. He began experimenting writing for piano and orchestra and one of his earliest compositions for this combination was what is now called Malédiction, written for piano and string orchestra or string sextet. Malédiction means 'curse' , this word was written over the first part of the work in the manuscript by Liszt. There is no other title on it.  It was given this title by musicologists who found the piece in 1915.

That this is an experimental piece is evident, as some of the seams show. Liszt was learning how to orchestrate and write a concerto for piano and orchestra, not an easy thing to do especially with the pianos of the day. To keep the soloist and orchestra in balance was something Liszt had to learn. That isn't to say this piece is only a curiosity. Far from it. It shows an expanded idea of harmony, especially in the first part, the part marked Malédiction.  Some of the chords in this section are quite striking in their dissonance, especially when we know the piece was written in 1833-1834.  Liszt was in his early 20's, fresh from meeting Berlioz and attending the premiere of Symphonie Fantastique in 1830.  As a composer, Liszt was in the avant-garde of the era almost immediately.

 Malédiction is in one movement, and originally may have had a program to go with it. A tone poem for piano and orchestra essentially, that changes moods and shifts tempos throughout. It begins in a minor key and ends in a major key and has a lot going on in between.  It is a glimpse into the creative mind of the young Franz Liszt.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Vivaldi - Concerto For 2 Mandolins And Strings RV 532

 Antonio Vivaldi wrote in most of the genres of music for his time, but he is most well known for  his concerto output of more than 500. The majority of these concertos were written for solo instrument and strings, with around 230 of them for solo violin, his own instrument. The rest are for various other instruments, with about 70 of them written for two or more soloists.

His duties at the Ospedale della pietà, the home for abandoned children, included working with the female children to teach them music and instruct them on ensemble playing as the girls made up the music ensemble of the home. Many of concertos were written to showcase the ensemble to visitors and guests, so there must have been all manner of musical instruments to learn from for the girls besides the usual strings. 

Traditional bowl back mandolin

The mandolin is an instrument within the lute family of stringed instruments. It's history goes back to ancestors of the modern version which evolved from still older Arabian instruments. The lute made its appearance in Europe in the 12th century by way of Andalusian Moors and the Crusades. The modern mandolin was developed from the lute in Italy and has a complex evolvement history from lute to mandolin. It's name itself comes from yet another plucked instrument in the family; the mandola. When smaller mandolas were developed, they were called the diminutive of the name, mandolino.

The instrument that is usually now regarded as the mandolin is an instrument with 4 sets of pairs of strings, with each pair tuned to the same pitch. Modern tuning for the mandolin is the same as the violin.  

Modern style mandolin
I. Allegro - The mandolin is not known for its volume or staying power. Modern amplification has helped, but of course the instrument of Vivaldi's time not only did not have amplification besides the sound box of the instrument, but they were strung with gut strings that produced even less volume. That is the reason for the technique of rapidly alternating between the pair of strings to give more tonal presence to the instrument. This first movement begins with strings playing rapidly and loudly with the mandolins barely being heard in the background. As the strings finish their first statement, they become quiet so as to let the soloists be heard. The soloists are accompanied by the quieted strings and continuo with their statement. These forces trade off until the strings bring the movement to a close.

II. Andante - The volume goes down and the tempo slows as the mandolins play a tune in E minor that echoes back and forth between them. To insure that the mandolins are the center attraction, Vivaldi  instructs only the violins and violas to play a pizzicato accompaniment in unison. 

III. Allegro - The final movement changes the meter 3/8 time and ends this concerto. This concerto has been transcribed for two guitars and it's interesting to note that many performances of the concerto with guitars is slower in tempo. Rapid tempos seem to benefit the original version for mandolins that Vivaldi wrote, but his skill and knowledge in writing for the instrument (especially in the middle movement) shows it's more versatile than usually thought. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Bach - Fugue In G Minor (Little) BWV 578

First of all, this organ fugue (BWV 578) was given the subtitle 'Little' by the editors of Bach's work to distinguish it from  the 'Great' Fantasia and Fugue, also in G minor (BWV 542).

Scholars believe Bach wrote this work sometime between 1703-1707 during his years at Arnstadt as a church organist.  Bach was eighteen and already had a reputation as an organist and authority on organs. The church had a new organ and asked Bach to examine it, and they gave him the job of organist.  Bach eventually got into trouble for his overly creative extemporizing on the organ, and between the congregation and priests complaining about his playing, he finally got tired of it all and resigned.  While at Arnstadt he also got into trouble for complaining about a bassoonist's playing and getting in a fight with him on the city street.

