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.

Haydn - Symphony No. 44 'Trauer'

Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 44 was written in 1772. The nickname of the symphony translates to 'mourning'. The symphony was written in Haydn's sturm und drang (storm and stress) period. He had been in the employ as Kapellmeister of the royal Esterhazy family since 1766, and some of the symphonies he wrote between 1766 and 1772 show how much Haydn was experimenting (with the full consent of his royal patron). The two minor key symphonies of this time No. 49 'La Passsione' and  No. 44 'Trauer' are especially expressive, dramatic and different. Haydn wrote a total of seven minor key symphonies in seven years in a time when minor keys were seldom used as the home key for a symphony.  They are evidence that Haydn had a stormier side to his musical nature, at least in his younger days.

Symphony No. 44 has 4 movements:
I. Allegro con brio - The movement begins with a 4-note motif that is heard throughout the movement in various keys and guises. Haydn was very adept at constructing an entire movement from a short motif, and it is one part of his style that Beethoven his student must have admired as he used the same technique in some of his music.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto,canon in diapason - Here Haydn reverses the order of the inner movements and balances the first and third movement's emotions and moods with a minuet. But it is not a typical minuet of the time. First off, it is in the same key as the opening movement. In fact, the first, second and third movements of the symphony have the same home key of E minor. Haydn also writes the minuet in canon; the first measure is heard in the higher strings, the lower strings enter one bar later while the upper strings continue. The low strings remain one bar behind, even lagging two bars behind in one section, until the trio which is very short.

III. Adagio - If tradition is to believed,  Haydn himself gave the symphony the nickname 'mourning', in no small part because of this movement. Haydn must have had a real liking for this music, as later in life he requested that it be played at his funeral.  The key is E major, the melody is played in muted violins and is not a funeral dirge by any means. It is gentle, graceful music that perhaps reflects Haydn's deeply Catholic religious views about death.

IV. Finale: Presto - The theme of this movement is first heard in unison from the orchestra and careens through the entire movement at a fast pace. The drama stated in the first movement is intensified in this very rapid Haydn finale until the music finally halts with two loud chords.

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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Liszt - Fantasy On Motifs From Beethoven's Ruins Of Athens

Liszt was a tireless champion of Beethoven and his music. He was the first pianist to play the late piano sonatas, he gave a series of concerts where all the proceeds went to the cost to erect the Beethoven commemorative statue in Beethoven's birthplace of Bonn. Liszt did this with many other composers besides Beethoven.  His arrangements of other composers works runs the spectrum of literal transcriptions such as the Beethoven symphonies and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, to the 'paraphrases'  other composers operas where he would use a tune or a theme from the work as the basis of his original thoughts.  The ruins Of Athens Fantasy on the incidental music that Beethoven wrote for the play of the same name by playwright August von Kotzebue.  Beethoven's work was written in 1811 in Pest, Hungary for the dedication of a new theater there.

Beethoven's original music was comprised of eleven musical numbers interspersed throughout the play.  Liszt uses three of these numbers for his fantasy. Liszt wrote three versions of this fantasy, for piano solo, for two pianos, and for piano and orchestra. It is the version for piano and orchestra that is heard on the video.

Liszt begins the fantasy with an introduction that uses material from a March and Chorus section from the original music. The introduction is for orchestra only, and is brief. The second part begins with the solo piano loudly making an entrance and the theme of the first part is replaced by the whirling dervish music of the original. After the initial statement of this theme, the orchestra joins the piano. The third part is the Turkish March taken from the original. It is slowly introduced by piano and various instruments before it is given full voice. There is a short return of the preceding themes, and the work ends.

Liszt was one of the best sight-readers ever known. He could take a piece of music he had never seen and play it perfectly, in tempo, at sight. He could reduce orchestral scores to the essence of the music and play the most complicated music from sight. It was also said that the only time Liszt could play a piece of music and be faithful to what was printed on the page was the first time. After that, he began to change things in the score to suit him, at least with the new composers of the time. He was forever tinkering with other composer's music as well as his own. This musical tinkering no doubt lead to his many transcriptions, and lead to things like the Ruins Of Athens Fantasy.  But it also must be remembered that piano versions of great works were sometimes what made the work well known. The expense of an orchestra has always been great, no less so in Liszt's time,  and to be able to hear a new orchestral work was a luxury many listeners did not have. Liszt himself made Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique more well known when he would play his piano solo version of it in recital.  As it had been many years since Beethoven's original music had been heard, Liszt no doubt wanted to expose the listener to what he considered some of the best parts of it.  Liszt was a man inspired by other composers music in many ways. The use of another composer's tunes can be a sign of respect, and with Liszt's known regard for Beethoven's music, he no doubt meant it as such.

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."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 9

When politics is mixed with art, the artist needs to beware.  Shostakovich is a case in point. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union used the music of Shostakovich as a rallying cry for the defeat of Nazi aggression. Shostakovich wrote parts of his 7th Symphony, nicknamed 'Leningrad' during the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. That symphony in particular was not only used by the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool, but the symphony was internationally popular during the war  as a representation of opposition to Nazi totalitarianism and militarism. How ironic that the citizen of a totalitarian nation created art that was used against another totalitarian nation! But so it goes in the world of international politics where finger pointing many times is used as a diversionary tactic so no one will notice what you are doing.

Shostakovich was treated as a national hero, at least on the surface. He still remembered the 'official' condemnations (Stalin's decree filtered through the voice of a music critic in the official part newspaper Pravda)  he suffered through in the 1930's.  Shostakovich's next symphony,  Number Eight, written in 1943,  was a long, brooding work that kept up the theme (at least on the surface) of Soviet suffering during the war. Shostakovich had learned to write music on different levels of meaning since his official censure, so this symphony, like the seventh, had more to do with Shostakovich's feelings about the Russian people's suffering (and his own) than any official theme. But he stayed in the good graces of the powers that be (translate that to Stalin) with the Eighth Symphony.

Fast forward to 1945 and the end of the war. Shostakovich already was thinking about his Ninth Symphony in 1944, a work the composer said himself would be a celebratory work over the defeat of Nazi Germany, complete with soloists and chorus.  After the past two huge symphonies,  the expectation was a work of huge dimensions in keeping with the ninth symphonies of Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler.  The composer said he already had part of the massive first movement written in early 1945. He set aside the composition for three months and completed it later in 1945.

Whatever happened during that three moth hiatus is not known, but the Ninth Symphony  turned out to be nothing like the composer had promised. It is a short work, more like a Haydn symphony in form and mood, far from the triumphant victory symphony that was expected. Shostakovih himself said of the work, "Musicians will like to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it."  The initial reception was favorable, but less than a year after the premiere, the work was officially banned and the composer denounced. The composer was in the official dog house once again.

The symphony is in five movements, the last three played without pause:

I Allegro - A Haydenesque movement in classical sonata form.  The trombone and piccolo have prominent roles as the orchestra plays in a jovial mood.

II.Moderato -  Music that is in a controlled, restrained, melancholy mood.

III. Presto - A nose-thumbing scherzo that prances along until...

IV. Largo - The brass introduces the bassoon as soloist in sad, mournful music, and then...

V. Allegretto - Allegro - The bassoon changes its 'tune' into a tongue in cheek melody that snickers in the low register of the instrument, which leads into a edgy, folk dance-like music that zips along until the orchestra scurries to an end.

Shostakovich's musical personality can be very complex. From bombast to beautiful, from official kow-towing to nose-thumbing independence. He spent the majority of his life in conflict between his artistic nature and what was officially demanded of him. He managed to resolve this conflict somewhat by basically composing two kinds of works; works that came from his artistic heart and works to try and satisfy the powers that be.  Sometimes the music is obvious which kind it is, sometimes Shostakovich manages to blur the two, as with his Fifth Symphony. But with the Ninth Symphony there is no blur. It is a short, witty and joyous work that occasionally grows serious. In other words, it is full of changing moods and emotions, but seldom gets too serious.  He knew it was not the work expected of him. He knew he would mostly likely get in trouble once again.  He probably didn't breathe any easier after the premiere and the initial favorable response. He knew the 'system' well enough to be wary. And he was right. But he wrote the symphony as his talent dictated, had it performed and took the consequences.  It may not have been as much an act of artistic courage but of artistic necessity. Whatever the reason or the cause, the Ninth Symphony is one of Shostakovich's most accessible and well-written compositions.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beethoven - Symphony No. 5 In C Minor

The 5th Symphony of Beethoven with its familiar three short and one long note motif, is the most recognizable and popular pieces of music ever written. Beethoven premiered the work at a massive 4-hour concert in December in Vienna in 1808. due to the coldness of the theater and the fact that the symphony only had one rehearsal earlier in the day, there was not much critical input about the work. But a little over a year later the work was repeated to rave reviews. All through the 19th century it slowly became a cornerstone of symphonic repertoire, and has been one ever since.

Don't let the familiarity of the symphony cause a bias against it.  There are wonders within it, way more than the famous 'fate knocking at the door' motif that begins the symphony. This motif acts as the raw material that is used to construct the first movement, and it makes an appearance throughout the entire work, albeit sometimes in altered form. This is a prime example of why I think Beethoven is the greatest composer of them all, in the sense of the word that means putting together a coherent composition from original material. His musical structures are solid, he was a total master of sonata form. Beethoven seems to have found his freedom of expression within the form itself. He would alter the form as his ideas dictated, but still kept the bare bones of the form. There are musicians and composers that had a greater gift for melody, some that were more brilliant at orchestration,  some more daring harmonically. But for the total package, which includes being a master architect of musical form, no one outshines Beethoven.

The 5th Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro con brio - The famous opening that is the seed of the entire symphony catches the ear immediately. It is pregnant with drama and struggle, and is heard throughout the first movement as it keeps hammering home the sense of struggle.  The movement is in sonata form, and Beethoven seems to have compressed and reduced the music into a pungent musical language that is given little relief. Even the short oboe near the end of the movement is full of pathos. The work hammers the motive home again, and it ends.

II. Second movement: Andante con moto - The second movement is a double variation, there are two melodies heard one after the other in the opening, then they are both varied in turn.

III. Third movement: Scherzo. Allegro -  A Scherzo full of mystery and a repeat of the 'fate' motive of the first movement in the horns, as well as a fugal trio section. When the scherzo begins again after the trio Beethoven changes the orchestration ad dynamics and with the timpani gently beating out the note of 'c', the movement segues into the finale.

IV. Fourth movement: Allegro - The finale is also in sonata form, with the second theme repeating the 'fate' motive. Just as the orchestra really gets going, a rapid change happens and parts of the Scherzo reappear for a few bars until the finale themes return ablaze. The finale keeps hammering away with the chords of C Major having won the struggle and defeating the C minor triad, and the work ends triumphantly.

Modern listeners can really never appreciate how Beethoven's music sounded to his contemporary listeners. What has become common place ( if not outright cliché) was once very innovative and original. Some of the wonder of the music is no doubt lost on us, but one way to get an idea of the novelty and originality of it is to listen to it with ears that can take on an historical perspective. That is why, although I've known the Beethoven Symphonies for over 40 years, I still have so much to learn about them through reading and listening. It is what makes classical music more enjoyable to me than other kinds, although I enjoy most kinds of music .

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bruch - Scottish Fantasy For Violin And Orchestra

Max Bruch was born in 1838 and died in 1920. He lived through almost the entire Romantic age of music and into the dawn of the Modern era, but he never followed the 'new' music school of Wagner and Liszt. He composed music which can be described as 'classical romantic', somewhat in the style of Felix Mendelssohn.

He was a teacher, conductor and violinist as well as a composer. His most popular composition is his first violin concerto in G minor, a work that tended to eclipse all of his other works for violin and orchestra, a fact which he grumbled about many times in his life. The Scottish Fantasy was inspired by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, a popular author among the Romantics. He included a harp in the work as he thought of it as a Scottish instrument, along with the violin.  Although Bruch never visited Scotland until three years after he composed the piece, he had an interest in folk music and used some Scottish folk tunes in the work.

Bruch wrote the work at the request of the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. Bruch wrote the first half of the work very quickly, and contacted Sarasate and requested a meeting to discuss its progress. Sarasate failed to reply, and Bruch then turned to  Joseph Joachim who advised him and in return Bruch asked him to give the premiere of the work.  Bruch was not pleased with Joachim's performance, and he reconciled with Sarasate who went on to play the piece with great success.

The Scottish Fantasy is in four movements:
I.Introduction; Grave - Adagio cantabile - The introduction is dark and represents Scotland, the land of myth and mystery. The Adagio cantabile is the beginning of the first movement and is based on the Scottish tune Through the Wood Laddie.

II.Scherzo; Allegro - The next movement is based on the song The Dusty Miller and is played on the violin while the orchestra plays a bagpipe-like accompaniment. There is a short transition to the third movement and  a fragment of Through The Wood Laddie is heard.

III.Andante sostenuto - Bruch uses a derivative of the tune I'm A' Doun for Lack O' Johnnie to showcase the lyrical singing of the solo violin.  The movement grows quiet and ends peacefully.

IV.Finale; Allegro guerriero - The last movement is based on the song Scots, Wha Hae and other tunes. Bruch varies the main tune, interlaces it with other tunes. The directions Allegro guerriero (fast and war-like)  may be a clue that the music is a tribute to the Scottish history of courageousness  in battle.  A part of Through The Wood Laddie makes one final appearance before the work ends.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4 In F Minor

For many of the Romantic era composers,  the writing of symphonies presented problems. Especially with the use of sonata form. The great symphonic composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and even Bruckner used themes when they used sonata form while the Romantics used melodies.

What created the problem was the differences between a theme and a melody. A theme can be a short motif, such as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or it can be as long as a Brucknerian theme from one of his symphonies.  It is the character of the theme, the way that it can be changed and developed, that made for the success and utilization of sonata form.  A melody can be beautiful and complete in itself, but not all melodies can be successfully used and developed in sonata form in a symphony.  That is the dilemma that Romantics like Tchaikovsky faced when he began to write symphonies.

Tchaikovsky had a great gift for melody, but he was not the supreme architect like Beethoven who could take a few notes and construct a finely wrought symphonic structure around it. Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies were written in a more strict adherence to sonata form and structure. It wasn't until his 4th symphony that Tchaikovsky wrote a symphony in a very loose symphonic structure.  The 4th was not immediately popular, the premiere of it caused much criticism, probably due to the fact that if a regular concert-goer that was in the audience expected a 'traditional' symphony, they most certainly didn't get one.  But time has proven that Tchaikovsky's way with the symphonic form allowed him to stay more true to his talent. The three symphonies he wrote in this loose form are played way more often than those first three that are closer to tradition.

The 4th Symphony is in the traditional four movements:
I.Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo - The many changes of tempo in this movement tell a great deal about the musical and emotional content of it. This movement alone is longer than the other three put together. The music has vitality and power, with melodies that weave in and out of the loose structure,  melodies that are developed, and some that aren't heard but once.  Tchaikovsky's newly discovered way to write a first movement for a symphony fits his musicianship and temperament very well. There is always drama in Tchaikovsky's music, and this movement runs the length of emotion from calm reserve to borderline hysteria.

II. Andantino in modo di canzona - A beautiful melody is played and configured, with a central section of reflection on things already heard that builds into climax that is related more to the first movement than this one. The opening melody is heard again and there is more of a darkness to it now than the beginning. The music slowly and gently comes to a quiet close.

III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro - One of the most original orchestrations of a master orchestrator, this movement hears the strings playing pizzicato throughout. The winds pick up after the opening and play a tune until the brasses interrupt with a marching tune reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's ballet music. The strings return as in the opening, then enter into a dialog with the winds, the music is again interrupted by the marching brass, the pizzacato strings return and end the movement on a quiet note.

IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco - The movement begins with a clash of cymbals and a rollicking tune. After that, Tchaikovsky quotes and old Russian song, In the Field Stood a Birch Tree. The tune is repeated a few times with different instruments, the first theme that began the movement returns until  the orchestra carries on with variants on the old Russian song. A direct quote from the beginning of the first movement interrupts the proceedings and leads back to the opening of the movement. Snatches of the old Russian folk song are heard and the orchestra whips itself into a grand ending.

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.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Mahler - Symphony No. 6 'Tragic'

Mahler's 'Big Bang'

While Mahler was inspired in his compositions by Beethoven, Liszt, Bruckner and Wagner, like all of the masters he developed his own style of composing. He was known as one of the world's greatest opera conductors, but wrote no operas himself. He was more than a passable pianist but left no piano compositions of any consequence, likewise with his chamber music. His instrument of expression was the orchestra, and he was a master of orchestration with a lifetime of practical knowledge gained from his conducting duties and a gift for creating themes that lent themselves to orchestral development.

Mahler's symphonies 1-4 were influenced by the German folk poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn.  Each of the first four symphonies used material from songs Mahler had written to the texts of selected poems from the collection, but his symphonies 5,6 and 7 were purely instrumental.  The Sixth Symphony is one of Mahler's most conventional as far as the first movement structure. He sticks to the traditional sonata form with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda.  The symphony consists of four movements. There is some controversy as to the proper order of the two middle movements. Some conductors put the Scherzo directly after the first movement, some revers the two. The following video of the symphony has the Scherzo as the second movement, the Andante as the third.

I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig -  The work begins with the orchestra playing the first theme, a brisk march in the home key of A Minor.  The first theme is rounded off by a motif that happens throughout the symphony, a major chord played in the trumpets accompanied by a march rhythm in the percussion, and while the trumpets play the home note and fifth of the chord, one of the trumpets lowers the third of the chord and transforms it to a minor chord.  The second theme is heard, a soaring melody that Mahler's wife Alma, claimed to represent her.  The exposition begins with a development of the march theme, which is suddenly transformed into an idyllic setting complete with the gentle clinking of cowbells. The march theme reappears with  vengeance and is whipped into a climax which leads directly to the recapitulation. The march rhythm persists, and begins a coda that develops the march theme even further. The 'Alma' theme reappears in a grand manner and ushers in the triumphant ending of the movement.

II. Scherzo: Wuchtig - This scherzo is one of the strangest Mahler ever wrote. It opens with the timpani beating out a rhythm, almost as if to mock the preceding seriousness of the timpani's rhythm of the first movement march.  The brass also chimes in with slurs and slides after the end of the first section of the scherzo, almost as if they thumb their noses at the preceding drama. Through it all, the orchestra keeps up the parody and the sarcasm until with a few quiet titters, the movement ends.

III. Andante moderato -  This movement serves as a contrast to the drama of the first movement and the bitter sarcasm of the second.  It also give the listener a chance to breathe easy before the last movement.

IV. Finale: Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - Allegro energico - There is really nothing in the previous three parts of the symphony that prepares the listener for what happens within this movement. The movement begins mysteriously and has a shattering reprisal of the timpani rhythm of the first movement. The orchestra wanders as if it is caught in a maze. It breaks out here and there, but returns to its brooding meditation. The orchestra breaks out in a march similar to what has been heard in the first movement, but it is even more frantic. The orchestra reaches two climaxes, after which the celebrated 'hammer blow of fate' occur. The timpani motif of the first movement is heard throughout the final section as the orchestra gets more and more frantic, as if it is struggling to avoid the inevitable.  There is a quiet agitation before the end, and the orchestra slowly dies away before a shattering, incredibly loud climax signals that all the energy expended in the struggle has been concentrated into one last 'big bang' that creates nothing but destroys all.

There is no wonder why Mahler's sixth is among the least performed of his works. Mahler's world of the Sixth Symphony, in the final cataclysmic climax, shows that it is all for naught. We cannot escape our fate.  The world of the Sixth Symphony can seem like a world of senseless struggle, bitterness, heartache and loss. For most people to reflect on this is not an easy thing.  It has been noted that on the night that he was to premiere the work Mahler paced backstage, wringing his hands and sobbing.  He did not authorize the symphony to be subtitled 'Tragic', but the work does fit the title.

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.

Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 2 In D Major

Haydn's employment by the rich and famous Esterhazy family at their hunting lodge palace deep in the forests of Hungary assured that he would have a ready-made audience,  and although Prince Esterhazy would have had other musicians visit on occasion, Haydn would be in relative isolation and as he wrote in his own words:

“My sovereign was satisfied with all my endeavors. I was assured of applause and, as head of an orchestra, was able to experiment, to find out what enhances and detracts from effect, in other words, to improve, add, delete, and try out. As I was shut off from the world, no one in my surroundings would vex and confuse me, and so I was destined for originality.”

The sheer amount of music Haydn composed in his thirty-odd year employment by the Prince is staggering. Symphonies, operas, chamber music, and concertos rolled off Haydn's pen one right after the other. The Cello Concerto No.2 also shows that Haydn had some top-notch players in his small symphony orchestra. Anton Kraft was a cellist in the Prince's employ and Haydn wrote the 2nd concerto to highlight his talents.  After the split up of the Prince's orchestra in 1790, Kraft went on to be regarded as the foremost master of the cello in Vienna, no mean feat in the city of music and musicians.

Haydn began composing the concerto in 1783, close to the time when Haydn himself had been startled to learn that while he may have felt isolated at the Esterhazy Palace,  the world had caught up with his music and he was a famous man. It was also about this time that he received the commission for the 'Paris' symphonies.

The concerto is in three movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  The first movement lacks the tension and contrast that Haydn's first movements can have. There is a leisure feeling to it,  and the orchestra never overshadows the soloist. Haydn' puts the spotlight firmly on the cellist.
II.Adagio - The cello shows off its ability to sing when a master is playing it.
III.Rondo (Allegro) -  The rondo is built out of the motif first heard in the cello, and like the first movement there is very little tension. The work ends simply, but charmingly.

The cello concerto is not one of Haydn's most difficult pieces, but the solo part is very challenging in the first and last movements as Haydn demands playing in double stops and octaves. The concerto is meant to be played by a virtuoso such as Anton Kraft, someone who can throw off the covert virtuosity of the piece and make the cello sing.

Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 1 In E Minor

The natural gifts of any musician need to be formed around a solid technique. The very few who are extremely gifted in composition also need plenty of room to develop their personal voice. Chopin was one of the few that was born with genius, and he also had the good fortune of having as his first professional piano teacher a man that understood his pupil's gift straight away. Wojciech Żywny was a Czech pianist, violinist and teacher that guided Chopin through the basics of music and piano practice but also gave the young boy plenty of opportunity to learn for himself and develop his already unique talents according to his own desires.  The boy soon passed the teacher in skill and knowledge as he absorbed everything rapidly.

Chopin studied at home until he was thirteen and then entered the Warsaw Lyceum, but he continued to study piano under Zywny until 1826. Chopin never forgot his first teacher and was ever grateful for not only what he had taught him, but what he didn't teach him.  In 1826 Chopin began a three year course of study with Józef Elsner, another teacher that recognized Chopin's gifts and allowed him to develop in his own way.  With the guidance and teaching of these two selfless men, Chopin was acknowledged as the best pianist in Warsaw by the time he was 15 and developed into who many musicians think is the greatest piano composer that ever lived.

Under Elsner's tutelage, Chopin composed two piano concertos when he was about 20 years old. The concerto in E minor was actually the second one written but it was the first one published, hence the designation as Concerto No. 1.  Chopin had already made his brilliant debut in Vienna in 1829 only three weeks after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory when he premiered his Piano Concerto No.2   in Warsaw later that same year, and the premiere of  Piano Concerto No.1 in 1830 in Warsaw during a farewell concert.

The star of both Chopin's concertos is quite naturally the piano.  Despite a long-held tradition that Chopin was not much of a composer for the orchestra, keeping in mind Chopin's spot-lighting the piano, the orchestration is neither too much nor too little. Chopin has the orchestra support the piano where it needs it, gently accompany it when it needs it, and be silent altogether when it doesn't need it.  The concertos, like any work of genius, are best judged within the confines of their own content and technique. Chopin was not trying to be formally perfect or heaven-storming like Beethoven. He was trying to express himself as best he could within his own genius. And in that task he was completely successful.

The first concerto is in three movements:
I.Allegro maestoso - Chopin always used the confines of sonata form in his own unique way. He has been criticized for his lack of skill in using the form, but he more than makes up for it by his sheer imagination and creativity. He uses unexpected modulations in this first movement and while this goes against 'classic' sonata form, it does make for interesting listening.  

II.Romance - Larghetto -  Chopin himself explained this movement in a letter to a friend:
“The Adagio of my new concerto is in E major. It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”

III.Rondo - Vivace - This movement is a tuneful Polish dance set in the traditional rondo form.

Chopin is one of the most original and unique composers that ever lived. That needs to be taken into consideration when listening to the piano concertos. His two piano teachers recognized his genius and did all they could to allow that genius to develop in its own way. The music that Chopin wrote serves as proof that his teachers knew what they were doing.

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.