Friday, September 30, 2011

Prokofiev - Tocatta For Piano

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a Russian composer and a major composer of the 20th century.  Fearing there was  no place for his experimental music in his homeland, he left Russia in 1918 during the Revolution and lived various places abroad. After missing his homeland for so many years he returned to Russia in 1935 and spent the rest of his life there.

The fate of Prokofiev and his music vacillated with the Communist Party leaders from acceptance and recognition to condemnation. During the Second World War official restrictions on the type of music allowed by the government were lifted, only to see them reinstated after the war.

He wrote for orchestra and chamber ensembles, and he was also a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, writing many pieces for the piano. The Tocatta Opus 11, was written in Russia in 1912 and premiered by the composer in 1916. The tocatta is an old form of music originating in the Renaissance in Italy.  The word is taken from the Italian word for 'touch'. It is usually written for a keyboard or other solo instrument and it emphasizes fast, nimble finger work.  Prokofiev casts his Tocatta in a modern virtuosic idiom and it is a challenge for any pianist to play.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Schoenberg - A Survivor From Warsaw

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer that emigrated to America to escape Nazi Germany in 1934 and became a U.S. citizen. He was a great teacher and taught many composers and musicians in Europe before he emigrated and in America afterwards.  Schoenberg composed in many different forms from piano miniatures to complex pieces for orchestra. He is most famous (some would say notorious) for developing an entirely new way of composition based on the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, twelve tone technique

Twelve tone music has no tonal center like more conventional music.  Each tone of the chromatic scale is equal in importance harmonically and melodically with the other eleven. Schoenberg developed this 'new' system almost 100 years ago, and it is still so dramatically different from music based on tonality and keys that many cannot grasp it.  The subject matter for A Survivor From Warsaw is well suited for the music Schoenberg wrote for it.  The music is as difficult to listen to as the story itself.  The piece is for narrator, orchestra and chorus. The story depicted by the narrator:

The narrator tells the story of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto during WW II, from the time in a concentration camp. He doesn't remember how he ended up living in the sewers of Warsaw. One day in the camp the Nazis held a roll call for a group of Jews.  As the group tried to gather the guards beat the old and sick who couldn't like up fast enough. Those left on the ground were assumed to be dead and the guards asked for another count to see how many would go to the gas chamber. The guard asks for a faster and faster head count and the work ends with the Jews singing the prayer Shema Yisroel.

Schoenberg's tribute to the victims of the holocaust - A Survivor From Warsaw

Monday, September 26, 2011

J.S. Bach - Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor BWV 582

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German composer and a contemporary of Domenico Scarlatti and George Handel. He was a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist and also played the viol and violin. He was the culmination of the Baroque era of music and was a master of counterpoint. He composed secular and sacred music for orchestra,  chorus and solo instruments. He came from a very musical family, for over 200 years there were more than 50 members of the Bach family that held various musical posts throughout the state of Thuringia.   J.S. Bach had over 20 children, with those surviving infancy taught music by Bach himself.  Four of his own sons became influential composers in their own right.

The amount of music Bach wrote in his lifetime is enormous, with over 1,000 items listed in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis  (Bach Works Catalog). Bach was a master organist and improvisor on the instrument so it's only natural that his organ works are considerable in number.

The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is believed to be an early work written between 1706-1713.  The passacaglia is a type of music usually written in triple time with one part, usually in the bass, being repeated throughout the piece (called an ostinato) with a set of continuous variations played over it. Bach's ostinato is heard all by itself at the beginning of the piece in the pedals of the organ. This ostinato 'tune' is then woven through the rest of the passacaglia like a golden thread while a set of variations are played.  The Fugue follows without a pause, and takes as one of its subjects the ostinato tune of the passacaglia. It is a tribute to the creativity and intellect of Bach's mind that even after all that has happened to the ostinato in the passacaglia that Bach is not through with it. The fugue is actually a double fugue and the two themes are developed as only a master of counterpoint could do.

Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cesar Franck - Symphony In D Minor

César Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian composer who was also an organist, pianist and a teacher in Paris for many years.  He took French citizenship in 1872 upon his professorial appointment at the Paris Conservatoire.

