Friday, February 14, 2014

Tchaikovsky - String Sextet 'Souvenir de Florence'

When Tchaikovsky was made an honorary member of the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society in 1886 he promised to compose a chamber work and dedicate it to the society. After he decided the work was going to be a string sextet, he made some preliminary sketches in 1887 , but it wasn't until June of 1890 that he started to work on it in earnest. Tchaikovsky mentioned the sextet in letters to his friends and told of the difficulty he had in writing in what was a new form for him.  By November of 1890 the work was completed, but Tchaikovsky would not allow it to be published until he heard it in performance. There was a private performance of the work in Tchaikovsky's apartment in December, after which Tchaikovsky decided to rework the last two movements. It wasn't until December of 1892 that the first public performance of the original work was played.  Tchaikovsky's revised version was heard the same month and year. The revised version was published in June of 1892 and as promised carried a dedication to the Saint Petersburg Chamber Music Society. The title of the sextet refers to a trip Tchaikovsky made to Florence, Italy where he had sketched one of the work's themes. The work is for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro con spirito - The movement begins straight away with a spirited theme in D minor. The second theme is more lyrical and expansive in nature. The exposition is not repeated. The development section contends with the D minor first theme by way of a fugal treatment, the second theme expands its singing qualities. There is a short section where both themes play off each other that leads to the recapitulation which is followed by a coda. The first theme grows in intensity, speed is increased followed by the final chords.

II. Adagio cantabile e con moto - Full chords open the second movement in music that is in sharp contrast to the preceding movement. The gently sad D major theme is played by a violin to a pizzicato accompaniment. Soon the cello enters with the theme while the violin plays a counter melody. There is a mysterious middle section marked moderato that is more of an interlude, as it doesn't have any thematic connection with the rest of the movement. It is in D minor and consists of rapid sixteenth note triplets played up and down the fingerboard and Tchaikovsky instructs the players to play with the tip of the bow which gives a different texture to the sound. After this short diversion, the melody returns in the cello, the accompaniment is varied as the tune is expanded. The music is marked cantabile and slowly winds down, ending with a dynamic marking of  a hushed quadruple piano.

III.Allegretto moderato - A scherzo in all but name, it is in the key of A minor and time signature of 2/4 rather than the more conventional triple time of a scherzo. The theme is first stated by a viola and then by a violin. The trio is in A major and even more energetic. The scherzo returns and continues ot bounce and sway until it reaches a short coda ended by a pungent pizzicato chord by all six instruments.

IV.Allegro con brio e vivace - The finale continues the energy of the scherzo. It returnsto the home key of D minor, with the first theme played by a violin. After it runs its course a short fugal section appeas before the second theme appears. It is no less energetic than the first theme and after it has its say the development begins with the first theme being worked up to a fever pitch. The fugal section reappears but is more involved and complex this time around. The first theme gives way to the second theme once again and the music continues ot grow in intensity until the coda arrives which is marked piu vivace with a quadruple forte. The music becomes yet more intense as the strings run breathlessly to the closing chords.

Tchaikovsky was a man of incredibly complex and powerful emotions which caused him to have many a personal crisis, including periodic episodes of severe depression. The work is emotional in the extreme and caused Tchaikovsky much anguish and work to finish it, but he was justly proud of what he had accomplished and said so in a letter to his brother:
"What a sextet - what a fugue at the end - it's a pleasure! It is awful how pleased I am with myself: I am embarrassed not by any lack of ideas but by the novelty of the form."
The  Souvenir de Florence has within its pages the passion Tchaikovsky had for Florence as evidenced in the first two movements and the love he had for his native Russia which can be heard in the final two movements. It is a masterpiece of composition and emotion. The Souvenir de Florence was the only sextet he would write and it came late in his career, but three years before his controversial death in 1893.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beethoven - Theme And Variations 'Eroica' Opus 35

Beethoven wrote many sets of variations for piano, the first set written when he was twelve years old in 1782, and the final set in 1823, the famous Diabelli Variations opus 120. Beethoven's first efforts were variations on themes of other composers, most often from operas of the day. Beethoven didn't place too much importance on the majority of these sets of variations as he assigned opus numbers to only four of them, with the two sets of opus 34 and 35 being the first to be assigned official publishing numbers.

