Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Henselt - Variations For Piano and Orchestra

If there was ever a pianist afflicted with compulsive piano practicing, it had to be Adolph von Henselt (1814 - 1889), a German pianist, teacher and composer. He would practice ten  hours a day, read the Bible he had on his piano music stand while he did finger exercises, and when he gave a concert he had a dummy piano offstage to practice on between the selections he played and at intermission.  He practiced so much that he would dampen the strings of his piano with quills so the sound wouldn't get on his nerves.

And a nervous man he was, at least before and during a concert. He had such a bad case of stage fright every time he had to play in public that he would get physically sick. He would have to be pushed out onto the stage to start his recitals, play through the selection and then literally run back off the stage.  He toured extensively in Germany in 1836. He realized that he didn't have the nerves to be a traveling virtuoso, so he settled in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1838. He had previously played there before the Czar, who took a liking to his music and to Henselt.  By the time Henselt had turned 33, his touring days were over. He gave only a handful of concerts after that.

all of the compulsive practice gave Henselt an astounding technique. He was most well known for an incredible hand span ion the keyboard. Through diligent (and compulsive) stretching of his hand and fingers his relatively small hands were able to extend a twelfth. His left hand could play the chord C-E-G-C-F without resorting to the use of the pedal or arppegiating the chord. He wrote etudes for the piano in all the major and minor keys, and like Chopin's etudes each one addressed a specific problem of technique.  Much of his reputation was because of these etudes, some of which drove most pianists to despair.

Henselt also composed a few chamber pieces, a piano concerto that Anton Rubinstein finally gave up trying to learn (along with the etudes) because, "it was a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand. In this respect, Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak."

Henselt became a great influence in the musical life of Russia after he moved there.  He spent the rest of his life in St. Petersburg, only leaving occasionally for a trip back to his native Germany.  He taught piano at the conservatory and later became Inspector General of all the music instruction institutions in Russia. He influenced and helped bring about the Russian 'school' of piano playing that was well-represented  by pianists such as Rachmaninoff.

The Variations For Piano and Orchestra was written in 1840 after his move to Russia. The theme that is the basis of the variations is an aria from an opera by Meyerbeer called Robert le Diable.  It is of course a work for a virtuoso pianist, but the orchestral writing also shows that Henselt could write music for more than just the piano.  Henselt also gave up his career as a composer early on. After he finished his piano concerto in f minor, he wrote virtually nothing else for the rest of his life.

By all indications, Henselt was a complicated man. He was a terror as a piano teacher as he could tolerate no imperfection or mistakes. Patience was not one of his virtues. But yet he was highly influential and helped create a whole national school of Russian virtuoso piano players.  He composed relatively little, yet his compositions show the talent of a master. He was one of the greatest pianist that ever touched the instrument, and equal of Liszt said some.  Yet he had such a bad case of stage fright that he concertized for only a short time.  He will in many ways remain an enigma. After hearing his music, it makes me wonder what he could have done had his personality allowed him to. But at the same time, it is probably a small miracle that he managed to leave the few excellent pieces that we have.

Henselt - Variations For Piano and Orchestra

Liszt - Héroïde funèbre

Europe at the time of Franz Liszt's early adulthood was a Europe of revolution. In July, 1830 the Paris Revolution, also known as The Three Glorious Days caused the abdication of French King Charles X and brought about the ascent of Louis-Philippe from the House Of Orleans as the new constitutional monarch.

Liszt was not yet 20 years old at the time, but the event inspired him to sketch out a Revolution Symphony in five movements. It wasn't until 20 years later when Liszt took the first movement sketch of the symphony and reworked it into a symphonic poem.  Revolution spread across most countries in Europe in 1848, including Paris and Liszt's native Hungary.

March 15, 1848 was the day that a group of Hungarians rioted in Pest-Buda demanding political autonomy for Hungary from Austria.  Emperor Ferdinand promised Hungary a constitution, an elected parliament, and the end of censorship. The new government, led by ministers Szechenyi and Kossuth, imposed the Magyar language on all the other nationalities in Hungary. This angered many people, and uprisings followed. Austria took back Hungary after one and a half years of fighting when Russian Tsar Nicholas I marched into Hungary with over 300,000 troops.

Hungary was placed under brutal martial law, with the Austrian government restored to its original position.  Liszt's final inspiration to complete the work was to commemorate the execution in 1849 of thirteen Hungarian generals who had led the revolution, but he still left a very short musical quotation from the French national anthem La Marseillaise from the original work in it, perhaps as a tribute to France, his adopted country early in his adulthood.

Liszt wrote a long preface to the work when it was published that dealt with the price paid when violence is part of revolution and the consequences the use of  violence has on human progress.  It is as if  Héroïde funèbre is a funeral oration for the victims of revolutionary violence, no matter what flag they were carrying.  Some of Liszt's preface:

De Maistre remarks that over thousands of years it is hard to find any during which, by rare exception, peace reigned on earth - which otherwise resembles an arena where people fight each other as did the gladiators in former times, and where the most valiant salute Destiny as the master and Providence as their judge, before entering the lists. In these wars and carnages that succeed one another like sinister games, whatever the colors of the flags which rise courageous and proud against each other, over both camps they flutter soaked in heroic blood and inexhaustible tears. 

Liszt also had this to say about dying for one's country:

I would be the first to answer the call to arms, to give my blood and not tremble before the guillotine, if it were the guillotine that could give the world peace and mankind happiness. But who believes that? We are concerned with bringing peace to the world in which the individual is justly treated by society.

The first version of this piece was published in 1850, with the music written by Liszt but orchestrated by his protege Joachim Raff (as were other of the symphonic poems), as Liszt was still learning the craft of orchestration. But the piece was thoroughly revised and re-orchestrated by Liszt himself in 1854 and 1857.

