Thursday, July 31, 2014

Arensky - Piano Concerto In F Minor

Anton Arensky wrote his piano concerto when he was a 20 year old student in his final year at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1881.  He was taught composition by Rimsky-Korsakov and upon graduating he took a position as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory where he taught Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. He returned to St. Petersburg after a few years as director of the Imperial Chapel. He retired from there after six years.

His composing became sporadic in his last few years as he suffered from tuberculosis that was aggravated by his addiction to alcohol and gambling. His old teach Rimsky-Korsakov said this about his student:
In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky. He will quickly be forgotten.
Arensky's music is not altogether forgotten, but the piano concerto comes close as it is seldom performed. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro maestoso -  The orchestra begins the movement with a loud statement followed immediately by the soloist. After the preliminaries the piano states the first theme, a not overly complicated theme but one suitable for the different guises it wears.  There are other short snatches of material that lead up to the lyrical second main theme played by the piano. The tone of the second theme changes from lyrical to strong and forthright, and after a short exchange between piano and orchestra the development section begins. The second theme appears at the end of the development and leads to a short cadenza. Both themes are repeated in the recapitulation, and a short coda ends the movement.

II. Andante con moto -  An introduction leads to the poetic main theme played by the piano.  A middle section is more dramatic and passionate, and after flourishes by the piano the poetic theme returns. The movement ends gently.

III. Scherzo - Finale: Allegro -  Arensky had a liking for odd time signatures, and he uses 5/4 time in this movement. There are two main themes in this sonata form movement, but Arensky doesn't develop them to any great extent. They show up near the end of the movement and the concerto ends with a simple cadence.

While he is more well known forhis chamber music, especially the Piano Trio No. 1, Arensky's piano concerto is an engaging work that mirrors the composers that inspired it, mainly Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and a smidgen of Grieg. It doesn't plumb the depths of emotion but it is well written, especially for a 20 year old student.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Vivaldi - Oboe Concerto In A Minor RV 461

Despite being one of the few Baroque composers that had an international reputation during his lifetime, Antonio Vivaldi's music was hardly known by anyone outside of musicologists and scholars until the 20th century.  Vivaldi had received commissions for music from European royalty and had twelve volumes of works published. These published works, such as the opus 3 set of violin concertos titled L'Estro Armonico published in 1711 helped establish his international career and influenced composers such as J.S. Bach.  Vivaldi ceased publishing his works strictly for monetary reasons. He made more money from handwritten copies than the printed ones.

Towards the end of his life his instrumental music had gone out of style in his native Venice. He concentrated on opera and traveled to Vienna in hopes of staging them, but the patron he counted on for a living until his operas could be performed died. Vivaldi was destitute when he died in Vienna at the age of 63 in 1741, and his music was promptly forgotten.

Vivaldi was almost unknown from his death in 1741 until 1926 when a boarding school run by Salesian Fathers in Piedmont, Italy discovered a large collection of music manuscripts in their archives. It was decided to sell the manuscripts to aid the school, and they called upon the National Library in Turin to determine their worth. A scholar at the University Of Turin asked for the manuscripts to be sent to him for inspection, the scholar determined that they were manuscripts of Vivaldi's music.

It took many years of work and extended research to catalog the manuscripts as well as track down some of the missing pages, with the work being delayed by the Second World War. But at the end of the war Vivaldi's music was being printed in a new edition that was distributed throughout the music loving world, and the Vivaldi revival had begun and research is still going on to identify and discover more of his music.

While many of Vivaldi's over 500 concertos were for violin, he also wrote for many different instruments and instrument combinations. His concertos for wind instruments are notable, and he wrote more than twenty for solo oboe. The oboe was a popular instrument in the Baroque era as it was an instrument used in the orchestras of Bach and Handel as well as in concertos.

The date of composition isn't known for the Oboe Concerto RV 461.  It is in three movements:

I. Allegro non molto - Vivaldi begins with the strings playing the initial statement. The oboe plays between statements of the ritornello. This concerto is slightly different in that the ritornello played by the strings is somewhat shorter than usual while the oboes solos are slightly longer.

II. Larghetto - The slow movements of Vivaldi's concertos vary in tempo and length. This slow movement is in a major key, short in length and provides a slight contrast to the two outer movements.

III. Allegro -  The music returns to A minor and the tempo quickens as oboe and strings play off one another.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wieniawski - Légende For Violin And Orchestra

Henryk Wieniawski was one of the most famous of the 19th century violin virtuosos, and like many virtuosos of the time he composed music for his own use. While he spent some years as a teacher, Wieniawski lived the life of a traveling virtuoso for most of his life, which was not the most conducive style of life for composing as he has only 24 opus numbers to his credit, but some of those pieces are staples of the literature for the violin.

He composed his Légende For Violin And Orchestra in Leipzig before he accepted an invitation from Anton Rubinstein to come to St. Petersburg to perform and teach. The story behind the composition is a romantic one. Wieniawski wanted to marry Isabella Hampton, but her parents did not think marrying a traveling musician would be good for their daughter and made their disapproval known. Isabella's parents heard Wieniawski play the piece in concert and as a result the beauty and heart-felt emotion of the piece changed their minds. Wieniawski and Isabella were married in 1860 with the parent's blessing.

The work is in ternary form with the first section in the key of G minor. Playing andante, two bassoons begin the work in a mood of tense motion, playing in tandem a 6th apart.  The soloist enters and plays a melancholy theme while the orchestra lightly accompanies with fragments of the tense motive first played by the bassoons. The bassoons return and the first section repeats itself until the soloist takes up the tense motion of the bassoons which leads to the second section of the work. This middle section is in two beats to the bar, the key changes to G major and the tempo changes to allegro moderato.  The mood of the music has changed as the orchestra plays in a march-like rhythm while the soloist outlines a new theme in double stops and chords. This new theme continues until it reaches a climax in the orchestra. After a chromatic downward scale for the soloist and short transitional material, the music reverts back to three in a bar, G minor and andante tempo as the first section is repeated.  The soloist once again plays the tense motive of the bassoons which leads to the orchestra playing a soft accompaniment while the soloist plays gentle arpeggios. Everything slows as the soloist reaches a G high in the stratosphere of the violin's range, and the music softly ends.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Draeseke - Piano Concerto In E-flat Major

While Felix Draeseke was a student at the Leipzig Conservatory his ardent admiration of the music of Richard Wagner shook up the conservative establishment of the school. He ended up leaving the conservatory in 1855 and in 1857 wrote essays on the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. Draeseke defended Liszt's music with fervor and courage, but his was not merely an empty advocacy. He addressed many of the charges against Liszt directly with the knowledge and ability that a modern musicologist would. His essays about Liszt and his music are some of the most definitive ones ever written until the 20th century. Liszt met him, took an interest in his music and expressed his gratitude for the essays. They remained friends until Liszt's death in 1886.

Draeseke's admiration for Wagner evidently was not reciprocated by Wagner, who detested Draeseke's music. Wagner did spend some time with Draeseke (at the request of Liszt) and came to like him as a man while still disliking his music. After Draeseke moved to Dresden in 1876 he slowly lost interest in the New Music of Wagner. Before that he had already disapproved strongly to Wagner the man after Wagner and Liszt's daughter Cosima began living together (she was still married to Hans von Bülow at the time).  Draeseke  gradually became more conservative while in Dresden, so much so that after Liszt heard some of his current compositions remarked that "It seems our lion has turned into a rabbit." His only piano concerto was written in 1885-1886. It was premiered in June of 1886 with Liszt attending. It was the last time the two friends would meet as Liszt died six weeks later.

The concerto has the traditional three movement structure:

I. Allegro moderato -  The main theme of the movement is played straight away by the orchestra. The soloist interrupts the theme with octave runs up the keyboard. The soloist then plays a short cadenza. The theme returns in the orchestra, as well as the soloist's octave runs followed by another short cadenza. This theme accounts for much of the movement's material, as Draeseke uses Liszt's thematic transformation technique.  Orchestra and soloist explore the theme at length until a brilliant coda ends the movement.

II. Adagio -  The piano plays an extended solo that begins with a long theme that resembles a hymn. An interlude follows for muted strings. The piano then begins a set of variations on the hymn theme as the cellos and double basses add a very subtle accompaniment. The second variation is marked scherzando as cellos and basses play pizzicato along with occasional coloring by the woodwinds. The third variation has the orchestra play the theme with interrupting comments by the soloist. There is then a section for soloist and orchestra that is more of an interlude than a variation which leads to an extended interlude for solo piano. This leads to the next variation proper of the theme, again by the piano playing solo. The orchestra enters and continues playing this variation as the piano plays a rippling accompaniment. The piano plays a short lead in to the next variation where Draeseke shows his orchestrating skill and feeling for tonal color as he  divides first and second violins and has them play the theme and light contrapuntal accompaniment while the piano plays pianissimo three note figures high in the piano's register. This variation proceeds with magical effect until the piano plays a short cadenza that leads to the peaceful close of the movement. 

III. Allegro molto vivace -  A loud, powerful outburst from the orchestra and soloist begins the final movement. After the piano plays a short solo, the orchestra joins the piano in the initial statement of the main theme. The second theme that maintains the dance-like atmosphere is heard in the piano and taken up by the orchestra. These two themes also adhere to the thematic transformation technique as they are thoroughly explored in the movement. The feeling of constant movement, sometimes to the point of  massive rushing, is finally resolved in a brilliant ending that is drenched in the home key of E-flat major.

Draeseke's music was popular during his lifetime and at one point he was held as an equal to Brahms as a symphonist.  He composed for the rest of his life. He had ongoing serious ear infections for most of his life and spent the last two years of his life almost totally deaf. He died in 1913 at the age of 77.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bach - Violin Concerto In E Major BWV 1042

Johann Sebastian Bach spent 6 years as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, which was a small town in Northern Germany. Despite the small backwater location, Bach's employer was a music lover of the first order who collected first-rate musicians for his band. The prince was mostly interested in secular music so many of Bach's instrumental works may have been written while he was there.

Bach was an eternal student and studied the works of many different composers by copying their works out for his own use. It was a method he had used since he was a child and copied out other composer's music by moonlight from a book of his brothers. Bach got in hot water for the deed as his brother had forbade him access to the book, but Bach's curiosity trumped his brother's orders.Bach had been an admirer of Vivaldi's music before he went to Cöthen, but while he was there he wrote concertos in the Italian model of three movements versus the old concerto grosso form of four movements.

There are only two concertos for violin that can be authenticated, and one concerto for two violins. Scholars believe he wrote more than that, and that most of his harpsichord concertos were arrangements of what were originally written as violin concertos.  There is no positive indication that Bach himself played his violin concertos as soloist, but it is known that he could play the violin, as his son C.P.E. Bach wrote:
As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness. In his youth, and until the approach of old age, he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord. He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments.
 Violin Concerto In  E Major BWV was composed sometime between 1721-1723 and is in three movements:

I. Allegro - Bach begins the work by drenching the music in E major, as the first measure has each of its
Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen
three beats play the notes of the E major triad.  Bach has the soloist play almost continually, either playing the same notes as the first violins or as soloist. Bach follows the ritornello form of a Vivaldi concerto in general, but Bach has a few surprises for the listener. Many time a concerto movement in ritornello form has the tutti and soloist alternate in playing material, but Bach interlaces the two as he expands the material heard at the beginning. After the material has been worked out in a type of development section, there is a short cadenza for the soloist, after which the entire first section of the movement is repeated, thus making the first movement a hybrid form of  da capo aria and ritornello.

II. Adagio - Written in C-sharp minor, the main theme is first heard in the bass at the beginning and continues throughout the movement save for a few short sections. The theme doesn't leave the bass, but there are fragments of it that appear in the solo part.  The music of the solo violin slowly floats its music over the accompaniment in a most beautiful aria.

III. Allegro assai -  The final movement has Bach write in another hybrid type of form that contains elements of ritornello and rondo form. The theme remains in E major and is repeated by the orchestra between contrasting episodes for the soloist.

Handel - Organ Concerto In D Minor, HWV 304

With modern day technology and state of the art communication capabilities, events that happen anywhere can be flashed across the world for all to know as soon as they happen, often times while the event is still happening.  But the speed at which this can happen is a relatively modern thing. Not that many years ago the communication capabilities we now take for granted did not exist. Within my own lifetime the strides in communication technology have been tremendous.  Looking back to the time of the Baroque era composers, a time period that corresponds roughly the years 1600-1750,  it may appear that it was a primitive time, for without modern means of communication the 'world' for most people was the distance they could walk or ride a horse in a day.

But the arrogance of modern times can prevent us from understanding that there was and has been a great deal of communication between different regions of the world for many centuries. Of course one of the main differences between now and then is the time it took to travel or communicate. A trip across the open sea took months (or longer)  in a wind-driven ship, but exploration (most often fueled by commerce) assured that sooner or later the world would be interconnected. 

In Europe in the middle of the 18th century, the dissemination of music was greatly aided by the advances in music printing made in Italy, and soon the music styles of different countries that had evolved were being discovered by musicians. J.S. Bach knew of the latest trends in French and Italian music, and composers such as Vivaldi were having an impact on the music of other countries.  The German composer Georg Philip Telemann's music was also being widely distributed with the printing of his Tafelmusik or Table Music, a multi-volume set of music pieces in most of the genres of the Baroque era; vocal works, sonatas, suites and overtures. As most of these works were for small ensembles (the Baroque orchestra itself seldom had more than eighteen players), tradition had it that they might be performed as background music while the aristocracy dined and entertained.  As Telemann was also a shrewd businessman, he may have used the traditional title with the thought of improving sales.

Georg Telemann
Telemann engraved and published these works himself. They were issued in separate volumes and those that could afford them subscribed to the ongoing series. They were printed in Hamburg, and Telemann had over 250 subscribers to the collection, with many outside of Germany. No doubt the new installments came to the subscribers at a snail's pace, but they did arrive. One of the non-German subscribers lived in London, England; George Handel.

All of which is by way of introduction to the Organ Concerto In D Minor, HWV 304.  Handel used parts of Telemann's Tafelmusik to create this organ concerto. Handel was notorious for cribbing previously written music (sometimes his own, sometimes others) for his new compositions. Music was a fleeting commodity at the time. The public was hungry for new music; music was only good for a single performance in some cases, and Handel was nothing if not a composer for the public. So the dictates of time, and the conventions of the era, led him to borrow and otherwise arrange music for his own use.

Handel's appearance at the organ during intermissions of his operas and oratorios probably sold as many tickets as the operas or oratorios themselves.  He wrote the concerto in 1746 for use with the premiere of his new oratorio Occasional Oratorio (which was put together slap-dash and contained some of Telemann's music, with most of it previously written music by Handel).  Contrary to Handel's usual practice of following the 4-movement concerto grosso form for his organ concertos, this one is in three movements:

Andante - This movement is taken from the opening movement of Telemann's Flute Sonata from Tafelmusik Part One.  The original is in B minor, Handel transcribes his arrangement to D minor.

Organo ad libitum - Fuga -  As the organ concertos were for Handel's own use, there is usually a movement in each that is so marked. In the spirit of the organ concertos, this was the time for Handel to showcase his tremendous organ playing and extemporizing abilities, so stylistically this movement needs to be of a substantial length. Handel would hardly play a few chords to lead up to the next movement. He was more of a showman than that. Handel was inconsistent as to what he wrote out for the organist to play. Sometimes he wrote out a figured bass, sometimes the melody, in some of his personal copies of the concertos he jotted down a few scribbles to help him remember, and sometimes he wrote out nothing. It is up to the player to fill in, and as there was only one Handel, the ad libitum sections in an organ concerto can be something of a problem that is solved by various means. Some players are up to the task to invent what amounts to a cadenza for soloist, while others opt to play other music that Handel wrote.  No single approach is ideal, that is why performances of the organ concertos can vary widely in the approach the organist takes.

Allegro - The final movement is taken from 4th movement of the same flute sonata. It is in 9/8 time, and has the character of a gigue, or jig, a typical form used for the end movement of a suite or other multi-movement work in the Baroque era.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spohr - Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor 'In modo di scena cantante'

Although few of his compositions are played today, Louis Spohr was a well respected and highly regarded violinist, conductor and composer in the early 19th century.  He wrote nearly 300 works in all musical genres but what reputation he still has is founded on his works for clarinet and orchestra and the violin concertos.

From 1803 to 1844 Spohr wrote 18 concertos for violin, of which only one is played with spring regularity, the Violin Concerto No. 8 In A Minor.  The subtitle of the concerto is Italian and translates as In the form of an operatic scene. Spohr was a contemporary of Paganini who tried to steer the concerto form away from the glitter and artificial technical display that was overtaking the form early in the century. While Paganini's Violin Concertos were not merely empty display pieces, Paganini did write his share of bravura passages for the soloist in them, thus Spohr made a conscious effort to counter the tendency other violinist composer's had to emulate Paganini. In his later concertos he attempted to create profound and memorable works by other means than empty display.

The 8th Concerto was written for a specific audience in mind, as Spohr was about to embark on a tour of Italy. He made the assumption that since Italy was the land of opera, it would be difficult to keep the attention of the Italian audiences with a more conventional concerto. He wrote the work as if the violin were a singer, and also kept the orchestral accompaniment uncomplicated as he had heard the orchestras in Italy were not as proficient as in France or Germany. The work was premiered at La Scala in Milan, and as Spohr wrote in his autobiography:
Uncertainty about how my playing and my compositions would please the Italians left me somewhat anxious … but with the first measures I noted that the audience was receptive. My anxiety disappeared, and I played without inhibition.
The concerto is in three main sections that are played without a break:

Recitative - Allegro molto - The work begins with a statement by the orchestra which is answered by an operatic-like recitative by the soloist.  The soloist continues to answer statements by the orchestra in this first section until a short transition leads directly to the next section.

