Monday, October 31, 2011

J. C. Bach - Keyboard Sonata Opus 5 No. 2

Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782) was the last child born to Johann Sebastian Bach. He studied with his father until his father's death in 1750. He then studied with his older brother C.P.E. Bach who was at the time considered one of the most influential composers in Europe. 

J.C. Bach spent some time in Italy studying and playing the organ. He went to England for the premiere of three of his operas there and secured his reputation so well he became Musicmaster to the Queen and spent the rest of his life in London. He is known as the English or London Bach because of this. He composed operas, orchestral works, concertos and works for keyboard. When Mozart was still a child he met J.C. Bach who influenced Mozart's concerto style.

He wrote many sonatas for keyboard, and the sonata Opus 5 Number 2 is in D major. It is written in the galant style,  simpler music in the style of melody with accompaniment with less ornamentation and counterpoint.  In Bach's day the piano had not yet taken over from the harpsichord so his sonatas can be played on either instrument, and have even been played on the clavichord.  the sonata is in three movements.

Salieri - Variations On 'La Follia'

Antonio Salieri (1750 - 1825) was an Italian composer most known for his operas. His 50+ operas played a large part in the development of late 18th century opera along with his hundreds of religious works. Although born in Italy near Venice, he was taken to Vienna at a young age after the death of his parents.  He was a very cosmopolitan composer as he wrote operas in three languages.

When he retired from writing and staging opera he remained a large influence on contemporary composers through his teaching.  He taught vocal composition to Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and others. He also worked with many prominent singers. all but the most wealthiest of students got their lessons for free, Salieri's way of repaying kindnesses shown to him when he was a young student.

Salieri composed very little instrumental music. A few concertos, three symphonies and a handful of other compositions. One of this handful was also one of his last compositions, the Variations on La Follia.  It is for orchestra and is a culmination of everything Salieri had learned about orchestration over the years.  Why he wrote it is not known, as it was written in 1815 long after he retired. Perhaps he just liked the Follia tune,  maybe he was just inspired to do so. In any case, the music remains in the minor mode practically throughout and is rather somber.  The Follia tune is always very recognizable in each of the 24 variations. It is the instrumental coloration of the orchestra and soloists that provides the variety.  This piece remained the most monumental set of variations for orchestra until Brahms wrote his Variations On A Theme By Haydn in 1873.

As for the often repeated rumors that Salieri murdered Mozart (dramatized in the play and movie Amadeus) allow me to quote Chad Hille from his blog entry Antonio Salieri : Truth or Fiction on his blog Classy Classical:

"There is indeed no evidence to support the idea that Salieri killed Mozart. In Salieri’s last years, he suffered a physical and mental breakdown. He was admitted to the Vienna general hospital and the rumor spread that Salieri accused himself of killing Mozart. However, there was no concrete evidence of this. It would have been very unreasonable to think that Salieri killed Mozart. For during the times that the two great composers were both alive they were, for the most part, friends. Of course, there were times when the two did not see eye to eye. This was only natural as Salieri and Mozart came from different musical traditions and wrote in very different styles. On the whole, they got along with one another fine. It was even reported that Salieri came to visit Mozart on his deathbed. It is also reported that Salieri was one of the few who attended Mozart’s funeral. It is now widely accepted that Mozart’s cause of death was rheumatic inflammatory fever."

And that settles that, as far as I'm concerned.

Salieri's Variations on La Follia :

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dvořák - Symphony No. 6

Antonín Dvořák (1841- 1904) wrote nine symphonies, and it was with the 6th Symphony that he started to get international attention. It was written for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Hans Richter, but they did not play the symphony for 2 seasons because of the orchestra's prejudice against Czech composers.

Dvořák had contact with many of the composers of that time. He played viola in the orchestra that played under Wagner as conductor in Prague. He applied for a stipend from the Austrian State and he came to the attention of Johannes Brahms who was on the panel. Brahms and Dvořák became friends and Brahms helped him get his first compositions published.  He was influenced by the trends of the day, but developed his own style as all true geniuses do.

He finished the symphony in 1880 and the premiere was in 1881 by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.  The symphony has 4 movements:

I. Allegro non tanto - The first movement is in sonata form with the first theme slowly expanding with dance-like rhythms. The cellos and horns begin the second theme, a more expressive tune than the first. The development starts after the exposition repeat and Dvořák explores some of the possibilites of his two themes and brings the end of the section with a climax on a part of the first theme that fades into the recapitulation. The movement ends with a short coda.

II. Adagio - Gentle music in the beginning that grows more turbulent as the main theme is repeated in different instrument configurations. The movement ends gently, as it began.

III. Scherzo - Furiant, Presto - This movement is a Furiant, a Czech dance. Cross rhythms (2 notesd against 3 notes) gives a syncopated feeling to the scherzo. This was the type of nationalistic music that Dvořák had published in his Slavocian Dances for piano, later transcribed for orchestra. The slower, more laid-back trio contrasts the scherzo. At the end of the trio the scherzo is repeated.

IV. Finale - Allegro con spirito -  This movement is also in sonata form. The first theme of this movement is somewhat similair to the first theme of the first movement. The end of the recapitulation section is notable for a coda that treats  the first theme of the movement fugally. The symphony ends in in a triumphant mood with the brass contributing depth and weight.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rimsky-Korsakov - Piano Concerto In C-sharp Minor

Nicolai Rimsky - Korsakov  was a master of orchestration and was recognized as such early in his career. Despite his lack of formal education in music theory and harmony, he was appointed professor of Composition and Orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1871.   To prepare himself and stay one step ahead of his pupils he ceased to compose for three years, studied textbooks at home and followed a strict regimen of writing exercises in counterpoint and fugue. Rimsky-Koraskov wrote that while teaching he became "possibly the best pupil of the conservatory judging by the quality of the information it gave me!"