This was not the only funeral music Liszt wrote. In his set of piano pieces called Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses the seventh piece named Funérailles is dedicated to those who fell in the Hungarian uprising, perhaps the same thirteen generals who led it.  And the Hungarian Rhapsody #5 in E minor is subtitled Héroïde élégiaque.   The creative artist in Liszt tried to deal with the death and destruction brought on by people rising up against oppression in the best ways he knew how - he performed many concerts and gave all the proceeds to charities that helped the victims of aggression, and he gave honor and tribute to the fallen through his music.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Berlioz - Harold In Italy

After a performance 1833 of his Symphonie Fantastique and other works, Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)  was approached by Nicolo Paganini with a request to write a piece for viola and orchestra for him.  Paganini had just obtained a  Stradivarius viola and wanted to show it off in a concerto.  Berlioz began the concerto, but when Paganini saw the first movement he complained that there were far too many rests for the viola, that he needed to be playing constantly throughout the concerto.

Paganini lost interest in the work, and Berlioz didn't have much interest in writing a piece for Paganini to show off with. Berlioz continued in the direction the music was taking him. It became a set of scenes for orchestra and viola obbligato that were based on Lord Byron's popular poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  Byron's work is a long poem that describes the travels of a world-weary young man. Much of the poem is thought to be autobiographical as Byron himself wandered Europe and the Mediterranean area also. Berlioz used the poem very loosely as inspiration for his piece. He used his travels in Italy in 1830 in combination with the general feeling of the poem  to devise the four orchestral scenes.
The four scenes are :
  • Harold in the mountains -A portrait of the hero, against a background of extraordinarily evocative and varied nature-painting.
  • Pilgrims' March
  • Serenade - An Abruzzi mountaineer plays a serenade to his mistress.
  • Orgy of the Brigands -A furious orgy wherein wine, blood, joy, all combined, parade their intoxication-where the rhythm sometimes seems to stumble along, sometimes to rush on in fury, and the brass seems to vomit forth curses and to answer prayer with blasphemies; where they laugh, drink, fight, destroy, violate, and utterly run riot.
Berlioz ended up with nothing like a concerto for viola, but one of his most poetic and lyrical pieces, which is in keeping with Berlioz's reported fondness for the viola. The viola in one sense is an instrument that has attracted some composers over the years because it usually helps to flesh out the harmony whenever it is used. I've heard Bach and Mozart both enjoyed playing the instrument in ensemble for this reason. Composers are inspired and gifted individuals, and the great ones are also great craftsmen. So it makes sense that they would like getting 'inside' the music this way.

The viola is also much more than just a 'bigger violin'. Theoretically it should fall between the violin and cello in size and string length, but if it were made true to this scale it would be unplayable on the arm and be very awkward to play like a cello. To compensate for the fact that the strings are not as long as they need be, they are of a thicker diameter and the body is smaller. This gives the viola a more nasal and distinctive tone than the violin, while still being able to blend with the other string instruments The very fact that the viola is a 'compromise' is what makes it unique, and no doubt was the reason for Berlioz being fond of it.

The solo viola wanders through the scenes for orchestra, commenting on the happenings and stating its own special theme called an idee fixe by Berlioz.  
The first performance of the work was a disaster that Berlioz blamed on shoddy conducting by the conductor Girard.. After this fiasco, Berlioz himself conducted most of his own music.  And what of Paganini?  He never did get his viola concerto from Berlioz, never played the work, and he didn't hear Harold In Italy until 1838. When he did hear it, he was overwhelmed, heaped praise upon Berlioz and gave him a gift of 20,000 francs!

Read what Berlioz said about Harold In Italy in this chapter from his Memoirs

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Arthur Rubinstein - Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2

Arthur Rubinstein (1887 - 1982) was a Polish pianist and one of the great virtuosos of the 20th century. He was declared a child prodigy at the age of four and had perfect pitch. By the age of thirteen he had already made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He toured all over the world during his long life. There may have been other pianists that could play a certain piece or composer with more insight, but everything Rubinstein played was rock-solid in interpretation and technique. His tone was golden, he was incapable of producing a harsh tone from the piano. His repertoire was huge. For example, he could perform in short notice 27 different piano concertos.  He was also an excellent chamber music musician.

He made recordings from 1928 to about 1976, with most of his recordings being done for RCA. all of his RCA recordings have been issued on music CD, the entire set contains 94 CD's and runs to 106 hours. He concertized until his eyesight failed him and he retired in 1976 at age eighty-nine. His last concert was in Wigmore Hall in London where he had first played nearly seventy years previously.

Rubinstein is most well known for his Chopin performances. Rubinstein was one of the first pianists early in the 20th century to play Chopin as the music was written. That's not to say he played it coldly and analytically, but Rubinstein purposefully rid himself of the excesses in performance and interpretation that had become somewhat of a tradition in Chopin's music.  There is no better player of Chopin's 2nd sonata than Rubinstein. He plays with expression and passion that totally serves the music.

Chopin's 2nd sonata confused music lovers when it was first published in 1837.  Schumann said it lacked cohesion and Chopin "simply bound together four of his most unruly children."   The sonata is in 4 movements and follows the layout of Beethoven's  Piano Sonata #12, which was one of Chopin's favorite Beethoven sonatas. The sonata opens with what some have called a tribute to Beethoven, as it is very similar to Beethoven's opening of his final piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor, another favorite of Chopin.  The second movement is a scherzo, the third movement is the famous Funeral March. The enigmatic final Presto movement has been subject to many interpretations. In the preface to the American edition of the sonatas James Huneker  quotes from Karol Mikuli,  the editor of the sonatas and one of Chopin's pupils, that Chopin said of this movement, "The left hand and right hand are gossiping after the March". Arthur Rubinstein himself said of the movement that, "One  hears the winds of night sweeping over churchyard graves, the dust blowing and the dust that remains."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique

Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)  began to compose Symphonie Fantastique, An Episode in The Life Of An Artist, In Five Parts in 1827 after he saw the famous English/Irish actress Harriet Smithson on stage as Ophelia in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Berlioz fell deeply in love with her and wrote the symphony in her honor.  Berlioz constantly sent her love letters but they didn't actually meet until 1832 when Berlioz managed to give her some tickets through a mutual friend to an upcoming concert. She went, realized that she had inspired the music, and they were wed in 1833.

