Sunday, May 21, 2017

Debussy - Préludes For Piano Book Two

As with the first book of preludes, Claude Debussy wrote the second book of twelve in a few months between 1912 and 1913.  They are similar in mood to those of the first book, but the music itself is more complex harmonically and there is a greater emphasis on technique. During Debussy's lifetime, Book I sold more copies than Book II, possibly because the nature of the music was that much more unique. Debussy followed the procedure of Book I by placing his descriptive titles of the pieces at the end of the preludes of Book II.

The second book of preludes was Debussy's penultimate foray into music for solo piano. After the set of 12 Etudes written in 1915, Debussy composed no more major works for piano solo.


1) Brouillards (Mists) -  Debussy utilizes bi-tonality to depict layers of mist as the left hands plays on the white keys while the right hand plays on the black keys. This is a sort of visual representation (for the performer at any rate) of mixing while with black to create Debussy's gray colored mist. The music begins in 4/8 time and shifts meter to 3/8, 3/4 and back to 4/8 periodically throughout the piece, adding to the drifting and changing direction and speed of the mist.

2) Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves) -  Supposedly written after an autumnal walk taken by Debussy, this prelude is not morbid in any sense of something dead. It is more like the shifting colors of leaves that have taken on the colors of autumn. It is a subtle depiction of colors through changing tonalities.

3) La puerta del Vino (Wine Gate): Mouvement de Habanera - Carrying on the love of Spanish music by French composers, Debussy composed a companion piece to La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) of Book I.  The wine gate in question is one located in the Moorish Palace Of The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The rhythm of the habanera dance runs throughout in the bass.
Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens 

4) Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) - Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens was the inspiration for this prelude, in particular a depiction of fairies tight-rope walking on a spider's web. The music begins with fast music that may refer to the fairies flying, with the spider web walking coming a little later.

5) Bruyères (Heather) -  A representation of the simple flower of heather. Its pastoral mood and folk song simplicity is similar to La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) of Book I.

6) Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk - An example of Debussy's liking of contemporary popular performers. Ed Lavine was an American juggler performer that was billed as General Lavine, The Man That Has Soldiered All His Life. Among his reported tricks was to play the piano with his toes! Debussy saw the General perform in Paris in 1912 and enjoyed his performance so much he immortalized him in this prelude. Debussy wrote other pieces in American ragtime style, with one of them being Minstrels of Book I.

7)  La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) - There is little in the way of description or source of inspiration concerning this piece. It is pure Debussy. Whatever he meant by the title doesn't matter much. It is music of Debussyian sensuality, power and beauty.

8) Ondine : Scherzando - Ondines are mythological Scandinavian water nymphs that sang and danced on the water's surface that could also lure fisherman away from their labors. Debussy shows them playing on the rippling water as well as outbursts that depict their mischievous intent to divert fisherman.

9) Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick) - Debussy made a few trips to England where his music was well received, and he was an avowed Anglophile. This music is a tribute to the English author Charles Dickens, a favorite of Debussy's. Debussy doesn't let his love of everything English prevent him from parody as he begins the prelude with a rude rendition of God Save The King. Various other styles emerge, along with a jig tune towards the end.

Canopic jars
10) Canope (Canopic jar) - Canopic jars were used by ancient Egyptians to hold the vital organs of the deceased while the body and heart were mummified. The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were each kept in separate jars for safekeeping and use in the afterlife. The lids of these clay jars were made in the forms of Egyptian gods, and Debussy had some of these lids on his mantle in his house.

11) Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) - This is in the style of his set of Etudes that were to be written in 1915. The title says it all, as it is comprised of alternating thirds throughout. The musical effect comes from changes in dynamics as the musical elements are rather straightforward.

12) Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) - The final prelude of the entire set of 24 is a grand finale and continuation of all that has gone before. With rapid scales, repeated notes, large chords and glissandos, Debussy depicts skyrockets and other fireworks that are set off on the French Independence Day, July 14th - Bastille Day. The final shooting of massive skyrockets is depicted by a double glissando - the left hand down the white notes, the right hand down the black notes. After the last sparks die away, the Marseillaise rumbles quietly in the background.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421

Joseph Haydn was not the first composer to write for two violins, viola and cello, but he did develop the ensemble into a form that has engaged many composers from his time to the present. His 68 string quartets show an unending imagination and creativity. They became the standard to which all other string quartets were judged by.

Mozart's first of 26 string quartets was written in 1770 when he was 14 years of age. As his experience and expertise grew, his quartets began to be inspired by those of Haydn. From 1782-1784 Mozart wrote a set of six string quartets that was dedicated to Haydn. They were published in Vienna in 1785 as Mozart's opus 10, and carried the following dedication from Mozart to Haydn:
To my dear friend Haydn:   A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father's eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,     W.A. Mozart
Haydn himself began the tradition of releasing string quartets in sets of six, which was also followed by Beethoven with his first six quartets. There was usually one quartet in a set that was in a minor key, and Mozart's 15th string quartet, the second one of opus 10,is in the key of D minor. It consists of 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - Each of the 6 quartets dedicated to Haydn are individual works in character and spirit, with this one being defined to a great extent by its D minor tonality. The first movement begins with a theme in the first violin with an octave drop on the home note of D:
Mozart seldom has only two contrasting themes in his sonata form developments. Such is his gift of melody, he uses what is called theme groups, and the contrast can come between these groups. Minor and major keys are juxtaposed and create a variety of emotion and tension in the exposition, and are expanded naturally in the development section, in some sections contrapuntally. The recapitulation emphasizes minor over major, and some of the brightness of the second theme group has been darkened as a result. The movement ends in D minor.

II. Andante -  The first movement goes from dark to light and back to dark again, and despite being in the key of F major, the second movement is not all sunshine. The music doesn't flow as smoothly, and seems a tad disjointed. The middle section is in the minor, and the mood turns accordingly. But it is a brief time before the music turns back to the mood of the beginning of the movement.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto - The third movement returns to D minor in a rather serious minuet punctuated by chromaticism:

The trio is in D major, and is in stark contrast to the minuet in the delicacy of the theme played in the first violin to pizzicato accompaniment. When the minuet returns, it sounds even more stark after the gentle trio.

IV. Allegretto ma non troppo -  The final movement is a set of variations on a theme in 6/8 time. Only one variation, the last one, is in a different key from the tonic. This final variation is in D major, and gives a little bit of solace before the sadness returns in a coda that adds intensity and drama to the theme. At the very last, the music shifts to D major and ends with a picardy third, which oddly enough adds a feeling of irony and resignation instead of brightness.

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