Saturday, August 30, 2014

Schubert - Der Erlkönig Opus 1, D.328

Franz Schubert wrote in all the musical genre of his day, but by far the form he is best known for is German Lieder. He wrote over 600 German art songs for voice and piano in his short life, some of them becoming standards of the vocal repertoire. His most famous song, Der Erlkönig,  is set to a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most eminent poet, writer, playwright and statesman. The poem was written in 1782 as part of a German Singspiel and it was Goethe's intention for it to be sung. The poem was sung to a simple tune that was created by the actress that was to sing the poem.  Schubert wrote the first version of the song in 1815 and continued to revise it until he finalized the fourth version of it in 1820. It had a private hearing that same year and its public premiere in 1821.

Johann Goethe
The poem tells a story about a father riding a horse through the night with his sick child cradled in his arm whose life is threatened by the Erlkönig, which is a supernatural being from Danish folklore that is similar to the Grim Reaper, at least in Goethe's retelling of the folktale.  The child hears the Erlkönig's voice trying to lure him to go with him. The child tells his father who tries to reassure the son by saying it is only the rustling of the leaves in the wind. The father finally reaches his destination after a hard ride, but it was in vain for his son is dead.  

Schubert has 5 distinct representations of people or things in this mini-tone poem, 4 of which are taken up by the singer:
Narrator -Opens the song with the voice being in the middle range of the singer and in a minor key.
Father - Sings in the low register of the singer and in both major keys.
Son - Sings in the high register of the singer and in minor keys.
Erlkönig - Sings up and down the range of the singer in major keys in a lower dynamic.

The fifth representation in the song is the horse that the father is riding, and that part is taken up by the piano. It is this very representation of a horse's beating hoofs in the fathers frantic urging to get the child assistance that is heard first in driving triplets in the right hand:
 The left hand plays a simple figure in triplets going up and quarter notes going down that does nothing more astounding than to outline the chord of G minor, the key of the piece, but which sounds very ominous combined with the right hand triplets. The tempo designation given in the above example, schnell, means fast. The metronome marking (quarter note = 152 note a minute, an editor's addition) is an extremely rapid tempo, for each beat is subdivided into three beats, which means the right hand is pounding out 456 notes a minute, which is roughly 8 notes a second. The right hand keeps up the triplet figuration in octaves and chords practically throughout the entire piece with the exception of a few very brief places and the ending measures. So this piece is not only difficult for singers in that one singer has to convey 4 different entities, but the pianist has a real workout for the roughly 3 1/2 minutes of this piece.

 Below is a translation of the song into English with parts labeled for clarification;
Der Erlkönig
[Narrator]Who rides so late through the windy night?
 There is the father with his child,
he has the boy safe in his arm.
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

[Father]"My son, why do you hide your face?"
[Son]" My father, don't you see the Erlkönig
with his crown and tail?"
[Father] "My son, it is the fog"

[Erlkönig]"You dear child, come with me!
Such lovely games I'll play with you;
Many colorful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many golden robes."

[Son]"My father, my father, can not you hear,
What the Erlkönig quietly promises me? "
[Father]"Be calm, stay calm, my child,
 in the dry leaves the wind is rustling."

[Erlkönig]"Will you, sweet boy, will you go with me?
My daughters shall wait upon you;
My daughters lead the nightly dances.
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep. "

[Son]"My father, my father, don't you see the
Erlkönig daughters in the dark?"
[Father]"My son, my son, I see it well,
it is the old gray willows."

[Erlkönig]"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
If you're not willing to go, I will force you."
[Son]"My father, my father, he seizes me!
The ErlKing is hurting me! "

[Narrator]The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
holding in his arms the moaning child.
The father reaches his courtyard with toil and hardship;
In his arms the child was dead.


Schubert's song was orchestrated by a few composers such as Berlioz and Reger. Below is a version for orchestra. I'm not sure who did the orchestration, but I think it is by Berlioz:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Schumann - Symphony No. 3 In E-flat 'Rhenish'

In 1850 Robert Schumann accepted the Director Of Music position in the town of Düsseldorf situated in the lower valley of the Rhine river.  It was the first time Schumann had lived outside of his native Saxony, and shortly after his arrival he set to work on new compositions. The scenery of the Rhine river inspired  the 3rd Symphony (hence its nickname) and with characteristic swiftness Schumann wrote the work in about a month, from early November to early December of 1850. Schumann conducted the premiere of the symphony in Düsseldorf early in 1851.

There is some confusion concerning the numbering of Schumann's 4 symphonies, as the 3rd is actually the last one composed. What is now known as the 4th Symphony was written in 1841 but was withdrawn by Schumann after a poor reception. Schumann didn't return to this withdrawn symphony until 1851 which was after the 'Rhenish' had been published.

The 3rd Symphony 'Rhenish' is in five movements:

I. Lebhaft -  The rhythmic first theme begins the work in E-flat and its character has been compared to Beethoven's opening theme of his 3rd Symphony In E-flat 'Eroica'.  A short theme acts as a transition to the second more lyrical theme that is mostly carried by the winds. As the second theme continues, it is interrupted by fragments of the first theme until it takes over. The exposition is not repeated. The long development section concerns itself with the two main themes and the short transition theme of the exposition. Schumann modulates to other keys without returning to the home key of E-flat until the climax that leads to the recapitulation. The themes repeat, the first theme dominates the coda and the movement ends.

II. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig -  Written in the key of C major and called a scherzo, it is more in the spirit of a German Ländler. Schumann originally added the title 'Morning On The Rhine' to the movement but removed it. The  ländler is in two sections and is repeated before a trio section in A minor is played. Throughout the entire short movement there is an underlying, gently rolling quality to the music, perhaps revealing its debt to the rolling waters of the Rhine. After the trio section the ländler reappears and is slightly varied, and it leads to a gentle ending.

III. Nicht schnell - A lyrical, short interlude in A-flat major that lends a few moments of calmness to the symphony.

IV. Feierlich - Tradition has it that this movement was inspired by Schumann's visit to the Cologne Cathedral where he witnessed the installation of the Archbishop of Cologne. Whether this is true or apocryphal is moot. Schumann originally titled this movement 'In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony', so it may be a case of what Schumann admitted concerninig some of his other works with titles; that he composed the music first and the title was inspired by the music. All of this doesn't detract from the beauties of the music of this movement, perhaps Schumann's best work for orchestra. Written in E-flat minor, the music begins with a loud chord and proceeds in a solemn tone. Trombones that have been waiting silently the previous three movements make their entrance and add to the solemn progression as the music moves towards a new theme, a chorale. The complexity increases as the music makes its way to an ending that leads directly to the last movement.

