Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 66

Felix Mendelssohn's life was a busy one from the days of his youthful study of music and art to his adult life as a performer, administrator and composer. The year that his C minor piano trio was composed saw him take a break from his strenuous duties as conductor and music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra. His tremendous workload had taken its toll on his health, which was never to be as robust as before. The death of his beloved sister Fanny in 1847 was the final tragedy he could not overcome. She had died of complications from a stroke, a family medical situation that also took the lives of both of his parents and grandfather. Felix had a series of strokes as well, and died at the age of 38 six months after his sister.

The 2nd piano trio came six years after the Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor, which is more often performed than the 2nd.

I. Allegro energico e con fuoco - The beginning of the first movement starts with a swirl of C minor in the piano:
Mendelssohn's gift for melody was as great (and often greater) than other composers and it is one of the traits for which he is best known. But this opening is not a melody at all, and not much of a theme either. Mendelssohn was one of the musicians that was most involved with the bringing back of J.S. Bach's music to the public in the early 19th century, and this opening is similar to the way Bach created musical feeling by means of harmony without obvious melody. The strings take up the swirl as the piano plays the harmony in block chords. A melody finally begins that is in C minor and is an extension of the harmonies heard in the opening. The music seamlessly segues into what may be thought of as another main theme of the exposition, this time with hints of B-flat major and G minor. The opening motive returns before the exposition seamlessly moves into the development section without being repeated. The recapitulation has the expected modulations of keys in the secondary themes and leads to a coda that turns calm before it erupts in a blast of octaves in the piano and the movement ends in C minor.

II. Andante espressivo - The second movement is a gentle melody in E-flat major that is first heard in the piano. The strings comment upon it, and the melody continues until a section in the minor is heard. The music ebbs and flows, but remains in a graceful humor, even in the more bitter sweet moments in the middle section.

III. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto - A rapid scherzo of the type that Mendelssohn was known for:

If his intensely fast metronome marking of half note equals 88 beats is followed, it is a difficult movement to bring off with the proper lightness. It is quite short and ends before you know it.

IV. Finale: Allegro appassionato -  This movement is a rondo, with the recurring rondo theme solidly in C minor while the various episodes that are played between repeats of the rondo theme differ in character:

One of the episodes sounds somewhat like a chorale that has been described as a chorale tune used by Bach (which indeed he did), a hymn written by Martin Luther titled Herr Gott Dich Loben Wir (Lord God We Praise You), and a melody known as Old Hundredth taken from the association it had with the 100th psalm in the English church that was sung to the words 'Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow'.  Why Mendelssohn used this tune is not known. Some conjecture that it was an affirmation of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but he never commented on it. Perhaps he just liked the tune and thought it would be a good fit for his piano trio. This episode returns near the end of the movement, and along with the main theme of the movement returning in C major, the trio ends in a positive mood.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Arriaga - String Quartet No. 3 In E-flat Major

Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (full name Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola) was a Basque/Spanish composer of the early 19th century. He was a child prodigy of tremendous natural abilities and when he was about fifteen years old was sent to the Paris Conservatoire in 1822 for serious study. His teachers, as well as the director of the Conservatoire, Luigi Cherubini, were amazed at his natural talent and ability to learn so quickly.

Arriaga was a hard working young man, and not only kept up with his studies but composed. His output was regretfully but understandably small, as he died a few days before his 20th birthday, possibly from tuberculosis. His list of surviving compositions includes a Symphony In D, and three string quartets that were written when he was sixteen. The quartets are modeled after the examples left by Haydn and Mozart and show Arriaga slowly developing his own voice. The 3rd quartet in E-flat major shows the progress he was making in his musical thought. The three string quartets are the most well known of Arriaga's compositions and are represented on numerous recordings.

I. Allegro -  The quartet begins with all four instruments playing in  unison a motive in E-flat major:
This motive is expanded upon and returns in different keys and is the main focus of the exposition section. Small fragments of other motives are heard until what can be considered as the second theme emerges more than halfway through the exposition:
The exposition is repeated. Since the exposition deals with the initial theme more than others, Arriaga gives balance in the development section by working with the second theme as well as other lesser motives. The recapitulation is as expected with sonata form of the time as the first theme is repeated and the second theme is heard in the home key. 

II. Pastorale - Andantino - In place of a slow movement, Arriaga offers a movement that begins with a gentle accompaniment to a gently rocking tune high in the violin register. The middle section has a segment reminiscent of the storm section of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 'Pastoral' as Arriaga changes to a minor key and uses string tremolos to suggest a storm's high wind and pelting rain. After the agitated middle section, the movement returns to the bucolic music of the beginning.

III. Menuetto - Trio plus lent -  Despite the name, this movement is a Beethovenian scherzo in C minor:
 The trio section is a very short naïve peasant dance in C major:
IV. Presto agitato -  Not typical of music designated presto agitato,  but very attractive music nonetheless. Arriaga played violin in a string quartet when he was ten years old, and his knowledge as a player of the instrument shows in the brilliance of the 1st violin's music.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Ravel - Tzigane For Violin And Luthéal

Music is an art that goes through stages and fads like any other art. Turkish or Janissary music was a fad that saw Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven among other composers write music in that style. In the style of is an important phrase, for these composers and others Westernized the traditional music of Janissary bands to make it more suitable for their audiences. They used the rhythms and (for the time) the exotic sounds of drums, bells, and cymbals.