Adagio - Recitative: Andante -  The orchestra plays preliminary material that is followed by the soloist's aria that is lightly accompanied. A contrasting section consists of a quickening of the tempo as the soloist plays in the low register of the violin. The aria returns and its closing leads to another recitative for the soloist. The final section follows without a break.

Allegro moderato - A full blooded theme is first presented by the orchestra. A short section of counterpoint leads to other thematic material for the orchestra. The soloist enters with the first theme, after which the second theme that consists of passage work for the soloist is played. The soloist and orchestra explore new thematic material until a recapitulation begins, after which a fragment of the first theme leads to a cadenza for the soloist.  The concerto's loose ends are tied up by the orchestra in a short ending.

Spohr was an important transitional composer who had one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era. The quite novel and nontraditional form that Spohr used in the 8th violin concerto influenced many later composers. Spohr seems to have been a very happy family man, far removed from the Romantic notion of the suffering artist.  He had a general curiosity about many things and at one time was one of the most popular composers and performers in Europe.

The time in which he lived was a time of upheaval in the arts as well as society. The European Revolutions of 1848 were a direct result of those upheavals, and along with his other interests Spohr was also a liberal believer in democracy and wasn't afraid to voice his disagreement with the repression and brutality that was common in his time.  The fact that he was physically a large man may have helped him be open with his thoughts. In an era when any man six feet tall was considered large, Spohr was six foot six and had large athletic hands that made the violin look small. This no doubt also helped him in his career as a conductor. The sight of him towering over the orchestra when he was on the podium must have been impressive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Brahms - Double Concerto In A Minor

Johannes Brahms was born and grew up in Hamburg Germany, a port city that had (and still does) some rough edges. As an adult, Brahms' personality was quite rough around the edges too. Whether this was due to events of his childhood is still under debate. Whether there will ever be any concrete evidence for any causes for his personality quirks, there is no denying he could be a difficult man to get along with, even with his oldest and dearest friends.

His dear friend, colleague and master violinist Joseph Joachim had been a friend since they first met when Brahms was nineteen years old.  There is bound to be friction between two such remarkably talented artists, but the major riff between them had nothing to do with music. Joachim, evidently a very jealous and suspicious husband,  had accused his wife of infidelity. Brahms wrote the wife a consoling letter telling her he believed she was innocent of the charges, and years later when Joachim sued for divorce Brahms' letter was read in court and helped the court to decide in her favor. It was the first Joachim had heard about the letter, and he became furious. He didn't speak to Brahms or associate with him for years, but continued playing and promoting Brahms' music.

Joseph Joachim
When Brahms offered Joachim the premiere of his Double Concerto four years later, Joachim relented and accepted.  Joachim, cellist Robert Hausmann and Brahms conducting performed the premiere of the work in October 1887.  Reviews of the work were mixed, not least of all from some of Brahms other friends. But Joachim was delighted with the work. The Double Concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The orchestra opens the work with a powerful but short statement. The cello enters with more introductory material until the orchestra winds silence the cello's passion with the first theme of the movement. Both of the soloists play their version of the theme, after which the orchestra returns with more thematic material. Brahms, a composer that was accused of being over-academic, changes thematic material each time it is repeated, a process Schoenberg called developing variation. Brahms was an academic in the sense that he revered and used the older forms of music, but he made changes within the form to suit the purpose of expressing himself.  The soloists play thematic material and the variations with and against each other while being accompanied by an orchestra that also does the same with the soloists.

II. Andante - Two measures of introduction lead to the statement of the main theme by soloists and strings:
The first bar of the initial 4-bar phrase of this theme gives the impression on the ear as if it is two beats in a bar - that is two 3-note triplets, contrary to the 3/4 time signature. The second bar returns to three in a bar, the equivalent of an optical illusion, but of the ear.  Brahms excelled at these subtle but effective methods of metrical shifts, especially in his later works. This gives a feeling of ambiguity to the basic meter of the movement that adds a richness to a melody that at first sounds like a lullaby. The movement has a slightly contrasting middle section before the theme returns, and as was Brahms' way, it isn't repeated verbatim.

III. Vivace non troppo -  Brahms had a fondness for dance music, especially Gypsy dance music. The main theme of this rondo/sonata hybrid is rhythmically strong, vibrant and is heard immediately in turn by first the cello and then violin.  There's much going on throughout the movement, with some of the thematic material turning reflective in nature, a characteristic found in most of Brahms late works.

The Double Concerto was Brahms final work for orchestra. The last years of his life were devoted to chamber music, music for voice and music for piano.  Brahms and Joachim remained on cordial terms for the rest of Brahms life, but they no longer had the same kind of friendship as before the riff.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 2 In G Minor

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his second piano concerto in 1868, ten years after writing his first piano concerto. By this time Saint-Saëns had met and worked with many of the leading composers of the time. He had been introduced to Liszt years before and the two became friends.  While Saint-Saëns was professor of piano at a French music school he caused a furor when he upset the usually conservative repertoire offered to students by including works of contemporary composers.

The reputation of musical conservative still follows Saint-Saëns, but that came about later in his long life when he became increasingly curmudgeonly towards Debussy and other younger composers. In his younger days Saint-Saëns was known as an innovator, with the second concerto being a good example.

