Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mozart - Piano Quartet In G Minor K. 478

When Mozart wrote this music in 1785,  quartets consisting of a violin, viola, cello and piano were somewhat of a novelty. Mozart was the first major composer to write for this combination of instruments. The music publishers of the time were always looking for new music to print for the amateur market, and a publisher in Vienna commissioned Mozart to write 3 (possibly more) piano quartets. The publisher printed the first piano quartet in G minor, but due to poor sales the publisher canceled his commission for the rest. The reason for the poor sales was that the music was too difficult for amateurs to play, and was no less difficult for listeners to be able to understand and appreciate.

The list of Mozart's compositions in a minor key is short. Two piano sonatas, one string quartet, two piano concertos, two symphonies, a string quintet and the piano quartet are works in a minor key. And of these nine works, four are in the key of G minor, Mozart's dramatic key.

The Piano Quartet in G minor is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro - Mozart begins the movement straight away with the first theme stated in unison by all 4 instruments:
The piano answers the initial statement. Once again all 4 instruments in unison play the statement, this time in a different key. The music proceeds with changes to a major key while echos of the theme are played in accompaniment. The piano gives voice to the second theme, the violin answers with its own material. After more transitional material, the exposition is repeated.  The development section begins with material related to previously heard music and weaves it into an intricate contrapuntal discussion between the instruments. The first theme is heard in a major key and the music transitions into differing keys, and after an extended development section the recapitulation begins. The music makes the obligatory key changes to the second theme as the music moves towards the coda. The opening theme is heard once again and is transformed to a dramatic end to the movement.

II. Andante - The middle movement is in marked contrast to the dark drama of the first movement as the instruments take turns in this gentle music in B-flat major, the relative major of the home key of G minor.

III. Rondeau -  In an even deeper contrast to the first movement is this music in the key of G major. The piano opens the movement with the rondo theme, all join in the second statement of the theme. The strings alternate with the piano throughout this movement, with all 4 instruments coming together to add some spice to it occasionally. Mozart adds variety by dipping into a minor key in a few places, but the music doesn't stay there long. The opening theme of the movement comes back one last time, and Mozart wraps up the quartet with a short coda.

Monday, November 25, 2013

C.P.E. Bach - Symphony In E-flat Major Wq. 183/2

Bach was in the employ of Frederick The Great's court in Berlin for thirty years as court harpsichordist. In 1768 he left his post in Berlin and assumed the musical directorship of the five churches in Hamburg. The conservative musical atmosphere in Berlin was not conducive to Bach's interests in composing. Despite the added responsibilities of his new position in Hamburg, he had more opportunities to promote his own compositions as well as participate in the concert life of the city.

Bach wrote two sets  of symphonies while in Hamburg. The first six were symphonies for string orchestra and were commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Austria's ambassador to Berlin, who had traveled to Hamburg to visit Bach. Thanks to the patronage of van Swieten, Bach's music came to be performed in Vienna. It was at Sunday concerts given in van Swieten's  home that Mozart heard works by C.P.E Bach as well as J.S. Bach and Handel.

The four symphonies in twelve obbligato parts shows Bach at his most inventive. The earlier style of his father's that saw a single mood dominate a composition is thrown overboard in these symphonies as the younger Bach throws mood changes as well as key changes, rhythmic changes, and sudden pauses at the listener in each one of these symphonies. But despite the surprises in them, Bach manages to keep a flow to the music that creates a sense of balance between form and spontaneity.

The Symphony In E-flat is in three movements:
I - Allegro di molto - The movement begins with the full orchestra followed by phrases filled with trills played by the strings that are separated by pauses. The full orchestra resumes playing with the violins playing phrases of repeated notes. The second subject is played by the flute with simple violin accompaniment. The development section begins straight away with no repeat of the exposition. The opening material returns, themes modulate and segue into the next movement that begins without pause.

II. - Larghetto - A gentle tune is played by the flute, then taken up by the oboes with string accompaniment in this very short movement.

III. - Allegretto - A rhythmic movement in sonata form that contrasts with the short preceding larghetto. The violins chatter away, the winds add their share of seasoning to the mix. The first section of the movement is repeated, and is followed by a development section. The opening section returns once more with modulations occurring in the themes.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

J.C. Bach - Keyboard Sonata Opus 5, No. 5 In E Major

Johann Christian Bach was fifteen when his father Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750.  He went to Berlin to finish his studies with his elder half-brother C.P.E. Bach and while he was there he made his reputation as a keyboard player, especially of his older brother's works. About 1754 he moved to Italy where he immersed himself in the music and culture of the country to such an extent he converted from the Lutheran religion to Catholicism. He also began to change his style in composition from his older brother's to a style derived from his travels in Italy as well as France and England.

