Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Schumann - Symphony No. 4 In D Minor

The 4 symphonies of Robert Schumann were written from 1841 to 1851, and have been just outside the standard orchestral repertoire. The reasons for this are many. Schumann's technical knowledge of some of  the instruments of the orchestra, especially the brass section, wasn't the best. He was in the process of learning more and polishing his technical handling of the orchestra, but his progress was cut short by mental illness that left him unable to compose. But there were other issues as well.  Problems with form and balance (real and imagined) many times were corrected by conductors and resulted in performances of Schumann's symphonies that contained much that he did not write.

One of his problematic symphonies was the one written shortly after the Symphony No. 1. This symphony was originally Symphony No. 2, but after a very unsuccessful premiere the work was shelved until Schumann revised the work in 1851. By that time he had completed two other symphonies, so the symphony was numbered Symphony No. 4.

Schumann's revision of the symphony did not change the unique form of the symphony; all four movements are played without a break. He made the transitions between movements smoother, made the overall orchestration richer, and other technical changes that reflect the knowledge he had gained since writing his first symphony ten years previous.

Schumann's wife Clara was as devoted to her husband after he died in 1856 as she was when he was alive. She promoted his work and his memory and acted as editor for his collected works that were published in 1882. She used the revised version of 1851 in the edition as this was the one she preferred, going so far as to say that the first version of 1841 survived only as sketches. Johannes Brahms on the other hand, knew better and preferred the first edition of 1841 and acted as editor when he published it in 1892, much to the objections of Clara. But it is the revised version of 1851 that has become the standard and is most often performed.

I. Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft -  The movement begins with a slow introduction that contains the seed for many of the other themes heard in the work. Schumann took the hints at cyclic form from Beethoven and expanded them into one of the first symphonies composed in the form. Slowly, the introduction gives way to the first lively theme built loosely on the theme within the introduction. Other themes are heard in the exposition, but these are not as well formed as the first one. The exposition is repeated. The development section initially concerns itself with the working out of the first theme. Other themes are heard and expanded, until Schumann begins the development section again in a different key. After this second development has played through, a truncated recapitulation is played which leads to a coda and a segue to the second movement

II.  Romanze: Ziemlich langsam -  A solo cello and solo oboe play a sweet melody that vaguely resembles material heard in the introduction of the first movement, after which a short orchestral interlude leads to a middle section where a solo violin laces its way through the orchestra. The solo cello and oboe return with the opening theme of the movement, which ends with a quiet segue to the third movement.

III. Scherzo: Lebhaft -  Primitive and accented off the beat, the scherzo changes the mood immediately. After the scherzo, the trio contains music for the violins that is similar to the middle section of the second movement. In all, the scherzo and trio are played twice. After the trio, the music slows down into a mysterious segue to the last movement that contains a reference to the primary theme of the first movement.

IV. Langsam; Lebhaft -  A slow crescendo grows as the violins play the same reference to the primary theme of the first movement until the orchestra comes to a short pause, after which the primary theme of the finale, which is related to first movement material, is played. This fragment which was originally in D minor has been transformed to D major. Secondary themes are played and Schumann develops them in free fashion. A final new theme is played near the end, after which the music scurries to a close in D major.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mendelssohn - String Symphony No. 7 In D Minor

Francis Bacon, 17th century English statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, author and philosopher wrote in his essay titled Of Studies:
To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study...
Natural ability such as Mozart and Mendelssohn possessed only became mastery after much work, study and diligence. For Mozart, it was his good fortune to be born into a family with a father that was a consummate musician and teacher who was wise enough to know the wisdom of Bacon's words. The young Mozart did his share of necessary exercises in harmony and counterpoint, the pruning of his natural abilities.

Mendelssohn's situation was a different matter. His family was headed by a father who was a banker and a mother who was from a prominent family. Felix's talent was noticed by his parents and other members of the family. Felix's family could afford private music teachers, and the youngster also had the added benefit of having his early works played by a small orchestra that gathered at the Mendelssohn family home. Thus Bacon's words rang true for Felix as well, including the tempering of study by experience.

When Mendelssohn was twelve years old he began to write a series of symphonies for string orchestra as exercises in composition for his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, and for performance at the concerts at his home. He wrote a total of twelve string symphonies in two years. The first six string symphonies had three movements, but with the String Symphony No. 7 the movements increased to four.