Beethoven wrote to the music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel to try and interest them in publishing the two works:
"I have composed two sets of variations... Both sets are worked out in quite a new manner, and each in a separate and different way. . . . I assure you that you will have no regrets in respect of these two works - each theme is treated in its own way and in a different way from the other one. Usually I have to wait for other people to tell me when I have new ideas, because I never know this myself. But this time - I myself can assure you that in both these works the method is quite new so far as I am concerned."
 Both of these works were different in the sense that they were sets of variations on Beethoven's original themes. The opus 35 set in E-flat major, written in 1802,  is based on a theme that Beethoven originally used in a Contredanse  about 1800. He used the same melody in the finale of the music he wrote for the ballet The Creatures Of Prometheus about the same time. Beethoven saw a great deal of potential in this theme and must have been fond of it, for after he used it in the opus 35 set he reused it for another set of variations in the finale of his Third Symphony 'Eroica' in 1803. The opus 35 set is also referred to as the Eroica Variations becasue of this.  The works consists of an introduction, theme and fifteen variations, and a fugue:

Introduzione col Basso de Tema (Introduction, the bass of the theme) - The work begins with a E-flat major chord followed by the presentation of the bass of the theme before the theme itself is heard. It spans three octaves with no harmonization, just the bare bones of the bass. It is in binary form with each part being eight bars that are repeated.

A Due (Two, or double) - The playing of a bass at the beginning of a work was not unheard of, the passacaglia of the Baroque Era is one example. But what Beethoven does next is quite unusual, as he repeats the bass while an accompaniment plays in the treble. The position of the bass in this section is an octave higher than the bottom note of the bass in the introduction.

A Tre (Three, or triple) - The bass now climbs into the treble, an octave above its position in the previous section. The accompaniment becomes slightly more complex as it alternates between low notes and high.

A Quattro (Four, or quadruple) - The bass now climbs an octave higher yet as the accompaniment is spread out between the two hands.  The bass has had its own mini-set of variations, and Beethoven has shown with this beginning that the bass is just as important as the theme itself.

Tema (Theme) - The preliminaries are past, the theme finally makes its first appearance with the bass fitting it well. Perhaps the audience of Beethoven's day finally got a grasp of what's gone before when the them did arrive.

Variation 1 - With running sixteenth notes in the treble, Beethoven settles in to a more conventional way to embellish a theme.  Grace notes are used to spice up the theme.

Variation 2 - Sixteenth note triplets liven up the theme, and in the second section a cadenza is inserted between the two four-bar phrases.

Variation 3 - The left hand bounces from single bass notes to chords in the middle of the treble clef while the right hand plays chords higher up in the treble.

Variation 4 - Running notes in the bass while the treble plays high staccato chords.

Variation 5 - The texture gets lighter and in the second section sforzandos accent off the beat.

Variation 6 - The theme is played in chords in the treble while the bass plays sixteenth note broken octaves. The second section is written out in full as the ending of the second time around is different and segues directly to the next variation.

Variation 7,  Canone all' octtava (Canon at the octave) -  A canon on the theme at the distance of an octave with the bass a quarter beat behind the treble.

Variation 8 - Large jumps spread out the theme between bass and treble in the left hand while the right hand plays the accompaniment.

Variation 9 - Eighth note triplets play in thirds in the right while the left hand hammers out a B-flat preceded by the notes of the bass. The low B-flats finally rise higher in the second section while the grace notes persist.

Variation 10 - Beethoven reduces the music to two parts, almost in the style of a Bach two-part invention.

Variation 11 - A simple two note accompaniment is played while the theme plays in triplets high in the treble and drops down to the bass at the end of each section.

Variation 12 - A rising two note figure in the treble is answered in the bass with a descending two note figure. Both hands play together in contrary motion at the end of the first section. The second section has the right hand play the rising two note figure until it pauses on a B-flat dominant seventh chord. The two hands answer one another to the end of the section.

Variation 13 - Eighth note triplet chords in both hands are hammered out forte after an A natural grace note begins each measure. The second section has chords hammered out at fortissimo while the grace note changes to suit the harmony and theme.

Variation 14, Minore - The key changes to E-flat minor as a melancholy version of the theme and bass plays.

Variation 15, Maggiore, Largo - A highly decorated variation that perhaps gives us some idea of Beethoven the master of improvisation. There is a section marked Coda that can be considered an unnumbered variation. Transition material leads to the finale.