Another fad that lasted even longer was Gypsy music, although this was most often referred to as Hungarian such as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Hungarian Dances of Brahms. This too was in the style of Gypsy music, and didn't necessarily mean that authentic gypsy melodies were used. The Roma people tend to adapt the native music while also adding their own unique textures and rhythms to the mix. This mixture of cultures and styles is what came to be known as Hungarian music in the Romantic era. It wasn't until the research of musicians and ethnomusicologists such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály that the differences between Hungarian music and Gypsy (Roma) music were delineated.

Maurice Ravel was in the vanguard of modern composers of his generation, most often lumped into the category of Impressionist. But he explored different styles as well, and Tzigane has him looking back to the virtuosic violin works of Romanticism for inspiration. It was composed in 1924, and was originally for violin and luthéal. The luthéal was an attachment for grand piano that added a mechanism that could be lowered on the strings that would give the approximate sounds of a harp, harpsichord or cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer used in Gypsy music). The luthéal was invented by a Belgian organ builder in 1919, and Ravel wrote Tzigane for the instrument and used it in one of his operas.  The attachment proved to be unreliable and sensitive. It required constant adjustment and soon disappeared. The original score of Ravel's composition lists the instrument as well as the stops to be used, but the piece was usually played on the piano with out it. There was an original luthéal found rusting away in the museum of the Brussels Conservatory that was restored. There has also been a copy made.

Roughly half of the length of the work is a violin solo that uses virtuiosic techniques to create a sound world of a master Gypsy violinist. When the piano with luthéal enters, it does sound like a cimbalom, but with possibilites that the cimbalom doesn't have.  The title of the work itslef is a European term meaning Gypsy, but as other composers, Ravel writes in the style of Gypsy music and uses no gypsy themes.

Ravel orchestrated the work shortly after he wrote it, and it is most often heard in that version. The chamber version for violin and piano are heard, but the rarity of the luthéal makes a performance of Ravel's original as rare as the attachemnt itself. The video included below is a recording of the original version including the luthéal attachment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Haydn - Piano Trio No. 45 In E-flat Major, Hob. XV:29

The two visits Joseph Haydn made to London in the late 18th century inspired him to compose works to be performed while he was there. Both trips were highly successful, and concerts were sold out for performances of his works. But Haydn was a composer in all genres, and not all of his music was written to be performed in public concert. The drawing rooms and parlors of the elite English served as locales for his chamber music as well.

Haydn met many musicians during his tours of London, with one of them being Therese Jansen Bartolozzi, a German pianist that had been a student of Muzio Clementi, a piano virtuoso, piano maker and music publisher that settled in England. Therese had moved to London with her family when she was still young.  Her and family attended some of the concerts given by Haydn during his first tour of London. Her reputation as a performer must have been formidable as she received dedications of compositions by Clementi, Dussek, and Haydn. 

Haydn dedicated three piano sonatas to her, and what is believed to be the last three piano trios Haydn composed. Piano trio No. 45  Hob. XV:29 is the last of the three and is in three movements:

I. Poco allegro -  The movements begins with an E-flat major chord and a theme taken up by the piano and violin. As is often the case with Haydn's piano trios, the cello usually doubles the bass line of the piano part. The piano of Haydn's day was not the concert grand audiences know of today. The tonal qualities were not as robust, but had plenty of character. Haydn composes the trio with a solid knowledge of what the piano of his day could accomplish as the piano writing keeps to separate lines instead of chordal passages. He blends the piano and strings into a pleasant and expressive whole. The movement has elements of sonata form and theme and variation. The short first section consists of a theme (the only real theme of the movement) that is dominated by a gentle dotted rhythm and is repeated. The next section develops the theme somewhat, is longer and is also repeated. The 3rd section is in E-flat minor, and shortly has the return of the original theme in E-flat major. This theme is elaborated upon in a fourth section that serves the purpose of a recapitulation. Haydn was 65 years old when he wrote this trio, and his creativity was still sharp as a coda brings an end to a expertly crafted movement.

II. Andantino ed innocentemente - As the tempo indication indicates, this music is of an innocent feeling, but that doesn't mean it's boring. It is written in B major, quite distant from the home key of E-flat major. Haydn was not only a master (and stretcher) of form, his harmonic structure can be unique as well. The movement doesn't last long, as Haydn shows his harmonic mastery again by modulation back to the home key as the final movement begins straight away.

