Monday, August 12, 2019

Schumann - Scenes From Childhood For Piano, Opus 15

The set of thirteen miniatures for solo piano that were eventually titled Kinderszenen (Scenes From
Childhood) by Robert Schumann were gleaned from a group that originally contained thirty pieces. Schumann wrote them in 1838 while enduring a separation from his fiancé Clara Wieck, who was a concert pianist and away on tour.

The book of pieces was called Leichte Stücke (Easy Pieces), but Schumann came up with the descriptive titles for each after they had been composed.

1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen  (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) - Although Schumann called these 'easy' pieces, that doesn't mean they are for children or easy to play musically. They are a set of miniature tone poems for the piano that reflect moods and feelings of Schumann's own childhood. The first piece has a simple motive that reappears in differing guises in some of the other pieces.

2. Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story) - Schumann himself said the titles of the pieces were "nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation."  What exactly what this curious story is about is left to the listener's imagination.

3. Hasche-Mann (Blind Man's Bluff) - A variant of the children's game of 'tag', this game has a blindfolded person groping about for someone else to 'tag' while they avoid them.

4. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child) - Whether for a toy, piece of candy or something else, this piece depicts the child begging for something. The piece ends on a 7th chord that doesn't resolve until the next piece

5. Glückes genug (Happy Enough) - This piece resolves the previous one and shows that the child has gotten what it wanted. Schumann told his soon to be wife Clara that the pieces of the set were "more cheerful, gentler, more melodic" than some of his other piano music.

6. Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event) - With heavy chords and a left hand melody in the bass in the middle section, this is an important childhood event indeed!

7. Träumerei (Dreaming) - Perhaps the most well known of the set, this piece is like a fine gem, perfect in its feeling and construction. It has become as a song of mourning due to it being played in memorials to World War II, especially in Russia. But it was originally meant to be played a little faster than a dirge.

8. Am Kamin (At the Fireside) - in the key of F major like the previous piece, this conveys the happiness and comfort of sitting by a fire in the evening.

9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse) - A picture of a child riding on a rocking horse swinging a toy sword.

10. Fast zu ernst (Almost Too Serious) - Written in G-sharp minor, this piece has the right hand melody tied over the bar line which gives a slight restless syncopation to the music.

11. Fürchtenmachen (Frightening) - Moderate tempo music in the major mode alternates with faster music in the minor mode in imitation of being scared.

12. Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep) - Gently moving music that begins in E minor, goes to E major, and ends with the child drifting off in A minor.

13. Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks) - A kind of summing up of what has gone before, and very appropriately titled, for Schumann was a poet of tones. The music ends in the key of G major as it began with the first piece.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Mozart - Piano Sonata No. 14 In C Minor K.457

The last ten years of Mozart's life were spent in Vienna as a free-lance composer. He supported himself by teaching as well as composing. He wrote the last six of his piano sonata while in Vienna, and the piano sonata in C minor was dedicated to one of his students, Therese von Trattner, whose husband was a publisher in Vienna and Mozart's landlord.

Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 14 In C Minor is one of two sonatas in a minor key (the other being the Piano Sonata No. 8 In A Minor K.310/300d).

I. Molto allegro -  The sonata begins with the bare notes of a broken C minor chord in an upward direction, the first theme:

This was a device made popular by the orchestra in Mannheim, Germany, in the middle of the 18th century. This orchestra was highly disciplined and played music by composers such as Johann Stamitz and others that used new and novel effects such as extended crescendos, tremolos, and rapidly rising melodies. Mozart's opening of the sonata is an example of one of those rising motives that was called a Mannheim rocket.  Beethoven knew Mozart's music very well from his early days in Bonn where he played some of the piano music as well as the viola in the court opera orchestra in Mozart's operas. Musicologists have thought Beethoven used this sonata as a model for his own Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor due to similarities in key, structure and intensity. The second theme of the movement is in the relative key of E-flat major. The exposition is repeated. The short development section uses parts of the two themes in the keys of C major, F minor, and G minor before the recapitulation returns to the home key of C minor. Both themes are played in the home key. An agitated coda brings the movement to a close.

