Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mendelssohn - String Quartet No. 6 In F Minor

Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister Fanny were both musically gifted.  Fanny was a musical child prodigy like her brother and a composer in her own right. She wrote over 400 works but the prevailing attitude of the time towards women precluded any thought of publishing her works.  When Fanny died of complications from a stroke in May of 1847, Felix was distraught.  He not only lost a sibling that he was very close to, but a trusted critic and colleague.  He composed a string quartet in her memory and titled it Requiem For Fanny.

A long time friend of Mendelssohn said of the quartet:
It would be difficult to cite any piece of music which so completely impresses the listener with a sensation of gloomy foreboding, of anguish of mind, and of the most poetic melancholy, as does this masterly and eloquent composition.
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
The months after Fanny's death had Mendelssohn in a mood that he called "gray upon gray."  The string quartet had a private performance in October of 1847 with Felix's teacher and friend Ignaz Moscheles present. He said of the quartet:
The impassioned character of the whole seems to me to be in keeping with his present frame of mind, shaken as he is to the heart's core by the loss of his sister. 
The composition of this string quartet was a portent of Felix's own fate. It was the last major work he was to write, as six months after his sister's death Felix died of a stroke.  The String Quartet No. 6 In F Minor Opus 80 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro vivace assai -  The quartet begins with nervous energy and feeling of foreboding in the first theme. The second theme doesn't lessen the anxiety as much as it puts it slightly in the background. The development section expands the themes and fleshes them out with occasional counterpoint, but the drive of the movement doesn't slacken. The recapitulation of the slightly altered themes bring a sense of even more instability. A coda increases the tempo and passion and the movement ends in the minor mode.

II. Allegro assai - A scherzo that is far removed from the quicksilver ones Mendelssohn was known for. This one continues the agitation of the first movement as well as the key of F minor. The trio begins with the cello and viola with an eerie figure low in each instrument's register. The violins enter to this accompaniment and the music conjurs up visions of a spectre. The scherzo is repeated, the trio makes another abbreviated appearance and the movement ends.

III. Adagio - The only movement out of the 4 that is in a major key, this is a song without words, a love song for his departed sister. There is a short section where passion rises slightly, but the music returns back to the love song that makes its way to a peaceful ending.

IV. Finale: Allegro molto -  The turmoil of the first two movements returns in the finale. There are brief respites with short lyrical sections, but the movement is mostly in a panic throughout. Sharp accents and dissonance pepper the movement, along with disquieting sections of reduced dynamics that do nothing to quell the tension. A violin takes off in passioned flight near the end of the movement which leads to a quickening of the pace and the bitter end of the quartet.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Röntgen - Piano Quintet No. 2 In A Minor

Julius Röntgen was born into a musical family in Leipzig, Germany in 1855. His father was first violinist with the Gewendhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and his mother was a pianist. The family was well off enough to allow their children to be home schooled, with Julius being taught music by his parents and grandfather as well as piano by Carl Reineke, the director of the Gewendhaus Orchestra. Röntgen met Franz Liszt in 1870 and played for him and continued his piano studies with Franz Lachner in Munich. He became a professional pianist when he was eighteen.

Röntgen went to Amsterdam in 1877 where he not only taught but helped create classical music institutions in Amsterdam.  Along with other composers, Röntgen helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory Of Music, as well as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and music hall. After he was refused the directorship of the Concertgebouw he focused his energies on composing chamber works, and became a well known piano accompanist.

He spent many summer vacations in Denmark and became a citizen of the country after World War One. He retired from public life and devoted himself to composition in 1924 and from that time until his death in 1932 composed over 200 works.  He was a prolific composer as he wrote over 600 works, and writing music seems to have come easily for him. As an early biographer of Röntgen noted:
In the time someone else would need to put paper and pencil ready and write down keys and key signatures he will have, in a manner of speaking, completed the exposition of a fugue.
 Röntgen has been accused of writing too much music, and no doubt the quality of his music varies from one piece to another. He is most well known for his chamber music, but wrote works in most of the traditional forms.  His works have also been accused of being conservative, as he stayed with traditional forms and music language for most of his career, although he did follow all the latest developments of his time and experimented with writing atonal music occasionally.

The Piano Quintet No. 2 was written in 1927 during his retirement. It is in 4 movements:

I. Andante - The music begins with the piano, cello and viola playing a rhythmic texture with the violins playing a duet over it. The rhythmic texture returns throughout the movement. The second subject is more lyrical. The development begins directly after the second subject and expands the first theme and accompaniment. The recapitulation is short and the movement ends quietly. This movement is the longest of the quintet, but only runs about five and a half minutes. Röntgen's writing is condensed almost to the point of being terse as all four movements are usually played in about sixteen minutes.

II. Allegro - The music shifts moods slightly in the scherzo section, while the trio utilizes fugal texture. The scherzo returns and leads to a coda that crescendos to an abrupt end.

III. Lento e mesto - A short lamentation for strings and piano accompaniment in ternary form. It ends quietly and segues without pause into the final movement.

IV. Con moto, ma non troppo allegro -  About as long as the first movement, the final movement increases the tension as the music shifts from minor to major many times.  There is a hint of some of the music that has gone before, if not in direct quotes at least in feeling, until the  rhythmic texture of the first movement appears again as a coda to the work.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Schulhoff - String Quartet No. 1

Erwin Schulhoff was a Czech composer that embraced many styles of  music in his lifetime. He was born in 1894 and as a child was encouraged by Dvořák. He began his studies at the Prague Conservatory when he was ten years old and later went on to study with Claude Debussy and Max Reger. He was a proficient pianist as well as composer.

