Wednesday, October 30, 2013

C.P.E. Bach - Keyboard Concerto In D Minor Wq. 23

The influence of C.P.E. Bach on composers of his own era and of other generations is large. Mozart said about him that "He is the father, we are the children".  Haydn acknowledged that Bach was a major influence to his instrumental music. After Bach's death in 1788 his reputation slipped somewhat, although Beethoven admired his music greatly and recommended Bach's book An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments as a teaching tool.  Bach was eclipsed further after Mendelssohn helped revive popular interest in the music of his father, Johann Sebastian Bach in the late 1820's, and Schumann commented that as a creative musician Carl was far behind his father. His music was not entirely forgotten, as Brahms admired his music and edited some of it, but it wasn't until the late 1950's that Carl's music became more well known through recordings of some of the symphonies and keyboard sonatas.

Bach wrote in many different genres including nearly one hundred concertos with roughly half of those for keyboard instrument. As this was a period of transition not only in musical form and expression but of the instruments themselves, Bach labeled his concertos for keyboard, harpsichord or piano.

The Concerto in D Minor Wq.23 (the Wq is an abbreviation for the name of the musicologist who in 1906 assembled the first catalog of Bach's music, Alfred Wotquenne) is written for keyboard, strings and continuo and is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro -  The 1st movement is in a type of sonata form, and begins with an angular, quirky theme. This theme and other secondary ones that are related to the main theme are played by the orchestra alone. The piano then jumps in with the first theme. The piano takes center stage and is answered by the orchestra. These beginning themes are developed slightly, and this section can be thought of as the exposition. There follows a development section that expands upon the themes at length. The main theme keeps bouncing back into the picture until what amounts to a type of recapitulation begins. After further exploring of the themes, the orchestra has the final word and brings the movement to a close.

II. Poco andante - Music that strolls gently from the instruments in splendid contrast to the drama of the first movement.

III. Allegro assai - Bach returns to the mood of the first movement with a theme that leaps and then pauses after the leap, like the instruments need to catch their breathe. This leaping followed by a pause appears throughout the movement, along with brilliant passage work for the soloist. The soloist joins in the leaping and taking of a breath later in the movement as the music remains energetic throughout. After a leap shared by strings and soloist, there is a short cadenza for the piano and the strings have the last word with a sigh of exhaustion.

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 1

Johannes Brahms composed his first piano quartet while still in his 20's. By this time he had been on concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi, and had met Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. By contemporary accounts, the meeting with Liszt didn't go so well as Brahms fell asleep while Liszt was playing the piano (due to exhaustion from the concert tour according to Brahms) but the meeting with Schumann went much better. Schumann recognized Brahms' genius, and Brahms became like a family member to Schumann and his wife Clara.

The first piano quartet was premiered in Hamburg in 1861 with Clara Schumann at the piano. Brahms himself was at the piano at the Vienna premiere. The piece wasn't a resounding success with the critics, probably due to the complexity of the music. The first piano quartet is written for the traditional instruments of piano, violin, viola and cello.

I. Allegro - This first movement no doubt caused some of the negativity towards the piece at the premiere, because of Brahms stretching and manipulation of sonata form. Some of his music contemporaries considered him conservative and traditional, but the structure of this movement disproves that. Brahms loads up the first movement with (depending on who is doing the counting) 4 or 5 themes, all of them based on the opening stated in octaves in the piano alone. The movement contains many key changes from the home key of G minor, some closely related, others (as D major) quite distant from the home key. After all the themes are heard, the initial theme is heard again and is briefly developed. The exposition is not repeated. All of the themes are heard in the development. Modulations of key and variations of the themes are done, and Brahms keeps the listener off-kilter when he signals the recapitulation not with the initial theme but one of the others. There is a short coda that leads the music back to the desolation of the home key of G minor.

II. Intermezzo: Allegro - This movement serves the function of a scherzo, but for the first time Brahms uses the designation Intermezzo. It is in the same form as a scherzo, and is in the key of C minor, a closely related key to G minor. The music is agitated and somewhat reserved while the trio (which is in A-flat major) is at a slightly quicker tempo and more extroverted.  The opening material is repeated and a coda in C major repeats part of the trio section.

III. Andante con moto - This movement is also in ternary form with a lyrical first section in E-flat major. Brahms' change to C major for the march-like middle section is abrupt. C minor also makes an appearance before the repeat of the first section. This movement ends quietly.

IV. Rondo alla Zingarese: Presto -  The saving grace of this composition at both the premieres in Hamburg and Vienna was probably this movement, written in 'Gypsy Style'. Brahms had learned the style while touring with Reményi. The initial theme's feeling is achieved by Brahms writing phrases in irregular numbers of bars. Instead of more common 4-bar phrases he throws phrases of 3-bars (or 6-bars, depending how you count them) with 4-bar phrases mixed in. Brahms did this throughout his composing career, and it is one of the reasons why his music can sound so different, even to someone who knows nothing about phrasing in music. It creates a subtle difference in his music that can be sensed by the sensitive listener. The movement is no less complex than the music in the rest of the composition, but the rondo form seems to make it more accessible to the listener, not to mention the fire and panache Brahms writes into the movement.