He wrote his only piano concerto in 1883-1884 at the urging of Balakirev.  Despite not being a pianist, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote:
 It must be said that it sounded beautiful and proved entirely satisfactory in the sense of piano technique and style; this greatly astonished Balakirev, who found my concerto to his liking. He had by no means expected that I ... should know how to compose anything entirely pianistic.
The piece is much better known in Russia and influenced other composers such as Rachmaninoff.  Rimsky-Korsakov used the concertos of Franz Liszt as his model  and acknowledged this by dedicating the work to Liszt. The concerto is very short, only about 15 minutes in duration, and is in three contrasting sections played without pause:

Moderato - Allegretto quasi polacca -  An introduction starts off the concerto that introduces the Russian folksong that the composer used in the work. It is the only theme of the concerto and Rimsky-Korsakov uses the Lisztian technique of thematic metamorphosis on it throughout, which makes the concerto a type of theme and variation movement. This introduction is followed by a polonaise treatment given to the theme. The next section is marked:
Andante mosso -  The accompaniment played by the piano is based on the first part of the folksong while the treble is based on the second part. The solo part gets more complex and erupts directly into the final section:
Allegro - The theme continues its metamorphosis as the piano part grows more brilliant with bravura passages. The concerto ends with a final flourish.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bruckner - Symphony In D Minor

In the somewhat confusing world of Anton Bruckner (1824 - 1896) and the numbering of his symphonies, this Symphony  in D Minor is actually the third symphony he wrote.  The first symphony he wrote was as an assignment for his composition teacher in 1863.  Bruckner rejected this work by calling it 'school work', but he did not destroy it. It is in F minor.

The next symphony Bruckner wrote was the 'official' Symphony No.1, called by Bruckner 'the saucy maid' (whatever that may mean). Then it was the Symphony in D minor that was written in 1869.  Bruckner rejected this symphony after some harsh criticism'.

After all that, why bother with an early symphony that the composer himself rejected when he wrote so many more? Bruckner was known to be influenced a great deal by the opinions of others, especially early on. To my mind, if Bruckner would've wanted the world to never hear of this symphony he would have destroyed it. And it's a good thing he did not destroy it, for the symphony already shows his mature style and the music is very good.  A composer's earlier works are always interesting, if for no other reason than it shows where they came from and how they evolved when compared to later works.  Bruckner almost from the beginning had different ideas that grew into his mature style. Deryck Cooke writes about the Bruckner Symphony:

"Despite its general debt to Beethoven and Wagner, the "Bruckner Symphony" is a unique conception, not only because of the individuality of its spirit and its materials, but even more because of the absolute originality of its formal processes. At first, these processes seemed so strange and unprecedented that they were taken as evidence of sheer incompetence.... Now it is recognized that Bruckner's unorthodox structural methods were inevitable.... Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical."

Clara Rockmore/Saint Saens - The Swan

Clara Rockmore (1911 - 1998) was a virtuoso player of the theremin, an electronic instrument. The theremin was invented and named by a Russian, Leon Theremin. The instrument was patented in 1928 and consists of two antennas connected to oscillators, a horizontal antenna used to control volume and a vertical antenna used to control pitch. The closer or farther away a hand was placed to these antenna determined the pitch and volume.  The antennas are not actually touched at all.  The widest use of the theremin has been for science fiction movies of the 1950's and 1960's, but there has been a resurgence of the instrument in rock music and avant garde music.

Clara Rockmore was a child prodigy on the violin and began studying at the St. Petersburg conservatory  at the age of five.  But due to malnutrition, she developed serious bone problems that prevented her from continuing her studies and playing the violin.
She discovered the theremin and worked with the inventor to make it a more precise instrument.  She developed an entire technique for the instrument, using her fingers to 'finger' the notes in the air.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921) was a French composer. he composed Carnival Of The Animals, a suite of pieces originally for a chamber group of instruments (a full orchestra version also exists) that musically depicts an assortment of creatures. It was composed in 1886 but Saint Saëns thought it might be too trivial and hurt his reputation as a serious composer.  He allowed only one of the vignettes to be published in his lifetime, The Swan.  The entire collection was published in 1922 after his death and remains a very popular composition.  The Swan is a melancholy song originally written for cello that depicts the legend that when a swan dies  it sings its sweetest song.  Clara Rockmore shows that the theremin can be an instrument of great expression and nuance, but it's a mystery to me how in the world she coaxes such sweet, ethereal music out if thin air.  It's magical.

Saint Saëns The Swan played by Clara Rockmore

Ketèlbey - In A Persian Market

Albert Ketèlbey (1875 - 1959) wrote many popular songs and instrumental numbers, some of them miniature tone poems.  He specialized in musical representations of differing cultures,  highly idealized representations as they fell well within the realm of western music harmony and forms. Ketèlbey could crank out a pretty good tune and he was an imaginative orchestrator, no doubt aided by the tremendous working knowledge he had through his talent for being able to play all the instruments of the orchestra.

In A Persian Market is one of those idealized miniature tone poems. It was written in 1920 and has been played by many orchestras and arranged for many different ensembles. The music speaks through the 'ears' of a English musician known for his works that were written in an intentionally popular style. Authentic Persian  (modern day Iran) music it is not, but it has a certain period charm to it.

Ketèlbey's In A Persian Market:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rubinstein - Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor

Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer. He was part of the tradition of the 19th century virtuoso performer/composers such as Franz Liszt. Although his compositions are seldom heard now, at one time he was equally valued as a composer as a performer.