He found inspiration in early jazz music and was part of the avant garde music scene in Europe after World War One and helped organize concerts of avant garde music. Schulhoff had this to say about revolution and music:
Absolute art is revolution, it requires additional facets for development, leads to overthrow (coups) in order to open new paths...and is the most powerful in music.... The idea of revolution in art has evolved for decades, under whatever sun the creators live, in that for them art is the commonality of man. This is particularly true in music, because this art form is the liveliest, and as a result reflects the revolution most strongly and deeply–the complete escape from imperialistic tonality and rhythm, the climb to an ecstatic change for the better.
Schulhoff was friends with the Austrian composer Alban Berg and wrote the following in a letter to him:
I am boundlessly fond of nightclub dancing, so much so that I have periods during which I spend whole nights dancing with one hostess or another...out of pure enjoyment of the rhythm and with my subconscious filled with sensual delight.... [T]hereby I acquire phenomenal inspiration for my work, as my conscious mind is incredibly earthly, even animal as it were.
Schulhoff's early compositions could be strange and quirky. For example, he wrote a Sonata For Female Voice Solo that had a soprano spend several minutes faking a notated orgasm, a piece for solo contra bassoon where the soloist is supposed to make soulful liquid bird calls. His went through stylistic changes during his career and his third major stylistic change came when he was most active as a composer,between the years 1923 and 1932. Schulhoff integrated many elements into his own style of modernist music.

His last years were dominated by the politics of social realism and Communist ideology. He was living in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis attained power in Germany and his Communist sympathies and Jewish heritage resulted in his music being banned in Germany. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia he worked as a pianist in clubs and on the radio under a false name to make a living. He applied to the Soviet Union for citizenship in 1941 and was accepted, but before he could leave he was arrested and deported to a concentration camp where he died in 1942 of tuberculosis.

His String Quartet No. 1 was composed in his third stylistic period in 1923. It is a work that lasts just a little over a quarter of an hour and reflects many of the trends of the time. It is in 4 movements:

I. Presto con fuoco -  Schulhoff celebrates his Czech heritage with a lively, almost perpetual motion folk dance. The rhythmic drive is constant and in a matter of about two minutes it ends abruptly.

II. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca - The music is as different as the title of the movement would suggest. Schulhoff utilizes pizzicato, ponticello (bowing close to the bridge which gives a glassy, ethereal quality to the tone) and sliding on the strings to add tonal color. The movement ends with pizzicato notes.

III. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca - Another odd title, this music is also like a folk dance, but Schulhoff continues to make much of the possible sonorities of the strings as the players pluck strings with enough force to slap the fingerboard. Pizzicato is also used, as well as strumming on the strings like a guitar.

IV. Andante molto sostenuto - This may well be the biggest surprise in the work as this movement brings a different atmosphere far removed from the wit and vivacity of the first three movements. The mood is somber, the pace slow. There is a feeling of mystery and other worldliness to the music as string effects add to the eeriness of the sound.  A ticking underpins the subdued music until it evaporates.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Chopin - Sonata in G Minor For Piano And Cello

Frédéric Chopin has been called the poet of the piano, and for good reason. Chopin wrote over 200 hundred pieces in his short life with the vast majority of them being for solo piano, some of the greatest music ever written for any instrument. Early in his career he composed two piano concertos and 4 other works for piano and orchestra, a few songs for voice and piano, and a handful of chamber music pieces. But it is interesting to note that all of Chopin's collected works were either for the piano or included the piano.  Seldom has a major composer been associated almost exclusively with one instrument.

After the piano, the cello seems to have been Chopin's favorite instrument. He wrote three pieces for cello and piano, more than for any other instrument. Two of the pieces were written early in his career while the Sonata For Piano And Cello was written late in his career, and it was the last work to be published while the composer was alive.

It was written in 1845-1846, a time of personal turmoil and physical illness for Chopin. His relationship with George Sand, the French authoress, had come to an end and the tuberculosis that he had been suffering with for years was getting worse.  He struggled with the sonata and wrote to his sister:
I write a little and cross out a lot. Sometimes I am pleased with it, sometimes not. I throw it into a corner and pick it up again. 
Auguste Franchomme
Chopin wrote the sonata for his friend the cellist Auguste Franchomme and also dedicated the work to him.  The work has never been a popular one, but it does give a glimpse of where Chopin may have been headed with his music if he had lived longer.  The sonata is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The work begins with an introduction by the piano. After this, the cello enters with a theme that is taken from material in the introduction. Most of the material of the first movement is derived from the piano introduction. The second theme is more gentle and is not developed; when it appears again it remains the same as its first hearing. New themes are heard with each changing the character of the mood. Indeed, the ever-changing moods and complexity of the first movement has been one of the reasons the sonata is not one of Chopin's more popular works. The development section continues introducing themes and changing others. The recapitulation is much shorter as some  f the themes are not revisited, but the gentle second theme is heard once again. Chopin pushes the music to the conclusion of the movement and it ends with two terse chords.

II. Scherzo -  The scherzo is written in D minor and varies from lyrical to rapid runs and hammered chords. The trio is in D major with a long melody sung by the cello.  The scherzo is repeated and ends with a loud chord.

III. Largo -  A brief nocturne written in B-flat major. Piano and cello have a tender conversation that gently ends all too soon.

IV. Finale, Allegro -  Chopin begins the finale with a dramatic theme. The second theme is less dramatic but still carries the dotted rhythms of the  first theme. The dotted rhythms continue as Chopin changes the mood with material in the major mode. The development section has Chopin treat material contrapuntally. The tempo increases and both instruments make their way to the brilliant ending in G major.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Borodin - String Quartet No. 2 In D Major

Borodin was a higly respected chemist, physician and teacher that was also an extremely gifted composer. Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Russian noble who had the child registered as the son of one of the nobleman's serfs. The nobleman saw to it that the child had a good general education as wel las music lessons. Borodin entered the Medical-Surgical Academy and upon graduation spent a year as an army surgeon, aftedr which he studied in Europe. He went back to St. Petersburg and became a professor of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. Borodin was an advocate for women's rights and was instrumental in establishing medical courses for women.

