Friday, April 27, 2012

Beethoven - Violin Concerto

There are generally two kinds of concertos for violin. Those that are written by violin virtuosos themselves such as ones by Paganini, and that are showcases for their own abilities, and concertos that are written by non-virtuosos. Those written by composers who were not also violin virtuosos saw the composer relying on a violinist for at least some technical advice.

Although Beethoven played the violin in the court opera orchestra in Bonn for four years in his youth and understood the complexities of writing for the instrument,  he was far from a virtuoso.  Historians think the violinist Franz Clement, the concertmaster and leader of the orchestra that played the first performances of Beethoven's opera Leonora (and also gave Beethoven some advice on)  was Beethoven's go-to man for any technical help.  How much (if any) assistance Beethoven needed  is not known, but Clement was the soloist at the 1806 premiere of the concerto.

Tradition has it that the solo part wasn't finished in time for the performance and Clement had to sight-read parts of it at the performance itself.  The concert was a benefit concert for Clement, and Beethoven himself conducted the concerto with Clement as soloist.  The concerto was not a success, and wasn't heard again until 1844 when the 12 year-old violin prodigy Joseph Joachim revived it and played it with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the orchestra. Since then it has been a staple of the repertoire.

The concerto begins with a very long orchestral introduction, one of the longest orchestral beginnings of any concerto. A solo timpani taps five times in a rhythm which in typical Beethoven fashion returns in many guises throughout the movement. The violin finally enters, and remains in the spotlight for the rest of the movement. This first movement is one of the most expansive ones Beethoven ever wrote, and the lyrical violin writing may be a nod to the first soloist, because Clement was known for his lyrical style of performing.  Beethoven left no cadenza, there have been many written by composer/violinists. The cadenza used in the present recording is by Fritz Kreisler.

The second movement remains lyrical in tone and consists of a gentle melody with some simple variations. The orchestra carries the melody while the violin day-dreams and carries on a running commentary. It is music of great peace,  music that moves very gracefully and calmly. Time itself seems to slow down until the orchestra makes an outburst, and the solo violin escorts the finale's dance-like rondo tune.  The violin part increases in difficulty and brilliance with each episode, until the cadenza and final statement of the theme.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Beethoven - Symphony No. 2 In D Major

In Beethoven's day, most music was taught by private instruction. Beethoven had the good fortune to be taught by some of the finest teachers of his era. The first of his teachers that we know about besides his father is Christian Gottlieb Neefe, who thought much of his young student and instilled in him a love for Bach by having Beethoven learn how to play Bach's set of preludes and fugues in  The Well Tempered Clavier.  Beethoven also studied with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an acknowledged master of counterpoint.  Joseph Haydn taught Beethoven for two years and their relationship was strained. Haydn called Beethoven 'The Great Mogul' and Beethoven refused to be acknowledged as a Haydn pupil.  Antonio Salieri also taught Beethoven about vocal composition, especially for opera.

But perhaps the best teacher Beethoven had was experience. At age 14 he was named organist for the Choir of Maximillian Franz, and he also played the violin well enough to be in t he orchestra for the Bonn Opera house for four seasons.  His time as an orchestral musician was no doubt of the utmost usefulness to the budding composer as he rehearsed and played through the operas of Mozart and many others.

Beethoven used that experience to good effect in his first symphony, written in 1799 and first performed in 1800 at a concert that also saw the premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto and Septet.  This was Beethoven's initial concert of works in Vienna. His Second Symphony followed closely behind, as he began writing it in 1800 and finished it in 1802.

He wrote much of the symphony while staying in Heiligenstadt, where he came to terms with his increasing hearing difficulties. The prospects of his growing totally deaf were a hard blow to overcome for Beethoven. He was at the point of taking his own life.  But he came to terms with it and went on to take a different path in his compositions. In some ways, the second symphony was the very beginning of this new path, and considering the state of his mind during some of his stay in Heiligenstadt, the work is remarkable for its confidence and playfulness.

The symphony is in 4 movements:

1) Adagio molto : Allegro con brio - The symphony begins with an Introduction that makes its way to the opening theme, with an outburst in D minor thrown in for good measure.  The first theme is full of energy and spirit with a rapid connecting piece to the second theme. The connecting music that leads to the recapitulation has some of the syncopated off-beat accents that Beethoven was fond of. The development sees Beethoven modulating and varying both the main themes and their accompaniments. The recapitulation is condensed considerably and has a coda added to it.

2) Larghetto -  The second movement is in sonata form, and contains some of Beethoven's most lyrical writing  for the orchestra. It is also rather long for a 'slow' movement, but the sheer beauty of the music and the way it is presented makes it seem shorter than it is.

3) Scherzo : Allegro -  Beethoven's first use of the term 'scherzo' in his symphonies. This movement is a foreshadowing of the originality and rhythmic vitality of the Beethoven that is to come in the later symphonies. The contrast between loud and soft 'makes' the joke in the scherzo and plays a part in the trio also, along with the chattering bassoons and other woodwinds. The scherzo moves briskly along, and seems like it just got started before it is over.

4) Allegro molto -   This is the movement that gave Beethoven's contemporary audiences the most problem. The orchestra begins the movement with a huge 'dip' from G down 12 notes to C.
This was looked upon at the time as bizarre at best and downright crude at worst. There has been all kinds of interpretations concerning this re-occurring rondo theme, even to a modern-day idea that Beethoven was depicting the noises he made due to his poor digestion, that it is a hiccup, belch, or (heaven forbid in a piece of 'serious' music) a fart.  Or it could just have been an attention-getter to make the listeners of the day sit up and take notice. Kind of like a jab in the side to get one's attention. Be that as it may, the entire movement was something of a novelty of the time.

Beethoven was a composer that was always growing, always evolving.  The second symphony is not a revolutionary symphony as was the third, but it was markedly different in tone and expression if not in form. Indeed, the second symphony is as far as Beethoven could go within the confines of the form as known by Haydn and Mozart. To go further, he had to add and expand on the form and technique of the symphony until he made it his own.

A word about the recording in the video. The Academy Of Ancient Music was one of the first organizations that began playing period music on instruments and with methods of the period. They made a name first by exploring medieval and renaissance music, instruments and performing practices. Under their director Christopher Hogwood, they branched out into the Classical era and have given new insight on how the music of Beethoven and other composers sounded in their time. In this recording, all the strings are strung with gut strings instead of wire, the horns are natural horns (valveless), the woodwinds have fewer keys,  tympani have real hide drum heads, the music is played at the standard pitch of the time (lower than modern pitch). As there was no baton-wielding conductor at the time of Beethoven's Second Symphony, either the concertmaster (leader of the first violins), or a leader at the piano or harpsichord lead the orchestra, sometimes both of them shared the duties. So if you can hear a piano in some places of the symphony, it is Mr. Hogwood leading the orchestra per early 19th century performance practice.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bruch - Symphony No. 1

Max Bruch's music aesthetics put him squarely in the camp of Brahms and other so-called conservative composers.  But the fact that a composer is or isn't conservative only refers to their style and content of their compositions. Like many other labels, it groups people into a readily identified unit that by its very nature is broad and somewhat prejudicial.

It's not that the conservative label doesn't fit Bruch, for it certainly does. But the conservative label doesn't mean that Bruch was a mediocre composer. On the contrary, he had a wonderful melodic gift and he was a master of orchestration,  as his popular Violin Concerto No. 1 and Scottish Fantasy For Violin and Orchestra readily attest.  So it's good to try and go further than just the labels that are put on people. This is pretty good advice for all facets of life, not just music. When we acquiesce to a label given to someone, we cease to think, discover and explore about that person for ourselves. We are in essence taking someone else's opinion without question or examination, an opinion arrived at through their own particular frames of reference, knowledge, taste, and yes, prejudice.

Bruch's Symphony No. 1 in E -flat was composed in 1867 and dedicated to Johannes Brahms. It is in the traditional 4 movements:
1) Allegro maestoso -  Bruch was a master of sonata form and used it in his own way to express himself musically.  The first movement is in sonata form and opens with a grand theme stated by bassoons and horn:
This is not the initial theme of the exposition proper. It is a type of introduction to the initial theme which follows shortly after. After the initial theme is heard, the introductory theme is restated, and the second theme is played. At the end of the second theme, parts of the introduction appear again and the exposition continues with the repeating of the initial and secondary themes. The introduction also plays a large part in the development section as it plays off and against the other themes until the theme itself is varied and leads directly into the recapitulation of the other two themes of the first movement. Bruch's personalized use of sonata form shows why the form was so prevalent for so long in classical music. It is a way to give form and direction to a piece of music while still maintaining a semblance of allowable variation in the use of the form itself to suit the music and the composer.

2) Scherzo. Presto -  This scherzo scurries along somewhat like the music of Mendelssohn, a composer that Bruch emulated in his popular Violin Concerto.

3) Quasi fantasia. Grave -  A heart-felt slow movement, somber in orchestration.

4) Finale. Allegro guerriero -  The Finale begins without pause and is marked 'guerriero' - war-like or militarily. Not so much as a struggle as between two enemies in war, but as a swaggering, self-confident military unit passing by on galloping horses .


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rust - Sonata For Viola

Friedrich Rust  was a German composer that was a contemporary of Haydn. By his own admission he could play the first part of J.S. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier by the time he was sixteen. He studied music with two of Bach's sons, Wilhelm Friedrich and Carl Philip Emmanuel and finished his studies in Italy.

He settled in Dessau and was the focal point of the musical life there. He organized concerts, was instrumental in starting a theater there and was honored for his work within the community when he was appointed court musical director. He was well-known in his day as a composer as well as a performer. He composed in most forms except the symphony.  He was also a very influential teacher. He was the subject of a minor scandal years after his death when his grandson Wilhelm Rust,  a noted and respected musician and music editor (he was the editor of 26 volumes of the collected works of J.S. Bach, the Bach-Gesellschaft) brought out an edition of his grandfather's piano sonatas. He credited his grandfather with writing music that was well ahead of his time that was very influential in bringing about the Romantic era. Wilhelm Rust was the editor of this edition of his grandfather's works, and after creating quite a stir in the music world it was found that Wilhelm had made numerous additions of his own to his grandfather's works to make them look like they really were ahead of their time.

Whatever the reasons for the grandson to play footloose and fancy free with his grandfather's music, it was unnecessary. Friedrich Rust was a good composer and craftsman and did carry a certain amount of influence in the music he wrote. On occasion he wrote music for instruments out of fashion such as the clavichord, viola d'amore, harp, lute and even the nail violin. He also wrote for the usual instruments but in odd groupings. The Viola Sonata is a case in point. Sonatas written for violas are scarce enough, but one written for the viola accompanied by a cello and two horns is quite unique.

The sonata is in three movements, with the first being in the traditional sonata form.  The second movement is a classical andante, with a refined theme. The finale is a rondo with Rust showing good contrast within the episodes between the restatements of the rondo theme.

Although this sonata is far from earth-shattering in its originality, it is well written and the unique sonority of the viola, cello and two horns make it an interesting piece.