Finale Alla Fuga - Through all of the variations the bass has been as much a part of the variation process as the theme. In the final fugue the first four notes of the bass become part of the subject. The fugue is for three voices and the theme is not forgotten as it can beheard in bits and pieces throughout. The fugue segues into yet more variations on theme and bass. Beethoven rounds of the work with a short coda.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Chopin - Mazurkas, Opus 17

 Chopin was traveling to Vienna in 1830 when he first heard of the November Uprising in Poland, which brought on the war between Poland and their Russian occupiers. Chopin was on his way to Paris from Vienna in 1831 when he heard that the uprising had been brutally crushed. He arrived in Paris in September of the same year and was advised by friends and family to not go back to Poland until the political situation changed, but it never did in his lifetime. He became a more nationalistic composer after the crushing of the uprising, and  expressed his longing for his country by writing more music in the form of Polish native dances, such as the polonaise and mazurka. The mazurka is a dance that is usually lively in tempo, in triple time, and has distinctive rhythms such as the examples below:
Chopin used some of the characteristics of the traditional mazurka but also added other features to it such as counterpoint and other classical compositional techniques. Chopin's mazurkas are stylized versions of the folk dance and as such they are not suitable to dance to. This was Chopin's intent and he made a different form of the dance that was more suited for the recital hall.  

He began writing mazurkas in 1825 while still in Poland and continued to write them until his death in 1849.
He wrote at least 69 of them, with 58 being published. The rest are still in manuscript form in private hands or are lost.
He wrote the four mazurkas of opus 17 in 1832-1833 and they are the first ones he wrote in Paris. They were published in 1834.

1. In B-flat, Vivo e risoluto -  Chopin retains much of the flavor of the traditional dance with the rhythmic opening theme which id followed by a section of accented chords. The first theme repeats along with the accented chords. There is a third section that begins with a four-bar introduction to it that is accented off the beat, as is some of the third section. After the third section is played the opening two sections are repeated.

2. In E minor,  Lento, ma non troppo - A mazurka in contrast to the preceding one as there is a touch of sadness to the beginning. The next section is a little brighter in mood, but the melancholy melody of the first section repeats and the music ends quietly. 

3. A-flat major, Allegro assai - The first theme is gently accented on the second beat of the measure and repeats. The 2nd section shifts the accent to the third beat of the measure, and the first theme is repeated, and the entire 2nd section repeats.  A short transition is part of the third section and leads to eighth note triplets. After this section, the mazurka plays the beginning theme along with the 2nd section. The first theme ends the mazurka quietly. 

4. A minor, Lento, ma non troppo - Four bars of pianissimo chords begins the mazurka, one of Chopin's most intimate creations. The melody plays over chords and is embellished with grace notes and runs. The next section is in A major and has a descending motif followed by an ascending motif. The music modulates back to A minor as the first theme repeats with slight differences. There is a final section  of descending motifs and after the first playing it is repeated with embellishments. The music ends with the same four bars as the beginning with the last bar a eighth note triplet of d-e-d and a chord that resolves little. 

Chopin loved his country before he left it to make a name for himself in the music capital of Europe, Vienna. His subsequent exile from Poland deepened that love and caused him to become nostalgic and homesick. Some of these feelings are expressed in his music, especially the mazurkas. Chopin himself called them 'Little pictures', of his homeland, customs and people.  

Franck - Prelude, Chorale And Fugue For Piano

After many years of composing for solo organ and choral pieces César Franck renewed his interest in the piano. He had began his career as a virtuoso pianist while still a child, while his first compositions written as a child were for solo piano. Two of the pieces that saw his renaissance as a composer for the piano, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, and Les Djinns for piano and orchestra, were followed by pieces for piano solo, one of which was the  Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.

The organ music of J.S. Bach was a great influence on Franck, as was the music of Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner. In this piece Franck paid homage to this legacy by molding it in a traditional form while radically changing the style of music he put into it. Camille Saint-Saëns, the great French contemporary of Franck disliked the chromaticism and style of the music and declared, "It is neither a Chorale nor a Fugue." Of course he was correct; it was Franck's personalization of the forms. To a musician that had grown somewhat conservative like Saint-Saëns, this music did no service to the art of music. Regardless of the criticism of his music, (which could be very harsh) Franck continued composing and wrote some of the most beautiful music of the late 19th century. Music that looked backwards in some ways, and forwards in others.