I. Allegro - Written in sonata form, the movement begins straight away with the first theme that is reminiscent of C.P.E. Bach's angular themes. Perhaps C.P.E.Bach was a strong influence as Felix's great-aunt Sarah Itzig-Levy took keyboard lessons from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and premiered some of C.P.E. Bach's harpsichord music. She was a wealthy woman and helped to support the widow of C.P.E. Bach and took a special interest in Felix's musical education. The second theme is more lyrical, and soon succumbs to the return of the first theme. The exposition is repeated. The development section begins with a working out of the second theme while a figuration from the first theme accompanies, until the first theme gains dominance and goes through its own section of being worked through. The recapitulation repeats with modulations of themes until a short coda is reached that introduces a new figure and a very short section of syncopation until a fragment of the first theme leads to the end of the movement - a D major chord.

II. Andante amorevole - Written in D major, the theme winds its way casually through the movement. The pace remains a leisurely walk with hardly any drama. The short movement ends in D major.

III. Menuetto - Mendelssohn returns to D minor for the minuet that is in the spirit of a Haydn peasant stomp. The trio section is in B-flat major. The minuet is not repeated after the trio. There is a short coda that follows the trio that focuses on material heard in the trio with not a trace of the music of the minuet, and the movement ends in B-flat major.

IV. Allegro molto -  An early example of the quick tempo music that shows up in Mendelssohn's music. It is a foreshadowing of the tarantella of the 4th Symphony written years later. A fugal section follows, and the pattern is repeated until the opening music returns and leads to a short coda that ends the work.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Weber - Symphony No. 2 In C Major

Carl Maria von Weber is mostly remembered in the classical music world as an opera composer. He wrote his first opera at fourteen and had his first success in opera in 1803 when he was seventeen years old.  Three years later he was working at the Breslau Opera as music director. He tried to reform the opera but the intrigues, drama and resistance were so great that he resigned. While he was at Breslau, he met with an unfortunate accident when he drank from a wine bottle that his father had stored engraver's acid in. It took him two months to recuperate and his pleasant singing voice was ruined.

He wrote his only two symphonies when he was twenty years old with the intention of having them performed by the small court orchestra of Duke Eugen Friedrich Heinrich von Württemberg-Öls, where Weber was Kapellmeister. Weber's time at court was also full of intrigues and troubles as he racked up huge debts. His father was charged with embezzling a large amount of the Duke's funds, and both Weber and his father were arrested and put in prison. Later both were released and banished from the Duke's lands.

Both symphonies are in C major. Symphony No. 2 was written in a week's time in January of 1807, and like the first symphony it has a prominent part for oboe, the instrument the Duke liked to play. The symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro -  The orchestra enters with loud chords that are answered by the woodwinds. This happens twice before the oboe plays the first theme of the movement.  Other lesser themes are played and lead up to the second primary theme being played by solo horn. A solo bassoon takes up this theme. The first theme returns and is expanded slightly, and then the exposition is repeated. At the end of the repeat, the horns mark the beginning of the development by playing a figure from the first theme, followed by the trumpets. A solo flute then plays the first them in a minor key. The drama increases in the development until it reaches a climax. Quietly the orchestra leads to the recapitulation. The usual modulation of themes to the home key follows, with the second theme this time being brought in by the oboe. A short coda beings the movement to a close.

II Adagio, ma non troppo - The horns begin the second movement with a short fanfare. The theme of the movement begins with a solo viola and is continued with the oboe. The theme is expanded until the horns begin a more elaborate repeat of the theme which develops as an operatic aria, no big surprise coming from a natural dramatic opera composer as Weber was. The movement is short, and ends quietly.

III Menuetto. Allegro -  Although labeled a minuet, this movement is in C minor and has the characteristics of a scherzo with its off the beat accents. A contrasting trio section in the major for accompanied oboe uses rests to maintain the off the beat feeling. The beginning of the movement is repeated, and this very short movement (under two minutes usually) ends.

IV Finale. Scherzo Presto - Labeled a scherzo, this movement begins with a short ascending figure in the orchestra followed by silence. The full orchestra a rhythmic theme that is continually being interrupted by rests. The second theme is for oboe and plays straight through without the interrupting rests. There is a third theme for horn in the minor before the quirky first theme returns, this time it plays for a time before asilence interrupts its progress. After the silence, the music builds up to a final climax followed by a silence that may seem like the end of the movement, but the figure that began the movement returns for one more swift and quiet appearance before this also very short movement truly ends.