He originally intended to stay in England about a year when he first visited  in 1762 to stage some of his operas. His music became very popular, especially with the royal court, and he ended up living there until his death in 1782. He met the young Mozart in London in 1764 and his compositions became an influence on Mozart.

Bach began to favor the piano over the harpsichord early on, and was possibly the first performer to play on the instrument in public in England. English pianos of the time were known for their craftsmanship and innovations that gave the instrument a fuller tone and more reliable action. Haydn came to prefer English pianos also, as did Beethoven. Bach's Opus 5 consists of 6 sonatas that are designated for pianoforte or harpsichord, most likely because this was a period of transition between the two instruments and publishers naturally wanted to get as many sales as possible.  Modern day performances of the sonatas vary in the type of instrument used, just as the original printing intended. It is up to the performer to make the music 'speak' according to the instrument it is being played on.

The 5th sonata in the Opus 5 set is in three movements:
I. Allegro assai -  The movement begins with a rapid-fire figure that begins in the bass in eights notes and has the right hand enter to chase it after a sixteenth note rest. This continues for 4 measures. The bass then continues in a running wave of sixteenth notes as the treble plays a melody that is also peppered with sixteenth notes. This continues until a B major chord is reached which signals the start of the second subject which is in the dominant key of B major. The second subject is slightly more leisurely in the beginning but it soon takes off running with sixteenth notes and comes to a close on a B major chord. The exposition is repeated. The development starts with the figure from the beginning played in B major. Other material is developed, modulations occur, and the music returns to the home key of E major. During this early phase of sonata form it consisted of two parts to be repeated, the exposition and the development.

II. Adagio - This slow movement is in the key of A major with a steady broken chord accompaniment.

III. Prestissimo - A rondo with a rhythmic recurring subject. The first episode flirts with B major, the next  is in E minor. The subject reappears verbatim. The last episode modulates into related minor keys, the subject returns one last time and comes to a close.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Liadov - Kikomora

Not every classical composer excelled in larger forms. Composers such as Chopin, who did write a few works for piano and orchestra and a handful of piano sonatas, is best remembered for his works in the smaller form of the prelude, etude and other shorter works for the piano. That is not a criticism to be sure. It isn't the length of a composition that determines its value, it is whether the composer can move us with their craftsmanship, inspiration and quality of their work.

Anatoly Liadov was a composer that hardly wrote a single work in the larger forms for piano or orchestra. Practically his entire output consisted of miniatures for the piano or orchestra. The reasons for this have been posited by many. Some blamed his natural indolence, or his exceedingly self-critical nature, or perhaps his lack of self-confidence. It could have been that his mind worked best in the smaller forms. No one really knows. All we have is the compositions, some of them well-crafted jewels.  

Liadov took much of his inspiration from Russian folk tales and folk songs. He wrote three short symphonic poems with one, The Enchanted Lake, created in his own imagination and the other two, Baba Yaga and Kikomora, based on Slavic folk tales. The music for the tone poem was based on music originally written for an opera in 1879 that Liadov never finished. He turned this music into the tone poem in 1909.

As with most folk tales, the Kikomora shows differences by region and cultures.  The Polish version of a Kikomora (taken from the website Polish Supernatural Spirits):
A female house spirit that is sometimes said to be married to the Domowije. She usually lives behind the stove or in the cellar. She will look after the chickens and the housework if the home is well kept. If not, she will tickle, whistle, and whine at the children at night. She comes out at night to spin; if she appears spinning to someone it is said that person will die. To appease an angry Kikimora it is said one should wash all the pots and pans in a fern tea. She is said to look like an average woman with her hair down (Slavic women kept their heads covered).
Liadov said this about the Kikomora in his tone poem: 
She grows up with a magician in the mountains. From dawn to sunset the magician’s cat regales Kikimora with fantastic tales of ancient times and faraway places, as Kikimora rocks in a cradle made of crystal. It takes her seven years to reach maturity, by which time her head is no larger than a thimble and her body no wider than a strand of straw. Kikimora spins flax from dusk and to dawn, with evil intentions for the world.
The tone poem is in two sections, the first section is slow and mysterious and reflects the magical upbringing of Kikomora. The second section is faster and works up to a climax, presumably the Kikomora doing her malicious deeds to the members of the household she's invaded.  At the end, the music grows quiet and the Kikomora slinks away.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bruckner - Symphony No.1 In C Minor

By the time Anton Bruckner began his 1st Symphony in 1865 he was in his forties and had discovered the music of Wagner. Hearing Wagner's Tannhäuser in 1863 was a pivotal point in Bruckner's development. It was Wagner's use of the orchestra that so captivated Bruckner. He cared little about opera plots, paid so little attention to them that years later after  he attended a performance of Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung he was puzzled as to why they burned the woman at the end.  Before he had heard Wagner's music Bruckner had written some pieces for chorus, but Wagner's music gave him the drive to begin composing for orchestra, not as an imitator of Wagner, but as a composer of original works inspired by Wagner.

