Friday, January 31, 2014

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 4 In D Minor

In 1854 the piano virtuoso and composer Henry Litolff made a visit to Wiemar to see Franz Liszt who was acting kappelmeister there, and the two struck up a friendship of kindred spirits. Liszt had this to say about Litolff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4 that was shown to him while still in manuscript form:
"[Litolff's] Fourth Symphonic concerto is a remarkable composition...there is certainly something winged in his [playing]"
Liszt returned the visit to Litolff in Brunswick (Braunschweig in German) where Litolff ran a music publishing house and was a leader of the local music scene. The friendship grew and Litolff invited Liszt back to Brunswick to participate in a music festival he had organized there (he also invited another of his friends Hector Berlioz), where Litolff played Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major in concert, as well as his own Concerto Symphonique No. 4.

It has been said that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. While Liszt's First Piano Concerto certainly is  not a carbon-copy of Litolff's, it does have some similarities. Both have four movements instead of the customary three, in each case the additional movement is a scherzo. Even the notorious (at the time) addition of a triangle to the Liszt scherzo was first done by Litolff. Perhaps the greatest sign of admiration for Litolff's concerto was the dedication Liszt gave to Litolff of his First Piano Concerto. (see comment below)

Litolff was a man afflicted with wanderlust until his later years. He moved away from his native England when he was seventeen, lived in Paris, Warsaw, Brunswick, and traveled all over Europe playing the piano and composing. He was also married four times, and with his fourth wife ended his days in a suburb of Paris.   
The concerto is in four movements:

I. Allegro con fuoco -  The movement begins with a loud chord from the full orchestra followed by a short cadenza for piano. The strings play a quiet short section that leads to another loud chord for full orchestra, cadenza from the piano, and quiet section from the strings which leads to the full orchestra stating the theme that is the basis of the entire movement. The piano writing is virtuosic, sometimes being of a thematic nature and sometimes being an elaborate accompaniment to the orchestra.  The music is passionate, dramatic and is truly written as a symphony for orchestra and piano obbligato.

II. Scherzo - Presto -  This is the one piece by Litolff that is most often heard on recordings and in concert halls. The music is Mendelssohnian and includes a part for piccolo and triangle, the first time either were used in a piano concerto. The orchestra and piano have a rhythmic and rapid dialog in the scherzo, while in the trio  the orchestra plays more subdued  music, but the piano keeps interrupting the calmness with the jauntiness of the scherzo until it wins out and the scherzo is repeated. A short coda has the piano play rapid  interlocking chromatic octaves before the orchestra and piano end the movement with staccato chords.

III. Adagio religioso - Cantabile - The piano solemnly begins the movement, followed up by the horns playing the lyrical theme. The piano enters once again and plays a variant of the opening theme. The horns are accompanied by the piano as they repeat the theme. The theme drifts in and out as the piano plays runs and arpeggios.  The music reaches a climax as the theme is played again by the horns. A swell from the orchestra and piano accompanies the horns as they play a fragment of the theme. The movement ends quietly with muted strings and broken chords in the piano.

IV. Allegro impetuoso - As in the first movement, Litolff uses one theme as the inspiration for most of the movement, and this one theme is related to the motif in the first movement. This gives the entire work a cohesiveness that is more easily felt than explained. There is a short fugato treatment of the theme later in the movement for orchestra alone as the piano is quiet for a rather long stretch for a concerto. But with such difficulties throughout this concerto, a short break for the pianist isn't all bad. The piano plays all manner of figurations of tremendous difficulty. The piano plays bristling octaves and figures as it moves towards the coda that turns the music to a majestic close in the major mode.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Respighi - Ancient Airs And Dances Suite No. 1

The Russian composer and teacher Rimsky-Korsakov had an unlikely pupil in Ottorino Respighi, who studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov for five months when he was in Russia serving as the principle violist in the opera orchestra at St. Petersburg. Respighi's works for orchestra show his skill and knowledge of the instruments and a real feel for orchestral color, no doubt enhanced by his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Respighi also studied historical music while a student in Italy, as well as the violin. He toured as a performer for a few years as a violinist but soon devoted his career to composition and conducting.

Respighi's first compositions were tone poems as well as operas, modern works that showed the influence of Wagner and Debussy. But Respighi never forgot his studies of historical music, and in 1917 he orchestrated his first Suite of Ancient Airs And Dances. He arranged his suite from collections of Italian lute music that had been printed in the 1880's by Italian musicologists. Respighi uses a modest sized orchestra but to full effect. He arranged very old music in the modern clothes of the 20th century orchestra. The first suite has 4 movements:

I. Balletto detto “Il Conte Orlando" - The original lute piece this movement was was written by Simone Molinaro (c. 1565 – 1615) , a late Renaissance composer, and published in 1599.  The opening begins quietly but grows in volume and weight. A contrasting middle section is in the minor and is of a more somber mood, but the opening music is repeated and brings the dance to a close. It is written for oboes, harpsichord and strings.

II. Gagliarda - This dance is also known as a Galliard. It is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoon and horns as well as cor anglaise, harp, harpsichord and strings. It was composed by Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1520-1591), who was the father of Galileo Galilie, the famous astronomer and early scientist. The music has a stronger rhythm, and in its day the gagliarda was considered a lewd dance by many because it was a dance full of leaps and exagerated movements. The rhythmic opening is tempered by a middle section that is slightly subdued in tone but still very rhythmic. The music is repeated, and the dance ends.

III. Villanella - This sad and delicate dance is scored for flute, oboe, harp and strings. The original composer is unknown.

IV.Passo mezzo e mascherada - Respighi uses two anonymous tunes in the final movement of the suite. The meaning of the title pazzo mezzo is not known but it may refer to the type of steps found in the original dance. The mascherada is a villanella like the third movement but not as sorrowful. Mascheradas were played at carnival or masked balls. The mascherada is interrupted by the pazzo mezzo until it finally takes over and has the last word.  The final movement is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, one trumpet, harp, harpsichord and strings.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bach - Organ Concerto In A Minor, Based On Vivaldi Concerto For Two Violins BWV 593

Near the end of Johann Sebastian Bach's life there was a move away from the more 'learned' forms in music, mainly fugue and counterpoint. His sons were some of the leaders of this change to the  style galant that would lead to the Classical Era of Haydn and Mozart. Amid all the changes in musical style of the time, the Elder Bach's music was being looked upon as well crafted, but old fashioned. But Johann Sebastian could compose in the newer style of melody and accompaniment when he so chose. Bach was in many ways the culmination of the Baroque Era in music, and within that culmination lay the seeds of the future.

The Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi had his set of concertos titled L'estro Armonico, Opus 3 (Harmonic Inspiration) published in 1711. This was a set of 12 concertos for one, two or four violins and was a very influential set of compositions. Bach was introduced to the music of Vivaldi with these concertos while he was in the employ of the Duke of Weimar's court for the second time from 1708 to 1717. Bach went on to transcribe and arranged 8 of Vivaldi's concertos for differing ensembles. The concerto  in A Minor for two violins, violins, cello and continuo was arranged by Bach as a concerto for solo organ.

From his childhood, Bach learned from other composers by copying out or arranging their music. it was a time when many works were copied out by hand by composers and performers as the publishing of music was an expensive endeavor and as a result the printed copies were expensive to purchaseVivaldi's work was assimilated by Bach in the same way, and Vivaldi made a lasting impression on his music.
Antonio Vivaldi

Vivaldi's original concerto's figured bass continuo part was fleshed out by Bach, with the two solo parts and accompaniment spread out over the manuals of the organ. It is interesting to compare the original with Bach's transcription, as it gives some idea of Bach's skill and knowledge of what the organ was capable of. Bach was a literal 'one man band' when he played the instrument. Bach maintained the Italian style of the originals as well as most of the notes contained in the two solo violin parts. The violin and organ are two vastly differnet instruments, so the literal transrciption of most of the solo parts causes some real difficulties for the organist, but as Bach made these transcriptions for his own use, that was probably of no concern. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro -  The concerto begins with two chords and a downward run. Vivaldi's concertos are full of fast scales up and down the fingerboard of the violin and Bach includes them in this concerto. The first movement is rapid and is in the home key of A minor.

II. Andante -  In Vivaldi's original, the first four bars of the second movement are played by all the instruments, after which they are repeated throughout the movement as a continuous accompaniment to the solo violins that play different melodies. Bach maintains the ostinato in one manual as the soloist parts play in the other. The pedals are silent in this movement, and it is in the key of D minor.  The soloists remain silent as the four bars of the beginning play to end the movement.

III. Allegro - The music returns to a brisk tempo and the key of A minor. After the initial statement is repeated, Bach changes the chords played by one of the solo violins to running sixteenth notes while keeping the original eighth notes of the original, one of the few actual alterations to the notes of the original. This adds brilliance to the music, perhaps Bach was flexing his organ playing muscles. He must have liked the effect for he repeats the changes later in the movement.

There was probably more than one reason for Bach's transcription. Perhaps his royal employer wished to hear the music of Vivaldi, perhaps Bach wanted to show his employer what he could do on the instrument. Whatever the extenuating reasons, Bach took the opportunity and made it a learning experience.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Buxtehude - Praeludium In G Minor BuxWV. 149

The oldest known type of musical instrument is the flute. Examples made from animal bone have been found in caves that were inhabited by early humans between 30,000 - 40,000 years ago. There is still much debate in the scientific community as to the exact dates, but there is not doubt that they were flutes as they had v-shaped mouthpieces and finger holes.

Taking a huge jump forward in history some 30,000 years (give or take)  to Greece in the 3rd century B.C.E., there is the first known example of an organ. This instrument was called the Hydraulis, (literally water organ in Greek) as it used wind pressure derived from water to sound the pipes. The Hydraulis was also the first instrument known to have a keyboard. So the pipe organ as we know it is an ancestor of the first flutes made from bone and the Hydraulis of ancient Greece.

Another jump forward in history to the 14th century sees further advancement in the pipe organ as now it has not only a keyboard and pipes, but a source of air pressure from bellows operated by humans. Organs at this time also had different sets of pipes, or ranks, that could be engaged with the keyboard in many combinations to create different sounds from the instrument.

By the time of J. S. Bach, organ playing had evolved into different schools, one of which was the Northern German school of organ playing. Musicologists have traced the beginnings of the North German school back to a Dutch composer and teacher, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, (1562 - 1656)  who had German students that carried the style back to Germany.  One of the most famous organ players and composers of the North German School was Dieterich Buxtehude (1637? - 1707) He was trained by his father who was also an organist, and eventually ended up in  Lübeck at the Marienkirche as organist and music director.
Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck

Buxtehude enlarged the Abendmusik, a series of evening concerts performed in the church. This series began in 1641 and ended in 1810 and Buxtehude was the first composer to play the organ at these concerts. The businessmen of Lübeck paid for these concerts so they were free to the public.  Buxtehude's reputation was so great as a result of these concerts that Bach, Handel, Matteson and other composers of the time would travel to Lübeck to hear him play. The influence of Buxtehude on the next generation of composers was enormous.

Buxtehude is most well known for his organ music, but he wrote many vocal compositions, most of which are not thought to have survived. His ninteen Praeludium (preludes) for organ make up the core of his surviving organ works.  They are works that consist of sections within each piece, usually a mixture of free improvisation and counterpoint. There are no two preludes that are exactly the same in number of sections to them, and they are considered to be Buxtehude's most important contribution to the North German school.

The Praeludium In G Minor, BuxWV 149 is a work in five sections.

Section 1 -  A short toccatta opens the work and then an ostinato theme is played in the bass while a free improvisation is carried over it.
Section 2 -  A fugue for 4 voices.
Section 3 -  After the fugue runs its course, this section returns to toccatta-like free form.
Section 4 -  Another 4 voice fugue.
Section 5 -  This last free form section grows directly out of  the preceding fugue and the piece ends rather suddenly.