Berlioz distributed a program at the premiere of the symphony. There is no better way to learn what's behind the symphony than to read the program Berlioz provided:

Part one
Daydreams, passions
  The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions (le vague des passions), sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.  This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.

Part two
A ball
The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.

Part three
Scene in the countryside
One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoging with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him!… This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…

Part four
March to the scaffold
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.
Part five
Dream of a witches’ sabbath
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.


Berlioz planned the premiere of the symphony long before it was finished. He worked feverishly to finish the work and rehearse it enough to perform it in May of 1830.  He cobbled the score together, led a few rehearsals before everyone involved deemed it not ready for performance. Berlioz again took up the score, and it had it's premiere in December of 1830 with only two rehearsals!  Nonetheless, the symphony was a success.

It is difficult to know how many composers were influenced by the symphony. It was a very new and daring piece of music in its day. The form of the symphony (inspired by Beethoven's 6th symphony 'the Pastoral ' which is in five movements), the harmonies, the use of  the idée fixe which was further developed by Liszt and Wagner as the Lietmotif , and above all the orchestration of the piece,  all were signs that music was changing.   The pure sound of Berlioz's orchestra comes from many causes, but one of the main ones is that Berlioz was not a pianist. Composers who are pianists tend to think in pianistic terms as far as spacing of parts, harmony and form. Even when writing for orchestra many composers make a piano 'outline' of the work. Berlioz did not compose in this way. His musical instrument was the guitar, an instrument where there is a choice of which string will play certain notes. While a note may be the same pitch played on two different strings, the tonal color will be more or less different because of the diameter of the string. Subtle though this distinction may be, in aggregate spread over the large orchestra Berlioz calls for, it can make a difference in pure sound.

A few words about the audio used in the video; John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique recorded the work using period instruments (valveless horns, natural trumpets) in the same hall in Paris that the Symphonie Fantastique was premiered in in 1830.  Berlioz heard many concerts in this hall as well as played many concerts there.  This recording gives a very good idea of what Berlioz heard (albeit with more than two rehearsals). The hall's acoustics are dry, that is there is very little reverberation. But once your ears get used to that, your ears will be treated to sounds and subtleties that are lost in other recordings. The recording also includes the solo cornet part in the 2nd movement. And the recurring picture of the woman in curls in the video is none other than the idee fixe herself, Harriet Smithson.

Oh, and did Berlioz and his beloved live happily ever after? Hardly. By the time Smithson got around to noticing Berlioz and marrying him she had lost her popularity and was deeply in debt. Berlioz for his part grew tired of his idee fixe  rather fast for being so much in love. They divorced after eight bitter, unhappy years of marriage.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tchaikovsky - Piano Trio 'In Memory Of A Great Artist'

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 -1893)  refused to write a piano trio for his benefactor Nadezhda von Meck, saying in a letter to her in 1880,  "You ask why I have never written a trio. Forgive me, dear friend; I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me ... I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend..."

But upon the death of close friend and mentor Nicolai Rubinstein who had died in March of 1881, Tchaikovsky seems to have had a change of heart. He ended up writing a piano trio and subtitling it 'In Memory Of A Great Artist' in tribute to his friend.  It was the only piano trio he ever wrote.

The work went through several versions with the final version being completed in February 1882.  A private performance was held at the Moscow Conservatory on March 23, 1882, the one year anniversary of Nicolai Rubinstein's death, but Tchaikovsky was in Italy.  he heard the trio in another private performance in April, after which he made some revisions to the work.

The trio is in two proper movements, although the 2nd movement contains two distinct sections. For a chamber work it is rather long and takes about three quarters of an hour to perform. The piano part is some of the most difficult music Tchaikovsky wrote for the piano, including the piano concertos.

The first movement is full of dark, funereal music. The second movement is a set of variations that segues into a Finale that is some of the most tragic, emotional music ever written by Tchaikovsky, and for a composer known for his emotionally-charged music, that is saying quite a lot. This trio is one of my favorite chamber music pieces, but I must admit to not listening to it very often.  There is no other composer like Tchaikovsky for pure, raw emotion, and sometimes it is just too much to listen to.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor ' In Memory Of A Great Artist ' :

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parry - Piano Concerto in F-sharp Major

Hubert Parry (1848 -1918) was an English composer, teacher and music historian.  He came from an upper middle class family and as such went to school at Eton.  Although he excelled in music while at Eton (as well as sports) his father demanded that he study for a different career, so when he went to Oxford he didn't study music but law and history.

He worked as an insurance underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877, all the while continuing his studies in music. He tried to obtain lessons from Brahms, but he was not available. Parry ended up taking lessons from Edward Dannreuther , a pianist and writer. Parry's compositions began to be known by the public and he was also hired on as a music scholar in 1875 by George Grove as an assistant editor for the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians to which he contributed 123 articles.   He was appointed professor of composition and musical history at  the Royal College of Music in 1883. He became director of the  College in 1900 and worked in that capacity until his death.

The Piano Concerto in F-sharp Major was one of Parry's first major works. He began the work in 1878 and completed it in 1879.  It was premiered in 1880 with his own teacher Dannreuther as soloist.  It got rave reviews but some considered it avante garde.  Parry went on to write much vocal music, five symphonies and other pieces, plus books on music and music history.