He had already written a symphony in F minor, the so-called Study Symphony, and he began what was to become Symphony No. 1 right after it. During the writing of the symphony he traveled to Munich to hear the premiere of Wagner's Tristan And Isolde, which probably inspired him all the more to finish the symphony. He worked for over a year on it, writing and rewriting, sometimes scrapping entire movements and beginning over. He finished the score in August of 1866, fifteen months after he had begun. Bruckner gave the symphony a nickname, das kecke Beserl, which is Austrian slang and roughly translates as 'the saucy maid', perhaps because of the spirit of the symphony, or perhaps for some other reason that we'll never know.

The symphony was premiered two years later in Linz with Bruckner himself conducting. The audience was sparse and the reception of the work mixed. No doubt some were surprised that Bruckner, the organist at the local church, could create such music. In later years Bruckner was in the habit of revising his earlier works. The 1st Symphony was no exception, and in 1890 Bruckner created a new version. For many years this was the only version that was played, but modern conductors prefer to play the earlier Linz version (so named because Bruckner wrote it when he lived in Linz.)

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro - The model for almost all of the beginnings of Bruckner's symphonies is the opening of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Like Beethoven's opening, Bruckner usually begins with a mysterious, quiet beginning with string tremolos and slow moving themes. But while Bruckner had seen the score for Beethoven's 9th, he did not actually hear it until this 1st symphony had been written. So this is the only Bruckner symphonies that begins right off with a marching theme that rapidly reaches a climax, only to die down again to the marching of the low strings. This leads to a transitional theme played by the flute which ushers in a secondary main theme. A climax is reached in the brass, the music dies down to a gentle tune played by the flute. The development section omits any reference to the opening march, but its return signals the recapitulation. After revisiting material from the exposition, Bruckner brings the movement to a thundering close with a short development of the opening march theme.

II. Adagio - Tonal ambiguity begins this movement but Bruckner eventually settles on A-flat. The music is solemn in part, but it ebbs and flows with passion and expression, an early example of Bruckner's skill as a composer of slow movements. About three-quarters of the way through there is a major climax (amid the usual number of Brucknerian lesser climaxes) and amid yet more ebbs and flows, the music winds down to a slow, quiet end.

III. - Scherzo: Schnell - Trio: Langsamer - The trademarks of the Bruckner scherzo are already present in this early example as the music propels itself with strong rhythmic drive and changing dynamics. The trio provides a contrast to the drive of the scherzo as it is more slowly paced and smoother in contour. The scherzo is repeated and stomps its way to the end of the movement.

IV. Finale: Bewegt, feurig - The movement begins double forte, is full of changes in tempo and dynamics. Roughly half way through, the music slams on the brakes and comes to a sudden stop. It takes a while for the music to get back up to speed until the music builds up to a triumphant ending in C major.

Draeseke - Symphony No. 3 'Symphonica Tragica'

Felix Draeseke was born in 1835 in Germany. He came from a long line of theologians, but at the age of 16 he turned his studies to music. The music of Richard Wagner made a huge impact on him and he became an unabashed Wagnerian, to the consternation of his teachers at the Liepzig Conservatory.  His devotion to the music of Wagner led to friction between the director of the conservatory and himself, so he decided to leave the conservatory in 1855.

Having placed himself firmly in the 'New Music' camp of Liszt and Wagner, he traveled to Wiemar and was introduced to Liszt by Hans von Bülow in 1856.  By this time he had written some pieces for orchestra and part of an opera. He remained in Wiemar until 186. In 1862 he went to Switzerland and remained there for 14 years. He returned to Germany in 1876 and resided in Dresden whee he was appointed to the faculty of the Dresden Conservatory in 1884. He died in 1913.

Draeseke composed in most all musical genres. During his life his music was held in high regard, even though von Bülow (who promoted his works) called his music a "hard nut to crack." Draeseke's music can be dense, contrapuntal, and especially early in his career could be labeled 'bombastic' in a Wagnerian sense. His style evened out somewhat later in his career, but he remained the 'tough nut' to the end, as witnessed by his massive choral work Christus: Mysterium in a Prelude and Three Oratorios , a work that took him thirty years to prepare, five years to compose, and three days to perform. His music remained popular for a time after his death in 1913, but it soon fell into neglect. The rise of the Third Reich in Germany saw a renewed interest and official promotion of  Draeseke's music, but after World War II it fell into neglect once again.