The 2nd string quartet was written in 1881 and it is one of the few works that didn't take years to complete, as it was written while he was on a vacation.  He dedicated the quartet to his wife on their 25th anniversary.
The quartet was popular during his life but it reached its peak of popularity in the early 1950's when some of the themes from the quartet (along with themes from other Borodin works) were used in the Broadway musical Kismet. The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The quartet opens with a delicate theme in the key of D major. This theme segues into the second theme that is slightly more robust but maintains a lyrical quality. The development begins with the first theme heard in the cello. The recapitulation follows the same general plan of the exposition, but the second theme is first heard in E-flat major before it modulates to the home key of D major. Borodin manages to keep the lyrical quality throughout the first movement with just enough contrast to keep the interest of the listener.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  The scherzo begins in F major with a rapid first theme. The second theme appears and it was one of the themes used in the musical Kismet in a song called Baubles, Bangles and Beads.  The movement is not in the traditional form of a scbherzo, but it is in sonata form. After the two themes are played at the beginning, a development section has both themes played in counterpoint, sometimes both are incorporated at the same time. The recapitulation has the themes repeated with the second theme modulating to F major. A short coda brings sthe movement to a quiet close.

III. Notturno: Andante - The cello plays the beautiful theme first, and then the violin takes it up. This theme was also used in the musical. The middle section the tempo quickens slightly into a dance. The opening theme appears again, this time with modulations to minor keys that bring a sense of drama to the duet between cello and violin. The two instruments respond with a contrapuntal duet of the theme.  The theme is developed and repeated until the instruments reach a serene and quiet end to the movement.

IV. Finale: Andante, Vivace - The movement begins with an odd question and answer introduction that has the main theme of the movement presented in two sections, the question )played by the violins) interrupted by short sections, the answer (played by cello and viola). The pizaccato cello leads the beginning of the movement proper and the music increases in tempo. The movement is in sonata form, and the second theme maintains the speed of the first theme. The development section begins with the question (this time in the cello and viola) and answer (this time in the violins) as the exposition. The recapitulation begins with the question and answer, but this time all 4 instruments play it. Both themes are played and a short coda rounds off the quartet in the home key of D major.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Franck- Piano Trio No.1 In F-sharp Minor Opus 1 No. 1

César Franck's first composition acknowledged by him was a set of Piano Trios which were composed in his last years as a conservatory student. He was eighteen when he began the 1st Piano Trio in F-sharp minor in 1840. Franz Liszt saw the set of piano trios and offered constructive criticism and encouragement. Liszt performed them after he settled in Wiemar as Kappelmeister to the court there.  In 1845  Franck composed an oratorio that had a private performance for Liszt and other musicians. The work was a mild success, but when it had its first public performance a year later it received harsh criticism. Franck shelved the work and took up the life of a teacher, accompanist and composed a few smaller works on commission.

The 1st Piano Trio is Franck's early attempt at writing in cyclical form in which an entire composition is based on a few themes that keep returning in each movement. He was to perfect the form in his later compositions beginning in 1872. The 1st Piano Trio is in 3 movements:

I. Andante con moto - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the lead in to the first theme in F-sharp minor that is taken up by the cello. This theme is played three times during the movement. Franck relieves some of the monotony of the theme with expanding the theme, and one of the repeats has the theme treated fugally. The second contrasting theme is in F-sharp major and is played and developed twice in the movement. These two themes are not especially notable, but tension is built up by the contrast between the two.  The first theme comes back to finish the movement abruptly.

II.  Allegro molto - A scherzo in B minor that has two trio sections, with the second trio being a reworking of the second theme of the first movement. The first theme of the opening movement returns after the second trio and leads directly to the last movement.

III.  Finale: Allegro maestoso - The final movement is in F-sharp major sonata form with the first theme being a variant of the first theme of the opening movement. The second theme is written in D-flat major, the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major, the dominant of the home key of the movement. The plodding first theme returns and leads to a section in D major, which in turn leads to the recapitulation.  The movement ends in F-sharp major.

Franck's 1st Piano Trio has been criticized for being monotonous. While it is true that this early attempt at cyclical form pales in comparison to his later works, the 1st Piano Trio does give a glimpse of things to come. Liszt has been given his due for his contribution to cyclical form, but he was far from the first composer to use it.  Franck was slow to develop as a composer, and no doubt he learned a great deal from Liszt's use of the form.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Brahms - Piano Trio No. 3 In C minor Opus 101

Brahms wrote his third piano trio in 1886 while vacationing at Lake Thun in Switzerland. The scenery inspired Brahms, for in addition to the piano trio he wrote a cello sonata and violin sonata. It was a time in Brahms' life when all but one of his orchestral works (the Double Concerto for violin and cello) had been composed. He grew more introspective in his final years, writing mostly works for voice, solo piano and chamber ensembles.

The Piano Trio No. 3 is one of Brahms' shorter chamber works.  All of the movements are short but full of intensity. This trio was a favorite of Brahms' good friend Clara Schumann who turned pages for Brahms when he played the work with his two good friends the cellist Robert Hausmann and violinist Joseph Joachim. It is in 4 movements and takes just over 20 minutes in a typical performance:

I. Allegro energico - The work begins with a shout to grab the attention of the listener as the first theme rolls out of the three instruments with passion. The second theme is more lyrical but the restlessness of the first theme lurks in the background. There is not repeat of the exposition. A very short development section and condensed recapitulation lead to an impassioned coda that brings this very terse movement to a close.  

II. Presto non assai - The violin and cello are muted throughout this movement.  The music is quirky but it also has an underlying sense of melancholy. The movement is short, and ends abruptly.

III. Andante grazioso - A mellow theme, the strings have moments when they play a duet without the piano, and the piano has its solo moments also. Brahms has time signature changes of 9/8, 6/8, 3/4 and 2/4, which gives a slight hesitating quality to the music. This movement also ends abruptly in the key of C major.

IV. Allegro molto - The passion of the the opening movement returns in C minor until near the end when Brahms writes in C major. The music maintains its hectic pace and passion despite the major mode all the way to the end.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Enescu - Romanian Rhapsody No. 2 In D Major

Pablo Casals, the great Catalan cellist and conductor considered George Enescu  "The greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart." Enescu was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher that proved to be so musically precocious after he was given a violin at the age of four, that he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven. After he graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at the age of thirteen, he went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris for four years.

