Friday, March 8, 2013

Bruckner - Symphony No. 9

Bruckner began composing his 9th Symphony straight away after his 8th symphony in 1887, and he worked on it intermittently until he died in 1896.  In those nine years he had left to live, he devoted much of his time to revising some of his earlier symphonies at the urging of friends and students.  Bruckner was obsessed with trying to make his music more palatable to his contemporary audience and second-guessed himself so much that it has led to confusion over so many versions of his works.

Why was Bruckner so willing to revise, and be complaisant with his student's efforts to revise his works? The perfectionism of a man such as Bruckner no doubt had a great deal to do with it. Perfectionism in art can be a good thing, or a bad thing. In art, and life in general, perfection is a isn't a goal that can ever be reached. We are all full of mistakes, flaws great and small, in other words we are human. A masterpiece of any kind is defined by its imperfections (no matter how slight or great) as much as by its beauty.  Bruckner appears to have been a compulsive man by nature, so he may have had little choice in the matter. His 9th symphony was, in some ways, a casualty of that compulsiveness in that while he had sketched and planned  a 4th movement, he never completed it. But the three movements he did complete are a fitting tribute to his artistry, genius and mastery.

While there have been reconstructions by musicologists of the 4th movement, they are a curiosity.  The completed symphonies of Brucker and three movements of this work are a wealth of great music. Any realization or reconstruction, no matter if done by a learned and sympathetic scholar, is but a commentary on the composer's music in question. Interesting in itself up to a point, and valid if taken in the right context, but unnecessary.

I. Feierlich, misterioso  (Solemn and mysterious) -  Per Bruckner's directions, the beginning of the symphony is shrouded in solemn mystery as the orchestra begins quietly and deeply. The beginning is in D minor, but this movement goes far afield as D-flat major makes an appearance after the opening bars, with E major and references to other keys abound in this vast first movement. It is in Bruckner's personal variation of traditional sonata form as themes are stated and developed over time.  There is a series of climaxes, which resolve into further development of other themes. Bruckner can seem fragmentary with these climaxes, as they usually end with silence from the orchestra, but as with his sudden pauses when going to a different theme and his key changes, these methods create tension and expectation for what is to come.  The movement ends with a final harmonically questioning climax that does not resolve completely, but points the way to what is to come.

II. Scherzo, Bewegt-lebhaft (rough, agitated - lively) - A scherzo that has been called brutal by some, it begins quietly with pizzicato strings until it loudly erupts with a simple rhythm that begins on the downbeat of the previous bar, and masks the time signature by heavily accenting each note of the rhythm in the woodwinds and brass and with down bows from the strings. The trio is opposite in feeling and provides a respite before the scherzo returns with a vengeance.

III. Adagio, Langsam, feierlich (slowly and solemnly) - Bruckner's harmonic waywardness continues in this last Adagio. The violins open with a B below middle C that swoops up to a C natural above middle C, a jump of a ninth. This movement also has several climaxes, along with music that sounds like fragments of music heard before, whether from this symphony or Bruckner's previous two symphonies.  The final climax builds slowly, and ends with a horrible chord for full orchestra that contains the seven notes of the harmonic minor scale, a chord that was 'sanitized' in some of the editions of the symphony edited by a Bruckner pupil. The ensuing silence after this chord is almost deafening and it is an example of how silence is an integral part of music. There are some coarse descending notes from the brass, and the music makes a quiet end in the major.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Haydn - Symphony No. 52 in C Minor Hob. I/52

Within the symphonic output of the prolific Josef Haydn there are symphonies of his middle period that fall under the label of Sturm und Drang, (storm and stress). These are dramatic works, reflecting the same dramatic elements that were found in contemporary German literature. Examples of these dramatic symphonies are Number 44 (Trauer) and Number 49 (La Passione)  and perhaps the most dramatic of all, number 52 in C minor.

The symphony is scored for two oboes, one bassoon, two horns, strings and continuo. It is in four movements:

I. Allegro assai con brio -  Haydn begins the first movement straight away with a theme full of energy and biting accents. The second theme is in a major key and is in great contrast to the first. This initial contrast sets the pace for a movement that is full of tension and mood swings.

II. Andante - A stately, easy dance-like theme is interrupted periodically by darker moments, in keeping with the overall tension of the symphony.

III. Menuetto e trio - Allegretto -  Haydn transforms the courtly dance by using accents and mild dissonance into a subdued stomp. The underlying tension is broken temporarily by the bright trio, but the stomp has the final word.

IV. Finale - Presto - Haydn maintains tension by continuing the strong accents and tones in the minor key. The strings chatter away, and the symphony ends in the minor.

Saint-Saëns - Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Major

The time of publication of compositions doesn't necessarily follow in the chronological order in which they are written. Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 2 is a case in point. His '1st' concerto was written in 1859, and was published with the opus number of 20. The '2nd' concerto was written a year earlier (1858) but was not published until 1879 and had the opus number of 58.  This is a fairly common occurrence, as the two piano concertos of Chopin were published in the reverse order in which they were written. The same goes for Beethoven's first two piano concertos.  This is of no great import, but it is a curiosity and something to keep in mind if the listener wants to examine how a composer progressed throughout their career by listening to their works in chronological order.

By the time Saint-Saëns composed this concerto he was 23 years old and an accomplished composer having written three symphonies and numerous other works.

The 2nd Violin Concerto is in three movements -
Allegro moderato e maestoso - a tempo piu allegro - The concerto begins with the orchestra quietly presenting an accompaniment for the soloist who enters after two measures. The movement is in sonata form similar to Mendelssohn's violin concerto. The cadenza is not left to the soloist to provide, but is written by Saint-Saëns. Towards the end of the cadenza, the timpani signals the return of the orchestra for the end of the movement.
Andante espressivo - Trombones and harp are added to this movement written in A minor. It begins with a short statement by the orchestra, then the violin enters with the harp accompanying. The violin sings a melancholy song that is lightly punctuated by episodes for the harp and orchestra. The music rises to a passionate climax, after which there is an episode in A major. The music suddenly shifts gears after a short episode for the oboe and segues directly into the finale.
Allegro scherzando quasi allegretto -  The rondo finale brings the concerto to a shimmering close.