Symphony No. 3 'Symphonica Tragica' was composed in 1885-1886. The composer had this to say concerning the subtitle Symphonica Tragica:
"The Tragica is not related to specific impressions, nor is it bound to the fact that I wrote it in the last months of 1886, partially while my left arm, which I had broken while traveling through Neustadt on my way to Schrigiswalde, was still in a sling. The scherzo had been finished earlier, but the introduction to the first movement and the form of the fourth movement had caused me much doubt; it was rather a long time before its final plan was complete. The final movement was originally conceived with a gigantic development section (and the movement is even now not one of limited proportions); however, I recognized more and more that such an idea [i.e. a huge development section] would cause the relationship of the movements to one another to suffer, and, inasmuch as I am now satisfied with the work's present form, I am happy. I have constantly noticed - and have referred to it in my music history lectures - that the concept of tragedy, as introduced to instrumental music by Beethoven, has never found a completely satisfying resolution, neither in the Eroica nor the C minor symphony (and much the same can be said of Schumann's Second); as a consequence Beethoven had to seek different means once again in the Ninth, though in that instance, success was supposed to be determined through vocal means. In the Tragica I had the wish to try and see if such success might indeed be possible through purely orchestral means and it is to this consideration that the finale owes its genesis."
The symphony is in C Major and is in 4 movements:

I. Andante - Allegro risoluto - The symphony begins with three octave G's by the orchestra, an attempt to establish a key is a failure and the music descends into chromaticism until the first theme is heard some 21 bars later in the home key of C major. This theme acts as a link between all of the movements of the symphony except the scherzo. It appears in the of the four movements in various guises. The first theme of the movement appears allegro risoluto in a double forte. After some transitional material the second theme is heard, also in a double forte. The first theme reappears, is slightly developed and more secondary material is introduced. The first theme weaves in and out of the proceedings until the music grows softer and the development section begins. This section works, reworks, and recasts the main themes as well as some of the secondary ones. Draeseke shows his skill by keeping things moving and making musical sense. There is a lot of activity in this section, and the composer pulls it off magnificently. The recapitulation contains only slightly less than what was in the exposition. Unlike the tonal ambiguity of the opening of the movement, the movement ends in the home key of C major and the orchestra finishs up with three C's in unison.

II. Grave (Adagio ma non troppo) - A solemn, controlled tragedy, one of the reasons for the symphony's subtitle. The beginning is in A minor with a theme that is built from the rhythm of the main theme of the first movement. Immediately after the repeated chords in the trombones the second theme is heard in the strings, which is built from the second theme of the first movement. The first theme of the movement is heard with different instrumentation. After a short section there appears a terse motive in sixteenth triplets, quarter notes and rests. This is repeated and answered by the full orchestra in what first seems like new material but is in fact a reworking of the main theme of the introduction to the first movement. this gives an idea of how Draeseke uses cyclical form in this symphony, as much of the music grows out of themes and motives heard from the start. There is a new section ushered in by the clarinet and the music turns lyrical. The passion grows, themes reappear in different keys, the tension grows and ebbs. The orchestra plays in octaves up and down, trying to regain some of its vigor but the music slowly dies down and ends in key of C-sharp major.

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace - A less complex movement, at least on the surface, that begins in C major. Draeseke's music seems to always have much going on. It is the usual form, with a rhythmic scherzo consisting of two main themes (of course both are derived from material heard elsewhere in the symphony), and a trio section that has a folk song feeling to it that is in the key of D-flat. After the trio the scherzo is repeated.

IV. Finale : Allegro con brio - This movement is a form unto itself. Draeseke transforms previous material, piling section upon section. The complexity doesn't hide some very good melodies, and it is hardly necessary to go into a highly detailed analysis of this movement.  To me, some of it sounds familiar, some of it sounds new.  Draeseke flexes his countrapuntal muscle in the middle of the movement, themes continue to appear, and the music grows as ominous as a growing storm pierced by rays of light, more counterpoint, the brass punctuates the tension. The orchestra blares out a climax, octaves in the orchestra bound up and down while the brass have their say. The music grows quiet, the opening theme of the introduction of the first movement reappears, Draeseke has taken the listener back home after quite an earful of a symphony. The music gently grows, then ebbs into a serene end.

Draeseke's music can be quite complex. Some musicologists have put him somewhere between Brahms and Bruckner, and while that may have some validity, like all the great composers he is many times a law unto himself. During his lifetime his music was played often by orchestras, but his music fell into neglect shortly after his death. There was a resurgence in his music in Germany during the Third Reich as his music was officially sanctioned by the Nazis. That fact hasn't helped his music to be heard in present day concert halls. But there are recordings of his works available, and his music deserves to be heard.