Parry thought that German music and traditions to be the standard, so with the oncoming World War he felt confident that the English and Germans would not fight each other. Of course he was sadly wrong, and had to watch his musical world become yet another victim of the war. Parry had suffered from heart disease for many years and when he contracted the Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic, it took his life.

Parry wrote only one piano concerto. It is an interesting piece, not least of all to think that it was at one time considered avante garde.  It is very well written, with a piano part that calls for the skill of a virtuoso.  It is one of the many neglected pieces in the repertoire that could use an occasional hearing.

Boismortier - Bassoon Concerto

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was a French musician who was one of the first composers who had no patrons. In a time where a composer had to rely on the service of a royal court or church to make a living. Boismortier not only didn't have a patron, but he became wealthy on the sales of his published works. He obtained a royal license to engrave music in 1724, and went on to publish over 100 pieces of music.

Boismortier got his education from a composer of motets that lived in the area of France he grew up in. In adult life he married the daughter of a rich goldsmith and moved to Paris with his wife in to compose and engrave music.  He was the first French composer to write a concerto for solo instrument, and wrote in many different forms for instruments and voices.  Later in life he became a theorist and wrote instruction manuals for the flute and viola.

He had a knack for composing works thgat pleased the public thus he became a very popular composer. His compositions for voice alone sold enough copies to make him a wealthy man. That he was as much criticized as applauded is evident by what was written by Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, a music theorist and Boismortier contemporary. From his Essay On Ancient And Modern Music (1780):

"Boismortier lived in a time when people wanted music to be easy and pleasant to listen to. This skillful musician made the most of this fashionable taste and composed a multitude of airs and duos for flute, violin, oboe, musette, hurdy gurdy... He was very successful in this, but unfortunately he wasted too many harmonies, some of which were peppered with pleasant outbursts.  He so abused his talent and numerous  clients that one of them once said:

"Happy is he, Good Sir Boismortier, whose prolific quill,
Each month with almost no pain conceives a new ditty at will"

In reply to his critics, Boismortier would say, "I'm earning money". This musician was pleasant, ingenious and good company." 

The Bassoon Concerto is in D major and was included in a collection of 5 sonatas. In all 6 works in the collection the solo instrument can be either cello, viola da gamba or bassoon, an example of how music in his time was written to be multi-purpose, something that Boismortier was more than happy to do as it would increase his sales. The concerto is in three movements: 

Boismortier knew the current trends and what was popular and didn't much care what his critics had to say as long as the public kept buying his music. He may not have been a composer that plumbed the depths of emotion in his works, but he was something of a trailblazer, a free lance musician in a time when that was unheard of.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rachmaninoff - Five Preludes For Piano

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 - 1943)  was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 20th century.  He had a phenomenal memory, learned new pieces exceedingly fast, and had technique to spare. As if that wasn't enough, he was also a top-notch conductor and composer.

A lot of his output was music for the piano. Among some of his best compositions are the preludes for solo piano. His first prelude was in a set of five pieces called Morceaux de Fantaisie (French for Fantasy Pieces) composed when he was fresh out of the Conservatory at age nineteen.

The Prelude in C-sharp Minor, the second piece in this Opus 3 set, is the infamous prelude that was so immensely popular that Rachmaninoff had to play it at almost every concert he gave. He came to detest the piece, not least of all because when it was published copyright laws at the time didn't provide the composer with any royalties. The fact that this piece grew to be so popular and was played so many times without the payment of any royalties always stuck in Rachmaninoff's craw. He composed another set of ten preludes, Opus 23, in 1903 and another set of thirteen, Opus 32 in 1910 to complete the set of twenty four.

Rachmaninoff's preludes are fascinating pieces, each one a masterwork. They are full of technical difficulties, fistfuls of notes, large chords for both hands sometimes written over 4 music staves. But they are more than tests of a pianist's technique and endurance. They are also a test of the pianist's musicality.

As with all sets of pieces like this, people always have their favorites. I have chosen the five preludes out of the set that I like the best. But they are surely all worth listening to. The ones in the video are:

Prelude in B-flat Major - Maestoso - Opus 23, No.2
Prelude in D minor - Tempo di Menuett - Opus 23, No.3
Prelude in G Minor - Alla Marcia - Opus 23, No.5
Prelude in B Minor - Lento - Opus 32, No.10
Prelude in G-sharp Minor - Allegro - Opus 32, No.12:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Franck - Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Hunter)

Cesar Franck (1822 - 1890) wrote this brilliantly orchestrated tone poem in 1882.  The title is taken from a poem written by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger that was titled Der Wilde Jäger. The tone poem, while written in one continuous movement, is in four distinct sections:
  • Sunday Morning Call To Worship
  • The Hunt
  • The Curse
  • The Demon's Chase
The story synopsis:

The church bells call the faithful to worship on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, but an arrogant German count decided he will go hunting instead. He ignored the church bells and the chants, mounted his horse as he blew his hunting horn to begin the hunt, and whipped the peasants that got in his way.  After he got into the woods and hunted for a while, he realized he was lost.  A mysterious voice speaks to him and tells him that he is cursed to be chased forever by demons in the forest for his blasphemy.  Through night and day the wild ride goes on, and doesn't stop when the hunter and his horse fall into the abyss. They are lifted airborne with the demons still hot in their pursuit. 

