Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Liszt - Symphonic Poem 'Hamlet'

The symphonic poems of Franz Liszt have garnered their share of interpretation of meaning.  Of course they are all a type of music written with a specific person, place or event in mind, program music. This type of music lends itself more to interpretation of meaning (and downright conjecture) than absolute music.  Liszt's tenth symphonic poem Hamlet seems to have developed two main camps of interpretation of meaning. One takes it as tone painting of the actual events and people in the play, the other is more of a character sketch of Hamlet and his emotions during the action of Shakespeare's play.

As Liszt didn't leave a detailed program, the piece is certainly open to differing ideas as to its specific meaning.  The works original purpose was as an overture to a dramatic production of the play, so there is no doubt musical references to events and people in the drama with a few references in the score as evidence of that.  To paraphrase Liszt's thoughts on program music, he thoughts on it were explained by using the example of how a landscape could produce a mood within the viewer, and that music also could evoke a mood within the listener. As the landscape paints the mood, so can music paint the mood.  So while some composers may have had a specific non-musical meaning behind their music, to me it is enough to know in general terms what the story is without a highly detailed, bar by bar analysis of which notes and phrases represent what specifically.  As Liszt himself said in a letter to a friend:

"Without any reserve I completely subscribe to the rule of which you so kindly want to remind me, that those musical works which are in a general sense following a programme must take effect on imagination and emotion, independent of any programme. In other words: All beautiful music must be first rate and always satisfy the absolute rules of music which are not to be violated or prescribed"

Liszt did make some changes to the original overture and this final version was not heard for decades after his death.  The work begins with the tempo indication Sehr langsam und Düster which loosely translates to Very slowly and gloomily.  A horn makes the first entry with muted notes that sound unearthly.  The orchestra enters after these notes and keeps with the eeriness of the music by playing softly, and the horn once again utters the stopped notes, orchestra responds as before for a few measures and then the time signature changes and the tempo indication changes to Moving, but moving very slowly.  The indication Always gloomily appears occasionally throughout the first part. Tempo changes occur, Allegro appassionato, Allegro agitato, but the gloom never lifts off the orchestra completely. And as a reminder, Liszt repeats the opening tempo indications at the beginning of the ending, very slowly and gloomily with the added instruction Moderato-funebre , the death of Hamlet.

Someone once said that of all the major composers, Liszt was the one that threw his spear farthest into the future. That may be open to discussion, but Liszt did reveal the passions, terrors, loves and hatreds of humans in his music, perhaps to a degree as yet matched by any other composer.  The symphonic poem is a mysterious and gloomy piece. Whether it follows the mood of the play, its specific actions, or if it 'paints' the moods and frames of mind of Hamlet, I leave to the listener.

Saint-Saëns - Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

Camille Saint-Saëns was a natural musician, one of those who was born to make and create music. As he said himself, "I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples."  He was a child prodigy, memorized all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and offered the audience to choose one that he would play from memory as an encore at his debut recital in 1845 when he was ten years old.  Such a feat made him world famous, even in the United States.  He composed his first piano piece at 4 years of age, his first public appearance was as an accompanist for a Beethoven violin sonata when he was 5 years old. He wrote his first symphony at sixteen. But his genius was not limited to music. He knew how to read and write by three years old and had a partial command of Latin by the time he was seven.  His many interests throughout his life included geology, archaeology, botany, and the occult. He was an expert mathematician, wrote on a variety of subjects, and wrote a book of poetry.

Raw genius is perhaps not as rare as we think, but raw genius combined with a capacity to work and train that genius to its full potential perhaps is. Saint-Saëns seems to have had both. That he was a quick study is evident, but he developed his gifts to a remarkable degree through effort and diligence. That he was able to do this with what appeared to the ordinary person with not much effort probably caused him to have as many enemies as friends. Jealousy over someone else's precocity isn't that rare of a thing.  Perhaps that is one issue that has fueled some criticisms of his music over the years, that it is too 'slick', shallow, no depth of feeling, cold.  To be sure,  his music does not plumb the depths like a Bruckner symphony, but why would it? Saint-Saëns is not Bruckner, or Beethoven, or anyone else. His music is well written, has its moments of feeling and passion that is more refined, and even subdued. But a point can be made with understatement as well as (and sometimes better) than overstatement.  It pretty much boils down to what the listener likes and 'gets' out of the music.

Saint-Saëns wrote the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra  for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1863.  The work is fitting for a virtuoso, and Saint-Saëns shows that he was not only a master of orchestration (the craft of using instruments in varying combinations) but also of instrumentation ( the craft of using a particular instruments tone, pitch and dynamic range, technical possibilities, correct notation for the instrument). In this piece as well as his others for violin and orchestra, as well as the first Cello Concerto he shows his complete command and knowledge of what is possible on strings. For someone who did not play the violin, his artistic and practical knowledge of the instrument was amazing.

The rhythm and thematic material of the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso  shows that Saint-Saëns shared with his fellow french composers a fascination with Spanish music. The work is a lyrical showpiece for the violin, with some pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure, especially near the end when the violin plays the accompaniment to the theme heard in the oboe.  For Saint-Saëns,  virtuosity could be a virtue as much as the music, but it must always contribute to the musical whole.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Roussel - Symphony No. 3

Albert Roussel (1869 - 1937) was a French composer and somewhat of a rarity. His first love in his youth was not music, but mathematics. He joined the French navy, and finally turned to music after he spent seven years in the navy.  When he was 25, he enrolled for instruction in harmony in 1894 after he resigned from the navy and finished his education in Paris where he also taught.  During his time in the navy and also afterwards he traveled to many places which influenced his music, especially India.

