Sunday, June 29, 2014

Wieniawski - Violin Concerto No. 2 In D Minor

In his lifetime Henryk Wieniawski was first and foremost thought of as one of the premiere violinists of his age, but he also began composing while still a child.  His life as a traveling virtuoso (and his death at 44) kept his opus numbers to a meager 24 with a few other works that were never published or published without opus numbers.

The premiere of Wieniawski's 1st Violin Concerto In F-sharp Minor  was a success that perhaps was due to
the composer's brilliant playing because the work has never became part of the repertoire. History has proven that while it is an interesting work that contains some beautiful music, the imbalance between the long first movement and the brevity of the other two movements (not to mention the very difficult solo part) makes it a difficult work to play and bring off musically. With the 2nd Concerto Wieniawski tightened up his writing and form. While the solo part is still very technically challenging, Wieniawski has technique serve the music instead of music serving technique. The 2nd Concerto is a standard in the repertoire. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The orchestra introduces the themes of the movement straight away. The first theme is an impassioned one in the home key of D minor. A secondary theme in F major that is mostly carried in the woodwinds and horns appears. The first theme returns and builds to a climax that ushers in the soloist who changes the mood to a lyrical one. Snatches of the first theme appear in the orchestra but the solo violin remains in its lyrical mood until it sputters out some virtuoso passages, but it soon returns to its lyrical side as it seems more interested in the second theme than the first.  Music for the soloist turns more virtuosic as the first theme is varied and expanded. This leads to a section for the full orchestra that plays a passionate version of the first theme and parts of the second until the music grows somewhat quiet, but the first theme is heard in full volume. The music grows quiet again with the clarinet playing a solo that leads directly to the second movement. Wieniawski avoids the problem of his top-heavy 1st Violin Concerto by truncating his first movement by removing the recapitulation section,  thus shortening the movement but also eliminating a cadenza. By the time of the premiere of this concerto in 1862 composers were slowly eliminating cadenzas in their works, probably because not every soloist could devise a cadenza that fit in with the rest of the first movement.

II. Romance: Andante non troppo -  The movement is in B-flat major and the violin sings one of the most beautiful melodies written for it. The music builds until a climax is reached shortly before the ending. The violin plays ascending scale and comes to rest on a high note as the orchestra plays a quiet accompaniment.

III. Allegro con fuoco – Allegro moderato à la Zingara -  A short solo for the violin prepares the way for a rondo movement in gypsy style.  The soloist brings back the second theme of the first movement in two of the episodes between the repeats of the rondo theme, bringing a formal unity to the work that was missing in his first concerto.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Vivaldi - Bassoon Concerto In E Minor RV 484

Antonio Vivaldi was one of the composers of the Baroque era that changed the form of the concerto from the Concerto Grosso to the Solo Concerto. The Concerto Grosso divided the instrumental group into two sections; the concertino, a small group of soloists and the ripieno, the rest of the orchestra. The concertino would take turns playing musical material as soloists and play together as a small group while the ripieno played between episodes of the concertino.

Arcangelo Corelli brought the form of Concerto Grosso to its peak early in the 18th century, and many composers continued to use the form.  While Corelli usually used two violins and cello as the concertino and a string orchestra as the ripieno (as did Handel),  the six Brandenburg Concertos of J.S. Bach saw many different combinations of both concertino and ripieno.

As composers are as much evolutionary as revolutionary, the concerto grosso began to go out of fashion and something new was beginning. The newest form of concerto was the Solo Concerto in which a single solo instrument played musical material to the accompaniment of the orchestra. Antonio Vivaldi was a composer that became famous for his solo concertos (although he continued to write concerto grossi for various combinations).  His music influenced Bach, Handel and other composers to write in the form. Vivaldi wrote over 500 solo concertos, with about half of them for his instrument, the violin. But he wrote for most instruments in the orchestra.  No one knows who the bassoonist was that he wrote his 39 bassoon concertos for, but whoever it was must have been very good for Vivaldi does not spare the soloist difficulties.

The Bassoon Concerto In E Minor RV 484 is one of Vivaldi's most recognizable. It is in the usual three movements:
I. Allegro poco - A serious mood is set immediately by the string orchestra as they begin the movement. The bassoon enters and gives its take on the theme. The orchestra and soloist alternate as was the usual practice of the ritornello form Vivaldi used, and the theme is developed and changed in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Vivaldi has the soloist play rapid arpeggios that are similar to what a solo violin would do in a violin concerto.

