Sunday, January 25, 2015

Schubert - Three Songs, Opus 4

Schubert had an exceptional drive to compose at every possible opportunity, almost an obsession for writing music. Schubert said himself that:

I compose every morning, and when one piece is done, I begin another.  

Despite the few years of life he had, he developed his talent to a remarkable degree.  When Franz Schubert died in Vienna in 1828 even his close friends had no idea of how much music he had written. He wrote in almost every musical genre of his day,  and it wasn't until the last few years of his life that his works were beginning to be published. It wasn't until 1951 when research done by Otto Erich Deutsch resulted in the publication of a comprehensive catalog of Schubert works that the tremendous number of Schubert works were known.

During his lifetime Schubert was known for his songs; it is the genre that he wrote the most in with over 600 songs to his credit.  His songs were the first compositions to be published, beginning in 1821 with his setting of Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig. The three songs of opus 4 were published in 1822 and included Der Wanderer (1816) , Morgenlied (1820), and Wandrers Nachtlied I (1815). 

The Wanderer, D. 489 -  Schubert had a genius for being able to read a poem and setting it to music. Sometimes the poems he set were of the highest quality by poets such as Goethe, but he was adept at making the most of any poem that set his musical imagination to composition. The poem Der Wanderer was written by  Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck who was something of a Renaissance man. He was born to an old merchant family, studied law, medicine, was an astute business man and politician.  He was also a man of letters who wrote on historical subjects as well as poetry. By the time Schubert wrote this song he had written over 300 songs as well as numerous cantatas for solo voices and choirs ans well as part songs with piano accompaniment. He used the experience of writing all of these vocal works and no doubt his experience of listening to opera and created a song with operatic overtones and a concentrated opera aria structure. It was one of Schubert's most popular songs in his lifetime and still resonates with audiences today.

Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck
The Wanderer
I come down from the mountains,
The valley fills with mist, the sea roars.
I wander silently and  unhappily,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"

The sun seems so cold to me here,
The flowers dead, life old,
And what they say has an empty sound;
I am a stranger everywhere.

Where are you, my dear land?
Sought and brought to mind, yet never known,
That land, so hopefully green,
That land, where my roses bloom,

Where my friends wander.
Where the dead ones rise from the dead,
That land where they speak my language,
Oh land, where are you?

I wander silently and unhappily,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"
In a ghostly breath it calls back to me,
"Where you are not, there is happiness."

Morning Song D. 685 -  A man of many accomplishments, Zacharias Werner studied law, was appointed a government post for tow years until he resigned and traveled widely. He became acquainted with Goethe and other literary artists while traveling, and while in Rome converted to Roman Catholicism and was consecrated a priest.  He was also a playwright, and Schubert got the poem from Werner’s play The Sons of the Valley. This song was also popular in Schubert's time, but it doesn't age very well, at least the lyrics.

Morning Song
Before the sun rises early,
When from the sea mist
The morning breeze wafts up and down,
When dawn, armed with it shining spear, leads forward,
Little birds flutter here and there,
Zacharias Werner
Sing joyfully in all directions
A song, a jubilant song.

"What so delights all you birds,
So happy in the warming rays of the sun?"
"We are happy that we live and exist,
And that we are companions of the air,
According to time-honoured custom
we flutter joyfully through the bushes,
Wafted about by the lovely morning breeze,
Whose caress is also enjoyed by the sun."

"Why do you little birds sit so silent and crouched down
In your mossy nests on the roof?"
"We sit because the sun no longer takes notice of us,
Night has already been enveloped by the waves,
The moon alone, the lovely light,
The sun’s lovely reflection
Does not leave us in darkness,
Wherefore we rejoice quietly."

O youth, cool morningtide,
Where we, our hearts wide open,
With senses quick and waking
Delight in the freshness of life,
Now you have fled!
We old ones sit alone crouching in our nest,
But the lovely reflection of our youthful days,
Where we delighted in early dawn,
Johann Goethe
Never leaves us even in old age,
But fills us with the quiet, joy of the senses.