Franck's Le Chasseur Maudit (The Accursed Hunter):

Arensky - Fantasia On Russian Folk Songs For Piano And Orchestra

Anton Arensky (1861 - 1906) was a Russian composer, pianist and teacher. Arensky as a child was musically precocious and had composed many songs and pieces for the piano by the age of nine.  He studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. After his graduation he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory where one of his students was Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Arensky is best known for his chamber music, especially the Piano Trio in D minor, but he composed music in many other forms. His Fantasia On Russian Folk Songs For Piano And Orchestra is based on two songs from a collection of Russian folk songs compiled by the ethno-musicologist Ivan Ryabinin.  The first theme is in E minor. Tchaikovsky's music was a large influence on Arensky as his treatment of the first theme is rhapsodic. The second theme is like a march, and while it too is in a minor key, it is of a different character than the first.

After the second theme is played through, the first them returns and is varied. The gradually lightens in texture and grows quiet. The piano by itself utters the first theme one more time, and the piece ends quietly with the piano and a pizzicato chord by the low strings.

Arensky was somewhat of an enigmatic man. He never married, had few friends and struggled with alcoholism most of his life. He was also a compulsive gambler. He died of tuberculosis when he was 44 years old.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tartini - Violin Sonata in G Minor 'Devil's Trill'

Giuseppe Tartini (1692 - 1770) was an Italian composer and violinist. He was an influential violin teacher as well as player and composer. He started a very popular violin school that attracted students from all over Europe. He is also one of the first persons known to have owned a violin made by Stradivarius.

He composed almost exclusively for the violin with over 135 violin concertos and many violin sonatas. By far his best known work is the Sonata in G minor for Violin and Basso Continuo, known as 'The Devil's Trill' because of the double stop trills used in the work.  Tartini himself told the story about falling asleep one night and being visited by the Devil:

"One night, in the year 1713 I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I wished: my new servant anticipated my every desire. Among other things, I gave him my violin to see if he could play. How great was my astonishment on hearing a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy. I felt enraptured, transported, enchanted: my breath failed me, and - I awoke. I immediately grasped my violin in order to retain, in part at least, the impression of my dream. In vain! The music which I at this time composed is indeed the best that I ever wrote, and I still call it the "Devil's Trill", but the difference between it and that which so moved me is so great that I would have destroyed my instrument and have said farewell to music forever if it had been possible for me to live without the enjoyment it affords me."

Tartini's Violin Sonata in G minor 'Devil's Trill'

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) composed his first string quartets, six of them comprising his opus 18, between 1798 and 1800.  The first quartet in F major wasn't the first one composed, but Beethoven placed it as the first one, perhaps because he thought it was the best of the six. Beethoven had given the original quartet to a friend, but two years later he did a thorough revision of the work.

Beethoven wrote these first six quartets while Joseph Haydn was still alive.  Haydn was the acknowledged master of the string quartet, and along with Mozart he had taken the form to a new level. Beethoven was flexing his musical muscle and showing with his first quartet that the form still had possibilities.

The quartet begins with a statement of the first movement's major theme in unison by all four instruments. The theme goes through some dramatic development in the middle section of the movement. The second movement has been compared to the tomb scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. some say Beethoven himself did the comparison, some say the friend that he gave the first version of the quartet to said it. Regardless of who said it, the movement is a passionate, dramatic one. The Scherzo and Finale are both short movements and help to balance out the first two long movements.

Beethoven went on to compose a total of sixteen string quartets over a span of 26 years.  He became a master of the form and used it for some of his most profound and beautiful music.

Howlin' Wolf Sings The Blues

Howlin' Wolf  a.k.a. Chester Arthur Burnett (1910 -1976) was an influential blues singer, harmonica and guitar player. Born in Mississippi, he farmed and learned guitar and harmonica from other musicians in the area. After he served in the Army during the Second World War, he became a local celebrity in the south, playing with various other blues men. He was finally signed to a recording contract by Chess Records in 1951 and moved to Chicago, IL.

One of his biggest hits in the 1950's was Smokestack Lightnin', here being sung by the Wolf while on a blues tour of Britian in 1964:

At Chess Records, Willie Dixon wrote songs for Wolf that turned out to be some of his most popular. "Back Door Man" was one of these songs:

Wolf continued touring and recording throughout the 1950's and 1960's with his own band and his long-time lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin.  Here they are with Sunnyland Slim in a video taken from the American Folk Blues tour of 1964 with Wolf singing the song "Shake For Me":

In the late 1960's and early 1970's Wolf's health declined. He had several heart attacks and his kidneys were badly damaged in an auto accident in 1970. He succumbed to kidney failure in 1976.

In his prime Howlin' Wolf was a huge man, 6' 6", over 300 hundred pounds and his voice was just as big.  Sam Phillips was the first to sign Wolf to a contract and he commented,  "When I heard him, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies'. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I've ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you'd see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."

Howlin' Wolf singing and Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar Moving from one of his last albums in the 1970's:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Froberger - Suite No. 26 In B Minor

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 - 1667) was a German composer, keyboard and organ virtuoso.  He helped to develop the keyboard suite of dances and influenced many composers, including J.S. Bach.

Froberger's father was Kapellmeister  of the court in Württemberg. He got his first instruction in music from his father who also had a large (for the time) library of music with over 100 pieces in it. Young Froberger had this music at his disposal growing up, as did three other brothers who all became musicians.

Froberger became court organist in Vienna, Austria in 1637. While there, he received leave to go to Rome to study with Frescobaldi. He stayed for three years in Italy, went back to Vienna and made several trips back and forth. He also traveled widely in Europe, visiting London, Paris, Brussels and other areas. Because of these travels, he was able to absorb different styles of music in different parts of Europe and incorporated them in his music.

Only two of his pieces were published in his lifetime, but he became famous because of hand written copies of his music that circulated  He not only wrote keyboard suites, but pieces for organ and highly personal programmatic pieces. He actually did not originate the keyboard Suite of dances, as dances had been organized into suites in France long before him. What he did do was develop this form and the standards for it.