II. Andante - A serious introduction is given by the strings. When the bassoon enters the mood is softened as the bassoon sings mellow music. The short movement ends with the strings.

III. Allegro - Vivaldi returns to the quick music style of the first movement. The string orchestra part leads the bassoon to some rapid music and difficult figurations.

The bassoon has the reputation of being the clown of the orchestra, or at the very least of being an awkward, slow to speak member of the bass section, but Vivaldi's writing for the instrument shows that it is capable of much more.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Weber - Konzertstück In F Minor For Piano And Orchestra

Carl Maria von Weber's works for the stage are considered to be the first German nationalist operas and as such they influenced composers of the next generation, especially in Germany. His early development of the lietmotif influenced Wagner to use the technique also. His orchestrations were studied by Berlioz and used them for examples in his Treatise On Instrumentation .   Liszt, Mendelssohn and Chopin were influenced by his works for piano and orchestra, and 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky admitted that Weber was a model for his Cappriccio For Piano And Orchestra, written over 100 years after Weber's death.

The Konzertstück In F Minor was especially influential, not only for Weber's use of the orchestra, musical content and form (it is in 4 sections played without break), but for its extra-musical content. Weber had composed two piano concertos and when he had begun writing his third he wrote the following in a letter to music critic Johann Rochlitz:
I have an F minor piano concerto planned. But as concertos in the minor without definite, evocative ideas seldom work with the public, I have instinctively inserted into the whole thing a kind of story whose thread will connect and define its character - moreover, one so detailed and at the same time dramatic that I found myself obliged to give it the following headings: Allegro, Parting. Adagio, Lament. Finale, Profoundest misery, consolation, reunion, jubilation.
 Weber was taken up with work on other compositions and didn't get back to the third concerto, which he had renamed Konzertstück, until 1821. In fact, on the morning of the premiere of his opera Der Freischütz he finished the  Konzertstück. It was premiered a week later to (in Weber's words) "monstrous acclaim", and the work has been a popular concert piece ever since.

Weber himself played the piece for his wife and Julius Benedict, a German composer and conductor. According to Benedict the composer gave a running commentary as he played the piece, which shall be quoted below:

Larghetto affetuoso -  Beginning in F minor, the sad and reflective music has a story Weber described as he played :
A lady sits alone on her balcony, gazing off in the distance. Her knight has gone on a Crusade to the Holy Land. Years have passed, battles have been fought; is he still alive? Will she ever see him again?

Allegro passionato -  In a state of panic (and still in the key of F minor), Weber described her state of mind:
Her excited imagination summons a vision of her noble husband lying wounded and forsaken on the battlefield. Could she not fly to his side and die with him? She falls back, unconscious. Then from the distance comes the sound of a trumpet (represented by a solo bassoon). There in the forest something flashes in the sunlight as it comes nearer and nearer.

Tempo di marcia -  The music has now changed to C major in a wave of celebration:
Knights and squires, with the Crusaders' cross and banners waving, are acclaimed by the crowd. And there her husband is among them! She sinks into his arms (represented by an octave glissando on the keyboard)

Presto giocoso - The solo piano erupts in rapid scales and figures, the music modulates to F major as the soloist plays brilliant passages, including two more grand glissandos as Weber concluded his story:
Happiness without end! The woods and waves sing a song of love, while a thousand voices proclaim its victory.

Weber's  Konzertstück is the quintessential early Romantic work for piano and orchestra. It is no surprise that Liszt played it many times in his career and even wrote his own version of the piano part. Liszt (as well as other composers) used the connected movement form of it for their own works for piano with and without orchestra.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Haydn - Trumpet Concerto In E-flat Major

The trumpet was probably first used as a method to convey signals and directions to armies in battle, with its loudness helping it to be heard over the din of war. The metal trumpet was known at least as early as 1500 BC and examples have been found in many different locations in the world.  The trumpet was also used for religious and civic ceremonies, such as heralding the arrival of important people such as kings.

