Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Méhul - Symphony No.1 In G Minor

Étienne Méhul was a French composer at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon. He was well-known in his time as an opera composer, and some have called him the first romantic composer. Méhul offered up his first symphony around 1809 in France. Critics were divided as to its worth, even the composer himself offered up an explanation:

"I understood all the dangers of my enterprise; I foresaw the cautious welcome that the music-lovers would give my symphonies. I plan to write new ones for next winter and shall try to write them... to accustom the public gradually to think that a Frenchman may follow Haydn and Mozart at a distance."

While audiences and critics of his time were mixed towards his symphonies, the audience and critics were impressed with Méhul's 1st Symphony in G minor when it was played by  the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in 1838.  Robert Schumann was in the audience and was quite taken with the symphony.

The 1st Symphony is in 4 movements :
I. Allegro - The movement begins in G minor with an agitated theme that is reminiscent of Mozart's initial theme in his 40th Symphony. There is a downward movement that occupies this first theme. The theme proceeds and leads to the second theme which is of a calmer nature. The second theme features something of a reversal in feeling as well as direction as the music move upward.   The development section expounds on fragments of the initial theme. The recapitulation begins, followed by a summing up by a coda of the main theme and the music returns to its downward movement as the music ends.

II. Andante -  A set of variations, music that strolls in contrast to the proceeding dramatics of the first movement. Méhul's theme is a French Chants de Noël (Christmas Carol).

III. Menuet : Allegro moderato -  Pizzicato strings play the theme quietly. The trio is louder and has the strings play with the bow. This movement impressed Schumann considerably. After praising the symphony in general, Schumann writes:

"A remarkable feature too, was the similarity of the scherzo (to the scherzo of Beethoven's 5th Symphony), and in such a striking way that there must have been a remembrance on one side or the other; I am not able to determine on which, since I do not know the year of birth of the Méhul."

As both Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Méhul's 1st Symphony were being composed in 1808, there is no possibility that either composer heard each other's work.

IV. Final : Allegro agitato -  A final movement that again reminds Schumann of Beethoven's 5th, this time the first movement. Méhul builds the movement from a short rhythmic motive with a personalized sense of sonata form. The composer goes far afield with key changes in the development section, the symphony continues in its restless and intense manner until the final chord.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Liszt - Csárdás Macabre

The csárdás is a traditional Hungarian folk dance, the name of which derives from the Hungarian word for tavern. The beginnings of the dance can be traced back to the 18th century in Hungary and was used as a recruiting device for the Hungarian army. The Romani people (formerly called gypsies) popularized the dance in Hungary and neighboring countries. It is a dance that is varied in tempo, from slow to fast. Liszt made wide use of the csárdás in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, as did other composers. But it is Liszt who used it most often in his compositions, no doubt because of his Hungarian heritage.

The Csárdás Macabre was composed towards the end of Liszt's life, a time in which he suffered health problems both physical and mental. The music he composed in his last years saw a change in style from his earlier music. Gone is the brilliant virtuosity, glitter and complexity. His music became leaner in texture, and tonally ambiguous.  

Csárdás Macabre begins with an introduction that is in ostensibly in D minor , but has no sharps or flats in the key signature (Dorian mode?) .This segues into the first theme that is in parallel fifths and that revolves around the fifth of F-sharp and C-sharp in chromatic fashion. The key signature changes to one flat  (D minor officially?), rambles on, and the key signature once again changes to no sharps or flats as the transition to the second theme begins. The key signature changes again to one flat (F major) as the second theme begins. The second theme runs into a section marked dolce amoroso (sweetly and tenderly) that  leads into a development section where both themes are varied. There is a recapitulation of the two themes after which there is another development section. The piece winds up with a coda that ends up in D major, again ostensibly. 

The tonal scheme of this piece can be bewildering. D minor, F, G-flat, D, E-flat, and add some ancient modes to the mix. No wonder it took so long for late pieces such as this to get performed. Wagner himself thought that Liszt's mind was deteriorating with age. 

Liszt's late music is brimming with things foreign to even the most forward-thinking composers of his time. Polytonality, atonality, the use of exotic scales, bitonality and other methods and techniques make Liszt one of the most innovative composers in the history of Western music.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Handel - Sonata For Recorder in F Major

In Handel's time, specific music for specific instruments was not always the case. Music that had been written  for an instrument or combination of instruments was being transcribed and used for other combinations. The style of writing music for a figured bass gave a certain amount of leeway to the performer as far as instruments to play the music and the accompaniment.. Ensemble playing could be just as heavily represented by wind instruments as stringed instruments, and the Baroque composer actually had a wide variety of instruments to choose from.

