Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Schubert - Gretchen am Spinnrade

Johann Goethe was a writer that inspired the entire 19th century world of art, specifically the Germanic-speaking world.  Franz Schubert fell under the spell of Goethe's works early on, and the first lied he set to Goethe's text was Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel), the text of which was taken from a scene in Faust. The year was 1814 and Schubert was 17 years old. Goethe remained an inspiration to Schubert for the rest of his short life as he wrote over 80 lieder to texts of Goethe, including his famous setting of Der Erlkönig

The scene depicts Gretchen at her spinning wheel as her mind drifts to Faust, a man she has recently met and fallen deeply in love with.  Schubert uses the piano as an illustrative device as the music depicts the wheel spinning in the right hand notes, the clicking of the spool that gathers the yarn in the staccato eighth-note accompaniment in the left hand and the pedal that makes the wheel spin in the lower notes in the left hand:

The passion of Gretchen grows until it reaches near madness in the 7th stanza, when the piano depicts the halting of the spinning wheel as she is overcome with the thought of his kiss. The wheel makes a few false starts before it begins again. The passion grows once again, until the first stanza is repeated and the wheel stops.  The song begins and ends in D minor, but Schubert takes the harmony far afield, a characteristic of Schubert's music that was to continue.  This song of 1814 led to one of Schubert's most productive years when in 1815 he wrote over 100 lieder as well as many works for orchestra and chorus.

There were many composers that wrote works of musical imagery before Schubert. The cantatas of Bach as well as the oratorios of Handel are but two examples of works that contained illustrative music, but Gretchen am Spinnrade was a turning point in the history of the German lied.  Schubert's fertile imagination and his pairing of the voice and piano as equal partners in musical expression influenced countless song composers.

Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel
My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

Where I do not have him,
That is the grave,
The whole world
Is bitter to me.

My poor head
Is crazy to me,
My poor mind
Is torn apart.

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

I look only for him
Out the window
Only for him do I go
Out of the house.

His tall walk,
His noble figure,
His mouth's smile,
His powerful eyes,

His mouth's
Magic flow,
His touch,
and ah! his kiss!

My peace is gone,
My heart is heavy,
I will find it never
and never again.

My bosom urges itself
toward him.
Ah, might I grasp
And hold him!

And kiss him,
As I want,
With his kisses
I should die!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Debussy - Preludes For Piano Book One

Claude Debussy has been identified with Impressionism, exemplified by the paintings of Renoir and Monet among others. Debussy himself disliked the term and rejected any association with it. As he said himself:
I am trying to do 'something different'...what the imbeciles call 'impressionism', a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics. 
Some have suggested he was a proponent of Symbolism more than Impressionism, but  'isms' are but created labels that attempt to categorize. Not that these labels aren't useful. They certainly can give a sense of structure for study and understanding. But labels are models to aid in understanding. As soon as a model is used as a definite mold to force art to  conform to specific rules, the model loses its value.

Debussy's talent was such that he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire when he was ten years old. During his 11 years there he constantly challenged his teachers and the directorship of Ambroise Thomas, a musical conservative.  He earned the praise and admiration of his teachers and fellow students for his abilities as a pianist and sight-reader, but his compositions were not understood. He understood the models of music that were taught in his classes, but he refused to allow his creativity to be controlled by them.

That is not to say that he was not influenced by other composers. Richard Wagner was a profound influence, as well as Mussorgsky. Older music also had an influence, such as the Baroque clavicenists such as Couperin as well as J.S. Bach. Each one of these influences were digested and internalized by Debussy's talent and transformed into his own highly original music. American Ragtime, the Gamelan from Java all played a part as well as literature and the visual arts.

Debussy was a slow and meticulous composer, but uncharacteristically the Preludes Book One was begun in late 1909 and finished three months later.  He kept with the traditional number of preludes of 24 (in two books of 12) as set by many composers before him, especially J.S. Bach and Chopin. But where Bach had his preludes (and the fugues that went with them) follow each other in a half-step progression of keys and Chopin followed the circle of fifths, Debussy's preludes follow no set key sequence, although groups of them seem to be tonally related.  Debussy doesn't use conventional keys hardly at all as he uses church modes, pentatonic scales and the whole tone scale in writing them.