The second piano concerto was written at the request of another one of Saint-Saëns' composer acquaintances, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was in the process of developing his reputation as a conductor. Saint-Saëns wrote the work in three weeks, and the premiere of the concerto happened so soon after completion of the work that Saint-Saëns complained that he had insufficient time to practice the work, as he was the soloist.  The concerto got a mixed reception at the premiere, but it went on to become Saint-Saëns most popular work for piano and orchestra and is still in the repertoire. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Andante sustenuto -  While Saint-Saëns first concerto kept to a classical model of a piano concerto, the second concerto shows its differences immediately as the soloist plays an extended cadenza in the very beginning of the first movement. The piano continues until the orchestra interrupts the cadenza with two loud chords and a short episode that prepares the way for the hearing of the first theme played by the solo piano.  The piano repeats the theme with orchestra accompaniment, after which orchestra and soloist engage in a dramatic dialogue, after which the music becomes more serene as the second theme is presented by piano and orchestra. The second theme expands slowly until it dissolves into a slowly building dramatic section. The piano thunders out octaves and the first theme returns.  The soloist introduces new material in another cadenza until material from the opening of the movement returns in hushed tones. The tension and drama change suddenly as the soloist plays forte, the orchestra repeats the loud chords from the beginning, and orchestra and piano join in as the movement ends.

II. Allegro scherzando - In an extreme example of contrast between movements, the second movement begins with a quiet rhythmic figure on the timpani. The soloist and orchestra take turns in a Mendelssohnian scherzo, with the first theme seeing the soloist playing fleet of finger figures with a light and rhythmic accompaniment. The second theme is first played by orchestra while the piano accompanies. The music remains light and delicate while themes come and go, until the woodwinds and timpani enter into a short dialogue based on the rhythmic motive of the opening. Everything winds down to a quiet ending.

III. Presto - Saint-Saëns returns to G minor for the last movement, a tarantella of great speed and passion. The main theme is repeated between episodes of other material, but as with the previous two movement Saint-Saëns made something different of the form. The tarantella eventually takes over as the piano frantically scrambles towards the end of the work with the orchestra running alongside until the thundering chords of the orchestra and running notes of the piano end the work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Weber - Concertino For Horn In E Minor

Carl Maria von Weber was an early Romantic composer that had a tremendous influence on other musicians in the 19th century.  He was primarily an opera composer, but he wrote works in other forms as well,  particularly solo concertos for piano and other instruments.

Weber wrote a total of 15 concertos, with 7 for wind instruments, some of which are still in the repertoire and are studied by wind instrument students. One of his more curious solo concertos is the Concertino For Horn In E Minor. Weber was fond of the horn and used it to good effect in his operas, but as with many composers he consulted experienced horn players when he was writing the concertino in 1806. He revised the concertino for a different player in 1816.

Horn virtuosos of the day performed the work on the natural horn which consists of a tube over twenty feet long that had a bell at one end and a mouthpiece at the other.  Changes in pitch were accomplished with lip tension and by the insertion of a hand in the bell. Extra pieces of tubing called crooks had to be added or removed from the instrument to allow it to play in different keys, something that composers had to account for in their scores as any time a horn was to change the key in which it played there had to be sufficient time to change the crook.  Valves began to be used on horns around 1818 but it took some time for them to be accepted by older players and composers. Weber's concertino is now played on the modern valved horn, but it is still a very difficult piece to bring off. The concertino is in 4 sections:

I. Adagio - The orchestra begins by playing two chords, after which the soloist enters. This short section acts as an introduction to the work. The soloist plunges to the bottom of the instruments register that leads the music directly to the next section.

II. Andante con moto - The horn plays a theme that is also taken up by the orchestra. This section is a set of variations on this theme. The first variation is a slightly decorated version of the theme. After each variation by the horn the orchestra plays a short version. The second variation has the soloist making great leaps and arpeggios. The third variation increases the decoration of the theme with faster notes and more arpeggios.  The difficulties for the horn player increase yet again in the fourth variation. The orchestra leads directly to the next section.

III. Recitative - adagio - Weber treats the horn as a vocalist in one of his operas as it plays sad, sometimes dramatic material while the orchestra punctuates the soloist. Towards the end of the third section, the horn plays unaccompanied, at least by any other instrument. After some notes that are at the very bottom of the range of the horn, Weber instructs the soloist to hum a note as another note is played. This gives the effect of the horn playing a chord, a four-note chord is notated in the score. A note played on the horn is held while alternating notes are hummed into the instrument. A quiet timpani roll brings the strange sounds of a horn accompanying itself to a close and leads to the final section.

IV. Alla polacca -  The horn plays a polonaise, a Polish dance that was something of a craze of the times.  The horn and orchestra take turns the polonaise between short interludes of other themes. The horn part continues on its virtuosic way, until it plays a string of trills (notoriously difficult on the natural horn). With one last trill for the soloist. the orchestra brings Weber's tour de force for the horn to a close.

Along with a video of a soloist playing the piece on a modern horn, beneath it there is a video of the same concertino being played on a natural horn.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Flute Concerto In D Minor Wq. 22

Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach spent thirty yeas in the employ of Frederick The Great, king of Prussia. His duties were not over taxing, (he played continuo for the King's nightly playing of flute sonatas and concertos) so he had ample time to devote to composition. It was while he was employed at the court in Berlin that he wrote copiously for keyboard, including two sets of published sonatas.

It was while Bach was in Berlin that he also wrote the Concerto In D Minor For Flute, perhaps as early as 1747.  There is evidence that the same music was used in an arrangement for a keyboard concerto, but there is some disagreement among musicologists as to which version was the original and which was the arrangement.  In either case, the flute version probably gave his Royal Highness fits trying to play it.  The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The orchestra begins by playing the themes of the movement. The soloist enters and gives its own more decorated renditions of the themes. The orchestra repeats the themes before the flute develops them with added ornamentation and key changes.  The main rhythmic theme is alternated with the soloist's statements as Bach keeps the momentum going to the end of the movement.

II. Un poco andante - A movement of smooth elegance that is not without sections of subdued drama for the soloist. Bach gives the soloist an opportunity for a cadenza shortly before the movement ends.

III. Allegro di molto - The movement begins in a whirl of rapidity that is maintained throughout. The music is a harbinger of the Sturm und Drang style of music  that would come into fashion later in the 18th century.  The opening theme returns throughout the movement and leads the soloist to run to keep up with the orchestra in music of great virtuosity and drama. The orchestra has the last word with a final statement of the main theme followed by an abrupt ending.