These ancient metal trumpets were usually in one long straight section. it wasn't until around the 13th century that the tubing was folded back on itself one or more times to make the instrument compact. These natural instruments (as they had no valves) were limited in the notes they could play, as the length of tubing determined the key of the instrument. Different notes within the harmonic series were sounded by the
Natural trumpet
player using lip tension and breath pressure. The range of notes in the lower range of the instrument were further limited to a major chord, thus when the trumpet became part of the symphony orchestra they were restricted to the notes of the home key. Different lengths of tubing were devised that could be exchanged on the instrument to lengthen or shorten the tube so that other keys could be played.

In the upper register of the instrument more notes are available and a scale of the home key can be played. Some players became so skilled in these difficult high notes that they could play melodies of great complexity on the natural trumpet, which led composers of the Baroque era such as Vivaldi and Bach to write highly decorated and florid solo parts for these trumpet virtuosos.

Keyed trumpet
Haydn used the trumpet in the orchestra as most composers did in his time, mainly as a support for the home key and for fanfares. When he was approached by Anton Weidinger, a trumpeter in the Vienna Court Orchestra, for a trumpet concerto, the offer tweaked Haydn's curiosity and he accepted. But Haydn was not commissioned to write a concerto for a natural trumpet, but for a keyed trumpet of Weidinger's design.  This trumpet was capable of playing the notes of the scale throughout its range and made the trumpet a melody instrument which led Weidinger to tour Europe and play his keyed trumpet to much acclaim.

Haydn was a very prolific composer, as his known compositions number about 1,000 with probably many more unknown and lost works, but he wrote only 17 concertos. Haydn was a very competent pianist and violinist, but he didn't begin his career in music as a virtuoso performer. Mozart and Beethoven wrote concertos mostly for their own use before the public, especially Mozart who wrote 26 piano concertos alone.  Haydn's reputation as a musician was based on his composition abilities as well as his handling of his musical duties while he was Kappelmeister to the Esterházy family, which is one reason for the low number of concertos he wrote.  Haydn wrote the work in 1795 or 1796, and the concerto was performed by Weidinger in 1800. It is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro - The concerto begins with the presentation of motives by the orchestra. Haydn doesn't always have markedly different themes in his sonata movements, and this section is dominated by a martial theme that is punctuated by timpani and trumpets. When the solo trumpet enters it repeats the opening motive, and Haydn exploits the expanded compass of Weidinger's keyed trumpet with notes that would not be possible on a natural trumpet. The soloist expands upon the opening motives and enters into a dialogue with the orchestra in the development section, but the soloist remains in the spotlight. The recapitulation repeats the opening motive by the soloist until Haydn gives a fermata rest for the orchestra while the soloist plays a cadenza.  The orchestra returns and brings the movement to a close.

II. Andante -  Again Haydn exploits the keyed trumpet by giving it a gentle melody to play with the orchestra in this short movement.

III. Allegro -  Haydn writes an energetic rondo as the final movement. The soloist plays rapid repeated notes, trills, and other dazzling figurations throughout the rondo. The entire compass of the trumpet from the bottom to the top is used to good effect throughout.

While Weidinger's  trumpet allowed the player to hit notes not possible on the natural trumpet, his  keyed system proved to be very difficult to learn and play. The keyed trumpet was eventually replaced by the valved trumpet in the 19th century, an instrument more versatile than the keyed version.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Liszt - Mephisto Waltz No. 2

Franz Liszt was quite taken with the Faust legend, as were many artists of the Romantic era. He composed a Faust Symphony based on Goethe's version of the legend, but the 4 Mephisto Waltzes were inspired by Nikolaus Lenau, an Austrian poet that also wrote a version of the Faust legend.

Liszt wrote two works for orchestra that were inspired by Lenau, collectively called Episodes From Lenau’s “Faust.” One of these pieces is the famous The Dance in the Village Inn, also known as Mephisto Waltz No. 1.  Liszt also wrote a version of the first waltz for piano four hands and a version for solo piano which has enough changes in it from the other versions that it is considered an independent work.

It took Liszt twenty years to revisit Lenau's version of the legend and he wrote the Mephisto Waltz No. 2 between 1880 and 1881. The original version was for orchestra, and like the first waltz Liszt made versions for piano four hands and solo piano, with the solo version being substantially different from the other ones.

The work was dedicated to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, a composer that Liszt knew very well. Liszt had transcribed Saint-Saëns' tone poem Danse Macabre for piano a few years earlier which perhaps had inspired Liszt to write another Mephisto Waltz. Liszt was 70 years old and was in his last productive period as a composer.

Nickolaus Lenau
The beginning of Liszt's waltz uses the interval of the tritone, which since medieval times has been considered a dissonance and was avoided by composers. It grated on the ears of earlier composers so much that it was called diabolus in musica, or the devil in music. Late in the Romantic era, the tritone was used by composers to represent evil and, in Liszt's case, Mephistopheles. Saint-Saëns had used the interval of the tritone in his tone poem also by instructing the concertmaster to tune his violin so that the open strings would play a tritone. Modern music has pretty much removed the stigma from the interval and it no longer has the same strong effect it had on earlier audiences. But it is still a restless interval that if used too much can grow tiresome on the ear.

Liszt loosely follows the program he used in his first waltz as the opening can be thought of as Mephisto tuning his violin. After the introduction, the music turns into an intense dance that is sprinkled with dissonance. The character of this waltz is more aggressive and more violent than the first waltz.  There is new material introduced roughly half way through the piece that is more quiet and reflective, but still there remains an underlying tension. Passion builds until the dance of the beginning returns. The dance grows more hectic until the entire piece collapses into the interval of the tritone as in the beginning. The ending of the piece is written in E-flat major, but builds to an unresolved ending on the interval of the tritone B-F. The piece actually doesn't end so much as stops on bare B natural octaves.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stravinsky - Symphony In Three Movements

A composer's creative process while undertaking a new work can take a different course than originally planned. Igor Stravinsky's Symphony In Three Movements is a good example. Shortly after Stravinsky's immigration to the U.S., he received a commission for a new work from the New York Philharmonic in 1942.  Stravinsky used material originally conceived as a sound track for a motion picture, as well as material from an incomplete piano concerto. He rewrote and added new music to create his symphony, which was not completed until 1945. It is the first major work Stravinsky completed after his cane to the U.S.

Stravinsky was also working on a re-scoring of his ballet The Rite Of Spring during this time. While he eventually abandoned the re-scoring, the rhythmic and harmonic style of the new symphony was influenced by the earlier work.  The symphony was premiered in 1946 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

I. Overture; Allegro -  Stravinsky referred to this work as his War Symphony and in the book Dialogues And A Diary gave his explanation of the events that gave inspiration for the first movement:
The first movement was likewise inspired by a war film, this time a documentary of scorched-earth tactics in China. The middle part of the movement, the music for clarinet, piano, and strings, which mounts in intensity and volume until the explosion of the three chords was conceived as a series of instrumental conversations to accompany a cinematographic scene showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields.
The first movement begins with loud and strident chords and octaves. As this movement was derived from music that was originally for a piano concerto, the piano plays a prominent part in the movement. Among the booming of timpani, the dynamics of the music gradually subsides and the movement comes to a middle section that has the woodwinds play duets in pairs with the piano and strings. The nervous and edgy music from the beginning returns and rumbles its way to the end of the movement, a mysterious chord quietly played by the orchestra over the chattering of the bass clarinet.

II. Andante; Interlude: L'istesso tempo - The relative quiet of this movement is in contrast to what has preceded, although the harmonies are still somewhat nervous. The harp plays a prominent role in this movement and lends a feeling of tenuous calm to the movement. There is no break between this movement and the last.

III. Con moto -  Harsh, swelling chords erupt into the beginning of the last movement. Stravinsky flits from motive to motive until a fugue is heard that is scored for piano, trombone and harp. Again, Stravinsky describes what inspired the music:
The third movement actually contains the genesis of a war plot, though I recognized it as such only after completing the composition. The beginning of that movement is partly, and in some to me wholly inexplicable way, a musical reaction to the newsreels and documentaries that I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march-beat, the brass band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba these are all related to those repellent pictures.
In spite of contrasting episodes, such as the canon for bassoons, the march music is predominant until the fugue, which is the stasis and the turning point. The immobility at the beginning of the fugue is comic, I think and so, to me, was the over- turned arrogance of the Germans when their machine failed. The exposition of the fugue and the end of the Symphony are associated in my plot with the rise of the Allies, and perhaps the final, albeit rather too commercial, D-flat sixth chord. 
Stravinsky was a composer that usually had nothing to say about the inspiration for his music, so after he uncharacteristically said so much about the symphony (more than quoted here), it is consistent with his personality that he would add the following disclaimer:
But enough of this. In spite of what I have said, the Symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dvořák - Piano Trio No. 3 In F Minor, Op. 65