He toured Europe as a virtuoso pianist and even toured the United States during the 1872-73 concert season. He gave over 200 concerts in 239 days. The Steinway piano company financed this tour, and he received $200 per concert plus expenses. Rubinstein said of this tour: "May Heaven preserve us from such slavery! Under these conditions there is no chance for art—one simply grows into an automaton, performing mechanical work; no dignity remains to the artist; he is lost.... The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfaction that when several years later I was asked to repeat my American tour, I refused pointblank..."  The fact that he earned enough from this tour alone to never have to worry about money  no doubt helped him make the decision to not do it again.

In appearance, Rubinstein favored Beethoven so much that rumors had him as Beethoven's illegitimate son. Liszt called him 'Van II'. He had hands that were more like paws with a broad palm,  short, thick fingers that were broad and square at the finger tip. He could make the piano roar, or have it speak in a whisper. He was a master of the pedal, and said of it that, "The pedal is the soul of the piano."

Rubinstein's life was music and he contributed greatly to music education in Russia by founding the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1862.  He continued to compose, conduct, and give recitals all of his life until his death from heart disease.

His Piano Concerto No. 4 was  once highly esteemed and was part of the repertoire of such virtuoso pianists as Rachmaninoff and Paderewski.  It was composed in 1864, revised twice and the final version was published in 1872. It follows the typical Romantic piano concerto structure and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato assai - The main theme is stated by orchestra alone, the piano enters alone then joins with the orchestra in the main theme. The movement is in sonata form with a cadenza added towards the end. The movement ends with another statement of the main theme and a coda.
II. Andante -  Serene music that begins in D minor and progresses to F major. Some of the most beautiful music Rubinstein ever composed.
III. Allegro- An exuberant rondo in the style of a Russian peasant dance. After the orchestra and piano take turns yelling and stamping, the movement ends with piano pyrotechnics.

Brüll - Konzertstuck For Piano and Orchestra

Ignaz Brüll (1846 - 1907) was an Austrian pianist and composer that was born into a Jewish merchant family. The family moved to Vienna in 1850 with Brüll destined to take over the family business. When he showed amazing musical aptitude and after a glowing assessment from Anton Rubinstein the family embraced his decision to become a musician.

He began composing early on. He began to compose his first piano concerto in 1860 when he was 15 years old. It was premiered in 1861 in Vienna by his teacher Julius Epstein.  He also wrote for solo piano, chamber music, opera and lieder. He bacame a friend to many of the musicians in Vienna of the time, most notably Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.

Brüll wrote two piano concertos, both works of his youth. The Konzertstück was written later in his life, in 1902.  Brüll remained a conservative composer and never embraced any of the experimentation of the turn of the 20th century.  Some of what a critic that attended the premiere of the piece had to say about the work:

"In the beautiful Andante, full of gentle orchestra color, we wander among the German pine forests, several times hearing the ominous rustle of cedars of Lebanon from distant times. The composer celebrates his morning worship alone until the cheerful Allegro leads him back to the bustle of happy people."

Brüll - Kozertstück For Piano and Orchestra

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

G.H. Matos Rodríguez - Tango 'La Cumparsita'

Gerardo Matos Rodríguez (1897 - 1948) was an Uruguayan musician and composer. He studied architecture but the lure of music was too strong. His father owned a cabaret in Montevideo. He wrote many tangos plus music for theatrical plays that opened in Buenos Aires, and  he also led his own tango orchestra for a time.

The tango as a dance evolved from different dances brought to Argentina and Uruguay from European and African immigrants.  Early tangos were played by immigrants in Buenos Aires which is considered the birth place of the tango.  The tango was originally associated with the lower classes, and could be heard in bordellos and other seamy places, very similar to the history of American ragtime.  It eventually became a main-stream entertainment and attained world-wide popularity after WW I.  Read more about the history of the tango here.

Rodríguez composed La Cumparsita when he was 18 years old, in 1916.  It is the most recognized tango ever written. The title translates to 'little parade' and it was originally written as an instrumental for solo piano as a Uruguayan carnival march. Different sets of words were written for the music later, with the most popular set beginning, "The little parade of endless miseries..."

Liszt - Symphonic Poem 'Les Préludes'

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)  wrote Les Préludes,  his third symphonic poem in 1856. It was derived from pieces he wrote as early as 1844 for chorus and piano.  although it was the third of his symphonic poems, it was the first to be heard and the first to be called a symphonic poem.

The full title of the work is Les Préludes (d'aprés Lamartine) references a poem written by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine.  The first printing of the score also had a short essay printed with it, although this was not by the poet:

"What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?—Love is the glowing dawn of all existence; but what is the fate where the first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, the mortal blast of which dissipates its fine illusions, the fatal lightning of which consumes its altar; and where is the cruelly wounded soul which, on issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavour to rest his recollection in the calm serenity of life in the fields? Nevertheless man hardly gives himself up for long to the enjoyment of the beneficent stillness which at first he has shared in Nature's bosom, and when "the trumpet sounds the alarm", he hastens, to the dangerous post, whatever the war may be, which calls him to its ranks, in order at last to recover in the combat full consciousness of himself and entire possession of his energy."

There is also evidence in a letter written by Liszt that explained the work was only a prelude to his method of composing.  There has been quite a lot of research done on the naming of this symphonic poem that can be read here.

Les Préludes by Franz Liszt:

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chopin - Scherzo No. 2 In B-flat Minor

Frederic Chopin was a virtuoso of the instrument, and the vast majority of his compositions were for the piano. He brought the Mazurka, the national dance of Poland, into the concert hall and helped establish the form of the piano Nocturne.