Buxtehunde is not considered an innovator. At the most he was a transitional composer that combined the North German school with influences from Italian music.  But he wrote music that showed great skill and surprising emotional appeal. He must have been exceptional in improvisation at a time when musicians were expected to be able to improvise, as the existing organ music shows. Much of it has an improvisatory sound to it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 3 in E-flat Major 'National Hollandais'

Henry Litolff began his life in London, born in 1818 to a Scottish mother and a French father who had been a member of Napoleon's army who had been captured and taken to England. His father was his first teacher until he played for virtuoso pianist Ignaz Moscheles in 1830, who gave him free piano lessons. Litolff gave his first concert at fourteen years of age.

When he was seventeen he eloped with an English girl to Paris. He soon separated from his wife, moved to Brussels and ended up in Warsaw, Poland. He led the life of a traveling virtuoso and in 1844 settled in Germany and began teaching. One of his pupils was Hans von Bülow.

A wandering man by nature, he returned to England in 1845 to obtain a divorce from his wife but ended up in prison instead. He managed to escape prison (a rumor says that the jailer's daughter assisted his escape), bribed his way onto a fishing boat and ended up in Holland. He wrote his 3rd Concerto Symphonique in 1846 during his stay in Holland. 

Litolff finally got a divorce from his wife and promptly married another woman in 1851, the widow of his friend and publisher Gottfried Meyer. Litolff gained control of the publishing house with the marriage, changed the name of the business to Litoll Verlag and created the Litolff Editions of classical music that were inexpensive and more readily accessible to the general public. Three years later Litolff turned the publishing house over to his step-son, divorced his second wife and  moved once again to Paris. He married again, and when his third wife died in 1873, he married his seventeen year old nurse. He died in a suburb of Paris in 1891 after suffering from bad health for a number of years.

In his younger years Litolff's piano playing abilities were so great that he earned the nickname of The English Liszt. The four existing Concerto Symphoniques (the first is lost) attest to his pianistic abilities for they are bristling with virtuoso writing and he played them in concert. But he was also a skilled and colorful orchestrator. The Concerto Symphonique is Litolff's contribution to the concerto literature and are so-called because they are 4-movement works. The works are written symphonically, as opposed to the concertos mainly written for pianistic display, but they essentially follow traditional concerto form in their first movements:

I. Maestoso -  The timpani opens the movement and leads the woodwinds to the statement of the beginning of the first theme. The first theme leads directly to the second theme which is shorter than the first.  Parts of the first theme return and lead to the entrance of the piano that plays a cadenza-like flourish. The piano and orchestra expand on the themes already heard. The development section contains the second theme that is now turned into a lyrical piece for piano and orchestra. Growing more and more passionate the music gives way to a short cadenza for the piano that leads to a restatement of the second theme and the first theme. Brilliant passages for the piano go up and down the keyboard as the music makes a rapid return to the beginning of the first theme that ends the movement.

II. Presto - Litolff's addition of a fourth movement to the piano concerto is always in the form of a scherzo. The pianist's rapid grace notes give the music a giddy quality that is overcome in the trio which is a full-throated march-like Dutch children's song, a tune Litolff heard while he was in Holland.  Litolff shifts the time signature from 3/8 in the scherzo to 6/8 in the march tune.

III. Andante - A simple song for piano and orchestra. There is a brief episode of tension, but the piano returns to the nocturne-like mood. The horn and the cellos play the tune in turn while the piano plays gentle figures as an accompaniment. The movement ends in a solemn mood.

IV. Allegro vivace -  The piano scampers up and down the keyboard in music of great lightness and agility. Litolff once again pays homage to his temporary Holland home as he quotes another Dutch tune as his second subject.

Litolff subtitled the concerto 'National Hollandais' (The Nation of Holland) and used two Dutch songs in the work as a tribute to the freedom he enjoyed after escaping prison in England.  He certainly lived a cosmopolitan life, and with such a busy life of concertizing, womanizing and publishing, where did he find the time to compose? His opus numbers go at least to 127, with a lot of other compositions without opus numbers, as well as 12 operas. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Brahms/Schoenberg - Piano Quartet No. 1

With this work there is the rare opportunity of listening to what is one master composer's opinion of another master composer's work. Schoenberg orchestrated the 1st Piano Quartet of Brahms in 1937 after he had moved to Los Angeles, California to escape Germany and the persecution of Jews.  Schoenberg had converted to Christianity early in his life but in 1933 he changed back to Judaism, partly out of protest against the Nazi regime. He was soon labeled a decadent composer. His works were no longer allowed in the concert hall and he was most likely a doomed man.

He wrote a letter to a music critic in 1939 and explained his reasons for arranging Brahms' work for orchestra:
"My reasons: I like the piece. It is seldom played. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved. My intentions: To remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go farther than he himself would have gone if he lived today. To watch carefully all the laws to which Brahms obeyed and not to violate them, which are only known to musicians educated in his environment."
Perhaps another reason he did it was that at this time Schoenberg had already developed his "method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another". His method shook the world of serious music so he may have been trying to add legitimacy as a composer by orchestrating Brahms' work. He also gave a lecture and wrote a subsequent essay called Brahms The Progressive.  Schoenberg's objective was “to prove that Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive.” He considered Brahms his musical ancestor, along with Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart. His new method of composing was not so much revolutionary as evolutionary, at least to Schoenberg.

Schoenberg began his composing life as a Late Romantic, but his compositions showed signs of breaking with tonality early on. Even after he developed and used his method, he would lapse back into his earlier style, especially in his older years.  Schoenberg was in some ways a paradox, as he expanded upon what Wagner and Liszt had begun while at the same time he championed Brahms as a progressive composer.  In his own compositions Schoenberg could be conservative in form as in many instances he stuck with traditional forms used by Romantic composers.

Schoenberg was faithful to Brahms' original work in that he changed no notes. His brilliant orchestration is another matter. Brahms' orchestration was like his solo piano music; not outwardly brilliant and colorful, but complex and well written. Brahms' orchestration suited the character of his symphonic works perfectly. Schoenberg's orchestration of the work is radically different from what Brahms would have done.  My post of Brahms original version of this work can be found here.

I wouldn't say that Schoenberg's arrangement suits Brahms' music like a glove, but it does have its moments. Shoenberg begins with a rather straightforward arrangement of the first movement, but after that each movement gets stamped with Schoenberg's style more and more. It leads to the final movement, an absolutely wild rendition of Brahms' Rondo alla Zingarese. With more and more percussion and quirky orchestral techniques, Shoenberg  pulls out all the stops and makes music that is pretty wild in its original form completely over the top.  Schoenberg had a liking for and understanding of Brahms' music, that much shows in the arrangement. Schoenberg's orchestration doesn't cancel out the greatness of the original, but it is interesting. And frankly, Schoenberg's last movement is incredible.

Brahms - Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini Opus 35

Johannes Brahms' music for solo piano is not usually filled with brilliant effects or obvious virtuosity. The difficulties in Brahms music are covert, and many times not obvious to the listener.  But his music is not easy to play. It can be dense of texture and complicated in structure. It takes a great technician and fine musician to play Brahms and bring out all of the voices (he was a master of counterpoint) and details. After Robert Schumann heard the young Brahms play his early piano sonatas, he called them not sonatas but, "veiled symphonies".

Brahms himself was no slouch as a pianist. He had the technique and knowledge of the keyboard to write a brilliant virtuoso work. His Opus 35 set of variations prove it. He wrote them for the virtuoso Carl Tausig who was a student of Liszt and a pianist Brahms admired.  He wrote the variations on a theme of Paganini taken from the 24th Caprice For Solo Violin In A Minor, a work that Liszt had already written a transcription for piano for, and a work that was to inspire many other composers in the future.

Brahms had something different in mind, even in the title of the work. He called the work Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini, with the implication being that each of the variations are an etude that explores a particular aspect of piano playing.   The work is divided into two books of 14 variations, each one being an independent work in itself.  Many times both books are played in recitals. Brahms version of the theme is played to lead off both books, and most of the variations are in the original key of A Minor.

Book One
Theme - Brahms begins with the theme, but not in its original form. He adds grace notes to the melody in the right hand in the first section, adds grace notes to the left hand in the second section and, unlike the original, repeats the second section thus making the theme 24 bars long instead of the original 16:
Brahms keeps the general outline of the theme throughout the first thirteen variations, with all the variations being in the key of A minor except the 11th and 12th, which are in A major. But that is not to say that the variations are simple variants. The variations throw every kind of technical challenge at the pianist; intervals of all kinds, huge jumps, hand crossings, etc. The 13th variation is noteworthy for its use of octave glissandos in the right hand, quite difficult on the piano of Brahms day as well as the modern piano. The 14th variation is an extended section that goes beyond the 24-bar length of the theme and previous thirteen variations. Brahms introduces music that sounds like yet another variation before he adds a coda that rounds out and ends the first book.

Book Two
The theme is played again, all of the variations are in A minor, except for Variation 4 which is in A major and Variation 12 which is in F major. Again, Brahms writes variations of great difficulty but still stays within the same general outline of the theme. As with Book One, the 14th variation is an extended section that adds yet another two un-numbered variations that lead material that fully closes out Book Two.

Clara Schumann, widow of Robert Schumann called the piece Hexenvariationen (Witch's Variations) because they were so fiendishly difficult, and though she was one of the great pianists of the 19th century she could not play them. The piece remains one of the few examples of outwardly virtuosic piano music Brahms ever wrote. Along with the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach and the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven, Brahm's set is one of  the greatest variations written.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rheinberger - Concerto For Organ In G Minor Op. 177

Joseph Rheinberger was born in 1839 and showed musical talent early on. By the time he was seven years old he was already playing the organ in the church of his hometown,  Vadus in Lichtenstein. He attended the Munich Conservatory, and after graduating served as professor of piano and composition who most notably taught Wilhelm Furtwängler, Englebert Humperdink and many others. His influences in composition were Brahms, Schubert and J.S. Bach.

Rheinberger was a prolific composer and composed from the age of 12 until his death in 1901. He wrote for all the genres of his time. Most of his works suffered from neglect after his death except for the pieces for solo organ. His sonatas for organ and other pieces were in the repertoire of organists from early on and remained the one link to the composer for many years.

Rheinberger wrote two concertos for organ and orchestra. After the success of Organ Concerto No. 1 In F Major (written in 1884) Rheinberger was requested by organists to compose another concerto. Organ Concerto No. 2 In G Minor was written in 1894. While the first concerto is for organ, strings and three horns, the second concerto adds trumpets and timpani to the mix. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Grave - The strings play a short descending figure that leads to the appearance of the organ. The strings repeat the descending figure, and the organ replies again. Another theme is begun in the strings while the organ accompanies. The first movement is chock full of themes that are played by the strings and commented on by the organ. This is the nature of the entire concerto, as the orchestra and organ seldom conflict but work to compliment each other. The organ helps to fill in the missing woodwind texture of the orchestra.  The opening reappears as a recapitulation, as there isn't a solid sense of a separate development section of the themes, but they are varied in the recapitulation. A short coda winds down the music with a flourish.

II.  Andante - Rheinberger breaks with the traditional scheme of three-movement concertos by having two slow movements back-to-back. The movement begins with the solo organ, but the full compliment of strings soon join the organ. An agitated section of music that includes the trumpets follows. The serene mood returns with the opening organ solo as the strings and organ trade off playing and commenting on the theme until the movement gently winds down.

III. Con moto - The tempo of the concerto finally speeds up as sharp chords are played in the orchestra. The organ enters, the chords repeat along with the organ entrance. This movement also is chock full of themes that are treated by orchestra and organ in ways unique to Rheinberger.  The accented chords of the beginning of the movement reappear as does the organ. Rheinberger varies themes somewhat as the music moves towards the conclusion. Trumpets act as an accent, the organ is mellow and anxious in turn. The chords appear once more as the organ and strings pull out all the stops for a grand ending.

Rheinberger was a conservative composer in the mold of Brahms, which was part of the reason his music fell into neglect after his death, but his music began to be noticed by more than just organists later in the 20th century. The late E.Power Biggs (1906 - 1977) almost single handedly revived the two organ concertos when he recorded them in the early 1970's. His recording was my first exposure to Rheinberger, and the organ concertos have been a favorite ever since.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dvořák - Piano Concerto In G Minor

Out of the three concertos Dvořák wrote for solo instruments, one each for violin, cello and piano, it is the piano concerto that is least well known.  The piano concerto has fine melodies and is well crafted in all but the part for solo piano. At least that was the rap against it early on.  Dvořák's writing for the piano was called clumsy, ineffective, and unpianistic among other complaints. Once the piece got a bad reputation, it was pretty much neglected after its premiere in 1878 by the pianist who requested that Dvořák write a piano concerto, Karel Slavkovský.

A few years after Dvořák's death the Czech teacher and pianist Vilém Kurz tried to help the piece become part of the repertoire by revising the piano part (he left the orchestral part untouched). Sadly, this revision didn't endear the work to pianists much more than the original had. It wasn't until later in the 20th century when the piece came to be played occassionally. The concerto has since been published in score with both the original and Kurz's revision, giving the pianist their choice. No story of the concerto would be complete without mentioning the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, who practically single handedly kept the work before the public for many years. Firkušný was a student of Kurz, and played the revision for many years, but later in his career he began playing the original version.

Vilem Kurz
Perhaps the biggest problem soloists have with the concerto is the lack of pianistic fireworks. There are two main styles of concerto; those that are vehicles for virtuoso display from the soloist who is just as much an adversary of the orchestra as a partner, and those that are more like a symphony for piano and orchestra where the virtuosity for the soloist is not so obvious. Dvořák's concerto is definitely one of the latter, and he knew it.  There are plenty of examples of both kinds of concerto in the repertoire, and Dvořák's is heard more often than it used to be.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro agitato - The first and main theme of the movement is heard straight away, a theme that is pure Dvořák (but showing a little influence of his friend Brahms' music also). The other two themes of the movement have more of a pastoral or folk song feeling.  The first theme reappears and leads to the first entrance of the piano. The piano and orchestra expand the first theme and the other two themes as well.  The first theme appears in the minor to begin the development section which concentrates on the first theme as a whole and in parts of it. All three themes are finally recapitulated and it is the first theme that leads to the cadenza.  The first theme also dominates the coda to the movement and leads to the end of it.

II. Andante sostenuto - The horn is prominent along with the piano in a finely crafted movement.

III. Allegro con fuoco - Dvořák seldom used authentic Czech folk music in his compositions, but he most certainly knew how to compose themes with the flavor of the real thing.  There are three themes in this movement that in form is a hybrid between sonata form and rondo. The first theme has a strong rhythmic element as does the second theme. The third theme is in contrast with the others as it is more laid back.

There is certainly more than one approach to writing a piano concerto. The approach that Dvořák used in this concerto shouldn't work against it as composers as diverse as Litolff, Liszt, and Brahms wrote concertos that were symphonies for piano and orchestra disguised as concertos. Perhaps the times in which Dvořák wrote the work, specifically in reference to the prejudice against Czech composers In Germany, played a part in the early neglect of this concerto. Thankfully, the concerto has overcome this neglect and is played and recorded more often, giving the listener a chance to hear and appreciate this work.

Monday, January 13, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Symphony In G Major Wq 183/4

The word symphony is derived from two Greek words that roughly mean 'an agreeable, concerted and harmonious sound'. As far back as the 11th century it could be used as the name of an instrument, usually one that played more than one tone at once, as with the bagpipe or the medieval instrument called the hurdy gurdy. Later it came to mean music played by a group of instruments or even vocalists.

The words sinfonia and symphony were used for instrumental pieces in opera, concertos and sonatas all through the Baroque period in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  Soon the term symphony and overture were used interchangeably in Italian opera. The overture to many Italian operas followed a three-movement form that had the tempo scheme of fast-slow-fast. The evolution of the form was more or less standardized with the later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart in the late 18th century by the addition of a fourth movement.

Scholars have determined that C.P.E. Bach wrote his first documented symphony in 1741. It followed the fast-slow-fast form and was for strings and continuo, which makes Bach one of the first recognizable composers of compositions that were meant to be heard as stand-alone works not tied to the theater. There are 20 symphonies extant that can be confidently attributed to Bach, all of them follow the three movement form.

The other feature of the symphony is the presence of sonata form, usually found in the first movement, but it can be used for any of the movements. It was derived from binary form, a form that consists of two related sections that are repeated. An early style of sonata form was used by Bach in his symphonies, with Haydn and Mozart standardizing a model of the form in their symphonies and other works. As C.P.E. Bach uses it, sonata form utilizes two themes, the first being in the tonic key, the next in the dominant key (or other related key), that are played in succession after which a short section develops these themes by variations in key, phrasing, etc. The themes appear again (recapitulation) after the development with the first theme played as before, and the second theme modulating to the tonic (usually).

Bach's Symphony In G Major Wq. 183/4  is in three movements:
I. Allegro assai - An angular, down-beat stressed theme is played by the violins while the second theme is played by the flutes with comments by oboes and violins. The first theme reappears and goes directly to the development section where the second theme is commented upon after which the first theme modulates to the minor. This leads to the recapitulation that segues to the slow movement

II. Poco andante - A short movement in the minor that serves as a contrast in mood to the first movement.

III. Presto - A lively dance movement.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Weber - Andante And Hungarian Rondo For Bassoon And Orchestra

 The bassoon, along with the cello and string bass, is a primary part of the bass register in the modern symphony orchestra. The modern bassoon has evolved from earlier keyless forms of bass double reed instruments called dulcians. It was during the 19th century when increased demands for range, volume control and tone quality caused instrument makers to improve the instrument.

The bassoon also has a place in chamber music, and solo concertos have been written for it. One of the most played works for bassoon and orchestra is Weber's Andante And Hungarian Rondo For Bassoon And Orchestra, especially in a version for piano and bassoon that many students of the bassoon have had to struggle through.  The first version of this work was written in 1809 for his brother, who played the viola. The basoonist Georg Friedrich Brandt asked Weber to arrange it for the bassoon in 1813. Weber didn't make very many changes in the work as he knew full well the capabilities of Brandt, one of the leading players of the day.   Weber must have enjoyed the challenge of concerto writing, for he wrote over a dozen for various instruments, many of them being for wind instruments.

The work is in two sections:
I. Andante - A theme and short set of variations. The theme is in the mood and tempo of a siciliana, a slow dance with origins in Italy in the early Baroque period. There are three variations on this theme. The two bassoons in the accompanying orchestra join in with the soloist in a trio of bassoon-ness. After the last variation where the baassoon chatters away as the orchestra plays the theme, a short bridge section leads directly to the second movement.

II.  Hungarian Rondo - The bassoon plays the 'Hungarian' tune to begin the rondo. As  'Turkish' music of roughly the same period was not actually turkish tunes,  'Hungarian' music was not actually hungarian tunes. Both kinds of music were ways composers introduced different exotic rhythms and instruments to their music. Weber's music may resemble a form of hungarian dance called Verbunkos, but the resemblance is slight and as with most examples of Hungarian-styled music of the time, owes as much to music of the Romani (Gypsy) people who lived in Hungary as anything else. The tune is a skipping, rather light-hearted tune that brings out the humorous side of the bassoon. As in the first movement, Weber has the bassoons of the orchestra join in with the soloist for more examples of bassoon-ness. The theme is interlaced between episodes of differing material with the bassoon always in the forefront. The bassoon goes off on a tear of triplets near the end and finishes up with a scurry of notes to end the work.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Alkan - Sonate de Concert For Cello And Piano

The French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan is most often thought of as a composer for keyboard instruments, with most of his works being for piano solo, but he did compose two Concerto da Camera for piano and orchestra, and a few chamber music works. His Sonate de Concert For Cello And Piano In E Major was written about 1856.  The name itself gives some indication of what Alkan attempted to achieve with it; something larger and more substantial than music written to be played by amateurs in a 19th century drawing room.

The composers who wrote the most sucessful sonatas for cello and piano were Beethoven and Brahms. Other composers have written examples also, but for many it was a one-time endeavor.  Alkan wrote only one, as did his friend and sometime neighbor, Chopin.

As with most of Alkan's music, the technical (and musical) difficulties of the cello sonata are many for both instruments, not least of all keeping the proper balance between the two. It is in 4 movements, with each movement being in a differet key:
I. Allegro molto - This movement isi n the home key of E major and begins straight away with a theme, the first of three main themes of the exposition, although there is much of the material that connects the main themes that can be thought of as short secondary theme material. (The recording that I've linked to at the end of this article does not take the exposition repeat, which in my opinion is somewhat excusable in music that is more familiar, but in works that are heard but seldom, it would help the listener find their way a little better if the themes were placed in the ear more securely by a repitition of them.) The development section is extensive and begins with the development of the short pizacatto motive that ends the exposition along with other material. The first theme appears, plays for a few bars before going off in different keys. Other themes follow suit. The recapitulation proper begins with the first theme followed by other material from the exposition that has modulated to other keys. In a short coda that is marked brilliante, the movement ends.

II. Allegrettino - This movement is in A-flat major. In contrast to the opening movement, this has the feeling of a  gently swaying dance, but there are surprises as minor keys float into the mix giving a feeling of unrest to the middle section.

III. Adagio - This movement is in C major. Alkan was devoutly Jewish and an Old Testement scholar.  He prefaced the music with a quotation from the Old Testement book of Micah:
"As dew from the Lord how the Jewish people endure, awaiting help from God alone."
The movement begins with three-note motives on the cello followed by a harmonic as the piano lags slightly behind as it plays its own three-note motive. The music is mysterious, not least of all for the incessant pizacatto notes played in a seemingly random pattern by the cello as the piano gently plays sixteenth notes in both hands in the treble topped by a melody even higher in the right hand.  The music reaches ever higher until it comes to rest with a high C major chord in the piano while the cello plays a low C pizacatto.

IV. Finale alla Salterella - Prestissimo - A dance in the key of E minor that gets wilder and wilder as it goes. It's full of dotted rhythms and extremes in range of both instruments until a trill in both hands of the piano along with an arpeggiated chord in the cello lead to the final chord.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hummel - Introduction, Theme And Variations For Oboe And Orchestra

When Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 his birthplace was in the town of Pressburg in the Kingdom of Hungary which was then a part of the Austrian Empire, which currently is Bratislava in Slovakia. The change in the name of Hummel's birthplace as well as the country which it was in, is a reflection of the changes in Europe within the relatively short time span of a few centuries. Hummel himself was a product of former times. A composer and performer of renown during his lifetime, his music fell victim to changing times and rapidly faded into the background shortly before after his death in 1837.

Hummel moved to Vienna as a child and was a student of Mozart and later was a friend and fellow student of Beethoven (they were both taught by Haydn and Salieri). Hummel suceeded Haydn at the court of Prince Esterházy in Hungary until he was dismissed for inattention to duties in 1811. He went to Vienna, composed and toured Europe and Russia as a virtuoso pianist. He later held the post of Kappelmeister at other places, most notably at the court of Wiemar from 1819 to 1837. While he was at Wiemar he invited the best musicians to play there and made the city a music capital of Europe.

Besides his compositions and performing, his treatise A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte in 1828 was a great influence on young pianists as it revolutionized performance practices that heralded the Romantic era of the composer/pianist. Chopin and Schumann studied Hummel's music. Hummel was also a direct influence as a teacher. Carl Czerny transferred to Hummel after his three years of study with Beethoven. Czerny went on to teach Franz Liszt. Some of Hummel's other students were Sigismond Thalberg, Adolf von Henselt and Felix Mendelssohn.

Although Hummel is most often associated with music for the piano, he composed in all the musical forms of his time except he wrote no symphonies. He wrote eight piano concertos and many others for various solo instruments. His Introduction, Theme And Variations For Oboe is a concerto in all but name, and was written in 1824 during his time in Wiemar. It consisits of two sections:
I. Introduction - The introduction is in F minor as the orchestra sets the stage for the soloist. The music is solemn and reflective. It leads directly to the next section.
II. Theme And Variations - The theme is in contrast to the previous introduction as it is in F major and of a more cheerful disposition.
a) Variation 1 - The first variation sees the theme stated in mostly eighth notes. Each variation is in two sections that are repeated. A short ending of the first variation is played by the orchestra without the soloist.
b) Variation 2 - The theme is transformed into eighth-note triplets. This is also ended by the orchestra.
c) Variation 3 - The next variation slows the theme and is labeled cantabile ed un poco sostenuto (in a singing style, slightly sustained). The orchestra plays a con fuoco (with fire) ending to this variation.
d) Variation 4 - The theme is played in running sixteenth notes as the string s play pizacatto.
e) Interlude - Hummel deviates from the usuual set of variations and writes an extended interlude that includes fragments of the theme, but is not an actual variation on it.
f) Theme - As if to assure the listener that he hasn't forgotten about the theme, Hummel repeats it with a few changes. A fermata at the close of the theme gives the soloist opportunity for a cadenza.
g) Variation 5 - The variations begin in earnest once again as the theme is transformed into a waltz.
h) Variation 6 - The theme takes on a pattern of eighth rest-three eighth notes-quarter note per bar.
i) Variation 7 - Hummel transforms the theme to rapid eighth-note triplets with repeated notes. This variation leads to a short coda that ends the music with a high note from the soloist.

Although Hummel wrote some music that looked ahead to the Romantic era just over the horizon, he was essentially a classically trained musician whose music was rapidly looked on as being old -fashioned in the Europe of the 1830's.  Unlike Beethoven, a composer that was the model for conservative and radical composers alike, Hummel's art was of a less staggering kind but by no means trivial.  With recordings, Hummel's music is once again being heard, and perhaps will be heard more in the concert hall as well. A piece such as the Variations For Oboe, a lesser piece in that it isn't heaven-storming,  shows that he was a wonderful craftsman, could be inspired on ocassion, and a great musician.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Mozart - Violin Concerto No. 5 ' Turkish' , K. 219

Most often it is the keyboard that is closely identified with Mozart as a performer, the harpsichord early in his career and the piano later.  But in his travels around Europe as a child prodigy he not only played keyboard instruments but the violin as well. His father Leopold was a renown performer and teacher of the violin and Wolfgang no doubt was taught and encouraged by Leopold on the violin. Leopold was employed as court musician at the court at Salzburg, eventually reaching the position of deputy concertmaster.

Wolfgang was also a court musician at Salzburg in different capacities, including that of concertmaster, the first desk violinist and the leader of the string section of the orchestra. For Mozart to have garnered this position he had to have been more than an average violinist. It was while he was a court musician at Salzburg that he composed his five violin concertos, the only concertos for violin he wrote. Four of the concertos were written in 1775 with one other written a few years earlier. Musical historians are divided in regards to whom the concertos were written, but perhaps Mozart played them himself in an effort to impress  the new Prince of the Salzburg Court, Count Hieronymus von Colloredo.  If this was the case, it was in vain as Mozart and the new Prince eventually came to loggerheads a few years later, and when Mozart tried to resign his position the prince refused at first, but a few months later the Prince relented and sent word to Mozart by way of a lackey who at the Prince's orders, dismissed Mozart with a literal kick in the ass!

The 5th Violin Concerto in A major has 3 movements:

Leopold Mozart
I. Allegro Aperto -  Mozart begins the concerto with the themes first played by the orchestra, as was the practice in concertos of his time. The themes are deceptively simple in their first hearing. The soloist, instead of entering in the same mood and tempo as the orchestra has set plays a short section, adagio in tempo and sweeter in mood. This adagio section leads directly to the violin taking up the mood and tempo of the beginning, and the violin fills out the first theme as the initial hearing by the orchestra was but a glimpse of what was to come. The second theme with its naive-sounding repeated notes is also expanded upon by the violin. The rather short development section is followed by the recapitulation. The violin plays a cadenza before the orchestra ends the movement.

II. Adagio -  Slow and graceful music that is like a faint reminiscence to the adagio section of the first movement that sounds like an opera aria for violin and orchestra. The violin sings throughout in long melodies that slowly unwind with sighs and slight pauses that contribute to the gentleness of the music.

III - Rondo - Tempo di Minuetto - The rondo theme is stated by the violin and returns between sections in different keys:

Roughly halfway through the movement the music changes time signature from 3/4 to 2/4, increases the tempo to Allegro, and changes the key to A minor:
 The new section is an example of the 'Turkish' music that was the rage of the times. It has nothing to do with authentic Turkish music, but more like a European composer's translation of it. It was usually in the form of a march and made use of percussion instruments not found in orchestras then. As Mozart wrote this for a small court orchestra that perhaps had no access to the cymbals, rattles and drums that other composers used, the cellos and double basses are instructed in the score to strike the strings with the wood of the bow to give a percussive effect.  The music swirls and turns becoming wild and rough. This section is the source of the nickname for the concerto. After a short cadenza for the soloist the music returns to the minuet.. After hearing the previous section the return of the minuet is as startling as the transition to the Turkish music. After the restatement of the theme and some other material, the slightly altered theme returns and the concerto comes to a close with an A major arpeggio from the soloist.

When Mozart was summarily booted in the ass from Salzburg he became a freelance composer in Vienna. To earn a living he turned to writing concertos for piano and appearing as soloist in them. No one knows why he composed only five violin concertos. Some musicologists have put forth that it was part of  his breaking away from his father, among other suppositions. Whatever the reason, there are the five violin concertos written in Salzburg, with the 5th being the most popular. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 17 In D Minor 'Tempest'

“I am not very well satisfied with the work I have thus far done. From this day on I shall take a new way", Beethoven said to one of his friends shortly after his opus 28 piano sonatas were written. An example of what his new way would be can be found in Beethoven's opus 31, No. 2 piano sonata, one of a set of three that he wrote in 1801 -1802. The story told by Anton Schindler, acquaintance and self-styled Beethoven authority,  that the first movement source of inspiration was Shakespeare's play of the same name is highly suspect along with many other stories from Schindler. But the nickname has stuck, for the first movement is a tempest of passion and drama.