Prelude - The music begins straight away in the key of B minor with a melody played in the middle of an arpeggiated accompaniment:

After seven bars, Franck draws attention to a time signature change 2/4 for one bar that is marked a capriccio. This one bar contains the kernel of one of the first main theme that is referred to throughout the work. The time signature changes back to common time as the kernel is expanded for a few measures before the prelude figuration heard in the beginning returns. The first theme reappears and is explored further. The prelude returns and leads directly to a two-bar transition to the Chorale.

Chorale - The key changes to C minor as the subject for the following fugue is partially revealed before the chorale proper sounds out by large rolled chords with the melody in the high treble:

The music follows this pattern of subject - chorale until the music modulates to the key of E-flat minor in the chorale.

Fugue - After a few bars of transition, the music modulates back to the home key of B minor. The music rumbles in anticipation and leads to the beginning of the fugue:
The fugue progresses with the fugue subject weaving its way through key changes as Franck explores the theme. All of the exploration leads to a cadenza of rapid 16th notes that lead to the reappearance of the prelude and its theme, which is itself explored and expanded. The chorale theme also reappears in a different guise. The fugue and chorale themes intertwine, and the music changes key to B major. Pieces of themes are heard in a grand coda that ends the piece.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hummel - Piano Sonata No. 5 In F-sharp Minor

Beethoven and Hummel were friends for many years until they had a falling out around 1810. Hummel had been a student of Mozart and Clementi and was known for his delicacy and fluidity on the piano, while Beethoven was better known for snapped strings and broken pianos he left in his wake. Beethoven's playing was thundering, while Hummel's was singing. Beethoven's playing by contemporary accounts could be sloppy and he pounded, while Hummel's was precise and flexible. Both men were virtuosos of the first order in the Vienna of the early 19th century, but they were at opposite ends of the piano playing spectrum. Beethoven was a notoriously difficult person to get along with, and his life is littered with squabbles large and small that caused estrangement from many of his friends.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven also didn't much care for Hummel's compositions, but Beethoven was very sparse with his acceptance of most other composers' music. Perhaps what set Beethoven off the most was that Hummel made arrangements of Beethoven's music, probably on artistic grounds as well as monetary. Copyright didn't exist and Beethoven didn't get any payment for the use of his composition as basis for an arrangement and certainly had no say-so in the arrangement itself.

All of this competition and bickering (as well as the huge difference in their piano playing) caused two camps to form in Vienna. Carl Czerny, student of Beethoven and Hummel and teacher of Liszt, had the opportunity to hear many of the virtuosos in Vienna including Beethoven and Hummel. Czerny wrote about the two opposing camps:
Carl Czerny
Beethoven's style could be characterized as tremendously forceful, full of bravura and fluency, while Hummel's was the epitome of the highest purity and clarity, full of graceful delicacy and elegance. Hummel's playing united Mozart's style with the style of Clementi, so it was natural that some would prefer Hummel's playing to Beethoven's, thus two parties formed which were hostile and vengeful to each other. Hummel's supporters accused Beethoven of mistreating the piano mangling clarity and purity, he brought forth only confusing noise through the overuse of the pedal and his compositions were full of unnatural melodies and vulgarities. In contrast, the Beethoven supporters accused Hummel of stifling all true imagination, his playing monotonous as a hurdy-gurdy, his fingers like spiders and his compositions pale imitations of Mozart and Haydn. 
The historical edge as far as influencing later generations of composers must go to Beethoven, who was such a Titan of music that like his music or not, composers had to come to terms with it. But Hummel was not without his influence. It has not lasted directly lasted as long as Beethoven's but the leading composers of the Early Romantic Age certainly knew and learned from his music. Chopin had a Hummel piano concerto in his repertoire, Schumann struggled to learn the 5th piano sonata and Hummel taught Thalberg and Mendelssohn. Hummel's Piano sonata No. 5 In F-sharp Minor was written in 1819 and is in three movements:

I. Allegro - Hummel begins the movement with a decidedly different opening motif of grace notes attached to octaves in each hand. The music is restless and disjointed as it stops, starts, slows down and resumes tempo. There are many short motifs that run through the exposition, but the listener must pay attention as there is no choice for the performer to repeat the exposition as Hummel writes a double bar line and goes directly to the development. The development goes afield with certain motifs modulating to different keys, and Hummel eventually makes hisway back to the recapitulation. Motifs reappear with changes of key, and the movement ends in F-sharp major. The music bristles with thirds and fourths, especially in the right hand, as well as rapid runs and rhythmic combinations. Hummel manages to write a first movement that sounds more like a fantasy than sonata form.