The above description is brief in the extreme for such a complex work. But while the inner working of the quartet are interesting and can add to the enjoyment of it, I don't think Brahms expected all of his listeners to be able to give a detailed analysis of it. His purpose was musical expression, and while his compositions can be highly complex there must be an understanding or enjoyment of his works on a 'gut' or emotional level to remain popular. As with all great artists, Brahms manages to touch the audience. That in the end is what counts.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mehul - Le Jeune Henri Overture

The composer Étienne Méhul has been called the most important opera composer in Revolutionary-era France. He followed the reforms of opera as instituted by Christoph Willibald Gluck and is considered one of the first Romantic composers.  He used the leitmotif, music that associates itself with a character or idea in the opera, a device made more well known by Richard Wagner years later.  Berlioz was influenced by Mehul's complete music aesthetic and wrote:
"...In truly dramatic music, when the importance of the situation deserves the sacrifice, the composer should not hesitate as between a pretty musical effect that is foreign to the scenic or dramatic character, and a series of accents that are true but do not yield any surface pleasure. Méhul was convinced that musical expressiveness is a lovely flower, delicate and rare, of exquisite fragrance, which does not bloom without culture, and which a breath can wither; that it does not dwell in melody alone, but that everything concurs either to create or destroy it..."
Méhul had a great feel for orchestral color and changed his orchestration to help convey the action or mood. In the Le Jeune Henri (Young King Henri) Overture he expanded the usual pair of horns in the orchestra to four to depict the young king out in the field hunting with his barking dogs and hunting horns. The overture was written in 1797 is taken from the opera of the same name that was based on an incident in the life of King Henri IV of France. While the opera itself was a failure, the overture was received very well and had to be encored at the first performance. The music depicts the hunt from its beginning in the early morning to the signaling of the horns and the chase of the stag. The overture is also known as La chasse du jeune Henri, Young Henri's Hunt.

Méhul's influence began to wane in the early years of the 19th century, and after years of intrigues against him and the failure of his latest operas, his popularity in France was over. He continued to compose with some of his operas becoming popular in Germany. But his health declined and he died of tuberculosis in 1817.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Paganini - Le Streghe

One of the first musical superstars, Niccolò Paganini not only was influential in advancing the art and technique of playing the violin, his compositions inspired other composers as well. While most of Paganini's compositions were written to showcase his enormous technical abilities, they also showed his lyrical and dramatic side.  Composers from the progressive Liszt to the more traditional Brahms (and many others) took inspiration from his music that combined brilliant technique with flashes of expressive musicality.

Although news of his tremendous abilities spread, Paganini didn't begin touring outside of his native Italy until1828. He toured all of Europe and Britain until 1834 when he retired from the concert platform due to poor health. Paganini died in Nice, France in 1840 but his last request to be buried in his birthplace of Genoa, Italy was refused by the Catholic church because he had refused the last rites and was thought to have been in league with the devil because of his musical abilities. His body laid in the hospital at Nice for a time, was sent to Genoa but was not allowed to be buried.  The body was finally laid to rest in Parma in 1876.

The rumors of Paganini being in league with the devil began early on. One of Paganini's early compositions helped create the rumor, Le Streghe or in English, The Witches. The composition is for solo violin and orchestra and is based on a tune that Paganini heard in a performance of a ballet in Milan in 1813. The ballet, Le nozze di Benevento was a revision of an earlier ballet written in 1803 with music by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a composer most well known for having finished Mozart's Requiem. The tune announces the entrance of the witches in the ballet, hence the name given the piece by Paganini.

After an introduction by the orchestra, a tune is played by the soloist with a light accompaniment, a short cadenza for the soloist leads to Süssmayr's theme which is followed by three variations. The first variation has double and triple stops, the second variation pizzacatos, harmonics and wide leaps, a section in a minor key in octaves, and the third variation played on the G-string combined with double stopped harmonics.  The coda of the piece has Paganini round off the piece with yet more fireworks for the violin.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Schumann - String Quartet No. 1 In A Minor

After a long  (and often times clandestine) courtship,  Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck were married in 1840, very much against her father's wishes. Clara's father immediately filed legal charges against the marriage but after a long (and nasty) legal battle the court ruled in favor of the newlyweds. The end of all the stress of the legal battles caused by Clara's father brought forth a burst of creative energy from Schumann. Up until then, all of his compositions were for the piano alone, but now with Clara's urging he began to branch out into works for voice, orchestra, and chamber music.

In 1842 Schumann wrote his first chamber pieces, a piano quartet and piano quintet, and began serious study of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, along with counterpoint and fugue. He also had the opportunity to hear string quartets of these composers played. His labor paid off, as Schumann wrote the three quartets of his opus 41 in two months. In a span of but six months in 1842, Schumann had written these quartets plus three other chamber works.

Schumann's first string quartet is in 4 movements:
I. Introduzione: Andante espressivo - Allegro - The first movement begins with a short introduction with the 4 instruments entering one after another until the first theme of the movement proper begins in the 1st violin, in of all things, the key of F Major. This theme is treated fugally, after which what at first appear to be snippets of other themes appear, but in actuality they are but fragments of the main theme. Schumann makes good use of his counterpoint study as the theme is developed this way throughout the movement. As this movement is in sonata form, there is a recapitulation of the opening material.

II. Scherzo: Presto - Intermezzo -  The music of this movement (in A minor) at first seems Mendelssohnian, but Schumann gives his own 'bite' to the music as the strings spit out the notes of the dominant rhythm of the scherzo. The trio section of most scherzos remains 3-in-a-bar like the scherzo itself, but Schumann changes it to an alla breve two-in-a-bar.

III. Adagio - A short introduction leads to the main theme played by the violin. The main theme is then taken up by the cello. A central section adds contrast before the opening theme returns.

IV. Presto - The finale begins with an energetic first theme. The second theme also bristles with energy. Themes are developed, after which a contrasting section slow in tempo and consisting of chords accompanying a different theme. The energy of the opening returns in a short coda.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Couperin - Passacaille

The music of the Frenchman François Couperin was well-known and appreciated by many composers of his era, the most notable being J.S. Bach. He came from a very musical family and was called Couperin The Grand by his contemporaries to differentiate him from the rest of the family.  Couperin's influence spanned the centuries as Brahms and R. Strauss were also influenced by his music.

Couperin is best known for his works for solo harpsichord, published in Paris between 1713 -1730. There are over 200 pieces in four volumes, with pieces arranged similar to the Baroque dance suite, but Couperin called his sets of pieces ordres. The first and last pieces of these ordres were in the same key with the middle pieces in closely related keys. There are a total of 27 ordres in the four volumes of harpsichord pieces.

