Monday, September 18, 2017

Chopin - Ballade No. 1 In G Minor, Opus 23

The history of the term ballad begins with a type of French medieval narrative song which was generally danced to. Ballet derives from the same base word in French, so both words have the action of dance in common. While the etymology of the word may be French, the ballad was a narrative song or poem that has been historically found across Europe and England and was associated with minstrels for centuries.

This cursory description of an historical ballad has a direct bearing on the term as used in the instrumental form. The historical ballad tells a story in verse with or without music, while the Romantic era ballad is an instrumental work. More specifically, in the case of Chopin's use of the term, it is a musical composition for solo piano that tells a story in purely musical terms. 

When the first ballade was published in 1836 it was considered somewhat of a novelty at the time, for no composer had used the term for a work for solo piano before Chopin. Chopin wrote four ballades (the spelling he used derives from French) during his lifetime, from 1831 to 1842. During his second trip to Vienna in 1831, he began to write the first ballade. He completed it in 1835 after he had moved to Paris. Each of the 4 Ballades are singular works. There are a few purely technical similarities between them, but musically and emotionally they are separate pieces. They contain some of the most  difficult technical and interpretive challenges of any pieces for solo piano in the repertoire.

Lento -  The ballade begins with seven bars of slow arpeggios in common time that serves as a recitative/introduction to the work. 

Moderato - The short introduction blends into the first of two primary themes, a gently pensive theme in 6/4 time and the home key of G minor. After this theme is repeated and slightly expanded, a motive is heard and passage work leads to the second major theme with the indication,

Meno mosso -  This theme is in E-flat major. This theme gets a proper hearing and elaboration, and leads up to the next section.

What has gone on before may be considered as the exposition of a piece in Chopin's personal use of sonata form, as the first theme reappears. It gradually leads to the reappearance of the second theme in a more powerful rendering in a different key. Another motive is heard, and leads to what can be considered as a recapitulation, although the themes appear in reverse order than they did in the exposition.  A stunning coda begins, complete with powerful runs in both hands alternating with solemnly quiet chords until a thunder of octaves brings the piece to a close.

In the end, no amount of analysis, slight or detailed, will convey the strength of Chopin's artistry in this ballade. Or is there anything of much value to trying to tie the ballade with any kind of literary work. Chopin made no reference to any outside inspiration. It is as Chopin intended; a story told in purely musical terms to be understood by emotions and feelings brought on by the music. In that aspect, Chopin is one of the most Romantic of all Romantic era composers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Schubert - Four Impromptus D. 935 (Op. posth. 142)

The word impromptu by definition implies something that is spontaneous, improvised. That definition does not really imply in music, for the impromptus as written by Schubert and other composers are hardly improvisations. They are well-crafted short pieces for the piano that have a definite structure.

Schubert wrote eight impromptus, but he was not the first to use the term. The first known use of the word for published musical works was by the Czech composer and pianist Jan Václav Voříšek in his opus 7 set of six piano pieces in 1822.  Voříšek and Schubert knew each other in Vienna, and Schubert may have been inspired by Voříšek's opus 7 set.

All eight of Schubert's impromptus were written in 1827, a year before the composer died. Two of them were published shortly after they were written, and Schubert's publisher suggested calling them impromptus. The other six were published sporadically after his death. The complete set of eight was published in 1857, thirty years after they were written, and are now considered to be in two sets of four each; D.899 and D.935. The four pieces of D.935 are discussed below:

1) F Minor - This impromptu can be broken down into 3 major sections. The first section is a group of themes that begins with one in F minor:
The second section is in A-flat major and is of a decidedly more lyrical nature. The third and longer section enters in A-flat minor with alternating statements in the treble and bass with a continuing accompaniment. This section modulates to the major before sections 1 and 2 are repeated. The third section is also repeated, this time in the home key. The first section makes one more brief appearance to end the piece.

2) A-flat Major -  Written in the same form as a minuet with the opening in A-flat major:
The trio section begins in D-flat major in triplets. The key changes to D-flat minor before the opening material returns.