The year 1882 was full of emotional and professional turmoil for Antonín Dvořák.  He was being pulled in two directions in his career as a composer. He was a passionate ethnic Czech that imbued his music with the spirit of dances and folksong of his native land as a way to show his solidarity with his fellow countryman in their struggle to win independence from the Austrian Empire. But he was also being encouraged by his friend and benefactor Johannes Brahms to move to Vienna and write music more in tune with the Austrian/German tradition.  Brahms also informed him that if Dvořák was willing to write operas to German language librettos he would most assuredly be offered well paid commissions for such work.

Added to that was the death of his adored mother in late December of 1882.  Adding to his stress level was the birth of a son in early 1883 that despite the joy the child brought, also served as a reminder of his desire to provide for his family.  He took a break from composing for a short time after the death of his mother, and began anew in February of 1883 with the Piano Trio No. 3 In F Minor.

Contrary to Dvořák's usual time of two to three weeks for a chamber music composition to be completed, he took nearly two months with the 3rd piano trio. The music of the trio is a mixture of passion, sorrow, frustration with a few instances of brightness.  The work is symphonically dense in places and threatens to split the seams of a work for three instruments.

The 3rd Piano Trio is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro ma non troppo - The first theme begins straight away in the strings. Although it begins quietly, a certain tension is brought to the theme with its F minor tonality and dotted rhythm. The piano joins in after a few measures and the theme is replayed and developed over some 50 bars. After a few bars of transition, a second theme is introduced by the cello in A-flat major. This theme gives an initial impression of being more gentle, but chromatic alterations continue a feeling of unrest. After the second theme plays itself out there is a short episode in the major mode that brings back the dotted rhythm in material of a more confident and defiant nature. This episode leads directly to the development, there is no repeat of the exposition. The development brings the working out of the two main themes in tremendous shifts of mood and tonality. The two main themes are intensified in the recapitulation.  When the second theme returns, its tonality has shifted to F major, but the feeling of unrest continues. The short section of defiance is repeated, also in F major. A few bars of transition brings the first theme back in F minor where it undergoes another short development until the tempo suddenly speeds up. The tension builds until there is a short ritard where the piano is silent as the strings play. A sudden resumption of tempo leads to the final bar in F minor.

II. Allegretto grazioso -  The movement is in C-sharp minor. Dvořák uses music in the style of a Czech dance for the scherzo movement. A rhythmic trick is played by Dvořák as the strings begin the movement playing in triplets, a feeling of three beats in a bar, but when the piano enters it plays in two beats in the bar as the 2/4 time signature designates. To further confuse the listener, accents in the piano part are given on the offbeat. This gives a momentary shock to the ear:
 After a few bars of this cross rhythm, the listener's ear adjusts enough to feel the actual 2 in a bar meter, but the cross rhythm and off beat accents continue to give a restless feel. The tune of the dance goes through harmonic changes that add to the restlessness.  The trio begins in D-flat major, but goes through harmonic changes and rhythmic diversities. The dance returns and is repeated exactly as the first time.

III. Poco adagio - A plaintive theme in A-flat major that successfully bridges the gap between sorrow and love, perhaps in memory of his departed mother. This movement's few rays of light get but little chance to peek through the darkness. It is the emotional center of the trio, and adds to the despondency of work.

IV. Allegro con brio - The music returns to F minor in the final movement that is in a hybrid sonata/rondo form,  Dvořák's main theme, a type of Czech dance called the furiant keeps turning up through the movement. The second theme is a variant of the main theme in the form of a waltz.  The music continues on its way until the first theme of the first movement appears in a short episode, after which the main theme of the last movement goes through one more variation which leads to a ritard and key change to F major as the music speeds up and ends in F major.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Brahms - Symphony No. 3 In F Major

Johannes Brahms is often held up as an example of a composer who wrote absolute music, music that does not represent anything or is not about anything,  music purely for the sake of music. There was an ongoing debate about the idea of absolute music that began in the late 17th century and continues to this day.  In Brahms' time the debate was especially strong, as Wagner and Liszt (leaders of the new music movement) were proponents of program music; with Wagner's operas and Liszt's symphonic poems, while Brahms was used as the figurehead for absolute music by the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick who wrote:
Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.
 Whether a particular piece of music can be considered absolute or programmatic is not so easy to determine.  Is there such a thing as music that is purely absolute, with no reference within it to anything more than sound? When Beethoven referred to the theme that began his 5th Symphony as 'fate knocking at the door', the composer himself put a non-musical meaning to the theme and perhaps the entire symphony. This doesn't make it a work with a program like a Liszt symphonic poem,  but then again it is not a piece of absolute music in the strict sense.  The argument between absolute versus program music is an attempt to pigeon-hole works into one or the other, and at least in the late 19th century, a way to try and make one kind of music superior to the other. In that regard the whole discussion (and historical arguments) about absolute music are moot points.

Brahms was a highly private man and very rarely gave a clue to any outside meanings in his music, but that doesn't mean there weren't any.  Some of his close friends were able to determine what the meaning of certain pieces may have been,  and so it was with his friend Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert Schumann. Brahms was a devoted friend to her after her husband died, some think to the point that his friendship went beyond the platonic. Brahms valued her musical opinion very much and would send his new compositions to her. Clara noticed that the notes F-Aflat -F were the top notes of the three chords that open the 3rd Symphony. These three notes are the first letters of Brahms'  motto, in German Frei aber froh which translates to Free but happy.  Brahms had adopted the motto in response to the motto of his friend Joseph Joachim Frei aber einsam which translates to Free but lonely. Brahms used his three note motto in all four movements in different guises.

Symphony No. 3 In F Major is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro con brio - The three note motto begins the movement and is found throughout, sometimes in the treble, sometimes as a bass line. This motto is full of conflict from the start as the A-flat sandwiched between the two F's shifts the music off of F major (A is natural, not flat), to F minor,  where the A is flat. This conflict occurs on and off through the movement. The second theme is in A-flat major, and is of a more gentle nature.  The music works its way through different material to the repeat of the exposition. The development section continues the interplay between major and minor, especially when the gentle second theme is changed to minor mode with increased tension and drama. The recapitulation plays through the themes and in the coda it gradually winds down and the music ends with a gentle repeat of the opening motto.

II. Andante -  Within the theme of this movement in C major is the three note motto. After the initial theme is played through, a second more passionate theme emerges.  The motto keeps appearing throughout the movement, but the gentle nature of the music doesn't allow it any of the drama that the listener already knows it is capable of.  The movement ends with the initial theme played very quietly.

III. Poco allegretto - In C minor, the music is in scherzo form, but is not a scherzo in mood. The melody is a sad, gentle dance. The three note motto is to be found in the accompaniment.  There is a brief middle section in A-flat major that is lighter in mood. The dance begins again and progresses to a short coda. The movement ends quietly with string chords played pizzicato over woodwind accompaniment.

 IV. Allegro -  The last movement renews the passion and drama of the first as the shifting between major and minor mode resumes.  Brahms uses his own style of sonata form to present and develop themes that lead to the coda that contains some of the most beautiful music Brahms ever wrote.  With muted strings in the background, woodwinds and brass gently move the music to a final unwinding as the three note motto is played one last time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Handel - Concerto Grosso In A Major, Opus 6, No. 11

George Handel's set of 12 Concerti Grosso, Opus 6 were first published by subscription in 1739, revised and printed as Opus 6 in 1741.  All 12 of the concertos are instrumented the same; for three-piece concertino group of two violins and cello, 4-part strings and continuo. They were originally written to be played during intermissions of his oratorios and other larger works.

Unlike Bach who favored the Vivaldi style of three movement concertos, Handel used the older forms of  concertos used by Corelli, which had four movements. Handel was primarily a composer of opera (42 of them), and after the decline of his popularity he concentrated on writing oratorios (29 of them). But he did compose in most forms of the Baroque era.