The Little G Minor Fugue is based on this subject:

The fugue is for 4 voices and the theme is first stated in the soprano, then the alto, tenor and bass. Bach puts the tune through his imaginative counterpoint and it comes out interlaced between other tunes and parts of tunes until it makes its way to the end. 

A fugue is more than just a name for a musical piece. It is a way to compose a musical piece too. Bach is the supreme master of this compositional technique, so much so that even if the listener knows nothing about how a fugue 'works', a Bach fugue can still make musical sense.  This fugue only takes a little over 4 minutes to play, and Bach fills those 4 minutes with a wealth of variety while still keeping the subject close at hand and discernible.    

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Mahler - Symphony No.1 In D Major

Gustav Mahler  worked his way up through many opera houses in Europe until he became director of the Vienna Court Opera, one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe. He was best known in his lifetime as a conductor, and it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that his music became more well known.  This was partly due to his music being very modern (for the times), complex, most of the symphonies need a very large orchestra, and the works are lengthy. It also didn't help his cause when his music was banned during the Nazi era in Europe because of his Jewish heritage.

Composing for Mahler remained a part-time activity for most of his life, undertaken during the opera and concert off-season. Later in life he would do his composing in a small hut that he had built by the lake and away from his main house.

The 1st Symphony was completed in 1888.  He originally called it a two-part tone poem but after the premiere he made extensive revisions and called it his first symphony.  One of the decisions he made was to reduce it to a more traditional 4 movement symphony when he eliminated one of the middle movements.  The symphony calls for a very large orchestra, over 100 players.

I. Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout) - Mahler was greatly influenced by a book of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or The Youth's Magic Horn. He set some of these poems to music throughout his life beginning with four songs that he called  Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer.  The opening movement of the first symphony uses the music of one of these songs,  Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld, or I Went This morning Over The Field. Mahler gave detailed tempo designations to the movements of this symphony. The movement opens in D minor with the note A played on the strings, the violins playing in high harmonics.
This note is held for an appreciable time and played at a very low dynamic level. A two-note motif is heard alternating in the woodwinds amid this primeval sound, which leads to another 6-note descending motif heard in the bassoons and oboes. A fanfare in triplets is heard in the clarinets. The motifs are heard again in the woodwinds and lead to another fanfare in trumpets that are off-stage to give the impression of distance. Clarinets imitate a cukoo's call with the two-note motif, and the horns also have a short melody to add. The music slowly builds in volume and after a short section of brooding sounding music,begins to lighten in mood as the two-note motif leads to the beginning of the exposition with the tune of the song Ging heut' Morgen übers Feld heard in the cellos. The tune is taken up by various instruments and developed until it reaches a climax. The exposition is heard once again.

The development section begins slowly with the opening high-pitched drone on the strings as motifs return and modulate into different keys. The music lightens and the horns take up another fanfare before the main theme returns. It slowly builds and modulates to a minor key as the tension increases until the recapitulation begins with a blaze of horns and trumpets and the first theme is heard. The two-note motif persists in the coda until the movement to a thunderous conclusion.

II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving strongly, but not too quickly), Recht gemächlich (restrained) - The second movement, in the key of A major, is a German Ländler, a dance form that Mahler used frequently in his other symphonies. The original version of the 1st Symphony had 5 movements, the extra movement being inserted between the first movement and this movement. Mahler eventually removed this Andante movement with the name of Blumine (Godess of Flowers) after negative criticism, but there are a few references to it in the rest of the symphony that Mahler did not change. The secondary theme of the Ländler is a reference to the theme of the missing movement. The trio is more lyrical in its themes. The Ländler returns is a shortened version with heavier orchestration, and ends in a crash.

III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and measured, without dragging), Sehr einfach und schlicht wie eine Volksweise (very simple, like a folk-tune), and Wieder etwas bewegter, wie im Anfang (once again somewhat more agitated, as at the start) - The third movement is based on the folk tune Frere Jaque (Bruder Martin in German), and is an example of Mahler's morbid sense of humor as it is transformed into a funeral march.  It begins with a solo double bass playing the tune along with a timpani:
 Mahler retains the tune as a round, as instruments take turns playing it before the previous rendition is through.  A counter melody is introduced, and then the mood changes as a cymbal and bass drum punctuate a new melody with the orchestration of a Jewish Klezmer band, perhaps as a bow to Mahler's Jewish heritage. Mahler accentuates this music with broad tempo changes and hesitations. The next section changes to a more gentle and lyrical mood. After this section, the beginning march returns in different orchestration. The movement slowly draws to a close with the tempo decreasing, and the march fading away. 