Early in his composing career Claude Debussy was an influence, and while some of his early works are somewhat in the style of impressionism, it was not Roussel's true voice as a composer. He  had a highly classical turn to his compositional thought, which led him to more to the neo-classisist school of composition. He composed  4 symphonies and a few other works for orchestra,  one concerto each for cello and piano, many chamber pieces, opera, ballet, and a handful of choral pieces. While his output was not large, he was a very influential composer in France between the world wars.

His orchestral music is not what is thought of as typically 'French', as it can have a 'bite' to it and a lot of rhythmic drive.  His music sounds 'heavier', but not as heavy as some German orchestral music.  The 3rd symphony opens with a first movement theme that is heavily accented and rhythmically terse. The contrast between this theme and the second theme is considerable, as the tune floats over the orchestra in muted colors until the first theme elbows its way back to the forefront. This movement is short for a first movement, at about five minutes, but with the total difference with the two themes and how they 'bounce' against each other, the movement manages to say what it needs to say, albeit in highly concentrated form.

The second movement is more relaxed in mood and length.  At about 15 minutes, it is three times as long as the first movement and longer than the other three movements put together. But it does build to a loud climax and slowly returns to the relaxed mood that it began with.  The third movement is a scherzo-dance that some have thought shows a Spanish influence. The last movement begins quietly, has a calm middle section, then the orchestra builds to a  loud, crashing end.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 7

With his usual Romantic hyperbole, Richard Wagner called Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 the "apotheosis of the dance".  As Wagner's universe-sized ego seldom allowed him to praise a fellow composer, this remark may appear suspect. But Wagner did admire Beethoven's symphonies, even if he did resort to re-orchestrating them in places when he conducted them.  What Wagner is referring to is the emphasis put on rhythm in this symphony, and dancing is all about rhythm.

The rhythm of a piece of music is an integral part of it, but seldom is rhythm emphasized the same way as in this symphony.  But that's not the only unique aspect of this symphony.  Symphony No. 7 was completed in 1812 and premiered in 1813 at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers of the Battle Of Hanau. Beethoven conducted it himself and the work was a resounding success, especially the second movement Allegretto which had to be immediately replayed before the symphony could continue.

The work begins with a long introduction, and the movement proper begins after an ingenious transition where the orchestra passes the pitch of  E natural back and forth in different octaves and note lengths. The dance element is felt immediately when the first theme is heard in the flutes and oboes in a dotted rhythm:

This rhythm shows up throughout the movement in different guises and pitches. In the coda of the movement, Beethoven writes a gradual crescendo as this 2-bar motive appears in the violas, cellos and double basses:

This motive is played eleven times as the rest of the orchestra takes turns chattering snippets of melody over it until the crescendo is finally reached with the restatement of the dotted rhythm.  This is one of the most unique transitions in symphonic history, and some at the time did not understand it. Carl Maria von Weber, a composer that was Beethoven's contemporary, was one who did not understand it at all as he thought that it proved Beethoven was ripe for the mad house.

The second movement was originally marked Andante, but a printing error changed the tempo marking to Allegretto. Beethoven himself asked for a correction back to Andante but to no avail. The movement is not to be taken too fast, and it surely isn't 'light' in character as allegretto intimates. After a sustained chord in the woodwinds and horns, the violas, cellos and double basses begin one of Beethoven's most recognizable melodies:
 The theme is recognizable as much as for the rhythm as the pitches of the notes. This movement is one of Beethoven's most popular compositions. The tune and the rhythm wend their way through the short movement and are heard at various pitches and with interesting counter-melodies playing in the background.

The third movement is a scherzo that scampers and stomps its way until it turns into a calm trio for winds and horns playing over a gentle string accompaniment, until the horns blat out an invitation for the strings to loudly play the theme. The horns do this again, the strings loudly play the tune again, and then all fades into the orchestral scampering again.  But then Beethoven throws the listener another curve; he repeats the trio (not unique really, for he did it before in other compositions) and the scampering theme returns again.  But just when the trio begins for the third time, Beethoven cuts it short with a change of key and an abrupt ending.

The rhythmic vitality doesn't let up in the finale, as the orchestra dances away in sonata form, and once in awhile the dancing resembles peasant stomping at a village festival. A movement full of energy, it ends in a blaze of rhythmic good humor.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Alkan - Le festin d'Ésope (Aesop's Feast)

Charles Alkan's set of etudes in all the minor keys is a work of staggering proportions. The first etude is a flurry of 16th note triplets and is named 'Like The Wind. Etudes four, five, six and seven are arranged as a four-movement symphony for piano solo, and if that isn't enough, etudes eight, nine and ten are arranged as a three-movement concerto for solo piano where the first movement is 72 pages long and takes 30 minutes to perform.

The last etude in the group is a set of 25 variations on an original 8-bar theme. The title of the piece implies that the variations could represent various fables of Aesop and depict the animals in the fables. There is no program or clue outside of the title of the piece however. It is up to the imagination of the listener to provide a 'picture' of the proceedings.

This set of variations acts as a culmination to what has gone before with the other eleven etudes. As the previous etudes have been far from simple piano pieces, this final one is really complex for the pianist. But Alkan's imagination has created a most engaging set of variations that will provide the imagination of the careful listener a tour de force of pianistic music making at its highest level.

The emotional, passionate and at times witty aspects of Alkan's music need to be stressed. It is not just music that can be difficult to play (although some of it most assuredly is) but it is the passion and intensity behind it that makes it so attractive. This is the case as well with his piano music that is not as difficult. His larger, more challenging works usually get the most attention, but he wrote a great many smaller, shorter pieces for piano and was a talented miniaturist as well.      