His earliest composition was written when he was 5 years old, a work for violin and piano. Much of his music uses themes from his Romanian homeland and a particularly strong influence was lăutărească music, music that was played by the Romani (formerly known as Gypsy) people that lived in Romania. This style of music is different than Romanian peasant music, as  lăutărească music was a conglomeration of styles that the Romani came in contact with in their nomadic lifestyle. They derived rhythmic diversitiy from Turkish music, modal scales from church music of Byzantium as well as many other influences. Many Middle and Eastern European countries have their own specific  lăutărească traditions, with one of the most well known being the flamenco music of the Romani people of Spain.

Enescu was influenced early on by lăutărească music as he was the pupil of a Romani violinist and made friends with lăutărească musicians and learned many of their songs.  Enescu composed the two Romanian Rhapsodies in 1901, early in his career as a composer. Both are still popular with No. 1 more popular than No.2, and Enescu conducted them many times in his life and recorded them three times. He came to loathe both of the rhapsodies for their popularity prevented his other compositions from getting as much exposure.

The Rhapsody No. 2 is in D Major and is more subtle and reflective than No. 1 in A Major.  The rhapsody begins with a short introduction before the lush first theme is quietly presented in the strings under a gently throbbing accompaniment. This theme is played a two times with different instrumentation in the same quiet dynamics until the theme is repeated the third time in a louder dynamic. A short interlude of an improvisatory nature leads to a repeat of the introduction which flows into another interlude that is given an exotic coloring by the solo cor anglaise. The first theme returns in a different guise and tempo. A solo flute plays over a timpani roll which leads to a short dance for viola solo. The music swells and leads to a solo flute that brings the rhapsody to a quiet close over hushed, tremolo strings.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ives - Variations On 'America'

Charles Ives, 1889
Charles Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. His father George Ives was a U.S. Army bandleader in the Civil War and also led the Municipal Band in Danbury.  Ives' father was an unorthodox music teacher to his son as he encouraged him to explore nontraditional harmony and structure. Ives told a story that when he was five years old his father saw him pounding out the drum parts to George's band music on the piano with both fists. Instead of telling his son that was the wrong way to play the piano, George told him there's nothing wrong with playing the piano that way as long as you know what you're doing and sent him to a drum teacher.  Ives' father also would have two marching bands, one at each end of the town square and each playing different music in different keys, march toward each other. Charles Ives credited his father with being the most influential musical figure in his life.

Charles Ives took to the organ and became so proficient on the instrument that he was a professional church organist when he was fourteen, the youngest one in the entire state at the time. Ives attended Yale University and upon his graduation he was hired as an insurance actuary by a firm in New York. He made the insurance business his life's work. He excelled in the insurance business and composed in his spare time. Most of his music was neglected in his lifetime, especially in the years he was active as a composer. Ives ceased composing any new works after 1927, although he did revise some that were already written. His music began to get some performances in the 1940's and after a performance of Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music. He was also very active in financially supporting other 20th century composers and their music.

Ives' music won the support of a young Leonard Bernstein who conducted  Ives' Second Symphony on a live radio broadcast in 1951. Arnold Schoenberg, the great composer and teacher knew of Ives and after Schoenberg died in 1951 (three years before Ives), Schoenberg's widow found a note written by her husband in his desk that had been written in 1944:
There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.
One of his earliest pieces was Variations On 'America', written for organ in 1891 when Ives was 17 years old. It was written for a Fourth Of July celebration and the music shows how much his father had influenced the young man. The tune is also known as 'God Save The King' in Great Britain.

Introduction and theme- The work begins with an introduction to the tune that fragmentarily suggests parts of the tune itself.  The tune is finally heard in a straight forward arrangement for the organ.

1st Variation -  The tune is repeated over a running sixteenth note accompaniment in the first section, and an even more florid accompaniment of 32nd notes in the second section.

2nd. Variation - The pace changes slightly, along with the rhythm of the tune. At the end of the first section there is a descending figure of chromatic chords that gives the impression of a chuckle. The second section has subtle harmonic changes.

Interlude - A fragmentary rendition of the tune that Ives evidently didn't find worthy enough to call a variation, this interlude has one hand playing in the key of F major (the home key of the piece thus far) while the other hand and pedals play in D-flat major, an early example of bitonality.

3rd Variation - Ives gives a sprightly rendition of the tune, like music perhaps heard on a merry-go-round, all in the key of D-flat major.

4th Variation - Ives shifts gears and throws this variation in the key of F minor. He labels this variation a Polonaise, but it sounds like spirited Spanish dance to me.

Interlude - This time Ives has one hand play in A-flat major while the other hand and pedals play in F major.

5th Variation - Marked Allegro - as fast as the pedals can go, the pedals have the main variant.  The tune continues in elaborate dress that shows how good Ives' organ technique must have been. The variation leads to a coda that has fragments of the theme tossed off in full volume, along with pauses for good measure. The music gets more hectic until a full throated repeat of the tune ends the work.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Onslow - String Quartet No. 25 In B-flat Major Opus 50

George Onslow come from a long line of  English politicians, beginning with his Great-Grandfather Arthur Onslow who served as Speaker Of The House Of Commons for many years in the 18th century, while George's Grandfather (also named George) served in Parliament and was the first Earl of Onslow. George's uncle Thomas served in Parliament as did his father Edward.  The Onslow family remains involved in English politics as some hold seats in the House Of Lords.

George's father Edward Onslow quit Parliament after only one term amid a sex scandal that forced him to emigrate to France. While in France Edward married and had four children.  George Onslow was the oldest son and was born in 1784. The family had a good life in France until the French Revolution of 1789 when Thomas Onslow was jailed on account of his nationality and was eventually exiled from France in 1797. George joined his father as they toured Europe to provide young George with an education. They ended up back in London where George continued his to study the piano as well as history, art, horsemanship and other subjects befitting a young gentleman. He also learned to play the cello and spent time with friends playing the quartets of Mozart and Haydn.