Couperin was a virtuoso keyboard performer and wrote a treatise called 'The Art Of Harpsichord Playing'  that remains a valuable source of information about performance practices of his time. Couperin delighted in giving some of his pieces descriptive titles that suited his music. He could be bold with his harmony for his time, and was fond of peppering his pieces with passing dissonances. Couperin was born in Paris and died there in 1733.

The Passacaille (French for passacaglia) was published in his second book of piano pieces, and was included with nine other pieces in the 8th ordre.  It is labeled a passaglia by the composer, the piece is also labeled rondeau in the music:

The first four bars of the piece are played and repeated. After these eight bars, there is an episode of different material, and the beginning eight bars return. The piece follows this pattern throughout. So is this piece really a passacaglia? In its simplest form, a  passacaglia  is a set of continuous variations played with a ground bass accompaniment throughout. This piece by Couperin is actually in a type of rondo form, as the variations are not accompanied by a ground bass, and Couperin says as much right before the music starts. But Couperin didn't use a musical form as a rigid form to pour their notes into, but as a tool to help express themselves, and they gave no thought to changing the form to fit the music. Perhaps the name is used because of the character of the piece, as passaglias are usually slow and serious. The repeating eight measures are certainly slow and serious. They return after each interlude (of varying moods themselves) with a plodding inevitability, as if there is no escaping whatever fate they represent .

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 15

Dmitri Shostakovich has been called one of the most influential composers, especially of symphonies, of the 20th century.  His 15 symphonies were composed from 1924 when he was seventeen, to 1971 when he was 65, covering most of his career and life as a composer.  His last symphony was written a few years before his death, and since its premiere there has been much written about it, good and bad.  The symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Allegretto -  This movement was originally labeled by Shostakovich as 'The Toyshop'. It begins with the tinkling of the glockenspiel, and the music unrolls in the type of nervous humor that Shostakovich was known for.  Shostakovich was also known for his quoting of other composers music (and in this symphony even his own) and the most obvious quote in this movement is the familiar one from The William Tell Overture by Rossini, which Shostakovich uses four times in the movement. The music twists and turns into more than 'toyshop' music as the nervous humor changes to something tinged with sinister sounds. With punctuation provided by castanets, and two sections of quite complex polyrhythms (one for strings, one for woodwinds) the movement stumbles its way to the end.

II.Adagio - Largo - Adagio - Allegretto - In contrast to the goings-on of the previous movement, the second movement begins with the solemn playing of the brass section. A solo cello plays a mournful theme that utilizes a very large part of the range of the instrument. The brass section enters once again, the solo cello continues where it left off with its lament, but is twice interrupted by a harsh, dissonant chord by the woodwinds (these chords will appear again later in the symphony). Flutes play a new theme, a solo trombone plays its version of the lament. After more from the flutes, solo trombone and solo violin, the dissonant woodwind chords lead to a tremendous outburst from the entire orchestra. After the outburst, combinations of instruments play quiet snippets of themes heard before, with a wood block clopping in the background. A solo vibraphone plays with a solo double bass. The opening music for brass reappears and the movement quietly draws to a close with the timpani and strings.

III. Allegretto - The third movement begins without pause with music of nervous humor like the opening of the first movement. Trombone glissandos are added as the music gads about and around a solo violin. It ends abruptly with the clacking of percussion.

IV. Adagio - Allegretto - Adagio - Allegretto -  The movement begins with another quote, this time from Wagner's Fate leitmotif from Der Ring des Nibelungen. This theme is heard sporadically in the first section of the movement. The music drifts to a theme that sounds similar to the theme from the first movement of his Seventh Symphony 'Leningrad'.  There is a tremendous crescendo, and the seventh symphony theme is heard again. The music winds down with a dissonant chord in the orchestra. Violins play another Wagner quote, the grief  leitmotif from Tristan And Isolde.  The dissonant woodwind chords of the second movement reappear, after which Shostakovich has the strings play a long pedal point chord while the celesta, glockenspiel, side drum, and castanets take turns clacking out soft rhythms reminiscent of the end of the third movement while the timpani plays the seventh symphony theme. This final section is similar to the ending of his 4th Symphony (which was withdrawn by the composer from the premiere in 1936, just after Shostakovich was denounced the first time, and not premiered until 1961) The dialog of the percussion instruments (and the symphony) ends with the glockenspiel and celesta together sounding a note over the evaporating pedal point of the strings.

The 15th Symphony is a work of complexity, both musical and emotional. Outside of the percussion section, the orchestra is large but not as large as some of Shostakovich's other symphonies.  Instruments are used frequently in smaller groupings that are seasoned with the salt-and-pepper of the percussion section. The symphony has an almost chamber music sound to it.  A friend of the composer, Isaak Glikman, quoted what the composer told him about the many quotes from other composers in the work:
"I don't myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them."
Dmitri Shostakovich has been dead for almost 40 years, and in death as in life his music is still creating controversy.  He was a complex man, capable of writing deep, soulful music and also capable of writing loud, boisterous clap-trap, sometimes within the same composition. In essence, his music will always carry a sense of mystery, of literal or perceived extra-musical meaning, which can be said of many composers.

Call Shostakovich's music what you will, like it or hate it, it's hard to ignore either way. While he most certainly can be morose in the extreme,  his best compositions are written from the heart. He is a composer that I admit I have to be in a certain mood to hear. It just doesn't sit well in my ear sometimes, which says as much about me as his music. But at other times, Shostakovich's music is what I need to hear.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wieniawski - Violin Concerto No. 1 In F-sharp Minor

Henryk Wieniawski was one of the great violin virtuosos of the 19th century who was born in Poland and showed such great ability that at the age of nine he was admitted into the Paris Conservatory of Music. There were many Polish exiles in Paris at the time due to the political circumstances of their homeland, with Chopin being one of them. The young Wieniawski met Chopin, who became an artistic influence on him. After he graduated (about twelve or thirteen years of age) he began giving concerts and recitals. Wieniawski's contemporaries thought highly of his abilities and compared him to Paganini.