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Glazunov - Symphony No. 1

Alexander Glazunov has been called the Russian Brahms, which may or may not be a good comparison to either composer. He was one of the most remarkable child prodigies Russia ever produced. He was the son of a wealthy publisher and began piano lessons at age nine,  and began composing at age eleven.  Mily Balakirev recognized Glazunov's talent and brought him to the attention of Rimsky-Korsakov when he showed him a orchestral composition written by the young musician. Rimsky-Korsakov taught Glazunov as a private pupil beginning in 1879 and within two years Glazunov had progressed so rapidly (not day by day but by the hour) that Rimsky-Korsakov considered him a mature musician and a younger colleague.

The Symphony No. 1 was written when Glazunov was sixteen and premiered the following year in 1882. The first symphony is known as the Slavonic Symphony because of Gazunov's use of folk song like themes throughout it. The audience applauded the piece enthusiastically and when the composer went on stage to take a bow wearing his school uniform people could not believe the piece was written by one so young. In fact there were rumors started that the symphony had been written by professional composers hired by Glazunov's parents and been passed off as his own. But Rimsky-Korsakov refuted the rumors.  Glazunov and his symphony went to Europe and it was played for Liszt.  Tchaikovsky heard about the premiere and later purchased a copy of Glazunov's first string quartet and declared that the composers talent was undeniable.

Glazunov went on to become a virtuoso of the orchestra and a master of counterpoint.  He had one of the greatest musical memories ever known. He could hear a piece one time and play it perfectly, even years later. although Glazunov developed alcoholism later in life and couldn't teach without a bottle of alcohol in his desk, his phenomenal memory remained unimpaired. He went on to compose eight complete symphonies and part of a ninth. He gradually became more conservative and taught for many years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  He left soviet Russia in the 1920's and settled in Paris.

Dmitri Shostakovich was a student of Glazunov and relates many things that tell much about his character. He used his influence to help the conservatory as much as he could in the lean years after the Russian Revolution. He even refused a luxury apartment offered to him by the government in exchange for extra fire wood for the Conservatory so the students could be warm and learn better.

Glazunov's music suffered from neglect in the past, but is being played more in recent years. What was once considered old-fashioned can now be appreciated for its orchestral mastery and creativity.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Moscheles - Piano Concerto No. 7 ' Pathétique '

Ignaz Moscheles (1794 - 1870) was a Bohemian composer and pianist. He was born in Prague and showed a remarkable musical aptitude early on. Upon the death of his father he moved to Vienna in 1808 where he completed his studies and became a well-known pianist around town. He developed a long-lasting relationship with his idol Beethoven and was given the task of creating a piano reduction of Beethoven's opera Fidelio.  Moscheles remained lifetime friends with Beethoven and championed his music. He became friends (and rivals) with the other piano virtuosos in Vienna at the time. Moscheles also acted as an intermediary for the Royal Philharmonic Society and Beethoven. He got the society to send Beethoven some much-needed funds and to commission a symphony for them, but Beethoven died before he finished the commission.

He embarked on a European concert tour and especially enjoyed his stay in London in 1822.  He accepted an invitation from Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Berlin to give his two children, Felix and Fanny, music lessons. He was quite taken with the children, especially Felix and was instrumental in getting Felix his first exposure in London in 1829.  He said of Felix shortly after he began to teach him:

"This afternoon... I gave Felix Mendelssohn his first lesson, without losing sight for a moment of the fact that I was sitting next to a master, not a pupil."

He remained friends with Mendelssohn and taught at the Leipzig Conservatory Mendelssohn had founded. After Mendelssohn's death in 1847 he took over as leader of the Conservatory.  While Moscheles was not close to Wagner because of Wagner's attack on Mendelssohn in a pamphlet titled "Jewry in Music", (Moscheles was also Jewish) he was on friendly terms with Liszt and Berlioz, even though he had little understanding of their compositions. His own later compositions were looked upon as old-fashioned in their time, as was his method of piano playing. He was of the old school that used primarily finger work and very little body or arm weight to play, and he disliked the increased use of the pedals.

He composed 142 opus numbers, and had written pieces in most forms that were popular in  the early 19th century. He wrote eight piano concertos, with the seventh being subtitled 'Pathétique'.  It was premiered in 1835 in Leipzig. The first movement opens with an ominous bass. The piano and orchestra play off each other and key changes create a blurred kind of sonata form in which we're not sure what section we're in sometimes. The second movement is a combination scherzo-slow movement which leads to the final movement which is thematically related to the second.

Moscheles shows a mastery of orchestration and solo piano writing in this concerto that can once again be appreciated without being called old-fashioned. It is a product of its times to be sure, but there is no longer the  great divide in music as there was in the middle and late 19th century, where composers, critics and listeners were often part of a traditional conservative camp or a modern progressive camp. We can enjoy Moscheles' music for what it is; well-constructed, interesting and beautiful.

Moscheles - Piano Concerto No. 7 ' Pathétique '

Herz - Piano Concerto No. 1

Henri Herz (1803 - 1888) was born in Vienna but lived most of his life in France. He was a virtuoso pianist and composer, one of the most popular composers of his day.  He published over 200 compositions, eight piano concertos, and the rest mostly for piano and sold more pieces than any other composer for a twelve year period in the 1820's and 1830's.

He was derided in his day by no less of a composer than Schumann for his shallow and showy style of playing and composing. As Herz was selling his music at as much as four times the price of other composers (including Schumann) there was no doubt a hint of jealousy and hurt pride in the criticism. Not that some of the criticism isn't warranted. Herz's music doesn't plumb the depths of emotion, nor is it overly serious. Herz was all about writing music to entertain, and he seems to have done that quite well for his era.