Franck was a child prodigy and gave his first public recitals in 1834 when he was twelve. He also began composing early, but due to harsh criticism of his works he ceased composing and concentrated on the organ and his teaching duties. He became a virtuoso on the organ and a master at improvisation, and was hired by an organ manufacturer to demonstrate their instruments.

With his tenure as Professor Of Organ at the Conservatoire, Frank renewed his efforts at composition and during the last eighteen years of his life he composed the works which he is known for.  The Symphony In D Minor was composed in 1886-1888 and combines  cyclic form of composition (a technique much used by Liszt and Wagner and some French composers) with a decidedly German style of orchestration. The first theme heard when the piece begins is the kernel upon which the entire symphony is built.

The politics of the time lead to very harsh criticism of the Symphony when it was premiered. A Symphony by a Frenchman written in a German style of orchestration was not conducive to good reviews so soon after the Franco-Prussian war, especially from any professor or composer that was associated with the conservative Paris Conservatoire.  But the quality of the music was more than enough to outlast the negative political attacks.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Borodin - In The Steppes Of Central Asia

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) was a Russian composer who also had a career as a highly respected chemist. He wrote music for orchestra, piano and chamber music.  He belonged to a group of progressive Russian composers called The Five or The Mighty Handful who were interested in creating modern Russian music.

The symphonic poem In The Steppes Of Central Asia was written in 1880 and is dedicated to Franz Liszt who admired and promoted Borodin's music. Liszt was a big factor in getting Borodin's music heard and recognized. 

This poem paints in music the interacting between Russians and Asians in the steppe lands. A caravan of Central Asians is crossing the desert under the protection of Russian soldiers. The opening theme represents the Russians while the ornamented melody on English horn represents the Asians. These two melodies are finally heard together along with a theme in pizzicato strings that represents the plodding hoofs of camels and horses.  At the end only the Russian theme is heard.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

C.P.E. Bach - Farewell To My Silberman Clavichord

Another composition by J.S. Bach's second oldest son, C.P.E. Bach.  This is a piece for the clavichord, a type of keyboard instrument that was said to be the favorite of J.S. Bach and his son.  The name of this piece comes from the story that C.P.E Bach gave one of his favorite pupils a clavichord made by the German maker Silbermann, and as a part of the gift also wrote a piece to go along with it.

The clavichord was invented in the 14th century and is a direct ancestor of the piano.  Unlike the harpsichord that plucks the string when a key is depressed, the clavichord has a brass upright, or tangent attached to the end of the key that hits the string when the key is depressed. these tangents are shown in close up in the photo to the left.  This difference in action makes the clavichord capable of changes in levels of volume, but the range is not very large. It is an instrument that played at its loudest could never be heard in a concert hall, so it was and still is an instrument for the home.  Bach's piece is in a minor key, and unlike other pieces written in rondo form of the time, this one is rich in feeling and emotion, even sadness, as it depicts Bach's feeling of saying farewell to an old friend.

If you watch the video of the piece closely, you'll see the performer occasionally move a finger up and down on a key. This is a unique attribute to the clavichord, the ability to play vibrato on a keyboard instrument. It was a common part of clavichord technique at the time as there is a German word for it, bebung.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Charles Alkan - Concerto For Solo Piano

Alkan's Concerto For Solo Piano is comprised of three etudes from his monumental work 12 Etudes In The Minor Keys. Alkan was not the first to use the term concerto for a work for solo keyboard. J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto written for two-manual harpsichord is the most well known example. The term most often brings to mind a piece for one instrument and an orchestra of some kind. There exists many concertos written for many different kinds of solo instruments and many different kinds of orchestral ensembles, but in every case there is a differentiation between the soloist and orchestra in the musical texture. Sometimes the soloist battles it out versus  the orchestra, sometimes the soloist is more like a member of the orchestra, and sometimes both extremes occur in the same work in varying degrees.

It can be misleading to put too much emphasis on exact determinations of what constitutes one thing or the other in classical music, at least as far as musical form goes. Imaginative composers rarely held rigidly to textbook examples. Indeed, some composers were actively using and varying musical forms before there were textbooks on the subject.  There are accepted examples of all the basic forms used in music,  but it is good to remember that these should serve as models, not laws that must be obeyed at all costs. Variation is basic to the art of music, so why would imaginative composers not do the same as far as form and structure?