Wanderer's Nightsong I,  D. 224 -  Schubert chose a poem written in 1776 by the ultimate German poet Johann Goethe. Goethe wrote two poems named Wanderer's Night Song, this one is the first. Schubert also set the second poem to music.  Schubert achieves a calmness and beauty in this short song that is remarkable considering he was only eighteen when he wrote it.

Wanderer's Night Song I 
You who are from heaven,
who eases all pain and sorrow,
and the doubly wretched
you fill with doubly with fresh vigor.
Ah, I'm tired of restless life!
For what is all this pain and joy?
Sweet peace,
come, ah, come into my breast!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mussorgsky - The Seminarist

Modest Mussorgsky, one of the great natural musicians of the 19th century,  died of alcohol-induced epilepsy in 1881 at the age of 42. He began his early adult life as an officer in the Russian military, but after serving only a year or two resigned his commission and began to devote himself to music. Mussorgsky had been a child prodigy on the piano, but his technical training in musical theory, harmony and counterpoint was sparse.

Mussorgsky planned and began many more compositions than he ever finished. He either planned or began eleven operas, but he completed only one, the well-known Boris Godunov, that for many years was only heard in Rimsky-Korsakov's version done after Mussorgsky's death.  He wrote many pieces for piano solo and his best-known work Pictures At An Exhibition is more well known in the orchestration done by Ravel than the original piano version.

One area of composition in which he excelled was songs for voice and piano, of which he wrote over 70 examples. He was the first great song composer that integrated the inflection and stress of the Russian language with music.  He wrote his first songs while still a teenager, but it wasn't until 1866 that he became adept as a composer of unique songs in and for the Russian language.

He wrote The Seminarist in 1867 and it is set to Mussorgsky's own words. It is a comic song that deals with a young seminary student's ardor for a priest's daughter. The song begins with monotonous chanting of Latin nouns, an exercise seminary students were put through to teach them Latin. This chanting of Latin nouns occurs throughout the song, and interspersed with the chants are the amorous dreamings of the seminary student as well as the thumping he receives from the girl's father after he catches the seminary student flirting with her during church. The Russian Orthodox Church censor banned the song from being circulated or printed in Russia as the song was considered to be disrespectful of the church. Mussorgsky wrote two versions of the song, and the church banned both versions, to Mussorgsky's delight:

The Seminarist
Panis, piscis, crinis, finis, ignis, lapis, pulvis, cinis…
Woe is me! Woe is me!
Orbis amnis et canalis, orbis amnis et canalis...
The priest gave me a thumping,
And blessed me with a beating,
And made me lose my memory with the blow of his holy hand.
Fascis, axis, funis, ensis, fustis, vectis, vermis, mensis…
The priest Semyon has a beautiful daughter,
Her cheeks are rosy, Her eyes are sensual,
Her breast like that of a swan,
That swells under her shirt.
Fastis, axis, funis, ensis, fustis, vestis, vermis, mensis…
Ah, Styosha, my Stoyosha,
How I would kiss you,
And embrace you!
Postis, follis, cucumis, atque, pollis, atque pollis, cucumis, cucumis… 
The other day during the service for holy and
famous Mitrodora
I read a part of the Scriptures.
But peeped at Styosha all the time
And glanced at the left side of
the choir stall and gave her a wink.
Then her devil of a Father saw it
and wrote it in his little book,
And my master blessed me three times
on the ears,
And with all his power beat the Latin lessons into my head with a stick.
Orbis, amnis, et canalis, et canalis, sanguis, unguis, et canalis, et canalis… 
Thus it was that I happened to experience temptation
from the devil In God’s own holy temple.
Amnis et canalis, sanguis, unguis, et canalis, et canalis, et canalis…..