He was on a world tour in 1846-1850  that included South America, Mexico, Russia and was the first major pianist to tour the United States, traveling all the way to San Francisco. He wrote a book about his American tour, My Travels in America.  Between his compositions and his touring, Herz became a very rich man. He built a concert hall in Paris and started a piano manufacturing company.  Herz was also a private piano teacher and taught at the Paris Conservatory after his traveling virtuoso days were over.

Popularity can be a fleeting thing as Herz discovered. The man himself outlasted his music and when Herz died in 1888 his music had been relegated to the back shelf. It wasn't until fairly recently that Herz has been given his due as a composer.  He himself knew he wasn't a Schumann or Chopin, but he did know how to write music that is easy to listen to and enjoy.  And the solo parts of his piano concertos do show that he was a virtuoso with a fine, light touch and critics of his day (at least the ones without bias) also said as much.

The first piano concerto in A major, written in 1828, is  a typical example of Herz's composing style. The first movement has an orchestral exposition and the soloist enters with a flurry of notes. While this music may not challenge the listener, it most assuredly can impress with the virtuosity demanded from the soloist. The second movement is a slow melody first heard in the horns and then delicately picked up by the soloist. The third movement is full of yet more piano fireworks as Herz  sprays notes and runs all through the movement.

Herz - Piano Concerto No. 1

Saturday, December 17, 2011

C.P.E. Bach - Symphony For Strings In B Minor Wq. 182/5

Mozart said of C.P.E. Bach, "He is the father, we are the children", high praise indeed from Mozart who didn't have much nice to say about most composers.  Haydn also held him in high regard, and once C.P.E.'s music is heard we can understand why.

His music is full of originality, wit, depth of feeling and craftsmanship. He was also influential as a keyboard teacher and his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments was used by Beethoven for his students and is still in print today.  Bach lived in a time of great change in musical style, from the learned fugue and counterpoint that his father J.S. Bach was master of, to a style more accessible, simple and tuneful, the Style Galante.  Bach wrote over 800 pieces in many different forms, including the symphony.

Bach's symphonies are written in the Italianate style, that is they are in three movements and alternate fast-slow-fast, and are descended from overtures to operas.  His other stylistic factor is that he does not follow style galante nearly as much as he follows empfindsamer Stil, or the sensitive style of composition. Bach's symphonies are the forerunners of the Romantic style in that they have more of a depth of feeling to them and are full of sudden changes of mood between the movements.

There's some question as to how many symphonies Bach wrote, but we do know that the Symphony in B Minor For Strings was fifth in a set of six string symphonies he wrote for Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Upon talking to Bach about the commission for the symphonies, the Baron told Bach to not be concerned about writing difficult music to perform. Evidently the Baron had a good orchestra at his disposal. The Baron was also a patron of three other great composers, Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven.

The symphony is typical of Bach, with a first movement that flirts with the major and minor scales, is full of runs for the violins and outbursts for the entire ensemble. The second movement is a gently rocking larghetto that leads into the third movement presto with the orchestra scampering out a theme amid the outbursts from the high strings.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tcherepnin - Ten Bagatelles For Piano

Alexander Tcherepnin ( 1899 - 1977 ) was Russian-born pianist and composer whose father Nicolas was a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and also a composer. Alexander's  son and grandsons are also composers. His father also conducted the orchestra for the famed Ballet Russe so young Alexander got to meet many leading musicians and artists of the day that were guests in their home.

Tcherepnin learned the basics of music from his mother before he was five years old. By the time he began his studies in harmony and composition in his teen years he had already composed over one hundred compositions. During the Russian Revolution of 1917 the family moved to Tbilisi, Georgia where Alexander continued his studies. By this time Tcherepnin had composed over two hundred pieces, including the Bagatelles for piano. The turmoil in Russia eventually boiled over into Georgia and the family once again moved, making Paris their home. Alexander completed his studies there and embarked on a career that saw him traveling extensively around the world as a performer and composer.  

Tcherepnin's music thus was influenced from a lot of different sources from the very beginning.  That he composed so much by such a young age shows his natural gifts blossomed early. He grew as a composer and went through many stylistic phases. He was influenced by Georgian folk songs from his student days there,  traveled and taught in the far East, kept a home in Paris and the United States when he wasn't touring. He wrote incredibly complex music, avant garde music (a movement in  one of his symphonies is for unpitched percussion instruments alone), and music that was more accessible to the general public.  

As noted his Bagatelles for piano were pieces written in his youth. They are short (the longest one lasting barely 2 minutes) pithy and dissonant. They are like children themselves. Witty one moment, loud the next, fidgety and barely able to sit still, leaping about and playing.  

The Bagatelles for piano show that from the start, Tcherepnin took the influences he experienced and made of them his own musical language. He was a follower of no 'school' of composition. He made his own way with his own methods, devices and music philosophy. His style and philosophy of composition gave his works such variety that it is impossible to pigeon-hole him as a composer. His music is unique, as was the man.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 6

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) was a Russian composer best known for his symphonies. He wrote his first symphony as a student when he was 19 in 1926.  Famous conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski both thought the first symphony a work of genius and they conducted it in Berlin and the United States respectively.

Shostakovich had many influences early on, most notably Prokofiev and Stravinsky.  He went through a phase of experimental music which made his 2nd and 3rd symphonies not as popular as his first symphony. He eventually was denounced in 1936 in the soviet newspaper Pravda and after Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District (which had premiered in 1934 and was a great success) another newspaper article appeared that condemned the opera for being formalist, coarse, primitive and vulgar.  It was thought that Stalin ordered the article be written, and after it was, Shostakovich's commissions fell along with his income. Critics and officials that had previously praised the opera had to openly change their opinion, for Shostakovich was now a marked man at a time when that meant 'liquidation'.

The story of how Shostakovich managed to live through this denunciation and another later on is not really clear.  But he did change his style and with his 5th symphony he was returned to minimal favor, although things remained shaky for him the rest of his life.

The 6th Symphony was written two years after the 5th,  in 1939 and was first performed the same year.  Shostakovich had originally told officials that his sixth was going to be a huge symphony that was in tribute to Lenin. whether Shostakovich told them that to keep them off his back, or he changed his mind, we don't know for the reality of the symphony was quite different. The symphony has three movements and breaks with tradition because the first movement is a long, slow movement instead of the usual quickly paced first movements of symphonies. The first movement lasts longer than the other two combined, with hardly a break from the melancholy, brooding mood of the movement.  The 2nd movement is lighter in mood, and with the 3rd comes what amounts to a musical carnival compared to the first movement. The 3rd movement begins with the violins playing the 'Shostakovich rhythm', two short notes and a long note that Shostakovich used many times in his works.

The music of Shostakovich is by its very nature somewhat of a political statement. Whether within it is hidden his true feelings for the oppression he felt under Stalin, or whether he honestly praised communism in some of them is still being discussed by musicians. Suffice to say, Shostakovich's music can be very powerful,  well-constructed, and sometimes too repetitious, too loud and too long. His method of composition did not entail a lot of rewriting. He worked on something until it was finished and then went on with the next composition. But there is much in his music to admire. Like all humans, he had his weak points. The music he wrote was full of his humanness, and that makes it more than worthwhile to listen to and study.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 4

Beethoven wrote his 4th piano concerto between 1805-1806. It had its public premiere in December, 1808 in Vienna at the massive concert that also had the premiere of the 5th and 6th symphonies and the Choral Fantasia as well as other pieces.  It was the last time Beethoven appeared as soloist on piano with orchestra.   Most of the newer music heard was not appreciated by many in the audience. Small wonder,  considering  the concert lasted well over 4 hours, there was inadequate rehearsals for all the pieces which lead to much starting and stopping,  and the concert hall it was held in was unheated.

After this performance the 4th piano concerto was neglected for almost thirty years. It was finally revived in 1836 by Felix Mendelssohn.  Young Robert Schumann was at the concert and wrote that he sat there transfixed through the entire work, scarcely moving a muscle or even breathing. That the concerto made a much more positive impression since then and has not left the repertoire hints that the work was far ahead of its time and not understood by the audience in 1808. With the solo piano beginning the work instead of an orchestral exposition is just one of the innovations Beethoven introduced in this concerto. The first movement is far from heaven-storming. The serenity in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra colors the whole first movement with a calm intimacy that makes this opening movement much different than the previous three concertos.

The mood changes with the 2nd movement as unison strings declaim in rugged tones the opening theme of the movement. Franz Liszt was the one who began the tradition of equating this movement with the legend of Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his lyre. It is a fitting description, as the piano slowly increases its voice and domination over the orchestra until it breaks out into trills of triumph. The orchestra is now 'tamed', the piano has the last quiet 'say' as the strings purr quietly in the background.

The 3rd movement Rondo begins without break on the note being held on the strings from the previous movement. The piano enters over the accompaniment of a cello and the finale takes off in music of good humor. Beethoven's sense of humor could be very gruff and crude, even in his music, but this rondo sees him more witty and subtle, as the music has a grand time working its way to the end.


Liszt - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17 in D Minor

Among the 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt are some of his most popular pieces. Rhapsody #2 is a perennial favorite, and thanks to the treatment it got in the Warner Brothers cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit, the piece was exposed to a wide audience of adults and children, albeit in a less than original form:

Most of the 19 Rhapsodies follow the general idea of what a rhapsody is in music: A piece in one movement, episodic and loose structured but still integrated as a whole piece, improvisatory in nature,  with differing moods and colorations within the piece. With Liszt being one of the great piano virtuoso, his rhapsodies are not at all easy to play. With glittering piano effects, extremes of tempo and feeling, the rhapsodies have sometimes been looked down upon as empty show pieces. They most certainly are show pieces, and for the pianists that can do them justice technically and bring out their musicality, the rhapsodies need not be looked down on as inferior. They are perfect in their own right, wonderfully difficult pieces to play and a delight to listen to. In some basic ways, they are a solid representation of the Romantic era in music.

While Liszt called them 'Hungarian', he heard many of the tunes he used in the rhapsodies from gypsy bands that were not necessarily Hungarian.  While Liszt thought the tunes were folk songs, many were in fact songs written by other Hungarians and the tunes were taken up by the gypsy bands who played them in their own style, a style Liszt emulated in the rhapsodies.

Liszt published the first fifteen rhapsodies in 1851-1853 but many were no doubt written long before they were published. The last four rhapsodies appeared in 1882-1886, and these final four are markedly different. With a leaner texture, different harmonies and musical ambiguities, Liszt is a precursor of things to come. The Rhapsody #17 is a good example. It is a short piece, the music lacks any brightness. Even the rapidly  rolled chords in the middle of the piece that are higher on the keyboard don't ease the tension of the bare octaves and black harmonies of the piece.

Late in life Liszt suffered many physical illnesses and his mental state on occasions brought up the possibility of depression. His late music stands in stark contrast to his former style. The glitter is gone, there is a hard edge to it, almost as if Liszt were looking into the very face of death and writing music that he heard when he did. Liszt went further into the future than any other composer of his generation, including Wagner.

The 17th Rhapsody ends with the hammering of heavy chords in the bass. It doesn't really end, for there's no resolution. It just stops. Perhaps it represents Liszt in his last years, sick and dying, trying to stay active and work as long as he can with no real end, his life just stopped.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saint-Saëns - Cello Concerto No. 1

Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life,  (1835 - 1921) long enough to grow from his early years as a musical innovator to a musical conservative. His First Cello concerto was written in 1872 when he was still an innovator that took his lead from the 'modern' composers Liszt and Wagner.

The concerto is written in cyclic form in one continuous movement, but it has three main sections. Unlike other concertos, this one does not have an orchestral exposition before  the entrance of the soloist. Instead, there is one loud chord from the orchestra, then the cello is heard. Throughout the first section, themes are heard in the orchestra, the soloist, sometimes played against each other, sometimes played with each other. The first section is in sonata form sort of, but a rather loose sonata form with very little development of the themes. The first section segues into the second section. The second section is short and in the tempo of a minuet that segues into the third section which recapitulates some of the themes from the first section and then introduces new material before the ending.

The Cello Concerto No. 1 is very technically demanding for the soloist. Saint-Saëns exploits the extreme ranges of the instrument but all the while keeps the balance between soloist and orchestra such that the cello can always be heard. It is a virtuoso work written by a virtuoso composer for a virtuoso cellist, and one of the few cello concertos that have managed to remain in the repertoire.

Haydn - Symphony No. 92 ' Oxford '

Symphony 92 by Joseph Haydn is known by the subtitle of 'Oxford' because Haydn conducted the symphony when he was given an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1791.  But Haydn had no time to complete the symphony he meant to play at the ceremony, so he played another which was originally written in 1789 and performed for a Paris concert.  Haydn was 58 years old and this was his first trip outside the Austrian Empire.

Haydn wrote 106 symphonies, his first in 1759 and the last in 1795.  His last 12 were written for two visits to London that Haydn made. His first trip in 1791-1792 saw the English greeting him enthusiastically and Haydn wrote six symphonies and other music that was very popular. By the time he left London in 1792 he was even more famous than when he had arrived.  This prompted him to make another trip to England in 1794-1795, write six more very popular symphonies to even greater acclaim.

In London Haydn had the opportunity to work with and write for a large orchestra. He was used to writing for the small chamber orchestra of his patron the Esterhazy family.  Haydn took full advantage of the opportunity and wrote arguably his most forward-looking symphonies for his London visits.

Symphony 92 was a precursor of the London Symphonies (numbers 93-104). It was also an extension of his expanding of the form that was seen with the six Paris Symphonies (numbers 82-87).  From its slow introduction that leads to the jaunty tunes of the first movement to the giddy last movement, Symphony 92 shows the expertise of a master of the orchestra.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paderewski - Symphony in B Minor 'Polonia'

Ignancy Paderewski (1860 - 1941) was a Polish pianist, composer, and politician. He was one of the first 'superstars'  of classical music that was popular with a wide audience of listeners of various tastes.  He made his debut in Vienna in 1887. He was a student of the famous piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky.

By the time of World War One he was internationally famous. During the war he helped organize the Polish National Committee. In 1919 the newly formed independent state of Poland appointed Paderewski Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. As such he attended the Paris Peace Conference and signed the Treaty of Versailles.  He resigned his posts at the end of 1919 and began concertizing again.

He gave more than 1500 recitals in the U.S. alone, and traveled the world over giving concerts. He made so much money that he had his own lavish private passenger car to travel by rail when he was in the United States, and people would meet his train when he came to town.  Many times he would play long past the end of the 'official' concert as he would play encore after encore as the audience desired.

He was also a great philanthropist and donated to many different charities. He was a very popular man because of his charismatic personality and charm as well as his musical talent.  He was a great orator, and was fluent in seven languages.

How Paderewski found the time to compose is a wonder.  He was not a man that let grass grow under his feet and just his concert schedule alone was enough to exhaust most people. But compose he did, with many pieces forsolo piano, a piano concerto, an opera, cantata, and a few works for orchestra including the Symphony in B minor subtitled ' Polonia'.

The symphony is in three movements with each one being like a tone poem. Paderewski subtitled the work 'Polonia', the Italian word for Poland and  the inspiration for the work came from his love for his homeland.  As such, it is a very subjective piece,  with parts of brilliant tonal color along with stretches of  quiet meditation. The structure of the symphony is very loose, and it plays more like a rhapsody than a typical symphony, but it is well worth listening to despite the occasional wandering. Paderewski was an intelligent and creative composer with a very real gift for orchestration.

I. Adagio maestoso. Allegro vivace e molto appassionato - The first movement begins with brooding music that leads to a flurry of passionate themes. One of the motifs that appears is a 'motif of violence', a dark and forbidding motif played by of all things four saurrusophones and percussion. This motif appears in all three movements and serves to aid as a unifying factor in a symphony that stretches symphonic form. The end of the movement turns solemn as an organ mournfully  plays a chord progression that leads the final cadence of the movement. The entire symphony has been describedas a program symphony with the first movement representing Poland's glorious past.

II. Andante con moto - Paderewski wrote his  symphony between 1903-1908. This movement represents the Poland of 1907 that was under Russian rule. Poland was a hotbed of revolutionary activity during the first attempted Russian Revolution of 1905.  Poland felt the repercussions from their revolutionary activity by being brutally domionated by The Empire.  The music flows from lyricism and resignation to recurrences of the dark motif of violence.