Chopin has been called the poet of the piano, and many consider him to be the greatest of all the composers for the instrument.  He brought to his piano works a type of technical quality that is by no means easy, but at the same time it is not an empty display of rapid finger work. Everything in Chopin comes from the heart, from emotion, and serves musical expression.

Scherzo is an Italian word that means 'joke', but the Scherzo No. 2 In B-flat Minor is hardly a laughing matter.  There is something ominous from the very beginning of the piece. One of Chopin's students said of the opening of the Scherzo,  "For Chopin it was never questioning enough, never soft enough, never vaulted enough. It must be a charnel-house."  When the Scherzo comes to a thundering close in D flat Major some nine-odd minutes later,  (some say a triumphant close) in the same rhythm as the opening, the 'bad' joke has been transformed.

Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Opus 31:

Albert Ketèlby - Dance Of The Merry Mascots

Albert Ketèlby - (1875 - 1959) was an English composer, pianist and conductor. He attended the Trinity College Of Music in London and his early piano sonata was praised by Edward Elgar. He had a knack for being able to play all the instruments of the orchestra,  practical knowledge he used when he composed for orchestra.

He was musical director of London's Vaudeville Theater and wrote many vocal and instrumental pieces while there. He was also music editor to some publishing houses and was Musical director for the Columbia Gramophone company and conducted on more than 600 recordings issued by the company.

He is most well known for his light popular music that was used at dances and sometimes for silent movies. Some of his most well-known compositions are In A Persian Market, In A Monastery Garden,  and Dance Of The Merry Mascots. Many of these pieces had a short program attached to them. The program for Dance Of The Merry Mascots is as follows:

"The Mascots go to a Fancy-dress Ball dressed as Pierrots, Pierrettes, Japanese and Spanish dancers.  They start with a Waltz for the Pierrots and Pierrettes, (during which Weber's "Invitation to the dance" is played as a counter-melody), then follow two movements for the Japanese and Spanish dancers; the Waltz is now resumed, and towards the end some of the Mascots who have got a little bit too "merry", find it rather difficult to keep in time, but they manage to finish all together!  The chimes now indicate that it is near midnight and the Mascots are heard taking their departure."   

Dance Of The Merry Mascots by Ketèlby:

Beethoven - Choral Fantasia

Ludwig van Beethoven   first made his mark in the musical world as a virtuoso pianist. His skill as an improvisor was well known. The art of improvisation has had something of a rebirth, especially with jazz musicians. Of course, there was no sound recording in Beethoven's day, so how he actually sounded is a matter of conjecture. There are contemporary descriptions of his improvisations, but we will never know how great he really was.

Be that as it may, we do have a few instances of music that Beethoven improvised and later wrote down. Such is the piano solo beginning the Choral Fantasia. This work had its first hearing at a benefit concert in December of 1808.  It was the Finale of a concert that also had the premieres of Symphonies 5 and 6, the 4th Piano concerto, an Aria, and half of the Mass In C Major. The thought of such a long concert, at least 3 1/2 hours long in an unheated concert hall in Vienna, Austria in December boggles the mind.  Beethoven wrote the piece to be a culmination of the concert that integrated solo piano, orchestra and voice.

Beethoven was the soloist in the first performance. He was so hurried and busy in preparation for it (the ink was still wet at concert time on the vocal parts)  he had no time to write down the piano solo, so he improvised it at the concert.  After the 26 bars of virtuosic piano, a theme is introduced by the deep strings, the piano enters in a dialogue with the orchestra for a few measures, then the main theme of the piece is stated by the solo piano and a set of variations on the choral theme begins.  After the variations, the initial theme is restated by the deep strings that are punctuated by flourishes from the piano. Then the chorus enters with a piano accompaniment. The chorus continues with the next verse as the piano continues accompanying until the full orchestra and chorus join in together, until the piece ends with the full orchestra and piano alternating with chords and flourishes until all end together.

The Choral Fantasia has been likened to an experiment that was the precursor of the 9th Symphony. And there is similarity in the main choral tune and the Ode To Joy of the 9th, as well as some of the structure of the two being similar. But the Choral Fantasia is a masterpiece in its own right, one of those pieces of music that Beethoven wrote that needs to be judged on its own merits.

Beethoven's Choral Fantasia and  English translation of the chorus:

With grace, charm and sweet sounds
The harmonies of our life,
And the sense of beauty engenders
The flowers which eternally bloom.
Peace and joy advancing in perfect accord,
Like the alternating play of the waves;
All harsh and hostile elements
Render to a sublime sentiment.

When the magic sounds reign
And the sacred word is spoken,
That strongly engender the wonderful,
The night and the tempest divert light,
Calm without, profound joy within,
Awaiting the great hour.
Meanwhile, the spring sun and art
Bathe in the light.

Something great, into the heart
Blooms anew when in all its beauty,
Which spirit taken flight,
And all a choir of spirits resounds in response.
Accept then, oh you beautiful spirits
Joyously of the gifts of art.
When love and strength are united,
The favor of God rewards Man.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bizet - Symphony in C Major

Georges Bizet had an outstanding career as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, and was known to be a brilliant pianist, but he seldom played in public. He graduated with honors and won the Prix de Rome.  After spending three years in Italy, Bizet returned to France and found very little interest in his compositions. He earned his living by arranging other composers music until he began to have moderate success writing operas.  His last composition was his masterpiece, the opera Carmen, which he (and some critics) considered a failure.