In 1860 when he was 25 years old he accepted an invitation from Anton Rubinstein to go to St. Petersburg, Russia. He accepted the invitation and lived there until 1872.  He taught many students, participated in string quartets and led orchestras during his time there. In 1872-1874 he toured The United States with Rubinstein. Rubinstein wrote about the tour:
"During the time I remained in America we traveled through the United States as far as New Orleans, and I appeared before an audience two hundred and fifteen times. It often happened that we gave two or three concerts in as many different cities in the same day. The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfaction, that when several years later I was asked to repeat my American tour, with half a million guaranteed to me, I refused point blank. It may be interesting to note that the contract was fulfilled to the letter. 
Wieniawski, a man of extremely nervous temperament, who, owing to ill health quite often failed to meet his appointments in St. Petersburg, - both at the Grand Theater and at the Conservatory, - never missed one concert in America. However ill he might be, he always contrived to find strength enough to appear on the platform with his fairy-like violin. The secret of his punctuality lay in the fact that by the terms of the contract he must forfeit one thousand francs for every non-appearance." 
Anton Rubinstein
Wieniawski moved to Brussels in 1875 and became professor of violin at the Conservatory there. His heart condition (the illness spoken of by Rubinstein) became worse, but he continued giving concerts, sometimes suffering attacks of angina so sever he had to pause in the middle of the concert. He began yet another concert tour in 1879 in Russia, but before finishing the tour he was taken to a hospital in Odessa after a concert.  He died of a massive heart attack a few weeks later. He was 44 years old.

Wieniawski began composing early and his first composition was published in 1847 when he was twelve years old. His opus numbers only went to 24, but he wrote some very important works in the violin literature, including two published violin concertos (a third has been lost).
The first concerto is in three movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  The clarinet begins the movement and the rest of the orchestra follows with the playing of the first theme. The cellos announce the second theme that is taken over by the violins that soar into their high register before the soloist enters with the violin's take on the first theme. The violin is naturally the dominant voice as it explores both themes while also playing some new ones of its own. Roughly in the middle of the movement the violin spits out aggressive down-bowed double stops in a section that ultimately leads to a repetition of the first theme by the orchestra which soon gives in to the cadenza for the soloist. With notes in the stratosphere and fireworks galore, the cadenza segues into a repetition of the second theme, which is followed by a varied repeat of the middle section. A coda follows played with fire by the violin that contains a repetition of the opening theme and the ending of the movement.

II. Preghiera: Larghetto -  Preghiera means prayer in Italian, and gives an indication of how the composer meant this music to be played. It is in direct contrast to the preceding movement as it is lyrical and calm. It is also very short.

III.  Rondo: Allegro giocoso -  There is no pause between the preceding movement as the brass play a fanfare to begin the finale.  The violin dances with the orchestra through this movement save for a contrasting section that is more mellow in nature. There are no fireworks for the soloist in this last movement as in the first, but it still demands much of the violin and player. The violin increases speed and wraps up the concerto with another note in the stratosphere before the final chord.

The second violin concerto of Wieniawski is played more often in concert than the first, with the first being criticized as being out of balance because of the weaknesses of the last two movements as compared to the first movement. No doubt Wieniawski was feeling his way with his first concerto as it was his first attempt at a full-blown concerto, and he obviously learned a lot from the experience of the first to make the second more balanced and agreeable with audiences. The first movement of this concerto is the star, but the other two movements aren't terrible music. Wieniawski was one of the 19th centuries great violinist composers along with musicians such as Paganini, Joachim and others that had a tremendous influence on violin playing and used their compositions to show off their technique and musicianship.

The argument can be made that the truly great violin concertos were written by composers that were not virtuosos (I'm thinking primarily of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms), but that doesn't mean concertos written by virtuosos are not without merit. The concertos of Wieniawski are great in their own way and are worth listening to and studying .

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Liadov - The Enchanted Lake, A Fairy Tale Scene

Anatoly Liadov was a supremely gifted musician and composer that lacked the inner drive to write music equal to his potential. It wasn't that he was exactly lazy. He was kept busy as a teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (one of his students was the young Prokofiev), a conductor that premiered Scriabin's first two symphonies, an editor that along with Rimsky-Korsakov edited the music of Glinka for publication, and an admired pianist.

His father was chief conductor of the Imperial opera Company, his grandfather was also a conductor. with many other family members involved in music, ballet and theater, so at a very early age Liadov was exposed to the late night gatherings frequented by musicians and actors. This upbringing probably contributed to his unreliability and a certain lack of inner drive.

Liadov was a conservative, very precise, meticulous composer who paid an extraordinary amount of attention to detail. This trait may have also contributed to his meager compositional output, especially with works for orchestra. His talent was more suitable for miniature pieces for piano.  But there were exceptions.

After Liadov married into money in 1884, his compositions got even fewer in number but it was after his marriage that he wrote three miniature tone poems for full orchestra, some of his finest works in any genre. Baba Yaga and Kikomora are based on folktales, while The Enchanted Lake has no direct inspiration besides Liadov's imagination. He called it a Fairy Tale Scene and described it to a friend:
“How picturesque it is, how clear, the multitude of stars hovering over the mysteries of the deep. But above all no entreaties and no complaints; only nature -  cold, malevolent, and fantastic as a fairy tale. One has to feel the change of the colors, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness and seeming immobility.”
The work is scored for a large orchestra minus trumpets and trombones. It is pure mood painting and conveys a sense of mystery that pleased the composer very much. of all his compositions, it was his favorite. The piece lasts under eight minutes, and contains some of the most beautiful music ever written .

Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 1

Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony was not his first foray into symphonic form. He wrote a scherzo for orchestra when he was thirteen, and as a student wrote the first movement of a symphony. His official first symphony was composed between January and October of 1895 when he was 22 years old. Rachmaninoff was typically a composer that worked very rapidly, but the first symphony caused him much effort and work. He finally dedicated ten-hour workdays to see the work through to completion.

It did not have its premiere until nearly two years later. Rachmaninoff played the work in a version for piano for the composer and teacher Sergei Taneyev in 1896. Taneyev's negativity towards the work led Rachmaninoff to make changes in the symphony, and he was finally granted a performance of the work in March of 1897 in St. Petersburg with Alexander Glazunov conducting.

Rimsky-Korsakov attended the rehearsals of the symphony and was not overly impressed, and neither was the conductor Glazunov. Glazunov was not a very good conductor to begin with and his control of the orchestra was not strong. Rachmaninoff tried to make suggestions to the conductor but Glazunov ignored him.  Glazunov even had the nerve to make some cuts in the work and change some of the orchestration, with neither action benefiting the symphony. To add insult to injury, people who attended the performance thought that Glazunov, a heavy drinker, was drunk. Whether he was drunk or sober, Glazunov never much cared for or understood Rachmaninoff's music.  The effect on Rachmaninoff was devastating. He left the hall before the work ended. Critics were brutal, especially one of The Five composers César Cui who in part wrote:
 "If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a program symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell."
As for Rachmaninoff, his initial reaction was calm, but with the passage of time the negative reception of his symphony caused him to lose his self-confidence and he gave up composing until 1899. He did not destroy the work, but it was not performed again in his lifetime. Rachmaninoff put the score in his writing desk and it was left in Russia after Rachmaninoff fled the country in 1917.

In 1944 the instrumental parts and a two-piano reduction done by the composer were found in the archives of the Leningrad Conservatory Library. The manuscript score has never been found. Using the available parts and piano version, the symphony was reconstructed and given its second performance at the Moscow Conservatory in 1945.

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Grave - Allegro non troppo - The reasons for the poor reception to the symphony are many. Rachmaninoff was not a member of the 'ruling elite' of Russian music at the time. The Five (at least the three that were still alive; Mussorgsky and Borodin were dead) had become the gatekeepers of what constituted 'Russian' music. Rimsky-Korsakov had grown conservative, Cui was more of a critic than composer and Balakirev was increasingly irrational, with honorary member Glazunov being borderline reactionary. What was once a group of progressive and forward-looking composers could not support the changes Rachmaninoff brought to the symphony.

The first movement begins with a slow and powerful introduction. It is only seven bars long, but sets the stage for the entire symphony. The simple motif:
Makes an appearance in each movement of the symphony and acts to unify the entire work, as does the main theme of the movement. The main theme of the first movement is taken from the medieval Dies Irae plainchant, a kind of idee fixe that appears in different guises in many of Rachmaninoff's works. The second theme first appears in the strings, a gentle melody in contrast to the first theme in texture and volume.  This theme climaxes and then is brushed aside by a fugal treatment of the first theme. The theme is thoroughly worked out and developed before the recapitulation. The two themes are presented again along with the outburst heard after the exposition, which is followed by a coda. The movement ends suddenly with a figure derived from the first theme.

II. Allegro animato - A scherzo in everything but name, the movement begins with snatches of notes from the introduction and the main theme of the first movement. The main theme of the movement (Dies Irae in another disguise) is interrupted by call-like motives. The middle section has a new tune made from bits and pieces of what has gone on before. Thematic material floats in and out and the movement comes to a quiet close.

III. Larghetto - A lyrical tune punctuated by the opening motive of the introduction. There is a middle section that is darker in mood, but the tune reappears and is repeated until it becomes very quiet. The music gently evaporates with the sounds of clarinets and plucked strings.

IV. Allegro con fuoco - The finale begins with martial music in a variant of the Dies Irae theme. The music grows in lushness before it resumes its march-like quality. The music remains tuneful with brass added for emphasis. Rachmaninoff keeps everything moving with energy as snippets of motifs somewhat familiar make their appearance. The tension builds, syncopations are heard. The bass drum and percussion add texture to the music that grows until a tam tam signals the beginning of the end. The opening motif insistently reappears and guides the brass and orchestra to the final chords

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Gottschalk - Souvenir de Porto Rico 'Marche de Gibaros'

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829 and began playing the piano very early.  By 1840 he had given his first public performance as a child prodigy. At the age of thirteen he left with his father for Europe to get classical training, but he was denied entry into the Paris Conservatory because he was an American.

Despite the prejudice against Americans, Gottshalk managed to make his way into the European musical establishment through family connections and was exposed to classical technique in piano playing and composition and he learned from the examples.  His piano playing and  compositions were a sensation in Europe, and after his return to America in 1853, he began touring extensively. He toured all over The United States, Cuba, Central America and South America.

Gottshalk toured Puerto Rico in 1857, and while there took a short vacation and stayed at a sugar plantation owned by an English fan of his music. He was so taken with the scenery and local music he extended his to relax and compose. One of the pieces he wrote while there was Souvenir de Porto Rico for piano solo.  It is a march built upon two Puerto Rican folk songs. The piece is actually a set of double variations as the themes follow each other in succession and are varied upon each repetition. The subtitle  Marche de Gibaros comes from Gottshalk watching the peasant farmers, the Gibaros, work the fields. Gottshalk loved the sights and sounds of the Caribbean so much he stayed almost five years, absorbing and composing.

Gottshalk wrote about his inspiration for the piece:
"[I was] perched upon the edge of a crater, [and] my cabin overlooked the whole country. Every evening I moved my piano out upon the terrace, and played for myself alone, everything that the scene opened up before me inspired. It was there that I composed 'Marche des Gibaros.' "
Gottshalk's mother was creole, his grandmother and his nurse were both born in Haiti, so he was exposed to many different musical traditions from the beginning. He continued to absorb different musical traditions and styles for all of his short life.  Souvenir de Porto Rico is a fine example of the way Gottshalk combined Caribbean and African rhythms and folk song with classical form and virtuosity. He was using rhythms that became associated with Ragtime and Jazz long before they became popular.  All of this makes for very good music to listen to, and music that takes a virtuoso technique to do full justice.

