Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rossini - Overture To Semiramide

Rossini wrote the opera Semiramide in 1823.  The libretto was based on a tragedy by Voltaire which in turn was based on a Babylonian myth.  It was the final Italian opera that Rossini wrote. After its completion he moved to Paris and his last operas were in French.  Rossini was one of the fastest composers at that time, and composed the entire opera in a matter of 33 days.  The opera's plot is a gruesome retelling of the Oedipus legend that is set in Babylon.

By the late 1800's the opera was almost unknown. There have been various revivals of it, but it is not performed very often. That can't be said for the overture to the opera, as it remains a popular selection for the concert hall. Unlike many other opera overtures of the time (including Rossini's) the overture uses tunes that are in the opera itself and therefore couldn't be used for a different opera. Strange as it may seem to us, the recycling of music happened a lot in the break-neck world of popular opera of the time. Works were written rapidly and many composers not only recycled their own music, but music of other composers as well.  The goal was to keep feeding the opera-hungry audiences new operas and keep the money rolling in at the box office.

The overture begins with a small crescendo that leads to three chords in the full orchestra.  A  hymn-like melody played by the horns is next, which is one of the most imaginative aspects of this overture.  The orchestra bursts in again, the hymn tune is taken up by the woodwinds with pizzicato accompaniment by the strings, and the horns join the woodwinds.  A few booming chords that alternate with the woodwinds that lead to a tune that is played in the strings and winds. Another tune from the opera is heard in the winds, which leads to a 'Rossini' crescendo that morphs into a repeated figure in the violins that reaches the apex of the crescendo.  Tunes are heard again, with the obligatory key changes and the orchestra slowly begins to build to another crescendo.  A short coda, and the overture comes to a close.

Rossini was one of the most popular, if not the most popular opera composers of his day. Many of his operas may no longer be in the main stream repertoire, but the overtures to the operas remain crowd-pleasers. The visceral excitement of a Rossini crescendo, and his gift for melody assure Rossini a place in the concert hall of the future.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Strauss - Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks

Richard Strauss was born into a very musical family. His father Franz Strauss was a virtuoso horn player and the principle horn of the Munich Court Opera.  Franz Strauss personally gave his son a thorough musical education and Richard was talented enough to have written his first composition when he was six years old.  He was also given private instruction by the assistant conductor of the Munich Court Orchestra and attended rehearsals of the orchestra on a regular basis.

Although Strauss heard his first Wagner opera when he was about ten years old, the elder Strauss was a musical conservative that detested 'modern' music.  Richard was not allowed to study any new music, as his father's strictly classical tastes ran to Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.   A side note about the elder Strauss, as principle horn in the Munich Opera Orchestra, he played in many premiers of Wagner's works. Although he hated Wagner's music, he was the consummate professional and studied the horn parts of the operas and played them to Wagner's satisfaction and praise.

Richard Strauss's early compositions were chamber works, and it was during this same time that he began his orchestra conductor apprenticeship with Hans von Bulow who was very fond of him and recommended Richard to take over the head conductor job of the orchestra when von Bulow resigned.

Strauss was introduced to much of Wagner's music by Alexander Ritter, who was a composer and violinist,  whom he met in 1885.  Strauss came under the influence of Wagner's music and began a series of tone poems that showed Strauss a master of orchestration and effects.. His first successful tone poem was Don Juan,  written in 1888.  Strauss made up for lost time and wrote many tone poems, all of them brilliantly orchestrated for a virtuoso orchestra. Most of Strauss' tone poems were written before 1900, as he concentrated on opera after that.

Til Eulenspiegel is a mythical man of German and North country folklore. There have been attempts to link the legend with a real person, but there has been no conclusive evidence to date. Til Eulenspiegel is a prankster, practical joker and all-around trouble maker of medieval northern Europe. There were books written about Til's exploits, and it appears no one was immune to the jokester's pranks. From craftsmen to officials of the church and state, Til fooled them all.  The literal translation of his name means 'owl mirror', and he is sometimes portrayed with both an owl and a mirror.  But there is also an unexpurgated version of the legend, where the name is translated from a different dialect in German that means 'wipe the backside'.  Tales of this Til are scatological and more for the adult reader than children.

Strauss represents Til in the very opening of the work with a quirky melody for horn that reaches the very bottom of the register of the instrument.  The work is in essence a rondo, and the horn tune is heard throughout the work. The clarinet also has a prominent part, but more for expressing the giggles of Til as he thinks up new ways to torment his victims. Much has been made of what the 'pranks' actually are that the orchestra relates,  but there can be too much made of trying to define the actual events and actions. It is more a question of what kind of mood the orchestra is conveying, in my opinion.  Whether teasing the pretty girls, tricking the local priest, mayor or blacksmith, the orchestra chuckles and chortles away as Til does his dirty work.

Towards the end of the piece, the tone painting becomes more distinct.  Right in the middle of Til's most boisterous shenanigans the orchestra turns stern and foreboding as drum beat out a rhythm and the brass blare out accusations- Til has been caught and must pay the price for his tom foolery.  The clarinet whimpers in between outbursts of the brass, and the clarinet finally shrieks its innocence as judgment comes down on Til's head, or rather his neck. A chord is heard in the brass, the music sweeps down low and the clarinet screams one last scream as Til is executed by the powers that be.  The music fades away, Til's tune is softly heard once again before the orchestra rouses to full force and blares out the ending of the piece, as if to say Til may be dead, but his spirit lives on.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Brahms - Variations and Fugue On A Theme Of Handel

Variations on a theme are a standard form for many classical works, and most composers have used the form and all composers have used the variation technique within other works. The very core of sonata form is variation, as in the development section and the recapitulation when the themes are transposed into the home key of the piece.

The first examples of theme and variations can be traced back to the 14th century and the form was popular in the Baroque era of music. The chaconne, passacaglia and groundbass are all forms of the variation and theme format. They can even be called variations on the format themselves.

Some of the masterpieces of the form of theme and variations have been written for keyboard from a theme that is far from complicated. The Diabelli variations of Beethoven derive from a simple march, the famous set of variations that comprise Paganini's 24th Caprice for Solo Violin also uses a fairly simple tune that has the distinction of not only inspiring the composer of the tune to vary it, but many other composers as well. And of course the famous Goldberg Variations by Bach that inspired many to write their own set of variations.

Brahms wrote his Variations And Fugue On A Theme Of Handel  in 1861 when he was 28 years old and dedicated the work to his dear friend Clara Schumann, the widow of Robert Schumann. Brahms was not only a composer, but he was a scholar, particularly of older music. He had written other sets of variations before, but the Handel Variations came after his study of Baroque forms.  It is this duality of Brahms, the scholar of older music that was none the less a product of the Romantic era he lived, that makes his music so interesting. Some have called him ultra conservative, but the ultra modern composer Schoenberg always considered Brahms a progressive. So there is much more to Brahms than appears to the ear. Some of his progressiveness is of a technical nature, such as his odd number of bars in his phrases for example. These technical devices are hard to explain to non-musicians, but they can certainly be heard as something different by the attentive listener.

The basis of the variations is an aria from Handel's Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat Major, a tune that is varied by Handel himself in the suite. It is a two-part tune that Brahms composed 25 variations for. Brahms used some Baroque forms for some of the variations in accordance with his study of the era but he didn't restrict himself to these forms at all. There are some free form variations also, and Brahms manages to keep things together as a structure by having sub-divisions within the whole where some of the variations are 'related' to one another, while also managing to keep the intensity level moving forward to the crown of the work, the fugue.  It is a testament to Brahms' skill as a composer that the fugue is never played without the variations. The fugue is a complicated, contrapuntal masterpiece in its own right, but it is an organic growth of what has preceded it. To divorce it from its parent variations would make the fugue, despite all of its wonders, unintelligible.

The 28-year old Brahms was still perfecting has mastery of the piano when he wrote this piece. He played them in public on occasion and it was the piece that he played for his first meeting with Richard Wagner. Evidently Wagner was impressed enough to tell Brahms that it was a good example of what could still be done with the old forms with someone who knew how to use them.

It wasn't the last time Brahms wrote a set of variations. He continued to use the form, it expand and deepen his expression of his musical ideas.  Ahead lay the Paganini Variations and the chaconne of the 4th symphony, but the Handel Variations marked an important period in the development of Brahms.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains.  There he enjoyed his spirit and solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. At last his heart changed - and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spoke thus unto it:
"Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!"

So the book Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None) by Friedrich Nietzsche begins. It is a book of philosophy set as a novel that has as its main character a mythical prophet named Zarathustra that is based on the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster, the founder of one of the first monotheistic religions in the world, Zoroastrianism. But Nietzsche's Zarathustra is purely mythical and outside of the similarity of name has nothing to do with the actual prophet.  Nietzsche's prophet is a teacher of changing morals, challenging mankind to overcome itself and become the 'superman'.  The book delves into many philosophical issues and challenges, and as the above example shows, it is a lot to wade through, not only for the subject matter but the style in which it is written. Nietzsche wrote it in the style of scripture, perhaps partly to mock traditional scripture. In the book is also the first time Nietzsche used the phrase 'God Is Dead', which has lead to a lot of misuse and meanings that have little to do with the context in which it is used in the book.

Strauss himself said the following regarding the work:

"I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the Superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as a homage to Nietzsche's genius, which found its greatest expression in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra."
The book is divided into about eighty different chapter headings, with each chapter ending with the words 'Thus spoke Zarathustra, which explains the title of Strauss' work.  He uses nine of the chapter headings in the score. 

Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise) - Perhaps the most recognizable opening of any piece of classical music, it as been used in movies and by rock stars, which is quite a tribute to its power and attraction. Strauss' sunrise brings the new philosophy of Zarathustra with a low rumbling and then the first appearance of the 'World Riddle' motif of C-G-C,  somewhat of a tonal ambiguity that is resolved but briefly when the third for the chord is heard shortly after, but then it is immediately flattened. The mystery has already begun. The sections ends in a grand splash of sound from the orchestra, and the three-note World Riddle motif is heard in various guises throughout the rest of the work.

Von den Hinterweltlern (Of those in Backwaters) -  Various translations of this include 'Of those in the hinterlands'. Strauss divides the string section into ten groups that play a rich progression of harmonies that climaxes into a soaring motif for the violins. The beginning of this section quotes the Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God) from the Catholic Mass. So are the ones in the backwaters, or hinterlands, the ones who are the traditionally religious?

Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing) - The great longing continues with the traditional religious theme as the organ quotes the Magnificat.  Is the Great Longing the desire of the traditionally religious to be near to God and to use religion to try and solve the World Riddle?

Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions) - The joys and passions of Zarathustra's youth are pondered upon. What were they, how could they have been used more for the benefit of mankind that no satisfy a desire?

Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave) - With the coming of the dawn and a new philosophy, Zarathustra knows there is no longer any way or reason to go back to the way things were. Hence, they are buried in the grave.

Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning) - Strauss uses the learned fugue to represent science. His fugue subject is made up of all twelves notes of the scale and represents science's attempt to encompass, include and explain the World Riddle. Indeed, the three note motif is the first three notes of the subject.

Der Genesende (The Convalescent) - Science in interrupted by of all things, a dance tune. But science comes back aggressively, makes its case with a shout. After a brief pause the orchestra wanders until it finds the kernel of the dance tune already heard.

Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) -  The dance tune progresses into a full-fledged, romantic-era Viennese waltz.

Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer) - Midnight is heard tolling, the work ends in the World Riddle being plucked out by the string basses, and the woodwinds in turn play a different motif. The work ends in a more sever tonal ambiguity than which it began, the ambiguity of the World Riddle in neither major or minor key, and the other motif in B Major. Is there any answer? Are there any answers? Or is true wisdom attained with the realization that there are no concrete answers to the World Riddle, and that the answer is in fact is no answer at all, but the acceptance of things that can't be changed and the striving to change the things that can be changed.

One of the most interesting interpretations of the work comes from an article written by Marin Alsop titled Alsop Sprach Zarathustra: Decoding Strauss' Tone Poem. A snippet from the article, I could not state it better myself

"Strauss takes Nietzsche's work and distills it into eight musical sections, with an introduction and epilogue. Through these sections, he wants to convey the essence of Nietzsche's philosophical approach to the world. Nietzsche wanted us, as human beings, to reconsider our value system and, rather than blindly believe in a monotheistic god or in the advancing scientific field, start to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions. Whether you ascribe to that philosophy or not has no bearing on the fact that this music, composed so painstakingly by Strauss, holds the power to profoundly move us."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Schütz - Motet For Bass, Trombones And Continuo 'Fili Mi Absalon'

Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672) was an important early German composer. He composed what is thought to be the first German opera that was performed in 1627, but he is most well known for his sacred works.  He was also an organist. He studied in Denmark and in Italy with Monteverdi, the father of opera. Because of his study in Italy he became an important figure in bringing Italian music and its style to Germany. Johann Sebastian Bach studied Schütz's music and brought the Italian influence fostered by Schütz to its culmination.

Although he was considered one of the finest organists in Europe, he left very little music for the instrument, and very little music for instruments alone.  The majority of his surviving music is for voices alone and in combination with  instruments.  He left no secular music of consequence.

One of Schütz's largest collections of music is the three volume set of Symphoniae sacrae, sacred symphonies comprised of music for voice and/or instruments. The first volume of the were printed in Venice in 1629 and consisted of 20 separate pieces. One of the pieces in this first volume is a motet written for bass voice, sackbuts and continuo 'Fili mi Absalon'  ( My Son Absalom).  The trombone is the modern equivalent of the sackbutt, with the older instrument being of a more delicate construction and a lighter, more flexible tone. It was made in four different sizes; alto, tenor, bass, double-bass and since it was a chromatic instrument it was most often used to double voices in choirs.

The words of this motet depict King David's lament over the death of his son Absalom. It is a story from the Bible, and in brief Absalom was the third son of David, King Of The Jews. Absalom staged an uprising against his father and lead his army against David's army in the battle of Ephraim Wood. Absalom was known for his head of long flowing hair, and when the mule he was riding went under a low-lying tree branch Absalom's hair got tangled in the branches and pulled him off the mule. He was discovered still alive and hanging in the tree by his hair by one of David's men who reported the incident back to his commander Joab. Joab went to Absalom and killed him with three spears and a group of swordsmen. When King David is given the news about the death of his son, he weeps openly and cries, "My son, Absalom, Absalom, my son. Oh, that I had died instead of you!"

Schütz opens the work with the instruments alone, the bass voice comes in with the lament in Latin 'Fili mi, Absalom'. The instruments then play another short interlude, then the bass enters in Latin 'Quis mihi tribuat, ut ego moriar pro te!'  The work ends with the bass voice echoing David's sorrowful recognition that what is done is done.

Music that is as old as this does sound different to our ears. Compositional techniques were different, it was in the middle of the Baroque era when music was still 'horizontal' and not so much 'vertical'. Counterpoint was still the norm, with the working out of what was to become modern harmony still a long way into the future.  But Schütz conveys the despondency and sadness of King David in this music written so long ago. It is a beautiful piece and reaches across the centuries to communicate a depth of feeling that is recognizable to the modern ear.

Friday, February 10, 2012

J.S. Bach - Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 In F Minor

From radio stations playing 'golden oldies' to the museum-like quality of the classical music concert hall, the modern day musical world is as much to do with the music of the recent and distant past as of the present. Audiences of Bach's time would not have understood this trend, as music was a daily commodity. Every Sunday worship service saw the congregation expecting new music, opera goers expected new operas, concert hall listeners expected new compositions.  The musical world of Bach's time was teeming with new music, or at the least previously heard music in the new 'clothes' of transcription and arrangement for other ensembles.

Bach, Handel and many other lesser composers recycled their own music and the music of others via transcriptions and arrangement. When the workday and responsibilities of a Kappelmeister such as Bach are looked at with choirs to train and rehearse, instrumentalists to train and rehearse,  and music to be prepared for every church service in many different churches (with each demanding their own music), it is no wonder that even Bach himself had the inspiration to write new music worked right out of him.

Add to all of that, beginning in 1729 Bach was appointed director of the weekly Collegium Musicum concerts in Liepzig, which also demanded new or refurbished music for each concert. It was for these concerts that Bach reused some of his music, pouring them into new forms and instruments. The Harpsichord concerto No. 5 is one of those hybrid pieces.  Bach used the outer movements of a violin concerto and a movement from an oboe concerto for the second movement. He also used the second movement melody in a cantata.

The concerto is in three movements:
I. Allegro moderato - The first movement is in ritornello form and is full of rhythmic energy and seriousness.
II. Largo - A cantabile song that almost seems endless. Bach seems to have been quite fond of this melody considering how many times he used it.
III. Presto - The feelings and mood of the first movement return along with some echo effects between soloist and orchestra.

Bach may have reused his music, but his genius and creativity always added something to the original that makes the transcription worth hearing. In the keyboard transcriptions of his violin concertos and other works Bach gives a new independence to the left hand that used to be relegated with doubling the bass instrument and filling in the harmonies. For that and other innovations, Bach stands at the beginning of the formation of the standard keyboard concerto as practiced by Beethoven and Mozart. Bach was so skillful in his transcriptions that it can be very difficult to think that the music wasn't originally written for the instrument. Bach was a genius by most stretches of the imagination, but he was also a master craftsman.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Schumann - Piano Concerto In A Minor

Robert Schumann was a multi-talented man who was not only a fine composer and pianist, but a writer and poet as well. He began studying law but soon dropped it in favor of pursuing a career as a concert pianist.  He used some sort of a contraption that spread his fingers that was supposed to give him more of a span and better finger strength and agility, but it did the opposite and gave him a permanent hand injury.  At least that's how the story has come down. His teacher Friedrich Wieck told him he had the talent to become the greatest virtuoso in Europe,  but modern scholarship has thrown doubt as to Schumann's actual desire to be a concert pianist. Whether the injury was real, imagined, or a story devised by Schumann to forgo the arduous training and devote his energies to composing instead, is open to conjecture.

Schumann's compositional output in the beginning was for the piano exclusively until about 1840.  In his early works he composed pieces that were some of the first examples of program music, music that was inspired and influenced by literary or other outside forces. He also became a music critic and was instrumental in promoting the music of Chopin, Brahms and other composers.

Schumann eventually ventured into composing for orchestra, chamber music and voice. He wrote many songs, four symphonies and a few pieces for piano and orchestra, of which his only piano concerto, in A minor, is the most notable. This concerto influenced many composers, from Brahms to Grieg, and remains one of Schumann's most popular and well-written pieces. It was premiered in 1846 with his wife Clara as soloist and his friend (and dedicatee) Ferdinand Hiller conducting.

The work is in three movements:
I. Allegro affetuoso - After a call to order by the orchestra and the piano, the first theme is heard in the oboe and winds. This theme (and pieces of it) is played through different guises throughout the movement. The piano plays a cadenza near the end and the movement draws to an exciting finish.
II.Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso - This is the movement that in some ways foreshadows Brahms and influenced him greatly. Near the end of this gentle song there is a reference to the theme from the first movement, and the second movement segues directly into the last movement.
III. Allegro vivace - The theme of this movement is first heard in the piano after a rushing run for the strings. It is one of Schumann's most successful pieces of music as it is full of variety and orchestral color.

Schumann is in many ways the ultimate Romantic. He did help usher in the Romantic era with his compositions and musical critiques. His life was one that was filled with mental brilliance offset by periods of mental imbalance and depression. He would compose at white-hot inspiration at times and have difficulty composing anything at others. His life was a life of excess, a life of fantasy, a life of creativity and ultimately a life that ended in an insane asylum when he was but 46 years old.  But he left a legacy of fine compositions, of which the piano concerto is arguably the best of them all.

Weber - Symphony No. 1 In C Major

Carl Maria von Weber is more well known for being a composer of operas, but he did indeed write two symphonies.  The first symphony was written in 1806-1807, shortly after the premiere of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, 'Eroica'. Beethoven set the symphonic world upside down with the Eroica, and his 4th Symphony followed close behind.  The two symphonies of Weber, while interesting and tuneful, were written rather true to form in the classical style. They were overshadowed in the beginning by the developments of Beethoven and were pretty much neglected until their revival in the 20th century.

Weber had just begun a visit to the music-loving Duke of Württemberg-Öls, whose palace was in a forest and boasted a small orchestra that the Duke liked to play the oboe in. Weber wrote both of his symphonies for this small orchestra which consisted of one flute, two oboes,  two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings, with no clarinets.

The first movement is in sonata form, and shows how much Weber already understood the orchestra. His gift for melody shines throughout the movement. But it is with the second movement Andante that shows Weber's flair for the dramatic, even when writing for instruments alone. It is a short movement (as all the movements of the symphony are, the entire symphony takes only about 25 minutes) but it has a darkness of instrumental color that makes it the most unique movement in the symphony. The third movement is a Scherzo with a prominent oboe part. The finale is a high-spirited movement in sonata form that brings the symphony to a rousing finish.

Weber's first symphony is not the best music he ever wrote. Weber himself acknowledged as much in a letter to a friend when he expressed how he could have worked things out better in the symphony. But it is still a very enjoyable piece of music and has flashes of the talent that was to make Weber one of the founders of the Romantic movement in music.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 8

As with most of his other symphonies, Bruckner rewrote the 8th on the advice of Hermann Levi, the conductor that was to premiere the work.   The first version of the symphony was completed in 1888 and sent to Levi and after reading through it and giving his opinion, the conductor told Bruckner that he could not "make the symphony his own".  After giving it some thought, Bruckner agreed and completed his revisions of the work in 1890.

The work was supposed to be premiered in Munich, but by the time the revisions were done Levi was unavailable and the conductor he recommended to take his place kept postponing the premiere, evidently due to lack of rehearsal time to adequately prepare the symphony. Bruckner then changed the premiere city to Vienna and Hans Richer finally conducted the premiere in 1892.

The symphony is in the usual 4 movements and begins with a reminiscence of Beethoven's 9th Symphony with tremolos in the high strings and the first theme stated in the low strings. There are three themes in the first movement, one of Bruckner's innovations to standard sonata form, and the second theme is stated by the full orchestra in the so-called Bruckner rhythm of two quarter notes followed by a quarter triplet. This movement is also notable because it ends quietly, and is the only example of this in any first movement of a Bruckner symphony. Bruckner himself alluded to the quietness of the ending as representing death.

The second movement is the Scherzo, which often times was the third movement in a Bruckner symphony. The opening kind of reminds me of Wagner's style in a way, but the further it goes the more Brucknerian it gets. It is also the longest scherzo of any Bruckner symphony.

The third movement is an expansive Adagio, is pure Bruckner, and has some exquisite writing for horns. the orchestration in general is lush. The orchestra builds to a shattering climax and then slowly winds down with the horns and strings singing together. This movement runs over twenty minutes usually but it is pure Bruckner as the music transcends time.

Bruckner uses recollections of the other themes in the symphony in the finale. I say recollections because he doesn't always give a direct quote of the theme but he uses the rhythm or a piece of the melody. This gives a kind of déjà vu effect to the movement, as the themes seem familiar but not quite recognizable.  Bruckner does give a quote of the scherzo theme near the end of the movement, and it ends in a blaze of Brucknerian glory.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Franck - Organ Chorale No. 3 in A Minor

In the summer of 1890, Cesar Franck was riding in a cab when it was struck by a horse-drawn trolley. He suffered a fainting spell and a slight head injury, but he thought it wasn't serious enough to warrant treatment and went on his way. Soon it became difficult for him to walk and he had to give up his teaching at the Conservatoire and went on vacation to try and recuperate.  He went back to the Conservatoire in the fall of 1890 but contracted an upper respiratory ailment that soon changed to pneumonia. He died November 8, 1890.

It was during this vacation that he completed the three Chorales For Organ.  They are considered very important pieces in the organ repertoire, and bear the imprint of Francks later compositional style.

The Chorale No. 3 in A Minor begins as a toccata and has a contrasting second theme before it goes into a new theme played adagio. The finale of the piece hears the toccata return and the weaving in and out of the other themes heard in the piece.

 Very seldom has there been a composer of the importance of Franck that has left such a relatively small output of compositions.  Franck began his career as a virtuoso pianist and composer, but he ceased to compose anything of any import until the last twelve years of his life.  With a handful of compositions, including the Three Chorales For Organ, Franck's place in music history is assured.

Bartók - Concerto For Orchestra

When his native Hungary went to the side of Nazi Germany as an ally, Béla Bartók left the country and came to New York.  He was a fine pianist, and he and his wife made ends meet by giving concerts and working on translating old Hungarian books into English for Columbia University and also got a grant from the University to work on a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs.

There was little interest in Bartók's compositions in the U.S. and he had difficulty composing. When his health turned bad with what was eventually diagnosed as leukemia, he no longer could make his living giving concerts and doing research and had to depend on his friends to support him.  When Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Bartók for a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his inspiration returned and he composed the Concerto For Orchestra. 

Bartók said that he called it a concerto for orchestra rather than a symphony because he treated the instruments in each section of the orchestra in a virtuosic way. It is cast in 5 movements:

I. Introduzione. Andante non troppo - Allegro vivace -  Bartók was fond of writing what he called 'night music' as this movement begins with. It then goes through various fugal treatments of themes and it is cast in sonata form.
II. Giuoco Delle Coppie. Allegretto scherzando - The so-called 'game of pairs' begins with the side drum tapping out a rhythm and then each section of the orchestra has 2 instruments play in different intervals, bassoons are a minor sixth apart, oboes are in minor thirds, clarinets in minor sevenths, flutes in fifths and muted trumpets in major seconds.
III. Elegia. Andante non troppo - Another example of  Bartók's 'night music', this movement is based on themes first heard in the first movement.
IV. Intermezzo Interrotto. Allegretto - This movement has a melody that is interrupted by Bartók's parody of the march theme from the 7th Symphony 'Leningrad' of Shostakovich. This symphony had been secreted out of Russia on microfilm and a subsequent competition by conductors as to who would conduct the American premiere. The symphony was played over the radio when Bartók heard it.
V. Finale. Presto - This is written in sonata form, and also has some fugal moments along with snippets of folk songs added for good measure.

The Concerto For Orchestra is Bartók's most popular composition but Bartók didn't live long enough to see how popular it became. It is written in a more traditional style than many of his other works. After writing a Sonata For Solo Violin and the Piano Concerto No. 3,  Bartók succumbed to leukemia in 1945.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Liszt - St. Francis of Assisi Preaching To The Birds

Franz Liszt was a complex man.  He was a member of the musical and social avant-garde of his time, thus thought nothing of living with women and having children without being married, yet he was a very religious man of traditional Catholicism. How Liszt managed to account for his behavior within his strict religious views are a marvel. But there was always a priestly side to Liszt. Early in his life he had given serious thought to becoming a priest, only to cast aside the thought in favor of the life of a traveling piano virtuoso with everything that went with it. Liszt began drinking and smoking early in his life. No one really knows when his sexual exploits began, but if that was anything like the rest of his young life it started early too.

All of the travel, cavorting, drinking and such finally caught up with Liszt and he retired from the concert platform in 1847 at the age of 35.  He had by this time left the mother of his three children, Countess Marie d'Agoult for another royal lady Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein,the wife of a Russian Prince.  Both Liszt and the Princess wanted to marry, but the Princess' husband (not to mention the Pope himself) would not grant her a divorce. The two never did marry, and while Liszt remained involved with her until her death,  they no longer lived together after 1863 when Liszt began living in a small apartment near Rome.   When Liszt's son died in 1859 and his youngest daughter died in 1862, it had a profound affect on Liszt. He declared to his friends that he would live a solitary existence from then on. He took minor orders and was occasionally called the Abbé Liszt.  From then on, he divided his time between Rome, Budapest and Wiemar and composed, taught and participated in music festivals.

It was about this same time that Liszt wrote St. Francis of Assisi Preaching To The Birds for piano. The piece was one of a pair of what Liszt called Legends.  This piece hears the piano in imitation of birdsong with chains of trills and tremolos until St. Francis himself begins to preach to them and the birds that are in the trees silence their singing and listen to him and the birds on the ground walk up to the saint and circle him to listen. According to the legend, St. Francis preaches to the birds that they have much to be thankful to God for and that they should sing their praises to Him every day.

The music is one of Liszt's greatest works. Gone is the Liszt of technical fireworks and brilliant passage work. Replacing it is a Liszt that has the technique serve the musical idea with the result being a gentle, spiritual piece of musical story telling.

The pianist playing the piece in the video is Wilhelm Kempff, not the first name a music lover might think of in the music of Liszt. But Kempff plays with the gentleness and poetry this piece needs.