The Symphony in C Major was written apparently as an assignment from his teacher Charles Gounod. Bizet had just turned 17 four days before he began the work in 1855. The symphony follows Gounod's Symphony No. 1 in style if not exactly in content, although there are hints of actual music quotes from Gounod's symphony used by Bizet.  Bizet evidently was not keen on having the symphony performed or published, perhaps because the musical life of France at the time was centered around opera with very little instrumental music being performed. After being considered lost for many years, a copy of the symphony was found and first performed in 1935. The symphony is in four movements and is in the style of the classical symphonies of Mozart and Haydn:

I. Allegro vivo -  The movement begins with a fortissimo C major chord and then the strings take up the first theme, a simple tune that is extended and developed as it goes. The first theme plays for a considerable time until the second theme in the solo oboe appears. The first theme returns and leads to the repeat of the exposition. The development begins with a short variant of the first theme followed by the second theme. This pattern of alternating themes lasts throughout the development until the recapitulation arrives. The first theme again dominates, the second theme is played by the flute, and a beginning fragment of the first theme brings about the end of the movement.

II. Adagio - An introduction leads up to the exotic first theme played by the oboe.  A second lyrical theme is played by the violins as the pizzicato accompaniment from the lower strings continues. A fragment from the first theme spins into a subject for a fugue in the middle section until the introduction reappears as a lead in for the exotic theme once again played by the oboe. The second theme appears again briefly before the movement slowly ends with a partial repeat of the oboe solo.

III. Scherzo- Allegro vivace - The theme of the scherzo is a variant of the first theme that began the symphony. The trio also contains references to the first theme of the first movement.

IV. Allegro vivace - The finale begins with the first  theme that runs through the violins. A second theme is played by the woodwinds. The first theme makes another appearance, and then a third theme is played primarily in the strings with comments from the woodwinds. Transition material leads to the repeat of the exposition. The development section bounces from theme to theme until it arrives at the recapitulation. The same general pattern of themes is followed from the exposition until Bizet winds things up neatly in C major.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bach - Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) wrote some of the first concertos for keyboard and strings. He wrote seven for solo keyboard and strings and wrote others for 2, 3 and 4 harpsichords. All of the solo concertos are transcriptions of Bach's own concertos for solo melody instrument such as violin. In many cases it is only the harpsichord transcription that survives complete.

Bach was the director of the Collegium musicum in Leipzig, a student musical society that gave concerts.  He led this group from 1729 to 1741, and it is believed Bach wrote these concertos for performance at these concerts.The D minor concerto sees Bach use the same music for strings as in the original violin concerto while the solo part is filled out harmonically from the solo violin part of the original. Bach obviously strove to make the keyboard version as virtuosic as the violin version. Bach was familiar with his contemporary Vivaldi's concertos and they exerted a large influence on Bach's concerto style.

The concerto is in three movements:
  1. Allegro - Written in ritornello form, which simply put, has the orchestra play a recurring passage after which the solo instrument develops fragments of the passage. This dialogue between orchestra and soloist continues, with each repetition of the original passage whole or in part being in a different key and the soloist expanding the passage  until the piece ends with orchestra and soloist playing the original passage in the home key.
  2. Adagio - A very expressive movement, the right hand of the soloist plays the melody of the original violin version that Bach has masterfully transformed to the full harmony and texture of the harpsichord while the left hand plays with the string accompaniment.
  3. Allegro - This movement is also in ritornello form and is thematically related to the first movement. 
Bach's Harpsichord Concerto #1 in D Minor:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Liszt - Symphonic Poem 'Mazeppa'

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) was the originator of the Symphonic Poem, a piece of music inspired by literature, art or other non- musical source.  He wrote thirteen of these pieces using various subjects as inspiration.

Liszt's Symphonic Poem No. 6 was inspired by the legend of Ivan Mazeppa, who was born in Lithuania in 1639.  He was of noble birth, and as the legend goes he had a love affair with a Polish princess who was married to a much older man. When the husband found out about the affair as punishment he had Mazeppa stripped of his clothes and tied to a horse and set free to run in the wilderness.  The horse ended up in Ukraine, Mazeppa survived the ordeal, and was found by Cossasks, who eventually made him their Hetman, the person of highest military rank in the country.

Although just a legend, it inspired many Romantic era writers, painters and musicians. Lord Byron, Alexander Pushkin and Victor Hugo wrote poems about it,  Liszt and Tchaikovsky wrote music based on it, and there are many paintings inspired by it.

Liszt first wrote a piano piece based on the legend, part of his set of Transcendental Etudes , first published in 1837 then revised with the revisions printed in 1852.  Mazeppa is the 4th Etude in the set and remains one of the most technically difficult pieces in the repertoire for piano.  Liszt's orchestral version differs from the piano version as it is longer and  expands on some of the musical ideas of the original.

The poem has musical representations of the ride through the wilderness, the beating of the horses hoofs, the terror of the rider and after Mazeppa is found by the Cossacks a triumphant military march.

Mazeppa by Franz Liszt, followed by a performance of the original piano piece:

Sibelius - Symphony No. 5 In E-flat Major Opus 82

Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)  was a Finnish composer most known for his symphonies. He wrote seven symphonies all together, and after his 7th Symphony, Sibelius composed very little for the rest of his life. There were rumors and hints from the composer himself about an 8th symphony, but it was never composed.

Sibelius' first love was the violin, and he worked towards being a virtuoso, but relented when he decided he had started too late. He became a conductor as well as composer. His first great compositional influence was Wagner, but with time Sibelius rejected much of Wagner's esthetic and was then influenced by Anton Bruckner and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  He was a master of orchestration, and despite composing his symphonies in a time of great experimentation with atonality, Sibelius continued to write tonal music. But he developed a highly refined and unique style of orchestration and composition that give his music a certain kind of  sound that is like no other. No doubt his love of nature and the terrain of his native Finland inspired much of his music, whether directly with the tone poems or indirectly with the symphonies.

Sibelius received a commission from the Finnish government in honor of his 50th birthday. He filled the commission with the 5th Symphony. He finished the score and led the premiere in 1915.  It was revised in 1916 and also in 1919, and it is the 1919 version that is usually performed.  The symphony is in three movements:
  1. Tempo molto moderato - Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto) - Vivace molto - Presto - Più Presto.  This movement is actually a combination of the original 1st movement and 2nd movement from the first version of the symphony .
  2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto - Poco a poco stretto - Tranquillo - Poco a poco stretto - Ritenuto al tempo I.  This movement is a set of variations.
  3. Allegro molto - Misterioso - Un pochettino largamente - Largamente assai - Un pochettino stretto.  The tune for horns shortly after the beginning of this movement is thought to be the sound of swan calls, as well as a representation of 16 swans taking off all at once, an event witnessed by Sibelius.
The structure of the symphony is unique. There is much debate among musicologists about the first movement especially. Add the structural uniqueness to the many tempo designations and modulations within the music, and we have one of the most original symphonies composed by Sibelius.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Opus 49

In a review in 1840 of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1, Robert Schumann wrote:
The storm of recent years is finally beginning to abate, and we must admit that it has washed several pearls ashore. Mendelssohn, as one of the many sons of this age, must have had to struggle with and often listen to the insipid declaration of some ignorant critics that ‘the true golden age of music is behind us’ – although it probably affected him less – and has so distinguished himself that we may well say: He is the Mozart of the 19th century, the most brilliant of musicians, the one who most clearly perceives the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them.
Despite Schumann's praise, the very qualities that caused Schumann to praise the music were later looked upon as faults. Mendelssohn's mastery of sonata form was looked upon as old-fashioned and conservative, the nimbleness of his scherzos were deemed emotionally lacking, the lyrical turn of his tunes were regarded as too unemotional. Richard Wagner was one of the main players in the smear campaign when he wrote his pamphlet Jewishness In Music in which his disgusting antisemitism sneers and takes cheap shots at Jewish composers, namely Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn (a pamphlet by the way, that Wagner used a pseudonym for).  And as if all this was not enough, the filth of the Nazi regime in Germany  labeled Mendelssohn's music as degenerate Jewish music.
Watercolor by Mendelssohn
No doubt some of the invective against Mendelssohn was due to his staggering talent as well as his being born into a family that was very well off financially. By some contemporary accounts, Mendelssohn had some of the trappings of personality that economic and social privilege can bring, such as aloofness and class consciousness. He was also afflicted with a terrible temper when he did not get his way.

But Mendelssohn's music has gone through a rehabilitation of sorts. He is now acknowledged as an inspired composer, conductor, pianist, and one of the greatest musical prodigies of any era.

The Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor is written for the standard grouping of cello, violin and piano. The Piano Trio is one of his most popular chamber music pieces,  along with his Octet for Strings.  The Trio is in 4 movements:

I. Molto allegro ed agitato - The cello begins the movement with the first theme, a lyrical tune that Mendelssohn changes as he repeats it as it leads to the second theme in A major that also begins with the cello. The movement is in sonata form, but the skill of Mendelssohn makes the music seem like one long flowing melody. After the development and recapitulation, the music gains in drama (mostly from the florid piano part) as the first theme makes one last appearance as the movement rushes to a close.

II. Andante con moto tranquillo -
The music of the second movement begins with a solo for piano of the main theme. All the instruments join for a repeat and expansion of the theme. A slightly agitated middle section is in contrast to the preceding. The main theme returns and the music slows to a quiet close.

III. Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace -
 A light, agile scherzo, music that Mendelssohn was known for. 

IV. Finale: Allegro assai appassionato -
 A return to D minor, the main theme is in the same general mood as the first movement. The piano especially has a lot to do in this movement. Contrasting material interrupts the main theme's progress a few times, but the main theme is persistent and keeps returning until it is transformed to the key of D major as the movement speeds towards the end.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Franz Liszt - Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) combined his love for literature and the other arts and music in a form of composition he called the Tone Poem, or Symphonic Poem.  A Tone Poem is a one movement compositions reminiscent of concert overtures written by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and others.

Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo ( Tasso, Lament and Triumph) was inspired by the life of Torquato Tasso, an Italian poet of the 16th century.  Liszt referred to two works written about the poet, one by  German writer and poet Johann von Goethe and another by Lord Byron, an English poet.  Tasso suffered from mental illness and spent many years in an asylum. He did eventually leave the asylum and resumed his writing, but he was never cured. It is now thought that he suffered from schizophrenia.

It was the sufferings and inner turmoil of Tasso's years spent in the asylum that Liszt depicts in music in the first half of the piece, with the triumph and release from the asylum and the resumption of his creative work that is depicted in the second half.

Liszt wrote 13 of these one movement Tone Poems, with Tasso being number two.  They were all inspired by literature, art, or some other non-musical source.  With this series of Tone Poems, Liszt created a new type of composition, one well suited to the Romantic era of the 19th century.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 8 in F Major

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) called his 8th Symphony "My little Symphony in F" to differentiate between it and Symphony No.6, also in F and a longer work. The symphony was begun in 1812 and premiered in 1814.  It was greeted with politely enthusiastic applause and was not received with the same fervor as Symphony No. 7.  When asked why this symphony wasn't as popular as No. 7, he reportedly replied, "Because the Eighth is so much better!"

The Symphony is in four movements:

  • I. Allegro vivace e con brio - 
  • The symphony begins with no introduction, but gets right to the matter at hand. It is written in sonata form, and in the development section there is a long stretch where the orchestra plays fortissimo, a most unusual dynamic for so long a stretch.

    II. Allegretto scherzando - The second movement is thought by some to be a humorous imitation of a metronome.

    III. Tempo di Menuetto - A minuet in the style of a Haydn peasant stomp.

    IV. Allegro vivace - Beethoven has plenty of surprises in this last movement. 'Wrong' notes played to good effect, the kettle drums tuned to octaves instead of 5ths are two examples.

    The 8th Symphony sits between two of Beethoven's mightiest compositions, the 7th and the 9th. That it sits and thumbs its nose a little at them is no mistake, for Beethoven quite often countered a piece of serious and noble intentions with a piece more light-hearted. Beethoven's notorious sense of humor shines through this symphony and makes it one of his best, if not most popular.

    Sonny Boy Williamson II - Your Funeral and My Trial, and Bye Bye Bird

    Sonny Boy Williamson II ( 1899? - 1965) was born on a plantation in Mississippi.  His birth name was Aleck Ford, but he took the last name of his stepfather, Miller.  He later called himself many other names, and finally settled on Sonny Boy Williamson to capitalize on the success of Blues singer and harmonica player John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. He is now referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II or 'the second' to differentiate between the two.

    Sonny Boy Williamson was a virtuoso harmonica player, blues singer and songwriter. He lead the life of a blues man, playing music wherever he went, even on street corners.  He got his big break when he was hired on with other blues players to play on the King Biscuit Time radio program in Helena, Arkansas sponsored by King Biscuit Flour. In the early 1960's he toured Europe along with other blues men.

    Parts of Sonny Boy's life remained a mystery. No one is sure of the year of his birth, and he spread so many falsehoods about himself during his life that no definitive biography is possible.

    The Blues is a genre of music that goes right to the heart of what it is to be human. All of us have had the blues about one thing or the other, and the blues man (or woman) expresses this humanness in musical language and lyrics in a direct way, with no frills. Blues music contains some of the richest, most expressive music known. It takes a back seat to no other genre, it is an art form in itself, as Sonny Boy shows with the following two songs.

    Your Funeral and My Trial

    Please come home to your daddy, and explain yourself to me
    Because I and you are man and wife, tryin' to start a family
    I'm beggin' you baby, cut out that off the wall jive
    If you can't treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial
    When I and you first got together, 't was on one Friday night
    We spent two lovely hours together, and the world knows allright
    I'm just beggin' you baby, please cut out that off the wall jive
    You know you gotta treat me better, if you don't it gotta be your funeral and my trial
    The good Lord made the world and everything was in it
    The way my baby love is some solid sentiment
    She can love to heal the sick and she can love to raise the dead
    You think I'm jokin' but you better believe what I say
    I'm beggin' you baby, cut out that off the wall jive
    Yeh you gotta treat me better, or it gotta be your funeral and my trial.

    In the song Bye Bye Bird,  Sonny Boy's 'harp' sound takes center stage. It is amazing how much he can get out of such a small instrument. He also shows his showmanship as he puts the harp into his mouth, continues to blow it while he snaps and claps out a rhythm accompaniment.

    Bye Bye Bird

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    Joseph Haydn - Symphony No. 49 'La Passione'

    Joseph Haydn ( 1732 - 1809 ) was a innovator in musical form of his time. He helped to codify the forms of the symphony and string quartet especially.  The forerunner of the symphony was the Opera Sinfonia also known as Italian Overture. These works were in three sections with the temp scheme of fast-slow-fast. Many symphonies of the 18th century followed this scheme. C.P.E. Bach and Johann Christian Bach composed their symphonies in this form as did Mozart and Haydn in their earlier symphonies.

    Mozart and Haydn both added a fourth movement to their symphonies, another fast movement, thus making the scheme fast-slow-fast-fast.  La Passione (The Passion) symphony of Haydn however, does not follow this pattern but follows the older form of the Sonata da chiesa or Church sonata that had the tempo scheme of slow-fast-slow-fast. It was the last time Haydn used this form for any of his symphonies.

    The symphony was written in 1768 during Haydn's Sturm und Drang  (Storm and Stress) period.  All the movements are in F minor except for the Trio of the Menuett (3rd movement) which is in F Major. The symphony is in four movements:
    1. Adagio
    2. Allegro di molto
    3. Menuet & Trio
    4. Presto
    Haydn's Symphony No. 49 'La Passione' :

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Dohnányi - Variations On A Nursery Tune

    Sir Donald Tovey was a musicologist, conductor, pianist, composer and music reviewer. His seven-volume series in musical analysis called appropriately enough Essays In Musical Analysis were originally program notes written for symphony orchestra concerts (plus one volume published posthumously that covers chamber music)  and they cover many of the familiar classical pieces in the orchestral repertoire and some that are not so familiar. There purpose as described by Tovey was to act as a guide for the listener to lead to greater enjoyment of classical music. These essays were first published in the 1930's and may seem a little old fashioned in style, but for the classical music lover who wishes to learn more about the art and technical side of orchestral music, they are invaluable. Tovey does have a knack of being able to speak to the beginning listener (although the ability to read music is helpful) as well as the trained musician. All seven volumes of the Essays are on my book shelf and I refer to them often.  More about Tovey later.