II. Largo con molto espressione - What appears to be the slow movement of the sonata starts with a surprise; a motif played in double forte.  After the initial surprise, the music assumes the demeanor of a slow movement that is a foretaste of things to come with Chopin and Schumann. The movement is punctuated by loud outbursts and quick runs up and down the keyboard. The movement is full of tempo designations and directions as well as dynamic markings.

III. Finale:Vivace - The preceding two movements were only a warm up to what Hummel has in store in the finale. The music has a relentless push forward in the two main themes, the first of which is hammered out in the high treble and the other in octaves in the right hand played against running notes in the left. There is a fugal episode that appears twice as the music keeps pushing to the final chord. Again the music is full of thirds and fourths, especially a two-bar run for thirds in both hands that is played twice. The first theme returns to round off the movement and leads to octave F's in both hands.

Some say Beethoven was a Classical Era composer, some say he was one of the first Romantics, but Beethoven defies categorization as one thing or the other. His music has elements of both, but he is a composer unto himself. With the writing of this sonata Hummel led the way for the full onset of the Romantic Era. Beethoven wrote some amazing music for the piano, but he never wrote a sonata like this sonata of Hummel's.  

When Hummel learned that Beethoven was on his deathbed, he traveled to Vienna, visited Beethoven three times, the last only three days before Beethoven died.  He promised to take Beethoven's place in a charity concert, and secured Beethoven's signature on a document supporting Hummel's attempt at getting copyright laws passed. Hummel was one of eight musicians that accompanied Beethoven's coffin to his grave.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Liszt - Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses

Franz Liszt's reputation during his virtuoso touring years was one of a gifted musician, perhaps the world's greatest pianist, and ladies' man. There was also another side to Liszt, for he was a devout Catholic all of his life and even took minor orders in the church late in life. This paradox of deeply religious, but never marrying any of the women he had intimate relations with, is but a part of this very complex individual.

In his last years of touring he became acquainted with the Russian Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein. She finally left her husband in Russia in 1848 and joined Liszt in Wiemar where he was acting Kappelmeister to the court. They lived together for twelve years, and had marriage plans that were constantly thwarted by her husband and his powerfully connected family to obtain a divorce.

Alphonse de Lamartine
Liszt worked on the collection of piano pieces he called Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (Poetic And Religious Harmonies) for many years. He completed the set after he began living with the Princess first at her country house in Ukraine, and later at Wiemar.

Liszt took the title from a book of poems by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and prefaces the collection with a fragment from the preface of the book:
"There are some meditative souls that solitude and contemplation raise inevitably towards ideas that are infinite, that is towards religion; all their thoughts are converted into enthusiasm and prayer, all their existence is a mute hymn to the Divine and to hope. They seek in themselves and in the creation that surrounds them steps to climb to God, expressions and images to reveal him to them, and to reveal themselves to him: I would that I could lend them some of these! There are hearts broken by sorrow, held back by the world, who take refuge in the world of their thoughts, in solitude of soul, to weep, to wait or to worship; I would that they might be visited by a muse solitary like them, to find sympathy in her harmonies and to say sometimes, as they listen: We pray with your words, we weep with your tears, we call on God with your songs!"
The Romanticism of the times can appear rather much to modern readers, but the early 19th century was a time of instilling drama, passion and downright excess in the arts.  Liszt took his cue from the French poet, and wrote ten pieces that run the range of drama, religiosity, and even dips into the abyss of gruesomeness. He was a musician that was inspired by literature and the visual arts to such a strong extent that he used his musical genius to express the feelings and emotions he received from the other arts. That is why Liszt's music is not so much a literal representation of the thing which inspired him, but an attempt to convey the emotions and feelings it gave him.

1.  Invocation - Liszt prefaces the first piece in the set with some lines from a poem by Lamartine of the same name:
Rise up, voice of my soul,
With the dawn, with the night!
Leap up like the flame,
Spread abroad like the noise!
Float on the wing of the clouds,
Mingle with the winds, with storms,
With thunder, and the tumult of the waves.
 Rise up in the silence
At the hour when, in the shade of evening,
The lamp of night sways,
When the priest puts out the censer;
Rise up by the waves
In these deep solitary places
Where God reveals himself to faith!
A call for assistance, a summoning to worship, the interpretations of the title and the music that follows are many. The piece is in E major.