Hunter's Funeral Procession by Moritz von Schwind
Tradition has it that Mahler was inspired for this movement by a woodcut by the artist Moritz von Schwind that depicts a group of animals of the forest marching with the corpse of a hunter for burial. An ironic picture, and one that Mahler would have appreciated.

IV.  Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormily agitated – Energetic) -  With the previous movement ending practically inaudibly quiet, the opening of this movement is a jump starter. With a triple forte cymbal clash, the orchestra begins a loud introduction that will attempt to sort out some of the music heard in the first movement. The driving strings settle into a passionate version of the very first theme heard in the first movement, and after this is given a frantic treatment, there is a gradual lessening until a new expansive lyrical theme in D-flat major appears. 

The development section begins with fragments from the first movement opening, and then grows into a frenetic march. This march continues until a fragment from the discarded 'Blumine' movement appears, and leads to more of the first theme material, which in turn leads back to the frantic march. 'Blumine' returns once again, and leads to the first theme. This goes to a repeat of the very mysterious beginning of the first movement, Snatches of motifs are heard from the 2nd movement as all grows hushed. 

Themes are brought back and expanded until the second theme gets a brief return treatment. The first theme dominates the coda, with the horns adding strong punctuation until the fanfares from the first movement return in a rousing ending. 

Mahler once said, "A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything."  His music is big in every sense of the word; in expression, forces used, length and complexity.  And each one of his symphonies is like a world unto itself.

Bruckner - Symphony No. 2 In C Minor

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)  wrote a total of eleven symphonies, although two go unnumbered. There is a certain amount of similarity within all of them, which some have said makes him repetitive, that he wrote the same symphony 11 times.  But these similarities are Bruckner's style. With careful listening and familiarity, the Bruckner Symphonies also show differences enough to make each a work of art in its own right.

Symphony No. 2 was finished in 1872, but as with many of Bruckner's symphonies it went through various revisions. The revisions for other symphonies of Bruckner can be quite substantial with marked differences, sometimes entire movements are rewritten. The revisions of the 2nd Symphony are many, most of them minor and are of a technical nature. The main difference between the original and the later version heard here are the changing of positions within the symphony of the 2nd and 3rd movements. That is, the Scherzo is now the 3rd movement and the Adagio the 2nd movement.  This symphony is sometimes called Symphony of Pauses due to the many  full orchestra rests within, which add to the overall form and expressive nature of the work.

I. Moderato (moderately, not too fast) - The music begins softly, with tremoloes in the violins and violas. Many of Bruckner's symphonies  begin with a string tremolo, but this one is different in that they are measured tremeloes; that is Bruckner designates a number of repetitions (the number 6 above the dotted half notes, which equals out to eighth note triplets, or twelve notes to the bar). Other times Bruckner designates an unmeasured tremolo which gives a different effect. The cellos play the first snatches of a theme high in their register: 
This becomes the main theme of the first theme group. An important rhythm first heard in the trumpet during the first theme group is:

This rhythm is as important as any theme in the first movement, as it is heard throughout the movement in many different tonal forms. The second theme group starts in the strings and the key shifts to E-flat major.  The third theme group is also in E-flat major, and begins with a persistent rhythm in the low strings of a quarter note - two eighth notes. 

The development sections begins with ominously quiet tremoloes in the low strings. Themes are elaborated upon with the trumpet tempo-theme cropping up many times. There is much thematic material to elaborate on, and Bruckner picks and chooses what to develop, and as well adds other material not heard before. The music dies away and pauses before the recapitulation begins.

The recapitulation repeats the opening material, and the music leads to a coda that begins in low strings, horns and winds. The dynamic gets louder and louder, and the music comes to a complete halt, with the first theme returning quietly. Suddenly the music gets louder, with the trumpets blaring out the tempo-theme and orchestra with timpani coming to a dramatic end.

II. Andante: Feierlich, etwas bewegt (solemnly, but a little fast) - Bruckner has been called a great 'adagio' composer, known for his slow movements. This movement is marked andante, but it unfolds slowly, so slowly that the sense of time can stand still, and a sense of form may not be discernible to the listener (which is not necessarily a bad thing)The key is A-flat major and begins in the strings:
This section slowly unwinds until the next section begins with pizzicato strings with a new theme in the horns:

These two sections are repeated, with the first section increasing in  harmonic diversity and passion. But Bruckner's increases of passion can sometimes lead to nowhere, as the music comes to a stop with no resolution. But there are other themes to explore, and the second section begins again. Towards the end of the second section, Bruckner quotes some of his music from a previous work, the Benedictus from his Mass In F Minor.  The first theme of the first section reappears in the coda gently played by the horn as the strings fade away.

III. Scherzo: Mäßig schnell - Trio: Gleiches Tempo  (somewhat fast - same tempo for trio) - After the other-worldly ending of the previous movement, the loud start of the scherzo is startling. It is in C minor, and once again a rhythm becomes just as important as the thematic material, as the scherzo is built upon the rhythm. The scherzo flat-foots it until a pause is reached. The trio begins in the key of C major, with tremoloes in the violins and the theme in the violas:
The scherzo returns after the trio and makes its way to a coda that brings a loud conclusion with the strings reaching the heights with runs of the C minor scale as the rest of the orchestra pounds out the opening rhythm.  

IV. Finale: Ziemlich schnell (quite fast) - The music begins quietly in the strings. The 1st violins play a sporadic motif, and after a lengthy buildup, a theme starts with a loud declaration by the orchestra:

This triplet rhythm Bruckner uses throughout the movement as well.  The next major theme is in A major and is of a more lyric character. These two themes, along with other material, return at different points in the movement, sometimes in radically different guises. The form of the movement is a cross between sonata form and rondo. And the movement is not without the pauses that today seem to be so much a part of the work, while in Bruckner's time the pauses caused critics and audiences bewilderment. 

The main theme of the first movement returns as the coda begins, and after the music goes through some stops and starts, the movement comes to a blazing close in C major in the triplet rhythm of the beginning of the movement.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Glière - String Quartet No. 2 In G Minor, Opus 20

Reinhold Glière lived from 1874 until 1956, and managed to please the Czarist and Communist regimes by his composing style and talent. Not an ultra-conservative (at least in his early years), nor was he a 'modernist' during Stalin's reign (which being labeled as such could get a composer in a lot of hot water, as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and others discovered).  

He followed in the steps of the Mighty Five of Russian music; Rimsky-Korsakov ( Glière dedicated the 2nd String Quartet to him), Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, and Cui, as Russian folk song played a large role in his compositions. One of his most well known works is the 1911 epic 3rd Symphony 'Ilya Muromets', which uses Russian folklore and folk music.  As with many composers early in their career, he wrote chamber music as well.  He wrote two of his four string quartets early on, with the 2nd in G Minor in 1905. 

I. Allegro moderato - The first movement starts straight off with the first of two quite Russian sounding themes in the 1st violin:

This theme gets a short development before it is repeated in the 1st and 2nd violins.  A section of key changes and mood changes prepares the way for the 2nd theme in D major that is based on a Russian folksong:

The first theme reappears to start the development section. After fragments of it play, the second theme reappears. The music becomes more and more animated until a short pause ushers a working out towards the recapitulation. The first theme plays again in the home key of G minor, the second theme plays this time in the key of B-flat major. A coda brings the movement back to G minor, and the music ends solemnly. 

II. Andante - A theme in E-flat major opens the movement in the 1st violin, and on repetition by the cello:

 A middle section moves into different keys and increases movement slightly and has sections where it grows more passionate, but for the most part the music stays tranquil. The music slowly slows in volume as the theme returns. The music comes to a gentle, quiet close in the key in which it began.

III. Vivace -  The 2nd violin begins the movement playing a fifth of A and E,  sounding like a village fiddler beginning a dance:

The 1st violin plays the melody that is punctuated by trills. A contrasting section is in the key of D-flat major and modulated to other keys and moods before the music returns to the opening dance. The movement ends with a quiet refrain of the dance, and a hushed chord of string harmonics.

IV. Orientale: Andante - Allegro - The final movement begins with 1st and 2nd violins playing in unison, and the viola and cello playing the same melody in unison an octave lower. the music is in the key of G minor, but the ear detects something different about it:

This is a type of minor scale that is heard in different kinds of folk music, sometimes from quite different areas. I have heard it called the Hungarian Gypsy scale, some call it the harmonic melodic scale. No doubt Glière came across the scale in the research he did in Russian folk music. It has an exotic sound to it, and fits quite well in a movement called Orientale. 

After this short introduction, the music grows faster and has a persistent dotted rhythm accompanying the theme that begins in  the viola:
There is a second theme with the same persistent dotted rhythm accompanying it. The rest of the movement has both themes being stated and elaborated upon, and episodes of new material, or at least new workings out of other themes that is done so well they sound different. There is not much let up in the rhythmic drive until the end.