Whether Weber's talent was to ever respond to the form of the symphony was never to be known as he died from tuberculosis at the age of 39. He had a great sense of melody and orchestral color, valuable assets for a composer of operas, and it may have been a genuine lack of interest instead of a lack of talent for the instrumental genre of the symphony.  His handling of sonata form in the two symphonies is not outstanding. But his lack of mastery of the form may be why the symphonies, especially the second one, are so quirky, in a good way.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Haydn - Symphony No. 48 In C Major 'Maria Theresa'

Joseph Haydn wrote about 1,000 works in his lifetime, so it is not surprising that some of his most popular works were given a nickname by listeners, editors or publishers. A case in point is his 106 known symphonies. Considering that there are only 24 available major and minor keys to choose from (with very few works written in keys containing more than 3 sharps or flats that lessens the choice further), there were many symphonies written in the same key.

Symphony 48 In C Major is but one of 19 C major symphonies composed by Haydn, and for many years it was thought to have been written to commemorate Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria on her 1773 visit to the Esterháza summer palace where Haydn was employed. Subsequent research uncovered a copy of the symphony dated 1769, which discredits the notion.  Incorrect though it is, the nickname of the symphony remains and helps to identify it from the other 18 symphonies in C major.

There was a fire in 1779 at the Esterháza summer palace and many of the manuscripts were lost for the seventy something symphonies Haydn had written up until then. Haydn made a trip to Vienna where he knew some professional music copyists had pirated his symphonies for their own profit. He bought a collection of his own orchestral works to replace his own copies. Some of the copies had parts for additional instruments written in them that were not by Haydn, probably to make them more attractive to the pirates' potential buyers. Symphony 48 was one of these works, as there are editions with timpani and trumpets that were not part of Haydn's original instrumentation. It must not have been too big of an issue with Haydn, for he allowed the additions to stand and the symphony is often performed with these added parts.  Perhaps this is one reason why this symphony is one of the few of Haydn's early symphonies that was available throughout the 19th century.  The symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro -  The work opens with a striking theme punctuated by horns, trumpets and timpani. The second theme is in the dominant G major and is more subdued in the beginning but grows agitated further along.  Transitional material leads to the repeat of the exposition. The development maintains a feeling of agitation along with leaps between notes in the strings. The recapitulation has the obligatory modulations of secondary material until the ending chords in the home key of C major.

II. Adagio - The adagio is in F major and the violins begin playing quiet music with mutes on,with some comments added by the horns. In the second part of the movement the horns again add interest along with the woodwinds. By the use of subtle and fleeting changes of key Haydn adds an underlying feeling of tension to a movement rich in melody.

III. Menuet: Allegretto & trio -  A simple minuet in C major that accents the upbeat in the second phrase with short trills. The second part has echo effects in the first violins, and a section of cross rhythm with eighth-note triplets in the woodwinds and timpani while the strings play 4 sixteenth notes. As contrast, the trio is in C minor with many dynamic changes.

IV. Finale: Allegro -  The finale is rapid with chattering violins and a stuttering chromaticism that keeps the music interesting. A finale of typical Haydnesque speed and movement.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Brahms - Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates)

Johannes Brahms personal library contained works by many composers, including music written by Baroque and Renaissance masters. He also collected autographs of earlier composer's works. These works were thoroughly studied by Brahms as his margin notes in them attest to. Brahms acquired his mastery of music by being the eternal student, but music was not his only interest. He was also a voracious reader of other subjects and was well acquainted with German literature, especially the works of Johann Goethe.

He was acquainted with many of the leading musicologists of his time and edited music of earlier masters and in his role as a conductor played many of the neglected masterpieces for orchestra and chorus. He made an intensive study of choral works from Palestrina to Bach, so it was natural that his first successful large work was for chorus, soloists and orchestra,Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) written in 1865-1868.

He continued to write works for chorus and orchestra throughout his career, with Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) being written in 1882.  The text he used for the work was taken from the play Iphigenie auf Tauris, a reworking of the Greek legend of Iphigenia  by Johann Goethe.  In the play, Iphigenia tell about a song that was sung by the Fates that warned humans about the cruel and moody behavior of the gods. This text is what Brahms used.

The work is for a six-voice choir as Brahms divides the altos and basses into two parts. The work is only ten to eleven minutes in duration, but Brahms uses a large orchestra for it. It is sung without pause. The work opens in D minor, and the mood stays rather somber, ominous and powerful, save for one short section where the music brightens temporarily.

The text is a little hard to decipher in any English translation I've ever read, but the original was written over 250 years ago, in German, in a much different environment, time and culture. But Brahms music is sublime.

Gesang Der Panzen by Goethe
The human race should tremble
before the gods!
For in their hands they
hold dominion over them,
and demand whatever
they please.

