Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lachner - Symphony No. 8 In G Minor

Franz Lachner's life spanned almost  the entire 19th century. He was born in 1803 in Bavaria and early in his career he was introduced to Beethoven and was a close personal friend to Franz Schubert.  Besides being a composer he was also an organist, teacher and a highly respected orchestral and operatic conductor.

After many different conducting posts he became the music director in Munich and raised the quality of the orchestra to a very high level.  He unselfishly used his power and influence to promote the music of contemporary composers. He especially made sure that he gave Wagner's operas exposure, even though he personally didn't like it. He understood the importance of Wagner and his music and drilled his orchestra to even higher levels so that the premiere of Tristan and Isolde could be held in Munich.

King Ludwig II
Wagner's fanatical patron, King Ludwig II, ascended to the throne of Bavaria in 1864. With typical 'gratitude' that Wagner showed to everyone that helped him, Wagner saw to it that  Lachner was unceremoniously dumped as Munich's music director. After Lachner had worked very hard with the orchestra to make Wagner's opera a success in Munich, he was replaced by Wagner's crony Hans Von Bülow (who later in his career would also pay the price for promoting Wagner's music). Lachner lost all of the positions in Munich that he held under the directorship of the orchestra and did not conduct the premiere of the opera.  He was on extended leave until his contract expired in 1868 and was given a generous retirement sum. He evidently never turned bitter about it all, and remained a respected elder statesman of music until he died in 1890.

He composed operas, chamber music, string quartets, pieces for organ and eight symphonies. The  Symphony No. 8 In G Minor was written in 1851. It is in the traditional 4 movements:

I.  Andante - Allegro Maestoso -  The first movement begins with a long, somewhat brooding introduction. The main theme then slowly unfolds with a subdued heroism that turns more dramatic. This theme segues into a second them that is more serene. Outbursts from the orchestra heighten the drama. After the exposition and recapitulation, a plaintive song by the solo bassoon is interrupted by an exuberant coda.
II. Andante - A flowing movement with a gentle theme that has a sense of continual development.
II. Scherzo - A rapid, jig-like scherzo with a few thumps and bumps for good measure. After the initial statements of the theme, it turns into a subject for fugal treatment.  The trio is lightly played by flutes with string accompaniment.
IV. Finale - Allegro Vivace -  A chattering theme begins the movement, other themes are heard with parts of the 'chattering' punctuating them. The main them is heard near the end along the secondary theme in a kind of sonata form recapitulation. The music ends in a dramatic cadence after a short coda.

The music of Lachner and other so-called minor composers can help us to remember that the great composers did not create their music in a vacuum. They were part of a continuum of their time that included musicians like Lachner who were rock-solid musicians and craftsmen composers. Lachner's music is well-written, and shows inspiration and profundity in places.  He was an important musician of his time, and as such created his own music and helped to create the music of others by teaching and promoting.  I personally enjoy listening to this symphony and look forward to exploring more of his works.

Schubert - Symphony No. 5 In B-flat Major

Schubert began his life as a composer at an early age. By the time he was 19 he had written this 5th symphony and many other works. Schubert's affinity for orchestral writing no doubt came from his experience in the school for musicians he attended. He played viola in the school orchestra and may have conducted also. The school orchestra played many works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the young Schubert absorbed the influences of these composers so quickly that he had a very good understanding of classical form.

Schubert's love for the music of Mozart is apparent in this symphony. He composed this symphony almost like chamber music, as the style of the music and the orchestration has a Mozartean lightness. The 5th symphony is unique from the rest of Schubert's because there are no clarinets, trumpets or timpani in the score, and only one flute.  The symphony was composed in 1816, the same year as his Symphony No.4. The contrasts between the two symphonies are striking. The 5th shows Schubert's progress in his mastery of orchestral writing.

The life of Franz Schubert was one of the marvels of human creativity and industriousness, a man who died when he was 31 years old and whose compositions number 998 according to Otto Erich Deutsch, the musicologist that created a catalog of Schubert's works listed chronologically by composition date. His influence on later musicians such as Liszt, Schumann, and Bruckner was profound.  He has been called by some one of the composers that began the Romantic age of classical music.

Besides some of his songs, much of Schubert's music was not performed in his lifetime. Among his 9 symphonies, the 5th was the only symphony performed in his lifetime at a private concert in 1817.

Symphony No. 5 is in the traditional 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Unlike Schubert's previous four symphonies, the 5th doesn't begin with a slow introduction, but with the beginning of the first subject.  The movement is in sonata form.
II. Andante - A movement that reflects the style of Mozart while retaining Schubert's lyrical style.
III. Menuetto Allegro molto - This movement also resembles Mozart's 'peasant stomp' minuets and could be called a scherzo.
IV.Allegro vivace - The finale is in sonata form and rounds off the work with movement and a little drama in places.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Liszt - Orpheus

The series of 13 tone poems Liszt wrote were inspired in content by his readings in classical literature, biography, mythology and history. Liszt made up for a lack of formal education in his younger years because of his constant piano practice and concertizing by reading voraciously.

In musical structure, he was inspired by Beethoven's repeating thematic material in separate movements and the unity this gave the work as a whole. Hector Berlioz's work Symphony Fantastique was also an influence. Liszt liked the work so much that he helped to promote the work by making a piano transcription of it.

The tone poem is a direct descendant of the operatic and concert overture. As operatic overtures signaled a beginning of an opera and often quoted the main themes that were to be heard, the concert overture was usually written in sonata form and could be a singular piece of music that began a dramatic play, or the music could have a descriptive setting.  Liszt took these qualities, plus the feeling of the first movement in a symphony (usually written in sonata form and many times was the movement that held the most musical weight). He took the idea of thematic unity further than Beethoven, and used what is called cyclic form, where the entire piece has common themes repeated, sometimes verbatim, sometimes varied. Like many other 'new' things, Liszt did not invent cyclic form so much as revive it for there is examples of it in Renaissance music. There are also examples of it in Haydn's music, and of course Beethoven made use of it.

In the preface to the score of Orpheus Liszt wrote:

“I saw in my mind’s eye an Etruscan vase in the Louvre, representing the first poet-musician. I thought to see round about him wild beasts listening in ravishment: man’s brutal instincts quelled to silence.... Humanity today, as formerly and always, preserves in its breast instincts of ferocity, brutality and sensuality, which it is the mission of art to soften, sweeten and ennoble.”

Orpheus is written in a loose sonata form. The piece begins with two harps playing ascending passages in imitation of Orpheus' lyre.The piece is restrained and contemplative,  Liszt's tribute to the depth of feeling and redeeming qualities he heard and saw in music and art in general.

Liszt wrote most of his tone poems while he was kappelmeister in Wiemar in 1852-1854.  Most of them are not in the immediate concert repertoire except for Les Preludes. They were experiments in form, structure, orchestration and material. Some are more satisfying musically than others, but all of them are at the least interesting.  That more of them are not heard in the concert hall may say something about the tone poems, but it surely says something about the state of the modern day concert hall.

Vivaldi - Concerto For Guitar And Strings

Vivaldi's Concerto For Guitar, Strings and Continuo is one of the hundreds of concertos Vivaldi wrote when he was the master of violin at the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà  (The Devout Hospital of Mercy), an orphanage in Venice. He was associated with the orphanage for thirty years And wrote many of his most well known works while there.  He wrote concertos for combinations of solo instruments as well as single solo instruments.

This concerto is in three movements. The first movement begins with a statement by the strings. The solo guitar enters and the soloist and strings trade statements back and forth in the traditional ritornello form of the time.  The second movement is a gentle siciliano that begins in the major but is calmly punctuated in the minor in the middle section. The finale is a rollicking jig.

Vivaldi was one of the great composers and violinists of his time. His concertos follow a formula, but within those confines he created music that can touch the heart and lift the spirit.  His influence was wide and far, as J.S.Bach knew his compositions and arranged some of the concertos for solo organ and groups of harpsichords.

After his death in 1741, Vivaldi's music was generally forgotten. It wasn't until the early 20th century that some of his works were rediscovered by musicians and musicologists. He wrote over 500 concertos,  with about 230 for solo violin. This concerto was originally written for lute, but is played on the guitar in most modern performances.