Despite his piano studies, he never gave a public recital nor did he consider becoming a composer. It was an overture to a opera of Méhul that  inspired him to try his hand at composition. His first attempt was a set of three string quintets that were published and became popular. Through the encouragement of friends and his publisher, he got serious about composing and took composition lessons from Anton Reicha, French composer and teacher. Although Onslow wrote 4 symphonies and works in other forms, he specialized in chamber works at a time in France where opera was the most popular form of music. He wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets that were highly regarded in his lifetime. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn all placed him at the forefront of instrumental composers, and it was in Germany where his fame was the greatest and where  he was called The French Beethoven.

He had an international career, but remained loyal to France and lived most of his life there. He became a gentleman farmer that owned and ran a castle and was a good businessman in dealing with music publishers. Onslow's works sold very well and he profited by the competition among music publishers to obtain his newest works. For the most part he led a quiet and productive life. He died in 1853.

The String Quartet No. 25 was composed in 1836 and is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro moderato -  The first theme is heard straight away and makes its way to a section that has a few sudden outbursts. The second theme has the cello playing a motive as a violin scampers after it. After a short transition to material related to the first theme the exposition is repeated.  The development transitions into an exploration of the first theme mainly by modulations to keys that are close to the B-flat home key. The recapitulation repeats the first theme with added transitional material so the second theme segues into the home key. A short coda adds a moderate amount of dash until the movement ends quietly.

II. Scherzo: Vivace assai - The scherzo begins with a run that starts on B-flat and ends on a long G-flat, after which the music skips along in the home key with the phrase ending with three B-flat quarter notes one after the other descending in three octaves. The opening phrase is repeated but this time doesn't come to rest on G-flat but continues to scamper until the first section of the scherzo comes to rest on a high F. This first section has 20 measures in it, with the first eight measures making up two phrases. By phrase extension the other twelve measures give a a feeling of inequality to the first section that is reminiscent of Beethoven. The first section is repeated. The second section of the scherzo expands and modulates previously heard material until the opening run is heard and the section ends in the tonic. The second section is also repeated. The trio begins with an introduction, after which the time signature of the music turns from two flats to three as rapid pairs of identical notes are played as an accompaniment while the first violin plays a slightly halting theme. This section is repeated, after which the trio continues and material is expanded. Much of this section is played pianissimo which gives a rather eerie mood to it. After the trio the scherzo and trio are repeated, this time straight through without the repetition of sections. A short coda ends the movement in B-flat major.

III. Andante grazioso -  The slow movement is marked con simplecezza, with simplicity, which suits the gentle tune that is in F major. It proceeds to gracefully unwind at a steady pace until it reaches a minor climax. The accompaniment becomes slightly more complex as the tune continues on its gentle way until it grows more quiet and ends pianissimo in F major.

IV. Finale: Allegro vivace - The finale begins fortissimo with the instruments spitting out a fragment that returns throughout the movement. A second theme theme contrasts, the music bustles its way with the fragment reappearing in different keys and dynamics, but always maintaining a certain harshness, and the movement ends in the home key of B-flat major.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Brahms - Piano Quintet In F Minor Opus 34

Some of the early works of Johannes Brahms are works full of drama contrasted with moments of  great tenderness and beauty. The Piano Quintet In F Minor is one of those works, but at the same time some have called it the first work of his early maturity. The drama and fire are obvious, but what is not so obvious is Brahms inner workings of phrase structure, harmony and what has been called the principle of continuing variation.

Brahms began work on what was to become the Piano Quintet in 1862. He had recently visited Vienna and eventually made it his home. The work was originally written for string quintet; two violins, one viola and two cellos.  Brahms was a great admirer of Schubert and he may have used Schubert's String Quintet as a model for his own.  The following year Brahms revised the work and turned it into a sonata for two pianos. This was not the only one of his early works that went through growing pains, as his first piano concerto began life as a symphony and was also rewritten as a sonata for two pianos.  His great friend Clara Schumann expressed admiration for the two piano version, but suggested that it would benefit by being re-scored for different instruments. Finally in 1864 Brahms rewrote it as for piano and string quartet. Brahms was but 31 years old when the final version of the quintet was written, but the two piano version must have satisfied Brahms as well for that version was also published. The two years the Brahms worked on this piece entailed a struggle over what instrumental forces to use. The final version of the work had very few actual musical changes to it from the two piano version.

The Piano Quintet is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro non troppo - A fragment of what is to become the first theme is stated in unison by the instruments to open the movement. A dramatic section leads to the theme being played out completely and with more force.  The second theme is a lyrical contrast to the first, but there is still a feeling of tension.  There is a third theme that appears towards the end of the exposition that relieves some of the drama of the previous themes. The exposition is repeated. The development section has fragments of the first two themes slowly play off of each other until they slowly build tension that leads to the recapitulation. After the recapitulation, there is a brief calm before the storm of the coda that dramatically ends the movement.

II. Andante, un poco adagio - A Schubertian theme begins the movement. Brahms makes variations on the theme as it plays out. A middle section of gentle music leads to a repeat of the main theme which continues to be developed until the movement gently ends.

III. Scherzo : Allegro - The movement begins with a low C on the cello played pizzicato as a rising melody is played over it. A rhythmic section follows, after which a march-like motive plays. These  three motives make up the scherzo itself. They are repeated and developed until at the end of the scherzo the strings play a searing two sixteenth note fragment that alternates between D-flat and C as the piano plays C major chords. The trio is in C major and is inspired by the march-like motive of the scherzo.  This scherzo is one of the most impassioned movements that Brahms ever wrote. Near the end the strings lend an atmosphere of violence to the scherzo before the sudden resolution of it with the end chord in C major.