Those who have been exalted
by the gods should doubly fear them!
On cliffs and clouds
chairs stand on the ready
around tables of gold.

If dissension arises,
then the guests are hurled down,
despised and disgraced,
into the nocturnal depths,
and they wait there in vain,
bound in darkness,
for just judgement.

But the gods remain
at their eternal feast
at the golden tables.
They walk from mountain,
to mountain peak.
From the abyss of the deep
streams the breath
of suffocating Titans
as a light mist of a
burnt offering.

The rulers avert their
blessing-bestowing eyes
from entire races,
and avoid seeing, in the grandchild,
the once loved, silently speaking features
of the ancestor.

So sang the Fates;
The old banished one listens
in his darkened lair
to the songs of ancient ones,
thinks of his children and grandchildren
and shakes his head.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nielsen - Symphony No. 5

The premiere of classical music works can create many different reactions with audiences.  Johannes Brahms experienced a negative reaction from the audience at the Leipzig premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1859. The work had already been performed a few days before in Hanover to general success, but the story was different in Leipzig as Brahms wrote to his friend Joseph Joachim:
“No reaction at all to the first and second movements. At the end, three pairs of hands tried slowly to clap, whereupon a clear hissing from all sides quickly put an end to any such demonstration … I am only experimenting and feeling my way, all the same, the hissing was rather too much." 
Perhaps the most well known scandalous premiere was of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite Of Spring in May of 1913 in Paris.  Truth be told, no one knows if it was the music or the staging of the ballet that caused the disturbance.  Some members of the audience threw vegetables on stage in what was probably a concerted effort by traditionalists to disrupt the performance, and there was so much noise that it practically drowned out the orchestra.

Symphony No. 5 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen got a hostile treatment as well at its premiere in Sweden in 1924.  The symphony already premiered in Denmark two years prior with the composer conducting and was received well by the audience.  The premiere in Sweden was different, as reported in the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende :
Midway through the first part with its rattling drum and cacophonous effects a genuine panic broke out. Around a quarter of the audience rushed for the exits with confusion and anger written over their faces, and those who remained tried to hiss down the spectacle, while the conductor Georg Schneevoight drove the orchestra to extremes of volume. This whole intermezzo underlined the humoristic-burlesque element in the symphony in such a way that Carl Nielsen could certainly never have dreamed of. His representation of modern life with its confusion, brutality and struggle, all the uncontrolled shouts of pain and ignorance - and behind it all the side drum's harsh rhythm as the only disciplining force - as the public fled, made a touch of almost diabolic humor. 
Nielsen wrote the symphony in 1920-1922 and was to write but one more in his life. He is most well known for the six symphonies, and from the first one written in 1892 until the last written in 1925 showed a steady refinement in his style. Along with the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, Nielsen's modernism didn't go the way of Schoenberg's Twelve Tone technique or Stravinsky's chameleon-like changes of style. He remained a tonal composer, but one of great unpredictability that managed to stretch harmony in many directions without breaking it altogether.  Symphony No. 5 is in two movements that are further subdivided:

I.  The first movement is in two sections:

Tempo giusto -The violas wavers between two notes in the beginning of the work with the bassoons entering with a theme that ends with a downward scale. The theme does not return as the orchestra seems to meander about in the fog created in the opening. The wavering transfers to the clarinet until the snare drum makes its appearance. It beats out a monotonous rhythm with the low strings playing the same alternating two pizzicato notes F and D.  The clarinet and flute play a motif over the monotony until the rhythms fade away and the wavering returns as various instruments play what seems like random motives. The snare drum returns as the wavering notes cease as the oboe plays a familiar motive. The celesta plays a repeated, detached note as the orchestra grows more and more sinister. The music grows quiet, a tambourine is heard along with the fading snare drum.
Adagio non troppo - A lyrical theme in the strings spreads over the orchestra until a motive from the preceding section appears in the woodwinds that threatens the lyricism of the strings. The lyrical theme turns more disruptive in response to the woodwinds, and Nielsen directs the snare drum to play ad libitum thus:
The side [snare] drummer now improvises entirely freely with all possible fantasy, although from time to time he must pause.
The orchestra has divided into two sides in conflict while the snare drum tries to gain control over both, the section of the work that provoked some of the audience to walk out during the premiere in Sweden. Finally what was once a lyrical theme gains the edge sonically, subdues all the wavering as well as the snare drum. The opposing force plays quietly as the snare drum makes one last appearance. The clarinet plays softly as the chaos is now over as the first movement ends in a hush.