Another unique feature of Debussy's preludes is that while each one is titled, the title appears at the end of the piece instead of the beginning.

1)  Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) -  Debussy begins with music inspired by ancient Greek dancers in music that gently moves through different types of scales and melodies.  This first prelude gives a clue to what will proceed, and renders what Debussy himself said is his musical objective:

Wagner pronounced himself in favor of the laws of harmony. I am for freedom. But freedom must essentially be free. All the noises we hear around ourselves can be re-created. Every sound perceived by the acute ear in the rhythm of the world about us can be represented musically. Some people wish to conform to the rules; for myself, I wish only to render what I can hear.
2)  Voiles (Veils or Sails) - The title of this prelude is ambiguous, quite appropriate for the music. Either the sails of ships billowing in a breeze, or the sensuous form of a woman only partially hidden by diaphanous veils. The whole tone scale is used throughout with the chromatic scale added for variety.

3)  Le vent dans la plaine (The wind in the plain) -  A depiction of strong as well as gentle breezes. There is no documentation as to whether Debussy intended the preludes to be played as an entire set. Shortly after their composition, Debussy himself as well as other pianists played them in groups of three.  The first three preludes sound well together played this way.

4)  Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) - The title is inspired by a poem by Charles Beaudelaire titled Harmonie Soir (Evening Harmony).  This preludes ends with a short coda that is marked by the composer 'as a far away horn call'.

5)  Les collines d'Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri) - Anacapri is a small village on the Isle of Capri in the Gulf of Naples off the Italian coast. Debussy begins the prelude slowly until it erupts in an Italian dance, the tarantella. The dance is interrupted by a folk song like melody in the middle section. The dance returns and leads to a glittering ending in the extreme treble of the keyboard which is marked lumineux (luminous).

6)  Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow) - A bleak landscape of snow and cold is represented as a persistent motive is repeated.  Debussy gives the direction that 'the tempo must be such that it sounds like a sad, icy landscape'.  There is little relief from the cold atmosphere in this prelude that is a challenge for the pianist to bring off with Debussy's intended effect.

7)  Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (What the west wind has seen) -  The subtle colors of the preceeding preludes are swept away by this depiction of a violent wind that roars off the coast of France during a storm at sea.

8)  La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) - One of the most often played preludes, this gentle music is in stark contrast to the preceding violent one. Gentle chords surround Debussy's original melody that sounds like a folk song.

9)  La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) - Debussy continues the French love of Spanish music in this prelude that depicts a Spanish guitarist that tries to serenade his sweetheart. Is the father the one that slams the window to shut out the serenade, or the beloved? No matter, the serenader finally gives up and wanders off.

10) La Cathédrale engloutie (The engulfed cathedral) - Another of the most popular preludes, this is a representation of the legend of the cathedral of the ancient city of Ys in Brittany that sank to the bottom of the ocean when the city was swallowed by the sea. Once every hundred years the cathedral rises out of the ocean to the tolling of its bells and the chanting of monks. It then sinks back into the sea.  With thunderous chords in the middle section, Debussy has the piano do a credible impression of pipe organ sonority. Widely-spaced chords (including six-note chords to be played by the five fingers of the right hand) add to the mysterious nature of the legend before the cathedral slips back under the water.

11) La danse de Puck (Puck's dance) - A representation of the mischievous Puck from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

12) Minstrels - Traveling minstrel shows appeared in Europe around the turn of the 20th century and were very popular. European composers were influenced by ragtime and early jazz music. Debussy's creative imagination attracted him to different kinds of music and art, and led to this witty representation of the banjo and minstrel music.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dvořák - Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs) Op. 55

Antonín Dvořák's music didn't become known outside of his native Bohemia until he entered and won the Austrian State Prize contest in 1877, a competition that awarded a stipend to the winner.  Dvořák not only benefited from the prize money (which went far in helping to alleviate his condition of near poverty) but members of the panel of judges of the competition helped make his works known world-wide. One of those members was Johannes Brahms who recommended Dvořák's compositions to his publisher Simrock. With a music publisher's eye for sales, Simrock commissioned Dvořák to compose a set of dances similar to Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Dvořák filled the commission with the successful Slavonic Dances in 1878, which were played across Europe and the United States.