III. Allemande - Presto assai -  Again, the tempo indication gives an advance of the nature of the music, for it is a German dance, a ländler. Haydn was fond of rapid finales, and this movement moves at a brisk pace. There are hints of the gypsy music he no doubt heard at Eszterháza, the estate in Hungary where he was employed by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy for many years. The movement ends in high spirits.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Boccherini - Guitar Quintet No. 4 In D Major G 448 'Fandango'

Luigi Boccherini was not only one of the most prolific Italian composers of the 18th century, he was a virtuoso cellist as well. His father was a cellist and double bass player that sent Luigi to Rome for study. Father and son traveled to Vienna in 1757 where they were employed in the court orchestra. Boccherini became so proficient on his instrument that he could play much of the repertoire of the violin on the cello at pitch, a skill he learned when he substituted for an ailing or absent violinist in the orchestra.  In 1770 he traveled to Madrid, Spain and was in the employ of a brother of the King of Spain. He stayed in Spain for the rest of his life, and died there in 1805.

He composed mostly chamber music; about 100 string quartets, string trios and solo sonatas, and over 100 string quintets. Boccherini's string quintets didn't follow the usual instrumentation of the time; 2 violins, 2 violas and one cello. He did away with the second viola and replaced it with a second cello. In the 1790's he got a commission from a guitar playing Spanish nobleman to arrange some of the string quintets for guitar. Boccherini replaced the second cello with a guitar, revamped and arranged about a dozen string quintets.

Boccherini was influenced by the music he heard in Spain, and this influence shows in some of his compositions, especially the final movement of the Guitar Quintet No. 4. This guitar quintet is arranged from two previous string quintets. It is in 3 movements:

I. Pastorale -  With muted strings and a gentle guitar accompaniment, the first movement is a good example of the type of music Boccherini was known for. With gentleness, charm, and the slightest touch of melancholy, the music unfolds and leads to the quiet ending.

II. Allegro maestoso - The second movement opens with the cello, which is spotlighted throughout the movement. Boccherini gives a glimpse at what his virtuosity on the instrument must have been as the cello plays solo passages that include extended passages in harmonics. The guitar's role in this movement is as an ensemble instrument that adds to the texture, seldom being heard on its own.

III. Grave assai - Fandango - The finale starts with a short, slow introduction. The guitar is heard more as the music slowly transitions into the fandango. A Spanish dance that developed early in the 18th century, the fandango is a passionate and lively dance for two people. There are fandangos that can be sung as well. It is a dance that is most often played on guitars and is accompanied by castanets, and Boccherini includes parts for castanets as well as the sistrum. These percussion instruments aren't always included in performance. The guitarist in the video at the bottom of the page taps out castanet rhythms on the body of his instrument. The fandango builds in intensity until it ends.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov - String Sextet In A Major

In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered the position of professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music.  He accepted the position although he was still an officer in the Russian Navy and had to teach his classes in uniform. Of more immediate concern was Rimsky-Korsakov's lack of formal musical education. He had already composed works for orchestra that had received glowing reviews, but he composed them by his natural talent and keen ear. He consulted his friend and mentor Pyotr Tchaikovsky who suggested he best get busy studying. Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of these years of study:
I practiced a lot and studied Bach’s oeuvre in particular, appreciating his genius, whereas before when I didn’t know his works well, I was inclined to follow the opinion of Balakirev, who called him a “composition machine”
Rimsky-Korsakov threw himself into a rigid program of self-education and came out of it a master. While he was studying he concentrated on technical exercises and did next to no original composition. After his crash course in theory and counterpoint, he began to compose works for smaller chamber ensembles and in 1876 entered a competition for compositions for chamber ensemble in two categories; works for strings alone and works for piano and one or more instruments. He entered a work in each category; the String Sextet In A Major and the Quintet in B-major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon.

Neither one of his compositions won a prize, although the String Sextet got an honorable mention. The composer set aside the sextet and it was almost forgotten. It was finally published in 1912 after Rimsky-Korsakov's death, but that addition was lost after the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The sextet was reprinted during the soviet era, but went out of print. The work has since been reprinted and is heard on occasion.

The String Sextet is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace - The first movement begins with a theme theme that is solidly in the home key of A major. This theme is passed along the instruments until the next theme begins. This second theme resembles the first in mood, and the exposition gives a feeling of charm and grace.The development section is short and maintains the mood. Rimsky-Korsakov's study of counterpoint is in evidence periodically as themes are played off against each other. A slight repetitive climax leads to the recapitulation as the main theme returns with a more elaborate accompaniment. The movement ends with a short coda.

II. Rondo fugato. Allegretto grazioso - The composer was rather proud of this movement, a six-voiced fugue, along with other contrapuntal sections.

III. Scherzo. Vivace alla saltarello - A saltarello is a fast Italian dance. This one is just that, fast and somewhat furious. The middle section is in contrast as it is slower and has a theme that is treated contrapuntally.

IV. Andante espressivo - The only slow movement in the sextet begins with a mellow theme for the cello. The music proceeds slowly and the tune is highlighted with complex counter melodies and a rich accompaniment as it moves from the cello to violin.