V. Lebhaft -  The music makes an abrupt change in key (back to E-flat major) and mood as two themes are paraded through the orchestra. A theme from the preceding movement appears and is transformed from its former solemnity to one of brightness. Schumann rounds off the work with a short reference to the theme that began the symphony, and the work proceeds to end with chords in the home key.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Schubert - Symphony No. 9 In C Major 'The Great' D.944

Robert Schumann went on a trip to Vienna in 1837, ten years after the death of Franz Schubert and while there visited Schubert's older brother Ferdinand. While Ferdinand had possession of most of his younger brother's manuscripts, the manuscript for this final symphony was in the possession of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of The Friends of Music In Vienna). Schubert had dedicated the work to the Society and sent it to them in 1826 in hopes of a performance. The Society paid a small sum to the composer and had the parts copied, but after a few rehearsals the leadership of the orchestra decided the work too long and difficult.

Schumann's excitement over the lost work extended to Felix Mendelssohn who performed a version of the work in 1839. Schumann wrote a glowing review of the work and referred to its heavenly length.

Schubert wrote a work beyond the capabilites of his contemporary orchestras as well as orchestras of the near future, for it took many years before the work would be performed in its entirety. Even with cuts, many orchestras refused to play it. To add to the confusion it was first numbered as Symphony No. 7 when it was published in 1840, as Symphony No. 8 in the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe, and as Symphony No. 9 in the catalog of Schubert's works published by musicologist Otto Deutsch in 1951. The fact that many of Schubert's manuscripts were unpublished at his death and that he neglected to catalog his own works helped create confusion in the numbering of his works that continues today.

The work got its nickname 'The Great' to differentiate between Symphony No. 6 in the same key of C major. Symphony No. 9 is in four movements:

I. Andante - Allegro ma non troppo -  Solo horns begin the extended introduction with the first theme which is then taken up by the strings. A secondary theme that is related to the first theme is played in the low strings, after which different versions of the two themes are repeated. The first theme returns and leads to transition material to the beginning of the exposition of the movement which begins with a theme in quicker tempo. The second theme is taken up by the woodwinds, then there follows a progression of thematic material.  Themes have their say in the development section in most creative ways before the recapitulation begins with the first theme and the others repeated. The final section of the coda recalls the opening theme of the introduction as the movement comes full circle.

II. Andante con moto - An extended, lyrical first theme is countered by a more rhythmical second theme. The themes are repeated, after which a more passionate version of the first theme grows until it comes to an end with a climax punctuated by timpani.  The two themes return in different guises until Schubert again comes full circle by ending the movement as it began in A minor.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace - Schubert's scherzo dances in C major, the trio a waltz in A major. As with the two previous movments Schubert fills the third movement with melodies that are played, repeated and developed at length.

IV. Allegro vivace - There are two main themes in this sonata form movement, but those themes consist of their own melodic parts. What Schubert has done in this movement and the entire symphony is to enlarge the themes and transform them into long, sometimes complex melodies. The first theme begins with a call to attention, continues with running strings accompanying woodwinds, and ends with a full close and short pause before the second theme begins. The second theme also has a running figuration for the strings while the woodwinds play the melody. There are further extensions of this theme until both main themes are heard again in their entirety. The development section deals with selected parts of the themes instead of the entire theme itself. The recapitulation repeats all the elements of the two themes with some getting a change of key. A coda continues to expand some of the melodic material with a short episode where strings, horns and bassoons hammer out an accented C for 4 measures with the full orchestra answering in different keys. Violins chatter away with the full orchestra until the final C major chord.



Friday, August 22, 2014

Dvořák - Symphony No. 8 In G Major

Antonín Dvořák's father was the village butcher who was also an innkeeper and amateur musician. Antonin was born in a little town outside of Prague and was apprenticed as a butcher in his father's shop for three years. But due to his natural abilities in music and the patronage of an uncle, he studied music, played in an orchestra as violist, held organ positions and finally made a name for himself as a composer. He became one of the most well-known composers of his era and had an international reputation.

But at heart Dvořák remained a simple man. Two of his greatest pleasures were trains and nature. He memorized train schedules so he could meet the trains when they came into the station and loved to ride on them. He wrote some of his best and most famous compositions while he was in the countryside of his native Bohemia and at the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa when he was in the United States.

He wrote the 8th Symphony during the summer at his vacation cottage in the country in Bohemia in 1889.  The work has been called his Pastoral Symphony, and compared to his dramatic Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8 is a lyrical work full of melodies and moods of his native countryside. but the work is much more than that.  Dvořák intended to use a different treatment of themes in his 8th Symphony, which he accomplished to mixed reviews.  Johannes Brahms was one who had mixed feelings about the work, as he spelled out in a letter to his publisher:
Too much that's fragmentary, incidental, loiters about in the piece.  Everything fine, musically captivating and beautiful - but no main points! Especially in the first movement, the result is not proper. But a charming musician!
It is good to remember that Brahms helped Dvořák to get music published in his early days and was a friend. Brahms' genuinely liked and admired Dvořák's music, but that did not stop him from critiquing it through the filter of his own style.  But criticisms of a more biting nature have appeared over the years, which have added to the reputation that the 8th is not one of Dvořák's best works. But by listening to it with a careful ear, what seems at first hearing to be episodic and disconnected actually has a structure all its own. That it is a structure somewhat removed from the traditional is true, but that is what makes the work part of the triumvirate of Dvořák's three final great symphonies.  The 8th Symphony is in four movements:

I. Allegro con brio -  The first movement begins not in G major, but G minor. This first theme also acts as an introduction, and is soon interrupted by a solo flute that is giving out the first hint of the second birdsong-like theme in G major. The second theme is taken up by the orchestra and builds to a climax and is followed by a third theme. Themes two and three have a short dialog until the birdsong theme finally wins out. Another climax is reached with the second theme and yet another theme appears, after which fragments of what has gone on before leads to another climax. The music fades and the very first theme appears to signal the beginning of the development section. Bits and parts of themes are tossed about the orchestra during the development. The very first theme reappears as a lead in to the recapitulation.  Dvořák again throws out themes and fragments of themes as he builds up to the final chords of the movement.

II. Adagio -  A solemn theme in C minor opens the movement, and soon flutes answered by clarinets lighten the mood somewhat. This is all by way of introduction to a folk-like theme in C major. The orchestra takes up the theme and increases the volume of it on its way to a climax. The flutes and clarinets take up their call and answer again in hushed tones that gradually die away. The strings play very quietly and the horns call out the beginning of a new theme that is vaguely related to the very first theme of the movement. This gives way to a more decorated version of the folk-like theme. A variant of the opening theme is heard as the music builds to a final climax before it fades away.