2.  Ave Maria - This piece is a transcription for piano of a choral work composed by Liszt in 1846 for 4 voices and organ. Liszt writes the Latin text over the music thus showing that this is pretty much a literal transcription.

3.  Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude) - This piece is also prefaced by part of the poem Lamartine wrote by the same title:
Whence comes to me, O my God, this peace that overwhelms me?
Whence comes this faith in which my heart abounds?
To me who just now, uncertain, agitated,
And on the waves of doubt buffeted by every wind,
Sought goodness, truth, in the dreams of the wise,
And peace in hearts resounding with fury,
When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss,
A new man is born again within me and starts anew.
The piece is in the key of F-sharp major and begins with a melody in the bass accompanied by the right hand playing in two parts in contrary motion:
The melody continues and gets more complex in texture as the melody is echoed in the bass and the treble in an impressive buildup of sonority. The melody continues and finally winds down to a close in a triple pianissimo. An episode with the tempo indication andante begins with a contemplative melody in the key of D major. This continues until another episode begins, this time in the key of B-flat major that is marked Più sostenuto, quasi preludio that is intended to be played somewhat freely as a prelude. After this episode the F-sharp major melody from the beginning of the piece returns in rolled chords in the treble accompanied by an arpeggios in the bass. The melody continues to build in intensity and passion until the right hand erupts in running sixteenth notes to the melody in the bass. Both hands erupt in breathtaking arpeggios in a cadenza that leads to the coda. Both of the preceding episodes are referred to and the piece comes to a peaceful close. This is one of the pieces of the set that has a life of its own as a recital piece.

4.  Pensée des morts (Thoughts of the Dead) - This piece was originally written under the title of Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses but Liszt revised the work considerably, renaming it  Pensée des morts and making it part of the set, instead of a stand alone piece. The first section is written in the remarkable (for the period) time signature of 5/4, with a few bars of 7/4 time thrown in the mix. This gives the music an instability that is culminated in intensity with the ensuing chords and runs. The explosion of insanity finally ends on B-flats hammered out in both hands. This leads directly to the De Profundis section that has the first three lines of the Latin text of the 130th psalm written over the pounding chords. The English translation of these lines:
From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication.
The music then returns to the underlying tension of the 5/4 time signature until the music morphs into music that imitates the form of the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, a melody played over a triple accompaniment with long notes in the bass. The melody of this section continues as the mood intensifies, ebbs and flows until it returns to a chordal texture as in the De Profundis section, only this time more subdued. The piece ends quietly.

5.  Pater Noster - Another piece originally written for voices and organ, Liszt makes a literal transcription for piano, and includes the Latin text of the Lord's Prayer in the music.

6.  Hymne de l’enfant à son réveil (The Awaking Child’s Hymn) - Another transcription of a piece written originally for female voices with harp and piano accompaniment.

7.  Funérailles (October 1849) (‘Funeral’) -  A work inspired by the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising in October of 1849. Thirteen Hungarian Generals as well as the prime Minister were hung by the Austrians in retaliation for the uprising. Liszt knew some of those that were executed and wrote this in memory of them. The piece begins with the tolling of bells deep within the piano's bass register. The momentum and anguish build until the bottom falls out. The next section is a funeral march, which is followed by a section marked lagrimoso (tearful, crying).  This section grows in intensity and complexity until it gives way to a section that has led some to believe that Liszt also paid tribute to Chopin in this piece as it resembles the thundering left hand octaves of Chopin's A-flat Major Polonaise Opus 53 (Chopin by coincidence had also died in October of 1849). This battle section steadily increases in volume and intensity until the funeral march reappears in three octaves with full chord accompaniment. The lagrimoso section also briefly reappears. The battle section reappearance serves as a coda and a final crescendo, after which the music quietly expires. this is the other piece of the set that is most often played on its own.

8.  Miserere, d’après Palestrina (after Palestrina) - The melody is based on a motet Liszt heard at the Sistine Chapel. It does have a feeling of Paestrina's style in the melody, but no style of Palestrina in the keyboard gyrations of the accompaniment. Included in the simple initial statement of the melody Liszt has included the Latin text of the Miserere. The English translation:
God have mercy on me following thy great mercy,
and following thy compassion, wipe out my iniquity.
9.  Andante lagrimoso - A Lamartine poem also prefaces this piece:
Fall, silent tears,
Upon an earth without pity;
No more between pious hands,
Nor on the bosom of friendship!
Fall like an arid rain,
Which splashes on the rock,
That no ray from the sky can wipe away,
That no breath can come to dry.
This piece is unique to the set as it has no title save the tempo indication. Despite a middle section that tries to brighten the mood, the ending of the piece remains in despair.