II. Adagio - The  slow movement is in E-flat major:
The first section has the initial theme played through twice, with the second hearing being more decorated.  The second section has a different theme that is played through twice with transitional material that leads back to the initial theme that is repeated in an even more decorated form. A coda finishes out the movement.

III.  Allegro assai -  Mozart changes the usual final movement of a sonata from fast and light to more serious and tense:
The first theme is in two distinct parts; the first part is quiet and creates an undercurrent of tension with the right hand having the first and third beats of the measure tied across the bar line. The second part of the theme i8s louder and with more passion. The second subject is in the major and is accompanied by an Alberti bass.  The middle section is a short episode that leads back to the second theme that ushers back the first theme. A coda consists of material from the short episode and the movement ends in C minor. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Lourié - Cinq Préludes Fragiles Op. 1

Arthur-Vincent Lourié was a Russian born composer that was associated with Igor Stravinsky for part of his career.  He began as a supporter of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and played a role in the development of Soviet music, serving as the head of the music department for the Commissariat of Popular Enlightenment.

He became disenchanted with the new Russian order, and when he went on an official visit to Berlin in 1921, he never returned to Russia. Like many expatriated Russians, he went to France and settled in Paris in 1922. He met Stravinsky in Paris and had a close association with him until 1931.  When France was occupied by the Germans in 1940, Lourié moved to the United States and settled in New York City. He died in Princeton, New Jersey in 1966. Lourié was a highly cultured man with diverse interests that moved in the circles of the avant-garde writers and artists of the early 20th century.

The Cinq Préludes Fragiles (5 Frail Preludes) were composed between 1908-1910 when the composer was 16-18 years old.  They reflect the influence of Scriabin and French Impressionism on the young man. He graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1913, but was self taught as well.

I. Lento -  The first prelude is in E-flat minor, and the subdivisions of the beat into triplets (3 notes to a beat), quintuplets (5 notes to a beat), and sextuplets (6 notes to a beat) gives the melancholy music an underlying restlessness.

II. Calme, pas vite -  This prelude is also in E-flat minor, and the composer instructed the player to play it with the freedom of a popular song. The music is not as heavy as the 1st prelude, but there is still underlying melancholy within it.

III. Tendre, pensif - To be played tenderly and thoughtfully, this music flirts with B-flat major and finally ends in that key.  Subtle syncopation keep the music in a reflective mood, not as dark as the two previous preludes.

IV. Affabile - To be played with joyous capriciousness, it is the brightest of the set. This prelude is in F major, with the time signatures of 9/16 and 7/8.

V. Modéré - With an instruction by the composer to play this prelude in a languishing manner, the set has gone back to the melancholy of the beginning. It is in G-sharp minor, and has a middle section that is marked moderately fading until another marking instructs the player to play arpeggiated chords caressingly. The music returns to the beginning of this prelude, languishes in its melancholy, and ends.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Couperin - Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Maillotins

François Couperin was a French composer of the Baroque era. He is most well known for his works for harpsichord,  of which over 230 were published in 4 volumes ofPièces de clavecin (Keyboard pieces).  He also wrote a treatise printed in 1716 titled L'Art de toucher le clavecin (The Art Of Playing The Harpsichord), specifically to instruct players how to play his harpsichord pieces in the correct style, while also offering instruction on fingering and ornamentation. This book is still used by early music performers and scholars for information concerning playing style of the time in France.

Even within the limited communication modes of the time, Couperin's music was known by other composers outside of France. J.S. Bach knew his music, and they may have written to each other. Couperin's influence reached to composers in the 19th century as well. Brahms played his music in public, and contributed as an editor with Friedrich Chrysander in a complete edition of the Pièces de clavecin published in London in 1888.  Modern harpsichordists and pianists have kept Couperin's music in the repertoire through some popular examples.

Couperin gave descriptive titles to some of his keyboard pieces. Some whimsical, some descriptive, some of them rather undecipherable. The title of this piece, Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les Maillotins has numerous possibilities for translation and interpretation. Le tic-toc-choc has been thought of as representing the rhythm of a clock in comparison to the tempo of the piece. The last part of the title , ou Les Maillotins has been interprested as knock-knocks, or even little hammers.

It was intended for a two-manual harpsichord, per Couperin's instructions;
Pièce croisée: devra être jouée sur deux claviers, dont l’un sera repoussé ou tiré. Ceux qui n’auront qu’un Clavecin à un clavier, ou une épinette, joueront le Dessus comme il est marqué, et la Basse une octave plus bas. (Cross-piece: must be played on two-manual keyboards, one of which will be pushed back or pulled. Those who have only one harpsichord with one keyboard, or a spinet, will play the top as it is written, and the bass an octave lower.)
Modern  harpsichordists that have a two-manual instrument can follow Couperin's instructions, but pianists usually play the notes as written, which makes this a piece where both hands are on top of each other. This makes the piece all the more intriguing and difficult, as notes are rapidly played by one hand and then the other:

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, Nos. 7 -12

Bach intended Book II of The Well Tempered Clavier to fulfill the same uses as Book I; as a teaching aid for keyboard technique, theory and composition. But it also served as a showcase for him as a composer.While he was an acknowledged master of the compositional techniques of counterpoint (his works were called 'learned', not necessarily a compliment as used by some), he also knew the recent trends and the changes that were happening in musical styles.

Book II has more difficulties and is longer than Book I, and has not been as popular with players or listeners. But there are treasures to discover if one is willing.

Prelude and Fugue No. 7 In E-flat Major BWV 876 - This prelude has the feeling of flowing eighth notes throughout. It is not made up of themes, but consists of continuous movement that appears free from drama or overt tension.

The 4-voiced fugue begins with a subject that is repeated 12 times throughout.

Prelude and Fugue No. 8 In D-sharp Minor BWV 877 - The Prelude No. 8 in Book I was written in E-flat minor, while Fugue No. 8 of Book I was written in D-sharp minor, probably as a way for Bach to show the advantages of his well- tempered keyboard, as these 2 keys are theoretically different, but on the keyboard are only different in appearance on the music page. This Prelude/Fugue pair are written in the same key of D-sharp minor. As there was a separation of about 20 years between the composition of the books, the issue of which tuning to use may have been pretty much decided in the favor of well -temperament and Bach saw no need to emphasize it. Written in 2 voices, this prelude is similar to a 2-part invention, with its difference being in its length and complexity. The first 16 measures are to be repeated, as are the final 20 measures, thus the prelude is in binary form that is similar to what Bach used in some of the dance suites.

The 4-voiced fugue has a short two-measure subject that is repeated 16 times. There are a total of 8 episodes that are free of any subject

Prelude and Fugue No. 9 In E Major BWV 878 - This prelude moves along in 3 voices throughout, with the upper and middle voices contributing somewhat more thematic material than the lowest voice. It has two sections that are repeated.

The fugue that follows is in 4 voices. The subject consists of 5 notes with each voice entering directly after the preceding voice. There is no rush, as the fugue unfolds in a moderate tempo.

Prelude and Fugue No. 10 In E Minor BWV 879 - In two voices throughout, an extended two-part invention. The prelude has two sections which are repeated, with the second section being longer.  Trills in one hand help to define that voice while the opposing voice has its say.

A 3-voiced fugue that has the subject begin with an upbeat of the 2nd and 3rd notes of a triplet. It is rather a long subject at six measures that covers an octave. Bach uses this theme to garner interest even before the fugal entry begin. This subject occurs nine times during the fugue with no changes to it. There are six episodes in the fugue that do not contain the subject within it. The pace of the fugue is not fast, but it does have movement to it by way of the staccatos and triplets.

Prelude and Fugue No. 11 In F Major BWV 880 - A prelude in a pastoral, calm mood that begs to be played legato with no accents. This prelude reminds me somewhat of the beginning of the Prelude No. 7 in E-flat BWV 852 of Book I.

The 3-voiced fugue is written in 6/16 time, a signature that shows the basic pulse is sixteenth note triplets, 2 triplets to the bar. The bouncing subject is stated 8 times during the fugue. Most of the fugue is taken up by the six episodes.

Prelude and Fugue No. 12 In F Minor BWV 881 - The prelude begins meditatively, but with shifts into the major, the prelude has an underlying energy that may lead to some performers performing it too fast. This is another prelude from Book II that is in binary form, and as Bach develops sections of this prelude, it shows that it was a form that lead to the development of sonata-allegro form with later composers.

The character of the 3-voiced fugue as well as its 2/4 time signature gives the opportunity to increase the tempo. The subject appears 9 times, with 6 subject-free episodes. Much of Bach's music derives from dance forms that were old in his time, and this fugue has a sway to it that shows that derivation.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 21 In C Major opus 53 'Waldstein'

In the European musical world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most composers had to rely on employment in the church or a royal patron to make ends meet. There were music publishers, but there were no copyright laws protecting a composer's published works. Other publishers could get a copy of them and print their own versions of them with no penalty. So for the few composers that could get published, there was usually a set fee for the composition in question with no royalties and no laws prohibiting publication by other publishers with no remuneration for the composer.

Count  Ferdinand von Waldstein
One of Beethoven's first important patrons was Count Ferdinand Waldstein, a German nobleman who made Beethoven's acquaintance in Bonn. It was Waldstein who put together a scholarship for Beethoven to go to Vienna in 1792. Beethoven had already been to Vienna for a short stay in 1787, ostensibly to have lessons with Mozart. Whether he actually had them or even met Mozart is not certain, but by 1792 Mozart was dead and Beethoven was to have lessons with Joseph Haydn. Count Waldstein wrote to Beethoven before he left on the trip:
Dear Beethoven! You go to realize a long-desired wish: the genius of Mozart is still in mourning and weeps for the death of its disciple. By incessant application, receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.
Piano Sonata No. 21 was written in the summer of 1804 at the height of Beethoven's most productive period of composition. 1804 was also the year that the Third Symphony In E-flat Major (Eroica) was completed. Beethoven remembered his first important patron and dedicated the sonata to Count Waldstein, hence the name that the sonata is most known by.

I. Allegro con brio -  Beethoven begins the sonata with a theme contained in the C major chord played at a quiet dynamic that combines with the energetic tempo that creates an underlying excitement to the opening:

These four measures are immediately repeated, but in the key of B-flat major.  Beethoven modulates this first theme group until a short transitional section in A major leads to the second subject.

Usual convention of second themes in sonata form has them in the key of the dominant, or 5th degree of the main key, which in this instance would be G major. Beethoven mixes it up be having the second theme in the key of E major.
The second theme group leads back to a repeat of the exposition.  The development section has themes go through many key changes along with compression of themes to one bar motives. The recapitulation has the first theme played verbatim, with material leading to the second theme being modified. The second theme is first heard in A major, then in the tonic of C major, which the movement ends in.

II. Introduzione - Adagio molto -  The original second movement for this sonata was removed because it was thought to make the sonata too long. Beethoven had the original movement published seperately as Andante favori.  Beethoven inserted a short introduction to the final movement. This introduction is 28 measures long, and leads directly to the rondo of the finale.

III. Rondo - Allegro moderato - Prestissimo - The beginning of the rondo emerges from the introduction pianissimo, in a melody that is played with the left hand crossing over the right hand accompaniment. The left hand supplies deep bass notes when it crosses back over:
After a brief section the melody returns, this time in octaves in the right hand as the left hand accompanies. The melody ends with a trill in the right hand, and as the trill continues with the thumb and index finger of the right hand, the melody returns an octave higher, played primarily by the little finger of the right hand:

This is quite difficult to do, as the top melody needs to be prominent over the accompaniment both of the trill and the rapid notes of the left hand. Beethoven was very aware of the difficulty of the trill, and in the manuscript of the sonata he left instructions that said:
For whom the trill is too difficult where it is connected to the theme, may make things easier in the following way: 
Or depending on their abilities, they can also double it. of these sextuplets, two are played against each quarter note of the bass. In general, it does not matter if this trill also loses some of its usual velocity: 
After the theme is played through three times, an episode in A minor erupts and leads back to the theme that is repeated three times in the same form as before. Another episode in C minor, this one lengthier than the first, is played. this leads to the return of the theme in chords in the keys of A-flat, F minor and D-flat major. Parts of the theme are now developed in different keys. This development leads back to the theme, this time played twice.  The next section extends the bars that are heard directly after the first hearing of the theme. After this, a section in G major leads to a changing of the tempo to prestissimo and the time signature to 2/2. The theme is varied and developed until a section that is supposed to be played in opposing octave glissandos in each hand:

On the pianos of Beethoven's time, the action was not as heavy as the modern piano so octave glissandos were more feasible. Even then, not much volume could be gotten from doing it, hence Beethoven marked them to be played pianissimo. On the modern piano with its heavier action, many pianists make various compromises in this section. In the video that is included in this post, the pianist Claudio Arrau plays the glissandos as written.  The main theme dominates the coda, and the sonata comes to a close in C major.

This sonata is one of the masterpieces of the piano literature, and was acknowledged as such in Beethoven's time. In the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, in a review published in January of 1806, part of the review states that:
...the first and last movements belong among the most accomplished, most brilliant, and most original pieces of this master, but are also full of wondrous whimsicality, and are very difficult to perform.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Alkan - Symphony For Piano Solo

Alkan's Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs (Twelve Studies in all the minor keys), Op. 39 for solo piano were published in 1857. But  due to a combination of the difficulties and eccentricities of the works themselves and Alkan's lack of self promotion, only a few of the etudes were heard during his lifetime in the 1870's. None of them were to be heard again until  Eron Petri played the Symphony in 1938.

Alkan was a virtuoso pianist that rivaled Liszt in technique, and while not all of his piano works bristle with intense technical difficulties, the minor key etudes are certainly some of the most challenging  piano music ever composed.

Etudes number 4 - 7 constitute the symphony for piano solo, and it remains one of the few compositions by any composer designated as a symphony. It is in 4 movements.

I. Allegro -  The first movement of the symphony is in C minor and is in sonata form.
The opening theme in the left hand octaves is the basis of most of the other themes in the movement. The first theme shifts into the right hand and after transition material another motif  in E-flat major is heard. The exposition is repeated. The development section makes the most of the first theme by shifting key changes. The recapitulation brings back the first theme in the key of C minor and leads to a coda where the theme trades off between hands until a two-bar chromatic downward run in the right hand begins in single notes:
The run is repeated, this time with the third of the C minor chord added at the beginning and every 1st note of the 4-note sixteenth note groups in the run as well as a third added to every 5th note of the sixteenthnote group. This gives the effect of the run being in thirds. Also, it adds an accent in such a way as to break up the 12 sixteenth notes of 2 groups of 6  to 3 groups of 4 time in the right hand:

The run is repeated for a third time, this time with the fifth added to complete the C minor chord and ther 5th added to the a-flat major chord, thus giving the effect of the run in triads. It also gives the illusion of being in 3/4 time:
The coda moves towards a C major chord, but the chord changes to C minor to end the movement. Alkan stayed true to the form of the first movement of a symphony, almost classical in proportion, but included passion and changes of mood along the way.

II. Marche Funèbre - Andantino - The first edition of the etudes had the following on the title page: Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Uomo da bene (Funeral march on the death of a good man). No one knows to whom Alkan was referring to. Some think it might have been his father who had died two years before.
The theme is played legato over a staccato accompaniment. The movement is in F minor following the key scheme of the set of 12 as it is in a perfect 4th from the preceding movement. the middle section is more lyrical for contrast, and the march resumes. Before the end, a drum roll deep in the bass interrupts the march. A short coda reaches a climax before the music dies away and ends in F major.

III. Menuet - Hardly a menuet as known by Haydn and Mozart, this is a hectic scherzo in B-flat minor.
The energy of the scherzo dissolves into a lyrical trio that is in contrast. The scherzo returns and leads up to a short return of the trio until it ends in B-flat major.

IV. Finale - Presto -  The most technically challenging movements of the symphony. It is in E-flat minor, but modulates in and out of the home key.
The pace does not let up, even if the minor mood of the music changes to major. Breathlessly, it continues to run (with a few delicious dissonances on the way) until it finally runs itself out and ends with E-flat octaves in each hand.