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bruckner - Symphony In F Minor

Symphony in F Minor was Bruckner's first attempt in the form. Bruckner wrote it as part of an assignment from his last composition teacher Otto Kitzler. It was written in 1863 and was never performed in Bruckner's lifetime. In fact, the symphony wasn't performed until 1924, and didn't have its first modern performance until 1974.  It was one of only two symphonies that Bruckner did not write after he moved to Vienna.  It was Otto Kitzler, cellist, conductor and teacher, that introduced Bruckner to Wagner as well as other composers by way of using examples of their music in his lessons.  Bruckner was ten years older than Kitzler, and they remained friends until Bruckner's death in 1896.

Although Bruckner dismissed the Symphony as Schularbeit (Schoolwork), he never destroyed it in later years as he did with other works that didn't please him.  As it is the first symphony known to have been written by Bruckner, whether the music was good or bad wouldn't detract from its curiosity value. But the symphony shows flashes of the Bruckner to come as well as the composers that had an early influence on him.

The symphony is scored for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and the usual complement of strings. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro molto vivace - The symphony begins with a quiet, short motive in the strings that is answered by a louder motive in a fuller orchestration. These two motives comprise the first theme and are repeated along with other material until a second more flowing theme is given in the strings. The woodwinds then take up the second theme until it is brushed away with a loud motive in the brass. Yet another motive is played by the oboe and signals the end of the exposition, which is not repeated (at least in the recording linked at the end of this article, for the repeats are in the score). The development section perhaps shows more craft than inspiration. The opening motive pops up in the horns along with other material. Motives and fragments of themes come and go until a seamless segue to the recapitulation begins. Changes in key along with different lead-ins to themes give variety as the music moves to a coda that refers to parts of themes before the music increases in volume and ends.

II. Andante molto -  Bruckner was known for his adagio movements in his symphonies and glimpses of the great slow movements that were to come can be heard in this second movement.  The opening leads to a theme played by a pleading oboe. Bruckner alternates violins with woodwinds with a gentle lower string accompaniment. The music has a continual melodic feels until a minor key episode interrupts. The woodwinds and horns try to change the mood, but the minor key interruption returns but only briefly.  The music from the beginning of the movement is heard again and it is then that the listener realizes that this movement is also in sonata form, for this is a recapitulation. A coda further develops fragments of themes until the opening motive leads to a quiet ending with horn and timpani.

III. Scherzo, Schnell -  This is the movement that foreshadows the kind of music Bruckner was going to compose.  This scherzo already has the rhythmic drive and qualities of dynamics of the later Brucknerian scherzos, although not quite the intensity.  The trio section is in a slower tempo and in contrast to the scherzo, and shows the influence that Schumann had on Bruckner at this time.

IV. Allegro -  This may have been the movement that Kitzler meant specifically when he said the symphony was uninspired, for as a whole the movement isn't one of Bruckner's better works. But he was still a student (a 39-year old student at that) and as his following symphonies show, he was a fast learner.  It is in sonata form, and like the first movement the recording linked to does not repeat the exposition. The coda shifts the key to F major from F minor and the work ends with full orchestra.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Beethoven - Seven Bagatelles, Opus 33

The Romantic vision of Beethoven with wild eyes and disheveled hair hunched over his writing desk illuminated by an almost spent candle as he scribbled out serious masterpiece after serious masterpiece, is about as far from the truth as it gets. Beethoven was an early riser and did most of his composing in the morning.  He spent many of his afternoons wandering about in the countryside with his sketchbook in his pocket so he could capture any ideas that would come to him.  He spent his evenings in various activities such as reading or in the local tavern, but seldom composing.

The raw material for his compositions that were contained in his sketchbooks were mulled over, added to or subtracted from as his artistic taste dictated. Many of his longer works went through a long period of gestation and revision before they came to their final form. While Beethoven's craft and skill as a composer is evident, his frame of mind did not always lean towards storming the heavens.