10.Cantique d’amour (Hymn of Love) -  Liszt marks the accompaniment quasi Arpa (like a harp), and indeed Liszt made a transcription of this piece for harp. This final piece of the set is in contrast to the preceding sorrow of the Andante lagrimoso. As the Invocation set the stage by way of its hymn like atmosphere, so this Hymn Of Love rounds out the set with a hymn. The melody lies in the middle of the keyboard (something that Liszt did in other pieces too) that is surrounded by the accompaniment. The melody as well as the structure of the piece is rather straightforward; it is the accompaniment and the decorations of it that are ornate.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Brahms - Six Pieces For Piano Opus 118

Brahms wrote nothing for the piano that can be called easy. Brahms piano writings abound with technical difficulties, especially for a small hand, and challenge pianist's musicality. The ultimate in what Brahms demands of a pianist can be seen with his Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini Opus 35, a work of daring virtuosity and extreme technical demands.

Later in his life Brahms began to mellow somewhat. His music became more introspective, with his six piano pieces of Opus 118 being a prime example. Brahms still makes demands on the pianist, but gone is any outwardly flashy virtuosity. But any pianist that has worked their way through them can tell you they are far from simple.

The pieces have no obvious musical connection between each other; each one is a self-contained work. But the mood of each seems to compliment the next, as Brahms well understood.  They were published in 1893 and dedicated to Clara Schumann.

1.Intermezzo in A minor. Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato - This opening piece is the only one in the set that is in binary form and with its restless nature acts as a prelude or introduction to the rest of the set.

2. Intermezzo in A major. Andante teneramente - A mellow piece that has a middle section that has the melody played in the right hand and as it plays the left hand plays the melody a quarter beat behind creating a canon along with the accompaniment.  The first eight-bar section is repeated, and then it is developed. The music smoothly flows into a repeat of the opening section of the piece. This piece as well as the rest of the pieces are in ternary form

3.Ballade in G minor. Allegro energico - A passionate piece, with a melody that floats above the crashing chords in both hands. A gentle middle section is in B major. The opening section is repeated, but the middle section comes back as a short coda in the minor to end the piece.

4.Intermezzo in F minor. Allegretto un poco agitato - A restless first section leads to a contrasting middle section that moves at a steady pace. The restless beginning returns and plays until it shifts key into the major mode at the end.

5. Romanze in F major. Andante - The melody is carried by the highest voice and doubled in the bass. Other notes add to the texture of the harmony and enrich the melody. The middle section is in D major and consists of a melody that repeats over an ostinato bass. The melody varies each time it repeats until it melts into a series of trills. The beginning returns and the melody is reinforced by octaves in the right hand.

6.Intermezzo in E flat minor. Andante, largo e mesto - Written in the rare key of E-flat minor, the piece begins with dark rumblings that lead to a march-like middle section that swells in tone and harmony. This collapses into the dark rumblings of the beginning. There are a few shafts of light as the major mode is invoked, but the tragedy of the opening returns. The end is near, as the music swells in volume once more before it fades away into the abyss.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mendelssohn - Capriccio Brilliant for Piano And Orchestra

The Polish piano vistuoso and composer Fryderyk Chopin was notorious in his negativity towards other composers. Chopin had formed his artistic aesthetic early on, so it's no wonder that his opinions about others who did not share his views were disparaging. One of the composers that met with his admiration was Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin had traveled to Berlin in 1828 to hear him play, but was too shy to introduce himself. When Chopin had his first public recital  in Paris in 1832, Liszt and Mendelssohn both attended. Chopin made a strong impression on Mendelssohn. They met, became friends and stayed in contact for the rest of Chopin's life.

The two composers were only a year apart in age, and both of them had the distinction of maturing as a composer while still in their teen years. Mendelssohn especially matured early on, as two of his most popular compositions, the String Octet and Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream were both written by the time he was seventeen. They both admired J.S.Bach's music as Chopin played Bach extensively and used the preludes and fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier to keep his fingers limber before recitals. Mendelssohn was a key figure in the revival of Bach's music as he arranged and conducted the St. Matthew Passion in 1829.  The two had a certain classisism as part of their artistic makeup, although it took a different course in each other's work.