The beginning movement of Handel's Concerto Grosso in A Major takes the form of a French overture, characterized by dotted rhythms and interplay between the string orchestra and the two solo violins. After a few slow chords from the strings, the French overture continues with a short four-part fugue.  Another short transition section links the fugue with the next movement which is in ritornello form. A theme is played by the string orchestra that alternates with virtuosic material played by the soloists. Each time the theme returns, it undergoes a change but  retains its basic characteristics.  The last movement continues in ritornello form with soloists answering the orchestra in quick paced music. There is a short section in F-sharp minor, but the music returns to the tonic with a final call and answer section between the soloists and the orchestra as the music makes its way to the end. 

While the majority of Handel's works suffered from neglect for many years, a few pieces remained in the repertoire, namely his oratorio Messiah, and some opera arias. But even these few exceptions to general neglect were usually recast in more modern guise for contemporary performance. But with the practices of Handel's time when he thought nothing of using bits of other composer's music in his compositions or arranging his own music for different ensembles, it may not have upset Handel too much. 

Mozart was not known to have been very kind to other musicians, especially composers. Handel was a composer that Mozart understood  (even though he fell into the group of musicians that rearranged Handel's music, notably Messiah) and who allegedly said:
Handel understands effect better than any of us -- when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.
While Mozart may not have said those words, with the modern revival of performances of Handel's music as he originally wrote it, the sentiment is true enough.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Schulhoff - Symphony No. 5

Erwin Schulhoff began his 5th Symphony in 1938 and finished it in 1939.  Schulhoff's works had been blacklisted in Germany since early in the 1930's due to his Jewish heritage and radical communist politics, which caused him much personal and professional difficulty not only in Germany but Czechoslovakia as well. He had to take a job as a pianist for a radio station orchestra in Prague to make ends meet.

Schulhoff increasingly turned to Stalin's model of social realism in his art and dedicated his 3rd and 4th symphonies to the communist cause.  He was still in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded and had petitioned the Soviet Union for citizenship, but before he could escape the country he was captured by the Nazis and put into prison. In 1941 he was deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria and died there in 1942.

It took many years for Schulhoff's music to be rediscovered, and the 5th Symphony wasn't given its first performance until 1965. The symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Andante - The entire short first movement is built from a short rhythmic figure that is repeated throughout the movement. The result of the rhythmic figure is that while the movement is played at a relatively slow tempo, the rhythmic repetition gives the music power and tension, perhaps reflecting the political climate in Europe of 1938-1939

II. Adagio - The second movement begins with a fanfare for brass that leads to a movement that turns bleak with dissonance. The fanfare theme is swallowed up by loud music devoid of hope and beauty. This leads to a section for brass that repeats the fanfare. This leads to quieter music with a restless accompaniment to clarinets playing last notes of hopelessness.

III. Allegro con brio -
A scherzo in all but name, there are elements of the furiant, a Czech dance. Dvořák and Smetana composed furiants. Schulhoff's version is full of rhythmic drive, aggression, and in places turns ugly in its violence. A xylophone helps turn this furiant into a dance of death.  The movement doesn't really have an ending; it just stops after excessively loud thumps from the orchestra.

IV. Allegro con brio - Allegro moderato -  The first part of the finale are a set of variations on a march. The music is at a constant loud dynamic until a section begins that uses material reminiscent of the rhythmic motive of the first movement.  A theme in the major mode emerges in the woodwinds, the first sign of hope in an otherwise dark musical work. The rhythmic motive is quoted directly in the major mode and elaborated upon and the march theme reappears as the music increases in volume as it gets a fugal treatment. The rasping first movement motive appears in the brass with agitated accompaniment from the strings. The music builds until an explosive ending brings it to a close.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spohr - Clarinet Concerto No. 3 In F minor

Louis Spohr was a violinist, conductor and composer who was well regarded in his lifetime, but shortly after his death in 1859 his music fell into neglect. His compositional style fell into the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras.  Spohr was also a practical musician and is credited with inventing the chin rest for the violin, rehearsal numbers for orchestral scores and was an early proponent of using a baton when conducting.

He was a very prolific composer and wrote in all the genres of the time.  Spohr made a name for himself after he performed one of his compositions on the violin at a concert in Leipzig in 1804 to critical acclaim. He was also active in Vienna and worked on Beethoven's Piano Trio Opus 70, No. 1 "Ghost" with the composer. He remained on cordial terms with Beethoven and worked as a conductor in Vienna from 1813-1815. He also wrote a treatise on violin playing, Violinschule, which not only gave solid instruction on the basics but the latest advances in violin technique. It was a standard for violin education for many years.