There is a Felix Draeseke Webpages website that has much more information about him and a much more in-depth analysis of all 4 of Dreaseke's symphonies by musicologist Alan H. Kruek who founded the International Draeseke Society of North America and has done much to educate listeners about the composer. He has also written a remarkable essay Felix Draeseke's "Symphonia Tragica": Wagnerian "Geist" or Symphonic "Zeitgeist"? that also contains an analysis of the Third Symphony.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Balakirev - Tamara

Mily Balakirev's influence as a mentor, pianist and conductor was substantial. He was the guiding light to the group of Russian composers known as The Five, and also gave advice to the young Tchaikovsky. His influence was most strongly felt in the development of nationalism in Russian music. He championed the use of Russian folk tales and literature as inspiration for Russian composers, along with a kind of orientalism that stemmed from the vast expanse of the country itself and all of the differing cultures it contained.  But his work as a composer was sporadic. He had the tendency to begin a work but not finish it until years later. His second piano concerto was begun in 1861, was taken up again years later but remained unfinished after his death in 1910 (his protege Sergei Lyapunov finished the concerto). His tone poem Tamara was started in 1867 and was completed in 1882.

Shortly after Balakirev began the work in 1867 he went through depression so severe that his friends hid all of his works in progress for feat that he would destroy them. In 1876 he had recovered enough to take up the work again but it took him another three yeas to finish the piano score. He waited another two years before he orchestrated the work and it finally had its premiere in 1883. It is dedicated to Franz Liszt and he asked for a four handed arrangement of the work for study, which Balakirev did shortly after the request.

Mikhail Lermontov
Tamara is based on the poem Tamara by  Mikhail Lermontov, a highly influential writer, poet and artist of Russian romanticism, who died in a duel at the age of 26.  Lermontov based the poem on a local legend of the Caucasus region where he had been exiled. The poem deals with a beautiful but evil princess named Tamara that lives in a tower in a ravine that the river Terek flows. She is a temptress and lures male travelers to her castle. She has sex with them all night long, kills them in the morning and throws the corpse into the river to float away.

The work begins with music that represents the water of the river. The main body of the work focuses on two love themes representing Tamara's seductiveness. Balakirev expands these two themes and develops them until the music reaches a climax as Tamara murders the traveler. The work ends as it began with the rippling of the river Terek as it carries away the corpse.

Balakirev was one of the most naturally gifted musicians of 19th century Russia, and while he was influential he may have been even more so if not for the mental illness he suffered from. After his so-called recovery from depression he was never the same person. He coped with mental illness enough to function, but he didn't really develop past the point where he was at in 1867.  Nevertheless, he managed to write some great works, with Tamara being one of the best.

Monday, November 18, 2013

C.P.E. Bach - Symphony In D Major Wq. 183/1

C.P.E Bach composed music that was at the forefront in the development of music that strayed away from the more formal Baroque style of his father J.S. Bach. He helped develop sonata form (a compositional method as much as a form) that was refined by Haydn and Mozart and perfected by Beethoven. His influence on those three composers also led to more expressive music. Bach was also a proponent of empfindsamer Stil, a rather imposing German phrase that translates as 'sensitive style.'  Some of the features of empfindsamer Stil are:
  •  Music was to appeal to the emotions by the performer being emotionally involved
  • Subtle nuance and shading 
  • Expression of a variety of sentiments, sometimes in rapid succession
  • A singing, expressive style
  • Short phrases
  • Frequently changing dynamic and rhythmic patterns
C.P.E Bach composed copiously in all of the musical forms of his day, including symphonies.  It is unclear how many symphonies C.P.E. Bach composed, but the number that are definitely known to musicologists is 18. His first symphonies date to about 1741 and are for strings and continuo.  His symphonic output spans over thirty years and his last known works in the form date from 1775-1776. This set of four symphonies was written for an unknown patron and are written for a larger ensemble than the early symphonies. Translated from German, the full tile of this set is named Orchestral Symphonies with Twelve Obbligato Parts. Besides the usual strings and harpsichord continuo, the symphonies call for pairs of horns, flutes, oboes and a single bassoon.  The first symphony in this set is the subject of this article. 

All of Bach's known symphonies follow a three movement plan of fast-slow-fast, and all have a part for continuo but it plays a much smaller role in the later symphonies.