III. Vivace -  This movement represents Paderewski's hope of a bright and happy future for Poland as the motif of violence is finally defeated. There is a melody in this finale that is based on the Polish anthem 'Poland has not perished yet'.

Paderewski sketched a scherzo movement for this symphony but it was not completed. The symphony lasts well over an hour when played in full, with most performances being cut, especially the final movement. The performance in the link below is a version with cuts to the finale.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tchaikovsky - Marche Slav

An artist is above all a human being, perhaps a human being to the nth degree. Tchaikovsky was such a human. His music can be passionate, emotional, sometimes completely over the top. He is a composer that was emotionally very vulnerable, and his great 'secret' of homosexuality made him all the more vulnerable emotionally and in other ways as well. Indeed, modern scholarship has refuted the 'official' cause of his death to drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic,  to suicide ordered by a 'court of honor'  because of his homosexual encounter with a member of the nobility.  That the court of honor would have exposed his secret was probably more than Tchaikovsky could have handled.

When Tchaikovsky's politics are considered, it makes for an interesting comparison with his outlook on his art. Politically, he was an ultra-conservative that was even against the freeing of the serfs in 1861, and was adamantly pro-Czar in his sympathies. His music and compositions were far from conservative, were progressive and in some instances revolutionary. But as with all human beings, Tchaikovsky could be an enigma on occasion.  Adamant about his outlook on his art, just as adamant on his outlook on politics and society, even if they are polar opposites.

Perhaps that is why such an emotional, heart-on-his-sleeve composer such as Tchaikovsky could write a piece such as the 1812 Overture and Marche Slav.  Both are patriotic pieces, and both even share some musical material. Marche Slav was commissioned by the Russian Music Society for a Red Cross benefit for Serbian soldiers that were fighting in a war against The Ottoman Empire.  Russia was an ally of Serbia and eventually did enter the war on the side of the Serbs.  Tchaikovsky wrote it using Serbian tunes and the Russian National Anthem of the time,  'God Save The Czar'. The Russian anthem is used to depict whe n the Russians entered the war and 'rescued' the Serbs.

Make no mistake, this music is a potboiler no matter how it's looked at. A piece of patriotism, written for money by a great composer to help pay the bills, but also because Tchaikovsky perhaps looked at it as a 'patriotic' thing to do. But all of that is no matter, in the final analysis. I've liked this piece from the first time I heard it, and after over thirty years of music listening, I still like it.  All of that probably says more about my taste in music than anything,  but I also think it shows that a great composer can catch your ear even when they write a potboiler.


Dukas - La Péri

Musically, France in the time of Paul Dukas ( 1865 - 1935) was of two camps, conservative and progressive. Dukas was not a member of either, but was admired by both sides, a feat that says much about the man himself.

He was a composer, critic and member of the faculty at the Paris conservatory.  He was severely self-critical as a composer and destroyed much of his work.  The music he published is of a very high quality, with his best known work being the symphonic poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice , very popular even before Walt Disney included it in his film Fantasia.   There is also a symphony, an overture, a piano sonata and other pieces for solo piano, one opera, and a ballet La Péri .  Dukas was well-known as a teacher of composition later in his life, and for his knowledge of historical music and its forms.

La Péri was written in 1911 and was commissioned by  the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev.  The fanfare for brass that opens the work was composed at a later date and was inserted at the beginning of the work because the original tone poem begins very quietly and Dukas was concerned that the audience would miss it.  Dukas called the piece a 'dance poem in one scene', and it is his last published work.  The original scenic and costume designs for the ballet were by Leon Bakst an example of his design for the costume for Iskender is shown below.

The story of the ballet comes from an ancient Persian legend. A prince named Iskender travels to the end of the world in search of the flower of immortality. He finds a péri  (a fallen angel) that has fallen asleep with a lotus flower in her hand.  He steals the flower, the péri wakes up and proceeds to dance and through her dance takes back the lotus. The prince feels as if his life were over, as the péri and the lotus fade away. The lotus flower was indeed the flower of immortality and without it the prince slowly dies.

Dukas was a fellow student of Debussy and admired his music.  La Péri shows that Dukas knew Debussy's music very well, for it is somewhat impressionistic like Debussy's, but in Dukas' own personal style.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dittersdorf - Double Bass Concerto In E Major

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739 - 1799) was an Austrian composer and violinist who was an important composer in the classical era. He was a court composer, and as such was quite prolific. He wrote 120 symphonies, 18 violin concertos, as well as many other works. He was an opera composer as well, and wrote 45 of them. His most popular work in his lifetime was the opera Doktor und Apotheker (Doctor and Apothecary) that premiered in Vienna in 1786 and was a tremendous success.  He knew Haydn and Mozart, and played string quartets along with them and his student Vanhal. Dittersdorf played 1st violin, Haydn 2nd violin, Mozart viola and Vanhal cello.

Dittersdorf held various music positions with his longest tenure being 24 years at the court of Johannesberg (which is currently in the Czech Republic.)  To entice him to stay at court, he was given a noble title. His original surname was Ditters; his noble name became Ditters von Dittersdorf.

There was a small (and brief) school of double bass virtuoso playing in Vienna in the late 18th century, with the Italian bass virtuoso Domineco Dragonetti being the most famous of them. Dittersdorf no doubt wrote his two double bass concertos with this school of playing in mind.  The double bass is not usually thought of as a solo instrument because of the problems of balancing solo double bass and orchestra.  