Beethoven had a sense of humor that worked its way into his compositions. Sometimes the long and serious works had moments of humor, as is heard in the third movement of the Sixth Symphony In F Major 'Pastorale', where the orchestra mimics a village band, or the imitation of an oomp-pah-pah band in the quite serious 4th movement of the Ninth Symphony In D Minor.  The piano sonatas also have their humorous moments (and movements) as well.  Sometimes Beethoven's sense of humor took over a complete piece, as happened in some of the Bagatelles For Solo Piano, opus 33

The term bagatelle is of French or Italian origin and means something of little value, a trifle, and was first used as early as 1717 by the French Baroque composer François Couperin. Beethoven wrote three sets of bagatelles, a total of 24 with opus numbers as well as an additional 6 individual bagatelles without opus numbers. One of the without opus number bagatelles is arguably one of Beethoven's most well known pieces, Für Elise His first set of bagatelles opus 33, was written in 1802-1803 and contains seven works. It would be a mistake to take the term bagatelle literally. These are short pieces, but they aren't all fluff and stuff. Pieces like these were Beethoven's laboratory; he used them to experiment in writing for the instrument he knew very well:

I. Andante grazioso, quasi allegretto -  Written in the key of E-flat major, the first bagatelle of the set is graceful, though somewhat heavily seasoned with grace notes in the melody. A short middle section in a minor key provides contrast, after which the first section is repeated.

II. Scherzo. Allegro -  It is not certain if all seven of the pieces in this opus were written between 1802-1803, but this scherzo follows a general pattern of music Beethoven labeled as 'scherzo' at about the same time. Piano sonata Opus 14, No. 2 In G Major of 1799 includes a scherzo as the final movement. Symphony No. 2 In D Major, Opus 36 written in 1803 also has a scherzo movement.  Beethoven followed the experiments of Haydn in writing scherzos, but Beethoven's were quite unique. This scherzo is in C major and begins with a rhythmically quirky figure:
With sudden changes in dynamics, a mix of slurred notes and staccato notes and rests, Beethoven trips the ear as we try to grasp the pulse of the music. This first section is repeated, and just as the listener is beginning to get the feel of the rhythm Beethoven changes things abruptly with a section in A minor that has the melody played in octaves in the right hand to a triplet accompaniment. Like a swelling ocean wave a crescendo from piano to fortissimo spans a 3-bar section, and rapidly dies down to piano, only to do it again before the end of the minor section. The minor section is repeated, and the opening scherzo returns. The trio is of a more mellow mood, as runs of thirds in the right hand spell out the simple theme. The trio repeats, after which the scherzo returns but with some syncopation thrown in for good measure. A short coda begins to wind down the music, but the final bars hammer out a C major chord in the right hand alternating with a low C in the left.  The accents shift for a few bars until the music ends on the low C in the second beat of a measure.

III. Allegretto - The third piece is in F major. The first phrase is in the home key, but Beethoven throws the ear another curve ball when the second phrase unexpectedly shifts to the key of D major. This section repeats. The next section begins with a very short development of the initial phrase before the initial phrase is repeated. This section also repeats. Another development section begins and leads back to the beginning material which is now decorated with grace notes. A short coda ends the work solidly in F major.

IV. Andante -  A graceful theme in A major begins the piece, and shifts to a contrasting section in A minor. The A major theme returns and is varied. The melody shifts to the bass, and a shor coda brings the music to a quiet ending.

V. Allegro ma non troppo - Written in C major, this is another scherzo in all but name. Ascending arpeggios bring the music to rest upon a high A after some hand crossing, after that both hands descend in triplets before the hands move in contrary motion. The right hand plays trills to the chords in the left hand.  The next section has both hands playing triplet figures along with long bass notes in the left and the melody in the right. The middle section is in C minor, with the melody in right hand octaves with low triplets in the bass. The C major scherzo begins again, but it not a verbatim repeat as Beethoven makes changes.  A coda of longer duration begins and ends the piece in C major.

VI. Allegretto, quasi andante - Written in D major, this piece carries the added instruction Con una certa espressione parlante (with a kind of speaking voice) along with the tempo indication. It is a gentle, lyrical and short bagatelle that ends not long after it begins.