III. Allegretto grazioso - Molto vivace -  A theme is played in waltz time in G minor. A new theme in G major is heard in the oboe in the trio section a tune that Dvořák had previously used in an early opera. The oboes and flutes carry the tune in two beats to the bar while the strings accompany in three to the bar, one of Dvořák's favorite rhythmic devices. The first theme is repeated and leads to a short repeat of the theme of the trio in a faster tempo, in 2/4 time with the full orchestra before the music fades away.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo -  A trumpet fanfare opens the movement after which the main theme of the movement is played. There are seven variations of this theme that was inspired by Dvořák's beloved Czech folk music.  A slow, heartfelt variation leads to a vigorous repeat of a previous loud outburst and finishes off the symphony with a Czech furiant.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beethoven - Symphony No. 1 In C Major

Beethoven approached the composition of his first symphony with caution, as the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn were still in the ears of music lovers, and he knew that much would be expected of his first effort in the form.  The earliest documented evidence of when Beethoven began to compose his 1st Symphony dates from 1795.  Beethoven completed its composition and it was first performed in April of 1800 in Vienna.

Beethoven kept within the traditions of the two older masters, but also included his own style to the mix. The1st Symphony shows Beethoven's already strong penchant for the unusual. With extremes of dynamics, strong accents on and off the beat and harmonic peculiarities, Beethoven kept his contemporary audiences guessing. As the years progressed Beethoven continued to evolve and grow as a composer. In the 1st Symphony Beethoven pays homage to symphonic tradition while at the same time announcing to Vienna, the city of both Mozart and Haydn, that he had arrived.

I. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio –  Beethoven begins his debut symphony in tonal ambiguity. No doubt the experienced listener of his time expected something much different than what Beethoven gives them; an introduction that begins with a chord progression in the wrong key. The twelve-bar introduction leads to the first theme of the movement in the home key of C major. The second theme is in the expected key of G major, but Beethoven also throws in snippets of other themes in the exposition before he sticks with tradition and repeats the exposition. The development deals with the first theme. The recapitulation repeats the exposition with the obligatory key change of the second theme. The coda harks back to the first theme and rounds off the movement with repeated C major chords.

II. Andante cantabile con moto -  Written in F major, the second movement is also in sonata form. The first theme is played by the violins and repeated by the other strings contrapuntally. The second theme is a little lighter in feeling. After the development section deals with two themes, the recapitulation plays the music of the beginning of the movement with a few differences.  A coda develops the first theme slightly, after which the woodwinds have a short dialog with the strings and the movement ends.

III. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace - Although Beethoven calls this movement a minuet, the material and the tempo show this to be a scherzo. Beethoven uses passages of scales, syncopations and sudden changes in dynamics in this movement that doesn't have much in the way of genuine thematic material. But he makes good use of short motives and accents to convey a sense of rapidity and wit.

IV. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace -   In another surprise, Beethoven begins with a loud G played across the instruments of the orchestra, which is followed by snippets of a scale climbing upward in a slow adagio. This all is by way of an introduction to this finale which is also in sonata form. The scale passages end on a fermata and the first theme of the movement bursts onto the scene. The second theme by contrast is a dancing theme.  The finale emulates many of Haydn's rapid and witty symphony finales but is underlined by Beethoven's style (what some of the time would call excesses) of dynamic, rhythmic and harmonic variety.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mendelssohn - String Symphony No. 10 In B Minor

Felix Mendelssohn's natural musical abilities were recognized early.  He began piano lessons with his mother at age six, and learned so quickly that he had his first public appearance at age nine. Felix began composition and counterpoint lessons with the esteemed teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin about 1819. His teacher was an advocate of the J.S. Bach tradition and gave his student a thorough grounding in the works of the older master and other composers of the Baroque and Classical eras.

Mendelssohn's earliest surviving compositions date from 1820, and in 1821 he composed the first six of what was to become a total of twelve symphonies for strings. These were written as composition exercises for his teacher, and the completed the set in 1823 when he was 14 years old. The string symphonies were thought lost for many years but they turned up in a library in Berlin after World War Two. These dozen string symphonies quickly led to Mendelssohn's early masterpieces the String Octet written at age sixteen and the Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream written a year later.

Carl Zelter
The first six string symphonies are written in 3 movements with the later ones in 4 movements with the exception of No. 10 In B Minor which has one movement, and No. 11 In F Major which has 5 movements. No. 10 In B Minor may have had at least two more movements but they are lost.  The work was written when Mendelssohn was 14 years old. There are three tempo designations in the work:

Adagio -  A slow introduction begins this work with a nod to the music of J.S. Bach in feeling if not in construction. Towards the end the music lightens in mood and pays homage to Haydn and Mozart.

Allegro -  The beginning of the movement proper is a sudden shift in tempo and mood that reflects C.P.E. Bach's empfindsamer Stil with the first theme in early Haydn's Sturm und Drang style. The second theme has a rapid and busy quality that became a trademark of Mendelssohn's style. A third section adds additional material that leads up to the traditional repeat of the exposition. The development section repeats the two themes in various guises with few real surprises but a deftness in handling the material that is amazing for a composer of but 14 years.  The recapitulation begins with the first theme, and after a short section of transition the second theme returns in the home key of B minor.

Piu presto - The music increases in tempo and rushes breathlessly in a short coda that ends the work.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Field - Piano Concerto No. 2 In A-flat Major

John Field was an Irish composer that was known and respected by many early 19th century composers and performers. His music influenced Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann of his own generation and later composers such as Brahms.  He is most well known as the composer that got the credit for originating the nocturne, a form of music brought to perfection by Chopin.

He was a child prodigy and played his debut recital at the age of nine. His family moved to London where he began studies with the Italian pianist, composer and piano manufacturer Muzio Clementi. He was heard in concert by Haydn who praised his playing. He was also taught violin by J.P.Solomon, the violinist and impresario that had lured Haydn to London. 

He continued his studies with Clementi and became a representative for Clementi's piano firm. They both visited Europe and Russia, with Field staying in St. Petersburg. He remained in Russia living in St. Petersburg and Moscow  from 1802 until 1829 as a teacher, representative for Clementi's firm, composer and performer.  His health began to fail in the middle 1820's as he developed cancer of the rectum. He appeared less and less in public and traveled to London in 1831 to seek medical treatment. He was operated on and tried to resume his concertizing but with only moderate success. He went on tour in Europe and ended up back in Moscow where he died in 1837 aged 55 years. 