V. Finale. Allegro molto - The instruments bounce a rondo theme back and forth and in unison. Slight slower episodes give way to the rondo theme, and the movement ends with a short coda.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Tchaikovsky - String Quartet No. 3 In E-flat Minor, Opus 30

Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote very little chamber music, only eight pieces in all. An early string quartet and quintet for harp and string quartet went without opus numbers. Of the six numbered compositions there are three string quartets, a work for violin and piano, the In Memory Of A Great Artist piano trio and the Souvenir of Florence string sextet.

All three numbered sring quartets were written between 1871-1876, with the 3rd quartet being written in Paris and Moscow early in 1876. The work was dedicated to Tchaikovsky's friend Ferdinand Laub, who played first violin in the premieres of the first two string quartets. Laub had died suddenly in 1875 at 43 years of age.

The quartet was first played a few weeks after its composition at the home of Nikolai Rubinstein's house (who died in 1881 and was the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's piano trio in 1882). It has 4 movements:

Ferdinand Laub
I. Andante Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - The work begins in a solemn mood with a long introduction that consists of two themes. The initial theme is carried by the first violin with interjections of harmony by the other strings. The next theme also begins on the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment. The theme is then taken up by the cello. The proper beginning of the movement is marked by the playing of a quietly agitated theme. The next theme is more lyrical but remains laced with underlying tension. A short section leads to the development section where the two themes struggle back and forth. The themes change guises as they return for the recapitulation. Material from the introduction returns and the movement quietly ends.

II.  Allegretto vivo e scherzando - After the long and uneasy first movement, the scherzo brings a welcome contrast. The scherzo itself is restless as it bounces notes from instrument to instrument. The middle section highlights a mellow theme played by the viola. The scherzo returns and after a short coda the movement ends quietly.

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto -  Contrast is provided by a third movement that is not only considerably longer than the previous one, but of a lugubrious character as well. Tchaikovsky creates a sullen mood immediately by the playing of a funeral march.
Muted strings played at a relatively loud volume create an other-worldly sound and add to the sadness. This movement is the heart of the quartet, and conveys Tchaikovsky's loss of  friend and colleague Ferdinand Laub. A mellow theme plays after the march and is traded off between violin and cello. The funeral march returns as the first violin plays a lament over it. The mellow theme returns and segues back into the funeral march. As the march plays, the cello intones a repeated B-flat as the march and other materials reappear. The movement ends with all four instruments playing a high pianissimo E-flat minor chord.

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto - A vigorous rondo movement ends the quartet. Themes are reminiscent of Russian folksong, along with a continuation of the overall uneasiness of the previous movements. There is a manic quality to this movement that is halted by the recollection of a fragment of the 1st movement. The manic music picks up where it left off and ends the movement.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dvořák - String Quintet No. 3 In E-flat Major, Opus 97

Dvořák's String Quintet In E-flat Major was a product of his stay in the United States as the director
of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. During the summer of 1893 he stayed in Spillville, Iowa where there was a community of Czech immigrants.  Dvořák was a man with deep roots in his homeland, and the few months he spent in Spillville helped to aleve some of his homesickness. He wrote a letter to a Czech friend and described Spillvile:
Spillville is a purely Czech settlement, founded by a certain "Bavarian", "German", "Spielmann", who christened the place Spillville. He died four years ago, and in the morning when I went to church, my way took me past his grave and strange thoughts always fill my mind at the sight of it as of the graves of many other Czech countrymen who sleep their last sleep here. These people came to this place about 40 years ago, mostly from the neighbourhood of Pisek, Tabor and Budejovice. All the poorest of the poor, and after great hardships and struggle they are very well off here. I liked to go among the people and they, too, were all fond of me, and especially the grandmas and gran dads were pleased when I played to them in church "God before Thy Majesty" and "A Thousand Times we greet Thee".
It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer's nearest neighbour is often 4 miles off, especially in the farms (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don't meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very "wild" here and sometimes very sad, sad to despair .
He wrote the String Quartet No. 12 In F Major (American) as well as his 3rd String Quintet and other chamber music during his stay in Spillville.  The quintet was first performed in New York City in January of 1894, and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non tanto -  Dvořák's quintet is a viola quintet, that is to say it has an extra viola added to a standard string quartet. The viola was Dvořák's instrument, and the first movement opens with a short theme for solo viola. This theme is picked up by the cello and played in the minor mode. This is all by way of introduction to the actual beginning of the movement with the playing of the first theme by the violin. While  Dvořák was in Spillville, he saw a troupe of Native American Indians that were passing through. He heard their songs and dances and was inspired to use some of the rhythms as in the second 'drum' theme of this movement. The exposition is repeated. The drum rhythm is used in the development section along with the other themes. The recapitulation leads to a coda that has a reference to the material heard in the introduction before the movement ends quietly.

II. Allegro vivo - A solo viola begins the second movement which is in B major. More rhythms reminiscent of drum beats punctuate this scherzo as the themes are played. The trio section is in B minor and is a long, rather sad melody played by the viola.

III. Larghetto - The third movement is a set of variations on two themes, the first in A-flat minor and the second in A-flat major. This double variation movement has 5 variations for each theme with the themes ending the movement in their original form.

IV. Finale. Allegro giusto - The last movement is a rondo filled with attractive melodies and more examples of how American music influenced Dvořák, and no doubt reminded him of his own beloved native music with the common factor in each being the pentatonic scale.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elgar - Piano Quintet In A Minor, Opus 84

Edward Elgar's father was a piano tuner, organist and professional grade violinist. His mother instilled in her son a love of nature and the arts. All of the Elgar children had musical training from local teachers, with Edgar excelling in violin and organ playing.  But in the social class structure of 19th century Victorian era England, the common social standing of Elgar's family didn't help with his desire to become a composer. This combined with the fact that he received very little formal training outside of lessons from local teachers (and none at all in composition) made him feel like an outsider.

After a short time as a clerk in a law office, Elgar resigned and made a living by giving organ and violin lessons as well as being an accompanist and composing. He also took the job as conductor of an attendant's band at a local insane asylum where he gained practical knowledge about other instruments. He became proficient in other instruments as well, and continued to learn his craft as a practicing musician in many venues and performing groups.

Elgar's reputation as a composer began with works for chorus, a favorite music genre in England. He is most well known for his works for orchestra that include two symphonies, a violin concerto, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Pomp And Circumstance Marches (including the ubiquitous trio from March No. 1 that is played at high school commencement ceremonies) and many other works. He was highly regarded in his lifetime by the public as well as other composers. In 1931 Richard Strauss called him the "first progressivist in English music".

He composed chamber works from his earliest years until his old age, and while staying in the country over the summer of 1918 he worked on three of his last works for chamber ensemble; The Violin Sonata in E Minor Opus 82, String Quartet in E Minor Opus 83, and the Piano Quintet in A Minor Opus 84. Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the prominent English music critic and writer Ernest Newman, and after completion of the first movement wrote to the dedicatee:
Your Quintet remains to be completed, the first movement is ready and I want you to hear it, it is strange music. I think I like it-but-it’s ghostly stuff.
The Piano Quintet was premiered in May of 1919. It is the longest chamber work that Elgar composed and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - Allegro - The first movement is in cyclic/sonata form that begins with a strange introduction. There is an often told story of a possible inspiration for this movement that was brought about by a group of twisted and gnarly trees in a park that was near the cottage that Elgar stayed in on his summer vacation of 1918. These trees were said to give off ghostly shadows at night, and one of Elgar's friends related a tale that the trees actually contained the remains of Spanish monks that held unholy ceremonies in the area years before. A far-fetched tale with no basis of truth, for there is no record whatsoever of any Spanish monks ever being in the area. The introduction leads to a quickening of tempo and the first theme, which is derived from the opening introduction. A fragment of the introduction appears and leads to the second theme that is more introspective and quiet. After this plays through, a third theme comes forth that sounds like Victorian salon music, quite a contrast to what has preceded it.  A short repeat of the introduction leads to the development section, a vigorous fugato on the first theme leads to the recapitulation. Themes are reheard, along with the enigmatic introduction at the end of the movement, and as it quietly ends the careful listener discovers that the themes within the movement all grew from the introduction.

II. Adagio - The middle movement has been called the heart of the quintet, and begins with a mellow theme played by the viola. The entire movement is music of nostalgic late Romanticism, but a sense of tragedy and mystery is heard through the sections of slow piano wanderings that are punctuated by tremolo strings. The climax of the movement arrives close to the midway point, after which the music returns to the viola theme as well as the piano and tremolo strings sections. Fragments of themes from the first movement are heard as the adagio slowly draws to a quiet close.

III. Andante - Allegro -  The first movement introduction returns at the beginning of the finale, and leads to a less serious theme that is still attractive to the ear. The piano then introduces another theme, one that is syncopated. The music builds in intensity until the opening movement introduction and other themes are repeated. The main theme of the finale returns and leads to a coda before the music ends in a rousing finish.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Smetana - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 15

The death of his oldest daughter in 1855 affected the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana profoundly. She had shown great aptitude for music despite being only 4 years old. He had lost a younger daughter in 1854,  and yet another daughter only eight months old in 1856. Smetana  dedicated his only piano trio to his oldest daughter Bedřiška  in 1855. Some twenty years later Smetana wrote about the trio to a friend:
The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose a chamber work in 1855, my Trio in G minor. This was performed the same year, in December, in Prague. The audience was unresponsive and the critics hated it.
The work was revised and played about a year later with Liszt in attendance. He was so impressed with the work that he helped to get it performed in other countries of Europe.

The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato assai -  The trio was a way for the emotionally devastated Smetana to deal with his grief, and the first movement begins with an anguished cry from the violin played on the G string of the instrument:
The first theme is drenched in G minor and grows from the violin solo into a passionate outpouring. The second theme is more lyrical and is thought to be one of the favorite tunes of his oldest daughter. The first theme is expounded upon in the development, and when the second theme is taken up, a rather ominous pizzicato accompaniment from the strings plays along until there is a section for solo piano before the recapitulation begins.  The tragedy continues until the end of the movement.

II. Allegro, ma non agitato - A scherzo in G minor that has two trios, or as Smetana called them alternativo. The scherzo skitters along until the first alternativo, which is a more mellow tune played by the violin and cello with a simple piano accompaniment. The scherzo plays through again until the second alternivo, a somewhat ponderous march that alternates heaviness with lightness. The scherzo makes one last appearance before the movement quietly.

III. Finale: Presto - The frantic opening theme that pits two notes versus three in the accompaniment. The second theme of the first movement makes another appearance among the alternating sections separated between the frantic opening. The first theme gets wilder until the music grows more introspective. The introspection turns to total sorrow as the music morphs into a short funeral march in G minor, complete with the tolling bell of death in the bass of the piano:
 But Smetana doesn't dwell on the march very long. The music turns frantic again and dashes towards the ending in G major.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Röntgen - Piano Trio In C Minor, Opus 50

 Julius Röntgen was born in Leipzig, but in 1877 when he was 21 years old he chose to go to Amsterdam instead of Vienna. He became active in the musical life of the city and helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Royal Concertgebouw concert hall.

Röntgen was a friend of Grieg, Brahms, and many other composers and musicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1919 he became a Dutch citizen, and in 1924 he retired from public life and devoted the last 10 years of his life to composing.  He wrote in all of the genres of traditional classical music except opera, and wrote his first compositions when he was 9 years old. Röntgen's compositional output was considerable; over 600 compositions of all types.  Röntgen had a multi-faceted career of teacher, piano soloist, chamber music performer, conductor and composer.

He is most well known for his works for chamber ensembles. He wrote his opus 50 piano trio in 1904 and dedicated it to his friend the Dutch composer Carl Nielsen. The trio won a prize in a competition held in Paris, and Nielsen wrote about it in a letter to the composer:
The new trio is the most characteristic of the works of yours I learned when you were in Denmark. It is carried along by an extremely individual and compelling musical current, which despite its modern content seems to have its roots in the vicinity of Schubert.
The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo e serioso -  The trio begins with a short introduction, followed by the first theme played by violin and then cello. The second theme is more lyrical as well as being longer. A third theme begins rather abruptly and plays until fragments of previous themes are heard at the end of the exposition. There is no repeat of the exposition as the short development section takes up material from the introduction.  The recapitulation is followed by a coda that brings back the introductory material again as well as shortened versions of the themes.

II. Andante - The middle movement begins with the violin and cello playing a duet of a folksong-like melody as the piano plays a simple accompaniment:
Röntgen made a study of Dutch folksong, and this tune reflects that. Röntgen shows his skill and imagination in a set of variations on the tune for the remainder of the movement. The influence of Brahms shows in some of them, as well as Röntgen's own late Romantic style.

III. Allegro non troppo - The finale begins with an agitated section before it blooms into more drama with a theme that swells until the music becomes more subdued with a second theme. These two themes repeat in Röntgen's version of sonata form until the music goes into a coda that wraps up a well crafted piano trio.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Chopin/Liszt - Six Polish Songs

Franz Liszt and Chopin met each other in Paris about 1831, and they performed in concert together a few times. The two composers developed a somewhat uneasy friendship for many reasons, perhaps mostly because of their differing personalities. Liszt was the most dynamic piano virtuoso of the time, and had a huge stage presence and charisma. Chopin was never the towering virtuoso that Liszt was, and his piano playing was more suited to the salon than the concert hall. But Liszt showed no hesitation in showing his admiration for Chopin's compositions, and Chopin admired Liszt's playing abilities.

Chopin was a composer that attended opera on a regular basis and helped create a singing style of
Frederic Chopin
piano playing, but his output for voice is very small. He wrote only 19 completed songs in his lifetime, and a few others that remain incomplete. And though many tried to persuade him to try his hand at opera, he refused. None of his songs were published in his lifetime. It wasn't until 1853 that one of his songs was published. The Opus 74 set of 17 songs was first published in 1859, and it is not a song cycle as there are no connecting themes to the poems. Each song is independent of the other.

After Chopin's death in 1849, Liszt wrote a biography of his friend and transcribed six of Chopin's songs for solo piano. The six transcriptions helped make Chopin's songs better known, and became popular encore pieces. 

I. The Wish, The Maiden's Wish - In the original song, the title is simply The Wish. Liszt gives the song a German title that translates to The Maiden's Wish.  Liszt deftly combines the piano part with the vocal part, and gives three variants of the melody. Liszt's transcriptions can be described as paraphrases. He used the term himself on occasion, and it meant that the work in question was not being literally transcribed, but passed through the filter of Liszt's tremendous genius, sometimes to the benefit of the work, sometimes not.  With Chopin's songs, Liszt makes new pieces of them that are complimentary related to the original. 

II. Spring - For a song titled Spring, the mood is decidedly forlorn as the lyrics to the original song tell of a person lamenting the death of a lover. Liszt reinforces that mood by adding the tempo designation of Andantino maliconico. Liszt doubles the vocal line with octaves.

III. The Ring - Liszt's highly decorated version adds spice and movement to a song about a man seeing the engagement ring he got his former lover still on her hand after she married someone else.  Hardly a sad song, but some of the anger that the man has does come through.