So what makes Alkan's work (as well as Bach's) a valid concerto? In Bach's case, the two-manual harpsichord can provide the differentiation in sound to help create the impression of a concerted work for one instrument. But in modern times Bach's work is also played on the piano, an instrument of but one keyboard. But under the sensitive fingers of a good pianist the piano can convey a number of  differences in timbre, volume, and articulation. Add to that the creative use of the piano pedals and the instrument can bring off the solo concerto concept. Not with the depth of tone color as an orchestra, but the piano is more than capable of countless gradations from black to white and all the grays in between.  With such an expressive and versatile instrument benefiting from the writing of an imaginative, master composer such as Alkan, the solo concerto is a possibility.

Alkan was a recluse for many years and his music suffered from neglect, at least from most main stream pianists. There have always been some pianists and composers that knew of his works, but the real revival of Alkan's works began in the last years of the 1960's. With landmark recordings by the pianists Raymond Lewenthal and Ronald Smith, Alkan's music is now back in the repertoire, at least for the pianists who can play it. Many of Alkan's works are very difficult technically and musically, which no doubt led to their neglect for many years.

I. Allegro assai - The first movement is the eighth etude of  the 12 Etudes In The Minor Keys. It begins in the key of G-sharp minor with a section marked quasi trombe (like trumpets). This first theme is followed by a second contrasting theme. Following the second contrasting theme, a third theme of a more robust nature makes its entrance. A short return to the opening material rounds off what constitutes the orchestral part of the exposition.  The soloist part enters with runs up and down the keyboard and the exposition continues with the return of all three themes in expanded form. The development section of these themes runs far afield in mood and texture, and with just a little effort a good listener can begin to 'hear' the entities of soloist and orchestra take shape.  The harbinger of the recapitulation appears as a persistent G-sharp, sometimes in the treble, sometimes in the bass. The recapitulation brings back the three themes, and then a section marked quasi-tamburo (like a drum) transforms  the first and second subjects into a wildly rhythmic treatment that continues with the pianist using the third finger of each hand to hammer out a steady stream of alternating sixteenth notes in rapid tempo. The second theme appears over the sixteenth notes as it winds down to a repeat of the first theme in high chords of the treble accompanied by the bottom notes of the piano. A tremendous crescendo occurs, Alkan writes the key signature of A-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of G-sharp major, and a short section brings back the trumpets of the beginning and the movement ends with a wide spread A-flat major chord. This first movement takes almost 30 minutes to play, consists of over 1300 measures, and taxes the technique and endurance of the pianist to the extreme. It is also a challenge musically. As if all that wasn't enough for the listener and pianist, there are two more movements to go.

II. Adagio - This is the 9th Etude from the set and as Alkan progressed by a perfect fourth through all the minor keys, it is in C-sharp minor. The opening is marked quasi-celli (like cellos). The orchestra plays a melancholy introduction to the theme that is taken up by the soloist.   A second theme is in the major and is contrast to the opening. A short section for single unaccompanied notes leads to a section of a different character all together, a somewhat light-hearted tune that leads to an impassioned, agitated repeat of the first theme which leads to yet another different section punctuated by a drum beat rhythm in the bass. The light hearted tune alternated with the drum beats until the opening theme returns once again but is soon interrupted by the drumbeats. The melancholy introduction appears, the drumbeats quietly interrupt one more time. The first two measures of the first theme are played over the quiet drumbeats. A strongly accented triple forte C-sharp minor chord widely spread between both extremes of the keyboard end the movement.

III. Allegretto alla barbaresca -  The 10th Etude from the set in F-sharp minor begins with a huge rolled chord for both hands and a 4 bar motive that appears throughout the etude, sandwiched between some incredibly different sections. The entire etude is one of movement and themes that are presented with abandon. There is an impelling forward movement in the music that is apparent even in the calmer sections. The work ends in a deluge of manic intensity and bravado in F-sharp major.

Ronald Smith is the pianist in the accompanying video. I first heard his recording of this work on long playing records many years ago. Since then there have been other recordings of the 12 Minor Key Etudes, and along with the recording by Ronald Smith I especially enjoy the recording by Jack Gibbons, an English pianist who was the first to perform all 12 Minor Key Etudes in live concert at Oxford in 1995.