I. Allegro di molto - The symphony opens with the 1st violins playing the tonic note of D with the first measure being a whole note and then alternating D's in syncopation in a procession of shorter notes while the rest of the strings play arpeggiated D chords  until all the strings play D's. The 1st violins repeat the pattern but this time play an F# while the rest of the strings play arpeggiated B minor chords. The pattern repeats, 1st violins play a B while arpeggiated G chords are played by the rest of the strings. The 1st violins then play a C natural and the winds make their entrance and the full orchestra finds its way back to G major. The instruments take their turn in the music that leads up to an interlude for the woodwinds. The strings then take up an agitated theme that is punctuated by the woodwinds. Another theme appears that is just as agitated in  a major key, which leads to the end of the exposition. Bach wrote no repeat for the exposition, so the development begins straight away. The material from the exposition is commented on and developed. The recapitulation then begins and as the movement ends, it gently segues into the next movement.

II. Largo - Bach asks the continuo to be silent in this movement, a slow and gentle tune. The calm mood doesn't last long, as this movement leads directly to the finale.

III. Presto - A rhythmic dance-like movement that Bach repeats. After the repeat there is a short coda that wraps up the symphony.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Telemann - Viola Concerto In G Major

The viola's usual role in the symphony orchestra is to fill the inner voices and add depth and tone color to the string section as its range is approximately between the violin and cello.  The instrument poses a problem to players as it would be too ungainly if it were built to scale with the other two members of the violin family; too big to play comfortably on the arm like a violin, too small to play between the knees as a cello.  So the viola is an instrument of compromise as it is built to be playable on the arm while supplying the middle range of notes. This is done with larger diameter strings and a body large enough to project its tone.

Viola technique is somewhat different than violin technique in that there is a larger span needed for the fingerboard and more pressure must be applied to stop strings on the fingerboard, and more pressure as well on the bow to make the string sound. The larger diameter and longer length of the strings also make the viola slightly slower to 'speak'. The viola is the only member of the violin family that does not have a standardized size, probably because of the problems in playing the instrument, especially for players with short arms or small hands.

J.S. Bach loved to play the instrument as did Mozart, and because of that it has been called a composer's instrument. No doubt being in the 'middle' of the harmony is what attracted composers to the viola, but besides a few notable exceptions the viola has not been used as a soloist in concertos. Berlioz's Harold In Italy is one of those exceptions, and that composition isn't so much a viola concerto as a symphony with viola obbligato.   One of the earliest examples of a viola concerto is by Telemann. His Viola Concerto In G Major was written probably between 1715-1720 and is still performed today. 

Instead of writing the concerto in the 3-movement fast-slow-fast form used by Vivaldi and other composers of the time, Telemann used the older 4-movement church sonata form of slow-fast-slow-fast. Telemann lived a long life and was one of the composers that created a bridge between the Baroque style and the newer style galant that led to the classical era of music by Haydn and Mozart.

I. Largo - This opening movement makes good use of the viola's mellow tone. The string orchestra plays a ritornello, a short tune repeated by the orchestra, as the viola plays between the repeats of the short tune. The ritornello is repeated a few times, the viola comments, and the movement ends.

II. Allegro - A melody is played by the strings, the viola has its say in this short movement that is also in ritornello form, a favorite of Baroque composers. Baroque composers were aware of what other composers in other countries were writing. Vivaldi was a great influence on German composers as can be heard in Vivaldi-like allegro.

III. Andante - The viola sings a slowly moving song in G minor as the strings gently accompany. 

IV. Presto - A movement of high energy as the strings start things off and the viola joins in. 

This concerto shows to good effect what ritornello form was capable of in the hands of a master. This viola concerto has been one of Telemann's most popular works, most likely because Telemann has managed to span the centuries by composing a piece that is Baroque in the best sense of the word while also writing with a lightness that appeals to the more modern listener.  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Beethoven - String Quartet No. 8 In E Minor Opus 59, No.2

Prince Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky was a representative for the Russian Czar that was stationed in Vienna for many years. He was also a great music patron and musician himself. He commissioned Beethoven for three string quartets (the prince played second violin in his own in-house quartet) and asked the composer to include a Russian theme in each one. Beethoven's String Quartet No. 8 is one of the three works that came to be known as the Rasumovsky Quartets of opus 59.

Beethoven wrote all three quartets in 1806, a very busy year for him. Besides these three quartets he composed the 4th Symphony, 4th Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, the 32 Variations On An Original Theme, and the 'Appassionata' piano sonata. The quartets were first played in 1807 they were not received very well. The leader of the quartet that played the premiere, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, was amazed by the quartets, and the listeners at the premiere were more than amazed. Some were confused, and some thought Beethoven was playing a joke on them.  But over the years these quartets have gained in reputation. In 1855 German author Wilhelm von Lenz  wrote about these three quartets in his book 'Beethoven And His Three Styles' :