Take stringed instruments for example. The violin family (that consists of violin, viola and violincello) existed along with the viol family. Viols are distinct from violins as their fingerboards are flat instead of curved,  they have frets whereas violins do not, they have six strings to the violins four, and they are tuned in fourths versus the violin tuning in fifths. Composers such as Bach used these two families, sometimes in combinations of the two, to get the sound they wanted.  There was also differences within the flute family.

There was the flute as we know it, held sideways with the tone produced by playing across an opening on the top towards the front called the transverse flute, and a flute that was held straight from the player with the tone produced by the player blowing into a whistle mouthpiece called the recorder. The volume of the recorder is not as loud or pronounced as the transverse flute, and the tone is quite different. 

Handel composed sonatas for various solo instruments. In keeping with the flexibility of the times, some could be played by either violin, transverse flute, oboe, or recorder, but others were instrument-specific. These were indeed solo sonatas, as the melody remained in the solo instrument part while the accompanying instruments filled in the bass part and harmonies. Along with the solo instrument, a bass instrument such as the cello, viola da gamba, bassoon or theorbo would play the bass line while a keyboard instrument or stringed instrument capable of playing chords would fill in the harmonies as outlined in the figured bass.  
First two lines of Sonata in F showing figured bass
Handel's solo sonatas were written over a period of time, but the first collection of twelve sonatas was printed in 1732 in England. The Sonata In F of this collection does have the designation 'flauto solo' in the printed score, and the word 'flauto' in Handel's time meant recorder. 

The Sonata For Recorder In F follows the structure of the sonata of the time, as it consisted of four movements with the tempos being slow-fast-slow-fast. In Handel's time the two distinct forms of sonatas, sonata de chiesa (church sonata) and sonata de camera (chamber sonata) were combining. The sonata for recorder is one of these sonatas:

I. Larghetto - A stately beginning to the sonata in the home key of F major. The end of the movement prepares the way for a change of key to the dominant C major.

II. Allegro - The first section is in the key of C major, second section begins in C but moves towards the home key and ends in F major.   

III. Siciliana - A slow song with a gently moving rhythm, in the relative key of D minor. Makes a transition in the end of the movement to the dominant of D minor, the key of A major 

IV. Allegro - A rapid dance in 12/8 time. It resembles a jig, a type of dance used in the dance suites of the
Baroque era, usually as the last part.

Chausson - Symphony In B-flat

Chausson was a member of the group of disciples devoted to César Franck, whose musical aesthetics had a profound influence on his compositions. Another great influence on Chausson was the operas of Wagner. He died at an early age after he crashed his bicycle into a wall and fractured his skull. He was but forty-four, and was just beginning to find his true voice as a composer.

Chausson used Franck's Symphony In D Minor as a model for his Symphony in B-flat. Both works have 3 movements, and Chausson adapts Franck's cyclic style and chromaticism  to his own style.

I. Lent - Allegro Vivo- The first movement begins with a slow and dramatic introduction that shows the influence of Wagner. It builds to a climax full of anguish with quiet afterthoughts, when the clouds evaporate and the main theme of the movement begins. It is one of the most stunning and rapid transformations in the symphonic literature. The theme reaches its own refined climax, and the second theme (which shows the influence of Franck's music) begins. The working out of the themes in the exposition shows Chausson's own way with sonata form as themes weave in and out in different guises. The recapitulation expands the themes into a grand ending to the movement.

II. Très Lent - The music of this movement begins in a minor key and slowly builds into a stunning major key climax at the ending.

III. Animé - The movement begins dramatically with whirling rapid notes in the strings punctuated by scraps of melody played in the brass. There is another theme that spins out of the opening, also dramatic in nature. A chorale-like melody appears first in the brass and then woodwinds. The development section brings back some of the themes heard previously. The music returns to the initial theme of the movement in recapitulation. The initial theme of the first movement now returns and helps connect the work in the way only cyclic form can do. The trumpet plays a poignant tune and the music builds to the finale. The symphony that has begun with a dramatic, tragic introduction now ends in the gentle glow of  sunshine.

Cesar Franck
The beginnings of cyclic form are credited to Franz Liszt, and while the roots of the form go back much further than that, it is a convenient point to begin to make the following observation: From Liszt, to Franck, to Chausson, and to the composer that perhaps took the form to the extreme, Jean Sibelius, cyclic form has been a powerful form and technique for composers to create unity in their compositions. To the experienced classical music listener the form offers aural signposts that carry across individual movements or sections that add to understanding and enjoyment. For the more  casual listener, it can create a feeling of musical 'sense', even if nothing is known about structure or theme development.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Rachmaninoff - Prince Rostislav

Sergei Rachmaninoff graduated with high honors from the Moscow Conservatory after taking the piano exam in 1891, and remained at the conservatory to finish his studies. By this time he had already written some songs and piano pieces and began work on his first compositions for orchestra. The first was a one-movement Youth Symphony and the second piece was the tone poem Prince Rostislav, inspired by a poem by Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, cousin to the more well - known Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy
Tolstoy's poem deals with a mythical warrior that is based on an historical Prince. Tolstoy's poem begins with the brave knight Prince Rostislav laying on the bottom of the Dnieper river wearing his chain mail and holding a broken sword in his hand.  The low strings play a theme that represents the prince. The other strings gently swell in tone to give the impression of the waters of the Dnieper.  The underwater beauties of the Dnieper caress the prince and comb his golden hair. The mood swiftly changes by the brass and the loud drum rolls of the timpani. The ensuing storm has awakened the prince and he cries out three times. He calls out to his wife, but he has been gone so long that she believes him dead and is now betrothed to another.  He then calls out to his brother, then to the priests, but they can no longer hear him.  The prince gives up, and resigns himself to his watery grave as the strings resume the gentle swell of the water that covers the prince.

Rachmaninoff was but 18 years old when he wrote this piece, and his skill with handling the orchestra is already apparent. He completed the piece in 1891, but it was never played in his lifetime. It was finally premiered two years after Rachmaninoff's death, in 1945

Friday, September 13, 2013

Herrmann - Psycho - A Suite For Strings

Bernard Herrmann was a composer who is most well-known for his work in motion pictures. He wrote music for many films and worked with some of the most famous directors in film. He wrote the score for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and was especially known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on films such as North By Northwest, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a ground-breaking film that was made in 1960. The screenplay was based on a book by Robert Bloch. The grisly and gruesome story of a woman being murdered in a remote motel by a madman created new limits on the amount of sexuality and graphic violence allowed in movies.  Herrman's film score was no less ground breaking and Hitchcock himself credited Herrmann's music with contributing to the success of the picture.

Herrmann was also a composer of concert works and was an accomplished conductor. His music has
Alfred Hitchcock
influenced many composers of concert works as well as for film. It was Herrmann's belief that music for film needed to be composed well enough that it could stand alone as a concert work. He conducted suites of his film music that he arranged for concert use, and the suite from Psycho was arranged shortly after the movie's premiere.

Due to Hitchcock making the film on a very tight budget ( he filmed it in black and white), Herrmann saved the expense of a full orchestra and scored the music for strings alone.  The suite utilizes the main themes used in the film in eleven short parts that refer to events in the film:

1. Prelude - The so called 'Psycho theme', an agitated motif that runs through the prelude, and in the opinion of some musicologists, appears in other music sections of the score. The theme is sometimes repeated verbatim, other times it is transformed.
2. The City - A lazy afternoon in the city as two lovers secretly meet in a hotel room.
3. The Rainstorm - The agitation of the prelude returns as Marion Crane, one of the two lovers in the hotel room, drives away after embezzling $40,000 from her employer.
4. The Madhouse -  Scenes of the house on the hill where Norman Bates and his mother live, a house full
Norman Bates' house
of mystery and madness.
5. The Murder - The violins underline the knife-slashing murder of Marion in the shower. Some have suggested that this was a clue to who actually was the murderer, as the screeching of the violins is in imitation of screeching birds. And Norman Bates' hobby was bird taxidermy.
6. The Water - Blood from the murder victim runs down the drain.
7. The Swamp - Marion Crane's car is disposed of in the swamp near the Bates motel.
8. The Stairs - Marion's sister is concerned about the disappearance of her sister and a police investigator confirms that Marion is a suspect in the embezzlement case of $40,000. When the police investigator goes to the Bates' house, enters it and climbs the stairs a figure comes out of Norman's room and knifes him to death.  Norman Bates climbs the stairs to inform his mother that she needs to be hidden in the basement because of the policeman's murder.
9. The Knife -  When Marion's sister goes to the motel to investigate on her own, she goes to the Bates' house on the hill and is confronted by Norman dressed as his mother as he tries to kill her with the same knife he killed Marion and the policeman with. The murder motive is heard once again.
10. The Cellar - As Marion's sister flails her arms to protect herself, a chair spins around to reveal the corpse of Norman's mother. Marion's sister is saved by her boyfriend. The true killer is revealed.
11. Finale - All of the loose ends of the story are tied up.  Music from the 'madhouse' section is revisited, and a final climax represents the madness of Norman Bates.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Caplet - Masque Of The Red Death

The works of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe became popular in Europe way before they were popular in his own country. France especially took to the author's works thanks to the early translations done by the French writer Charles Baudelaire. Poe's writing influenced French literature, especially with the macabre and supernatural writings of Baudelaire and the science fiction of Jules Verne.

Poe's influence in France extended into the 20th century and into other arts besides literature, namely music. Claude Debussy worked on (but never finished) an opera based on Poe's story The Fall Of The House of Usher, Florent Schmitt wrote a tone poem based on the story The Haunted Palace, and André Caplet wrote a chamber piece based on the story Masque Of The Red Death.

Caplet and Debussy
Caplet was a conductor,orchestrator of some of his good friend Debussy's piano music,  and a composer in his own right.  Caplet showed much originality in his compositions and was an innovator during the first two decades of the 20th century.  He was a soldier in World War One and was a victim of poison gas. He died from complications from his war-time gassing in 1925 at the age of 46.

The full title of Caplet's Poe-based work in French is Conte Fantastique (The Masque of Red Death)" d'après Poe pour harpe à pedales et quatour à cordes, which roughly translates in English to Fantastic Tale (The Masque Of The Red Death) from Poe, for pedal harp and string quartet. A synopsis of Poe's story:

Prince Prospero and one thousand other nobles have taken refuge in this walled abbey to escape the Red
Edgar Allan Poe
Death, a plague that has swept over the land. The symptoms of the Red Death are gruesome: The victim is overcome by convulsive agony and sweats blood instead of water.

The plague is said to kill within half an hour. Prospero and his court are indifferent to the sufferings of the population, intending to await the end of the plague in luxury and safety behind the walls of their secure refuge, having welded the doors shut. One night, Prospero holds a masquerade ball to entertain his guests in seven colored rooms of the abbey.

Six of the rooms are each decorated and illuminated in a specific color: Blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet. The last room is decorated in black and is illuminated by a blood-red light; because of this chilling pair of colors, few guests are brave enough to venture into the seventh room. The room is also the location of a large ebony clock that ominously clangs at each hour, upon which everyone stops talking and the orchestra stops playing.

At the chiming of midnight, Prospero notices one figure in a dark, blood-spattered robe resembling a funeral shroud, with an extremely lifelike mask resembling a stiffened corpse, and with the traits of the Red Death, which all at the ball have been desperate to escape. Prospero demands to know the identity of the mysterious guest so that they can hang him. When none dares to approach the figure, instead letting him pass through the seven chambers, the prince pursues him with a drawn dagger until he is cornered in the seventh room, the black room with the scarlet-tinted windows. When the figure turns to face him, the Prince falls dead. The enraged and terrified revelers surge into the black room and remove the mask, only to find that there is no face underneath it. Only then do they realize that the figure is the Red Death itself, and all of the guests contract and succumb to the disease. The final line of the story sums up: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

Caplet's piece is not a literal retelling of the story. What Caplet does, in the mode of many tone poems (and despite this being a chamber piece I consider it a tone poem)  is to capture the mood of the story. The music begins with long, hushed notes on the viola and cello in the background as the harp plays short motives in ascending triplets that sound like a spider creeping in its web.

There are some strange sounds made by the five instruments. The harpist knocks on the harp with knuckles, string glissandi, strings playing sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge to produce an eerie, ethereal sound), etc. As for specific references to the story that are in the music, I'll leave those to the listener to discover (or not) for themselves. For me, the music itself is just as fantastic as the story itself. There is evidence that Caplet wrote a version for orchestra and harp that predates this version, but I have yet to find a recording of it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mozart - Fantasia For Mechanical Clock, K.608

In Mozart's time there was a vogue for mechanical clocks that had organs built into them. These were the 'synthesizers' of their time, and were commissioned by the nobility (and anyone else that could afford to have them built). Mozart and other composers were commissioned to write original pieces for some of these machines, and he composed three pieces for these mechanical marvels.

The Fantasia in F Minor K.608 has a clouded history. There is mention of the piece and the two others Mozart composed for these machines in his correspondence, but only one of the pieces has an autograph score. No autograph exists for the Fantasia K. 608, but there are many examples of versions of the piece for piano two and four hands, for organ, string quartet, orchestra and other instrument combinations. Beethoven had a copy of the piece and made his own version of the fugue section of the work, so while it was written for a mechanical clock, the quality of the piece caused it to have a life separate from its original form. It was a well-known piece in the 19th century and influenced many composers and performers.

A small type of musical clock with an organ built in
The piece begins with a prelude in F minor that is punctuated by the full chords, dotted rhythms and fugue of the French Overture style that was developed in the 1650's by French composers.  The middle section is an andante in A-flat major, the relative major of the F minor prelude. After a short summing up, the prelude enters again. After the restatement of the prelude, the fugue returns as a double fugue, that is there is an additional subject played along with, and developed along side, the initial theme of the fugue. The prelude returns once more and leads to what at first appears to be a reiteration of the fugue, but is in fact a short coda that leads to the end of the piece.

This piece is perhaps Mozart's tribute to the works of J.S Bach and other composers. Although it took Mendelssohn's performances of Bach in the early 1800's to bring Bach to the attention of the public, Bach's manuscripts and copies of them were known by composers and teachers long before then.  Mozart knew some of Bach's music, along with other composers of the previous generation. This piece for mechanical clock shows that the past masters taught him well.