Thursday, May 31, 2012

Franck - Organ Chorale No. 2 in B Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre (French for Dance Of Death) became a cultural symbol in late Medieval Europe.  Artists painted scenes of the dead escorting the living to the grave with a final dance of death.  The reality of a sudden and painful death were all too vivid after the horrors of the bubonic plague, the 'Black Death' epidemics of the 14th century.  It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the total population of Europe perished in a four-year period.

The notion that death was the fate of all, as stated in the Latin motto that accompanied many of the artworks depicting the Dance of Death, Momento Mori (remember you will die) expresses the sentiment that no matter a person's position in society or station in life, our fate is the same. While the notion of death has been romanticized to a certain degree over the years and even trivialized in cartoons and videos, the Dance of Death was very real to people of earlier times.

Many composers based compositions on the Dance Of Death, most notably Hector Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique and Franz Liszt in his Totentanz for piano and orchestra. Both of these composers used the 13th century Latin Hymn Dies Irae in their compositions as does Saint-Saëns.  Saint-Saëns' inspiration for his setting  was a poem written by Henri Cazalis, a French poet that got the idea for the poem from French folk legend:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence, 
 Striking with his heel a tomb, 
 Death at midnight plays a dance-tune, 
 Zig, zig, zig, on his violin. 
 The winter wind blows and the night is dark; 
 Moans are heard in the linden-trees. 
 Through the gloom, white skeletons pass, 
 Running and leaping in their shrouds. 
 Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking. 
 The bones of the dancers are heard to crack- 
 But hist! of a sudden they quit the round, 
 They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

Saint-Saëns wrote a version for voice and piano using Cazalis' poem in 1872, then wrote the orchestral version in 1874. It begins with the quiet tolling of midnight on the harp. Then Death is heard playing the Devil's Interval,  the  tritone dissonance of classical harmony, a diminished fifth, in this instance an A and an E-flat.  Saint-Saëns instructs the solo violinist to tune his E string down to an E-flat to accomplish this.  Saint-Saëns also uses the xylophone to depict the dancing skeletons. After much cavorting around, the oboe imitates the crowing of a rooster at dawn, the skeletons scurry back to their graves and Death ends his solo on the violin.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 9 'Jeunehomme'

Mozart wrote many of his 20-plus piano concertos for his own use, but the 9th concerto in E-flat was an exception. Tradition says he wrote it for a traveling French virtuoso, a woman (a rare thing in those days?) whose surname was Jeunehomme. The concerto was written in 1777 when Mozart was 21 years old and was premiered in the early part of the same year by her. There is nothing else known about her,  nothing about her career, or if her name was actually Jeunehomme.  She must have been good, for Mozart wrote one of his finest piano concertos for her. Mozart himself played the concerto later in the same year, and came back to it in later years to add some minor ornamentation to it.

The concerto is unique for other reasons also, as will be told in the analysis below. It was composed for strings, two oboes, two horns and soloist, but Mozart's skill in using the forces at hand makes it sound much larger than that. It is in the customary three movements:

I. Allegro - Mozart begins the concerto with a flourish for the orchestra, which is immediately answered by the solo piano, a novel idea at the time for the soloist usually didn't enter until the orchestra played an exposition of the themes. This sets the tone as the piano has other surprising entrances at different times as well as its traditional statements of the themes of the movement.

II. Andantino - This movement is written in C minor, the relative minor of the home key of E flat major.  Mozart wrote only five concertos that had middle movements in a minor key.  Mozart has the piano sing a sad, melancholy song while the orchestra accompanies.  It is like a scene from a tragic opera, one of Mozart's most heart-felt slow movements.

III. Rondo : Presto - The piano plays an extended solo at a brisk tempo, the orchestra replies.  Mozart keeps up the pace, with piano and orchestra trading comments and taking turns accompanying and soloing.  After a few episodes and return of the rondo theme,  the piano plays a short cadenza that leads to a gentle minuet. The minuet  is played and developed as a separate section until the piano plays another short cadenza that leads back to the theme of the rondo. The music runs helter-skelter to the conclusion.