The double bass of von Dittersdorf's time was not the instrument known today. It had three strings and was gradually replaced by the 4-string and five-string double bass. The 3-string bass had bottom E as the lowest note, while the modern bass could reach the C below that, thus increasing the bass range in the orchestra.  But there were instances of the 3-stringed double bass persisting because some thought the tone was better.

The concerto is sometimes transposed to D major, and is scored for 2 flutes, 2 horns, strings, and double bass solo. It is in the traditional three movements:

I. Allegro moderato- The orchestra plays the first theme and plays a section that connects to the entrance of the soloist playing the theme.  A section theme not heard initially enters and is played in flageolet tones, the old term for harmonics, high in the register of the bass. Both themes are developed in a short section of development before the recapitulation begins. Both themes are repeated and lead up to a cadenza where the soloist plays double stops and shows how the double bass can be an agile and expressive instrument in its own right. The movement then comes to an end in the syncopated rhythm in the strings that was heard at the beginning.

II. Adagio - The voice of the bass can seem tubby and thick even in the hands of a good player. It is the nature of the bass’s tone, and it gives a certain kind of charm to the gentle song the bass sings in this slow movement.  The soloist plays quite high in the register without using harmonics in the movement and cadenza, and it comes to a close. 

III. Allegro - The rondo theme is first heard in the orchestra, and the soloist then plays a short bridge to the repeat of the theme. The first episode has again shows the agility of the bass as it plays rapid arpeggios.  Short parts of the theme are heard and followed by the bass playing short episodes in harmonics, arpeggios, even combining the two with arpeggios in harmonics.  The final bars quicken the tempo and a final allegro statement of the theme ends the concerto. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Alkan - Comme Le Vent (Like The Wind)

By contemporary accounts of those that heard him play, Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 - 1888) had a technique equal to Liszt.  In fact, Liszt himself said Alkan had the finest technique he had ever seen. Even after Alkan became a recluse in 1848, on the odd occasion when he would play in public he retained his technique and amazed those who heard him.

Just why he became a recluse in 1848 is not certain. Before then he was seen regularly in public, was friends and neighbor to Chopin, knew Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, and played in the fashionable parlors and salons of Paris. But in 1848 he began to be seen less and less, gave up his appointment as the organist at the Paris Jewish Temple and stayed in his apartment, rarely admitting visitors or going out. He was passed over as the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatory in 1848, which disappointed him greatly.  After 1848, he continued his life-long study of the Talmud and he went on composing. Late in his life he gave a series of concerts at the Erard piano company studios where he played not only some of his own compositions, but those of his favorite composers.

Most of Alkan's compositional output was for the piano. He did write some chamber music, two very short pieces for piano and orchestra, and an orchestral symphony that is lost. Like Chopin, he wrote etudes in all the major and minor keys for piano.  His Opus 35 consisted of 12 major key etudes, and Opus 39 were the minor key etudes.  Comme Le Vent ( Like The Wind) is the first etude in the book of minor key etudes. It's 20 pages long, and like the title implies, should be played like the wind. The metronome marking is eighth note = 160, the piece is in the rare time signature of 2/16, and most of the piece consists of triplet 32nd notes in the right hand. The piece is a virtual perpetuum mobile as the pace doesn't slacken for the 4 and a half minutes it takes to play it:

It is a real test of a pianist's endurance and control. It is a fitting beginning to a set of pieces that Ronald Smith, a pianist that had a great deal to do with the revival of Alkan's music, called 'Alkan's Frankenstein's monster'.  The twelve etudes that comprise the volume include a Concerto for solo piano in 3 movements, a symphony for solo piano in 4 movements, an overture, set of variations, and the rest of the pieces of the set.

Buxtehude - Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne For Organ BuxWV 137

Dieterich Buxtehude (1637? - 1707) was born in a part of Germany that was under Dutch rule, or perhaps he was born in Denmark that is now under Swedish rule. No one is sure, nor is the exact date of his birth known.  Although he considered himself a Dutch composer, he spent much of his career in Germany and did eventually Germanize his name in adulthood.

After studying music with his father (an organist himself) and serving as organist in several churches, Buxtehude moved to Lübeck in 1668 and became the organist for the Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church) there until his death. As Lübeck was a free imperial city, Buxtehude had a great deal of freedom in his career. He became well-known in Germany for his organ playing and compositions and he had many composers visit to hear him, among them George Handel and J.S. Bach. Bach got a leave of absence from his post in Arnstadt and traveled two hundred miles by foot to Lübeck. Bach extended his leave of absence and stayed in Lübeck for several months in 1705 -1706 and got into trouble with his employers in Arnstadt for it. He heard, met and studied with Buxtehude during that time, and like Handel, could have had the organist job as Buxtehude wished to retire, but it required marrying Buxtehude's daughter.  The word has not come down through history as to the reasons why, but Handel and Bach both refused.

Buxtehude wrote vocal music, sacred and secular, as well as organ and other keyboard music. He is considered one of the founders of the northern German organ playing tradition.  The Prelude,  Fugue and Chaconne in C major for organ begins with the prelude opening for pedals alone:

and is expanded upon with the manuals in a free fashion until a fugal section begins.  The fugue proper begins directly after the prelude. There is a freely written section after the fugue with a few runs and flourishes then the chaconne begins:

Buxtehude wrote much of his music in tablature, a type of music notation that doesn't use staves and notes. It was used by northern German organists especially, including J.S. Bach. There are many types of tablature for different instruments and different areas of Europe. A sample of Buxtehude's tablature:

This type of music notation can be slightly ambiguous as to what exact note is to be played, which evidently didn't bother many musicians then, for it is all part of the improvisatory nature of organ playing in the era.  Many composers of the time wrote music that left much to the discretion of the performer.