Prince Razumovsky
"The three quartets dedicated to Count Rasoumowsky (sic) are the natural fulfillment of the promise of the symphonies and the piano sonatas, but a greater achievement, since the form of the quartet is less adapted to innovation of style than either the sonata or the symphony… the content of these quartets is as great as the content of the symphonies, only the medium is different."
The String Quartet No. 8 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The movement is in sonata form and opens with two abrupt chords. These chords appear throughout the movement, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, sometimes varied in key, sometimes not. Beethoven's skill as a composer gave him the power to use very short snippets of music as building blocks for entire movements. The first theme proper appears, punctuated by rests and drama. The second theme is in contrast to the first as it is in the major and more legato, but even this theme has a certain amount of bite to it. The repeat also includes the two abrupt chords. The development section begins with the two abrupt chords, this time in the major. These two chords go through a short development after which the rest of the two themes are developed. The recapitulation is ushered in, and the themes move quickly to one last statement of the opening bars that lead to the quiet ending of this dramatic movement.

II. Molto adagio -  Besides the tempo designation, Beethoven wrote this direction to the musicians: "Si tratta questo pezzo con molto de sentimento" (This piece must be played with much feeling). Beethoven's student Carl Czerny wrote:
"The Adagio, E Major, in the second Razumovsky Quartet, occurred to him when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres"
Beethoven crafted this movement so well that the music unfolds seamlessly. Czerny's comment describes the music better than I ever could.

III. Allegretto - Beethoven  doesn't label this movement a scherzo. It has a few characteristics of one, but it is not a typical Beethoven scherzo. It's mood is not hurried, and somewhat disembodied. The ghostly mood is broken with the trio which is where Beethoven uses a Russian theme based on a Russian patriotic song. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff , Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky also used the song in their compositions.

IV. Finale : Presto -  A movement in a type of rondo form. The opening dance-like theme occurs throughout the movement with episodes interlaced. The opening theme finally ends the movement with a final appearance and a short, rapid ending.

It is hard if not impossible for us to imagine the impression these quartets made the first years of their existence. They were longer than most traditional quartets up to that time. The difficulties they made on the players, both technical and musical, made them less likely to be taken up by amateurs as many quartets before them were. All three are masterpieces in their own way. Beethoven's string quartets eventually changed the way listeners listened and players played.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dvořák - Piano Quintet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 81

Antonín Dvořák began his musical career as a violist in the National Theater Orchestra in Prague, and played in a concert of Richard Wagner's works that was conducted by Wagner himself. He began composing as a child, and his first documented composition as an adult was his string quintet written in 1861. After his marriage in 1873 he retired from the orchestra and took a position as a church organist in Prague. This new position gave him financial security and more time to devote to composing.

Included in the list of chamber works composed by Antonín Dvořák over a period of practically 30 years are two works for piano quintet. Both are for piano, two violins, viola and cello, and both are in the key of A major. Fifteen years separate the two works and it was Dvořák's intention to revise the first quintet as he had not been satisfied with it, but changed his mind and decided to write an entire new work.  The work was composed late in 1887 and premiered the following January.

Along with Smetana, Dvořák used his native Czech music as an inspiration for his compositions. He doesn't always use authentic Czech melodies, but he wrote in the style of Czech music and used Czech musical forms in his works, including the Piano Quintet No. 2. Dvořák  infused the rhythms of idealized peasant dancing throughout the work and has created one of the masterpieces for the combination of piano and string quartet.The quintet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo - The work begins with a gentle, lyrical theme played by the cello, but the mood suddenly shifts with the passionate uttering of a violin. The lyricism reappears in the piano and is taken up by the violin.Another outburst, this time from the piano. New material is introduced by the cello,  taken up by the violin and piano in turn. The music turns more dramatic and passionate, and the entire sequence is taken from the beginning. After the repeat, the exposition of the movement in Dvořák's creative use of sonata form leads to the development section.  The previous material is varied and expanded and has a seamless flow to it that leads to the recapitulation and ending of the movement. The entire movement has a wealth of thematic material, alternates between drama and calmness, energy and lyricism. It is a masterpiece of compositional skill and artistry.

II. Dumka : Andante con moto -   Dumka is a type of dance, the name taken from the Ukrainian language and in music it originally means a piece in a melancholy mood. When Dvořák and other Slavic composers incorporated it into their compositions, its form changed to a melancholy tune interrupted by music of a more cheerful nature. It is essentially a rondo by a different name, at least in this case.

III. Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace - A Furiant is another type of dance that sometimes follows the Dumka. By its nature it is in contrast to the Dumka as a Furiant is a fast and furious dance with shifting accents. Dvořák uses the form of a scherzo for his Furiant. The middle section or trio of the piece is much slower in tempo than the first part of the movement, but it is made from the theme of the furiant itself.