Gottshalk was involved in a scandal with a student in Oakland, California in 1865 and left the U.S. never to return. He ended up in South America and died, age 40, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1869 from complications of malaria.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mussorgsky - Songs And Dances Of Death

Of the Russian composers that made up The Five in the 19th century, Modest Mussorgsky may have had the most natural talent of them all.  He began piano lessons with his mother at the age of six and made such rapid progress that by ten was performing for family and friends. His first composition was published when he was twelve years old.

Although his musical talent was obvious, Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School Of The Guards when he was thirteen to continue the family tradition of military service.  He continued his study of music while at the school and his natural abilities as a pianist were in large demand. When Mussorgsky was seventeen he met Borodin and struck up a friendship, and he soon met Balakirev and began to study with him. Soon after that, Mussorgsky resigned his military commission.

He learned much from Balakirev, but after a time Mussorgsky set out on his own. His family was well-off financially and Mussorgsky had no money worries until the Emancipation Of The Serfs in 1861 which caused Mussorgsky's family sufficient economic hardship that he could no longer rely on  them for support. He took a minor civil service job to help make ends meet. Due to chronic alcoholism, he composed erratically and failed to finish many compositions. His life continued its downward spiral, although he did manage to finish his masterpiece Boris Godunov and some other compositions. He lost his civil service job in 1880 and was reduced to living on the charity of friends until he died in 1881 of alcoholism at the age of 42.

Mussorgsky wrote the song cycle Songs And Dances Of  Death in 1875-1877 to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov who was distantly related to Mussorgsky. That Mussorgsky was quite taken with the poet and his works is expressed in a letter:
After Pushkin and Lermontov I have not encountered what I have in Kutuzov... Sincerity leaps from almost everything in Kutuzov, almost everywhere you scent the freshness of a fine warm morning, together with a matchless inborn technique... And how he is drawn to the people, history!
Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov
Obviously Mussorgsky was commenting on the power of Kutuzov's poetry to evoke images and feelings, in this particular case the images and feelings concerning death.

The four songs all deal with the figure of death and how death claims its victims in ways all too familiar to people in 19th century Russia. There are versions of the songs for voice and orchestra by Glazunov/ Rimsky-Korsakov and others, the latest being by Dmitri Shostakovich. But  the songs were originally written for piano and voice, with the piano doing much more than simply accompanying the singer. Singer and piano combine in some of the most powerful songs ever written. As I do not understand Russian,  I can only approximate the full effect of these songs in the original language.  But I am enough of a musician to understand some of the musical power and drama Mussorgsky put into these songs. Music itself is a language, and Mussorgsky expresses much in these songs written for the two instruments he understood very well; the piano and human voice.  I want to thank Sergy Rybin for extending his kind permission to include his translation of the Russian texts.

Lullaby -  Mussorgsky paints a picture of death claiming a sick child. The poet sets the scene, death enters and a short dialog between the child's mother and death begins. I have bracketed indications of which entity is speaking for clarification - 

[Poet] - A child is groaning...  A candle, burning out,
Dimly flickers onto surroundings.
The whole night, rocking the cradle,
A mother has not dozed away with sleep.
Early-early in the morning, carefully, on the door
Compassionate Death -- Knock!
The mother shuddered, looked back with worry...
[Death] - "Don't get frightened, my dear!
Pale morning already looks in the window...
With crying, anguishing and loving
You have tired yourself, have a little nap,
I'll sit instead of you.
You've failed to pacify the child.
I'll sing sweeter than you" --
[Mother]  - "Quiet! My child rushes and struggles,
Tormenting my soul!"
[Death]  - "Well, with me he'll soon be appeased.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "The cheeks are fading, the breath in weakening...
Be quiet, I beg you!" --
[Death]  - "That's a good sign, the suffering will quieten,
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "Be gone, you damned thing!
With your tenderness you'll kill my joy!" --
[Death]  - "No, a peaceful sleep I'll conjure up for the baby.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "Have pity, wait at least for a moment
with finishing your awful song!" --
[Death]  - "Look, he fell asleep with my quiet singing.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby."
translation © Sergy Rybin

Serenade -  
Magical languor, blue night,
Trembling darkness of spring.
The sick girl takes in, with her head dropped,
The whisper of the night's silence.
Sleep does not close her shining eyes,
Life beckons towards pleasures,
Meanwhile under the window in the midnight silence
Death sings a serenade:
"In the gloom of captivity, severe and stifling,
Your youth is fading away;
A mysterious knight, with magic powers
I'll free you up.
Stand up, look at yourself: with beauty
Your translucent face is shining,
Your cheeks are rosy, with a wavy plait
Your figure is entwined, like with a cloud.
The blue radiance of your piercing eyes
Is brighter than skies and fire.  
Your breath flutters with the midday heat ...
You have seduced me.
Your hearing is captured with my serenade,
Your voice called for a knight,
The knight has come for the ultimate reward;
The hour of ecstasy has arrived. 
Your body is tender, your trembling is ravishing...
Oh, I'll suffocate you
in my strong embraces: listen to my seductive
chatter! ... be silent!... You are mine!"
translation © Sergy Rybin