II. The second movement is in four sections:

Allegro - The second movement begins with a loud section for full orchestra as instruments struggle against one another. Fragmentary themes come and go as the music keeps moving forward until it finally runs itself out and segues into the next section without pause.
Presto -  A rapid fugue begins in the violins and makes its way through the string choir before it continues in the woodwinds and brass. The fugue dwindles down and segues into the next section.
Andante un poco tranquillo -  Another fugue, this one more calm in nature. A climax is reached near the end of the section and the music transitions directly to the final section.
Allegro - The final section is full of busy music that once again has to work through conflict before it reaches the final chord of the work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 In B Minor 'Pathetique'

Pyotr Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his final symphony on October 28, 1893 in St. Petersburg. Nine days later he died, and the rumors still persist concerning what were the causes of his death. The rumors were fanned by the Sixth Symphony itself, titled Pathetique (in this particular sense meaning emotional and suffering) especially in the mournful, dying music of the last movement.

At first his death was attributed to the cholera epidemic of the time and from the beginning the idea of suicide made the rounds, while modern scholarship retains the theory of suicide with an added explanation; Tchaikovsky was called to a court of honor over his homosexual affairs especially with a Russian noble, and offered the options of taking his own life or having the affairs made public.  The jury is still out on all of that. Tchaikovsky himself said there was a program behind the symphony, but he never divulged what it was. It all remains a great perhaps, but while the meaning behind the symphony will never be known for certain, Tchaikovsky left behind one of the masterworks of the symphonic literature.

Symphony No. 6 In B Minor is in 4 movements:

I. Adagio – Allegro non troppo - The symphony begins in the black tones of a solo bassoon accompanied by the strings. This continues with changes of instrumentation for 18 measures before the first theme is heard in the strings and then the winds. There is an extended working out of secondary material as the music steadily builds in tension and movement. The music begins to fade as transitional material leads to the actual second theme which is heard in muted violins in the key of D major. This theme also goes through an extended working out of minor material. The second theme reappears in a more passionate version, after which the music gradually gets softer and a clarinet takes up the beginning of the second theme and repeats it ever softer until it hands the last half measure to the solo bassoon, which Tchaikovsky directs to play in what must be one of the most radical dynamic markings in all of classical music:
After a very short fermata on the last almost imperceptible D of the bassoon, the orchestra shouts out in double forte short transitional material that announces the development section where a fragment of the first theme is given a fugal treatment. A brief new theme acts as a bridge back to fragments of the first theme that build to a tremendous clamor. In a descent that is almost painful the music gradually works down to the depths of despair in the low brass.  With the first theme getting most of the attention in  the development, Tchaikovsky doesn't repeat it in the recapitulation but goes directly to the second theme, which appears with an agitated accompaniment in the low strings. The theme builds in passion and slowly fades in volume. A solo clarinet takes up the theme once again, and leads to the coda which takes on the characteristics of a march as the music gently dissolves.

II. Allegro con grazia -  The second movement is in contrast to the preceding movement.  Tchaikovsky writes the entire movement is 5/4 time, 2 beats alternating with 3 beats, but the music flows smoothly despite the irregular meter.  A middle section in B minor breaks the lyricism of the theme as the timpani beats out a steady rhythm under the throbbing strings. After this interlude, the dancing theme skips its way to a coda that refers to the middle section before it gently ends.

III. Allegro molto vivace -  The third movement is in even more contrast to what has gone before and what is to come. It is a march/scherzo that begins softly and builds throughout the movement until the march theme is played in full volume along with cymbal crashes and grand thumps from the bass drum and timpani until it ends with a roar. Contrary to concert tradition and etiquette, in live performances this movement many times causes the audience to erupt in applause that is almost a release of tension this music can create.

IV. Finale: Adagio lamentoso – Andante - The strings begin this movement as Tchaikovsky creates a feeling of despair as the strings play the theme and accompaniment in contrary motion. The bassoons enter and drop the despair to the depths. Another theme appears in the strings in D major, but despite the major tonality the theme has its own brand of sadness. This theme builds to a climax and the bottom falls out as the strings descend to silence. The opening sighs are heard again in fragments until the string play an ascending chromatic run that returns the entire first theme. This theme continues until it turns sinister as it is accompanied by stopped horns. The brass play a short chorale and the music sinks back into the despair with which it began. A fragment of the theme is heard over and over in dynamics that sink to the very bottom of human hearing. The faint beating of a dying heart is heard in the low strings until it expires in a whisper.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Suk - Symphony No. 2 In C Minor 'Asrael'

Josef Suk was a student of Antonín Dvořák and their relationship grew into one of mutual respect and friendship. Suk was also a violinist and toured for many years with the Czech String Quartet, a group that came to have international fame and premiered many contemporary string quartets by Dvořák and Janáček.  Suk played second violin with the quartet until he retired in 1933. Suk's relationship and respect for Dvořák deepened when he married Dvořák's daughter Otilie.