A word about the performance in the video below. This was played on a copy of a piano like Mozart would have played on. To distinguish this kind of piano from the modern instrument it is sometimes referred to as a fortepiano.  The piano of Mozart's time was markedly different from the modern instrument. The keyboard was smaller, five octaves compared to seven and a third, the frame was wood compared to iron,  lighter hammers and action, different tone qualities in different parts of the keyboard, considerably less volume than a modern instrument. These qualities will be evident in the recording.  It gives the listener an idea of why concertos were written as they were. With an orchestra that could drown out the soloist the problem of balance between the two is crucial.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beethoven - 32 Variations On An Original Theme For Piano

Variation in music is perhaps as old as music itself. When the ancients played their tunes on flutes made of wood or the bone of animals (or even humans) I can't imagine those prehistoric musicians repeating their music the same way all the time. Why would they not use their imaginations any less than a modern day musician? Even a classically trained musician understands it is hardly possible to play a piece of music the same way twice. Sometimes the differences in playing are subtle, such as hanging onto a note a fraction longer or shorter than before, changing the volume or any of a myriad of ways to change a performance of a work.

Beethoven wrote 21 sets of variations for piano, but gave opus numbers to only 4 of them. The majority of the sets of variations were written on melodies from operas written by contemporary composers. The 32 Variations On An Original Theme does not have an opus number. It carries a WoO 80, number which is an abbreviation for 'without opus'.   Why Beethoven never gave the work an opus number is anyone's guess. He only gave opus numbers to compositions he deemed worthy of being in his official catalog of compositions. Perhaps the piece didn't meet his standards, but the work was published in his lifetime, and has been popular with pianists and audiences ever since.

The work begins with the theme, an eight-bar, simple melody over a descending bass:

The variations are different in character, mood, and difficulty of execution. This is a work for an accomplished pianist with a good range of technique.  The 32nd variation has some especially interesting rhythmic variation going on:

The right hand plays twenty two notes to the measure while the left hand alternates between twenty four and thirty notes to the measure.  These compound rhythms give the impression of an improvisation, and lead to what some consider a 33rd variation in paired sixteenth note slurs that are played off the beat. A short coda finishes the work, which averages about eleven minutes to play. Beethoven packs a lot of imagination and artistry in those few minutes, so much that the work can seem longer than it really is.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bruckner - Te Deum

Bruckner's sacred choral music output is considerable. As a devout Catholic, he took his works for the church very seriously and composed various settings of the Catholic Mass,  a Requiem, many sacred Motets and settings of Psalms. One of his greatest sacred works is the Te Deum,  begun in 1881 and worked on intermittently until its completion in 1884. The work is on a large scale, with chorus, 4 soloists, full orchestra and organ.

The first performance of the work was in 1885 when two pianos substituted for the orchestra. The first performance with full orchestra was in 1886, and it was performed over thirty times in Bruckner's lifetime. Bruckner died before he could finish the finale of his 9th symphony and it has been suggested (some scholars believe by Bruckner himself) that the Te Deum be used as the finale.  All of Bruckner's music can be considered sacred in the sense that as a devout Catholic he composed for the glory of God. But the Te Deum is so different in character (not to mention in key) that it isn't a good fit at all. Better to leave the 9th an incomplete masterpiece and the Te Deum separate works.

The text for Te Deum has been attributed to various early Christians. such as Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine.  It was written in the 4th century and is a hymn of praise. There were selections from the Psalms added to the hymn at a later date.  The hymn has been set by many composers and is still used in the Catholic church at various times.

The Te Deum is in 5 parts:
I - Te Deum - The hymn of praise to God opens with rhythmic driving music, a rhythm that appears throughout the piece. The choral writing is mostly in unison, with simple harmonies otherwise. It was as if Bruckner wanted to use the sheer force of voices singing in unison in the key of C major to represent the conviction of his own faith.

II - Te ergo quaesumus - With the plea for God's help, the music turns to a gentle song for the tenor with comments by the soloists. Th e chorus is silent, the orchestra a chamber ensemble.

III - Aeterna fac cum - The orchestra returns to full force with the help of the choir.

IV - Salvum fac populum tuum - The music returns in mood and melody to the second section as the tenor pleads for mercy. The chorus and orchestra return to the driving rhythm of the opening, and alternate between calm and quiet, and agitated counterpoint.

V -In te, Domine, speravi - The music brightens and the soloists have a dialog. Bruckner now shows his gift for counterpoint as the chorus sings a fugue of two songs, a double fugue, where the melodies weave in and out like a finely made basket. The music changes to a tune that is similar to the main theme of the slow movement of the 7th symphony, a work Bruckner composed at about the same time as the Te Deum. The music ends on a positive note of jubilation.

Despite the Te Deum being a sacred work , it has always seemed to me to be a dramatic work also, the closest thing Bruckner ever wrote to opera. The rhythmic drive of the opening is one of the most powerful openings of any work I remember hearing.  It is a classic in every sense of the word. The Latin text and English translation is included on the video:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Glière - Symphony No. 3 'Ilya Muromets'

Most countries or nationalities have their folk heroes. Many of them are based on historical figures, or are an amalgamation of more than one historical figure.  One of Russia's most famous folk heroes is Ilya Muromets. As with England and Europe, Russia had a  period of time where it was a feudal society, including the brave and heroic knight that fought the invader. These knights were called bogatyrs, and Ilya Muromets was one of the greatest. Glière used this folk tale of  Russia as his inspiration for his symphony.

Reinhold Glière was born in 1875 in Kiev. He studied violin in Kiev, later studied composition and orchestration with students of Rimsky-KorsakovMikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and Anton Arensky. He graduated from school in 1900 and began to teach as well as compose.  One of his private students was Sergei Prokofiev. His third symphony was written in 1911 and premiered in 1912.  After the Russian Revolution, Glière continued to teach and compose.  While his third symphony was definitely a modern work in 1911, his style remained more traditional than avant-garde, so he avoided the accusations of formalism (definition of which was : Music that Stalin didn't like) that threatened Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other Soviet-era composers. He taught at the Moscow Conservatory until 1941, did etho-musicology work to help develop an  Azerbaijani cultural opera, and continued to write cantatas and operas. He wrote no more symphonies after number three.

Glière was obviously a survivor. He created no waves, stayed pretty much within the musical confines that were officially approved of.  He became a living classic, and was derided by some of the more modern composers of Russia. But in his Third Symphony, he created a massive, multi-movement tone poem that is one of the most expansive pieces of music ever composed. He used a huge orchestra, 4 of each woodwind, 4 trumpets, 8 horns, and a wide variety of percussion. His themes are expansive, their development even more so. The Third Symphony is not a piece of music to rush through. It must unfold as a great story book, and it is a story book, written in music. Glière himself marked the score with the appropriate happenings of what the music depicts. The symphony is in 4 Tableaux:

Tableaux I  -  Wandering Pilgrims ; Muromets and Svygator 
The first movement is in two sections. The first section begins with slow, ominous music that depicts Ilya, crippled and unable to walk since birth. There appears some wandering pilgrims that have the gift of healing. They tell Ilya to stand up and walk, to go out and do mighty deeds, for he is no longer crippled.  The music moves ever so slowly through this section as it builds up to Ilya walking under his own power.

The second section concerns Ilya meeting the great bogatyr Svygator, a knight so big that his helmet parts the clouds as he rides on his giant horse. At first Ilya challenges him, but after talking together they become fast friends and Svygator give Ilya much advice and wisdom.  The music depicts wild adventures until they come across a huge stone coffin. Svygator lays in the coffin and as he breathes on Ilya for the last time and gives him all his strength and wisdom, a lid is put on the coffin and he dies. The death of Svygator is heard in a slow descent to the very depths of the orchestra.  The whole-tone scale is used to increase the horror and mystery of the episode.  Ilya then rides off on his horse to Kiev.

Tableaux II - Ilya And Nightingale The Robber 

Ilya is on his way to capture the dreaded monster Nightingale who hides in the shelter of the mighty oaks within the threatening forest. Nightingale kills mortals who dare to enter his forest by whistling a loud, shrieking noise that kills them. The orchestra strings play near the bridge of their instruments (sul ponticello) to give a glassy, unreal sound to represent Ilya's entrance into the dangerous forest.  Nightingale hears Ilya approach, and when he is near he lets loose with his screeching whistle, but to no affect. The orchestra depiction of Nightingale's whistle is some of the most creative orchestration Glière uses in a symphony noted for its imaginative orchestration.  Nightingale now tries to lure Ilya by unleashing his three voluptuous daughters who are not only beautiful but use gold, silver and pearls to try and lure him into the trap. Glière begins a slow unwinding of a Wagner-like sensuality to represent the three daughters. The music builds until Ilya resists their spell by shooting an arrow into the eye of Nightingale. The shrieking whistle is heard once more, but still has no affect on Ilya as he ties Nightingale to his horse and rides to Kiev to the court of Prince Vladimir The Mighty Sun.  The unearthly sound of the strings  heard once again as Ilya rides out of the forest.

Tableaux III - The Court Of Vladimir The Mighty Sun The mood changes at the court of Prince Vladimir The Mighty Sun, the popular ruler of Kiev. There is a festival being held for the boyars (nobles) and bogatyrs of his realm, complete with dancing maidens, musicians, the finest in food and drink. Ilya appears with Nightingale still tied to his horse. He releases Nightingale to let loose with his horrible whistle and all the guests of the festival fall to their knees in fear. Ilya takes his sword and promptly beheads Nightingale, thus showing to Prince Vladimir and the rest that he is worthy to be a bogatyr. Prince Vladimir accepts him as such and the festival continues. The music reflects the story line and paints a vivid picture for this, the shortest movement of the symphony, which can be thought of as the scherzo if in name and purpose if not in form.  This movement eases the tension of the past movements and prepares the listener for what is to come.

Tableaux IV - The Heroic Deeds  and  Petrification Of Ilya
This movement is in two sections, the first section depicts in music the battles fought by Ilya and the other Bogatyrs against invaders of all kinds, real and fictional. The eras of Russian history depicted in this music was a time of Christianity being adopted by Prince Vladimir with his baptism and the resultant battles against pagans trying to turn the country back to paganism.  Glière constructs some of the wildest fugues ever written for orchestra to represent  the battles. The orchestration bristles with sound and excitement as Ilya and the Bogatyrs defeat every enemy that challenges them.

The second section of the movement depicts the final defeat of the Bogatyrs and Ilya. After being victorious in so many battles, the Bogatyrs look to the heavens and ask if there is even a celestial army that can defeat them. The wandering pilgrims of the first movement that cured Ilya are in fact celestial beings themselves that have been watching the proceedings. The Bogatyrs have gone too far in their arrogance, and a celestial army comes down to earth and defeats the Bogatyrs.  While the celestial army defeats the others, Ilya tries to escape but as he runs he is turned to stone.  The orchestra reaches a shattering climax, a really grand racket at the moment Ilya turns to stone. Afterwards, the music turns slow and reflects about all that has happened. The chant that has been heard throughout the symphony in many guises is heard once more, this time in muted tones. The music reaches a minor climax, then slowly evaporates.

My first exposure to this symphony was in the early 1970's on a two long playing record set from the old Soviet Russia recording company Melodiya as distributed by Columbia records. I was smitten, literally wore the recording out with multiple plays. It was a recording that made cuts in the score and a few additions to the score instrumentation-wise from the conductor Nathan Rakhlin. It was a stunning recording despite the cuts and additions with a sound that was top-notch for the time.  There are now a few more recordings of the work,  the one in the accompanying video by the BBC Philharmonic and the conductor Edward Downes being my favorite.

Gustav Mahler, the great conductor/composer thought a symphony should be an entire world unto itself. Gliere's Symphony No. 3 Ilya Muromets is a symphony that meets Mahler's criterion. There are symphonies that are just as long or longer (it takes about eighty minutes) but there are few that are as expansive. It seems to last a lot longer than it actually does, and I mean that as a compliment. There is so much going on, the lines of music take time to develop and they draw you in with their expressiveness.

It is a masterpiece of  illustrative music that is more than picture painting. Of course the story line adds to the enjoyment of the piece,  but it can also stand alone as a symphony without the added story. It was as such that I first grew to love the work 40 years ago, and I return to it on occasion with no less wonder and appreciation of it.  This is one of my all time favorites. I thought it was more than fitting for it to be the subject of my 200th posting on this blog.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bruckner - String Quintet in F Major

Bruckner's fame as a composer rests solidly with his symphonies. As far as number of compositions, he composed more music for chorus and soloists, sacred and secular, than any other type. His piano compositions are few, most of them being teaching pieces. And despite being a world-renown organ virtuoso, he wrote very few pieces for the instrument. As for chamber music, he wrote a String Quartet in C Minor in 1862 and a String Quintet in F Major in 1879, plus an alternative movement for the quintet scherzo and a piece for piano and violin called Abendklänge (Evening Sounds).

The String quintet for two violins, two violas and cello was written at the suggestion of the contemporary Viennese violinist Joseph Hellmesberger.  Bruckner had already written five symphonies (seven if his two early efforts are counted) by the time he wrote the quintet. The premiere of the work was given in 1881 and was received very well. It was one of Bruckner's most performed works during his lifetime. The work is in 4 movements:
I. Gemäßigt (Moderato) -  Some commentators have called the quintet a symphony for five strings. While Bruckner doesn't deviate far from his usual style of composition and use of sonata form,  it is in the character of the themes that he uses which assures the listener that he understood the medium more than some would give him credit for. The first movement is a good example of this, for the themes he uses are more lyrical and have less of the rhythmic drive than some of the themes used in his symphonies.  As is often the case with Bruckner's first movements, he uses three themes or groups of themes. The first theme is broad, expressive music that lends itself to much development later. The second theme is lyrical, and the third theme has some of the rhythmic drive Bruckner was known for. The themes are treated to free modulation into many keys and are contrapuntally treated in the development. The movement ends with a coda that is one of the two places in the work where Bruckner lapses into symphonic composition,  but not to the point that the five stringed instruments  can't manage.
II. Scherzo: Schnell (Fast) -Trio: Langsamer (Slower)-  The character of the theme of the scherzo is  quirky and rhythmically alive, different enough from Bruckner's symphonic scherzo themes but still identifiable as Bruckner music.  This is the movement that gave Hellmesberger the most trouble technically, so Bruckner wrote an Intermezzo to replace it. Evidently the Intermezzo pleased Hellmesberger even less than the original scherzo, because when he finally got around to performing the work in 1885 it was with the original scherzo movement.
III. Adagio - This movement was the most popular of the quintet, and has been performed in transcription for string orchestra. There is no problem with Bruckner writing for five strings instead of an orchestra when it came to this kind of music. He was known for his slow movements in the symphonies. He had the depth of feeling that it takes to write slow movements, regardless of the number of instruments within the ensemble.
IV. Finale: Lebhaft bewegt  (Very animated) -  The finale is in Brucknerian sonata form. The themes are stated and developed in true Bruckner fashion. It is in the final few bars that sees the music attempt symphonic sonority. Considering Bruckner's main interest was in the composition of symphonies, it is interesting that the quintet is written as well as it is. Most if it is in a true chamber music mood, and although the final bars are a little much, that shouldn't distract from the composition as a whole.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sarasate - Carmen Fantasy

The Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate was one of  the premiere virtuosos of his day, known for his purity of tone and elegance of performance. Many middle and late 19th century composers dedicated works to him, such as Camille Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3 and his Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. He was also a talented composer and wrote many pieces for violin and orchestra, mainly virtuosic pieces that utilized themes from popular operas of the time, such as the Carmen Fantasy.

There is something about Spain and its music that has attracted and inspired many French composers. As Spain and France are next to each other, perhaps it is the close proximity and inevitable mingling of cultures and languages that accounts for this. Whatever the reasons, Bizet is in a long line of French composers that wrote music on Spanish themes. Georges Bizet's opera Carmen opened in  Paris in 1874 and was a failure. Critics panned it and the audience, while initially receptive, grew colder as the opera progressed. During its initial run, the composer Bizet died suddenly of a heart attack at age 36. The opera played a total of 48 performances in its first production, then was not heard again in Paris until 1883.  The failure of the opera in its initial run has been attributed to the realism of it and the loose morals of some of the characters in it. Tchaikovsky saw the opera in a performance during its initial run and thought it a work of genius.

The following year there was a production in Vienna and it met with more success. Brahms and Wagner saw it in Vienna and they both agreed with Tchaikovsky's assessment. After the Vienna production, the opera slowly began to gain momentum and performances until it became a world-wide success at the turn of the century and remains a staple of the opera repertoire.

Sarasate wrote his Carmen Fantasy in 1883, just as the opera was beginning to gain in popularity. It is in five sections, four dances and an interlude:
Aragonaise - A Spanish dance from the Aragon region, in triple time.
 Habanera- Originally a dance from Cuba, it was brought to pain by sailors.
 Seguidilla - An old Castillian folk song and dance form in triple time.
 Gypsy Dance

The Carmen Fantasy is a very technically demanding. It asks much of the violinist in the way of pure technique, but also it is a test of the soloists musicianship. It also exists in a version for piano and violin and is often played in violin competitions.