Bach took up the position of Cantor and Director of Music at Hamburg in 1768, and in his autobiography of 1777 he expressed his disappointment and frustration during his time in Berlin. Bach had gained the reputation of one of the great keyboard players in Europe early on, but it was his compositions that probably held him back from being more appreciated at court. As Annette Richards, organist, musicologist and authority on 17th and 18th century music has written:
Outside music, the cultural references of JS Bach were more or less exclusively theological. But with CPE Bach, things are completely different. Engaged with poets, painters, philosophers, his music is a reflection of the burgeoning secular discourse of his time.  Even among his contemporaries you get a sense that CPE Bach is an acquired taste. His music – or the music he considered representative of his talents – is miles away from the elegance and balance we associate with this period. Timelines are crisscrossed, he is endlessly stopping and starting, wrong-footing the listener and causing his audience to reconsider its relation to the music. In that sense, it's very postmodern, a kind of meta-music.
The composer himself had something to say about his style and originality in his autobiography:
Because I have had to compose most of my works for specific individuals and for the public, I have always been more restrained in them than in the few pieces that I have written merely for myself. At times I even have had to follow ridiculous instructions, although it could be that such not exactly pleasant conditions have led my talents to certain discoveries that I might not otherwise have come upon. Since I have never liked excessive uniformity in composition and taste, since I have heard such a quantity and variety of good [things], since I have always been of the opinion that one could derive some good, whatever it may be even if it is only a matter of minute details in a piece, probably from such [considerations] and my natural, God-given ability arises the variety that has been observed in my works…..Among all my works, especially for keyboard, there are only a few trios, solos, and concertos that I have composed in complete freedom and for my particular use.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Liszt - Piano Concerto No. 2 In A Major

Franz Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto was published in 1863, but sketches for the work went back as far as 1839 when he was still touring Europe as a piano virtuoso.  During the intervening years between the initial ideas for the concerto and the final version, Liszt had retired from the concert platform and accepted the  directorship of music at the Wiemar court where he gained experience not only as a composer, but as an orchestral conductor.

A comparison between the 1st Piano Concerto In E-flat Major  and the 2nd Concerto Piano Concerto In A Major show how Liszt had changed as a composer and an artist. While the solo part for the 1st Piano Concerto is overtly virtuosic, the difficulties in the solo part of the 2nd Concerto are not as obvious. While both concertos are played without a break, the first nonetheless falls into four distinct sections, while the seams are not quite so obvious in the 2nd concerto. Liszt attempted to integrate piano and orchestra even more in the 2nd than the 1st concerto, and used the Concerto Symphonique compositions of Henry Litolff as models.  Liszt was well acquainted with Litolff's works for piano and orchestra, and also knew Litolff personally. Liszt dedicated the 1st Piano Concerto to Litolff, and wrote Concerto Symphonique on the manuscript of the 2nd Piano Concerto.

The late music critic Michael Steinberg summed up the difference between the 1st and 2nd piano concertos when he wrote :
The Concerto No. 1 is an octaves-and-glitter piece with small poetic ambition. The Concerto No. 2 is another matter. Liszt is sparing with devices guaranteed to bring down the house...even more important is the pervasiveness of a manner, a tone, that asks listeners for concentrated attention and delicacy of response. An expert keyboard athlete can make a go of the First Concerto. The Second Concerto is for poets...
The 2nd Piano Concerto is in one continuous movement that contains six sections:

I. Adagio sostenuto assai - The primary theme of the entire work is heard directly from the woodwinds in a quiet progression of chords. After the clarinet plays the theme, the piano accompanies the strings in presenting the theme. Liszt immediately begins to embellish and transform the theme in the solo part, as other secondary themes appear, sometimes in the piano, sometimes in the orchestra. The piano makes a run to the depths of the piano's range in a short solo that leads to another variant of the main theme. The give and take between piano and orchestra continues and leads directly to the next section.

II. Allegro agitato assai - A scherzo that has Liszt going far away from the home key of A major. A variant of the main theme leads to the next section.

III. Allegro moderato -  The main theme is taken up by the cello with piano accompaniment in this lyrical section. The piano trades off with the cello woodwinds in music that sings in a mellow mood.

IV. Allegro deciso - The transformation of the main theme continues, and other secondary themes reappear, also in different guises. A short transition leads the way to the next section

V. Marziale un poco meno allegro -  The main theme is transformed into a march. The strongly rhythmic variant serves to bring the music back to the home key of A major. After the march the transformations continue and lead to the final section.

VI. Allegro animato - A coda to the concerto, the piano and orchestra continue their partnership as the music changes in mood and character. Glissandos in the solo part punctuate the unbuttoned joy of the final comments on the main theme and a few secondary ones. The orchestra and soloist play passages that lead to the final chords.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Handel - Organ Concerto In D Minor Opus 7, No. 4 HWV 309

George Handel's Opus 7 set of six organ concertos was published after Handel's death by his publisher John Walsh of London.  Whether Handel intended to publish them isn't known, but Walsh wanted to capitalize on Handel's reputation as soon as he could, for in those times music was a commodity that had a very short shelf life. Audiences not only expected but demanded new music, and a lot of it. The fickle public could turn its back on a composer soon enough when they were still alive, even sooner after their death.  Music publishers of the time could be notorious in their efforts to turn a quick profit on a composer's works. There was no copyright laws, and publishers thought nothing of printing editions of music that they never paid the composer for.

Walsh may have pieced together some of the concertos from Handel's other compositions, but Handel himself did this as well, as did many composers of the time. The music used in the six concertos was written roughly between 1738 and 1751.