Although Suk wrote some chamber music, he is most well known for his works for orchestra. His mentor Dvořák influenced his earlier works, but his style changed after 1905 to a more complex and emotional one that was brought on by the death of two people very close to him.

The first death was of his father-in-law Dvořák in 1904. He began to work on his 2nd Symphony in honor of Dvořák a few months afterwards, and titled the symphony Asrael after the Old Testament Angel of Death. As Suk was working on the symphony the unthinkable happened as his wife, Dvořák's daughter, died in 1905. Suk wrote about the double tragedy:
I was suddenly handed a telegram [when he was on tour with the Czech String Quartet]: Return immediately - Dvorak dead [1/5/1904]. I shall never forget that terrible journey to Prague. Not only was I crushed to the depths of human emotion, I was also consumed with anxiety over whether Otilka's failing heart would take it. This sad turn of events also marked a turning point in my creative work, and thus the symphony, bearing the name of the Angel of Death, Asrael, was conceived. I completed the first part of the composition, dedicated to the memory of Dvorak, but the last movement, which was to have been an apotheosis of the maestro's work, was never written. The fearsome Angel of Death struck with his scythe a second time, and into eternity departed the purest, sweetest soul of my Otilka. 
Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. It looked like I might be of that first kind, but Music saved me and after a year I began the second part of the symphony, beginning with an adagio, a tender portrait of Otilka. In a very short time, and with superhuman energy, I became immersed in the terrors of the last movement which nevertheless ends in the clarity and calm of C major. Blessed be the dead. 
It's been said of this work, and about other works of mine, that they're subjective in the extreme. They do, of course, stem from life experience, but with their musical and human content they address all mankind. When, after the stormy and nerve-wracking last movement of the symphony, the mysterious and soft C major chord is heard, I often notice that it brings tears to people's eyes, and these tears are tears of relief, tears that purify and uplift - they are, therefore, not just my tears.

The 2nd Symphony 'Asrael' is in 5 movements played without a break:

Antonin Dvorak
I. Andante sustenuto -  The symphony begins with deep thumps from pizzicato basses and timpani. The cellos, violas and bass clarinet play a haunting, fragmented theme, the theme that is the kernel of the entire work. The first movement eschews sonata form for a complex form of musical ebb and climax. The first movement is haunted by the emotions Suk felt on the passing of his teacher and friend, but all is not bleak. There are some tender moments that refer to Dvořák in memory if not direct musical quotation. Before the end of the first movement, there is a huge climax after which the cellos bring back the icy, haunting theme that began the movement and closes it in quiet sorrow.

II. Andante -  A different version of the primary theme is played directly after the first movement. After it is developed a funeral march is heard in the winds. There is a fugal section played by pizzicato strings as the woodwinds push the music back to the version of the primary theme that opened the movement, after which the movement quietly expires.

III. Vivace - The scherzo of the symphony that is by turns lyrical and diabolical. The short trio is ushered in by string tremolos and ends with a piccolo. The scherzo repeats after which the music makes a descent into the lower ranges of the orchestra. A very short pause leads to a section marked andante that culminates in a dance that is lead by solo violin.  The dance reaches a climax and gently segues back into a short reference to  the version of the main theme heard in the second movement. The scherzo returns and is transformed into a fugue that is brought to a halt by thundering brass chords.

IV.  Adagio - The final two movements were written after the death of Suk's wife, and by his own admission the fourth movement is a musical portrait of his wife and the grief he felt upon her loss. The primary theme returns in the opening, followed by a gentler theme that harks back to lyrical music heard in the first movement. A solo violin helps develop this gentle theme, perhaps representing Suk the violinist and his feelings for his wife. A short section played by bassoons, oboes and double basses leads to a return of the gentle theme and its continued development.  The despair of the beginning of the movement gradually returns and ends the movement.