VII. Presto -  After the gentleness of the preceding bagatelle, this one comes as a surprise. Written in A-flat major, the music begins with pianissimo thirds in the left hand for 4 measures in a beginning that may have been an experiment for what was to become a similar opening in the scherzo of Symphony No. 3 In E-flat Major 'Eroica'. The motive of this scherzo staggers into the picture in the right hand:
 The second section follows the same general pattern. The next section begins with a low note in the bass played fortissimo, with pianissimo arpeggios in both hands for eight measures.  This section has the added effect of Beethoven instructing the player to hold the damper pedal down the entire time, thus the bass note rings out while the arpeggios quietly spread over the bass, an effect that could only be done on the piano. The first section repeats with slight variations. The extended pedal music also repeats. One more time the first section repeats, again with slight variations.  Large chords played forte in both hands begin the coda, are then repeated in a different chord position and fortissimo. The right hand plays a variant of the opening motive under strongly accented chords and the movement comes to a quiet ending.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sarasate - Concert Fantasy On Themes From Gounod's 'Faust'

The French composer Charles Gounod is remembered mostly for his operas, with Faust being his most popular. The opera was loosely based on Johann Goethe's play Faust : eine Tragödie, Part One.  The legend of Faust, a scholar that trades his soul to the devil so he can gain unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, is a German legend that was first published in 1593, but the legend is probably much older than that.  Goethe's version was published in 1808, with a second part published after his death.

Gounod's opera premiered in 1859 but it wasn't until a revival of the work in 1862 that it became popular. At one time Faust was the most popular opera in the repertoire, and Pablo de Sarasate was evidently quite  taken with the opera, for he wrote two fantasies on themes from it, with the later opus 13 fantasy being the subject of this post.

The writing of fantasies on other composer's works was a mainstay of 19th century concert life as well as music publishing.  Tunes from popular operas (the 'hits' of the 19th century) were used by many performer/composers to showcase their virtuosity.  Hearing opera performed live was beyond many music lovers, and the fantasies, variations (or as Liszt called them paraphrases) on popular tunes was a way music lovers could hear the latest works.

Charles Gounod
Sarasate wrote Concert Fantasy On Themes From Gounod's 'Faust'  in 187for violin and piano and as with many of his other fantasies on popular works by other composers, he made a version for soloist and orchestra.

The work begins with dramatic chords played by the piano. The soloist enters and the fireworks begin straight away.  After some appropriately heavy and 'damned' music followed by more lyrical music, Sarasate segues to music from Act 2, At The City Gates.  Faust has already made his pact with  Méphistophélès. At the city gate Méphistophélès sings his aria Le veau d'or (The Golden Calf), a spiteful song about greed and the wickedness of man.  Sarasate translates some of the harshness of the original with the embellishments he gives to the aria.  The set of themes are from the Garden Scene, Act 3 of the opera. Méphistophélès and  Faust are in Marguerite's garden where Faust attempts to seduce her.  Faust kisses her, but she sends him away. But soon she longs for him and calls for his return. The final theme used is from the final scenes of Act 2, the famous Waltz From Faust.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Beethoven - Piano Trio In D Major Opus 70, No. 1 'Ghost'

The form of the piano trio, usually for the combination of violin-cello-piano (but also any two instruments with piano) became popular in the home during the 18th century. In the 37-year span of 1760-1797 Joseph Haydn wrote 45 piano trios. The early ones were dominated by the keyboard with the other instruments more or less accompanying.  With his later piano trios Haydn began to balance out the three instruments until they were in almost equal partnership. Mozart wrote 6 piano trios and did even more than Haydn in balancing out the contribution of the three instruments.