IV. Finale: Allegro - Again Dvořák treats the listener to a wealth of themes, some of them similar in mood to another Slavic dance, The Polka. These themes are developed throughout the short movement and one is even given a fugal treatment. The music shifts from major to minor key, in mood from exuberant to calm, giving the movement a sense of tonal color. The music shifts the mood to slow and reserved before it grows in intensity with what could be thought of as an energetic stomping of dancing feet for a grand ending to the piece.

Gottshalk - The Banjo

In many ways American music has its roots in the rhythms and practices of black folk musicians.  The blacks who were sold into slavery from their native Africa brought their rhythmic folk music style along. From the Caribbean sugar plantations to the plantations of early America, the rhythms, tunes and (in the case of the Banjo) the instruments of the transplanted Africans influenced local music. The ragtime phenomenon of the late 19th century came from African American piano players that plied their trade in the only places they were allowed; black bars, saloons and houses of ill-repute. Eventually their music made its way to Europe where it influenced Debussy and other composers. In The United States, Antonín Dvořák was exposed to African music and wrote a string quartet and symphony that were inspired by it.

But the influence of African music began much earlier and is reflected in the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk who was born in New Orleans to a Jewish father and creole mother, in 1829. He heard black musicians while a child, and as an adult traveled extensively as a virtuoso pianist in the United States, South America and the Caribbean countries. He observed and absorbed the local music wherever he traveled, and incorporated much of it in the music he composed and played on his tours. He composed The Banjo, A Grotesque Fantasy (the full title of the piece) around 1853 and it is arguably his most well-known piece.

Gottshalk may have based the work on a banjo player he heard in person. Some scholars have argued that Gottshalk's duplication of pre-Civil War banjo playing is an authentic representation of actual banjo technique, a point author Paul Ely Smith makes in his essay Gottshalk's 'The Banjo' op. 15, and the Banjo in the Nineteenth Century.

The piece begins with a short introduction that is actually a snippet taken from the tune at the very end of the piece. After this introduction, a short phrase is repeated in variation, the short introduction reappears in octaves and the section is repeated. After the repeat, the finale is played which consist of variations on the chorus of Stephen Foster's song Camptown Races, the tune that the introduction of the piece is taken from.

The Banjo is a short and quite serious in its difficulty, but its influence on American music is immense. Gottshalk's music in general and The Banjo in particular, was the forerunner of the quintessentially American musical idioms of jazz and ragtime.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mozart - Piano Sonata No. 8 In A Minor K.310/300d

In the time of Mozart, most musicians were employed by  the church or by royalty.  Either way, musicians of the time were in the same class as servants, maids and butlers. Mozart's contemporary Haydn was employed by the royal Esterházy family at the court in Hungary on either a full time or part time basis from 1761 to 1802.

Mozart also worked for a royal employer, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace. Mozart spent his early childhood touring Europe as a child prodigy and spent some time in Italy studying music. When he returned to Salzburg he was hired as a court musician when he was seventeen years old.  Because of Mozart's strained relations with the Archbishop over salary and other matters, he resigned his position at court when he was twenty and planned to tour Europe once again in search of employment. Mozart ended up in Paris with his mother while Leopold stayed in Salzburg to try and find a better position for his son.

Mozart's trip to Paris produced no opportunities for employment. He performed little and composed little. He was reduced to pawning some of his personal effects for money to get by on.  To add to his miseries his mother became ill and after three weeks died in Paris in 1778. The Piano Sonata No. 8 was most likely a product of his sorrow over the loss of his mother.

Mozart wrote few major pieces that were in minor keys, only one other piano sonata besides this one is in a minor key. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro maestoso - The movement is in sonata form and begins straight away with a dotted theme accompanied by eighth note chords in the bass

The theme progresses at a restless pace until the second theme appears in the key of C, the relative major of the home key of A minor. While this theme is in a major key, the restlessness of the opening continues. After the obligatory repeat, the development section begins with the first theme being heard in C major. The music modulates and shifts to a minor key as the first theme is developed briefly. The recapitulation begins and after the restatement of the first theme along with transitional material, the second theme reappears, this time in the minor. There is a short coda that emphasizes the dotted rhythm of the opening that is punctuated by the bass moving in 16th notes until the final A minor chords.

II. Andante cantabile con espressione -  This movement is in F major and begins with simple elegance that stands in sharp contrast to the darkness of the first movement. But roughly half way through the movement the music returns to the restlessness of the first movement. The music returns to simple elegance as it sings its way to the end.

III. Presto - The finale is written in rondo form. A striking theme opens the movement that reflects the turmoil of the first movement, but by different means. The music is relentless in its pursuit of expression. There is a brighter section, but the music returns to the opening theme. The theme bounces into the bass momentarily, and after a few more comments the music ends as it began, in the key of A minor.