Handel wrote the concertos for a specific purpose; as entertainment for the audiences of his operas and oratorios during intermissions. These concertos were used as drawing cards, kind of an extra bonus to entice listeners to attend the opera or oratorio.  An advertisement for a Handel oratorio concert that ran in the London Daily Post on the 5th of March 1735 made mention of the performance of two concertos:
At the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, this present Wednesday .... will be perform’d an Oratorio, call’d Aesther. With several New Additional Songs; likewise two new Concertos on the Organ.
Handel was a virtuoso organist, and his powers of improvisation were put to good use, as he would sketch out the orchestral parts in score and improvise much of the organ part. The concerto is in the form of a sonata chiesa and has four movements:

Adagio - The first movement begins with the orchestra playing a slow, noble theme. The soloist enters and comments on the theme with the strings providing a light, occassional accompaniment.
Allegro -  Handel follows the pattern of a sonata chiesa as the next movement is quicker of tempo and lighter in mood.
Adagio (Organo ad libitum) - Handel did not notate any music for this movement, but left the entire third movement to improvisations from the organist, which would have been Handel himself when these concertos were first played.
Allegro - A favorite of Handel's for he first used the tune in a concerto for violin over twenty years prior.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Beethoven - Triple Concerto In C Major

The tradition of the Baroque concerto grosso, a form where a small group of soloists were juxtaposed with the orchestra, was carried on into the Classical era by composers, most notably Mozart. He wrote works for more than one soloist and orchestra and called them Sinfonia Concertante.  These works were considered a sort of hybrid between a symphony and concerto, but the main difference was that the Baroque concerto grosso had some movements written in ritornello form while the sinfonia concertante used sonata form. Beethoven's Triple Concerto (also known as Concerto For Violin, Cello, Piano and Orchestra) was written in 1803 (also the year in which he composed the Third Symphony).

Anton Schindler, Beethoven's first biographer, secretary and acquaintance, claimed that the Triple Concerto was written for Beethoven's young royal pupil Archduke Rudolf (the same Archduke that Beethoven dedicated his Piano Trio In B-flat Major, Opus 97 to). The piano part of the concerto does not equal the difficulty of the other soloists, a fact that has lead some to agree with Schindler, as the Ardchduke was a young teenager when the concerto was written and would not have had the technique for anything more difficult.  But Beethoven scholars have shown over the years that Schindler was a man whose words needed to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no evidence that the Archduke ever played the work (which is not to say that he didn't) which had its first public performance in 1808. When it was published, the concerto had a dedication to someone else, another one of Beethoven's royal patrons, Prince Lobkowitz, but Beethoven could be fickle (not to mention absentminded) about such things. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro -  The concerto begins quietly and gradually builds in volume.  There are three main themes introduced by the orchestra alone. The cello is the first soloist to enter with the first theme. Violin and cello expand upon the first theme, and the piano enters with the theme.  Each of the soloists has a turn with the three themes, or parts of them. The development gives the trio of soloists further opportunity to dialogue with each other.  The orchestra asserts itself a few times but for the most part remains in the background.  The recapitulation has the soloists review the themes, which leads to a coda that quickens the tempo and while the orchestra plays full chords the soloists bring the movement to a close.

II. Largo -  The orchestra begins this movement (in the key of A-flat major) in a solemn, quiet mood. The cello enters with the theme of the movement, the piano embellishes it. The violin and cello play the theme in a duet as the piano gently accompanies. A short, dark section for orchestra leads to the soloists playing fragments of other themes, which leads to the last movement without pause.

III.  Rondo alla polacca -  As with the first two movements, the cello is the first soloist to play the main theme of this movement which is in the style of a polonaise, a Polish dance. Themes abound in this movement, all of them rhythmically in keeping with the 'polacca' designation. The music takes a minor key turn as the soloists take turns playing thematic material and accompaniment while the orchestra adds color. The polonaise returns, has its say until the tempo quickens.  The soloists play together without the orchestra, and then the soloists wind up the movement by playing rapid figures as the orchestra supplies the punctuation until the end.

Writing for three soloists offered Beethoven many challenges, not least of which was how to have each soloist shine without making the work too long or undermining form. Compared to the 'Waldstein' and 'Appassionata' piano sonatas  and the Third Symphony that he was composing at about the same time, the Triple Concerto may appear small potatoes to some.  But the Triple Concerto has to be looked at (and heard) in a different way. Beethoven did more than extend the concerto grosso and sinfonia concertante traditions with this work. There is a kind of synthesis between concerto, symphony and chamber music (specifically in  the form of the piano trio). This is a quite remarkable achievement, a showcase of Beethoven's huge talent and craftsmanship that's hardly small potatoes.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mozart - Bassoon Concerto In B-flat Major K. 191/186e

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's only existing bassoon concerto was written in 1774 when he was eighteen years old.  He was already an experienced composer with over 25 symphonies, a dozen string quartets and a few Italian operas to his credit, but this was his first attempt at a concerto for woodwinds. Many times composers would write concertos with a specific soloist in mind, so he may have written it for one of the Salzburg orchestra's bassoonists, or possibly a rich amateur bassoonist, but there is no evidence one way or the other.

The bassoon that Mozart wrote for was much different than the modern bassoon in that there were only four or five keys on the instrument, which made some of the semitones and chromatic runs difficult to play in tune.  Mozart understood the instrument very well, as he writes most of the solo part in the singing tenor part of the instrument's range, although he does showcase the rich low notes occasionally.

The solo part is still challenging enough for the instrument that excerpts from the concerto are used as audition material for orchestral tryouts to this day.  The concerto is written for soloist, two oboes, two horns, and the usual compliment of strings. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro -  Mozart shows his mastery of sonata form in the first movement as the orchestra introduces the two themes. The first begins straight away, with the two horns heard prominently. The second theme begins seamlessly after the first and is slightly different in character, after which a short motif leads to the entrance of the soloist, who enters with a decorated version of the first theme. Rapid arpeggios, notes low in the range of the instrument and rapid repeated notes are just a few of the challenges for the soloist.  The second theme also gets expanded by the soloist. A short development section leads to a short bassoon solo before the recapitulation. A cadenza for the soloist leads to the final statement by the orchestra.

II. Andante ma Adagio - The bassoon's flexibility as a singing instrument is showcased in this movement. The unique tempo indication means at a moving pace but slowly, a nuanced instruction for the time.  The strings are muted, the soloist again plays mostly in the tenor range with a few low notes for the sake of expression.

III. Rondo: tempo di menuetto - The movement begins in the form as well as the tempo of a minuet, but when the soloist enters its clear that this is a rondo.  There are two episodes and two short repeats of the minuet before the soloist gets a chance to play the minuet. After a very short solo for the bassoon the orchestra plays the minuet once more and ends the work 
  Mozart .

Monday, July 7, 2014

Bruch - Violin Concerto No. 1 In G Minor

While many concertos for violin were written by virtuoso violinists, the acknowledged masterpieces of the genre were written by non-violinist composers. There are of course exceptions, such as Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2 In D Minor, but the violin concertos of  Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky are the acknowledged masterpieces of the genre. While these composers were not virtuosos of the instrument, often times they had the assistance of violinists who gave them advice on the technical aspects of their works.

Another of the non-violinist composers was Max Bruch, who finished composing his popular Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1866, although the concerto was begun as early as 1857.  Bruch also had a violinist assist him in the technical aspect of the solo part, Johann Naret-Koning, the concertmaster of the Mannheim Orchestra. Bruch conducted the premiere later in 1866, and made substantial revisions to the work shortly thereafter. The violinist who gave Bruch help with the revision was Joseph Joachim, who twelve years later gave advice to Brahms on his violin concerto. Bruch's revised concerto was given its first performance by Joachim,and it was a rousing success. It was not only Bruch's first major composition for orchestra, but was the work that brought him his earliest fame.

As with any exceedingly popular work, the first violin concerto came to overshadow Bruch's other compositions, especially those for violin and orchestra. He composed two more concertos for violin, but neither came close to the popularity of the first. Bruch grew quite vexed about the whole thing, not only from an artistic viewpoint, but because he had sold the work to a publisher for a one-time payment and never reaped any of the benefits of the concertos repeated performances. it is in three movements:

I. Vorspiel: Allegro moderato -  Bruch designates the first movement vorspiel, or prelude. This acts as an extended introduction to the slow movement. The work begins with a quiet roll of the timpani, the orchestra follows with a short section, after which the violin plays a short cadenza. The orchestra and violin alternate like this again. The orchestra then increases in volume and leads to the first theme by the violin. A second theme of a more lyrical nature is played by the violin.  The violin embellishes the first theme, and the orchestra plays a section that recalls the drama of the opening. The music grows more quiet and the orchestra and violin alternate twice as in the beginning. The orchestra once again plays a short interlude that leads to the slow movement without a break.

II. Adagio - This movement has three powerfully romantic themes that are presented by the soloist with a gently moving orchestral accompaniment. The movement builds to a powerful climax after which it reaches a peaceful end. The last movement begins directly after.

III. Finale: Allegro energico -  A short introduction is played by the orchestra before the violin presents the dancing first theme of the finale, which is adorned with multiple stops.  The second theme is begun by the orchestra before it is clarified by the soloist. There is a short development section based on the first theme, which leads to the recapitulation of both themes. In the coda the tempo increases as the first theme returns as the violin plays virtuoso figures and fragments of the first theme before it rises to the top of its range. The movement ends with two brief chords.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Sibelius - Violin Concerto In D Minor

Jean Sibelius is most well known as a conductor and one of the great composers of the 20th century, but in his early years his dream was to be a violin virtuoso. He began to play the piano and violin at a very early age, but didn't commence formal study of the violin until he was sixteen.  He made rapid progress and played in the violin section of a local orchestra, and went on to play in a string quartet.

He continued his studies at the Helsinki Institute and played second violin in the school's string quartet as well
as in the string section of the school orchestra. After Sibelius graduated from the Institute he studied in Berlin for two years and concentrated on composing while still playing chamber music with friends. When he returned to Finland he taught violin for a short time, appeared in concert as a soloist and performed in an orchestra in Helsinki until 1896.  It was about this same year that Sibelius gave up on his dreams for a career as a virtuoso. As Sibelius himself said:
It was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.
Sibelius continued to play the violin privately for over thirty years until tremors in his hands made him stop.

He started to plan his violin concerto in 1899 (the only concerto Sibelius ever wrote), and completed the work in 1904. Sibelius didn't finish the work soon enough for the soloist to study the solo part in depth, so as a result the first performance was not well received.  The first version of the concerto had one of the most difficult solo violin parts ever written, so Sibelius removed the work and revised it, making it slightly less difficult and more well balanced. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The movement begins with almost inaudible figures in the strings. The soloist enters shortly after with the first theme. This theme begins to be developed immediately. The strings enter in a louder section that announces the second theme first sounded in the woodwinds.  The development section leads to an extended cadenza for the soloist before the recapitulation begins. A rapid and dramatic coda tosses out the themes once more before the end of the movement.

II. Adagio di molto - This movement is in B-flat major and begins with a short introduction by the woodwinds which leads to a lyrical theme by the soloist.  The middle section increases the drama of the music, after which the violin begins to sing its theme again. The movement ends in hushed beauty.

III. Allegro ma non tanto -  The movement opens with a rhythmic figure in the bass, and the soloist enters with the first theme. A second theme played by the orchestra sounds like battle music complete with the snarling of muted horns.  Sibelius throws all kinds of technical demands on the soloist throughout the movement, making it not only one of the most recognizable of the violin concerto literature but also one of the most difficult. The movement draws to an end with the full orchestra playing loud staccato chords while the soloist glides up and down the fingerboard.

Sibelius' realization that he was not destined to be a violin virtuoso probably frustrated and disappointed him, which may have came out in his writing for the violin concerto.  He certainly had the practical and technical knowledge of the instrument if not the virtuoso technique, so he may have envisioned himself as the soloist if things would have turned out differently.