IV. Finale: Poco sostenuto - Allegro non troppo - Presto, non troppo - The movement begins with a slow, mysterious introduction that builds in intensity until the movement proper begins with a theme that has the mood of a Hungarian Dance. This theme is varied, which leads to a more lyrical second theme. The next theme is a lively dance. These three themes are repeated and varied as they vie for supremacy throughout the movement. The competition of themes is brought to a sudden halt as a short coda returns the mood to tragic as the work ends.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Haydn - String Quartet In E-flat Major Opus 33, No. 2 ' The Joke '

As any musical form, the string quartet evolved from earlier musical forms. The string quartet's history began in  the Baroque era with the trio sonata, a form that had two soloists accompanied by the continuo which consisted of a keyboard instrument and a bass instrument. Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico Scarlatti) took the form to the next step and added a third soloist and omitted the keyboard, letting the bass string instrument play the bass line by itself. This had already been common in the early 18th century, but Scarlatti was the first known composer that wrote works for the 4-instrument ensemble titled Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord.

The early form of the string quartet was taken up by the young Josef Haydn, who at first used the form because his resources were limited. He wrote a few quartets for amateur use, works that were more like a Viennese serenade as they consisted of 5 movements. Haydn neglected the form for quite a few years but in 1769 he resumed writing them and in a matter of a few yeas had written eighteen of them. By now the form had been standardized to include 4 movements. Haydn ended up writing 68 string quartets, and ever since the string quartet has been a test of a composer's skill and command of their art.

Haydn's six quartets of his Opus 33 were written in 1781 and they are sometimes referred to as the 'Russian' quartets because they were dedicated to the Grand Duke of Russia and first played in the Viennese apartment of the Grand Duke's wife. The second quartet of the opus is in E-flat major and has earned the nickname of 'the joke ' for reasons given below. The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  Haydn was very important in the development of sonata form, but his musical instinct didn't follow any kind of a textbook working out of the form. The first movement of this quartet shows Haydn's fondness for creating an entire movement from a musical motive only a few bars long. The main theme is stated immediately. Haydn plays this theme through and instead of a contrasting different theme, he takes the theme and changes it in ways that give the impression of contrast. So instead of two themes in his exposition, there is but one theme and a variant that fulfills the role of a second theme, a technique that has been called thematic elaboration; 
in unexpected 
If done by a master composer such as Haydn, thematic elaboration can give a feeling of unity to a piece of music while also giving a sense of contrast to avoid monotony. The development continues thematic elaboration (including the theme modulating to C minor), the recapitulation is reached after which the movement ends.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  All six of the opus 33 quartets have the usual minuet movement replaced by a scherzo, a first for Haydn. As with his other quartets, Haydn changes the order of the scherzo; sometimes being the second movement, other times the first. Haydn's scherzo has the same basic form of a minuet with both parts of the scherzo being repeated at the beginning, a trio, and a reprise of the scherzo with no repeat. The nature of this scherzo could be one of the reasons this quartet got the name 'The Joke' for the first section of the scherzo is ten bars long, an odd number that does not break down into two 4-bar phrases. Haydn inserts two extra bars in the middle of the two 4-bar phrases which sound rather odd, especially for the time it was written:
 These two bars, with the first violin playing the slurred eighth notes C-flat and B-flat give an awkward kind of humor to the piece. After the scherzo plays through the first time the trio begins. Haydn has the first violin slide from note to note to good effect that adds to the joke:

III. Largo -  The slow movement song-like theme has the viola and cello play a duet in the beginning, and the violins enter with their own duet. The theme is interrupted by some biting chords about half way through the movement, but the theme returns and is itself an example of thematic elaboration.

IV. Presto - Written in rondo form, this movement has a sprightly theme that is interrupted twice by contrasting material. The coda of the movement is the reason for the quartet's nickname, as Haydn inserts rests in the music at strategic places within the rondo theme, each of which can be taken as the end of the piece. After a grand pause of more than three measures, the first section of the rondo theme is played pianissimo, and the work ends.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lachner - String Quartet No. 1 In B Minor

In 1823 Franz Lachner won a music competition and was appointed organist in a Vienna church. It was then that he met Franz Schubert. The two became good friends:
"We two, Schubert and I, spent most of our time together sketching new compositions. We were the closest of friends, mornings performing for each other and discussing in depth every imaginable topic with the greatest of candor."
Lachner outlived his friend by 52 years, but Schubert remained a strong influence on him as a composer. Lachner resigned his position as organist in Vienna in 1834  and moved to Munich where he held the position of Conductor of the Royal Bavarian Orchestra as well as the professorship of composition at the Royal Conservatory.

Franz Schubert
Lachner's early string quartets were known by Mendelssohn and Schumann, who gave them high praises.The String Quartet No. 1 was written in the late 1830's and published in 1843. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The quartet opens with a melancholy theme. Lachner uses the same theme throughout the movement, but he adds a lyrical quality to it and uses counterpoint to enhance it. This variant of the first theme serves as the contrasting second theme of the movement. After the opening is repeated, the development section has the theme go through key changes and counterpoint is again used to expand the theme. Tension is built towards the end of the development by the violin playing a fragment of the theme over a chugging accompaniment. The recapitulation presents the two versions of the theme, this time with the variant leading to a short coda where the cello and violin alternate with statements until the final chords are heard and the movement slowly dies away.

II. Adagio quasi andante -  This movement begins with the violins and violas playing while the cello is silent. The main theme is traded between violin and viola in an extended section that leads to the music growing lighter in mood as it shifts into the major mode. The main theme returns as does the trading between violin and viola. The major mode brightness is repeated. The movement winds down with a short repeat of the main theme and ends in the major mode.

III. Scherzo - Allegro assai - The cello plays in a stead pulse as the scherzo begins. The music drives its way forward. The middle trio section is a major mode dance. The scherzo repeats and ends with two short, biting phrases.

IV. Finale: Allegro agitato - The urgent main theme is played by the violin, with outbursts by all four instruments. The next theme retains the urgency but changes in mood. The main theme repeats, followed by the second theme. A short development section is followed by a recapitulation of the two themes. A short coda brings this short sonata form finale to a close with two short chords.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dvořák - String Quartet No. 12 'American'

During Dvořák's tenure as Director of the National Conservatory in New York he spent one summer in 1893 in the small town of Spillville, Iowa. The town had a Czech community and spending the summer there gave him a break from the hustle and bustle of New York, eased his homesickness and gave him time to compose. He wrote three works during that Spillville vacation; String Quintet No. 3, Symphony No. 9, and String Quartet No. 12.

