Saturday, February 16, 2013

Franck - Les Djinns

Les Djinns (The Genie) is one of five symphonic poems written by César Franck. As with many of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt (who is credited with the invention of the symphonic poem), it is based on a literary work, the poem of the same name by the French writer Victor Hugo. The poem was part of a collection of Hugo's poems titled Les Orientales, written in 1829.  The poem deals with the unleashing of a Djinn and the resulting storms and evil that accompany the unleashing.

Victor Hugo
This kind of supernatural being is mentioned in the Qurʾan and Islamic theology. They inhabit an unseen world in dimensions beyond the visible universe. The djinn, humans and angels make up the three sentient creations of God. The Qurʾan mentions that the Djinn are made of a smokeless, scorching fire and can be good, evil, or neutral. The Djinn of Hugo's poem is evidently of the nasty kind.

Hugo's poem is written in a form that visually depicts a swirling storm or tornado. Verse one is in two syllables, verse two in three syllables, increasing by one syllable until the middle of the poem. Then a syllable is removed from each successive verse until the end, where two syllables are in the verse as in the beginning.  The original poem was written in French. Here is part of it in English translation, unfortunately the syllables do not match the original French:

Port, walls 
And keeps 
Death’s Halls 
And deeps, 
Grey seas 
Where breeze 
Now flees: 
All sleeps.

From the verge 
Of the flow Sighs emerge— 
Night-airs blow— 
And they toll 
Like a soul 
On patrol 
With a glow. 

The loudest sounds 
Are like a sleigh— 
An elf who bounds 
And skins away. 
He leaps and flows, 
In rhythmic throes 
Springs on his toes 
Across the spray. 

Echoes and entwines 
Like the bells we hear 
At accursed shrines.
 Like a noisy crowd 
Thundering and proud, 
Sometimes it grows loud, 
Sometimes it declines. 

O God! the ghostly sound Of Djinns!—
and how they blare! 
Quick! let’s escape around 
The sunken spiral stair! 
Oh, I have lost my light! 
The shadow of the flight 
Covers the wall—goes right 
Up to the open air. 
(the rest of the translation can be found here)

The original French and the form created by the addition and subtraction of syllables can be seen at the left.  

Victor Hugo was one of the most well-known and influential of the French Romantic writers.  In addition to poetry he also wrote plays and novels (some of the most well-known novels in all of world literature such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

His works influenced not only writers in his own country but in other countries as well, such as the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. His work also influenced many  composers and he was an acquaintance of Berlioz and Liszt.  Victor Hugo was also a graphic artist as he left more than 3,500 drawings and paintings.

Franck wrote Les Djinns in 1884, and the composition is unique in that it is written for orchestra with piano obbligato - in fact it is a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, a rarity.

As with the best of Liszt's symphonic poems, Franck doesn't try to create a musical depiction of the poem itself, but an atmosphere and feeling of the poem. It is left to the imagination of the listener to interpret the music within the context of the poem, or not. The knowledge that Les Djinn was inspired by Hugo's poem is interesting and can add to the enjoyment of the piece, but it isn't necessary.  The title of the piece, Les Djinn, The Genie, is enough to stimulate the imagination. Which is what I think a symphonic poem is supposed to do.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Borodin - Symphony No. 2 In B Minor

Alexander Borodin led a double life as a scientist/chemist and composer in Russia in the 19th century. His output in each of these endeavors was small but significant. In the field of music he had very little formal training, especially in composition. The composition of his 2nd symphony was repeatedly interrupted by other compositions and his work in the laboratory.

The 2nd symphony is regarded by many as his masterpiece. When he visited Liszt in Weimar in 1877 they together played the symphony in a piano arrangement for four-hands. Liszt had admired Borodin's music and was instrumental in getting the first performances of his symphonies outside of Russia. When Borodin told Liszt of his plans to revise the symphony, Liszt replied:

"Heaven forbid! Do not touch it, alter nothing. Your modulations are neither extravagant nor faulty. Your artistic instinct is such that you need not fear to be original. Do not listen to those who would deter you from following your own way. You are on the right road. Similar advice was given to Mozart and to Beethoven, who wisely ignored it."

Borodin's Second Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro -  The tonic note of B is heard straight-away in unison by the orchestra, with the strings continuing the powerful tune. The orchestra continues forcefully until it reaches a more lyrical tune.  The first movement's form has caused much discussion in musicological circles, for while it resembles sonata form, Borodin weaves varied repeats (in key and modulation) of the main tune throughout the movement gives this movement a unique sound. The movement ends with a triple forte repetition of the opening theme.

II. Scherzo - Prestissimo - The second movement is written in the very odd time signature of 1/1:
The movement contains odd-shaped 5-bar phrases alternating at times with 4-bar phrases. This phrase structure combined with syncopated measures give the scherzo a tripping, comically stumbling quality. The gentle trio is in contrasting 6/4 time.

III. Andante - With all of Borodin's natural musicality of structure and form, it shouldn't be forgotten that perhaps his greatest gift was melodic in nature. This movement has some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote. It begins gently with harp and clarinet introduction and the horn enters with a gentle melody that is continued by the clarinet accompanied by other winds. There is a middle section that contrasts strongly with the gentleness of the opening, after which the music slowly begins its descent to end as it began, softly and melodiously.

IV. Allegro - The third movement runs directly into the Finale. The form of the movement can be seen as a type of sonata/rondo form but many hear it as a collection of Russian dances held loosely together. The mood is festive and continues until the opening dance returns to give a rousing finish to the work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

C.P.E. Bach - Württemberg Sonata No. 1 In A Minor

The music of C.P.E. Bach had a profound effect on the younger composers of his time, namely Mozart and Haydn. It is one of the ironies of art that in the early 19th century the younger Bach's music came to be appreciated less and less as his father's music came to be appreciated more and more. The elder Bach's music never was completely forgotten, especially his keyboard music. Beethoven studied The Well Temper Clavier as did many other composers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes in hand-written copies that passed from teacher to pupil.

But the younger Bach continued to have a great influence on the art of keyboard playing because of his book Essay On The True Art Of Playing Keyboard Instruments (written in 1753).  The book is a valuable reference to anyone wishing to play the music of the younger Bach and some of his contemporaries. The music of this era continued the musical shorthand of figures written over certain notes that signified trills (and other ornaments of the basic melody) from the music of the previous generation. The meaning and execution of these ornaments can be quite puzzling, even with Bach's book. Different composers in different countries had their own interpretations of the ornaments. What is good for the music of Bach (elder and younger) is not always good for other composers.  Bach states in the book that there is a certain amount of flexibility with what a performer did with an ornament in a specific piece of music, that the overall effect of the piece should be enhanced by the ornamentation which should be a result of the 'good taste' of the performer.

Bach wrote a large amount of music for solo keyboard and his reputation was made with the publication of two sets of sonatas, the  'Prussian' sonatas were dedicated to Frederick The Great and the 'Württemberg' sonatas were dedicated to the grand duke of Württemberg.  The six Württemberg sonatas were written in 1742 while Bach was court musician for Frederick The Great in Berlin.  The sonatas are expressive, chromatic and dramatic, fitting the 'new' style of composition that Bach helped to create. C.P.E. Bach has been called one of the first composers of the classical era.

The first sonata in the set is in A minor and is in three movements:
I. Moderato - This short movement creates tension with its rolled chords and is punctuated by triplets that add a restlessness to the music. The movement consists of two sections that are both repeated, as is the case with early classical era sonatas.  The first section is an early example of sonata form, as there are two themes, with the secondary theme appearing shortly after the first. The second section begins in the relative major (C major) and makes its way back to the original key of A minor.

II. Andante - The gentle opening mood of the andante (in the parallel key of A major)  lasts for 19 bars and is brought to an expressive close by a tempo change to adagio for the 20th bar. The opening theme begins again and the music works its way to an ending of but two 'A' notes, one in the treble and one in the bass.

III. Allegro assai - The last movement returns to the minor key and is highlighted by runs in the right hand as the left hand changes the harmony. This movement is also in two sections that are to be repeated.

C.P.E. Bach readily gave praise to his father as a great musician and teacher (the only teacher he ever had) but that didn't prevent the younger Bach from calling his father's music old-fashioned. C.P.E. Bach was a fine performer and was an innovator and influential composer. His music is no longer forgotten, but it still is rare to hear some of it. To my ears, there is something different about his music, something that is very attractive, even quirky. With more of it being made available on recordings, there is still much I want to listen to and explore.