There was a composer that also had an influence on both Chopin and Mendelssohn, Carl Maria von Weber. Specifically, it was Weber's Konzertstück For Piano that served as a model for Mendelssohn's works for piano and orchestra. This can be seen in the structure of Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brilliant For Piano and Orchestra. Mendelssohn's work begins with an introduction played andante, that is similar in structure and feeling to the beginning of Weber's  Konzertstück. From the introduction the music segues into the music at a faster tempo and more dramatic in nature, the beginning of the first theme. This first theme is expanded upon with a few different motifs thrown in for good measure until there is a slight slowing of the tempo which signals the opening of the second theme which is first played by the orchestra. This second theme has a resemblance to the march section of Weber's work.  The development section follows, and the recapitulation begins with the first theme followed by the second theme which is transformed to the minor mode and ends the work.

In 1845 Chopin told Mendelssohn in a letter:
“Let me remind you that even if you do possess friends and admirers worthier and closer to you, none is more sincere than I.”
Sadly, both composers also shared an early death. Mendelssohn in 1847 of a stroke when he was 38 years old, Chopin in 1849 of tuberculosis when he was 39 years old. While Chopin's music never really went out of fashion, Mendelssohn's did. Mendelssohn was never a part of the 'New Music' movement of Wagner and Liszt and that Nazi Germany banned his music because of his Jewish heritage didn't do his reputation any good. There has been a revival and reevaluation of Mendelssohn and he is now regarded as a great Romantic Era composers.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bruch - Symphony No. 2 In F Minor

Max Bruch is perhaps more well known for his works for solo violin and orchestra. His Violin Concerto No. 1 is still popular and the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra still garners performances in the concert hall and on recordings, and during his lifetime was most well known for his vocal music. But he wrote over 200 compositions and made contributions to most of the traditional musical forms of the late 19th century. The style and character of all of his works puts him squarely in the conservative Brahms camp versus the progressive Liszt/Wagner camp. He lived a long life (1838 - 1920) and became somewhat of an anachronism. But his music is very well constructed, and the best works have a late Romantic drama to them that is more appreciated now then in the last years of his life.

Bruch's musical education began with Ferdinand Hiller and continued in music theory with a friend of his father's. Bruch's general education was not neglected, as he learned to speak and understand French and English as well as German. He was nine when he composed his first piece, and held many different positions as kappelmeister and teacher. He retired from teaching in 1911 and devoted the rest of his life to composition.
Bruch's successful  Symphony No. 1 In E-flat Major (1867) was followed by his Symphony No.2 In F Minor (1870).  The work is in three movements:

I. Allegro passionato, ma un poco -  This movement is in sonata form and begins with a short, dark introduction by the timpani and strings. The main theme is sounded out quietly by the strings and then loudly by the full orchestra.  The next theme is a more flowing one that remains in the minor. A third theme appears, just as dramatic as the preceding ones. Other themes enter, the number of which depends on what the listener's ear makes of the material whether it is an actual theme, a connecting melodic bridge to a theme, or a short motif. Themes are developed as the music constantly moves towards the end of the movement, when the opening theme quietly closes out the movement.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - The strings carry the main theme of this movement in music lighter in feeling than the first movement, but still in the minor mode, this time of C minor. Bruch follows the same general procedure as the first movement by introducing themes and developing them in a loose sonata form. The movement closes with a gentle reference to the main theme, and goes directly to the last movement without pause.

III. Allegro molto tranquillo -  The movement begins with a syncopated figure played by the strings. The music swells slightly until the main theme in F major is played by the strings. The woodwinds have their turn with the theme. A theme in dotted rhythm is played by the strings as the volume increases and the horns state an extension of the second theme which is developed until it reaches a climax with the full orchestra in dotted rhythm. The development section begins with the first theme played in the oboe and parts of the theme are then passed to other members of woodwind.  The recapitulation has themes return, some in different keys. The end of the symphony emphasizes the dotted rhythm in the horns and brass while the strings add rapid and surging figures as accompaniment.

The symphonies of Bruch aren't ground breaking works by any means. Thematic material isn't very striking, and his forms and developments aren't overly original. But what is evident is his skill in musical construction and orchestrating, as well as his sense of the dramatic.