V. Adagio e maestoso -  Two strong climaxes begin the final movement. A short chorale followed by a dance-like theme leads to a repeat of the climax that began the movement which leads to chattering by the woodwinds.  Thumping from the basses and bass drum begin a fugue that increases in intensity until another climax is reached. Woodwinds appear from the quiet that proceeds from the climax and lead to the entrance of shimmering violins and a change of mood. The main theme as well as other thematic material is heard as the music maintains a lyrical resignation of what has happened previously and ends in quiet peace.

The 2nd Symphony 'Asrael' has always been more popular in Suk's Czech Republic than in most other concert halls of the world.  It is a work of extreme emotional content and like many other Late Romantic works was lost in the chaos of two world wars and Modern music. It is also full of technical and interpretive difficulties, but is slowly being played and recorded more often.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Brahms - Alto Rhapsody

There is hardly an artist of any era that exerted as much influence on so many others as Johann von Goethe.  A genuine Renaissance man, Goethe was a poet, dramatist, novelist, statesman and scientist. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774 was part of the Sturm und Drang period in the arts that held the seeds of the Romantic era.  Goethe was 24 years old at the time and was one of the first writers to attain international renown.

Goethe's young Werther suffered from unrequited love for a woman that was already engaged to another man, and at the end of the book Werther commits suicide. The book was somewhat autobiographical as Goethe had experienced what he had put in his novel, even up to contemplating suicide. Goethe came to dislike the book and tried to distance himself from it in later years.

Johannes Brahms read and studied Goethe's works throughout his life, and in his early years identified with Young Werther, as no doubt other young German men did.  As he grew older, he lost his identification with Werther as he resigned himself to the fact that he had no time or disposed to getting married and having a family. His art was to be his life, but he never lost his tendency to fall in love with women, or his love of Goethe's writings.

The Alto Rhapsody  was written as a wedding present for Julie Schumann the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann. Brahms had romantic feelings towards Julie, and the work was written after he found out that she was engaged to another man.  He used three stanzas of a poem written by Goethe in 1777 entitled Harzreise im Winter - Harz Mountain Journey in Winter. The poem was based on an actual trip Goethe made in to the Harz Mountains in the dead of winter to visit one of his friends that had fallen into deep depression and spiritual crisis. The lines that Brahms used for the work deal with a misanthropic wanderer who is desolate in spirit that is lifted up and consoled as his spiritual suffering is lifted.  It was written in 1869 and presented to Clara Schumann on Julie's wedding day. Clara commented about the work in her diary:
Johannes brought me a wonderful piece... the words from Goethe’s Harzreise , for alto, male chorus, and orchestra. He called it his bridal song. It is long since I remember being so moved by a depth of pain in words and music. This piece seems to me neither more nor less than the expression of his own heart’s anguish. If only he would for once speak as tenderly!
The work is in three sections that are played without break. The first two sections are for orchestra and soloist in C minor. They depict the wandering and pain of the misanthropic man. The third section has the entrance of the male chorus, is in C major and depicts the plea of the wanderer for an end to emotional pain. 

Alto Rhapsody
Section 1.
But off apart there, who is that?
His path gets lost in the brush,
behind him the branches close again,
the grass stands straight again,
the solitude swallows him up.

Section 2.
Ah, who can heal the pain
of one to whom balsam became poison?
Who has drunk misanthropy
from the fullness of love?
First despised, now despising,
he secretly wastes
his own worth
in unsatisfying egoism.

Section 3. 
If there is in your Psalter,
Father of Love, a single tone
perceptible to his ear,
then revive his heart!
Open his cloud-covered sight
onto the thousand fountains
beside the thirsting soul
in the desert!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mussorgsky - Mephistopheles' Song Of The Flea

Mussorgsky was given piano lessons in his youth, and despite showing a remarkable gift for music was sent to officer training school to keep up the family tradition of military service. He resigned from the military when he was 20 years old to devote himself to music.  He had been born into a wealthy land-owning family, but after he resigned his military commission and the freeing of the serfs in Russia in 1861, he was forced to take a civil service job to try and make ends meet.

One area of music where Mussorgsky excelled was Russian art songs for voice and piano, as he had a definite talent for setting the Russian language to music. Mussorgsky himself wrote about his artistic aesthetic shortly before his death:
Art is a means of communicating with people, not an aim in itself.  Proceeding from the conviction that human speech is strictly controlled by musical laws, ... the function of art [is] the reproduction in musical sounds, not merely of feelings, but first and foremost of human speech.
Mussorgsky took an extended leave from his civil service job and set off with a vocalist on a concert tour of Russia in the summer of 1879.  It was while on this tour that he wrote The Song Of The Flea or to use its full name Mephistopheles' Song in Auerbach's Cellar. The words for the song were taken from a Russian translation of Part One of Goethe's Faust.  