Johann Simon Hermstedt
Spohr wrote four clarinet concertos, with the first being commissioned in 1808 for the virtuoso clarinetist Johann Simon Hermstedt by the clarinettist's royal employer. This was followed by the second concerto in 1810 and the third concerto in 1821. This was a time when the clarinet was still going through modifications and Spohr's concertos added to the genesis of the modern clarinet, and as such Spohr's works for the clarinet did not meet with the neglect after his death that much of his other music suffered.

The third concerto is considered by many to be the weakest musically of the four Spohr wrote for the instrument. But it is a success as a virtuoso showpiece for the clarinetist that can handle its difficulties. The work is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The concerto begins with a dramatic opening from the orchestra. This first theme is short, and leads to another theme in F major. After this theme is played through, the theme is repeated in F minor. After some other material the soloist enters with its own version of the themes.  The soloist goes far afield with material that is more for displaying the skill of the soloist than any progression of themes. The spotlight is on the soloist with a few orchestral interruptions, kind of like an orchestral seasoning to a dish that is dominated by the clarinet. There is no cadenza, as the clarinet makes its way to the final high note with the accompaniment of the orchestra.

II. Adagio - The orchestra introduces the movement, and the clarinet soon enters with music that is in the style of an operatic aria.  At the middle point the orchestra introduces new material that the clarinet comments on in turn. The aria returns and the movement ends quietly.

III. Vivace non troppo -  The soloist plays the main theme. The orchestra interjects new material, and the clarinet repeats the main theme with variations. This is the basic scheme of the movement. As the music nears the end, it takes on a more dance like character until the last high note of the soloist.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sibelius - Malinconia For Cello And Piano, Opus 20

The last years of the 19th century saw the Finnish composer and conductor Jean Sibelius' works heard more and more in Finland and outside of Finland as well. Sibelius was part of the artistic renaissance in Finland and  his reputation went beyond just a Finnish composer of Finnish music. He became a symbol of the struggles of Finland to free itself from Russia who had annexed the country and ruled over it for over 100 years. The turn of the century was keeping up with the trend as Sibelius took every opportunity to write Finnish inspired music.

Sibelius and his wife were separated over the New Year's celebration of 1900 because his wife was away at her brother's house, as his daughter had just died in a typhus epidemic.  A few weeks later the epidemic had reached the town of Kerava where Sibelius and his family lived, and on the 13th of February their 15-month old daughter Kirsti died. Aino took the other children away from Kerava and away from the epidemic. Kirsti was the youngest daughter and Sibelius was very attached to her. In March, Sibelius wrote to his wife:
I think very often of you, joy of my heart. If only you could get over it. I don't know what I ought to do. My dearest, don't look back on the past but forward. It is the only way to survive (or better; don't look forward, live in the present). The countryside is so beautiful and besides that you have the children and - I dare scarcely even to say - me.
Magnus Enckell
The death of his youngest daughter affected Sibelius profoundly. His drinking, a recurring problem for Sibelius, got worse after his daugher's death, His grief was such that he never spoke of Kristi again for the rest of his life. It was in the aftermath of this personal tragedy that Sibelius composed Malinconia For Cello And Piano.  The title likely reflects Sibelius' frame of mind at the time but Sibelius was also familiar with a painting he had seen at an art exhibition in 1895 by Magnus Enckell, a Finnish symbolist painter, titled Malinconia. Some writers  find a connection between the painting and the musical work, others do not. Perhaps it was a subconscious influence that helped shape Sibelius' piece.
It has been alleged by some that Sibelius wrote the complete piece in three hours. It was originally titled Fantasia and given its first performance on March 12, 1900.

Malinconia by Magnus Enckell
The work is in one continuous movement. A cello solo begins the work with an expressive outpouring that sets the tone for the short work. The work is tragic in the extreme with little in the way of themes. The brilliance of the piece is not for the sake of virtuosity, but for the sake of expression.  Arpeggios, broken chords, waterfalls of notes played by the piano all help to convey the emptiness of sorrow. There are rays of light in the piece, but they are few. The overwhelming mood of the music is sorrow laced with frustration and regret. The piece ends with the cello reaching into the depths of its range with tense trills while the piano rumbles in deep tones of its own.