Trepak -  
Forest and glades, no one is around.
A snow-storm is crying and groaning,
It feels as in the gloom of the night
The Evil One is burying someone;
Hush, it is so! In the darkness
Death is hugging and caressing an old man,
With the drunkard She is dancing a trepak,
While singing a song into his ear:
"Oh, my little wretched man,
Got drunk, stumbled along the road,
But the witch-blizzard has risen furiously,
And driven you from the glade into the dense forest.
Tortured with anguish and need,
Lie down, curl up and fall asleep, my dear!
I'll warm you up with snow, my darling,
And stir up a great game around you.
Shake up the bed, you blizzard-swan!
Hey, get going, start chanting, you weather
A fairytale, that could last all night,
So that the drunkard could fall asleep soundly!
Hey you, forests, skies and clouds,
Gloom, wind and fleeting snow,
Wreathe into a shroud, snowy and fluffy;
With it I'll cover our old man, like a baby...
Sleep, my little friend, happy wretch,
The summer has come and blossomed!
Above the fields the sun is laughing and sickles roam,
The song hovers around; the doves are flying about..."
translation © Sergy Rybin

The Field Marshal - 
The battle is thundering, the armor is shining,
Copper cannons are roaring,
The troops are running, the horses are rushing
And red rivers are flowing.
The midday is blazing -- people are fighting,
The sun is declining -- the fight is stronger,
The sunset is fading away -- but the enemies
Are still battling more fierce and hateful.
And night has fallen on the battlefield.
The armies have parted in the darkness...
Everything has fallen quiet, and in the night's mist
The groans have risen to the heavens.
Then, illuminated by moonlight,
On her battle horse,
Shining with the whiteness of her bones,
Appeared Death; and in the silence,
Taking in moans and prayers,
Full of proud satisfaction,
Like a field marshal she circled around
The place of battle,
And having ridden to the top on the hill,
looked around, stopped, smiled....
And above the battlefield
Roared her fateful voice:
"The battle is finished! I won over everyone!
You all submitted before me, soldiers! 
Life has made you quarrel, I have reconciled you!
Stand up as one for the parade, corpses!
Pass in front of me in a pompous march,
I want to count my troops;
Then deposit your bones into the earth,
It is sweet to rest from life in the ground!
Year after year will pass,
And even the memory of you will disappear.
I will not forget and loudly above you
Will hold a feast at the midnight hour!
With a heavy dance I'll trample
The raw earth, so that the realm of the grave
Your bones will never be able to leave,
So that you'll never rise from the ground! "
translation © Sergy Rybin

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Liadov - Baba Yaga

In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being that takes the form of an old woman that lives deep in the forest. She lives in a hut that stands on the huge legs of a chicken. She flits about the wilderness while sitting in a mortar and moving herself with a pestle. She's not strictly an evil entity as she can give assistance as well as evil to those who seek her out.  The folklore for the figure varies according to the area. The Russian Baba Yaga folklore has inspired Russian artists as well as musicians. Two Russian composers that wrote works based on the legend were Mussorgsky, who wrote one of the pieces in his Pictures From An Exhibition called The Hut On Fowl Legs,  and the piece discussed here by Anatoly Liadov. 

Liadov came from a family of musicians, and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1870 to study violin and piano. He was a very good pianist, but his lack of drive began early as he was expelled from Rimsky-Korsakov's class for extensive absenteeism. He managed to get back into good graces to complete his studies and began teaching at the conservatory in 1878 and taught many young composers including Modest Mussorgsky and Sergei Prokofiev

Liadov was well regarded as a composer in his lifetime. Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky all thought much of his technical abilities, but Liadov's output as a composer was relatively small thanks to lack of ambition and perhaps a lack of self confidence. He finished no composition of any major length, but was a master of the miniature, whether he was writing for piano or orchestra. He married into money in 1884, which meant that between that and his teaching position he was hardly in need of money, no doubt another stumbling block to his composing career. 

Baba Yaga was written between the years 1891 - 1904 and the piece shows Liadov's flair for orchestral color.  In a piece that lasts under four minutes, Liadov manages to paint a picture of Russian forests and folklore, a tone poem in miniature.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Ruggles - Sun Treader

Carl Ruggles was foul-mouthed, highly opinionated, crude, and merciless in his criticism of other composers except Charles Ives who was his friend. He was a man that spouted disrespect for Brahms, calling him a "sissy". But the worst criticism and harshest judgments were aimed at only one composer - himself. Self-critical in the extreme, he wrote and rewrote his music, only to destroy most of it. He lived to be 95 years old but left only eight published compositions, with the longest one taking about 16 minutes to play, the piece for orchestra he called Sun Treader.

Ruggles took violin lessons in early childhood, and started calling himself Carl instead of his given name Charles out of his respect for German composers, especially Wagner. He was classically trained in composition and conducting at Harvard, but maintained a hand to mouth existence most of his life by teaching, conducting, being a music reviewing, engraving, and as a painter had one-man shows of his work.
Ruggles' music sounds something like Schoenberg's as it is dissonant and atonal, but Ruggles did not practice Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. Ruggles wrote dissonant free melody and what came to be called dissonant counterpoint.  With dissonance the norm, Ruggles added to the complexity by using an ever-shifting metrical pulse of complex time signatures.

His method of composing was pain-staking, tedious and he took years to compose a single work. He would sit at the piano and play a single chord over and over again, giving it the 'test of time' as he said.  His most well-known work is Sun Treader.  He began it in 1926 and it was intended for a concert in New York City, but the work was not completed until six years later. It was premiered in Paris in 1931 and was not played in The United States until 1966.

The name of the piece comes from a poem by Robert Browning titled Pauline, specifically a line from the poem, "Sun-treader—life and light be thine for ever" a line that is in praise of Shelley the poet. Such things that inspire composers are usually not meant to be taken literally. Ruggles' work has nothing to do with Shelley the poet, but it is a result of the feelings Ruggles got from the poem, a combination of grandeur, futility, anger, and who knows what else. So Sun Treader is in essence a symphonic poem in the tradition began by Liszt.

Sun Treader begins with notes hammered out by the timpani as the orchestra makes initial loud, dissonant statements that sound like chaos. The music quiets somewhat in volume and the dissonance is not as harsh but it is still there. The music ebbs and flows with sections of relative calm and sections of unsettling grittiness. The hammer blows of the timpani return throughout the piece as a sort of guidepost to help us through the music, and as a signal that the climatic end of the piece is near.