Hot on the heels of this great success and his new international reputation Dvořák wrote Cigánské Melodie (Gypsy Songs), a set of seven songs set to the poetry of Czech poet Adolph Heyduk. The songs were written in 1880 for  Gustav Walter, the popular tenor of the Vienna State Opera. Heyduk wrote a translation of the poems in German for Dvořák in deference to Walter, and a version of the songs using the original Czech language was made later.
Adolph Heyduk

There was something of a fad for gypsy music for much of the 19th century, although what was called gypsy music at the time was more of an idealized mixture of European folk music with a few exotic gypsy motifs thrown in.  Dvořák's Gypsy Songs owe more to Czech and Slovak folk songs than authentic gypsy music as well. But the freedom of gypsy life is in the songs and serves as a representation of the struggles for freedom of the Czech people from the repressive Austrian government of the time.

I want to thank Anna Matjas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser for extending permission to include their translation of the Czech texts:

1) Ma pisen zas mi laskou zni  (My song resounds with love) 
The piano opens with measured tremolos in thirds in the right hand that lead to rolled chords that accompany the vocalist. A middle section in major mode provides contrast before the piano repeats the opening and ends in the home key of G minor -
 My song resounds with love when the old day is dying;
it is sowing its shadows and reaping a collection of pearls.
My song resonates with longing while my feet roam distant lands.
My homeland is in the distant wilderness—my song stirs with nationalism.
My song reverberates with love, while unplanned storms hasten.
I rejoice in the freedom that I no longer have a part in the dying of a brother.
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

2) Aj! Kterak trojhranec (Ah! My three-cornered bell)
The three-cornered bell is actually a triangle -
Ah! Why is my three-cornered bell ringing so passionately?
As a gypsy song -- when death is imminent -- the death of a gypsy
brings an end to song, dance, love and all concerns!
translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

3)  A les je tich kolem kol (The forest is quiet all around)
A simple accompaniment gently plays as the singer unwinds a beautiful melody -
The forest is quiet all around; only the heart disturbs the peace.
As black smoke gushing, tears flow down my cheeks and so they dry.
They need not dry—let other cheeks feel them!
The one who can sing in sorrow will not die, but lives and lives on.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

4)  Kdyz mne stara matka (Songs my mother taught me)
The most well-known song in the set, this song is played regularly in vocal recitals and the melody has been arranged for many different solo instruments.  A distinctive feature of this song is the time signature of 2/4 for the soloist while the piano is written in 6/8 -
When my old mother taught me to sing,
Strange that she often had tears in her eyes.
And now I also weep, when I teach Gypsy children to play and sing.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

5)  Struna naladena (The string is taut!)
The string is taut—young man turn, spin, twirl!
Today reach the heights, tomorrow down again and
after tomorrow, at the Holy Table of the Nile.
The taut string is stretched—turn young man—turn and twirl!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

6)  Siroke rukavy (Wide sleeves)
Wide sleeves and broad trousers give more freedom than a robe of gold.
The robe of gold constricts the chest and the song within the body dies.
He who is happy -- his song blooms with the desire that the
whole world would lose its taste for gold.
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser

7)  Dejte klec jest`rábu ze zlata (Given a cage of gold)
Given a cage to live in, made of pure gold,
the Gypsy would exchange it for the freedom of a nest of thorns.
Just as a wild horse rushes to the wasteland, seldom bridled or reined in,
so too the Romani nature has been given eternal freedom!
 translation © Anna Majtas Royko and Gayle Royko Heuser