The sonata is the first major work he wrote in the key of D minor, and it would be the only piano sonata out of 32 that would be written in that key.  It remains one of the most powerful pieces ever written for piano more than 200 years after it was written.

The sonata is in 3 movements:
I. Largo -Allegro - Beethoven begins with a slowly arpeggiated, pianissimo A major chord, which is followed by an increase in tempo and 3 bars of eighth note slurs of 2 notes, that rise in volume until the tempo changes to adagio and comes to rest on another A major chord. The first five bars of this sonata form the basis for the entire exposition. What makes this so unique is that this first theme of the sonata contains incredible contrast, something that is usually accomplished in two different themes.  Tempo and dynamics change again as another chord is arpeggiated, after which the eighth note slurs reappear, but this time they continue and lead to a  theme in the bass that changes to high in the treble as a triplet figure plays in the middle register.
This continues until the two-note slurs of the opening reappear with a different accompaniment. Other related material leads to the first ending before the repeat. After the section is repeated (and in my opinion this sonata needs the exposition repeat) the second ending comes to rest on three G notes. The development begins with arpeggiated chords, this time with more notes. This happens three times, then the music takes off in a double forte repeat of the triplet figure-theme-in bass-and-high-treble material, but in different keys. This continues with heightened  drama until a climax is reached when a section of eighth note thirds are played on the first and second beat with a sforzando on the second beat. Then whole note chords and a transition section lead to the recapitulation with arpeggiated chords and two-note slur material, but this time there is a short, unaccompanied recitative inserted between them:
After the A-flat fermata, there is an increase in tension as chords are played pianissimo with rapid arpeggios. This happens three times with an increase in volume until the fourth time the two-note slurs reappear in a different key and accompaniment. More material is brought forth and it leads to a pianissimo ending in D minor.

II. Adagio - This movement also begins with an arpeggiated chord, but the mood is calmer, more reflective. This movement is in sonata form, but without any development section.

III. Allegretto -  The music of this movement is constantly moving and full of tension that does not ease up throughout. The quiet ending of the movement gives the impression that the music really doesn't end, but fades into the distance.

Beethoven's compositional style was constantly evolving throughout his career. This brought about experimentation that can be subtle, or as in the case with this sonata, glaringly obvious. His physical malady of hearing loss, which he lamented was getting worse in the letter to his brothers that is called the Heiligenstadt Testament, was written about the same time as this piano sonata.  What affect his hearing loss had on his art can only be imagined, as well as what his music would have been if he had not suffered from deafness. Beethoven was one of the greatest musical minds that ever existed, but he was also one of the most human of human beings. It is that quality that makes his music still so moving and influential almost 200 years after his death.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Milhaud - La Création du Monde

The Frenchman Darius Milhaud was born in 1892 and studied violin before switching to composition at the Paris Conservatory. After his studies he spent two years in Brazil as the secretary to the French ambassador. Upon his return to France he composed music that was inspired by what he heard while in Brazil, such as Le bœuf sur le toit (The Ox On The Roof) which contained references to many Brazilian chôros he heard there.

American jazz was very popular in the Paris of the 1920's and it was there that Milhaud first heard it. He was so intrigued by it he went to New York City in 1922 where he visited Harlem, heard authentic American jazz and talked to jazz musicians. Milhaud was not only influenced by  jazz music but by black culture and folklore. He  wrote La Création du Monde (The Creation Of The World) for a ballet troupe performing in Paris, and the ballet was based on African creation folktales. At its premiere, the ballet was more of a scandal than a success. The ballet itself is revived rarely, more of a curiosity than anything else, but Milhaud's music is still played and the piece is one of the most successful uses of the jazz idiom by a classically trained composer.

La Création du Monde is scored for a chamber orchestra that consists of 2 flutes, 1 oboe, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 1 alto saxophone, 1 horn, two trumpets, 1 trombone, 2 violins, 1 cello, 1 double bass, piano, and an assortment of percussion instruments. The work consists of an overture and five sections played without a break:
Overture - The work begins with a solo for the saxophone played over a steady pulse. Other instruments are added to reach a climax, and the saxophone resumes. The trumpets come to the fore, the flutes comment on the saxophone tune. There is a general rumbling in the background while the saxophone and bassoon play together until the saxophone plays the end of the tune.

1. Chaos Before Creation - The piano and percussion thump out a rhythm and the double bass begins the subject of a jazz fugue. In turn, the trombone, saxophone and trumpet contribute to the fugal texture. Other instruments enter playing the subject as the music gets more and more complex. The fugue ends and slow, somewhat ominous music leads to the next section.

2. Creation Of The Animals, Insects, And Trees - The saxophone tune from the overture is played while the cello plays the fugue subject from the first section. This leads to a new bluesy tune played by the oboe.

3. Creation Of Man And Woman - The two violins play a syncopated duet while other instruments comment. The theme is passed to other instruments, fragments of previous tunes are heard. The violins resume their duet, a masterful segue by Milhaud leads to the next section.

4. Desire - The clarinet is in the spotlight accompanied by the piano, strings and percussion.  The music modulates to a higher key, then goes back to the original key. The oboe enters and leads the music back to the theme of the overture. The accompaniment to the clarinet solo enters, but the overture theme overrides it. This struggle for supremacy is finally won by the clarinet theme and accompaniment dominating. It modulates once again, only to fall back to the original key as the intensity grows until the music grows mellow with the blues of the oboe tune from the second section.

5. The Kiss - Themes from section 2, the overture return, with a memorable playing of the fugal subject by the flutes using flutter tonguing.  The saxophone and strings gently end the work.

Milhaud was not only a prolific composer but a teacher as well. He moved to the United States during World War II (he was Jewish) and taught jazz musician Dave Brubeck and song writer Burt Bacharach. Jazz and other kinds of music continued to influence Milhaud until his death in Geneva, Switzerland in 1974 at the age of 81.