3) B-flat Major, Theme and Variations -  A theme with 5 variations:
Variation I has the theme repeated in a dotted rhythm at the top of the right hand with an accompaniment also played in the right hand and left hand.
Variation II has the theme ornamented.
Variation III is in B-flat minor. Somber chords in the left hand accompany the moody minor variation of the theme.
Variation IV is in G-flat major with the theme carried in the left hand at the start. The theme alternates between hands.
Variation V has the theme return to the home key of B-flat major as the theme is delicately outlined with runs in the right hand. A short coda ends the piece.

4) F minor, Tempo Scherzando - Written in F minor and in 3/8 time. As Schubert was wont to do in his later works the form (which is ternary) is expanded with many different sections and themes within the parts as well as going far afield from the home key within the piece. The first part has 4 different sections and begins with the scherzo theme:
The second part has two sections and functions as a trio. The first part is repeated after the trio. A long coda section picks up the tempo towards the end and the piece ends with a thundering F minor scale the length of the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Rhapsody For Organ No. 3 From 'Three Rhapsodies On Folk Songs From Brittany', Opus 7

Camille Saint-Saëns was an example of the consummate musician as he was a performer, conductor, composer and musicologist. Music was not his only interest, as he also studied many areas of science such as archeology, botany and especially astronomy. He was keen on mathematics and literature as well.

His musical output included works for solo piano, piano and orchestra, symphonies, opera, and chamber music. He also composed music for the solo organ, but much of it is relatively unknown. It was as a professional organist that Saint-Saëns started his musical career when he was 18 years old in 1853 as church organist in Paris. He spent around 20 years in the service of the church, and then made his way as a freelance composer, performer on the piano and organ, and conductor.

Saint-Saëns held only one teaching position in his entire career, at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, a school that was founded to develop organists and musicians for the churches of France. He was the head of piano studies and remained at the school for 5 years. One of the students he taught there was Gabriel Fauré, and the two became life-long friends. Saint-Saëns and some of his other friends took Fauré along with them on a trip to Brittany in the north of France in 1866. While traveling to an ancient chapel in the area,  Saint-Saëns heard some folksongs of the region and used them as material in his Opus 7 work 3 Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Pélérinage au pardon de Sainte Anne-la-Palud.

The third rhapsody of the set is in three sections. The first section begins with a sad tune in A minor. The second section is a short musette tune first played on the reed stops of the organ. The next section begins with a more robust tune first heard in the pedals of the organ. This grows in intensity as it is repeated with more stops of the organ. The beginning tune then reappears, followed by a repeat of the musette tune.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Beethoven - Rondo a Capriccio, Opus 129 'Rage Over A Lost Penny'

Late in 1827 there was an auction held in the city of Vienna, Austria. Beethoven had died in the spring of that year, and his belongings were being sold. The partner of Anton Diabelli, a music publisher in Vienna, attended the auction and purchased an unfinished manuscript of a piece for piano. Diabelli said that the manuscript had an inscription on it that read in German: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice that translates to English as Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice.

The trouble is that the writing is not Beethoven's. Scholars believe it is the handwriting of Anton Schindler, Beethoven's friend and part-time secretary in his last years. Schindler was footloose and fancy free with his memories of Beethoven, and was not above forging documents and changing things to make himself look more important in Beethoven's life. He was the first to write a biography of Beethoven, and it has proven to be somewhat unreliable.

The opus number 129 was issued posthumously to the piece as it was published by Diabelli in 1828, but 1795 is the year written on the manuscript, so it is a piece from early in Beethoven's career when he was still taking Vienna by storm as a virtuoso performer on the piano. Beethoven himself put a title on the piece in Italian: Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio which translates to Rondo in the Hungarian style, almost a caprice. Hungarian music was synonymous with Gypsy music at the time, and remained so until musicologists and musicians like Béla Bartók studied the folk music of the area.

But Diabelli knew a good story would help sell the music, and the work became one of Beethoven's most well-known. And the work is still known for the title written on the manuscript in a different hand as it suits the music very well.

This rondo is not a standard type of rondo where a set theme alternates between other episodes, as the rondo theme itself is varied with each repetition. And the tempo has very little respite from the Allegro vivace tempo designation at the beginning of the piece. Each episode and return of the rondo theme is at a frantic pace.