The Suite #26 in B Minor consists of 4 dances. There is still some question as to the order of the dances, sbut in the recording attached the four dances in order are:

Allemande -  The allemande originated in the 16th century as a duple metre dance of moderate tempo, derived from dances supposed to be favored in Germany at the time. It was usually the first movement in the suite.
Gigue - A lively baroque dance originating from the British jig. Many times it is the final movement in the suite, but here it is placed 2nd.
Courante - n a Baroque dance suite, an Italian or French courante typically comes between the allemande and the sarabande, making it the second or third movement.
Sarabande - A dance in triple metre. The second and third beats of each measure are often tied, giving the dance a distinctive rhythm of quarter notes and eighth notes in alternation. The quarters are said to corresponded with dragging steps in the dance.

Froberger's Suite In B Minor : 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jacob Gade - Tango 'Jalousie'

Jacob Gade (1879 - 1963) was a Danish violinist and composer of orchestral popular music. He's remembered for only one composition, Tango Jalousie, (or Jealousy ).  He was appointed the conductor of a large theater orchestra in 1921 that accompanied silent movies. He wrote the tango in 1925 to accompany a movie titled , "Don Q, Son Of Zorro".  It was a popular song, but it wasn't until  Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra made the first recording of it in 1935 when it became an international hit.  Gade was able to retire on the royalties and compose music as he chose, although Arthur Fieldler said that Gade showed him a symphony that he wrote and Fiedler said it was one of the worst pieces of music he ever saw.

Jalousie has been used in over 100 movies and is still a popular tango today. The piece earns a sizable amount of royalties which are used to fund the Jacob Gade prize awarded to the most promising young musician in Denmark.

Gade's Tango Jalousie:

Rossini - Overture To ' La Cenerentola' (Cinderella)

Gioachino Rossini (1792- 1868)  had his first big opera 'hit' with The Barber Of Seville in 1816.  It ended up being his most successful and popular opera of his career.  He followed up on this success with the writing of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) the following year. It was as big of a success as 'Barber' had been, and Rossini was an international star from then on.

Rossini met Beethoven in 1822 in Vienna. Beethoven by that time was deaf and somewhat of a recluse. Beethoven told Rossini, " Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.”

He wrote a total of 20 operas between the years 1815-1823 and he wrote his 38th and final opera , William Tell, in 1829 when he was 38 years old.  He was known to write very fast and was not above 'borrowing' music from his other operas to use in a new one.  He wrote the entire opera La Cenerentola in three weeks, he bragged he wrote The Barber Of Seville in twelve days. After his retirement from writing opera, he continued to compose sporadically and collected these odd compositions in volumes he called 'Sins Of My Old Age'.

The Overture To La Cenerentola  follows Rossini's usual practice and of course includes his trademark crescendo for full orchestra. Rossini used this so often in his overtures that contemporaries gave him the nickname 'Signor Crescendo'.

Rossini's Overture To La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cziffra Plays Liszt

Georges Cziffra (1921 - 1994) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist.  His father was a cimbalom player that played in cafes and cabarets in the Paris area. He was a child prodigy and first learned to play the piano by watching his sister take lessons.  He would learn songs by ear after his parents would whistle or sing the music to him.

By the time he was five he had attracted the attention of a traveling circus which hired him to improvise and play tunes suggested by the audience. He did this for only a few weeks, but this association with the circus caused some critics to question his musical upbringing.  But Cziffra had a well-rounded musical education as he was admitted to the Franz Liszt Academy at the age of nine, the youngest student ever admitted in the history of the institution. He was also allowed to take part in master classes that were usually reserved for older students.

In 1942 he was called up to fight in the Second World War. His unit was sent to the Russian Front under orders of the Nazis and he was captured by Russian partisans and held captive for two years. He eventually escaped, was brought back into the military on the side of the Nazis and became a tank commander.  He was went through denazification and began to play piano in cafes.

Cziffra attempted an escape from Soviet-controlled Hungary and was a prisoner doing forced labor and undergoing torture from 1950-1953.  He finally left the country for a concert in Vienna on the eve of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956 and never went back to Hungary.  He wore a heavy leather wristband on his right forearm to help support ligaments in his right arm that had been injured under torture during his imprisonment.

Cziffra was one of the top virtuoso pianists of the 20th century who was known for his interpretations of Liszt's music. He was not only Hungarian like Liszt, but he was also of Gypsy extraction. There was evidently no technical problems for him at the keyboard. He throws off the most difficult music with ease. Case in point is the following video of his performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #6.  In the world of the Hungarian Rhapsodies that is full of technical difficulties, Number 6 stands out for the repeating octaves in the final section of the work which makes keeping tempo increasingly difficult the longer the piece goes.  Cziffra throws the octaves off as easily as if he were playing single notes and seems to actually increase the tempo without losing clarity:

Next Cziffra plays Etude #3 'la Campanella' of Liszt's Paganini Etudes.  This etude was inspired by the third movement theme of Paganini's  Violin Concerto #2

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor K. 491

Whenever Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a piece in a minor key, he always had something profound to say. The two symphonies in G minor (No. 25 and No.40), the Piano Quintet in G minor, and the two piano concertos in D minor and C minor are all dramatic works.   The Concerto No. 24 in C minor is one of Mozart's masterpieces. It was admired, studied and possibly performed by Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven's own 3rd Piano Concerto not only uses the same key, but the opening theme in the first movement resembles Mozart's initial theme.  There is a story that while Beethoven and the pianist J.B. Cramer were listening to this concerto being performed in Vienna, Beethoven said, "We shall never be able to do anything like this!"

Mozart used an orchestra larger than for any of his other piano concertos to that time. The autograph score shows many erasers and corrections, quite uncharacteristic of Mozart as many of his autograph scores were fairly pristine. This concerto was written at the same time Mozart was writing his opera The Marriage Of Figaro. He was the soloist in the first performance of the concerto in 1786, two weeks after he completed it.  The concerto is in 3 movements:
I. Allegro - The first movement opens with a quiet, sinister theme that is developed into a roar carried by the rest of the orchestra and piano. Although the theme is in C minor, Mozart uses all the tones in the chromatic scale in it:

There are two secondary themes that help to give some relief to the tension, but the movement is dominated by the opening theme. The drama and tension of most of the movement may lead the listener to be prepared for a stormy end to the movement but the music quietly and abruptly ends.

II. Andante - Music that is in contrast to the turbulence of the previous movement. Mozart was one of the great composers for wind instruments and it shows in this movement as there are extended passages for wind ensemble. There is a feeling to this music akin to what Mozart wrote in some of his serenades, as the piano and winds take turns with the gentle thematic material. The music reverts back to the beginning of the movement and gently winds down to a restful conclusion.

III. Allegro - Presto - Instead of ending the concerto with a movement in the usual rondo form in a lighter mood and a major key, the third movement begins with a theme in C minor that is the basis for a masterful set of variations:

The eight variations contrast one another in mood until the last variation shifts to 6/8 time with an ominous rhythmic lilt that leads to the resounding final chord.

The great French writer André Gide said about Mozart that he speaks in whispers while the public tends to hear only shouts.  Comparing Mozart to Beethoven, that is perhaps true. But the 'whispers' in this concerto are dramatic, prophetic of things to come from other composers.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Beethoven - Symphony No. 4

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) composed the 4th Symphony in the summer of 1806 and it premiered in 1807 at the home of  Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.  The work is more in the style of Beethoven's first two symphonies, especially when compared the third (Eroica) written just before it. Beethoven seemed to have to keep variety in his writing, as many times a complex, major work like the Eroica would be followed by something in a different style. The fourth is such a work, and as the 8th symphony stands between the two giant 7th and 9th symphonies, so too the 4th symphony stands between the two giant 3rd and 5th symphonies.

Beethoven begins the 4th symphony with a dark  and mysterious slow introduction that is in marked contrast to the music of the rest of the first movement.  The second movement is taken at an andante pace, with sweet tunes being punctuated by rather rough burst from the orchestra. The third movement has the qualities of both a scherzo and minuet. The last movement is taken at a quick pace, rather like the types of fast finales preferred by Haydn.

To the listener of Beethoven's time, even this symphony that is perhaps 'tamer' than what he wrote in the 3rd symphony, was still something unique. As a critic of the time wrote, "That the composer follows an individual path in his works can be seen again in this work; just how far this path is the correct one, and not a deviation, may be decided by others. To me the great master seems here, as in several of his recent works, now and then excessively bizarre, and thus, even for knowledgeable friends of art, easily incomprehensible and forbidding."

It seems as though Beethoven was ever baffling his listeners, so unalike were his works. Now that we have so much time since they have been written, and so many opportunities to hear the works much more often than anyone did in Beethoven's time,  our ears have no doubt had a chance to 'get used' to Beethoven's uniqueness. And it is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt, but that it breeds complacency. The uniqueness and power of Beethoven's music is still there, if we can manage to actively listen to it, learn from it, and question what we think we know about it.  The music certainly deserves and warrants it.  There is really nothing like a Beethoven Symphony.  Even another Beethoven symphony, for they all are worlds unto themselves. That certainly includes the 4th.

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 2 'la Campanella'

When Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840)  wrote his 2nd violin concerto, he took a different route than his 1st Violin Concerto. The first is full of fiery, virtuoso doings for the violin and was written as a vehicle to show off Paganini's playing ability. in the 2nd, he concentrates more on the melodic and lyric aspects and puts a lid on much of the virtuoso pyrotechnics. It is a fine concerto that shows Paganini's gifts for melody,  lyricism and composition in general.

This concerto is referred to as 'la Campanella' (small bell) because of the small bell Paganini uses before every return to the main theme in the rondo third movement. The bell is echoed in orchestra and in the violin with the use of harmonics to imitate the high pitch of the small bell.

The concerto was written in 1826 and the third movement inspired Franz Liszt to write his own version of it for piano solo.

Paganini's Violin Concerto #2:

Frescobaldi - Variations 'la Frescobalda'

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583 - 1643) was an Italian organist, keyboardist and composer whose compositions exerted a great deal of influence on musicians like J.S. Bach. He was the organist at St. Peter's Basilica for over thirty years.

He was one of the first composers of his time to specialize in composing for the keyboard. He did write some music for voice, but the vast majority of his output was for keyboard.  In Frescobaldi's time,  keyboard music could be played on organ, harpsichord, or clavichord.  Unlike many composers of the time, Frescobaldi published many of his works which lead them to be well-known in the musical world of the time. He was an innovator in his composing, his playing and even in the ways he notated his music (which lead to the modern method of notation) and was so acknowledged by his contemporaries.

One of the compositions he printed was also the very first known instance of a set of variations on an original theme, the 'la Frescobalda' variations.  Any variations previously were on folk songs or popular melodies.  Frescobaldi states his theme (or 'aria' ) at the beginning, and there are four variations on it. In the recording below, the performer follows the practice sometimes done in Frescobaldi's time, of playing a reprise of the original theme after the last variation.

Frescobaldi's Variations On An Original Theme 'la Frescobalda' :

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Liszt - A Faust Symphony

When Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) gave up the life of a traveling piano virtuoso to devote himself to composition in 1847 it was with the encouragement of the woman in his life, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.  He spent one winter with the Princess before he accepted a long-standing offer to go to Wiemar as Kapellmeister at the court there.  It was during his tenure there that he wrote many of his most well known compositions for orchestra.