IV. Drinking Song - The previous song segues directly to this jaunty drinking song. Liszt boldly colors the bright and festive melody with glissandos, including a double glissando near the end.

V. My Darling - A passionate song about a beautiful woman and the love a man has for her. As he shows his affection by kissing her, Liszt adds to the original with decorations and short, expressive runs in this longest song of the set.

VI. The Bridegroom - The original song tells of a bridegroom furiously riding his horse to his lover, not knowing she has died. Liszt retains the rushing scale figures to represent the galloping horse, while the rest of the song is a dramatic piece, one inspired by Chopin's original, and transformed into a Listzian composition.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tausig - Das Geisterschiff (The Ghost Ship), Opus 1c

Carl Tausig was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1841. His father gave him his first lessons on the piano and when he was 14 his father took him to Weimar to meet Liszt. He became one of Liszt's favorite students, and went on to become friends with Wagner and Johannes Brahms.  Brahms admired his piano playing so much that he dedicated the Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini Opus 35 to Tausig.

Tausig was the most famous of Liszt's students, and his technique was equal to his teacher's. He opened up a piano school in Berlin in 1865, but he was ill suited to teaching and it soon closed, so he toured Europe extensively as a pianist and conductor. His interpretive powers were said to be equal to any other performer of the time and superior to most.  His repertoire for the piano ran from Scarlatti to his contemporary composers and he was known for his playing of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. As a composer he made piano transcriptions of orchestral works by other composers and wrote original works for solo piano and orchestra. His touring was so extensive that it undermined his health, and he died of tyhpoid fever in 1871 at the age of 29.

Moritz von Strachwitz
Das Geisterschiff was inspired by a poem written by German poet Moritz von Strachwitz (who like Tausig had a short life as he died in 1847 at the age of 25). The poem is about an encounter in a stormy North Sea between two ships, one with a human crew fighting to survive against a ghost ship of Vikings on another.  Tausig also wrote a version for orchestra, but it is lost along with his other orchestral works.

It is a work in the guise of the New Music of Liszt as Tausig uses extremes of the keyboard as well as a large dynamic range. Tausig uses the whole tone scale in a short section as well as what is thought to be the first example of a chromatic glissando on the piano, where the right hand plays a glissando on the white notes while the chromatic notes are filled in with the left hand:
Towards the end of his short life Tausig's music was showing signs that the fiery disposition he had shown in this piece was beginning to mellow. That he was able to have achieved so much in such a short life gives an indication of what may have lay ahead if he had survived.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wieniawski - Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust, Opus 20

The Germanic legend of Faust was first in book form  in 1587, with various retelling in the 16th and 17th centuries. The legend was used as the subject of a play written by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1604 that was taken from an English translation. The most familiar telling of the story is no doubt the one written by Johann von Goethe in two volumes that were published in 1808 and 1832 respectively.  Goethe's version appeared when the Romantic movement in literature was in full swing, and the movement was to have a profound influence on the art of music soon after.

The most well known opera based on the legend was written by the French composer Charles Gounod, from a libretto in French that came from an adaptation of Goethe's Faust, Part One. The opera premiered in 1859 but did poorly. In 1862 the opera returned to the stage and was a sensation. It went on to be one of the most internationally performed operas in the remainder of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.

Gounod's Faust is opera in the grand style, complete with dramatic action and tuneful melodies that mirror the action and emotion of the story, so it is no mystery why there are so many musical works that use some of these tunes as the basis of variations and paraphrases. In the tradition of the time, virtuoso performers as well as composers, would use these tunes to attract audiences to concerts and recitals. Two of the most well known violin virtuosos of the 19th century, Pablo Sarasate and Henryk Wieniawski wrote works based on Gounod's Faust. Sarasate wrote his Concert Fantasy On Themes From Gounod's 'Faust' in 1874, but Wieniawski wrote his Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust in 1865 while the initial success of the opera was still strong.

Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust is in one continuous movement that consists of five sections, each one incorporating different themes from the opera. The third section includes Méphistophélès's melody  Le veau d’or (The Golden Calf, a song about the greed of man) and the final section uses the waltz music from the second act. The work exists in two version, for soloist and orchestra, and for soloist and piano.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26

Johannes Brahms was encouraged to travel from his hometown of Hamburg to Vienna by his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. They thought it was important for someone of Brahms' musical talent to go to the  music capital of German music to expand his horizons in the city where Beethoven and Schubert had lived.

So in 1862 when he was 29 years old, Brahms made the trip to Vienna and took with him two piano quartets that he had written in Hamburg; Quartet No. 1 In G Minor (opus 25) and Quartet No. 2 In A Major (opus 26).  The first piano quartet with its fiery Rondo alla Zingarese finale was an immediate success, while the more introspective second quartet was not as enthusiastically received. Brahms' music may have been a tough nut to crack for the ears of the Viennese listeners that had already turned rather conservative.   He was a composer that revered the composers of the past , but his melodic and harmonic language along with his structural style were quite new. But Brahms wrote in more traditional forms, and that fact was a harbinger of the split in music that was to happen a few years later.  Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, the main figures in the New Music movement, wrote no chamber music or traditional symphonies, so Brahms by default became the leader of the opposing camp in what was to be called The War Of The Romantics.

Along with Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a major influence on Brahms' compositions.  Schubert was most known for his songs during his lifetime, but he left over 1,000 works in various forms after his death. His music was to become a great influence on many composers, including Brahms who made a study of some of Schubert's chamber music, especially the String Quintet In C Major that was written in 1828, the year of  Schubert's death.

Like Schubert's last works, Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26 is one of Brahms' longest works and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the main theme:
This theme is passed to the strings before it is taken up again by the piano in a fortissimo dynamic that retains the lyricism of the theme while increasing the intensity. There are other themes in this exposition, the number depending on who is doing the listening. Throughout, the lyricism is maintained, similar to the unending melodies of Schubert's late works. The exposition is repeated, and then moves smoothly into the development section. Again, the lyricism prevails as Brahms takes the ear through an adventure of key changes while snatches of themes are expanded upon. The recapitulation brings back the themes in seamless transposing of keys. Fragments of the main theme play in the coda as the movement winds down until it ends in forte.

II. Poco Adagio - The only movement of this quartet that is not in sonata form is this one. it is in rondo form. All the strings are muted as the piano plays in a soft register. In what may have been a tribute to his mentor Robert Schumann who had died a few years before this work was written, piano arpeggios add to the expressive coloration of texture as the music drifts to the gentle ending where the arpeggios sweetly accentuate the long notes in the strings.

III. Scherzo: Poco Allegro - A unique movement as the scherzo and trio are both in sonata form. The trio is in D minor, and a novel effect is made by Brahms by the use of grace notes:
The scherzo is repeated and the chromatic arpeggios in the piano make a fitting close to the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The first theme is accented off the beat, and has some elements of Gypsy music as the finale of the 1st quartet, but this time much less frantic. This movement is in sonata form mostly, but has elements of a rondo as well. The music continues in a lyrical vein until the intensity ramps up slightly for a fine finish to the quartet.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Röntgen - Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41

The list of teachers and acquaintances of Julius Röntgen reads like a who's who of 19th century classical music. He came from a family of musicians and showed tremendous natural musical ability early on. His father was a first violinist in the Gewendhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Julius' first piano teacher was Carl Reineke who was the music director of the orchestra. His talents were such that at age 14 he was invited to play for Franz Liszt in Wiemar.

While in Leipzig he became acquainted with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and it was through him that he met Brahms. He also studied piano with Franz Lachner, the conductor and composer that was good friends with Franz Schubert. Röntgen became a professional pianist at 18, and eventually moved to Amsterdam where he worked to create the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was in demand as an accompanist for singers and instrumentalists and toured with two of his sons playing piano trios.

Pablo Casals
Röntgen retired from public life in 1924 and dedicated himself to composition, but he composed throughout his life. He had an inner drive to compose that began in 1864 when he was 9 years old, and wrote music  at every opportunity. His list of works is long (over 650 works with and without opus numbers) and covers all genres, but he is most well known for his chamber music. He wrote 18 various works for the combination of cello and piano during his life, beginning in 1872 with the first cello sonata, opus 3. He wrote his 2nd sonata for cello and piano in 1900.  Röntgen wrote some of the cello sonatas for Pablo Casals and also accompanied Casals in performances of them. Casals thought highly of Röntgen's cello sonatas and continued to play them long after the composers death in 1932.

Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo ed affettuoso - The sonata begins with an A minor theme that appears throughout the sonata.
The piano plays a restless accompaniment to this dark theme until it has a solo turn with the theme. Both instruments extend the theme until it plays directly into the second theme of the movement in C major:
This theme is echoed in the piano until the music shifts back to the darkness of the first theme. But the darkness doesn't last long, as the third theme appears:
After this brighter theme plays itself out, there is a short section that returns the mood to the beginning of the movement. These three themes constitute the exposition of the movement. The development section begins straightaway with the return of the first theme. A climax is reached as themes and fragments of themes weave in and out. The recapitulation section is collapsed within the development as there is no formal return of themes. A coda brings the movement to a hushed ending to a very poetic and individual type of sonata form.

II. Vivace, ma non troppo presto - Written in 6/8 time, this is a scherzo in all but name. It trips its way through music of lightness and humor, especially the slurred pizzicato notes in the cello. The first and third themes from the first movement make a brief appearance in altered form before the movement quickly ends.

III.  Adagio - The piano plays a chorale in full chords before the cello enters with an altered repeat of the first theme of the first movement. This theme and parts of it dominate the music of this movement as the chorale and theme intertwine and develop.

IV. Allegro agitato - The rhythm and movement of the first theme resembles the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata In D minor, opus 31, No. 2 'Tempest'.  The other themes of the movement take their turn with this one as Röntgen varies each one. The form is similar to the first movement, as the themes are worked out in a type of  development/recapitulation hybrid.