The song deals with Mephistopheles and Faust entering a cellar where other men are drinking, and Mephistopheles tells a tale of a king that kept a flea at his court and lavished it with ornate clothing and made it a minister at court. The flea soon brought all of its relation to court where all of the royals were bitten and annoyed, but afraid to kill any of the fleas because of the king's fondness for them.

At the end of the tour, Mussorgsky and the vocalist performed the song in a public recital and it was an immediate success. After Mussorgsky's death two years later, the score to the song in Mussorgsky's hand was lost, but luckily one of his friends had copied it out. The song was printed soon after Mussorgsky's death and many orchestrations were made of it. Mussorgsky wrote some 65 songs, and the Song of The Flea is his most well-known.

The Song Of The Flea
There once was a King
who kept a flea.
A flea, a flea!
It was dearer to him than his own son.
A flea!  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! A flea? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! A flea.
The King called the tailor: "Listen you blockhead!
For my dear friend  make a velvet kaftan".
A velvet kaftan?  He-he-he-he-he, velvet.
He-he-he-he-he kaftan, Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, Ha-ha-ha, a velvet kaftan.
So in gold and velvet the flea was dressed,
And enjoyed total freedom in the court! He-he-he-he-he the flea!
Ha-ha-ha, Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha the flea!
The King awarded the flea the rank of a minister and gave it a medal, 
And all his relation got the same, а-hа! And the Queen herself and her ladies-in-waiting
Were disturbed by the fleas ha-ha.
They were afraid to touch them, let alone kill them,
But if one bites us, we'll smash it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha ha-ha-ha...

The first video is a rendition of the original version for soloist and piano, while the second video is an orchestration of the work by Rimsky-Korsakov

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Mozart - Don Giovanni, The Commendatore Scene

Mozart's Don Giovanni is an adaptation of the legend of the Spanish nobleman and womanizer Don Juanthat was first written about in a play dating to the middle of the 17th century in Spain. The legend was written about in poems and plays by many authors but Mozart's opera (based on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte) is the most well-known version and has inspired other versions of the legend. Don Giovanni is part comedy, part drama, part morality play. It was premiered in Prague in 1787 and conducted by Mozart to great acclaim.  He also participated in the works premiere in Vienna the following year.

The original name of the work in Italian is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni - The Rake Punished, or Don Juan.  Act 2, Scene 5 climaxes the work with what has been come to be known as The Commendatore Scene.  In previous action, Don Giovanni has killed the Commendatore in a sword duel after Don Giovanni was caught with the Commendatore's daughter.  Then there occurs a lot of tomfoolery, deceit, disguises and attempts at seducing other women including a woman Don Giovanni has already betrayed once, a woman named Elvira.  Giovanni and his servant Leoperello have traded clothing and Elvira thinks Leoperello is Giovanni, while Giovanni tries to seduce Elvira's maid.

In complicated twists of plot, Elvira finally discovers that Leoperello is not Giovanni when people that Giovanni has betrayed condemn him and Leoperello confesses and runs away. They vow to get revenge against Giovanni. in the meantime, Giovanni and Leoperello meet in the cemetery that the Commendatore is buried in. The statue erectged on his grave comes to life and warns Giovanni that he will no longer be laughing by morning. Leoperello is horrified, but Giovanni laughs it off and forces him to invite the statue to supper.

Don Giovanni goes home and begins a late supper when Elvira (who still loves him despite all that the Don has done to her) bursts in and begs him to repent and change his life. Don Giovanni laughs at her and she storms out of the room. Her screams are heard from outside, she runs through the room still screaming and out another door. Leoperello hides under a table in fear and refuses to answer the door. Don Giovanni opens the door and the statue of the Commendatore enters. The statue tells Giovanni to repent numerous times, but Giovanni refuses. So the statue grabs Don Giovanni and as he screams the horror of what is happening to him finally sinks in. The statue disappears and drags Don Giovanni to hell.

Despite the influence the opera had on Beethoven, he came to  criticize the subject of the opera. Writing an art work on such a licentious subject offended Beethoven's somewhat prudish sensibilities.  But the music itself must have made up for the subject matter, for Beethoven knew the work well, wrote variations on an aria from the opera and quoted motifs from it in other works. The juxtaposition of the subject matter, the many moods and the final terror of the dying Don as he is dragged to hell for his wicked ways has made Don Giovanni one of the most popular operas ever written.

The video below begins as the statue of The Commendatore comes to life: