Friday, August 10, 2018

Satie - Trois Gnossiennes

Erik Satie was an eccentric French avant-garde composer of the late 19th-early 20th century whose music influenced many composers.  He didn't consider  himself a musician, but referred to himself as a gymnopedist and a measurer of sounds - a phonometrographer:
Everyone will tell you that I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career, I classed myself as a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical. Take my Fils des Etoiles, or my Morceaux en Forme d’une Poire, my En Habit de Cheval, or my Sarabandes — it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor... 
Satie took lessons from a local organist as a child. He attended the Paris Conservatoire beginning in 1879 and immediately was labeled as lazy and untalented by his professors. His piano playing was called worthless, and soon left the school. He began to re-attend in 1885, but created the same impression and left once again. It wasn't until he was 40 years old that he finally got a diploma (barely) from music school.

He lived by himself in a very small apartment for much of his life, and his life truly was an eccentric one. His apartment was in a rough part of Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, and when he went out for a walk he always carried a hammer for protection.  He changed his clothes from a frock coat, long hair and untidy beard to a gray colored corduroy suit which he bought multiple pairs of and wore exclusively for many years.

He also wrote prose and articles which were full of his own style of weird logic and nonsense. In 1912 he wrote the book the full title of which was Memoirs of an Amnesiac: To be Read Far from the Herd and the Mummified Dead, Those Great Scourges of Humanity. One of the articles in the book is titled: Intelligence and Musicality In Animals. an excerpt: 
Very few animals learn anything from humans. The dog, the mule, the horse, the ass, the parrot, the blackbird and a few others are the only animals to receive even a semblance of education, and that can only be called education in that it isn't clearly anything else. Compare, I beg you, the teaching given to animals with that given by the universities to young human undergraduates, and you will have to admit that it is not worth speaking of and couldn't possibly widen or make easier the knowledge that an animal can pick up through its work and steady industry. But what about music? Horses have learned to dance; spiders have remained underneath a piano during the whole of a long recital put on for them by a respected master of the keyboard. And what then? Nothing. Now and then people will mention the starling's musicality, the crow's ear for a tune, the owl's ingenious harmony as it taps on its stomach to accompany itself — an artificial method yielding only slender polyphony.
There has been suggestions that Satie had a high-functioning form of autism that was previously known as Asperger's Syndrome. Other composers like Anton Bruckner and Beethoven for instance have been thought to have had the same syndrome. Asperger's Syndrome people can have the ability to zero in on one thing to the exclusion of other things. They are of average to high intelligence, and can also suffer from anxiety and depression more than most people. There social skills can be lacking as well, and repetition of actions and sounds can be a comfort to them. Perhaps Satie self-medicated himself with alcohol and absinthe for many years because of depression. Whatever the reason, he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1925. When his friends went to his small apartment after his death (no one ever was allowed to visit it when he was alive) they found it in squalor with over 100 umbrellas chaotically strewn about.

He began to compose in the early 1880's with his earliest music being written in the salon style of the time. His lack of formal education was no deterrent to writing some of the music he is most remembered for; the set of 3 Gymnopédies. These pieces were followed by the first set of 3 Gnossiennes about 1890. There are a total of 6 Gnossiennes for piano.

The title of Gnossiennes was created by Satie, and no one knows exactly what it means. Some have thought that it refers to the word gnosis, a Greek word that means knowledge. Although Satie did not call them dances, they seem to be like the Gymnopédies, written with a simple melody over a slowly moving accompaniment of block chords.

Gnossienne No. 1 - Lent (Slow) - Satie wrote the Gnossiennes in free time,  without bar lines or time signatures. They move slowly, with simple harmonies that tend to repeat, a type of musical
minimalism that preceded the Minimalist movement in art and music by many years. There is a timeless quality to the first one in the set. Tinged with a touch of sadness, the music has no real beginning or ending. It only starts and stops.  No. 1 has the key signature of F minor, and most of the harmony is in F minor, with only 2 other chords appearing in the piece; C minor and B-flat minor, the chordal structure followed by countless pieces of music all the way to modern rock and roll and pop, tonic, dominant, subdominant. The melody flows above these chords and is punctuated by grace notes that give an exotic feeling to the plainness of the harmony. Most of Satie's piano music is not technically difficult, but the austere appearance of it on the page is deceiving. It requires an almost imperceptible subtlety of variation. Appearing at the end of the Romantic era of music with all of the excess that could go along with it, Satie's music is elegant and something new.  As was Satie's habit, the first three Gnossienne had what may appear to be performance directions sprinkled throughout the music. Whether they make any sense or are even supposed to make sense is anyone's guess. The words and phrases that appear in this first piece (of course originally in French) are: Shining, Questioning, From the tip of the thought, Wonder about yourself, On the tip of the tongue.

Gnossienne No. 2 - Avec attonnement (With astonishment) - Much shorter than the first piece in the set, No. 2 has more harmonic variety and melody. Perhaps that is why the tempo indication reads 'with astonishment' as the harmony shifts from major to minor, from G minor to F-sharp major, F major, D diminished and E minor 7th. And the chord that goes with the key signature of no sharps or flats, C major, does make an appearance near the end. The words and phrases appearing in this piece are: Don't leaver, With great kindness, More intimately,. Lightly with intimacy, Don't be so proud.

Gnossienne No. 3 - Lent - The final piece in the set begins in the same way as the first one, harmonies used are the tonic A minor, subdominant D minor, and dominant E minor. But the melody is more chromatic and leads to mild dissonance and use of other chords such as E major, B minor and F minor. The key signature is no sharps or flats, and the piece ends in A minor. The words and phrases that appear in this piece are: Counsel yourself cautiously, Be clairvoyant, Alone for a second, So as to be a hole, Very lost, Carry this further, Think right, Muffle the sound.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Schubert - Fantasia For Piano 4 Hands In F Minor, D. 940

Franz Schubert lived but 31 years, with most of those years being absorbed with composition. His total number of known works is over 1,500 and to write that much music he had to be composing most of the time.

The last year of his life he suffered from the illnesses that proved fatal. But that did not dampen his creative spirit as he wrote some of his most profound music. One his most admired works of that year is the Fantasia For Piano 4 Hands In F Minor.  Schubert wrote a sizable number of works for piano 4 hands, more than any other composer of his era, and published his first work in the genre in 1822. The popularity of the piano as an instrument was to be found more and more in the homes of the emerging middle class, and the sales of music suitable for amateurs to play was growing. Music for piano 4 hands became very popular, and along with music originally composed in the form were arrangements of orchestral works. Much of this music was not taxing for amateurs to play, with much of Schubert's 4 hand music intended for amateurs and students. But the Fantasia in F minor is an exception for it has a depth of emotion and artistry that makes it not only one of Schubert's most outstanding compositions in the form, but one of his masterpieces in any genre. 

The Fantasia is in one continuous movement, and consists of 4 distinct sections:

 I. Allegro molto moderato - The music begins with a gentle accompaniment before the entrance of the main theme of dotted rhythms and grace notes. The theme is repeated in  F major until the second theme more emphatic theme enters. These two themes are repeated and developed before the music shifts to F-sharp minor and the entrance of the theme of the next section.

II. Largo - This section's main theme in reminiscent of the French overture style of Bach's time with its double dotted rhythms and trills. The next theme is a reflection of the preceding one and leads to a development of the double dotted theme. This section is short, and leads directly to the next.

III. Allegro vivace - This section is a scherzo in F-sharp minor with a trio in D major. When the scherzo returns, it alternates between F-sharp minor and A major and leads up to the final section.

IV. Allegro molto moderato -  The music returns to the main theme of the first section in F minor, with the 4 sections together resembling one single sonata form movement as the first section can be thought of as the exposition, the second and third sections the development, and the fourth as the recapitulation. After the main theme is heard, the second theme is transformed into a fugue that leads to a dramatic  climax that ends in C major. The initial theme returns, and the fantasia ends in the home key.



Monday, June 11, 2018

Bach - The Well Tempered Clavier Book II, Nos. 1-6

In the court and church appointments that Johann Sebastian Bach had throughout his life, he was not only required to compose and lead the musicians in performance, but to teach them as well. He himself was taught the basics of music by his older brother after the death of his parents. But his innate curiosity lead him to copy out music of other composers to learn all he could. This was a common occurrence of the time as most music was not published and if it circulated at all it was in the form of hand-made copies. So Bach was probably an autodidact to a large degree.

By copying and filtering the music of others through his mind, he created his own way of doing things, which in turn made him an excellent teacher.

The preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier were written and used to instruct and entertain students and musicians. Leave it to the creative urge of Bach to write not just one set of 24 preludes  and fugues, but two. But the differences in the two books are evidence that Bach didn't repeat himself with the second set.

The second book of the Well Tempered Clavier appeared roughly twenty years after the first volume, and Bach surely did not remain static. His style broadened, he encompassed more of the current trends in composing. While it can be said that the first book is more obviously geared to instruction, the second book is not as clear cut.


Prelude and Fugue No. 1 In C Major, BWV 870 - As in the first prelude of Book I, this prelude emphasizes harmonic progressions. But within those progressions occur snippets of melodies and themes, examples of how Bach could weave harmony and counterpoint into very satisfying music that makes profound musical sense.

The 3-voice fugue that follows has a subject that is 4 bars long, with a rest in the middle of it. Next the mildly declamatory prelude that precedes it, the fugue has a little bit of rhythmic bounce.


Prelude and Fugue No. 2 In C Minor, BWV 871 - C minor has been a key of passion and drama to many composers, and Bach wrote a dramatic prelude/ toccata in C minor in the first book. This prelude is decidedly less so. Any drama it has isn't obvious, and it is almost entirely written in two parts.
At only 28 bars, this fugue is somewhat short on the page. The subject is but one measure long, and Bach works out the fugue in a simpler form.


Prelude and Fugue No. 3 In C-sharp Major, BWV 872 - The only music Bach wrote in the key of C-sharp major is contained within the Well Tempered Clavier. The prelude of the first book is a brilliant piece, while this one is more studied and introverted and sounds akin to the C major prelude in the first book. There is a shift from 4/4 time to 3/8 time near the end and the music becomes a short fugato.
This 3-voiced fugue has a subject of only 5 notes, with the second entry coming before the first statement of it is complete.


Prelude and Fugue No. 4 In C-sharp Minor, BWV 873 - There was not always a particular feeling or emotion Bach conveyed with specific keys, but the key of C-sharp minor seems to be one of them. AS in the first book, this prelude has a feeling of sadness. It is written in 3 voices throughout.

The fugue is in contrast to prelude. It is written in 12/16 time, a compound meter of 4/4 time that implies a quick tempo. There is an interesting chromatic section within it.

Prelude and Fugue No. 5 In D Major, BWV 874 - The prelude opens with a fanfare and proceeds like a dance from one of Bach's sets of dance pieces.  The first section is repeated, rather like a Scarlatti sonata, and some have conjectured that Bach knew about the development of sonata form. The theme bounces around the voices, and is answered as it makes its way to the end.
The 4-voiced fugue is stately and refined.


Prelude and Fugue No.6 In D Minor, BWV 875 - Written in two parts, a brilliant companion piece to the D minor prelude of Book One.
An interesting subject with a chromatic section in the eighth notes, and a complex set of note values from sixteenth triplets, sixteenth notes, and eighth notes.



Friday, June 8, 2018

Saint-Saëns - Organ Improvisations, Opus 150, No. 1

François Benoist was the professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Paris for fifty years and many of France's finest musicians studied with him, organists and composers such as César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns to name only two.  He was a powerful influence, and was part of the training process to keep the Catholic churches of France stocked with trained organ players. It was the nature of church liturgy that created the tradition of organ improvisation in France, as Saint-Saëns said:
Formerly, Improvisation was the basis of organist`s talent; his virtuosity was slight – music written for organ with independent pedal was beyond his powers… It is improvisation alone that permits one to employ all the resources of a large instrument, and to adapt one´s self to the infinite variety of organs; only improvisation can follow the service perfectly, pieces written for this purpose being almost too short or too slow. Finally, the practice of improvisation frequently develops faculties of invention which, without it, would have remained latent.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, France's musical life was in many ways centered around the new symphonic organs introduced by the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. French organists and composers like Franck and Saint-Saëns worked with the builder to create an instrument that was symphonic in scope. The list of musicians trained on the organ in France is extensive, and includes some of the most well-known composers of the era.

Many young musicians made their living as church organists around France, as did Saint-Saëns. From 1853 to 1878 he played regularly in churches. He resigned in 1878, but never quit playing the instrument completely. He would visit his organist friends at their churches and take turns improvising with them.

Saint-Saëns wrote few works for solo organ, which underlines his thoughts on the instrument as mainly for improvisation or accompanying. The set of Seven Improvisations, opus 150 was written late in his career 1916-1917, as he was in bed recuperating from a bout of bronchitis.  The pieces look backward in their use of church modes and plainchant themes, standard fare for organ improvisation in France, but the first piece begins quietly with a whole tone scale in the pedals:

One of the most valuable innovations of Cavaillé-Coll organs was the swell device, a box surrounding the organ pipes that had shutters that could be opened and closed to control the volume of the sound coming from the organ. There was always a certain amount of control over volume with the organ before, but as the keyboard is not touch sensitive as the piano it was done by adding stops of pipes to the music line. Simply speaking, the more pipes engaged, the louder the sound. The swell device gave more control of volume and nuance, and directly lead to the symphonic school of organ playing and composition in France. This device is heard to good effect in this piece by Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns kept up his organ and piano technique up until the very end of his life of 86 years. He himself played the premiere of the Seven Improvisations in 1917 when he was 82 years old.



Saturday, April 28, 2018

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 29 In B-flat Major 'Hammerklavier'

Beethoven composed the 29th piano sonata in 1817-1818, and it was around this time that he began to use his native German language instead of the more traditional Italian for his compositions. The sonata in German was called Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, and although the 28th sonata was the first one to have a German title, this sonata has been known as the Hammerklavier for many years. The literal translation of hammerklavier is hammer keyboard.

The sonata belongs to  Beethoven's third compositional style period, and for many years the difficulties both technically and interpretively prevented it from being played.  Beethoven's piano student Carl Czerny studied all of the sonatas with him and could have played the Hammerklavier, but it was not in a public performance. Pride of place for the first public performance of which there is evidence goes to Franz Liszt who played it in Paris in 1836. Hector Berlioz wrote a review of the performance that said in part:
Liszt has explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him. It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood has shown that he is a pianist of the future.
This sonata is the only one in which Beethoven included beats per minute markings for the metronome, and the discussion is ongoing as to the validity of them. Due to the fast tempos indicated by Beethoven, there have been arguments suggesting that his metronome was in error, or that his deafness prevented him from actually hearing the work at the given tempo, while others say that other works that he left markings for were not excessive, and that he wanted the fast tempos. The question of tempo has lead to performances of about 40 minutes if the metronome markings are followed to performances on the other ends of the scale that are 50 or more minutes. As with any great masterwork, the artistry of the performer determines the value of the interpretation. There are recorded performances from both extremes that are very good, as well as performances that take more of the middle ground that are very good.

The sonata is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The opening movement is in sonata form, and has the incredibly fast metronome marking of half note = 138 beats per minute. The music begins with thundering B-flat major chords:
The first theme of the movement is derived from these chords and winds its way for some 34 measures until it comes to the opening B-flat major chords again, but they are only played for a measure until the music shifts to D major, an interval of a third above the home key.  The interval of a third and the relationships that evolve from it are part of the underlying structure of this entire sonata, and impart a different sound to the ear. After a short section of modulation, the second theme in G major begins, a key that is a third lower than the home key of B-flat.  This section continues and makes brief references to other keys along with trills before it leads back to B-flat, and the exposition is repeated. The beginning of the development section has the music transition to E-flat major for an extended section in counterpoint. The ensuing fugato is based on the first subject of the exposition and after a ingenious working through and modulations by descending thirds, the development begins to lead to the recapitulation, but not before it visits the keys of D major and the very odd key of B major. The recapitulation begins with B-flat major chords in the right hand and a descending figure in the left hand. Modulations bring the music to the key of G-flat major before a sudden return of the opening chords appears, this time in B minor. The music segues to the second theme that is now heard in the home key of B-flat major. Moving towards the end of the movement, trills in each hand are heard sandwiched between repeats of material heard earlier. The end of the movement leaves no doubt that it is in the key of B-flat major as it plays fortissimo in whole note octaves.

II. Scherzo: Assai vivace -  Beethoven opens the second movement with a parody of the first subject in the home key of B-flat of the initial movement. The metronome marking for this movement is also very fast, dotted half note = 80:
After the scherzo has its say, the music shifts to B-flat minor for a mysterious trio:
The hands alternate with the theme of the trio and the triplet accompaniment until the meter shifts to 2/4 time, still in the key of B-flat minor, at presto tempo. This short section ends with a cadenza in F major and a bar and a half of what sounds like a chuckle. The scherzo resumes and winds up with a stubborn B natural hammered out in cut time until the scherzo makes a quiet and brief ending.

III. Adagio sostenuto -  The third movement is legendary for its length, poignancy and difficulty. It varies in time of performance, but can take 20 minutes or more with some pianists. It was foreshadowed by Beethoven himself in the 2nd movement of his Piano Sonata No. 7 written 20 years before. It is in sonata form and begins in the key of F-sharp minor. The first bar of the movement was an after thought; Beethoven sent the one measure to his publisher as the manuscript was being prepared for publication and asked that it be used to begin the movement:
After slowly evolving, the first theme segues into the second theme in D major (the relationship of thirds continues in this movement as D major is a third below F-sharp minor). The development section makes free references to the first theme and is quite short. The first theme leads off the recapitulation, and the second theme is heard in the tonic of F-sharp minor. This transforms into F-sharp major, and the second theme is heard again in G major. The key of B minor makes a short appearance before the home key returns. The music goes slowly from minor to major until it comes to rest with a short arpeggiated chord in F-sharp major.

IV. Introduzione: Largo, allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto -  The abruptness of the end of the previous movement sets trhe stage for the phenomenal introduction of the finale of the sonata. In meticulous notation, Beethoven writes down his mental process of realizing the theme of the fugue that is to follow. With instruction in Italian to subdivide each quarter note into 4 sixteenth notes, and as the metronome marking of one sixteenth note = 76, this movement begins very slowly:
Ideas are presented and rejected; in G-flat major, B-flat major and G-sharp minor. Another episode that reaches fortissimo in A major gives way to trills and a lead-in to the presentation of the subject of a 3-voice fugue in B-flat major:
This may be a fugue, but it is a fugue under Beethoven's terms. While he uses many contrapuntal techniques, they are used with an intensity that is Beethoven's own. The Italian words he used at the beginning of the fugue translate to say Fugue in three voices with some license, he continued to make his own way artistically. 

The first performance below is by Claudio Arrau, one of the great pianists and Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century. His performance takes about 45 minutes, and he does not follow Beethoven's metronome markings. The second performance below is by Stephan Möller, a fine pianist who does take the sonata at Beethoven's metronome markings. His performance takes about 40 minutes. Each performance has its merits, and it is interesting to compare them. 

Claudio Arrau



Stephan Möller 


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Liszt - Fantasy And Fugue On The Theme B-A-C-H For Organ S.260

The piano was central to the musical life of Franz Liszt. He was a virtuoso performer on the instrument from an early age, and his tours of Europe were legendary, and his compositions for piano and orchestra challenged the conservative nature that had crept into music in the middle 19th century. But despite his leadership with Wagner in what was called at the time "New Music", he had an interest in past composers and forms.  He championed works by composers that were unknown to the public at the time, such as the late music of Schubert and the opus 106 piano sonata "Hammerklavier" by Beethoven. He helped create pathways to new modes of expression by having one eye on the future and one on the past.

Although as a composer he is most well known for his music for solo piano and the symphonic poems for orchestra, he also composed in most other genres of music, including works for solo organ. The articleThe Organ Music Of Liszt by musicologist Zoltán Gárdonyi   states that Liszt traveled to Geneva Switzerland in 1836 and improvised on a church organ there.

As a trained pianist, Liszt was not adept at the pedals of the organ to begin with, and perhaps never got really proficient on them. But the manuals of course were a different story. He probably could adjust quite rapidly to the differences in the keyboards of pianos and organs. And there are many differences in the two instruments besides the pedals.

Liszt composed around 40 works for organ with the majority of them being transcriptions of other composer's music as well as his own. But he did compose two masterpieces of the literature for organ. The first was composed in 1850, the Fantasy and Fugue On The Chorale 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera The Prophet. This is a massive work that takes around thirty minutes to perform. The second of Liszt's masterpieces for solo organ was composed ion 1855, the  Fantasy And Fugue On The Theme B-A-C-H.

In the 1840's the Bach revival was in full swing with Felix Mendelssohn continuing to lead the way in exposing the music to audiences. Mendelssohn played some of Bach's organ works at a concert in 1840, and Liszt wrote transcriptions of selected organ works for piano. Liszt's homage to Bach's music is based on the spelling in German musical nomenclature:
Bach himself used this 'Bach motif'' in one of his fugues in his The Art Of Fugue, and there is a long list of composers past and present who have used it.

Liszt begins the work with the motif in a solo for pedals:
The first part of the work is a fantasy with wide ranging tonalities that leads into the fugue which begins in the pedals. The fugue works through a few entrances of  the subject and then becomes a more free working out of ideas and motives until the subject returns in a more agitated form.  A section of trills for the pedals leads back to a fragment of the subject. After a short section marked maestoso, the Bach motif is heard again  in octaves in the pedal with shifting harmonies in the keyboards. This seems to be leading up to a grand finish, but instead they lead into a few bars in a more hushed tone that add a sense of mystery. This spell is broken by the final bars in fortissimo that modulate to the end chord in B-flat major. 

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