    Donald Tovey
    Ernö Dohnányi was a Hungarian pianist, conductor and composer.  He was a brilliant pianist and in his early years was compared to Franz Liszt. He made his debut as a pianist in Berlin in 1897 to wide acclaim. He went on to tour Germany and Europe, as well as visiting London and the United States.  There is still a controversy concerning whether Dohnanyi was a Nazi sympathizer in Hungary during World War II. Some say he did all he could to protect his Jewish friends, others say he was instrumental in purging Jews from orchestras and Conservatories in Hungary.  He moved to Austria in 1944 after the Nazis invaded Hungary, which gave cause for some to accuse of him of Nazi sympathizing. After the war he moved to Argentina for political reasons as he suffered harassment for his alleged conduct against Jews during the war. He eventually immigrated to the United States and taught at Florida State University. He went to New York City in 1960 for some recording sessions and died there.

    Variations On A Nursery Tune was written in 1914 and is subtitled: For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others. The tune used is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, also known in French as Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.  It is for written for piano and orchestra and consists of Introduction, Theme, 12 variations, and Coda, all played without a break.
    Introduzione, maestoso -  Donald Tovey wrote an essay about this work, and he referred to the heavy and Wagnerian introduction as a "Symphony in woe minor", an apt enough description as the sheer weight of the dominating brass and timpani rumbling gives a feeling of doom and gloom. There is a hint at what is to come by a plodding motive in quarter notes played by the horns of the theme. After the orchestra is done blaring, a solemn march tempo begins. The music dies down, and the proceedings are halted by the way of a loud thump produced by the orchestra.
    Tema, allegro - The piano enters and punches out the theme one-finger style, accompanied by pizzicato strings and bassoon.
    Variation 1 - The piano gallops along playing the tune to a light accompaniment and glissandos from the harp.
    Variation 2 - The horns blare out  the first phrase of the theme, the piano and woodwinds answer. The dialogue continues and then breaks off into the next variation.
    Variation 3 - The music is in the style of and quotes phrases of Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto.
    Variation 4 -  Woodwinds are the stars in this variation with the bassoons and flutes alternating in a dialogue accompanied by the piano.
    Variation 5 - Dohnanyi imitates a music box very effectively with the piano, bells and harp.
    Variation 6 - Tovey was quite taken with this variation as he called it, "an etude for pianoforte and wind instruments without parallel in classical or modern orchestration." The piano and woodwinds have a lively discussion with rapid exchanges in music that is on the verge of falling apart in its hectic give and take.
    Variation 7 - A grand, somewhat bloated parody of a waltz.
    Variation 8 - A march in a minor key with the persistent rhythm of the timpani throughout.
    Variation 9 - A scherzo starring the bassoon, xylophone, and contra-bassoon.
    Variation 10 - The theme becomes the continuing bass of a passacaglia. The full orchestra plays the theme, solo instruments comment as the music slowly builds and the ominous music of the introduction makes another appearance. The music builds in intensity and finally erupts in a climax that bursts into the major mode.
    Variation 11 - The theme is transformed into a chorale.
    Variation 12 - Ascending scales lead to the fugato that scurries through the theme as it bounces from one instrument group to the other while the piano runs along side. The piano thunders out broken octaves, and the orchestra has a sudden outburst and a short pause. The bare theme appears played by woodwinds and piano. The woodwinds make their final comment on the theme with the contra-bassoon having the final word before the piano scampers to the end and the final repetition of a fragment of the theme as the piano plays a glissando.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Beethoven - Violin Sonata In C Minor, Opus 30 No. 2

    Ludwig van Beethoven  wrote ten sonatas for violin and piano in 1798-1812, with the first nine written in a six year period. Sonata  No. 7 is from a set of three sonatas for violin and piano, opus 30.  The opus 30 sonatas were published in 1803 with the title Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin, a nod from Beethoven to the priorities of the past, as sonatas written as such could be played with or without the violin.  Although all 4 movements of the 2nd sonata of this set begin with the piano playing solo as it introduces the thematic material, these sonatas are by no means of the earlier type. The violin part is essential to the work, if nothing else as a contrast to the piano.
    The sonata is in 4 movements:

    I. Allegro con brio -  A movement of high tension and drama, the piano begins solo, and as the violin takes over the theme the piano rumbles an accompaniment. Another theme is heard in the exposition along with transition material. This sprawling exposition is not repeated. Themes are worked through at length in ther development, with snatches of material being bounced from violin to piano. Beethoven doesn't limit himself to themes heard in the exposition, as he adds a new one in the development.  After more development of the first theme in a section of transition, the recapitulation begins. After the first theme, modulation of the next theme leads to yet more working out of thematic material. The first theme begins a coda that adds to an already powerful movement. The second theme is briefly touched upon, which leads to broken octaves in the piano as the violin plays fragments of the first theme. The movement builds to the furious ending of the movement.

    II. Adagio cantabile -
    The piano begins the movement in A-flat major. The music slowly unwinds as the violin enters and the two instruments sing together.  A section in the minor mode leads back to the theme. As the violin slowly sings, the piano plays quiet runs until the music shifts gears and there are interruptions of runs in C major as the theme tries to regain the spotlight. After the final C major interruption, the theme returns as is summed up in the violin while the piano plays gentle runs.  Pizaccato chords in the violin lead to the final cadence.

    III. Scherzo -  
    A rhythmic scherzo in C major with many accents off the beat, and that has a curious modulation to E major in the second section. Beethoven hammers out an E major chord in the piano while the violin plays two E's of the same pitch at the same time on different strings:
     The trio has the two instruments playing in counterpoint. 

    IV. Finale - Allegro, presto -
    Rumblings from the piano that begin this movement hark back to the first movement, as does some other material.  A rondo that haas a few sections of brightness, but it mostly hammers away at the main theme.  Beethoven increases the tempo to presto in the coda as both instruments run breathless to the C minor end.