While Liszt had a total command of the piano, he knew little about orchestration and instrumentation. He learned quickly, and became a master of the orchestra as well as the piano. He hired musicians that knew how to orchestrate and would have them orchestrate his piano versions of works. He would then use them as examples and then re-orchestrate the piece himself, using what he had learned.   A Faust Symphony was the first work the Liszt orchestrated without any help, and even felt well versed enough to write out the 'Gretchen' movement of the work straight out into full score without a piano sketch.  He completed the score in 1854.

The legend of Faust dealing with Mephistopheles for knowledge at the price of his soul, and of the love he had for Gretchen attracted many Romantic era composers. Berlioz wrote a cantata/opera on the theme, Wagner an Overture, and the popular opera by Gounod .  Liszt had sketched some ideas for a piece of his own based on Goethe's story as early as 1840 while he was still a traveling virtuoso.

Liszt used a technique in this, as well as most of his other large works, called thematic transformation or metamorphosis.  Simply put, it is basing an entire work on a theme or themes that appear at various times in the composition and are changed for dramatic effect. It is essentially a type of theme variation as used by many composers earlier, but it is done with more freedom and the altered theme no longer has a connection with the original, but has a life of its own.

The complete title for this work is A Faust Symphony In Three Character Portraits (after Goethe) .  The three 'characters' Liszt portrays are Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles.  In the opening movement  Liszt uses 4 primary themes to portray Faust. The very opening notes of the movement is the first Faust theme, stated in cellos and violas.  The theme itself is tonally ambiguous as it uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This ambiguity lends a great amount of flexibility to this theme within the movement, within the Gretchen movement where the love and purity of Gretchen transforms the themes into warm and tender music, and also in the Mephistopheles movement where Liszt turns the themes into the sarcastic, sardonic themes of Mephistopheles himself.

In Liszt's musical telling of the tale, Faust is a combination of the other two characters. He has a warm loving side and a dark, satanic side that is willing to do anything for knowledge, including selling his soul to the devil.  In some ways, the piece can be looked at as autobiographical. Liszt himself was a very complex personality. A great artist not above showboating for the crowd to please them, a pious and deeply religious man that lived the bohemian life, a man who late in life took minor orders in the Catholic church that also enjoyed the luxuries of good food, drink and cigars, an exceedingly generous man with so many others that could also be selfish and self-serving.  The complexity of Liszt's personality mixed with his rare talent and genius make him one of the most interesting and original of the Romantic era composers.

Liszt's A Faust Symphony:  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Glazunov - The Seasons

Alexander Glazunov (1865 - 1936) was a Russian composer, music teacher and conductor. He was a child prodigy and was taught privately by Rimsky-Korsakov, who said Glazunov's musical progress did not increase day by day but hour by hour.   He began composing at age eleven and wrote his first symphony at age 16 in 1881 and it was premiered one year later.

Glazunov became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899 and went on to be director of the institution from 1905 until 1930.   After the Russian Revolution, Glazunov refused luxurious accommodations for himself from the new regime for the sake of the conservatory and the students there.  He took a personal interest in many of the students welfare because of the hard times after the revolution. One of the many students he taught and helped was Dmitri Shostakovich.  He remained in Russia until 1928, when he went on tour as a conductor and lecturer in Europe and the United States. He never went back to Russia but settled in France, dying there in 1936.

The Seasons was a ballet written by Glazunov in 1899. It is written in one act and four scenes and was choreographed by Marius Petipa. It was premiered in 1900 in St. Petersburg.  Glazunov uses a large orchestra for music that shows his talent for orchestral color and gift for melody. It is written in a lighter, more lyrical style than his symphonies and remains one of his more accessible and  popular compositions.

The Synopsis for the ballet:
Tableau 1A winter landscape
Winter is surrounded by his companions: Hoar-frost, Ice, Hail and Snow, who amuse themselves with a band of snowflakes. Two gnomes enter, and soon light a fire that causes all assembled to vanish.

Tableau 2A landscape covered with flowers
Spring dances with Zephyr, flower fairies, and enchanted birds. Upon feeling the heat of the sun, the assembly takes flight.

Tableau 3A landscape of flowing fields of wheat
Cornflowers and poppies revel in the light and warmth of the sun. They take rest after their exertion. Now Naiads appear, who bring water to refresh the growth, and the Spirit of Corn dances in thanksgiving. Satyrs and Fauns enter playing their pipes, and attempt to carry off the Spirit of the Corn, but she is rescued by the wind of Zephyr.

Tableau 4A landscape in Autumn
The Seasons take part in a glorious dance (the well-known "autumn bacchanale") while leaves from autumn trees rain upon their merriment.

ApotheosisThe Sable sky
Constellations of stars sparkle above the earth.

Glazunov's The Seasons : 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pfitzner - String Quartet in D Minor

Hans Pfitzner (1869 - 1949) was a German composer best known for his operas.  His music was highly regarded by Mahler and Richard Strauss, although neither of them liked Pfitzner personally.

He was appointed to a moderately prestigious post of opera director and head of the conservatory in Strasbourg in 1908 when he was 40 years old.  After the First World War, France annexed Strasbourg and Pfitzner lost his job and livelihood at the age of 50.  This event hardened his already coarse personality and his elitism. He became a outspoken opponent of any modern trends in music.

His life during the Second World War was one of complacency on the one hand, and a cooperative spirit with the Nazis when he wanted something.  He worked with Jewish musicians in the early part of the Nazi era, but used anti semite invective when it suited his purpose.  It was all to no avail, as he eventually fell out of favor with the Nazis and towards the end of the war was homeless and suffered from mental illness. After the war he was denazified and given a pension, performance bans for his music were lifted and he was given a place to live in an old folks home in Vienna Austria.

He wrote 4 string quartets with his String Quartet in D minor No. 1 being written when he was 17 years old.

Pfiztner's String Quartet In D Minor: