Monday, December 24, 2012

Salieri - Overture To 'Les Danaïdes'

The music of Antonio Salieri began to fade in popularity many years before his death. He was an influential composer in 18th century opera. There were no new operas by him after 1804, but he was a sought-after teacher in his later years and taught composers such as  Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt.

Salieri's name once again became known from the dramatization of Mozart's life in the play and movie Amadeus.  The popularity of the play did nothing for Salieri's reputation, which was harmed by the whispered gossip that he caused Mozart's death. That is not true, history has shown that he had nothing to do with it, but the gossip did make for high drama. But the play did create a certain amount of curiosity about Salieri's music, and it is much more available in performance and recordings because of it.

The opera  Les Danaïdes is a French language opera (Salieri wrote operas in three different languages) that was originally supposed to be written by Gluck, one of the innovators of classical era operas, but he suffered a stroke and was unable to compose the opera so he gave it to his young friend Salieri.  The opera is based on a Greek tragedy based on the mythological characters Danaus and Hypermnestra. The Danaïdes (some fifty in number) are the daughters of Danaus. The opera is in five acts, with the usual plot twists and turns of love and betrayal. The end of the opera sees all of the Danaïdes sent to hell, where they see their father chained to a rock with a vulture eating his entrails.  Whatever transpired during the play for all of this to happen must have been pretty crazy, but that's the world of opera.

The opera premiered in 1784 to great success, and was still being performed in the 1820's in France. This was the opera that influenced Berlioz to turn away from the study of medicine to the study of music. < br />

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bach - Sonata No. 3 For Violin And Harpsichord in E Major BWV 1016

Hans von Bülow, the great pianist/conductor of the 19th century was the originator of the phrase the Three B's of music, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  Each of the three were highly gifted composers who composed in the music forms of their times. Each can be considered to be the culmination of their eras of their musical eras; Bach of the Baroque,  Beethoven of the Classical and Brahms of the Romantic. Such is the way humans try to categorize and make sense out of things, and it makes sense,  as far as it goes. But looking upon any of the three as a representative of their respective eras can overlook the very traits of their music that helped create the styles of music that came after them.

One of J.S. Bach's contributions to the 'new style' are the six Violin and Harpsichord Sonatas. To be sure, there were sonatas composed for solo instrument and keyboard before these pieces, but these sonatas specify the keyboard instrument 'harpsichord' instead of the usual 'basso continuo' or figured bass designation of the Baroque era.  A sonata for violin and basso continuo would be written in two staves, one in the treble clef for violin and the other in the bass clef. The bass clef would be played by a keyboard instrument that could fill in the harmonies according to a kind of musical shorthand consisting of numbers and symbols over the note heads. The actual single notes of the figured bass could also be played by a bass instrument such as a cello or other bass instrument.

Sonata for solo instrument and figured bass (or basso continuo)
This gave a certain amount of freedom to the keyboard player to fill in the harmonies, not only according to guidelines and harmonic rules but also according to their individual skill and taste.  Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord do away with the figured bass. The keyboard part is written out in full.

J.S. Bach Sonata for violin and harpsichord 
Many times these three completely written out parts form a type of trio sonata played by two instrumentalists, and with Bach's contrapuntal skill there are sections where there are more than three independent parts.

Bach's Sonata For Violin And Harpsichord No. 3 in E Major is in 4 movements and is in the 4 movement form of the sonata de chiesa of the time:

I. Adagio - A slow, contemplative, lightly ornamented melody is gently accompanied by the harpsichord.
II. Allegro - A bright, cheerful melody is first uttered by the harpsichord and is taken up by the violin.  The two instruments have a happy, short conversation punctuated by the bass in the harpsichord.
III. Adagio ma non tanto - This is a short passacaglia with the violin and right hand of the harpsichord weaving in and out over the repeated four-measure bass.
IV. Allegro - This movement has the first theme being in running sixteenth notes, the type of tune that seems to accompany itself as notes are heard at the top of the melody while the other repeated notes are lower in pitch. The second theme is in triplets and shortly gives way to the initial theme. The music runs itself out in a short span of time and the sonata ends.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alkan - Overture From '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys'

Charles Valentine Alkan's music reflects his remarkable virtuosity on the piano. His mastery of the piano was equal to one of the greatest pianists that ever lived, Franz Liszt.  And while there is very little (if any) of Liszt's piano music that can be called 'easy', it applies even more dramatically to Alkan's.  The Alkan specialist Ronald Smith called the '12 Etudes In The Minor Keys Opus 39' Alkan's Frankenstein Monster because it grew into a set of monstrously difficult pieces both technically and musically.

But amid the difficulty lies a depth of musical feeling and expression that is Romantic to its core. They are true etudes in the Chopin sense in that they are expressions of a very talented, musical mind. The complexities are part of the effect of the music, not an end in themselves. That not every musician can 'bring off' Alkan's compositions is no doubt true. No musician can do justice to all composers. But the pianist that has a virtuoso's technique that is used for the sake of music expression, can reveal to the listener a composer of great power, tenderness and originality.

The 'Overture' of Opus 39 is the eleventh etude. Like etudes 4-7 (the 'Symphony For Piano
) and etudes 8-10 (The 'Concerto For Piano Solo') number eleven is orchestral in feeling and writing. It begins with rapid minor chords in both hands with the bass punctuating the tonality in octaves. There is a slight slackening of the intensity, and the rapid chords come forth once again.  The music winds down to winds down to a pensive calmness. Once more the rumbling octaves in the bass quietly remind the listener of the beginning, then a section of very tender melody in the major comes to the fore and is expanded and varied. The next section is impassioned music that vaguely reminds my ear of the opening in feeling. It segues into a rippling statement of octaves in the right hand. This sections ends with chords and octaves up and down the keyboard until the music turns more quiet and ominous, then builds back to the octaves and chords. It alternates between the two until it reaches the last statement of the quiet and ominous. This leads to the coda, a brilliant theme in the major that rounds off the work.

Jack Gibbons
The pianist that wishes to tackle this piece is met with difficulties galore. Rapid octaves, leaps, chords that are a handful of notes, a dynamic range from a roar to a whisper and back again. Any pianist that can play this piece with musical expression is more than a virtuoso pianist, they are also a master musician.  The pianist in the accompanying video is Jack Gibbons, and English pianist of the highest order. He began playing Alkan early in his career, and was the first pianist to record the entire Opus 39 set digitally in 1995. He was also the first pianist to perform all twelve of the etudes in the set in a live concert, a practically superhuman feat. Gibbons also plays other composers, notably Chopin and Gershwin , and is a composer in his own right.

Gibbons was involved in a near fatal auto accident in 2001 with a subsequent long recovery. There was some question whether he would be able to play the piano again, but he returned to piano playing and gave the first performance in Carnegie Hall of Alkan's Symphony For Piano Solo in 2007. He continues to give recitals and appears as soloist with orchestras, along with composing.  He is one of my favorite pianists, and his recovery from his accident is an inspirational story.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Copland - Grohg - Ballet In One Act

Aaron Copland spent a few years studying in Paris in the early 1920's with renown teacher Nadia Boulanger,  a female teacher of higher music instruction. Not only was it rare for a female to be a teacher of advanced music, but Copland found that she had an encyclopedic knowledge of music from Bach to Stravinsky. She was also a fine composer in her own right and one of the very few (if not the first) females to conduct major orchestras. Copland thrived under her tutelage, and extended his studies with her to three years instead of the one year he originally planned.

Grohg, Ballet In One Act is a product of his early compositions in Paris and the first work that he orchestrated.  Boulanger suggested Copland write a ballet because of the popularity of Stravinsky's ballets commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his  Ballet Russe.  Copland took as his inspiration the German silent movie Nosferatu, a vampire film based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Copland asked the writer-director Harold Clurman to write a scenario for the ballet. Clurman's scenario deals with a sorcerer that brings corpses to life to dance for his pleasure.

Copland went on to temper his early dissonant writing in his later popular ballets Billy The Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring, but Grohg has dissonance and elements of American jazz, keeping with Copland's earlier style.  As Copland was not commissioned to write the work, the only performance it got was a four-handed piano version privately played by Copland and Boulanger. The score was revised in 1932, but remained unperformed until the 1932 revision was found in the Library of Congress. The work was first performed in 1992.

The work is played without pause but is divided into six sections:

1) Introduction, Cortège and Entrance of Grohg - A slow introduction, followed by the bearers of coffins. Copland brings the dance of the coffin bearers to a climax as Grohg the Sorcerer enters and the dancers pay homage to the sorcerer.

2) Dance Of The Adolescent -  Grohg revives the corpse of an adolescent who becomes terrified by Grohg. The adolescent is struck down by the sorcerer.

3) Dance Of The Opium Eater - Grohg next revives the corpse of an opium addict. The addict dances to a jazzy tune, and Grohg has pity on the addict and removes the magic that brought him back to life.

4) Dance Of The Streetwalker - The corpse of a streetwalker is revived and she does a dance that impassions Grohg. He tries to embrace her, there is a struggle.

5) Grohg Imagines The Corpses Are Mocking Him -  Grohg begins to hallucinate and imagines the corpses are mocking him. He joins in the dance of the corpses. Chaos ensues, and Grohg hoists the Streetwalker over his head and throws her into the crowd.

6) Illumination And Disappearance of Grohg - The stage turns dark save for a light focused on Grohg's head, and he slowly disappears to music that echos back to the beginning.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 3 In E Major

Paganini began making his reputation as early as 1813 before he toured Europe. His reputation was made in tours of his native country of Italy.  His First Violin Concerto was the only one of his own that he performed until he made serious plans to tour Europe in the 1820's.  He rapidly composed two more violin concertos for his planned tour, Number Two in B minor and Number Three in E Major.

Paganini began his European tour in Vienna in 1828 and performed these three concertos to great acclaim. Paganini would distribute the orchestral parts of the concertos only at the last minute and always played his solo part from memory. In those days before copyright, music was constantly being 'pirated' by music publishers with the composer getting nothing in return for their work. Paganini amassed a large fortune from his concert tours, not least of all because he was so secretive with his music.

All three of these concertos follow the same general plan of three movements, as do contemporary works of the genre.  These concertos are Italianate in style, like the music of Paganini's countrymen Rossini and Donizetti. The middle slow movements of the concertos are like short operatic scenes for violin and orchestra, while the first and last movements are more involved.  As Paganini was the violin virtuoso of his age, the solo violin parts ask for a brilliant technique that covers all aspects of violin playing. They are still demanding works to play nearly 200 years after their composition, so it's no wonder that Paganini caused such a furor with his playing of them. The music world had never seen or heard the likes of Paganini before.

Violin Concerto No. Three begins with an introduction for orchestra, as do the first two concertos.  The orchestra then proceeds with the exposition of the first movement. Paganini's orchestration is colorful, straightforward and competent, but with a difference in timbre perhaps caused by Paganini using the guitar as his preferred instrument for composing. Berlioz also played the guitar, and his orchestrations have a slightly different sound also. The violin enters and immediately takes center stage as the orchestra takes its role as accompaniment.  The solo violin expands on the themes earlier stated by the orchestra until a place for a cadenza is reached, after which the orchestra brings the movement to a close.

The 2nd movement is a sweet aria for violin and pizzicato strings with the woodwinds adding pastel colors.

The 3rd movement is a Rondo in the tempo of a polonaise, a Polish dance.  The violin dialogues with the orchestra in different episodes between repeats of the main theme. Paganini uses left-hand pizzicati, flying bow work, double stops, harmonics, the whole gamut of  pyrotechnics for the violin until the work comes to a close.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mahler - Symphony No. 2 'Resurrection'

Mahler was most well-known in his lifetime as a conductor of opera and orchestral works. He did most of his compositional work on his summer holidays from his conducting duties.  All of his symphonies show an intimate knowledge of the orchestra gained by his experience as a conductor.

Mahler's 2nd Symphony was his most popular work in his lifetime, and was a favorite of Mahler himself. It remains his most popular work to this day. It is written for a  huge orchestra (parts of which play offstage) with a large percussion section, two soloists, a mixed choir and organ.  It premiered in 1895 in Berlin and was conducted by the composer. It is in five movements:

1st Movement - Allegro maestoso 
The first movement of Mahler's 2nd Symphony was originally intended as a symphonic poem written in 1888 entitled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) and reflects Mahler's life-long struggle with the meaning of life and the mysteries of death. When Mahler played the piano score of the work to Hans von Bülow his mentor,  he labeled it as incomprehensible.  Mahler set the work aside until 1893 when he completed the middle movements on his summer vacation from his conducting duties, but the finale continued to give him problems until the death of von Bülow in 1894. When Mahler attended the funeral of von Bülow he was inspired by a choral work sung at the services and finished the symphony shortly after.

Hans von Bülow
While the funeral march in the third movement of his first symphony is a sardonic parody of the tune Frère Jacques (also known as Brüder Martin in German and  Are You Sleeping? in English), the funeral music in the first movement of the 2nd Symphony very different. It is brutal in places, tender and longing in others, and has a different feeling to it all together.

The movement is in a modified sonata form and some of the material used in the development section of the movement is used later in the symphony. Mahler's instructions called for a five-minute pause between the first and second movements, but this is seldom done in current performances.

2nd movement - Andante moderato 
A German Ländler, a dance popular in Southern Germany and Austria. A much-needed respite from the seriousness of the first movement, but it isn't exactly brimming with sunshine and Tyrolean joy.

3rd Movement - In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With Quietly Flowing movement)
A scherzo in all but name, this movement is an adaption of one of Mahler's songs, St. Anthony Preaches To The Fishes set to the folk poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn  Near the end of the movment there is a climax for orchestra that Mahler called a death shriek. 

4th Movement - Urlicht (Primeval Light) 
Another movement originally written to a Das Knaben Wunderhorn poem, scored for Alto voice and orchestra.  There are no less than 15 time signature changes in the short movement, which to my ears lends a restlessness to the music that serves as an introduction to the huge final movement. The poem as translated from The Knaben Wunderhorn
Primeval Light 
O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven.
There came I upon a broad path when came a little angel and wanted to turn me away.
Ah no! I would not let myself be turned away!
I am from God and shall return to God!
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!
5th Movement - Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo) 
A sprawling movement that last roughly thirty minutes and is in two sections, the first section for orchestra alone, the second for chorus, soloists and orchestra..  The first section begins with a restating of the 'death shriek' heard at the climax of the third movement. A procession of time changes, key changes and mood swings, plus music played by horns and percussion that are off stage,  leads to what amounts to the development section of this first part, which is in a very free type of sonata form. This development section begins with two tremendous percussion crescendos that lead to what Mahler called 'The March Of The Dead'.   The orchestra is answered by the offstage brass, themes bound in and out of the frantic march until the choral section of the movement begins quietly.

Tee rest of the movement is guided by the text sung by soloists (alto and soprano) and chorus. The music grows in intensity and volume, with bells and organ joining the chorus and orchestra full strength for the final 'resurrection' of the dead that have gone before.  Ecstatic and almost overwhelmed, the orchestra ends in a glory of sound and  emotion. Mahler himself said of the ending "The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it."

The text for the final section by Friedrich Klopstock the German poet, and Mahler himself.
Rise again, yea,
thou wilt rise again,
My dust, after a short rest!
 Immortal life! Immortal life
 He who called thee will grant thee.
 To bloom again thou art sown!
The Lord of the Harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us who died.
-Friedrich Klopstock
Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
Nothing is lost with thee!
Thine is what thou hast desired,
What thou hast loved for,
what thou hast fought for! 
Oh believe, thou were not born in vain!
Hast not lived in vain, suffered in vain! 
What has come into being must perish,
What perished must rise again.

Cease from trembling!
Prepare thyself to live! 
Oh Pain, thou piercer of all things,
From thee have I been wrested!
Oh Death, thou master of all things,
Now art thou mastered!
With wings which I have won,
 In love's fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light to which no eye has soared. 
With wings, which I have won,
I shall soar upwards I shall die, to live! 
Rise again, yea,
thou wilt rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What thou hast fought for Shall lead thee to God!
-Gustav Mahler
When Mahler was asked about the negativity generated by his music, he calmly replied "My time will come."  Mahler was a bellwether that helped usher in the modern world, for better or worse. Among the deterrents to his music was anti-semitism of the 20th century and the fact that Mahler's music is not 'easy' to perform (or even listen to on occasion). But as with all great music, there is something in it that speaks to many, regardless of their musical education or expertise. He is a composer that was as much a philosopher as anything else. His 'words' are musical notes, his 'books' are his symphonies.  His time has indeed come, and shows no sign of slacking off.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sarasate - Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) For Violin And Orchestra

A few years ago I purchased an inexpensive violin with the intent of learning to play it. Not expecting any kind of virtuosity, I thought I could learn enough to perhaps play in an amateur string quartet or something like that. I knew it would take time and be a lot of work, but I've been playing the piano for a long time and figured a different instrument would be a good change of pace.  The sounds that I produced would be accompanied by caterwauling from the stray cats in the neighborhood,  my fingers ached from pushing on the strings, my arm just didn't work very well as I tried to play on one string at a time.  While I'm not a quitter by any means, common sense told me I was not cut out to play the violin. But all was not lost. The violin hangs above my piano, next to a copy of a Renoir painting. It looks very nice there, and except taking it down for an occasional dusting, there it shall stay.

But there was also an added bonus from my attempts to play the fiddle. I can really appreciate how difficult it is to play the instrument after trying (in vain) to coax out more than a squawk from it myself. When I hear a piece like the Sarasate Gypsy Airs played by a virtuoso (and no one other than a virtuoso could come close to doing it justice) I marvel at the agility, reflexes, musical ear, talent and hard work that is required.

Sarasate was one of the top violin virtuosos of his time, and composed his Gypsy Airs in 1878 and premiered the piece the same year.   It is based on the music of the Roma, or Gypsy people. Many composers wrote pieces based on this type of music including Liszt, Brahms and Dvořák.

Zigeunerweisen is in one movement, and consists of two dance melodies preceded by an introduction. There are four tempo changes in the piece:
I.  Moderato - A dramatic, slow introduction begins with the orchestra with the violin entering. The violin restates the opening, with virtuosic flourishes.
II. Lento - The first theme is a sad, highly decorated tune played while the orchestra gently accompanies.
III. Un poco più lento - The muted violin continues to play the same sad melody.
IV. Allegro molto vivace - The tempo suddenly increases dramatically along with the volume with the beginning of the second theme  The violin crackles with energy as Sarasate has the violin play a manic friss, the rapid section of the traditional Csárdás dance.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hummel - Piano Concerto In A minor

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 and died in 1837 and is acknowledged to be one of the composers of transition from the Classical model of music represented by Mozart to the beginnings of the Romantic movement.  His musical education was achieved by studying with teachers that included Haydn, Clementi,  Mozart and Beethoven. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of his time, as well as a composer and teacher.  Among his students were Mendelssohn, Henselt and other notable composers and pianists.

Hummel's music had a lasting effect on his contemporaries. Chopin had two of Hummel's piano concertos in his repertoire, and used them as models for his own piano concertos.  Schumann was also influenced by Hummel's second piano concerto. It was the first concerto Schumann studied with his teacher Friedrich Wieck (father of the piano virtuoso and future wife of Schumann, Clara). Schumann used the concerto as a model for his own Piano Concerto in A Minor.

There's not a better way to illustrate Hummel's shift in style of composition than to compare his early attempts at concerto writing with his 2nd in A minor. The Piano Concertino in G, written in 1799 (a transcription of an earlier concerto for mandolin), is generally reminiscent of Mozart's concertos in style and content. The 2nd concerto is more dramatic, has a form more like Beethoven with a more complex part for orchestra. The piano writing for the second concerto is strictly for the virtuoso, with brilliant runs, trills and passages in thirds for both hands.  The 2nd Piano concert is in the traditional three movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The orchestral introduction is Beethoven-like in length,  and Hummel shows his mastery of orchestral writing throughout. The piano enters and dazzles with piano writing that shows how great a virtuoso Hummel was, as he premiered this concerto in Vienna shortly after its composition in 1816.

 II. Larghetto - A short movement, the forerunner of the great slow movements to come in the Chopin concertos. The piano plays a sweet, tastefully decorated nocturne-like melody while the orchestra gently accompanies.

 III. Rondo: Allegro moderato -  The piano is the star of the finale, with glittering finger work the increases in complexity as melodies are tossed about between orchestra and piano until the work closes with a rousing flourish.

It is quite ironic that a composer such as Hummel, a harbinger of the Romantic movement that was so influential for so many composers, was for many years subject to gross neglect. At the end of his life he was considered somewhat old-fashioned by the leaders of the "New Music". Such is the fate of some who have led the way, only to be bypassed by the rapid change in taste and convention.  For whatever the reasons,  Hummel's music is now beginning to be heard more often, at least in recordings. It deserves to be heard, if nothing else as a break from the 'warhorses' of the repertoire. The relative handful of concertos that are played most often  most assuredly deserve their place in the repertoire, but music such as Hummel's can give them a needed rest on occasion.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Franz Liszt - Prometheus

Prometheus is an ancient Greek myth that had its first telling as early as the 8th century BC.  In short, the myth of Prometheus tells of him being a Titan that had not only created man from clay, but stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. As punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock where every day an eagle comes and eats his liver. His liver grows back every day, and the eagle returns every day to consume it once again.

Liszt's original work was written for the celebration of the 100th birthday of the poet/philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. It consisted of an overture and  eight choruses with orchestral accompaniment and used Herder's Prometheus Unbound, a work in 13 scenes.  This work was written in 1850, a time when Liszt was yet able to orchestrate his works himself. With instructions on instrumentation from Liszt, it was left to Joachim Raff to complete the work, but the score was incomprehensible to many due to Liszt's use of dissonance, plus the choruses were not well integrated in the work. Liszt later orchestrated the work himself in 1855 and turned the overture into a tone poem and the choruses into a work for the concert stage.

Prometheus begins with harsh, dissonant chords from the orchestra that represent the harsh sentence given to Prometheus for his crimes. Sadness is contained within the ensuing music, a lament for the fallen Titan.
This almost key less introduction leads to the passionate first theme which represents Prometheus' struggle and suffering.  The second theme arrives via the cellos and represents hope,  in spite of Prometheus' suffering.  Then a fugue begins that is strictly worked out and possibly represents a struggle against adversity. At the end of the fugue, the lament begins again and the two opening themes are heard again.  After the recapitulation of the two opening themes there is a coda consisting of the fugue tune and the theme of hope that combine into an ending of triumph.

It is well to remember that Liszt's music was heralded as the 'new music' of its time and thus garnered its share of negativity, such as the review of Prometheus from a music periodical of 1860:

Liszt's artistic intentions seem to be disembodied and only infrequently do they condense melodic, rhythmic, and self-contained creations. Their main strength predominantly lies in orchestral color,  while the melodic line is barely indicated, indeed, must often be guessed at.  The manifold, rhapsodic nature of the form, the rhythmic freedom the composer has brought forth in many parts of this work,  and the hasty modulatory change make understanding all the more difficult. 

Many of Liszt's tone poems still meet with rather limited popularity. Some of them are quite experimental in nature considering the time they were written in, and Liszt can on occasion be rightfully accused with over-writing a composition.  But he also stretched the limits of sonata form as with tone poems like Prometheus and wrote other compositions that may have seemed rhapsodic to detractors years ago, but are actually well-thought out and well structured compositions.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cab Calloway - Minnie The Moocher

Cab Calloway was an American original,  a versatile musician, singer and entertainer that saw his greatest popularity in the 1930's and 1940's.  He was born in Rochester, New York in 1907  and lived to be 86 years old. He continued to perform  up to the time of his death.  He was one of the main attractions at The Cotton Club, the premiere jazz club of the 1930's, and went on to perform in movies as well as having his voice used in cartoons done by Max Fleisher, an animator that had developed a way to capture the dance moves of Calloway and animate them on the screen.

Minnie The Moocher is a jazz song first recorded by Calloway in 1931. It was adapted from other jazz songs of the time, and sold over a million copies. The song is a call and response type common in jazz at the time. After each verse, Calloway would skat sing a 'call', and the audience (or band members) would respond by repeating it. Skat singing is s style of vocalization where the voice becomes more like a solo musical instrument as emphasis is put on the sound and tone of the voice rather than the words being sung. The 'words' of skat singing are usually nonsense words, and Calloway would make the call more complicated as the song progressed until the audience couldn't repeat it.

Minnie The Moocher's lyrics are the jive talk of the times, with references to cocaine and opium use as well as Minnie's profession of prostitution:

 Folks, now here's the story 'bout Minnie the Moocher,
 She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher,
 She was the roughest, toughest frail,
 But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.

  (call and response)

 Now, she messed around with a bloke named Smoky,
 She loved him though he was cokie,
 He took her down to Chinatown,
 He showed her how to kick the gong around.

  (call and response)

 Now, she had a dream about the king of Sweden,
 He gave her things that she was needin',
 He gave her a home built of gold and steel,
A diamond car with a platinum wheel

  (call and response)

 Now, he gave her his townhouse and his racing horses,
 Each meal she ate was a dozen courses;
 She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes,
 And she sat around and counted them all a billion times.
 Poor Min, poor Min, poor Min. 

A great example of the moves as well as the voice of Calloway in this video from the 1950's:

An example of Calloway's ability to skat sing:

And finally, a version of Minnie The Moocher done in the 1980's. He's still the got the voice and the moves, even at 81 years of age.:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bruckner - Ave Maria in F Major (WAB 6)

Bruckner was a composer that formally studied his craft of music until he was forty years old. He had already composed a considerable number of choral pieces by the time he began his studies with Simon Sechter, a noted teacher and composer in 1855. Sechter was a taskmaster as a teacher, and commanded Bruckner to do no composing while he was studying with him. Bruckner took lessons by correspondence and in person in Vienna. Bruckner took his lessons very seriously, so much that Sechter had to warn Bruckner against overwork.

Sechter was a very skilled contrapuntalist and is reported to have written over 5,000 fugues in his life. Sechter gave Bruckner the final polish he needed and began to compose immediately after he graduated from Sechter's class.  The Ave Maria in F Major WAB 6 ( WAB numbers stand for Werkverzeichnis Anton Bruckner -Works Of Anton Bruckner,compiled by Renata Grasberger)  was composed shortly after his studies and was the second setting of the Ave Maria from the Catholic Mass. Bruckner was a very devout Catholic and wrote many works for accompanied and unaccompanied choir.  This Ave Maria is acapella, in seven parts, with a single soprano part while the alto, tenor and bass all have two parts.

In the first part of the work Bruckner contrasts the three-part women's choir with the four-part men's choir. In the second part of the work all seven parts join together in a proclamation of faith and the asking for mercy.

Bruckner was an Austrian that was a life-long bachelor that fell in love with young women even into his old age.  He liked drinking beer and playing the organ. He became a teacher in his own right at the Vienna Conservatory as he took up his old teacher's position as music professor upon Sechter's death in 1868.  He was a complex, intelligent, socially awkward man who never gave up his peasant ways.  He worked very hard all of his life and created some of the most inspired moments in western music, and all the while kept his child-like devotion and faith to his beloved Catholic church.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sibelius - Finlandia

The history of Finland has seen the country dominated by Sweden early on and Russia in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.  With the coming of the nationalist movement in the early 20th century,  Russia used every means to halt the progress of freedom for the Finnish people. Censorship of the theater and concerts was heavy, and it was in this atmosphere that Sibelius wrote his tone poem Finlandia.

It was originally written as part of a set of pieces that accompanied a visual presentation of Finnish history.  The original version was written in 1899 and Sibelius revised it into its final form in 1900. The piece served as a rallying cry for the Finnish people, much as La Marseillaise was for the French. To prevent the Russian censors from prohibiting the performance of Finlandia, the piece would be renamed before the programs for the concert were printed.

The music opens with heavy brass chords, and music that depicts the human struggle for freedom of the Finns.  The great hymn tune that follows the bombast has all the makings of a folk tune, but in fact there are no folk tunes in Finlandia. All of the music is original with Sibelius. The hymn tune was arranged by Sibelius as a separate piece to be sung as a hymn, and is in many Christian churches hymnals as the hymn titled 'Be Still My Soul'.

Evidently Sibelius came to detest Finlandia as it became his most popular composition at the expense of other more substantial works. But it has everything in it to appeal to a broad audience; brilliant and colorful orchestration, a grand tune that can be sung, and a message of hope and freedom that is universal.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chausson - Concerto For Piano, Violin and String Quartet

What identifies the genre of a classical music piece is not always dependent on the number of performers. For example, concertos for solo piano exist that were written by Bach and Alkan, compositions that were called 'concertos' on account of their style of composition, a style that attempts to portray an accompaniment and a more florid solo part all with the same instrument, sometimes at the same time.

So while the number of instruments for the Concerto For Piano, Violin and String Quartet is six, Chausson didn't call it a sextet, but a concerto. And rightly so, for the piano and solo violin parts are written in a different style than the string quartet.  Their parts are more solo in nature while the quartet is more accompaniment in nature. A small thing perhaps, and perhaps splitting hairs, but Chausson was nothing if not a meticulous composer. He felt the distinction was important enough to name his piece the way he did, and it does give the listener a heads up to the originality and quality of the music about to be heard.

Ernest Chausson was born into a comfortable middle class family in France and studied music with the French  opera composer Jules Massenet. He was influenced by Massenet in his early compositions and by Cesar Franck in his later ones. He was not a prolific composer, leaving only 39 opus numbered compositions. Writing was long and painful for him, but the quality  of his compositions was always high.  He  was killed instantly at the age of 44 in 1899 after he struck a brick wall while riding his bicycle.

The concerto is in 4 movements:
I. Décidé  - The tempo designation of the first movement can be translated from the French as decide, make a choice.  The movement begins with a three note motive stated by the piano alone,  D,A,E. This small germ of an idea is the core of the entire composition.  Motives are built from these three tones in differing textures in the first movement. The movement grows like an exotic plant around the roots of the three tones.
II. Sicilienne - Based on the first movement's theme, this is Chausson's variation on an Italian dance form.
III. Grave -  A solemn and serious movement.
IV.Très animé  - A very lively and animated movement that is in stark contrast to the preceding one.

Chausson was an original. He managed to live long enough to give the world a handful of masterpieces. He is a composer that will probably never be mainstream or performed as much as other composers that lived longer and composed more pieces, but what we do have are gems to be treasured and enjoyed.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Franck - Symphonic Variations For Piano and Orchestra

Like most of the compositions Cesar Franck wrote in the last decade of his life, the Symphonic Variations were coldly received.  It wasn't until after his death in 1890 that his compositions became more well known and popular, mainly due to the efforts of his devoted students.

But the audience at the premiere of the Symphonic Variations were probably confused by what they actually heard. Far from a classic set of variations on a theme, Franck wrote a different and subtle type of work. The actual variations are small in number and there is much that goes on before and after.

The work is in three distinct sections played without break. The first section is in the key of F-sharp minor and begins with severe and dramatic octaves in the strings, to which the piano answers in a gentle manner. This beginning is similar to the beginning of Beethoven's slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 4, and whether Franck intended it as a homage to Beethoven or it is a mere coincidence, the piano soon becomes an equal with the orchestra and after some dialog between them the piano introduces the theme that is the object of the variations.

There are six (some say more) variations that are seamlessly woven together with piano and orchestra. Everything moves so smoothly, that the variations are almost over before the listener knows it, and the piano enters into a trance of gentle music with the orchestra quietly commenting. The piano and orchestra end up in a sleep-walking dialog, until the piano throws off some sparkling trills that lead the music to the key of F-sharp major. With the change in key comes a change in mood as the piano scampers in a graceful dance with the orchestra. As the orchestra and piano remind each other of the beginning with snippets of the opening theme in major mode, the music ends.

The Symphonic Variations is a piece that is one of the most perfect ever written for piano and orchestra. It is short, but there is so much happening that it should take longer than the average time of 15 minutes to play it.  It is not possible to think about it being for any other combination of instruments (although there is a version for two pianos, it was probably made for rehearsal use or to allow performance when no orchestra is available).  The piano writing is for a virtuoso, but never at the expense of the musical content. Franck has written a piece where virtuosity is for the good of the whole, not an end in itself.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Bach - Concerto For Oboe d'amore In A Major

The musical world of J.S. Bach was one of transition.  The emphasis had been slowly changing from counterpoint and polyphony to harmonically accompanied melody, or monody.  Bach's own sons were leaders in the changes in music, while Bach was seen as somewhat old-fashioned.  It's not that the elder Bach was against the newer music as it was that his interest still lay in the possibilities of counterpoint and polyphony.

Of course not all of Bach's music was strictly contrapuntal.  The Concerto For Oboe d'Amore  has the solo instrument play a melody with as much as against the string parts.  Like all of Bach's concertos, there exists different versions of the work for different instruments. This concerto also exists in the form of a harpsichord concerto, but unlike most of Bach's other concertos it was not originally written for violin. There has been research done by Sir Donald Tovey proving that the concerto was originally written for the oboe d'amore.  The harpsichord version is the only one extant, but with the evidence supplied by Tovey the solo part was reconstructed from the harpsichord part.

Bach's time was also one of transition pertaining to musical instruments. The viola family existed alongside the violin family, the recorder alongside the transverse flute, the lute was still being played by some musicians, and even the early form of the piano existed alongside the harpsichord and clavichord. The oboe d'amore is a member of the double reed oboe family, midway in range between the oboe and the cor anglais. It was invented in the early 17th century.  Its tone is not as assertive as the oboe. Bach was fond of the instrument as he used it in his cantatas besides this concerto. The instrument fell out of use shortly after Bach's time but was revived by Romantic era composers such as Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel.

The concerto for oboe d'amore has the traditional three movements:

I. Allegro - Bach has the full string orchestra play the opening of the concerto. The oboe d'amore adds its melodic statements in between the returning motive played by the strings. The movement has the grace and balance of a dance between the two.
II. Allegretto -  The difference between the opening movement and this one is like day and night. Where the mood was carefree and light, it has now turned sad and melancholic. The oboe d'amore plays one of Bach's most emotional, heart-felt tunes while being accompanied by a chromatic descent in the bass.
III. Allegro ma non tanto - The finale returns to the feelings of a dance and happier times.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 5

The time in Bruckner's life when the 5th symphony was composed was a troubled one. He had just suffered the humiliation of the first performance of his 3rd Symphony in D Minor. He had to conduct the symphony himself at the last minute because of the untimely death of the conductor Johann von Herbeck. A combination of factors contributed to the failure of the 3rd symphony. Evidently Bruckner was not the best of conductors, and the fact that Bruckner had dedicated the 3rd symphony to Richard Wagner made Bruckner a part of the Brahms/Wagner controversy. By the time the 3rd Symphony had been played on that night, most of the Viennese audience had left and the orchestra members scurried off the stage leaving Bruckner alone on the podium.

It wasn't the first or last time Bruckner experienced negativity towards his music.  Even after the success of his 7th Symphony in E Major his next symphony, the 8th Symphony in C Minor was rejected as unintelligible by one of his most ardent champions, the conductor Herman Levi.  While these happenings affected Bruckner, they did not affect him to the point of being unable to compose. His ability to keep composing amid so much rejection speaks volumes about his determination and genius. It has been said that genius is mostly the ability to work hard no matter the circumstances. That definition surely fits Bruckner, for he worked into his forties taking instruction in harmony and counterpoint and worked so hard that even his task-master teacher told him to not work so hard.

But Bruckner brought more to his compositions than hard work. He had a rare mix of love of tradition along with the ability to work within that tradition to develop his own style, and a rare ability of having a sense of mystery and awe in his work that isn't evident on the written page. He brought no innovations to the orchestra forces he used, outside of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. His orchestrations are fairly straight-forward and at least note-wise are not exceedingly difficult for a good orchestra. So outside of his being affiliated with the 'enemy' Wagner camp, why was Bruckner's music met with so much hostility from orchestra members in particular?  I think it was what at the core of Bruckner's music. A restless drive rhythmically, an ever-changing palette of key changes and stretching of tonality that was a natural progression from the works of Schubert, and a mastery of counterpoint. In short,  Bruckner's music is an art unto itself. To judge it against Beethoven's symphonies does neither composer justice.  No matter how much analysis is done of Bruckner's form, harmony and melody, his music will always have a certain amount of mystery and surprise to it.  And that, at least for me, creates a never ending interest in his music. Every time I hear one of his symphonies, I seem to notice something I didn't before.

The 5th Symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Adagio - Allegro - This symphony is the only one Bruckner wrote that opens adagio.  With pizzicato strings, this adagio beginning has been called an introduction. Considering that pizzicato strings open all four movements of the symphony, it can also be considered a theme that helps create cohesion for the symphony.   Bruckner makes a great deal of contrast between themes in this first movement.

II. Adagio. Sehr langsam - Pizzicato strings begin this movement, in a slightly faster tempo than the first movement. The strings play in triplets, essentially in 6/4 time while the winds introduce new material. This is but one example of cross rhythms Bruckner uses that creates different moods within the music. Soon the orchestra begins to sing and the movement moves steadily to an inevitable thrilling Bruckner climax.  The music decreases in volume and slowly builds to a series of minor climaxes until it ends quietly.

 III. Scherzo. Molto vivace - The scherzo begins with pizzicato strings but a driving melody is soon heard. This melody is short, and a contrasting theme is heard immediately after. Bruckner uses varying length of phrases to create a certain restlessness, even in the German dance like contrasting theme. The calm, short trio is in direct contrast with the rest of the scherzo, which returns and ends with the orchestra chugging away to the closing chord

IV. Adagio - Allegro moderato - For the final time, the pizzicato strings begin the movement but are interrupted by a tune played by the clarinet. Other themes from the first movement appear, only to be likewise interrupted by the clarinet tune. The clarinet tune is played by the low strings, and it is then we find out that the tune is a theme for a fugue for the orchestra. Then the secondary theme shows itself and is lyrical and decorative, a contrast to the fugue heard before it.  After this theme works itself through, another theme appears which is like a chorale. This chorale contains within it the theme of another fugue. The second fugue plays itself through, whereupon the theme from the first movement is joined with the theme of the first fugue to create a double fugue. After a thorough working out, the first fugue is played again (without any other melody) and the brass play the theme of the second fugue together with the first fugue.  As if all that isn't enough to boggle the ear of the mere mortal listener, Bruckner has four horns play the theme of the first movement along with the rest.

The final movement of this symphony shows the talent and genius of Bruckner like no other composition he ever wrote. The incredible complexity of writing a fugue alone, let alone a fugue for full orchestra, would be challenge enough. But to write two fugues, then a double fugue, and finally what amounts to three themes playing at the same time  (and have the whole thing intelligible) would be called impossible if Bruckner hadn't shown us it is possible.

For those who really want to get into Bruckner's life and music, I recommend the book Anton Bruckner- Rustic Genius by Werner Wolff.  It is an old book (written in 1942) and there has been much research into the life and music of Bruckner since it was written,  but the author was a musician, conductor and musicologist that had practical experience with conducting Bruckner's symphonies and his analyses of all of them are in depth. It is a book I reference often, and the beauty of it is you can down load it for free at:
Anton Bruckner Rustic Genius  There are options to download the book or read it on line.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Schubert - Symphony No. 4 'Tragic'

Along with Felix Mendelssohn and Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert was one of the most outstanding child prodigies the musical world has ever seen. All three men lived only into their third decade, with Schubert dying the youngest at age 31. By the time of his death he had written over 1000 pieces, among them being nine symphonies, much chamber music and 600 lieder,some of the greatest art songs ever composed.  He composed his first work when he was 13 years old, and never stopped composing after that.  His output is phenomenal, considering his age at his death. 

Schubert came under the influence of Antonio Salieri who was living in Vienna at the time. Salieri recognized Schubert's immense talent and took him as a private pupil. Schubert also had a great singing voice and acquired a choir scholarship at a local seminary.  He also went to a teacher training school and taught in his father's school for a few years. He disliked the drudgery and boredom of teaching and applied for a kappelmeister's position and also tried teaching piano for a time. He soon abandoned both of those endeavors and devoted himself to composing full time, and living off the kindness and generosity of his friends.

Schubert himself subtitled his 4th Symphony 'Tragic'. although the introduction to the first movement does have the sense of gloom and tragedy about it, whether the rest of the symphony has much tragedy in it is questionable. Why did Schubert name it such if the music really isn't all that tragic? Some have conjectured he did it to try and attract a publisher, but no one really knows why. Perhaps it was on account of the introduction to the first movement, a departure from his first three symphonies. The 4th symphony is the first symphony he wrote in a minor key, and he was about 19 years old when he wrote it in the years 1815-1816. Like so much of Schubert's music, the 4th symphony had to wait a long time for its premiere, in 1849 in Leipzig.

The 4th Symphony is in the traditional 4 movements:
I  Adagio molto – Allegro vivace - The introduction to the first movement moves far afield key-wise, but Schubert is known for his modulating through distant keys before settling on one. This key-wandering is all the more remarkable as it all makes sense. It was one of Schubert's many talents, this harmonic wandering and use of distant keys.  The movement proper begins with a theme in the home key of C minor. The entire movement keeps driving forward with the second theme that adds to the momentum. The ending of the movement has another surprise in store...a coda in C major.
II Andante - One of Schubert's most attractive slow movements, it is in a major key with a few episodes in the minor to add interest and contrast.
III Menuetto. Allegro vivace - Although named as such, this is far from a 'menuetto' in the common sense of the word. Schubert's debt to Beethoven is heard as the syncopated accent on the third beat at the beginning of each phrase throws the music into a cross rhythm that stumbles its way to the trio.
The trio is a German Ländler, a peasant dance that Schubert knew very well.
IV Allegro -  The finale begins with music as nervous and forward-moving as the first movement.  After much development in various keys, the music turns to C major for the conclusion.

To say Schubert was a composer of natural ability would be an understatement. But he didn't rest on his talent. He worked hard, and his music progressed throughout his short career. Within his thirty-one years he accomplished so much. What he could have created if he had lived longer will always be a mystery. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Franck - Organ Chorale No. 2 in B Minor

The history of the pipe organ is a rich and ancient one, going back as far as the Roman Empire with its organ operated by water pressure called the Hydraulis. The organ slowly evolved from a monstrous instrument that had keys so big they had to be struck with the fist to the instruments of the early Baroque with their ranks of pipes and voices, multiple keyboards and foot pedals.

For many centuries the pipe organ was the most complicated mechanical device known, as it took the artistry and craftsmanship of many different disciplines to construct one.  Master cabinet makers to make the chests, keyboards and all the wooden parts, wood carvers to beautify the outside of the instrument, craftsman working in metals to make all of the pins and guide wires necessary, experienced makers to make hundreds and sometimes thousands of  organ pipes, craftsmen with a fine ear to tune the pipes, organ players to assist with regulation of the action. All of this craftsmanship and knowledge was learned by experience by each organ builder in each part of Europe that they worked. There developed styles of construction and sounds according to the locality of the builder. Each part of Europe created their own unique version of the instrument, and accordingly there developed schools of organ playing to match the instruments of the locale.

The school of French organ playing began in the 16th century and unlike some others, continued into the Romantic era. With composer/organists like Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, French organ builders went on to include improvements to the instrument that allowed the French organ composers to write in a symphonic style for the instrument.

The most influential and beloved of these composer/organists was Cesar Franck. After his early years of composing and performing he settled into a life of teaching. It wasn't until his later years that he started to compose again, and in the matter of but a few years managed to compose a handful of masterpieces. He was a master improviser on the instrument, but only composed about a dozen pieces for it. nonetheless, he is regarded as the most important organ composer since J.S. Bach. High praise indeed, as it attests to the quality of his compositions.

Among those few pieces he wrote for organ (and the last three pieces he wrote before his death) are the Three Chorales For Organ. Franck was a composer that loved the traditional forms of music, but he made these forms his own by the way he used them. The second organ chorale is in B minor, and is in the form of a passacaglia and fugue, a passacaglia being a type of variation form in which the composition is based on a bass-ostinato which appears throughout the composition. Franck used a 16-bar bass theme:

In true passacaglia form, it isn't always confined to the bass part.  This work bears an outward resemblance at least in form to Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, but as with other works by Franck, his music is distinctive and speaks with a voice all his own.