Both older composers influenced Beethoven, who worked the form to perfection with his 12 trios. The most well-known of the piano trios for violin-cello-piano is the Piano Trio In B-flat Major Opus 97 'Archduke'  written in 1811.  Three years previous to that work he wrote the two piano trios of Opus 70.  The first trio of that opus is in D Major, and is close in popularity to the 'Archduke' .  This trio also has the nickname Ghost, taken from the atmosphere of the 2nd movement. The Ghost trio was Beethoven's return to the form after he wrote his first trios ten years before.  Unlike most of his other piano trios, this one is in only three movements:

I. Allegro vivace e con brio - The first movement begins with a declaration of equality between all three instruments as they all play the same motive over a 4-octave span:
This motive acts as an introduction, but it recurs in different guises through the first movement. After the introduction, a theme is heard in the cello. This theme is related to the introductory material and goes through a short development before another theme is heard first in the strings, and then the piano. The exposition is repeated. The development begins with the introductory material and dissects it into smaller pieces that goes through imitative statements between the instruments. The recapitulation reworks the introductory material to a different key before the first theme is heard. This theme is also reworked and expanded. The second theme is given a slightly different treatment until a short coda brings back the first theme once more until a fragment of the introduction closes this short sonata form movement.

II. Largo assai ed espressivo -  Written in D minor, this movement is the longest of the trio. The movement begins with a stark dialogue between strings and piano:
With foreign harmonies and unstable tonality, the movement is one of the most strange Beethoven ever wrote. There is evidence that at the writing of this trio Beethoven was also thinking about writing an opera based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, with the music of this movement based on sketches of music for the Witches' Scene.  With deep tremolos in the piano like a creeping spectre and sharply accented chords like the howling of a damned spirit, it is no wonder the nickname of Ghost has lasted for so many years. After one last howl, the music tries to settle into a more calm major key mood, but the end comes quickly with short and dry notes in the piano and pizzicato in the strings on the key note of D.

III. Presto -  The finale resembles the opening movement as both are rather short in length and begin with a short motive that returns:
But the final movement is in a much needed more humorous mood to balance out the 2nd movement. All tension is broken as the finale makes its way to the end.

Bruckner - Motet 'Os Justi Meditabitur' WAB 30

After Anton Bruckner's father died in 1837, he was sent to the  monastery in the town of St. Florian as a choirboy.  While there he studied singing as well as organ and violin playing. The monastery of St. Florian in the town had a pipe organ that was originally built in the late Baroque era, which Bruckner played quite often.  The organ came to be called in later years the Bruckner Organ and the composer was buried underneath it after his death in 1896.

Bruckner was Austrian and Catholic with the years he spent in St. Florian as a youth and later as a young adult were formative. He was a devout Catholic all his life and some of the first music he was acquainted with was sacred music. While he is more well known for his symphonies, he wrote a considerable amount of music for the church. At first his compositions reflected his younger days as it was traditional and conservative, but by the time he had completed his studies with Simon Sechter (whom he began lessons with after he had been composing for a few years) he had been exposed for the first time to the music of Wagner and Liszt. 

He was slow to develop as a composer (he didn't write his first symphony until 1863 when he was 39 year old, and this symphony was an assignment from one of his last teachers). His progress as a composer can be seen clearly from his sacred compositions, the first which was written in 1836 up to the last written in 1892, but most of his vocal works differed from the symphonic works. The sacred works reflect Bruckner's faith in that they were written simply (and the later ones very skillfully) and reverentially.  

The motet Os Justi Meditabitur was written in 1879 at about the same time as the 6th Symphony.  It written in response to a group of church music reformers known as the Cecilians.  This group of Catholic priests and musicians was in reaction to the modernization of church music since the Enlightenment.  Bruckner's work is a motet that was intended as a gradual, a piece of music connected with the ritual of the Eucharist (Communion in the Protestant church).  The motet is written in the key of F but uses no sharps or flats in either the key signature or the written notes, thus it is in Lydian mode, the fifth mode of eight in the system of church modes instituted sometime in the 8th century.  The motet is for a usual four-part a capella choir, but there are two places in the work where it is written in eight parts. Bruckner dedicated the work to Ignaz Traumihler, who was choir director at St. Florian as well as a Cecilian.  The text is taken from Psalm 36 in the Latin Vulgate, verses  30-31:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks what is just.
The law of his God is in his heart:
and his feet do not falter.