Fields wrote 7 piano concertos with the 2nd in A-flat being the most popular. It has never gone out of print and earned praise from Schumann and Chopin used it in his teaching. It was a staple of the piano concerto repertoire for many years but went out of favor after the turn of the 20th century. It was written about 1811, and is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato - Some musicologists see enough similarities in this first movement to think that it served as a model for Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra begins straight away with the first theme of the exposition. The theme is explored with an extended section for the orchestra until the strings introduce the second theme.  This leads to a repeat of the first theme, after which the piano makes its entrance in lyrical passage work that suits the theme, and as in its initial presentation the first theme is explored, but this time by the piano. The soloist takes up the second subject which leads to the development section. Field extends the development section considerably as both themes as well as snippets of new material go through modulations and piano configurations along with string tremolos, rarely heard outside of the opera house in 1811. The recapitulation begins with the orchestra repeating the first theme but in a highly truncated form of only a few bars before the soloist takes up the theme.  After the second theme goes through its modulations to the home key, trills close out the soloist part with no cadenza. The orchestra brings the movement to a close with a few bars.

II. Poco adagio -  A nocturne in everything but name, no doubt another great influence on Chopin. The movement is not only a contrast to the first movement by its material, but by its very short length. The nocturne gently throbs for a few minutes and gently ends.

III. Rondo: Moderato innocente - Fugato - Moderato -  The rhythmic theme of the rondo is played between episodes of other material, and is expanded and varied upon each repeat. Field uses devices found in music of his homeland such as the Scotch Snap, a sixteenth note followed by a dotted eighth. There are also grace notes heard in the winds that suggest the grace notes of a bagpipe. A section in counterpoint, a rarity for Field, appears close to the end. The theme makes its last appearance amid a highly decorated piano part. The strings play a drone as the piano weaves filigree passage work. The orchestra finishes the movement and the concerto.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rodrigo - Concierto de Aranjuez

The Spanish master guitarist Andrés Segovia, a musician that was responsible for much of the Renaissance of the classical guitar in the 20th century, had this to say about his instrument:
The guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different color, a different voice.
Segovia's quote underlines the uniqueness of the instrument and well as one of the difficulties in writing music for it. Most music for the classical guitar is either written or transcribed by a musician that can play the instrument. Unlike other instruments where a working knowledge will suffice, the guitar is capable of playing the same note at the same pitch on different strings and in different positions, something that may not be readily ascertainable to a non-playing composer. Add to that the tonal quality of the same note played on a different string, and the problems multiply.

It may be a difficult proposition for a non-guitar playing composer to write for the instrument, but it is not impossible. With the increased popularity of the classical guitar in the 20th century, more non-playing composers wrote works for it. One of the most successful non-playing composers of a work for guitar was the Spanish composer and pianist Joaquín Rodrigo.

His most popular work for guitar was  Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, written in 1939 while he was in exile in Paris.  He had been writing music for guitar since 1926, and the concerto was his first piece for guitar and orchestra.  The work was inspired by the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, a residence of Spanish kings located in the town of Aranjuez and built in the 16th and 18th centuries. The palace is known for its beautiful gardens, and it was these gardens that inspired Rodrigo. As Rodrigo had been almost totally blind since the age of three, it was the sounds of the gardens that inspired the work, as Rodrigo explains:
[The music] should sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks...depict the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains.
The work premiered in 1940 at Barcelona. It is in three movements:

I. Allegro con spirito -  There are few works for guitar and orchestra with one of the reasons being a problem of balance. An orchestra can easily overpower a solo guitar, but Rodrigo deftly keeps both entities on equal sonic terms. The work begins with the first theme played by the guitar with a very subtle underpinning by the low strings. The theme is in the style of flamenco and the fandango, a Spanish dance in triple time, and in this case with a few measures of duple time thrown in for rhythmic interest. This theme goes through various guises in the movement. A second theme is also involved and is put through the same development style. The movement ends with a final flourish from the guitar.

One of the gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez
II. Adagio -  The guitar begins by strumming chords and the cor anglaise enters with a melancholy theme. The guitar takes up the theme and embellishes it. The haunting themes and harmonies continue until the guitar plays a solo section of the theme spiced with some occasional dissonant accompaniment.  The orchestra and guitar have a section of dialog before the guitar plays solo again in music of quiet agitation. The guitar plays arpeggios and strums flamenco style until the orchestra takes over and plays a short climax. The guitar returns, and the music grows quiet as the guitar rises in pitch and plays a gentle ending.

III.  Allegro gentile - A theme is played by guitar with a tripping rhythm. This theme is repeated throughout the finale and is varied as it goes.  The guitarist plays a descending figure and the music gently ends.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Oboe Concerto In E-flat Major Wq. 165

In the period between the Baroque and Classical eras there was a short period of transition that began in France and spread throughout  Europe called Rococo, music that is typically lighter but intimate in style with ornate ornamentation. Music in this style was called style galante in France and empfindsamer stil in Germany.

The concept of eras in music is merely a device used by scholars and teachers to subdivide the vast history of the subject into more digestible chunks, so it is well to remember that  elements of one era overlap quite often into differing eras. If the 50 - year period between 1720 - 1770 can be considered the Rococo era, there was considerable overlap within the Baroque era at the beginning of it and within the Classical era at the end of it.  Composers can be difficult to pigeonhole into any one era as many times works were written with specific occasions, performers and patrons in mind, which would determine the style. Even within a single composition there could be sections representing more than one style.

The development of the solo concerto in the early 18th century by Vivaldi can be thought of as one example of the reaction against the learned contrapuntal composing style of the Baroque. The 12 concertos printed as L'estro Armonico in 1711 were widely distributed and studied by many composers, including J.S. Bach who made many transcriptions of them. Not all of the concertos are for solo violin. Some are for two, three or four violins and may be technically considered concertos grosso, but it is the style in which they were composed and the ritornello form that they used that were so influential.

With the contributions by J.S. Bach to the solo concerto literature in the style of Vivaldi, he can be considered at least an occasional composer of works in the Rococo style. As the elder Bach was the only teacher that his son C.P.E. Bach ever had, it is natural that the son was taught not only the learned style of counterpoint, but other styles as well. C.P.E. Bach can be considered a Rococo composer, but he also expanded beyond that and was one of the primary composers in the development of the Classical style later perfected by Haydn and Mozart.

C.P.E. Bach composed works in most genres of his time, and the number of concertos is considerable, with some 52 works.  All of his concertos are originally written for keyboard, but he did make alternate versions of a few of these for other instruments such as flute, oboe, and cello.

He arranged two concertos for solo oboe in 1765, with the first one being in B-flat major which amounts to an enjoyable equivalent of 18th century easy listening music, while the second concerto in E-flat major shows more of Bach's quirky style. They were likely written for a prominent soloist whose name is not known, but who was probably a traveling virtuoso or member of the local orchestra in Berlin. The concerto is written for oboe, strings, continuo and is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The orchestra begins the work with a stubborn two note motive played in the violins over a shifting accompaniment in the other strings. The theme expands and goes off in a different direction until it returns to the opening two note motive. A rather awkward sounding chord progression (completely intentional, Bach usually has some harmonic surprises in his better compositions) leads to the entrance of the oboe. The oboe takes up the two note motive and develops the music that was introduced in the opening by the orchestra. The orchestra tosses out music in its own episodes and as an accompaniment to the soloist in Bach's version of ritornello form. A cadenza is played by the soloist, after which previous material is repeated by the orchestra in an early form of a sonata recapitulation. A short coda by the orchestra ends the movement.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - The middle movement is in C minor. The orchestra plays the melancholy theme which is taken up by the soloist and varied while the orchestra accompanies and comments. The oboe plays a short cadenza after which the orchestra repeats the melancholy theme without the oboe. The music moves to a cadence to an E-flat major chord and the last movement is played without a break.

III.  Allegro ma non troppo -  The final movement has a three to the bar theme played by the orchestra. AS in the previous movements, the oboe takes up the theme, expands and varies it between the orchestra's restatement of it. After the oboe develops the theme, it repeats it almost as it was first played. The orchestra then makes its final comments and closes the work.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ustvolskaya - Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani

Galina Ustvolskaya composed two types of works: officially sanctioned works for the state, and as Shostakovich called them works for the drawer, compositions written for no other reason but the inner drive of the composer to write them.

Ustvolskaya was a student of Dmitri Shostakovich for a few years at the Leningrad Conservatory. There were rumors about the relationship being more than teacher/pupil and these rumors, much to her chagrin, followed her throughout her life. In the 1990's she had enough of speculation about her relationship with Shostakovich and wrote the following:
I am writing these notes to finally assert the TRUTH about my relations with Dmitri Shostakovich. To state the TRUTH about Shostakovich himself as a composer and a person. I am not writing anything in detail. Details could have far-reaching consequences. It is high time to move on from the steadfast, stupid point of view on Shostakovich. On my part I would like to say the following: never once during the years, even during my studies at the Conservatory which I spent in his class, was Shostakovich’s music close to me. Nor was his personality. I would be even more candid: I bluntly refused to accept his music, as in the following years. Unfortunately, Shostakovich’s personality only deepened my negative attitude towards him. I do not feel it necessary to further dwell on the subject. One thing remains clear: it would seem that such an outstanding figure as Shostakovich was not outstanding to me. On the contrary, it was painful and killed my best feelings. I begged God to give me strength to create and now too I ask God the same.
Galina Ustvolskaya St. Petersburg, 1 January 1994 (this and more information can be found at ustvolskaya.org)
Whatever their relationship, Ustvolskya resented the persistence of the rumors for the simple fact that it tended to make critics and scholars focus on matters other than her music.

Ustvolskaya's list of works that she considered valid (meaning no official state-sanctioned music is included) is short, only 25 works. But she was a highly principled artist and finally decided to be true to her art and herself and only compose works when and how she wanted to, or rather when the spirit of God moved her to. She wrote a letter to a publisher in response to a request to write a composition for publication;
...I would gladly write something for your publishing house, but this depends on God — not on me. If God gives me the opportunity to compose something, then I will do it without fail. My method of finishing a work is essentially very different from that of other composers. I write whenever I am in a favourable mood. Then the composition is left to rest for some time, and when its time comes I give it its freedom. If its time does not come, then I destroy it. I do not accept commissions. The whole process of composition is accomplished in my head and in my soul. Only I myself can determine the path of my composition. "Lord, give me the strength to compose! — I beseech Thee" (04.02.1990 ustvolskaya.org).
 Ustvolskaya taught for a number of years at the Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory and seems to have been well liked by most of her students. Like her life and her music, her teaching methods were unorthodox but valued by her students. After the premiere of the Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani (which caused somewhat of a scandal), the administration of the conservatory threatened to remove her but her students staged a protest and she was retained.

The Concerto For Piano, Strings And Timpani was written in 1946 when she was 27 years old, and is considered her first work as a composer.  It is in one continuous movement and is one of her most accessible works:

The work begins with the soloist playing a rhythmic figure that is heard sporadically throughout the composition.  The music is still divided by bar lines with shifting of time signatures from 4/4, 6/8, and 3/4. Although in later years Ustvolskaya denied that Shostakovich was any influence on her music, this concerto shows that not to be the case as there are examples that hearken back to Shostakovich's style. There are basically two themes in the work that weave in and out in sections that are at times strong and rugged and other times lyrical and melodic. This concerto doesn't do away with major-minor key relationships altogether. There is an organic quality of growth in the work that comes full circle with the finale that returns again to the opening rhythmic motive that is brutally repeated by the piano until the closing chord, a stylistic trait that she repeated in other works to the extent that a critic labeled her The Lady With The Hammer.

Ustvolskaya's music became more and more avant garde through the years, and she became incredibly particular about performances of her music, which probably didn't help in getting them performed.  A spiritual (but not religious) element also entered into her later works.  Opinions from her contemporaries about Ustvolskaya's music range from those who love it to those who detest it, and the same goes for Ustvolskaya the person.  She remains somewhat of an enigma as well as a paradox; shy but yet brutally aggressive in her music, solitary in the extreme but an able and innovative teacher. She was born in the city of Petrograd in 1919, spent most of her life in the city of Leningrad, and died in the city of St. Petersburg in 2006, all of which are changes to the same city's name during her lifetime - a reflection of the great social and artistic upheaval she lived through. She seemed to weather the storm with no regrets as she remained true to her unique artistic vision.  Her music will most likely never be very popular, but she probably understood that better than anyone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Minor

Frédéric Chopin composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Minor in 1829-1830. It was actually the first piano concerto that he composed but was published second. He was 19 years old and had completed a course of study with Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory. Chopin performed the work in March of 1830 at his Warsaw debut.  It was also the work he performed at his Paris debut in 1832 with musical dignitaries such as Berlioz, Liszt and Rossini in the audience.

Chopin was not happy on the concert platform and played very few concerts in his short life. He made most of his living by teaching wealthy students in Paris and by composing.  Interestingly enough, Chopin evidently did not like to write his music out on paper.  He would even change works that already appeared in print. Perhaps his drive for perfection made him think they could be made better.

The few works Chopin wrote for piano and orchestra are usually criticized for the orchestral writing. But Chopin used as his model the concertos of Hummel and Kalkbrenner, not Beethoven. He wrote the piano concertos as display vehicles for himself as pianist at a time when most other piano virtuosos were doing the  same, and in more or less the same style. Thus the piano is naturally the star with the spotlight on it, but that is not to say that the orchestra doesn't have some interesting things to contribute.  Chopin's piano concertos are extremely effective works that are still played. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Maestoso -  The concerto begins with the usual (for the time) part of the exposition where the orchestra introduces the themes of the movement without the piano. The two themes are nothing exceptional, but when the piano enters and comments on them the atmosphere changes. The piano plays the first theme with a very light accompaniment by the orchestra strings and the theme becomes emboldened and more passionate. The second theme gets the same type of embellished treatment from the piano. The development section bristles with virtuosity for the soloist as well as a short episode for orchestra alone. Both themes are developed before the recapitulation. The two themes are dominated by the piano, until the piano reaches a climax with trills (a double trill in the right hand, single trill in the left) and bare octave F's in both hands. The orchestra plays the denouement alone.

II. Larghetto -  Although Chopin is considered a musical innovator, he was notorious for not liking much of the music his contemporaries were writing. Chopin became friends with Liszt but didn't much care the music he wrote, and the list goes on. His composing ideals were J.S. Bach, Mozart, Hummel and in his early years Kalkbrenner. Another composer in this short list is John Field, the Irish composer and pianist who developed the genre of the nocturne. Field was more than twenty years older than Chopin and by the time Chopin came on the scene Field was a famous composer and virtuoso. The second movement is a sweet, melancholy nocturne for soloist and orchestra, one of the most famous and beautiful pieces written. The movement shows the influence of not only Field, but the bel canto opera singing Chopin heard on trips he made to Berlin in 1828 and 1829.

III. Allegro vivace -  Chopin spent his vacations of 1824-1828 in rural areas of Poland and it was on these vacations where he came into direct contact with Polish folk dances, namely the mazurka, and what Field did for the nocturne Chopin did for the mazurka.  This movement as well as most of the other mazurkas wrote were not restricted to the form of the original folk dance. Chopin created much more interest in his expanding of the dance. This movement also has some of the most colorful orchestral writing of the concerto, as a few minutes into the movement Chopin instructs violins and violas to play col legno, where the wood of the back of the bow strikes the string which creates a quite different effect. The music has the distinctive off the beat accents and figurations that Chopin used in his mazurkas. After a short climax near the end of the movement, a solo horn plays:
A horn signal that is followed by music for the soloist that is marked brillante, and the brilliance for the soloist continues until another climax is reached, after which the piano quietly plays a fragment of the mazurka before the final flourish by the soloist and the ending chords by the orchestra.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3 In D Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff was a composer inspired by many of his Russian compatriot composers, especially Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but it may come as a surprise that Rachmaninoff held the Grieg Piano Concerto In A Minor as the greatest piano concerto ever written. At least that is the recollection of the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein in an interview for television called Arthur Rubinstein At 90. Rachmaninoff liked the Grieg concerto so well that his 1st  Piano Concerto's beginning resembles the opening of Grieg's. Although it is difficult to hear any obvious similarities between the 3rd concerto and Grieg's, that doesn't mean that Rachmaninoff wasn't still influenced by it. Inspiration doesn't necessarily result in imitation.

Rachmaninoff wrote his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1909 during a summer vacation on his family's estate in Russia, where he wrote many of his works before he left Russia in 1917.  The work has never been as popular as his 2nd piano concerto, but Rachmaninoff himself preferred the 3rd as he said the 2nd was more uncomfortable to play.

There has not been a great deal of agreement with Rachmaninoff's comment as the 3rd Piano Concerto's reputation persists among other pianists as one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire. All of his works for piano and orchestra are difficult technically and with Rachmaninoff being one of the top virtuoso performers of the 20th century, that is no surprise. But there is more to it than that. Part of the difficulty is that the soloist has very few measures where the piano is not contributing either as soloist or accompanist. Rachmaninoff approved some optional cuts in the work to help shorten it and make it more popular, but these cuts are seldom taken in modern performances. Without the cuts the work lasts roughly 40 minutes, a real test for a pianist's stamina and alertness.

The 3rd Piano Concerto was premiered in New York late in 1909 with the New York Symphony Society, and was repeated a few weeks later with Rachmaninoff again the soloist and Gustav Mahler conducting. The concerto was dedicated to the Polish-American virtuoso pianist Josef Hofmann, but he never performed it in public. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro ma non tanto -  The first movement begins with the orchestra playing two bars of gently throbbing material and the piano enters with a simple theme played in both hands an octave apart. This theme and parts of it occur throughout the concerto:
 The theme expands until the piano erupts into running sixteenth notes and the theme is taken up by the horns. The piano part grows more complex as well as the orchestra's part until there is a short episode for solo piano. The orchestra plays a section of transition to the 2nd theme in a major key. The first time it is played as a give and take with piano and orchestra, which is followed by a more rhapsodic version of the 2nd theme played by piano with sparse and subtle accompaniment by woodwinds and strings. After the 2nd theme is worked through, the first theme reappears but with stopped horns making an eerie comment Rachmaninoff launches into a robust and complex development section, after which the piano plays an extended cadenza with fragments of the first them sprinkled throughout it. The woodwinds take their turn with parts of the first theme as the pianist plays a rippling accompaniment. The pianist again has a solo cadenza, this time it is a fantasia on the 2nd theme. Rachmaninoff has just used a novel approach to the recapitulation section of concerto sonata form by playing the themes as piano cadenzas. The orchestra finally reenters and leads the music back to the first theme.  The orchestra and pianist make a last fleeting reference to the 2nd theme, and the music quickly leads to a very subtle and surprising pianissimo ending.

II. Intermezzo: Adagio -  The orchestra plays a melancholy theme in F-sharp minor for an extended time in the beginning of this movement, the longest section without piano participation in the entire concerto. Shortly after the piano enters the second theme in a major key is played by the soloist. The piano takes up the first theme, and piano and orchestra develop it. The second theme is heard once again and varied. Among the variations is a waltz with the orchestra carrying the thematic material while the piano plays a glittering accompaniment.  The orchestra then plays an interlude without piano that is reminiscent of the main theme of the first movement and then harks back to the introduction of the second movement. The piano changes the mood with a short solo, and then soloist and orchestra join together to lead into the last movement without pause.

III. Finale: Alla breve - There are two vigorous themes in this movement that are heard one after the other in the beginning. After these themes are presented, the second theme of the first movement is combined with the initial theme of this movement for what at first appears to the ear as new material.  The main theme of the first movement then appears in a varied form in the cellos and is hinted at in the piano, after which the second theme from the first movement makes another appearance. After some transitional material, the two themes of this movement reappear, recognizable but in different clothes. Then Rachmaninoff switches keys to D major, and the music gets more and more animated. A new theme in the new major key and as it broadens it rises into the stratosphere of Romantic expression, something that Rachmaninoff was a master of.  The music quickens again and rushes to a glorious ending.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 1 In C Major

The last decade of the 18th century saw the increased development of the traveling virtuoso. Instead of working towards an appointment at a royal court or church, musicians found that they could take their musical facility on the road, get more exposure and perhaps make enough money to remain independent.  Mozart was one of the first musicians to go free lance as a composer and pianist, with Beethoven and Schubert following suit in the next generation. But the term free lance needs to be qualified to some extent. While these composers did not have an official position such as Kappelmeister, Cantor or Music director, they still relied indirectly on the patronage of the elite and royalty by way of commissions and other monetary assistance.

Ludwig van Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 after he had visited there earlier, and probably got the funds to do so from a patrons who knew him in Vienna and wanted him to move there. He studied with Haydn and quickly became the talk of the town by playing the piano in the salons of royalty and well-to-do citizens of the town. He gained patrons and admirers as well as getting his works published. Three years later in 1795 he gave his first public performance in Vienna.

As Beethoven rode the crest of popularity, he began thinking about trying his luck as a traveling virtuoso. Prince Lichnowsky of Vienna, friend and patron of Beethoven, helped him plan the trip and accompanied him on the journey to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. Lichnowsky had also been a friend and  patron of Mozart and had gone on tour with him also. Beethoven's tour of 1796 was one of the few and the longest Beethoven went on. The tour was an evident success as Beethoven was inundated with so many commissions for new works that he could not fill them.  He was away on tour from February until he returned back to Vienna in July of 1796. 

Beethoven was such a success in Prague during his first visit that he returned in October of 1798, where he played the Piano Concerto No. 1 In C Major in his first concert and the Piano Concerto No. 2 In B-flat Major in the second concert.  The Czech pianist and composer Václav Tomášek heard Beethoven in Prague in 1789 and wrote about it in his memoirs:
In the year 1798... Beethoven, the giant among pianoforte players, came to Prague. He gave a largely attended concert in the Konviktssaal, at which he played his Concerto in C major, Op. 15, and the Adagio and graceful Rondo in A major from Op. 2, and concluded with an improvisation on a theme given him... from Mozart’s “Titus”. Beethoven’s magnificent playing and particularly the daring flights in his improvisation stirred me strangely to the depths of my soul; indeed I found myself so profoundly bowed down that I did not touch my pianoforte for several days....
Although published as Piano Concerto No. 1, it was actually the third piano concerto Beethoven had written. The earlier concertos being; a  concerto in E-flat written in 1784 when he was 13, and what was published as Piano Concerto No. 2, which was written years before the first. It is all a matter of which one was published first. As the C Major concerto was published first, it is titled as such, and it was Beethoven's decision to have this concerto printed before the B-flat concerto as he thought it the better of the two.

Beethoven's sketches for the composition go back to 1793, but he performed a version of the concerto in 1795 in Vienna. He kept revising the score, performed it in 1798 , and continued to work on the score until he finished a clean copy for the publisher in 1800. It was published in 1801 and was dedicated to Anna Luisa Princess Barbara Odescalchi Furst, a royal patron and piano student in Prague. The work is in three movements:

I. Allegro con brio - The exposition begins with a march-like theme played by the orchestra. The second theme is in a more laid back mood, but has many key changes which gives an underlying edge to it. With the orchestral part of the exposition over, the soloist enters with a new theme which is only heard this one time. The orchestra reminds the piano of the march-like theme and the piano comments on it. The second theme returns in the orchestra and the soloist takes it up in a recognizable form. The solo piano bristles with scales, chords and running figures. The development section begins in the key of E-flat major in music that is almost like a nocturne. The woodwinds trade fragments of the first theme while the piano accompanies. The key changes to C minor, and then the piano plays descending chromatic scales. The music lowers to pianissimo as the horns play octaves that alternate with chords by the piano. Suddenly the soloist plays a octave glissando in fortissimo that heralds the beginning of the recapitulation. The first theme returns and the piano answers it after a few bars. Beethoven shortens the recapitulation by going directly to the second theme. Secondary material is played until the space for the cadenza is reached. Beethoven himself wrote three cadenzas for this movement, with the last two written ten years after the concerto was finished.  Each one of the cadenzas grows longer and more difficult. The recording linked to in this post has the soloist opt for the 3rd version of the cadenza which is extends the length of the first movement considerably. This cadenza is almost a separate work, a fantasia on everything that has gone before as well as some now material. It bristles with brilliance and the difficulties are considerable, not least of which is how to keep such a long cadenza part of the whole of the movement.  Near the end of the cadenza there are chains of trills, with the soloist finally playing a wide-spread C major chord, after which the orchestra alone plays a short coda.

II. Largo -  The second movement is in A-flat major, a radical departure by Beethoven as it is a key quite distant from the home key of the concerto.  The movement is in ternary form, with several themes in the first section that are repeated and developed in the middle section.  While the first movement can be called extroverted, this slow movement is more introverted. One of the characteristics of Beethoven's use of the forms of Haydn and Mozart is that he tended to extend the length of movements. The 3rd Symphony In E-flat, has been the most obvious example of this, but it happened earlier than that as with this concerto, written at least 6 years before the 3rd Symphony.

III. Rondo: Allegro - Beethoven keeps the tradition of the Classical era model of concerto final movements with a rondo. The rapid, rhythmic main theme of the movement is first played by the soloist at the very beginning:
After the piano states the theme, the orchestra has its turn. There are three episodes that occur between repeats of the rondo theme. The first episode between repeats of the rondo theme begins in G major.  The second episode in A minor, and the third in the home key of C major. But in all three of these episodes, Beethoven doesn't stay in the same key. He throws harmonic and other surprises in each one. After the final episode there is a short cadenza for pianist before the rondo theme returns. The soloist and orchestra then play a coda until the soloist plays another short cadenza as the tempo slows to adagio. The oboes answer this cadenza. There is a silent pause, after which the tempo goes back to allegro scherzando as the orchestra plays the last bars in a whirlwind fortissimo.



Monday, August 4, 2014

W.F. Bach - Harpsichord Concerto In E Minor F.43

Being the eldest son of J.S. Bach no doubt had its advantages. Wilhelm Friedemann had the benefit of one of the greatest musicians of all time as his personal teacher. Father Bach took a very personal interest in the child's musical education and created a graded course of keyboard and composition instruction with the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.  Not only did Johann write the first volume of The Well Tempered Clavier for his eldest son, but many other pieces as well.  His father's instruction served Wilhelm well as he was acknowledged as one of the great keyboardists and improvisers of his time.

But being the eldest son of J.S. Bach had  its down sides also. Much was given to him, but much was expected. While his father's reputation as a composer came long after he died, his reputation as an organist and harpsichordist was remembered long after his death, a legacy the younger Bach may have had trouble coping with. Trying to surpass (let alone equal) his father's reputation may have been one of the reasons Wilhelm never really did very well for himself.  He never stayed in one place too long, and early biographers accused him of being hard to get along with and aloof, perhaps with good cause, but there is so little known about his life that it is not possible to be sure.  When his father died J. S. Bach's compositions were divided up between the four remaining sons that were musicians, with W.F. selling a great number of them to help pay off the debt he was under. W.F. was also not above claiming some of his father's compositions as his own. It isn't known how many of his father's works were lost because of his eldest son's shenanigans, all of which probably helped to bring about the poor opinion some scholars had of him early on.

His compositions were once considered bad  imitations of his father's, but modern scholarship has changed the opinion of his importance. He is now considered to be a composer that wrote during the transition from the Baroque age to the Classical age, in the gallante style of the times, and some music more serious in nature.  W.F. wasn't much better at tending to his own compositions as  those of his father. There is no way of knowing how many of his works are lost.

The Harpsichord Concerto In E Minor was written about 1767, roughly the same time as Haydn wrote his 35th Symphony, Mozart was 11 years old and already an accomplished composer, and Georg Philippe Telemann died in Hamburg at the age of 86 (and his godson C.P.E. Bach took over Telemann's position of musical director of Hamburg the same year).  The work is written for strings, continuo and solo harpsichord and is in three movements:

I.  Allegretto - The concerto opens with a robust theme for strings. After this is played through the soloist enters with its own theme. The rest of the movement involves these two themes as they are replayed and varied in an early version of sonata form, which W.F. Bach used in his compositions. There is also a feeling of Sturm und Drang in this first movement, and W.F. has recently been acknowledged as one of the earliest composers that used this stylistic trend. After the two themes have been thoroughly explored, there is a cadenza for soloist. After the cadenza, the first theme is repeated by the strings and the movement ends.

II.  Adagio -  The strings begin the movement, after which the soloist enters. The harpsichord steadily plays rather benign music, with the strings providing the seasoning of the movement by sudden outbursts. There is an extended section for the soloist without strings, after which the strings appear and play the thematic material while the harpsichord plays a commentary, and the movement ends with one last sigh.

III. Allegro assai -  The music moves back to the minor as the strings begin the movement by playing another robust theme. The soloist enters with commentary on the theme while the strings interrupt with the biting motives of the opening. And so the movement goes until the soloist plays a short solo, and the strings return to the robust theme of the beginning.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dvořák - Violin Concerto In A Minor

Antonín Dvořák composed only three concertos for solo instrument and orchestra. The first was the Piano Concerto In G Minor composed in 1876, a work that has taken many years for any kind of regularity of performance and it is still rare to hear the work in concert. The last concerto was the Cello Concerto In B Minor written in 1894, the most popular of all three concertos. In between was the Violin Concerto In A Minor, a work that was finished in its first version in 1879.

Dvořák had met the violinist Joseph Joachim in early 1879 through their mutual friend Johannes Brahms. Joachim had played Dvořák's chamber music and commissioned him to write a concerto for violin.  Dvořák busied himself with the work and took the initial sketches of the concerto with him to Berlin when he visited Joachim. The violinist suggested some changes in the work, and Dvořák sent Joachim the revised work in November of 1879. No other correspondence between the two survives, but Dvořák was once again in Berlin in April 1880 and Joachim gave him his opinion of the concerto. Once again, Dvořák took Joachim's criticisms to heart and revised the work, which he sent to Joachim in late May of 1880.

It wasn't until 1882 that Joachim sent Dvořák a letter requesting more revisions and technical changes to the solo part to make it more performable. Joachim invited Dvořák once more to Berlin for a consultation, where in September of 1882 the composer and violinist played through the work. According to Dvořák:
I played the violin concerto with Joachim twice. He liked it very much, and Mr Keller, who was present as well, was delighted with it. I was very glad that the matter has finally been sorted out. The issue of revision lay at Joachim’s door for a full two years!! He very kindly revised the violin part himself; I just have to change something in the Finale and refine the instrumentation in a number of places.
Joseph Joachim
But that wasn't the end of the matter.  The Mr. Keller mentioned in the above quote was the musical advisor for Dvořák's publisher Simrock, and he suggested that changes be made to the structure of the concerto as well as advising cuts be made. Dvořák went along with some of the cuts but refused to change the structure of the concerto. In the end his publisher relented and published the score.

The premiere of the concerto took place in Prague in October of 1883, four years after Joachim had first encouraged Dvořák to write it, and the soloist at the premiere was not Joachim but František Ondříček, a young Czech violin virtuoso, who worked with the composer for two months on the work. And despite Joachim's interest, consultation and suggestions for the work, he never performed the piece.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo - The orchestra plays a short, powerful introduction, after which the soloist plays the first theme.  The orchestra modulates and repeats a few bars of the introduction before the soloist continues the first theme. The orchestra comments on the theme and expands it with different material until the violin again states the theme and begins to develop it. The soloist then plays the second theme in the key of C major, the parallel major key to the home key of A minor. This theme is also expanded upon, until hints of the first theme lead to the first theme's full return. There is then a short section that cuts off the theme and leads directly to the second movement. Dvořák essentially does away with the traditional sonata form of exposition, development, recapitulation by altering the exposition section and doing away with the development and recapitulation sections altogether and segues into the slow movement. This is one of the structural issues that Mr. Keller tried to change as he wanted the first and second movements to be separate.

II. Adagio ma non troppo - Written in F major, the first theme is played by the soloist and dominates  the movement. Dvořák writes music of a vocal quality for the soloist and the movement gives needed contrast from the passionate first movement. There is a more dramatic second theme that appears a few times, but it's interruptions are brief and are gently brushed aside by the return and expansion of the first theme. Dvořák's gift for melody shines in this movement that is relatively long but never lacking in interest or beauty, so much so that this movement was sometimes played without the first and last movements as a stand-alone piece. As the end approaches, horns play a fragment of the theme as an accompaniment to the soloist.

III. Finale: Allegro giocoso ma non troppo -  The movement is in A major and begins immediately with the main theme which sounds like something Mendelssohn may have written if he had been a Czech. Dvořák's fondness for the rhythms of his native dance the furiant is played throughout with tripping syncopations.  and 3 versus 2 cross rhythms characteristic of Czech folk music.  A contrasting section takes on a 2/4 time signature and a minor key as a dumka, another Czech folk dance, is played that is characterized by a very interesting part for soloist played over a 3 versus 2 cross rhythm. After the dumka plays out, the main theme reappears and takes the concerto to its conclusion.

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