Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sibelius - Finlandia

The history of Finland has seen the country dominated by Sweden early on and Russia in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.  With the coming of the nationalist movement in the early 20th century,  Russia used every means to halt the progress of freedom for the Finnish people. Censorship of the theater and concerts was heavy, and it was in this atmosphere that Sibelius wrote his tone poem Finlandia.

It was originally written as part of a set of pieces that accompanied a visual presentation of Finnish history.  The original version was written in 1899 and Sibelius revised it into its final form in 1900. The piece served as a rallying cry for the Finnish people, much as La Marseillaise was for the French. To prevent the Russian censors from prohibiting the performance of Finlandia, the piece would be renamed before the programs for the concert were printed.

The music opens with heavy brass chords, and music that depicts the human struggle for freedom of the Finns.  The great hymn tune that follows the bombast has all the makings of a folk tune, but in fact there are no folk tunes in Finlandia. All of the music is original with Sibelius. The hymn tune was arranged by Sibelius as a separate piece to be sung as a hymn, and is in many Christian churches hymnals as the hymn titled 'Be Still My Soul'.

Evidently Sibelius came to detest Finlandia as it became his most popular composition at the expense of other more substantial works. But it has everything in it to appeal to a broad audience; brilliant and colorful orchestration, a grand tune that can be sung, and a message of hope and freedom that is universal.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chausson - Concerto For Piano, Violin and String Quartet

What identifies the genre of a classical music piece is not always dependent on the number of performers. For example, concertos for solo piano exist that were written by Bach and Alkan, compositions that were called 'concertos' on account of their style of composition, a style that attempts to portray an accompaniment and a more florid solo part all with the same instrument, sometimes at the same time.

So while the number of instruments for the Concerto For Piano, Violin and String Quartet is six, Chausson didn't call it a sextet, but a concerto. And rightly so, for the piano and solo violin parts are written in a different style than the string quartet.  Their parts are more solo in nature while the quartet is more accompaniment in nature. A small thing perhaps, and perhaps splitting hairs, but Chausson was nothing if not a meticulous composer. He felt the distinction was important enough to name his piece the way he did, and it does give the listener a heads up to the originality and quality of the music about to be heard.

Ernest Chausson was born into a comfortable middle class family in France and studied music with the French  opera composer Jules Massenet. He was influenced by Massenet in his early compositions and by Cesar Franck in his later ones. He was not a prolific composer, leaving only 39 opus numbered compositions. Writing was long and painful for him, but the quality  of his compositions was always high.  He  was killed instantly at the age of 44 in 1899 after he struck a brick wall while riding his bicycle.

The concerto is in 4 movements:
I. Décidé  - The tempo designation of the first movement can be translated from the French as decide, make a choice.  The movement begins with a three note motive stated by the piano alone,  D,A,E. This small germ of an idea is the core of the entire composition.  Motives are built from these three tones in differing textures in the first movement. The movement grows like an exotic plant around the roots of the three tones.
II. Sicilienne - Based on the first movement's theme, this is Chausson's variation on an Italian dance form.
III. Grave -  A solemn and serious movement.
IV.Très animé  - A very lively and animated movement that is in stark contrast to the preceding one.

Chausson was an original. He managed to live long enough to give the world a handful of masterpieces. He is a composer that will probably never be mainstream or performed as much as other composers that lived longer and composed more pieces, but what we do have are gems to be treasured and enjoyed.

 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Franck - Symphonic Variations For Piano and Orchestra

Like most of the compositions Cesar Franck wrote in the last decade of his life, the Symphonic Variations were coldly received.  It wasn't until after his death in 1890 that his compositions became more well known and popular, mainly due to the efforts of his devoted students.

But the audience at the premiere of the Symphonic Variations were probably confused by what they actually heard. Far from a classic set of variations on a theme, Franck wrote a different and subtle type of work. The actual variations are small in number and there is much that goes on before and after.

The work is in three distinct sections played without break. The first section is in the key of F-sharp minor and begins with severe and dramatic octaves in the strings, to which the piano answers in a gentle manner. This beginning is similar to the beginning of Beethoven's slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 4, and whether Franck intended it as a homage to Beethoven or it is a mere coincidence, the piano soon becomes an equal with the orchestra and after some dialog between them the piano introduces the theme that is the object of the variations.

There are six (some say more) variations that are seamlessly woven together with piano and orchestra. Everything moves so smoothly, that the variations are almost over before the listener knows it, and the piano enters into a trance of gentle music with the orchestra quietly commenting. The piano and orchestra end up in a sleep-walking dialog, until the piano throws off some sparkling trills that lead the music to the key of F-sharp major. With the change in key comes a change in mood as the piano scampers in a graceful dance with the orchestra. As the orchestra and piano remind each other of the beginning with snippets of the opening theme in major mode, the music ends.

The Symphonic Variations is a piece that is one of the most perfect ever written for piano and orchestra. It is short, but there is so much happening that it should take longer than the average time of 15 minutes to play it.  It is not possible to think about it being for any other combination of instruments (although there is a version for two pianos, it was probably made for rehearsal use or to allow performance when no orchestra is available).  The piano writing is for a virtuoso, but never at the expense of the musical content. Franck has written a piece where virtuosity is for the good of the whole, not an end in itself.

 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

Brahms was a very self-critical composer. He revised and edited his compositions, some of them for years, until they met his high standards. and those compositions that he couldn't refine to his liking were destroyed. He claimed to have destroyed twenty string quartets before he wrote one that met his standards.

The beginnings of the first piano concerto are also an example of his drive for perfection. He began the work as a sonata for two pianos,  then began to revise it as a symphony. For whatever the reasons (as his new friend Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and composer encouraged him) Brahms again converted the music, this time to a piano concerto.

Brahms doted on the score, refining and editing it over and over again. Brahms had heard Beethoven's 9th Symphony for the first time in 1854 and it had influenced him deeply. His drive to create a composition worthy of the tradition created by Beethoven and the other masters he revered while at the same time utilizing his progressive ideas made the work on the concerto last many years. Finally in 1859 Brahms played the premiere of the work with his friend Joachim at the podium.  A few days after this performance it had its premiere at Leipzig with Brahms again at the piano but with a different conductor at the podium. The critics were harsh in their appraisal:

“This work … cannot give pleasure. Save its serious intention, it has nothing to offer but waste, barren dreariness,” said one critic, with another saying, “The work, with all its serious striving, its rejection of triviality, its skilled instrumentation, seemed difficult to understand, even dry, and in parts eminently fatiguing.”  And it fared no better with the audience, especially at the Leipzig performance. Brahms described the scene in a letter to Joachim about the Leipzig performance:

“Nor reaction at all to the first and second movements. At the end, three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap, whereupon a clear hissing from all sides quickly put an end to any such demonstration … I am only experimenting and feeling my way, all the same, the hissing was rather too much."


An audience's appreciation of a work is most often gauged by the amount of applause. That also works in reverse, as when as audience 'sits on their hands' (sometimes literally as well as figuratively) it can be hard for a composer or performer to bear. Boos and cat-calls are worse, but an audience hissing is the ultimate negative reaction. I've been present in an audience when it has happened, and it can send a chill down your spine.  Brahms was 25 years old when he experienced this, and it made Brahms all the more cautious about his works, but he also resolved to work even harder to perfect his craft. He vowed to rewrite the work, but all he did was correct a few minor details. Despite the negativity shown the work at the premiers, Brahms judgement proved correct. It is now regarded as a classic and is a staple of the repertoire, although it took years for it to happen. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Maestoso - The menacing and fierce trills that open this concerto are one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the repertoire.  Brahms has begun the work with music that is brutally confident, sounds that grab our attention and are portents of things to come.  From the treatment of themes to the entrance of the soloist,  Brahms finds his own way from 'point A to point B', and manages to use the inspiration of Beethoven's ninth symphony to communicate his own ideas in his own way.  Looking at this movement in an historical perspective,  we can see just how innovative Brahms was. He was at 25 years old (and for all of his career) not only an upholder of tradition, but an innovator in ways that are not always apparent (or obvious) to the listener. His phrase structure, use of sonata form and rhythm, lead to a type of virtuosity that isn't always apparent (or obvious) either. It is a virtuosity that stresses the making of music, of expression, with very few purely technical fireworks. Everything works towards the musical whole.

II. Adagio - This movement is usually thought of as a tribute to the Schumanns, both Robert and Clara.  Robert had died in an insane asylum in 1856 and Brahms always had deep feelings for Clara. Again, there is no mere display of pianism, but music that in turn is passionate, dramatic, rhapsodic. Near the end is a chain of trills for the piano that go up the keyboard that is resolved by the slow, gentle ending of the movement.

III.Rondo: Allegro non troppo -  The piano begins with what always sounds to me like a foot-heavy dance, not really a peasant dance but not anywhere near a sophisticated one. The dreamy tune that endures brings a needed contrast. The orchestra plays through a short fugue that shows Brahms' already considerable contrapuntal skills.  The rondo plays itself out until the cadenza, after which Brahms changes the mood to a 'maestoso' but unlike the dark and foreboding maestoso of the first movement this maestoso is bright, confident, jubilant, and marches its way to the end.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Bach - Concerto For Oboe d'amore In A Major

The musical world of J.S. Bach was one of transition.  The emphasis had been slowly changing from counterpoint and polyphony to harmonically accompanied melody, or monody.  Bach's own sons were leaders in the changes in music, while Bach was seen as somewhat old-fashioned.  It's not that the elder Bach was against the newer music as it was that his interest still lay in the possibilities of counterpoint and polyphony.

Of course not all of Bach's music was strictly contrapuntal.  The Concerto For Oboe d'Amore  has the solo instrument play a melody with as much as against the string parts.  Like all of Bach's concertos, there exists different versions of the work for different instruments. This concerto also exists in the form of a harpsichord concerto, but unlike most of Bach's other concertos it was not originally written for violin. There has been research done by Sir Donald Tovey proving that the concerto was originally written for the oboe d'amore.  The harpsichord version is the only one extant, but with the evidence supplied by Tovey the solo part was reconstructed from the harpsichord part.

Bach's time was also one of transition pertaining to musical instruments. The viola family existed alongside the violin family, the recorder alongside the transverse flute, the lute was still being played by some musicians, and even the early form of the piano existed alongside the harpsichord and clavichord. The oboe d'amore is a member of the double reed oboe family, midway in range between the oboe and the cor anglais. It was invented in the early 17th century.  Its tone is not as assertive as the oboe. Bach was fond of the instrument as he used it in his cantatas besides this concerto. The instrument fell out of use shortly after Bach's time but was revived by Romantic era composers such as Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel.

The concerto for oboe d'amore has the traditional three movements:

I. Allegro - Bach has the full string orchestra play the opening of the concerto. The oboe d'amore adds its melodic statements in between the returning motive played by the strings. The movement has the grace and balance of a dance between the two.
II. Allegretto -  The difference between the opening movement and this one is like day and night. Where the mood was carefree and light, it has now turned sad and melancholic. The oboe d'amore plays one of Bach's most emotional, heart-felt tunes while being accompanied by a chromatic descent in the bass.
III. Allegro ma non tanto - The finale returns to the feelings of a dance and happier times.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bruckner - Symphony No. 5

The time in Bruckner's life when the 5th symphony was composed was a troubled one. He had just suffered the humiliation of the first performance of his 3rd Symphony in D Minor. He had to conduct the symphony himself at the last minute because of the untimely death of the conductor Johann von Herbeck. A combination of factors contributed to the failure of the 3rd symphony. Evidently Bruckner was not the best of conductors, and the fact that Bruckner had dedicated the 3rd symphony to Richard Wagner made Bruckner a part of the Brahms/Wagner controversy. By the time the 3rd Symphony had been played on that night, most of the Viennese audience had left and the orchestra members scurried off the stage leaving Bruckner alone on the podium.

It wasn't the first or last time Bruckner experienced negativity towards his music.  Even after the success of his 7th Symphony in E Major his next symphony, the 8th Symphony in C Minor was rejected as unintelligible by one of his most ardent champions, the conductor Herman Levi.  While these happenings affected Bruckner, they did not affect him to the point of being unable to compose. His ability to keep composing amid so much rejection speaks volumes about his determination and genius. It has been said that genius is mostly the ability to work hard no matter the circumstances. That definition surely fits Bruckner, for he worked into his forties taking instruction in harmony and counterpoint and worked so hard that even his task-master teacher told him to not work so hard.

But Bruckner brought more to his compositions than hard work. He had a rare mix of love of tradition along with the ability to work within that tradition to develop his own style, and a rare ability of having a sense of mystery and awe in his work that isn't evident on the written page. He brought no innovations to the orchestra forces he used, outside of Wagner tubas in his last three symphonies. His orchestrations are fairly straight-forward and at least note-wise are not exceedingly difficult for a good orchestra. So outside of his being affiliated with the 'enemy' Wagner camp, why was Bruckner's music met with so much hostility from orchestra members in particular?  I think it was what at the core of Bruckner's music. A restless drive rhythmically, an ever-changing palette of key changes and stretching of tonality that was a natural progression from the works of Schubert, and a mastery of counterpoint. In short,  Bruckner's music is an art unto itself. To judge it against Beethoven's symphonies does neither composer justice.  No matter how much analysis is done of Bruckner's form, harmony and melody, his music will always have a certain amount of mystery and surprise to it.  And that, at least for me, creates a never ending interest in his music. Every time I hear one of his symphonies, I seem to notice something I didn't before.

The 5th Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Adagio - Allegro - This symphony is the only one Bruckner wrote that opens adagio.  With pizzicato strings, this adagio beginning has been called an introduction. Considering that pizzicato strings open all four movements of the symphony, it can also be considered a theme that helps create cohesion for the symphony.   Bruckner makes a great deal of contrast between themes in this first movement
II. Adagio. Sehr langsam - Pizzicato strings begin this movement, in a slightly faster tempo than the first movement. The strings play in triplets, essentially in 6/4 time while the winds introduce new material. This is but one example of cross rhythms Bruckner uses that creates different moods within the music. Soon the orchestra begins to sing and the movement moves steadily to an inevitable thrilling Bruckner climax.  The music decreases in volume and slowly builds to a series of minor climaxes until it ends quietly.
 III. Scherzo. Molto vivace - The scherzo begins with pizzicato strings but a driving melody is soon heard. This melody is short, and a contrasting theme is heard immediately after. Bruckner uses varying length of phrases to create a certain restlessness, even in the German dance like contrasting theme. The calm, short trio is in direct contrast with the rest of the scherzo, which returns and ends with the orchestra chugging away to the closing chord.
IV. Adagio - Allegro moderato - For the final time, the pizzicato strings begin the movement but are interrupted by a tune played by the clarinet. Other themes from the first movement appear, only to be likewise interrupted by the clarinet tune. The clarinet tune is played by the low strings, and it is then we find out that the tune is a theme for a fugue for the orchestra. Then the secondary theme shows itself and is lyrical and decorative, a contrast to the fugue heard before it.  After this theme works itself through, another theme appears which is like a chorale. This chorale contains within it the theme of another fugue. The second fugue plays itself through, whereupon the theme from the first movement is joined with the theme of the first fugue to create a double fugue. After a thorough working out, the first fugue is played again (without any other melody) and the brass play the theme of the second fugue together with the first fugue.  As if all that isn't enough to boggle the ear of the mere mortal listener, Bruckner has four horns play the theme of the first movement along with the rest.

The final movement of this symphony shows the talent and genius of Bruckner like no other composition he ever wrote. The incredible complexity of writing a fugue alone, let alone a fugue for full orchestra, would be challenge enough. But to write two fugues, then a double fugue, and finally what amounts to three themes playing at the same time  (and have the whole thing intelligible) would be called impossible if Bruckner hadn't shown us it is possible.

For those who really want to get into Bruckner's life and music, I recommend the book Anton Bruckner- Rustic Genius by Werner Wolff.  It is an old book (written in 1942) and there has been much research into the life and music of Bruckner since it was written,  but the author was a musician, conductor and musicologist that had practical experience with conducting Bruckner's symphonies and his analyses of all of them are in depth. It is a book I reference often, and the beauty of it is you can down load it for free at:
Anton Bruckner Rustic Genius  There are options to download the book or read it on line.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Schubert - Symphony No. 4 'Tragic'

Along with Felix Mendelssohn and Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert was one of the most outstanding child prodigies the musical world has ever seen. All three men lived only into their third decade, with Schubert dying the youngest at age 31. By the time of his death he had written over 1000 pieces, among them being nine symphonies, much chamber music and 600 lieder,some of the greatest art songs ever composed.  He composed his first work when he was 13 years old, and never stopped composing after that.  His output is phenomenal, considering his age at his death. 

Schubert came under the influence of Antonio Salieri who was living in Vienna at the time. Salieri recognized Schubert's immense talent and took him as a private pupil. Schubert also had a great singing voice and acquired a choir scholarship at a local seminary.  He also went to a teacher training school and taught in his father's school for a few years. He disliked the drudgery and boredom of teaching and applied for a kappelmeister's position and also tried teaching piano for a time. He soon abandoned both of those endeavors and devoted himself to composing full time, and living off the kindness and generosity of his friends.

Schubert himself subtitled his 4th Symphony 'Tragic'. although the introduction to the first movement does have the sense of gloom and tragedy about it, whether the rest of the symphony has much tragedy in it is questionable. Why did Schubert name it such if the music really isn't all that tragic? Some have conjectured he did it to try and attract a publisher, but no one really knows why. Perhaps it was on account of the introduction to the first movement, a departure from his first three symphonies. The 4th symphony is the first symphony he wrote in a minor key, and he was about 19 years old when he wrote it in the years 1815-1816. Like so much of Schubert's music, the 4th symphony had to wait a long time for its premiere, in 1849 in Leipzig.

The 4th Symphony is in the traditional 4 movements:
I  Adagio molto – Allegro vivace - The introduction to the first movement moves far afield key-wise, but Schubert is known for his modulating through distant keys before settling on one. This key-wandering is all the more remarkable as it all makes sense. It was one of Schubert's many talents, this harmonic wandering and use of distant keys.  The movement proper begins with a theme in the home key of C minor. The entire movement keeps driving forward with the second theme that adds to the momentum. The ending of the movement has another surprise in store...a coda in C major.
II Andante - One of Schubert's most attractive slow movements, it is in a major key with a few episodes in the minor to add interest and contrast.
III Menuetto. Allegro vivace - Although named as such, this is far from a 'menuetto' in the common sense of the word. Schubert's debt to Beethoven is heard as the syncopated accent on the third beat at the beginning of each phrase throws the music into a cross rhythm that stumbles its way to the trio.
The trio is a German Ländler, a peasant dance that Schubert knew very well.
IV Allegro -  The finale begins with music as nervous and forward-moving as the first movement.  After much development in various keys, the music turns to C major for the conclusion.

To say Schubert was a composer of natural ability would be an understatement. But he didn't rest on his talent. He worked hard, and his music progressed throughout his short career. Within his thirty-one years he accomplished so much. What he could have created if he had lived longer will always be a mystery. 

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