The music of America, especially Negro spirituals and songs, inspired Dvořák to write works that used themes reminiscent of the folk music he heard. Dvořák talked about how American music inspired him in a letter written in 1893:
"As for my new Symphony, the F major String Quartet and the Quintet (composed here in Spillville) – I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America. As to my opinion, I think that the influence of this country (it means the folk songs that are Negro, Indian, Irish, etc.) is to be seen, and that this [the symphony] and all other works written in America differ very much from my earlier works, as much in colour as in character..."
Dvořák was also quoted in the newspaper New York Herald as saying:
 "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."
Dvořák didn't use any song directly in these works, but he used the pentatonic scale (represented by the five black keys on the piano) in  the original themes he used. The pentatonic scale is used in many kinds of folk music around the world and Dvořák was familiar with it from his native Czech folk music. His composer's ear picked up on the nuances that made American music unique and he imitated them in his themes.  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo - The viola states the first theme over a simple accompaniment. The theme is expanded until there is a transition to the lyrical second theme. The two themes are repeated, and the development section begins with the first theme. The development ends with a short fugal section. The recapitulation repeats the first theme and prepares for the key change given to the second theme. After the second theme is worked through there is a short coda and the movement ends.

II. Lento - The melody that predominates in this movement is, like the two themes of the first movement, is predominantly pentatonic, but it is in the minor mode of D minor.  The sound and style of the theme captures the sound and mood of American Negro or Native American music that many listeners thought Dvořák used an authentic American melody but it is a Dvořák original theme. The theme is developed, and returns in the cello as the other strings accompany it with pizzicato notes alternating with bowed notes. The theme gently winds down and the movement ends with one last sad chord.

Scarlet tanager
III. Molto vivace - Dvořák's F major scherzo is an energetic tune full of jumps and offbeats. Supposedly he heard the birdsong of the scarlet tanager on his walks in the woods around Spillvile and used the song in the scherzo. His treatment of the song can be heard high in the first violin.  The following section which serves as the trio is a variant of the scherzo played in F minor. The scherzo and trio are played through again with slight variations in the trio. The scherzo plays once more, the tempo slackens and the movement ends gently.

IV. Finale: Vivace ma non troppo -  The main theme is an energetic one and is repeated four times with new material sandwiched between the repeats. The main theme appears for the fourth time and a short coda whips the music to a faster pace and the movement ends.

Dvořák's three-year tenure as Director of the National Conservatory in New York City changed him as a composer and  influenced on American composers to rethink their musical models and to change them from a European style to a more idiomatic American style. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Litolff - Piano Trio In D Minor Opus 47

Henry Litolff made a name for himself during his life as a virtuoso pianist, music publisher, composer and friend to many fellow musicians. He also had quite a reputation as a ladies' man. He was married four times and he seems to have kept on the move for most of his early years, perhaps for good reason. Although born in England, he lived most of his life in Europe. He was a prolific composer, but the majority of his music has suffered from neglect. He was primarily a composer of works for the piano, orchestra and stage, but he did write a few chamber works; three piano trios, a string quartet and a serenade for violin and piano.  He wrote the first piano trio in 1847 when he was in his late twenties.

There have been a few recordings of his Concerto Symphoniques for piano and orchestra, and a few recordings of piano pieces, but the only chamber work available on CD is the Piano Trio In D Minor.  It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The cello plays a plaintive melody to open the work. The violin takes up the melody, and after the piano plays a short lead-in, the actual first theme of  the movement is heard. It is a dramatic theme that Litolff develops until the second theme is heard. The second theme is in contrast to the first as it is more lyric, but it continues a feeling of tension. The first theme returns to round out the exposition. There is a slight pause before the development begins. The first theme is heard in the solo cello, and then the piano takes it up for a short time. Litolff then shifts gears and uses the first theme for a fugue. The second theme appears as an episode in the fugue, and then the second theme gets a full hearing and is developed. The recapitulation has the first theme go through a transition that leads to the repeat of the second theme in D major. The first theme is played in the major, then a short pause before the piano begins the coda and the piece ends with a D major chord, at least in the recording linked at the end of this article. The score itself has this chord as D minor.

II. Andante - The piano presents the theme in F major and the violin and cello join in. The tension and drama of the music slowly increases until the piano plays triplet eighth note chords while the cello expands the theme. The violin joins the cello, and the instruments pass a fragment of the theme back and forth. The piano plays a variant of the theme along with the violin and cello. The piano chords change to a more regular eighth-note pulse, the strings and piano unwind the melody until the movement ends with F major as it had begun. 

III. Scherzo - Litolff starts the scherzo with a bar for solo piano followed by a run for the piano while the strings play a pizzicato note then a wide-spread chord: 
The scherzo is high-energy and scurries onward to a development of the theme, or rather the persistence of the dotted eighth-sixteenth-eighth rhythm. Litolff makes much of this slight motif, the scherzo is repeated, a short coda is added and the movement ends. 

IV. Finale: Presto - The first theme scurries about while the second theme is more lyrical and gentle. The development has the first theme treated contrapuntally. The recapitulation brings back the first theme. The second theme returns. An impassioned coda throws out fragments of the first theme as the tension increases. The key changes to D major and the drama increases as the instruments chromatically descend into a flurry as the tempo increases and the music ends in a glory of D major.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 1 In C Major

When Dmitri Shostakovich's first symphony was performed when he was nineteen, he was heralded as a prime example of Soviet artistry. Famed conductors Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski showed interest in the work amnd performed it. Shostakovich's career as a composer was launched.

But before too many years, Shostakovich was officially denounced in "Muddle Instead Of Music", an article that appeared in the official soviet newspaper Pravda in 1936. The article focused on the composer's opera Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District (written in 1932) and accused the work of being 'formalist, coarse and vulgar'. This was a shock to Shostakovich as the opera had previously been lauded as:
 "the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party...could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture."
Times became desperate for Shostakovich as commissions and performances of his works stopped, and his income dropped to less than half of what it had been.Shostakovich was forced to withdraw his 4th Symphony from rehearsal as well. With the writing of his 5th Symphony, subtitled 'An artist's creative response to just criticism', Shostakovich got back into the graces of the powers that were (Stalin), but only for a time. Further denunciations and trials awaited the composer for the rest of his life.

Shostakovich changed as a composer after the first denunciation, at least with his overtly public compositions. He was in his early thirties when he began his first attempt at a string quartet, shortly after he finished his 5th Symphony.  Shostakovich said:
I began to write it without special ideas and feeling, I thought that nothing would come of it. After all, the quartet is one of the most difficult musical genres. I wrote the first page as a sort of original exercise in the quartet form, not thinking about subsequently completing and releasing it. As a rule, I fairly often write things I don’t publish. They are my type of composer’s studies. But then work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly. Don’t expect to find special depth in this, my first quartet opus. In mood it is joyful, merry, lyrical. I would call it 'spring-like'.
Indeed the first quartet is of a different style and mood of the 5th symphony and much of Shostakovich's previous works of his early years.  It is neoclassical in style, lyrical, uncomplicated and gives little indication of the mood and style of his later quartets.

Shostakovich continued to write string quartets for the remaining 35 years  of his life, and his 15th quartet was completed only months before his death. Shostakovich used the string quartet form as a haven for his more personal and private compositions. String Quartet No. 1 is in 4 movements:

I. Moderato - A simple melody opens the work, played by the first violin and supported by the other instruments. The second theme is another simple melody accompanied by a sliding figure in the cello. The development section is short and wandering. The return of the first theme in the recapitulation emerges from the wanderings of the development. The second theme returns and the movement winds down and ends quietly.

II. Moderato - The viola presents a folk-influenced theme that goes through seven variations and ends with the theme being played as in the beginning of the movement.

III. Allegro molto - This scherzo cavorts about, the middle trio sings a short song before the scherzo returns for another cavort until the end.

IV. Allegro - In a shortened sonata form this movement is more complex than the others. It has two themes that are rapidly exploited before a short coda ends the work in C major.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dvořák - Mazurek For Violin And Piano

Dvořák originally composed this piece for violin and orchestra and dedicated it to one of the great violin virtuosos of the 19th century, Pablo de Sarasate. Dvořák's publisher encouraged him to write works in the style of his Slavonic Dances, no doubt because of the popular appeal of these works. This Mazurek is related to the Polish folk dance that Chopin made popular.

Dvořák was an accomplished orchestral viola player and was well acquainted with violin technique as well. The Mazurek begins with a rustic theme in double stops for the violinist. The recurring theme continues in double stops that make this a difficult piece for the violinist to play in tune. The next section has a more lyrical theme that is well in keeping with the overall folk-like sound of the work while acting as a contrast to the more robust main theme. The first theme returns but is interrupted by the second theme once again. The first theme repeats and ends the work.

This short work is a good example of Dvořák's gift for writing original melodies that have the feeling of folk music. He brought this skill to many of his pieces, and in the larger works integrated his melodic gifts with masterful compositional techniques.

Rubinstein - Piano Concerto No. 1 In E Minor

In the beginning of the Romantic era in the early 19th century, the virtuoso pianist/composer emerged. Major composers such as Hummel, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Thalberg and many others dazzled audiences with their own compositions for piano and orchestra. At the top of them all were Liszt and Rubinstein.

Due to musical tastes changing with time, Liszt's music has been more appreciated now than in his own time. The politics of the music scene of late 19th century Romanticism, the Wagner versus Brahms debate, no doubt added to the problems Liszt's music had in gaining a more solid foothold in the repertoire. The opposite has happened with the music of Rubinstein. Once regarded just as important a composer as pianist, his works are now performed infrequently, more of a novelty than anything else.

Perhaps Rubinstein himself put his finger on the reason that his compositions suffered so much neglect later on when he said:
I write on the spur of the moment, driven by an inner force; I could not... criticize, file and brood over my compositions. They are indeed improvisations and have the virtues and vices of improvisations.
Rubinstein's piano concertos fare better than some of his other works and a few are occasionally performed.  He wrote 5 in all, along with three other works for piano and orchestra. His first concerto was written in 1850 and is a rather traditional piano concerto in form, but the force of Rubinstein's personality and prowess at the keyboard can be felt in it. It is in the traditional 3 movements:

I. Moderato - The first movement is in a traditional concerto sonata form. The orchestra plays through the themes of the concerto before the soloist enters playing the main theme of the movement. The lyrical second theme appears in a piano solo with a very slight orchestral accompaniment. A third dance-like theme is taken up by the piano. The development section expands on the themes. The recapitulation follows the same order of themes along with modulations to other keys. Further development of themes occur in the coda and Rubinstein increases the drama with a short section for piano and timpani. The tempo quickens as the beginning of the main theme is tossed about in different keys.  The virtuosity of the piano part increases as the orchestra helps build tension. There is a sudden dying away of volume as the piano and clarinet have a short dialog. The piano plays quietly, and a sudden loud chord for piano and orchestra sounds to end the movement.

II. Andante con moto - The horn plays the beginning of the main theme of the second movement. The piano takes up the theme. The horn and piano alternate with the theme. A dramatic middle section  presents the strings playing a persistent long-short-short rhythm as the low strings and bassoon play a short motif. The piano accents the proceedings with loud chords. The horn and piano have a dialog between presentations of the strings dramatic pulse. The main theme come to the fore again after a short transition and continues to play until near the end of the movement when the strings dramatic pulse interrupts a few times until the lyrical main theme ends the movement.

III. Con moto - There is a short introduction by the woodwinds before the main theme of the movement is played by the piano. This theme occurs throughout the movement along with other themes, most notably a march-like theme,  until the coda is reached. The coda is a double octave tour de force for the soloist as the orchestra plays the march-like theme at full volume.