Monday, March 31, 2014

Reinecke - Piano Concerto No. 1 In F-sharp Minor

There is hardly a musician of the 19th century who was the pupil of so many famous musicians as well as the teacher of so many famous musicians as Carl Reinecke. He was born in Germany in 1824 and studied withLiszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Some of the students he taught as a teacher were Edvard Grieg, Isaac Albéniz, Max Bruch, Felix Weingartner and many others. In his teen years he was an orchestral violinist as well as pianist.

Reinecke held many positions in various conservatories in Germany and in 1860 was appointed music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts in Leipzig and was professor of piano and composition at the Conservatorium until 1895. After his retirement from directorship of the orchestra in 1895  and from the Conservatorium in 1902 he concentrated on composition and at the time of his death in 1910 his opus numbers ran to almost three hundred pieces.

By most accounts he appears to have been a genial man as well as belonging to the more conservative group of composers in the middle and late 19th century. He admired Liszt's piano playing abilities, but disregarded Liszt's compositions as well as Wagner's.  He was also a virtuoso pianist and gave many recitals in his life.

He completed the Piano Concerto No. 1 In F-sharp Minor in 1867 and the concerto was very popular for many years, but like much of Reinecke's music it was almost forgotten. It is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro -  The first movement begins with a short introduction before the strings sound out the first impassioned theme. The full orchestra enters and the theme is played until the solo piano joins in as the theme is repeated and expanded upon. The strings segue to the second theme and after a few bars of it the piano enters and this theme is expanded upon. The development section begins as the dotted rhythm of the first theme returns in the strings. The piano takes up a different section of the first theme and develops it over the accompaniment of the winds. The solo piano returns with the dotted rhythm of the first theme and develops it, with the orchestra adding to the texture. The second theme returns in the orchestra as the piano throws out an accompaniment in octaves. There is a slight pause and the cadenza for soloist comments on both themes until a chain of trills in both hands which leads to a change to a 12/8  time signature and an increase in tempo molto più animato as the first movement races to its close.

II. Adagio, ma non troppo -  This movement is written in the key of D-flat major (which is the enharmonic equivalent of C-sharp major). A gentle D-flat major chord is played by the orchestra with a violin solo followed by a D-flat minor chord. This musical sigh is repeated after which the theme proceeds to the entrance of the piano that plays an accompaniment to the sigh. A second theme is played by the piano and echoed by the solo violin. The solo violin is joined by a solo cello as the piano plays a rippling accompaniment. The opening sighing theme is then played on the piano with a light accompaniment. The cello and violin continue their duet until the final chord.

III. Allegro con brio - The dominant theme of this movement is in F-sharp major and first played by the solo piano:


This theme appears throughout the movement, sandwiched between various episodes. The concerto comes to an end in the major mode.

Reinecke remained a musical conservative all of his life. He himself said that his compositional ideal was found in the works of Mendelssohn. He lived a long life of dedication to music making and music instruction. He died in 1910 at the age of 85.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Mendelssohn - The Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave)

The Hebrides are made up of a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland, some of which have a long history of human habitation that goes back to 6500 BCE. The islands have been further divided into two areas; the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides.  Felix Mendelssohn toured the area in 1829 and while in the Inner Hebrides group he visited the uninhabited island of Staffa where the famous tourist attraction Fingal's Cave is located.  Staffa is noted for its hexagonal columns of basalt that form the island and the opening to the cave. The cave has a naturally formed arched ceiling and is known for its bizarre echoing effects caused by the waves of the ocean.  The cave has been known for centuries, but came to be called Fingal's Cave after the hero of an 18th-century epic poem by James McPherson.

Fingal's Cave
Mendelssohn was inspired by the sounds of the echoing waves in the cave and wrote down his first sketches for the overture shortly after he visited the cave and sent them in a letter to his sister Fanny. Mendelssohn completed the overture in 1830 and originally called it The Lonely Island, but he revised the score in 1832 and renamed it The Hebrides. The overture was first performed in London in 1832.

The overture begins with a theme that Warner Brothers cartoon aficionados will recognize, for it was used in their cartoon of 1943 titled 'Inki and The Myna Bird', a  cartoon that has not withstood the test of time because of its racial political incorrectness. There is a Myna bird that appears throughout the cartoon and every time it does, this theme accompanies it. It wasn't the first time Warner Brothers, Walt Disney and other animators used parts of classical music pieces for a cartoon. If nothing else, the music was free to use as it was in the public domain.


This first theme was inspired by Mendelssohn's visit to the cave, the sketch he sent to his sister Fanny. It is in B minor and begins in the low pitched instruments of the orchestra and swells up into the higher pitched instruments in imitation of the swells and waves of the sea.  The second theme is in a major key and also begins with the low pitched instruments and is more expansive in nature. These two themes comprise the basic elements of the overture. Mendelssohn transforms them and modifies them in various ways as he works towards the coda which develops the opening theme until a climax is reached. The clarinet states the first theme once more in muted dynamics, the flute echoes the clarinet in a short fragment and the work ends.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Raff - Piano Concerto In C Minor

Joachim Raff was born in Switzerland in 1822. He was a very prolific composer and at the time of his death in 1882 was one of the most well known musicians in Europe.  Raff studied music on his own while he was teaching school in various towns in Switzerland. He sent some of his eraly piano compositions to Felix Mendelssohn, and upon Mendelssohn's recommendation the pieces were published. The pieces were also favorably reviewed by Robert Schumann.

Most modern references to him are in conjunction with Franz Liszt. He visited Liszt in Wiemar in 1845 and  became friends with pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. From 1850 to 1853 he was Liszt's assistant in Weimar. He helped Liszt in learning orchestration and Raff claiomed to have orchestrated some of Liszt's early tone poems. By 1878 he divided his time between composition and being the Director of the music conservatory in Frankfurt. He was especially known for his craftsmanship and orchestration.

Raff wrote pieces in most every genre, including salon music for the piano. von Bülow had this to say about his friend's music:
Raff ...combined the most diverse styles and yet preserved the purity of all of them : the salon style in the best sense, and the strict style. Raff never aspired to appear more than he was, but to be what he was. How few are able to say that about themselves !
In 1873 Raff composed his only piano concerto. The premiere occured the same year with Raff conducting and his friend von Bülow at the keyboard.  The Piano Concerto In C Minor is in three movements:

I. Allegro - After a short introduction that pits the orchestra versus the piano, the first of three themes appears. It is repeated immediately in a different guise before the second lyrical theme is played by the piano. The third theme, more heroic in nature, is played by the orchestra while the piano adds decoration. The third theme is repeated, this time it is the piano that plays it while the orchestra decorates. The development section expands on the first theme. The recapitulation brings back the three themes, and before the close of the work Raff weaves all three themes together to be played simultaneously. A cadenza for soloist leads to the powerful ending of this movement in sonata form.

II. Andante, quasi larghetto - The slowly unwinding first theme is first played by the oboe. The low strings repeat the theme while the piano decorates it. The second theme is similar to the first and isplayed by the piano. There is a sense of tension as the themes grow more complex until a lush climax is reached as the orchestra and piano alternate. The first theme is given a full blown treatment, and the music returns to the idyllic mood of the beginning.

III. Allegro - The finale begins straight away with a referemnce to the first theme of the first movement. A theme in march time pushs aside this short reference. A second theme of a contrasting nature appears after the march. Raff takes full advantage of the contrast of these themes in the middle section ofthe movement. As the end approaches, the piano becomes more animated. Fragments of the march theme appear, and ushers in the ending.



Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Berlioz - Les Francs-Juges Overture

The earliest composition for orchestra by Hector Berlioz that is still in the repertoire is the overture to his opera Les Francs-Juges.  Berlioz wrote the opera to a libretto by Humbert Ferrand, a close friend of Berlioz. The name means The Free Judges  and refers to trials held in medieval Germany by a fraternal order of lay judges, or free judges. These Vehmic courts operated in the area of Westphalia in Germany, and sometimes held trials in secret.  They were one of the few organizations that derived their power directly from the Holy Roman Emperor and as such had the power to use the death penalty.

Berlioz tried to get the opera performed shortly after its composition in 1826, but funding was not available to stage it. He revised the opera twice and tried to get it performed, but after 1833 he destroyed most of the work except for the overture and a few excerpts.  The plot of the opera concerns a wicked uncle that tries to cheat his nephew out of his throne and beautiful fiancee. The nephew is brought before the Free Judges who convene in The Black Forest in Germany, and is sentenced to death. The fiancee manages to escape the clutches of the evil uncle and save her beloved.

Berlioz wrote the overture while he was still a student at the Conservatiore and was unsure that his writing for
Humbert Ferrand
the trombone was playable. Berlioz years later wrote,
I was at that time so ignorant of the mechanism of some of the instruments that after I had written the trombone solo in the Introduction in the key of D flat, I feared it might be too difficult to play. So I took it to one of the trombone players of the Opéra who examined it and reassured me by saying that ‘D flat as it happens is one of the best keys for the instrument, and you may count on the passage having a grand effect’.
 The orchestra begins with a slow introduction that includes loud music from the brass that perhaps represents the Free Judges convening. The rest of the overture has main themes that are presented and developed in Berlioz's own style of sonata form.
Berlioz was also one of the great orchestral conductors of his era, and he performed Les Francs-Juges Overture many times in his career.

Even at this early time in his career, Berlioz's penchant for large forces and novel orchestration is evident in this work. Berlioz's reputation for using large forces grew and when Berlioz visited Vienna Prince Klemens von Metternich asked him, “Is it not you who writes for an orchestra of 500 players?” Berlioz replied, “Not always, Monseigneur, I sometimes write for only 450.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

Widor - Piano Concerto No. 1 In F Minor

If someone has heard any music by Charles-Marie Widor (1844 - 1937) it is most likely the Toccata from his Symphony For Solo Organ No.5.  That Widor would be well known for an organ piece is understandable as he came from a family of organ builders and players, and was an organist himself at Saint-Sulpice Catholic Church (the top appointment for a French organist) in Paris for 64 years.  He was a strong influence in the French revival of organ playing and taught organ and composition at the Paris conservatory.

But Widor was also a master of orchestration and wrote a treatise on the subject. Besides the ten symphonies for solo organ, he composed many piano pieces, chamber works, operas and orchestral works. Widor composed the Piano Concerto in F Minor, Opus 39 in 1876. The premiere was in November 1876 with Louis Diémer as soloist. Le Ménestrela French music journal, printed the following review about the concerto:

Louis Diémer
"The concerto for piano and orchestra by M. Widor is a very remarkable work. Perhaps the young and already wise organist of Saint-Sulpice has yielded a little to the inclination of the most recent school of composers to favour form over substance, but there are some beautiful harmonic effects and interesting development of ideas. The finale is the best of the three movements, I think—despite all the success of the Andante—based on a motif that is very lively and forthright with rather the appeal of a scherzo. Thanks to his playing, so precise and so firm, M. Diémer … made the most persuasive case for the concerto."`

The concerto is in three movements:
I. Allegro con fuoco -  The piano opens the first movement and is in the forefront until the second theme is announced by piano and orchestra. These two ideas are explored and expanded upon for the entire movement. The first theme builds to a climax in the coda, and the movement ends.

II. Andante religioso - Woodwinds make the first statement of a theme, the piano enters playing chords that will eventually evolve to another theme, but not before the first theme is restated by the strings. These two kernels are developed by piano and orchestra. There are beautiful passages for the piano playing arpeggios over a quiet accompaniment by the lower strings. Later in the movement the piano plays high in the treble with the strings, giving an impression of Widor's instruction of religioso.  The movement ends with the piano playing chords over a gentle accompaniment.

III. Finale: Allegro - Widor begins the finale with loud C octaves in both hands and the music has the feel of a scherzo:


 The rhythmic scherzo takes up much of the finale until a cadenza for soloist appears that makes a passing reference to some of the other themes heard earlier. The music shifts to F major and the concerto ends.

Widor was not only a master of organ compositions. He was also a first-rate orchestrator, so much so that he wrote a treatise on the subject. This concerto shows his mastery of the orchestra as well as the piano.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Liszt - Grosses Konzertsolo For Piano

Franz Liszt wrote his Grosses Konzertsolo (Grand Concerto Solo) in 1849-1850, three years before hisSonata In B Minor.   Liszt wrote it for a piano competition that was to be held at the Paris Conservatoire in 1850. Liszt dedicated the work to Adolf von Henselt, one of the premier virtuoso pianists of the time. The work proved so difficult that Henselt couldn't master it which caused him to comment:
"It is not in the realm of possibility for me to play this piece..."
Liszt made two other versions of the work; one for piano and orchestra under the title Grand Solo de Concert which was not published,  and another arranged for two pianos published under the title Concerto Pathétique.  

The work is an experiment in form and substance that Liszt continued and refined in his Sonata In B Minor.  It is in one continuous movement. The opening begins with a dramatic main theme followed by a quiet section that leads to a transitional passage that brings the music back to the main theme. Next there is a grand theme played in large chords that is marked grandioso. This theme continues in the middle register of the keyboard as the accompaniment flows around it. This is basically the exposition of a sonata form movement. Liszt then inserts what amounts to a slow movement marked Andante sostenuto. This theme slowly unfolds and gains in complexity until a cadenza appears, after which the music grows to a double forte as the theme is hammered out. Themes from the exposition reappear and the drama of the opening section returns. Themes are developed, the music continues in dramatic fashion until a section is reached that is written in 4 staves and marked Andante, quasi marcia funebre:

  Themes continue to be developed,  the music again grows in intensity and ends in the major mode.

Henselt wasn't the only virtuoso of the day that refused to play this work. Liszt sent a copy of it to Clara Schumann but she publicly begged off the work claiming excessive technical difficulties while in private she criticized the work for what she considered empty virtuosity. There is no record of the piece being played at the piano competition in Paris, and outside of Liszt's pupil Carl Tausig who Liszt said was the first pianist to perform the piece, it may have been only Liszt himself that could have surmounted the technical and musical difficulties of the work.

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