Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Beethoven - Coriolan Overture

The plays of Shakespeare have inspired other playwrights and composers for many years.  Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Coriolanus, which is based on the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus.  Evidently, a story good enough for Shakespeare was good enough for the early 19th century Viennese playwright Heinrich von Collin. His play was entitled Coriolan, and even though the play had good actors cast, the play itself was not very good. It opened in 1802 and closed shortly after that.

It was the play by the Viennese playwright that Beethoven wrote the overture for, not the Shakespeare version of the story.  The story on which the overture is based:

The Roman General Coriolanus is banished from Rome after he throws a hissy fit over the citizens renouncing his bid to be elected counsel of Rome. In revenge, he goes over to the side of the enemies of Rome and plans to sack the city. He lays siege to the city and refuses to grant amnesty to his own people. In desperation, his wife and mother go to him and plead with him to spare his family. He settles in favor of his family which makes him a traitor to his allies, the enemies of Rome. In Shakespeare's play, Coriolanus' allies kill him while in the Collin play he commits suicide by falling on his sword.

The overture is written in a very distilled sonata form, with the first theme representing the uncompromising rage of Coriolanus while the second theme represents the pleadings from Coriolanus' mother and wife.  The pleadings are consumed by the repetition of the jagged rage of the first theme. The exposition continues to expound the moral dilemma Coriolanus is in, whether to continue to slay all of Rome, including his innocent family, or to spare them. When the main theme is heard at the beginning of the recapitulation, it is now beginning to waver in its resolve. The theme slowly crumbles away, the rage is gone, the heart of Coriolanus quits beating as the music dies with the dull thumps of pizzicato strings.

Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, and it cost him much in labor and time.  He never again wrote for the opera theater, but that doesn't mean his music couldn't be dramatic.  This overture shows that while Beethoven may not have been a natural composer for dramatic opera, he could write pure music that could convey drama without the use of any words. It was this kind of overture that lead to the symphonic poems of Liszt and others. It would not be a stretch at all to say that this overture could be called a symphonic poem, and it is a very good example of how Beethoven inspired the composers of the Romantic era.

The following video of Carlos Kleiber conducting the overture shows how orchestral conducting is just as much an art as a science. Kleiber translates the mood of the music through his actions, and the orchestra responds. The end of the work shows how much the audience was swept up by the music, for whether they were hypnotized, stunned or perhaps equal measures of both, the applause does not start until the music had long since stopped. That is the greatest tribute an audience can give a performer,  prolonged silence before the applause begins.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Haydn- Symphony No. 101 'Clock'

The dozen symphonies Haydn wrote for Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario that coaxed Haydn to come to London, represent Haydn at his best. They are the culmination of many years of composition and Haydn made sure that they were the finest he could produce,  twelve masterpieces of the symphonic form that were written in London and Vienna over a five year period, for performance at Salomon's concerts.   Haydn made two visits to London, each time an extended stay that saw him not only giving concerts but meeting all kinds of people and being lavishly entertained at parties. He was a celebrity, the most famous composer in Europe at the time. He was a composer with a huge reputation that he was not aware of, due to his being isolated in the Esterhazy palace in the woods of Hungary. But his music had been known by many, and the English were particularly taken with his music.

Symphony 101 begins with a dark, brooding introduction that has a sense of foreboding. But it ends up being one of Haydn's little jokes, as the music suddenly lightens in mood with the playing of the main theme.  The second theme is stated first in the violins, then the winds.  The development section has the themes being transformed and varied. The recapitulation leads to a short coda that rounds out the movement.

The second movement is where the nickname 'clock' come from, due to the pizzicato strings and staccato bassoon accompaniment sounding like the ticking of a clock. Haydn changes keys, expands and contracts the music and keeps interest in the music by the return of the 'clock' accompaniment, but this time it is played by the flutes and bassoons. After some more 'ticking' the movement draws to a quiet close.

The third movement  is marked minuet,  but it is far from the graceful dance of the French court. Haydn has written a heavily accented German peasant dance that merrily stomps its way until the more laid back trio, but the stomping appears here and there in the trio as well. Finally the peasant's happy foot stomping silences the trio, the dance is repeated and clomps to the end.

The finale's two themes are stated in the beginning, repeated, and then are woven through a development section until there is a fugal section that uses the first theme. The fugue works its way through the entire orchestra, and the movement ends with the first theme, and a short coda.

Handel - Organ Concerto In G Minor Opus 4, No. 1

Handel's fame during his life was based on his abilities as a performer as well as his success as a composer.  There is the legend of his participating in a contest with Domenico Scarlatti for bragging rights concerning their performing abilities. Tradition has it that while Scarlatti was chosen as the winner on the harpsichord, Handel was chosen as having even greater abilities on the organ. Scarlatti himself is thought to have said that Handel was the first person that ever showed him the potential of the organ.

Be that truth or fiction, Handel was definitely a virtuoso on the organ, which Handel decided to use to his advantage.  Opera in 18th century London was the rock concert of its day. With audiences dividing into different camps for different composers and singers,  opera companies would vie for the most popular singers to ensure that the box office would sell out. Handel's direct competition at the time was a rival opera company that had just hired the famous castrato singer Farinelli, who was setting the London opera scene on its ear. Handel himself tried to secure Farinelli's services for his opera company, but when he couldn't meet his price Farinelli's singing lured so many people away from Handel's operas that it threatened to bankrupt Handel.

Handel first played the G minor organ concerto in a performance of his choral work Alexander's Feast in 1736. It was shortly after this in 1737 that Handel suffered a stroke that temporarily cost him the use of his right hand and arm. He was recovering from this until May of the same year when he had a relapse which included a reduction in his mental capacity. All of the symptoms vanished after he took the waters at the spa town of Aachen in Germany.

The concerto begins with a slow, stately movement that has two main themes that are developed freely.with the organ answering the orchestra in decorated replies. There follows an allegro movement that continues the decorative organ responses to the orchestra with different themes. The short adagio leads to a minuet and two variations.

The Handel organ concertos are a milestone in the development of the keyboard concertos of the Classical and Romantic ages.  While there are many examples of concertos for violin and other instruments before Handel and Bach's time, it is Handel and Bach that set the stage for the concerto for solo keyboard and orchestra.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Paganini - Violin Concerto No. 5

Say the name Paganini to a modern music lover and the first impression would most likely be of a virtuoso violinist dazzling the the early 19th century audiences with his 'tricks of the trade'. To be sure, Paganini was a great showman who did barnyard imitations on his violin and other things to please the crowd. But he was much more than a showman. He was also consummate musician in the best sense of the term.  With no technical barriers to hinder his musical expression, he could give wing to his musical imagination and touch the hearts of such outstanding musicians as Schumann, Chopin and Schubert.  The slow movements of his violin concertos were less about the fireworks and more about the passionate musician Paganini could be. His tone could be heart-rending, and he could play as if he were an angel.

Many composers used the piano as an aid to composition in one way or the other. Paganini was not proficient on the piano. The instrument he used as a compositional aid was the guitar. This no doubt shows in his handling of the orchestra. And after all, his primary motive was to showcase the violin with a accompaniment that was as non-instrusive as possible.

The 5th Violin Concerto was written towards the end of his career, and only the solo part exists. The orchestral parts have been reconstructed from the solo part and are a very fair representation of how the concerto could have sounded. The reconstruction was done in 1959 by Frederico Mompellio and follows Paganini's style very well.

Like most of Paganini's concertos, the 5th is very operatic in nature. The first movement is the longest of all three, and it is written in the sonata form mold so prevalent in first movements of the era. After a drum roll and a few chords to get our attention,  the movement begins with a long orchestral introduction of the primary themes, with the first being borrowed from some of his other compositions.  The oboe is entrusted with a theme of its own later in the introduction and the orchestra repeats it which leads to the repeating of the primary theme. There is a rousing cadence and the theme is taken over by the violin. The music shifts back and for the from major to minor keys, and of course the violin is the 'star' of the concerto.   The violin plays with a simpler passion in the second movement as it decorates the music while subduing the technical fireworks.  The finale is a Paganini rondo as much as any he ever wrote as the tune keeps returning, is decorated, is spattered out with remarkable virtuosity in places and is gently stated in others. It is the perfect vehicle to show a violinist's technique and musicality. That is exactly what Paganini wrote it to do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

Bach held the position of music director at the court of  Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen early in his career. The Prince had a small orchestra of very good musicians and Bach created some of his best work during his five years  there.  The Prince sent Bach on a trip to Berlin to finalize the purchase of a new two-manual harpsichord and it was during this trip that Bach met the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig.

Bach played for the Margrave, who enjoyed Bach's music. Bach offered to send some of his compositions to the Margrave upon his return to Cöthen. For various reasons (including the death of his wife) Bach put off sending anything to the Margrave until two years later.  What prompted Bach to remember was the fact that Prince Leopold was engaged to a woman who did not care for music as much as the Prince did, and the rumor was that as soon as she was married she was going to use her influence on the Prince and have him disband his orchestra and release his musicians.

So Bach had six of his finest concertos bound together and he wrote a syrupy, pandering and overly-flattering dedication in French to the Margrave. He was basically sucking up to the Margrave looking for a job.  There's no evidence that the Margrave ever had them performed, musical historians doubt that the Margrave's court had enough fine musicians to play the concertos.  As for Bach, he moved on to Leipzig and spent the rest of his life there.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is a Concerto Grosso as the rest in the set. The soloists (concertino section) of the work  are harpsichord, transverse flute and violin. The rest of the orchestra (or ripieno section) consists of violins, violas,  violone and harpsichord. This work is unique in that the harpsichord participates in both sections of the orchestra, and it eventually plays a florid and highly decorated solo cadenza in the first movement.  It is thought that this concerto may have been written for the two-manual harpsichord Bach was sent to Berlin to purchase for Prince Leopold, and played by Bach as the soloist.

The first movement sees the three soloist dialogue with each other, with the harpsichord gradually garnering more of the spotlight with its music becoming more and more complex and decorated. The harpsichord becomes more and more demanding until the rest of the instruments give in and turn silent while the harpsichord gives us one of the best examples of Bach's prowess and improvising skills at the keyboard.  The second movement is a gentle song played by the soloists only. The third movement is a lively gigue that rounds out the work.

This concerto is one of the first examples of a keyboard instrument having a solo part that was originally written for it, which paved the way for the classical piano concertos of Mozart and others.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Goedicke - Koncertstück For Piano And Orchestra

During the Soviet reign of Russia, many composers and other artists got into trouble with the authorities because they refused to kow-tow to  'official' Soviet ideals about art.  These Soviet 'ideals' didn't reflect an actual aesthetic of art as much as what the big shots in charge liked or didn't like.  Sometimes it had nothing to do with the art of the accused, but everything to do with how well the powers that be thought they could control the person in question. Especially if, for whatever reason, the artist was disliked, it was likely to spell their doom.

After the Russian revolution of 1917, some notable artists did leave the country. In music, the names of Rachmaninoff the composer/pianist, Horowitz the pianist and Chaliapin, the Bass singer come to mind. Others chose to stay, some were done away with, some like Shostaskovich lived the rest of their lives in fear. But there were those who didn't get into trouble, mostly by not making waves.  Russian's a big country, and if a composer chose to remain somewhat anonymous, or didn't cause official displeasure at any rate.  Alexander Goedicke appears to have been a survivor, for he lived until 1957, the year he turned 80 years old.  He was much better known in Eastern Europe as a composer and performer on the piano and organ. He was well regarded for his interpretations of J.S. Bach's organ works.

Although Goedicke was a  professor at the Moscow Conservatory,  he had no formal training as a composer. He studied piano performance at the conservatory, but managed to win the Anton Rubinstein prize in  composition in 1900 when he was 23 years old.  He wrote 3 symphonies, concertos, many piano pieces, operas and other pieces, nearly a hundred opus numbers worth. He is mostly remembered for his Concert Etude for Trumpet.

The Koncertstück is a Romantic piece, steeped in the same harmonies and musical world as the music of Rachmaninoff and Glazunov. It opens with a gentle horn call, which is taken up by the soloist. The piano part is highly decorative. The main theme is finally heard in the piano, a melody that is big and strong, very Russian in character in my opinion. Another theme is stated by the orchestra, very similar to the preceding one. This is expanded by soloist and orchestra, snatches of preceding motifs are played. The piano decorates the orchestral renditions until the recapitulation of the first theme appears.  Bits and pieces of the second theme (and others) are heard, and after a  short cadenza, themes combine and play against each other until the finale begins with thundering chords in the piano and a noble theme heard in the brass. The piano writing is brilliant, the orchestra states its business with the piano grandly summing up and the piece comes to a close.

This piece is more than enough to whet my appetite to hear more of Goedicke's music.  Sadly, not much of it has been recorded and some that has been recorded is out of print.

Goedicke - Koncertstück For Piano And Orchestra

Monday, March 12, 2012

Liszt - Dante Symphony - Inferno

The full title of Liszt's work is A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy.  Liszt began sketching themes for this work as early as 1840. He worked on fragments of it until he laid it aside. In 1855 he took up the work again and completed almost all of it by the end of 1856.  Liszt played the piano version of the work to Wagner, who praised it but suggested some changes.

Liszt had originally conceived the work in three movements, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.  Wagner talked Liszt out of writing a symphonic work that portrayed paradise, as he thought no composer could do paradise justice. Liszt agreed, and retained the first two movements and added a Magnificat  in place of the Paradise movement.  The first performance was held in Dresden in 1857 with Liszt conducting, and it was a disaster. Lack of rehearsal was the cause, but Liszt didn't give up on the work and conducted it again in 1858.

The work has not been one of Liszt's most popular. It is an innovative work, as most of Liszt's compositions, and makes use of different forms, musical scales and harmonies. Along with his Faust Symphony (finished in 1854) these two works are more like groups of related tone poems than symphonies, at least in structure. The Faust Symphony to me is a more balanced work, the three sections having much more in common with each other in material and length. The Dante Symphony's strongest movement to me is the first one, Inferno.  The second movement is also very good, but the very short Magnificat that follows it tends to throw the last two thirds of the work out of balance to my ear. That doesn't mean the Magnificat isn't good, it most certainly is and is very innovative in Liszt's use of the whole tone scale. Perhaps if Liszt had kept to his original plan for a Paradise movement the work many have been even better.

Inferno begins with a depiction of the gates of hell itself with a slow introduction for brass. Liszt repeats the motif 4 times, each time slightly varied and the first three lines and the ninth line written on the gates of hell are written over the notes in the score:

Through me is the way to the sorrowful city,
Through me is the way to eternal sorrow,
Through me is the way among the lost people.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.

There is a chant recited by the trumpets and horns, the tempo quickens and the music makes a rapid descent that depicts Dante and Virgil descending into hell. As Dante goes through the circles of hell, the music evolves into waves of noise, violence and borderline hysteria, probably one reason why this work is none too popular; Liszt's depiction of hell gets pretty noisy in places.  After the second circle of hell, Liszt takers part of a previously heard motif and relates the story of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, two lovers that were contemporaries of Dante, who wrote their story into his Divine Comedy.  The pair were murdered by Francesca's husband (who was also Paolo's brother) before they could repent of their sin, thus they are doomed to hell for eternity, clutching each other in their misery.  Francesca tells Dante the tale before they are swept along the torrents of hell with the other lost souls, and Dante faints.  Liszt's music depicts the heartache and passion of the story in music that is in vivid contrast to what has gone before.

After what amounts to the lengthy interlude of the telling of the story of Francesca da Rimini,  Dante and Virgil resume their journey and the music returns to the inquietude of the beginning.  Snatches of music that has been heard before return, in a twisted recapitulation of the beginning. It isn't until these are heard that we realize Liszt has used his own version of sonata form for this movement.  The music picks up momentum as it hurtles through the circles of hell until the final horrible vision of Satan himself is seen chewing on the bodies of the damned.  The music builds into a loud, shrill climax, then with five chords the bottom falls out and the music ends.

I first hear this symphony more than thirty years ago, and Inferno has been one of my favorite pieces ever since, and it made me a ‘fan’ of Liszt. It was my introduction to Liszt besides the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 I heard Bugs Bunny play in the old cartoons. The power of the piece, the sheer visceral reaction from the loudness of the beginning and end coupled with the tenderness of the middle Francesca da Rimini section still sends chills up the back of my neck. And I do admit that it is the Inferno movement I listen to the most. The other two movements seem anti-climatic to me.  I do better to listen to them without the first part .

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Respighi - The Birds

Respighi was a musicologist as well as a composer, and he used the music of the past as inspiration for some of his compositions. The Birds is a suite of pieces that are based on various 18th century composers.  It is an attempt to depict (somewhat stylized) bird songs of the Dove, Hen, Nightingale and Cuckoo.  The composer uses the woodwind section of the orchestra for the bird imitations to good effect.  Respighi conducted the premiere of the work in Brazil in 1928.

The Birds consists of 5 movements - 
I. Prelude -  This prelude acts as a mini-overture for the rest of the work. The first-heard melody in the prelude is based on an opera aria by the Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini (1637-1710) , who was not only a composer but a virtuoso keyboardist, perhaps the greatest keyboard player of his generation.  He wrote operas, cantatas, many works for voice, and music for keyboard. He was an outstanding teacher and may have taught Domenico Scarlatti. He may have been the first composer to write three-movement sonatas for keyboard.  After this melody, there is a medley of the bird songs that comprise the rest of the work, and the Pasquini melody returns again to finish the prelude.

II. The Dove -  This movement is based on the music of French composer and lutenist Jacques de Gallot (ca.1625-1700). A solo oboe plays gently with the accompaniment of harp and strings. Trills in the strings imitate the flutter of wings while the melody is given to clarinet, then the solo violin.

III. The Hen - This is based on the music of the French harpsichordist, composer and theorist  Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  Rameau's music is seldom heard in the concert hall, but he was one of the great musicians of the Baroque era and the history of music in general. It was Rameau who codified what had been going on for a hundred years in music,  basing music on harmony instead of counterpoint. He was the culmination of the Baroque era in France, much like J.S. Bach was in Germany. The music starts with the clucking of a hen and before it is over the entire hen house is a stir.

IV. The Nightingale - The only thing known about the next melody is that it originated in England in the 18th century. Respighi orchestrates the gentle melody with the appropriate winds, and even has the solo horn gently sing the melody.

V. The Cuckoo - Another melody from Pasquini, this one from a harpsichord piece. The woodwinds imitate the cuckoo, the melody from the prelude is heard once again to round off the piece and the work is finished.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 5 'Emperor'

Composers have always been the leading force in music as far as innovation of techniques and improvements in instruments. That is not to discount the role that interpretive musicians play, but it seems to me that the innovations created by composers in the music they write forces in music notation, harmony, melody, rhythm, instrumental technique and even in the instruments themselves.  The piano is a good case in point.

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian master harpsichord builder, in about 1700.  The forerunner of the piano was the clavichord, an instrument that was capable of dynamic shading but wasn't sufficiently loud enough for concert use. The harpsichord was the instrument of choice in concert, and it could be made to play loud enough, but the variety of dynamics was also limited.  Enter Cristofori's pianoforte, (soft and loud), but this too was too delicate in tone for concert use. It took many improvements in the original before the birth of the massive concert grand piano we all know today.

The piano of Beethoven's time was closer to the original of Cristofori's than the modern piano. There were different makers and each one had their strengths and weaknesses, but they were all similar in that except for the strings and tuning pins, they were entirely made of wood. The wooden frames of Beethoven's pianos could not withstand the string tension of a modern grand, thus they did not have the sonority, volume,  or the durability. A strong player like Beethoven was forever breaking strings and hammers. That's not to say the instruments weren't expressive. Modern reproductions have shown how beautiful they could sound, but their voices were smaller. They could not be heard over a full orchestra, hence composition techniques resorted to a kind of 'call and answer' technique where the orchestra would state the main themes, then the piano would enter either solo or with a low volume accompaniment from the orchestra.

This compositional technique can be heard in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 at the very beginning.  The first movement begins with a loud chord from the orchestra that is answered by a piano cadenza. This happens three times before the exposition of the movement actually begins, and parts of the cadenzas are heard throughout the movement.  Beethoven had already placed a cadenza for the solo piano at the beginning of the 4th Piano Concerto , but in the 5th piano concerto the cadenzas are of a more dramatic nature.  After the orchestral exposition the soloist has his say about them. The themes are explored further in the development section and when the traditional place for a cadenza appears during the recapitulation, Beethoven makes it clear that there is to be no extemporizing by the soloist by writing as much in the score.  The entire first movement is dramatic and Beethoven at his most majestic. Beethoven also has the piano and orchestra play at the same time more frequently.  The entire concerto is almost written for a piano that didn't exist in Beethoven's time, for the coming of the iron-framed piano and resultant higher string tension and brilliance (not to mention volume) was years in the future.

The second movement is a beautiful Adagio, in direct contrast to the heroic first movement. The second movement segues right into a  rondo finale that is full of energy.  The theme of the rondo is heard repeatedly and developed along the way until a short duet between piano and timpani leads to the ending flourishes of piano and orchestra.

Beethoven's music in general and this concerto in particular is a good example of how a composer's talent, insight, ingenuity and creativity can change their art in many ways. The piano was never the same after Beethoven. It couldn't be. Beethoven demanded so much from his instruments and players that they both had to evolve and learn new ways and methods to express the music that he wrote.

Shostakovich - Piano Concerto No. 1

Shostakovich was the soloist at the premiere of this concerto, also known as Concerto For Piano And Trumpet because of the prominent part for the trumpet.  At the premiere, Shostakovich had the trumpet player sit next to the piano instead of with the rest of the orchestra, which is usually done in modern performances too.

The concerto was premiered in 1933, before Shostakovich's first official government censure.  The concerto is in 4 movements:
I.Allegretto - The piano and orchestra toss out the themes in this movement while the trumpet comments on them. The mood of the movement changes quickly. This is some of Shostakovich's most sarcastic, witty and pithy music and it is reminiscent of  the spontaneity of the first symphony. The movement ends with a dialogue with piano and trumpet.

II.Lento - This movement opens with a slow waltz-like melody. The piano enters,  and expands the waltz into a passionate outburst from the piano and orchestra.  After the climax fades, the strings re-enter gently, with the trumpet playing the waltz theme (with none of the sarcasm of the first movement) over the accompaniment of the orchestra.  The piano and orchestra combine for a heart-felt, gentle close to the movement.

III.Moderato - This movement is less than 2 minutes long, and is generally thought to act as an introduction to the final movement. It is played with weight and depth of tone by the strings, but the piano shines through the quasi-seriousness and the music segues into the finale...

IV.Allegro con brio - The tempo increases, the piano chatters away. In this movement the trumpet becomes more prominent, almost on a par with the piano. The music becomes manic in tempo and intensity. Shostakovich was fond of quoting motifs from his and other composers music. This movement makes reference to Haydn, Mahler, a Jewish folk song, and others. The cadenza for solo piano is derived from Beethoven's Rage Over A Lost  Penny for piano solo.  The music gets more and more animated, until the trumpet plays a repeated figure while the piano and orchestra pound out chords.  The entire ensemble joins together to bring the music to a rousing finish.

Shostakovich was in his late 20's when he wrote this concerto.  His music was everywhere, his fame and popularity assured. In this period of relative freedom to do what he pleased, he composed a concerto that wavers from giddy to serious, music that toys with the listener. After the fiasco instigated by his opera of 1936 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich's life would change, along with his music to a certain degree. But all that was to come. For the moment, Shostakovich wrote a concerto that thumbed its nose at tradition.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Brahms - Symphony No. 4

Johannes Brahms was one of the first master composers that was also a musicologist. He especially enjoyed studying and analyzing the works of the Baroque masters Handel and Bach. Brahms combined the forms from the Baroque era and the opulence of the Romantic era into some of his compositions, with the 4th symphony being a good example.

Brahms came late to symphony writing, as he was forty two when his first symphony was written and performed in 1876. He wrote three more by 1885 and although he lived another thirteen years, he wrote no more symphonies.  

His fourth symphony is the culmination of all he learned while writing the first three, and his knowledge and appreciation of the older forms of music. His instills the symphony with a range of powerful emotions that prove that no matter his conservative leanings, Brahms was a product of the Romantic era as much as any other composer.

The 4th symphony has four movements: 
I.Allegro non troppo - The strings begin with a restless two-note motive that appears throughout the movement. The restless nature of the music continues until the drama and intensity grow into a thundering final cadence and the movement comes to a tragic close.

II.Andante moderato - A  melancholy melody gently plays through the remains of the previous tragedy. It is not so much a restful respite, but a gentle reminder that things are what they are, and we must bear them with grace and dignity.

III.Allegro giocoso - A scherzo in all but name, Brahms rough-house humor comes through in this movement, notable for the of a triangle which was very unusual for a classical orchestrator like Brahms. The scherzo offers an extended break from seriousness, and considering what follows was much needed for the sake of contrast.

IV.Allegro energico e passionato - The tragedy of the first movement is extended in the finale. Brahms chose to cast the music in the form of a passacaglia, one of the Baroque forms that he had studied. The thirty two variations contained within the movement are based on a base line from a Bach cantata, Number 150 Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich,  (I Long To Be Near You, Lord). . Brahms states the harmonized bass line in woodwinds and brass to begin the movement:

The variations go through many guises, transformations and workings, but the bass line is always present in one form or another. Sometimes the bass line is felt more than heard, but it is there, like a truth of life that can be felt and heard but not explained.  Unlike the similar chaconne, a passacaglia can have the bass line move in any voice, not just the bass, and Brahms does just that. It is music that moves to the end without resolving of life. All we know is that we've been on a journey, and that just may be the important thing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sibelius - Symphony No. 1

A composer's first symphony is always special. Beethoven's 1st with its mystic introduction, Brahms 1st with it's rugged beginning, Shostakovich's precocious 1st. Sibelius' 1st is also special. It was written in 1898-99 and in its way says goodbye to the ways of the symphony of the 19th century. Sibelius was not radical in his ideas and techniques, but he did distill and reform the symphony of the 19th century and turned it into a new type of composition.

The first symphony contains many examples of composers and music that had influenced him. Beethoven in structure, Tchaikovsky in feeling and mood, folk song in melody (although no folk songs were used in the symphony), Bruckner in the use of the orchestra.  By the time of the symphony's writing, Sibelius was thirty-three years old, had given up his life-long dream of being a violin virtuoso, and was making his way as a composer and conductor.  He conducted the premiere of the work, but revised it after the performance. The revised version is the one most often played.

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Andante, ma non troppo - Allegro energico  - The many tempo indications gives the idea of a symphony that is in a state of change and development throughout. A clarinet plays softly over a drum roll to open the work, the strings enter and swiftly climb to a climax of sorts. This is the movement that some critics think shows an influence by Tchaikovsky.  But the rugged sound of Sibelius comes through any influence and propels the music to climax after climax, until the movement ends with a loud statement from the brass and low strings that tapers off into soft pizzicatos from the strings.

II. Andante (ma non troppo lento) - A sensitive and tuneful theme that sounds like a folk song. Sibelius treats it in his own unique way. Tender, yet still with the Nordic, rugged quality that is a hallmark of Sibelius' music.

III. Scherzo: Allegro - The theme of the scherzo is heard in the timpani as the upper strings pluck out the beat.  A boisterous scherzo that propels itself headlong until it hits the trio, where it slows and softens. After the trio, the scherzo resumes its rapid tempo until the timpani and brass bring the rushing music to an abrupt end.

IV. Finale: Andante - Allegro molto - Andante assai - Allegro molto come prima - Andante (ma non troppo) -  The clarinet melody of the first movement is transformed into a passionate theme. This movement is marked quasi una fantasia, and the frequent changes in tempo do give the movement a sense of a fantasia.  This finale brings all the loose ends of the symphony together and ties them up in a beautiful hymn-like tune gently played by the orchestra. Punctuated by the harp and timpani, this tune unwinds itself until the orchestra returns to a somewhat frantic pace that leads to a climax punctuated by the timpani, brass and strings. The hymn returns in the clarinet, the tune floats through the orchestra, gradually gets louder until the strings bring it to full bloom. A short coda has the orchestra grow in volume and the music comes rushing to an end, with soft pizzicatos in the strings like the closing of the first movement.

Schumann - Konzertstück For Four Horns And Orchestra

The modern orchestral horn had as its ancestor the valveless 'natural' horn that was used in the military and in hunting to signal the troops or hunters. The valveless horn has a limited range as changes in pitch can only be produced by lip pressure and inserting or removing the hand from the bell of the instrument. Inserting the hand in the bell of the instrument to change pitch was somewhat of a compromise as the tone quality of the instrument changed.  The first uses of the horn in the orchestra took into account its limitations and the parts written for them were fairly elementary - the notes of the triad chords, mostly the tonic.  The instrument could play in other keys, but that involved inserting or removing an extra length of tubing. These extra lengths of tubing were called 'crooks' and the composers that used the horn early on would write for the horn crooked in a specific key for an entire piece or movement, depending on the notes needed. Later on, composers would ask players to change the key of their horns within a movement, but this took time and had to be taken into consideration.

The valved horn was invented about 1815 and had advantages over the natural horn. It was a fully chromatic instrument, therefore crooks were no longer necessary and the hand in the bell technique was no longer used for pitch change. But as with all new things, it took time to be accepted. Despite the problems of the natural horn, some preferred its tone to the valved counterpart. Even in 1849 when Schumann wrote the Konzertstück For Four Horns And Orchestra it was not assured that orchestras used valved horns. Schumann himself wrote for a pair of valved horns and a pair of natural horns in the work, but four valved horns are usually used in a modern performance.

This work is seldom played, perhaps because it calls for four virtuoso horn players.

The work is in three movements with the 2nd and 3rd played without pause:
I. Lebhaft (Lively)  -  The orchestra begins with two loud chords, and the horn quartet comes in and plays a fanfare. The horns seldom have a rest as they have a spirited dialogue with the orchestra. Schumann was fond of the horn and utilizes all the qualities of expressivity of the instrument in this movement, from tenderness to forcefulness.

II. Romanze - The soft and gentle chords of the horns are the feature if this short movement, which leads directly to...

III. Sehr lebhaft (Very lively) - A return to the mood of the first movement as Schumann has the soloist imitate each other until they come together in a fine statement of horn harmony. The dialogue continues until the finale, when the orchestra and the horns join together and close the work.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sweelinck - Variations on Est-ce Mars

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a Dutch organist and composer. His father was also an organist. The family moved to Amsterdam shortly after Jan's birth, and his father took the position of organist at the Oude Kirk (Old Church) there. Jan also was organist at the same church after the death of his father.  Sweelinck was one of the first major keyboard players in Europe, and he helped establish the Northern German school of organ playing as exemplified by J.S. Bach.

He was one of the first organists to play fugues by giving the subject first, and have the other voices follow in succession. He also extended the use of the organ pedals and was one of the first to use the pedals for the voice in a fugue. He was also a very good teacher as many of his keyboard works were written for his students. His influence was widespread, as his music was known in England. He had earned the nickname 'The Orpheus Of Amsterdam' and the city fathers would bring guests from the surrounding area to hear him play.

He evidently spent his entire life in Amsterdam, but his expertise on organs was in high demand so he traveled inspecting and testing organs and giving advice on their construction.  After the Calvinist Reformation of the church in Amsterdam, organ music was no longer allowed during church service. Sweelinck would give impromptu recitals on the organ an hour before and an hour after church services. These impromptu recitals were very popular, as Sweelinck would play the popular tunes of the day and then improvise variations on the tune.

Sweelinck left about 70 compositions for keyboard, and a glimpse of his powers as an improviser can be heard in these pieces. The Variations on Est-ce Mars is one such example. The tune is French and was well-known at the time. The first line of the song roughly translates to: "Is that Mars, the great god of battles, that I see?" The words may not mean much to modern ears, but Sweelinck shows his imagination and skill in the seven variations on the tune.

As with all music that is so old, there are performance practices of the time that we know little about, if anything at all. Without knowing how these pieces were actually performed, especially in a time where improvisation was much more prevalent, any modern performance may be but an approximation. Be that as it may, the music of Sweelinck and other composers of so long ago can still be listened to and appreciated, especially if a sensitive musician is playing the music.  Music can be a powerful form of expression and can bridge the centuries.