In the liner notes of Ruggles Complete Works written by Ruggles' good friend John Kirkpatrick he hears the work as a series of arcs of dissonant melody that  fall into a pattern of traditional sonata form - exposition, development, recapitulation, coda.  For anyone who wishes to explore Ruggles' music further, I recommend the reissue of the recording by the Buffalo Philharmonic and Michael Tilson-Thomas and the excellent liner notes that accompany it written by John Kirkpatrick.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Smetana - String Quartet No. 1, 'From My Life'

Bedřich Smetana was one of the first musicians to create a nationalistic style of  Czech music. His music was  closely associated with the struggle of his country for independence, and Smetana himself participated in the Prague Uprising in 1848 which was also the time of his first nationalistic compositions.

Smetana was a child prodigy on the piano and gave his first public performance at the age of six. After his brief stint as a revolutionary in 1848 he founded the Piano Institute in Prague in 1849. He contacted Liszt for advice and assistance, and the two became friends. The Institute gave regular recitals which Smetana participated in along with the students, and Liszt attended some of these recitals. By 1856 Smetana had suffered the death of three children and his wife contracted tuberculosis. His compositions were not being received very well, and the hoped-for relaxing of the political climate didn't happen, so he moved to Sweden where he taught and composed.

He eventually was coaxed by admirers to come back and he returned to Prague in 1860 and continued to compose, concentrating on helping to establish Czech nationalistic operas. He was appointed conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague after he wrote his first two operas, one of which was his very popular opera The Bartered Bride.

Smetana was involved in controversies during his tenure as conductor, as the more conservative factions in Prague distrusted Smetana's siding with the progressive music and ideas of Wagner and Liszt. Liszt became his friend and gave Smetana advice that led to the founding of the Piano Institute in Prague. The Institute gave regular recitals which Smetana participated in along with the students, and Liszt attended some of these recitals.

After the intrigues of the opera house and the continuing politics of his enemies he was on the verge of being fired as conductor of the Provisional Theater, but due to the efforts of his backers such as Antonín Dvořák, he was reappointed as Artistic Director of the theater in 1873.  The bitter controversies were contributing factors to the illness that beset him in 1874. He became totally deaf in his right ear and advised theater management that if his health did not improve he would resign. By October he was totally deaf in both ears and resigned. Smetana concentrated on composing and in 1876 wrote his first string quartet, subtitled 'From My Life'.  As Smetana explained to a friend:

"I wanted to depict in music the course of my life…written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly." 

The 1st String Quartet is in 4 movements with comments in italics by the composer:
I. Allegro vivo appassionato -  
"1st part - The call of fate into the life struggle. Love of art in my youth, my inclination towards romanticism in love as well as music, an inexpressible yearning for something, and a warning concerning my future misfortune.  The long insistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness. I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me."

The first movement begins with an E minor chord, after which the violins play a steady, subdued eighth-note figure as the cello plays an extended E in the low bass. This is all in preparation for the entrance of the viola with Smetana's 'fate' motive.
The motive appears throughout the first movement and is supplemented with other themes that express Smetana's emotions towards his youth.

II. Allegro moderato à la Polka -  
"The second movement, a quasi- polka, brings to mind the joyful days of youth when I composed dance tunes and was known everywhere as a passionate lover of dancing."

III. Largo sostenuto - 
"The happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my wife.  The struggle with the unfavorable fate, the final reaching of my goal."

IV. Vivace -
"The fourth movement describes the discovery that I could treat national elements in music and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.”

After Smetana's joyous music of the first part of the finale, there is a sudden interruption as the tinnitus that began Smetana's descent into deafness is depicted by a high harmonic E played by the first violin while the other instruments play tense tremolos. The music becomes melancholy as the fate motive heard in the first movement comes back. The music itself slowly goes silent as the movement ends with silence, a poignant representation of Smetana's deafness.

Smetana composed for a few more years until his mind experienced a descent of its own into madness. His family nursed him as long as possible, but he  was confined to a lunatic asylum after he became violent and incoherent and died there a few months later in 1884.  There is still controversy about the cause of death, but the evidence points strongly to end - stage syphilis .

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Schubert - Piano Trio No. 1 In B-flat Major

Schubert wrote two piano trios in the last year of his life, neither of which were published or heard in public until after his death. It was the first compositions in the form since his last piano trio written when he was fifteen. Any of Schubert's music played during his lifetime was usually played at a 'Schubertaide', an informal impromptu party held in the home of a wealthy friend and admirer. The first trio was heard in a private house at the engagement party of one of his friends.

By the last year of his life, Schubert's daily routine usually consisted of composing in the morning, visiting and taking long walks in the afternoon, with evenings spent with his friends, sometimes at a Schubertaide, sometimes drinking wine and singing. Schubert was as a man possessed while he was composing. His moods could run from dark and depressing to wild and fun-loving. These wide fluctuations in mood are sometimes reflected in his music, especially in the last years of his short life when he suffered with the end stages of syphilis. The 1st piano Trio is somewhat of an exception, as the music is good-natured and cheerful, at least for the most part.

Schubert's 1st Piano Trio is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro moderato - The first movement consists of two themes, each of which unwind in the lengthy exposition, and are expounded upon in the also lengthy development section that is punctuated by changes in key and mood. This is the music of Schubert's last years that seemed to many to be overly long, but music the Robert Schumann labeled as 'of heavenly length'.  The themes have a final appearance in a coda.

II. Andante un poco mosso - The cello is center-stage at the start, with the violin and piano taking up the pleasant tune. The three instruments take turns repeating and commenting on the melody with Schubert keeping everything in balance in music of seamless beauty.

III.  Scherzo - Allegro -  The piano starts things off, with the violin and cello joining in a jaunty Ländler. The trio shifts gears and becomes a simple Waltz, after which the first dance repeats.

IV. Rondo- Allegro vivace -  A rondo that also has elements of the theme and variation form .