Monday, December 21, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Trio No. 2 In E Minor, Opus 92

Saint-Saëns is a composer accused by some of superficiality and glibness, but the second piano trio shows the criticism to be unjust.  Gone is the Mendelssohnian early romanticism of his earlier piano trio. The second trio was written in 1892, a time when Saint-Saëns was looked upon as an ultra-conservative, and as such his music was out of fashion and not played very much.  Nonetheless, he continued to compose and even experimented with different musical language.  He lived almost another thirty years after he wrote the second piano trio, and ended his composing career with sonatas for wind instruments (one each for clarinet, oboe, and bassoon) and a few piece for piano and voice, in 1921.

Piano Trio No. 2 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with a theme taken up by violin and cello as the piano plays an agitated accompaniment. A second theme is in E major. The development section expands the themes amid a general feeling of turmoil and passion. The themes return in the recapitulation, after which the agitation of the opening of the movement returns in the coda and after a run from the piano a unique cadence ends the movement.

II. Allegretto - The beginning of the movement gives the impression that it is going to be one of Saint-Saëns' delicate trifles, as a tripping tune in E major and 5/8 time is played.  Contrasting sections in the minor show that the movement is not just gentle salon mood music. The piano has some particularly brilliant music in the contrasting sections. The opening theme has the final say in an emphatic close.

III. Andante con moto - Written in A-flat major, this movement has a lyrical theme that is the basis of the entire movement.

IV. Grazioso, poco allegro - A graceful movement that begins in G major with a waltz-like tune. There is a slight contrasting section, more like an intermezzo.  The interplay between the instruments begins again with the opening theme as the music slows down and ends.

V.  Allegro -  Two themes, the first in E minor and the next in E major, begin the movement. Material is treated contrapuntally on its own before the first theme is integrated into it. The second theme returns and leads to a very rapid version of the first theme and the ending chords.


Berlioz - Grande Messe Des Morts (Requiem) Opus 5

The political climate in the second decade of the 19th century in France was precarious at best. Napoleon had been exiled to Elba in 1814 after his abdication as Emperor, and the house of Bourbon was restored to power with King Louis XVIII, younger brother of King Louis XVI (who had been executed during the French Revolution of 1789-1799).

But with Napoleon's escape from Elba and return to France in February of 1815, the new King had to go into hiding. Napoleon ruled for a period called The Hundred Days before he was defeated for good. King XVIII came out of hiding and ruled until 1824 when he died. Yet another Bourbon brother then came into power, Charles X. He was to rule until 1830 when the July Revolution forced him to abdicate.  Yet another monarch was brought into power, this time a cousin of the Bourbon family, Louis Philippe I.  His reign was known as the July Monarchy and lasted until 1848, when he also became another member of French royalty that was forced to abdicate on France's long and convoluted evolution to a more democratic form of government.

It was in 1837 during the reign of Louis Philippe I when the Minister Of The Interior Adrien de Gasparin approached Hector Berlioz with a request to compose a Requiem Mass in honor of  those who died in the 1830 Revolution, but after Berlioz had composed the work and hired copyists, an official informed him that the ceremony was to be held without music (possibly at the instigation of one of Berlioz's enemies).  For the next few months Berlioz pestered and complained to the authorities until the news came that the Battle Of Constantine in Algiers had been won by the French, but that General Damrémont had been killed in the battle. Plans were then changed once again, and the Requiem was to be performed at a memorial concert in the church of Les Invalides for the General and soldiers that died in the battle.

Dome of  Les Invalides
Berlioz's Requiem reflects the contemporary improvements of intonation and mechanics of the woodwind and brass. Older versions of these instruments could be notoriously difficult to keep in tune and play. Berlioz uses a huge complement of instruments and makes great demands of the entire ensemble.  Berlioz had already shown his proclivity for using large forces in his Symphonie Fantastique of 1830, but he went even further with the orchestration of his Requiem. In the score he called for over 100 stringed instruments alone. All the other sections of the orchestra show the same use of large forces, especially the brass. Twenty brass instruments are called for, plus another 38 brass instruments divided into 4 brass choirs, with one placed on the four corners of the stage. In the premiere of the work, over 400 singers and instrumentalists participated, but Berlioz encouraged the use of even more performers if they could be utilized and suggested that all parts should be adjusted accordingly.  Berlioz made two revisions to the work over the years, the final one in 1867.

The church of Les Invalides, where the premiere was given is part of a complex of buildings relating to the military history of France. The acoustics of the large dome of the church had an influence on the Requiem. Berlioz was always concerned with orchestral color and his imagination would run the range of delicate and soft to incredibly robust and loud. The dome of the church was to be Berlioz's soundboard for his musical forces. The premiere of the work was met with success, but for most of Berlioz's career he remained on the periphery of French musical life, although his works were more appreciated in other countries.

The Requiem is in ten sections:

1) Requiem et Kyrie
Berlioz was not a particularly religious man, so his Requiem is not what could be called pious, but it certainly is dramatic.  He begins with a stark theme played in unison. The choir enters with a short fugal section, and then the key turns to major for a brief respite. The fugal texture resumes with interludes of differing moods. The music changes mood and grows quiet, until the Kyrie enters in a hush. The subdued dynamics are maintained until a crescendo brings the music to a climax. After a dissonance, the choir ends their singing and the orchestra ends the movement in quiet poignancy.

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them
You, O God, are praised in Zion
and unto You shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto You shall all flesh come.
Hear my prayer,
all flesh comes to you.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

2) Dies Irae - Tuba Mirum
The ancient dies irae is sung in counterpoint by the choir and is interrupted twice by the orchestra as it plays an upward sweeping chromatic scale. After each orchestral interruption. the choir becomes more dramatic, until another orchestra interruption brings on the tuba mirum.

All four of the brass choirs, joining in one by one, blare out in a tremendous wall of sound that must have shook the church of Les Invalides, but then Berlioz summons the choir as well as 16 timpani, 4 tam-tams, and two bass drums in a section that no recording can do justice to. After this tremendous barrage of sound, the choir continues the text that is set to eerie, otherworldly themes. The fanfares of the beginning of the section return as well as the massed percussion as the choir roars out the remaining text. The music grows quiet as the choir continues in muffled tones. The movement ends as the first movement did, quietly.

In his Memoirs, Berlioz described the playing of the tuba mirum section at the premiere, and the steps Berlioz himself took to ensure that it came off properly:
François Habeneck
"Because of my habitual suspicion, I had posted myself behind [conductor François] Habeneck. With my back to his, I was watching the group of timpani players, which he could not see, as the moment approached when they were to take part in the general mêlée. There are perhaps a thousand bars in my Requiem. At precisely the point I have been speaking of, when the tempo broadens and the brass instruments launch their awesome fanfare, in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved. When at the last words of the chorus Habeneck saw that the Tuba mirum was saved: "What a cold sweat I had, "he said, "without you we were lost!"  Yes, I know very well," I replied, looking straight at him. I did not add a word … Did he do it on purpose?… "
Day of wrath, that day
the earth will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.
What dread there will be,
when the Judge shall come
to strictly judge all things.
A trumpet, spreading a wondrous sound
Through the graves of all lands,
Will drive mankind before the throne.
Death and Nature shall be astonished
When all creation rises again
To answer to the Judge.
A book that is written in will be brought forth
In which is contained everything that is,
Out of which the world shall be judged.
When the judge takes his seat
Whatever is hidden will reveal itself.
Nothing will remain unavenged.

3) Quid Sum Miser
A short movement that conjures up the after effects of Judgement Day by including fragments of the dies irae that sound in the orchestra as the choir sings the text.

What then shall I say, wretch that I am,
What advocate will entreat to speak for me,
When even the righteous may hardly be secure?
Remember, blessed Jesu,
That I am the cause of Your pilgrimage.
Do not forsake me on that day.
I pray in supplication on my knees.
My heart contrite as the dust,
Take care of my end.

4) Rex Tremendae
The music begins by sounding majestic, and then changes to pleading. This alternation of moods runs throughout the movement. The movement ends with one last plea for saving from the abyss.

King of awful majesty.
Who freely saves the redeemed,
Save me, O fount of goodness.
Remember, blessed Jesu,
That I am the cause of Your pilgrimage.
Do not forsake me on that day.
When the accursed have been confounded (Jesu)
And given over to the bitter flames.
Call me...
And from the bottomless pit.
Deliver me from the lion's mouth.
Lest I fall into darkness
And the black abyss swallow me up.

5) Quaerens Me
This movement is performed by the choir without orchestra.  A middle section is in multiple part counterpoint. The music ends gently.

Seeking me You did sit down weary
You did redeem me, suffering death on the cross.
Let no such toil be in vain.
Just and avenging Judge.
Grant remission
Before the day of reckoning.
I groan like a guilty man.
Spare a suppliant, O God.
My prayers are not worthy,
But You in Your merciful goodness grant
That I burn not in everlasting fire.
You who did absolve Mary Magdalen
And hearken to the thief,
To me also has given hope.
Place me among Your sheep
And separate me from the goats.
Setting me on your right hand.

6) Lacrymosa
A restless rhythmic pulse begins the movement, and the texture of the music grows in density, passion and volume until the 4 brass choirs join in (for the last time in the work) near the end of the movement for a climax that fades to silence to end the movement.

Mournful that day
When from the dust shall rise
Guilty man to be judged
Merciful Jesu, Lord
Grant them eternal rest.

7) Domine Jesu Christe
The chorus sings a three-note motive throughout the movement that consists of but two different notes- A, B-flat, A. Berlioz added a subtitle to this movement in the second edition of the Requiem  -Choeur des âmes du purgatoire (chorus of the souls in purgatory) which was removed from the third edition.  The orchestra plays various themes in counterpoint over the chorus' mournful chanting. This movement struck many of Berlioz's contemporaries with its form and the effect of the chorus' incessant chant.  The movement winds down with the mood of the music changing as the choir finally changes their chant to a different theme. The three-note motive returns, except this time the notes are A, B natural, A, and are sung to an amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
deliver the souls of all the
faithful departed from the pains
of hell and from the bottomless pit.
And let St. Michael Your standard
bearer lead them into the holy
light which once You did promise
to Abraham and his seed,
Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

8) Hostias
An example of Berlioz's feel for orchestral color is in the scoring of this short movement for male voices, flutes, trombones and strings. The ending of this movement has some of the most unique sounds heard in the orchestra as the trombones play very low notes that alternate with the high notes of the flute.

We offer unto You
this sacrifice of prayer and praise.
Receive it for those souls
whom today we commemorate.

9) Sanctus
This movement features a solo tenor that begins the movement and is answered by the female voices of the choir until the choir sings a fugue on Hosanna. The tenor returns along with the women's choir.  The Hosanna fugue returns and ends the movement.

Holy, holy, holy, God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full
of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

10) Angus Dei
Woodwind chords that are repeated by the violas begin this movement. Berlioz brings back themes and orchestral effects heard in the other movements, with an extended repeat (with some variations) of much of the first movement. The movement ends with a series of peaceful amens from the choir and gentle taps from the timpani.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins
of the world, grant them eternal rest.
You, O God, are praised in Zion
and unto You shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto You shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Your saints for ever,
Lord, because You are merciful.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Mendelssohn - Octet in E-flat Major

The career of many composers is a long road of constant growth, sometimes small, sometimes large, even sometimes a complete change in style. Beethoven's music from the very beginning of his career was different from his contemporaries, but the difference between his first symphony and his ninth, his first string quartet and his sixteenth, are huge.

Mendelssohn almost seems like he was formed a complete composer from a very early age, and his style and complexity of his music didn't change dramatically his entire career. Of course he also didn't live past his 38th year, so no one knows if he would have changed his essentially conservative musical voice later in life. 

The String Octet is from 1825 when Mendelssohn was sixteen years old, and another of his popular compositions, Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream was written a year later. These were far from Mendelssohn's first works as he had written twelve symphonies for strings between the ages of 12-14. The octet  is for a double string quartet; 4 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. Mendelssohn himself left directions for its performance: "This Octet must be played by all instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than usual." That the work was written with this orchestral style is evident from the very opening of the work, and that the work lends itself admirably to transcription for full string orchestra.

The octet is in 4 movements and opens with the first theme directly, played by violin with accompaniment. The first movement is far and away the longest in length, but Mendelssohn's inventiveness and mastery of sonata form keeps things interesting. The second movement is a study in gracefulness tinged with a tad of restlessness. It is the third movement, the scherzo where Mendelssohn shows hos much of a master he really was at only sixteen.  Unlike almost all scherzos that are in 3/4 or triple time and ternary form, this one is in 2/4 time and sonata form. It is a precursor to the Overture To A Midsummer Night's Dream written the following year. It is taken at a rapid tempo at a subdued music, the original 'fairy' music of which Mendelssohn is known for. The finale begins as a fugue and also brings back echoes of the scherzo.

Mendelssohn was a musical conservative who tolerated the music of Wagner, Liszt , Berlioz and others of the new school, but he had no admiration of it. He helped found the Leipzig Conservatory which mirrored his own views on music and upheld the conservative tradition. But all of that makes not a hoot of difference as far as his music. It is all well-crafted, inspired, and a delight to the ear. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Verdi - Requiem

The Catholic religious rite of the Mass is basic to the faith, and takes many forms. The most basic is a Mass that contains the reading of scripture and is based around the Eucharist, also known as Communion in other denominations. The Mass can be different for different occasions, as instructed in the Roman Missal. One specific type of Mass is the Requiem Mass For The Dead. It is a ceremony in remembrance of the deceased and to offer prayers for their soul to have eternal rest in heaven. The word requiem itself comes from the first word in the Latin Introit (the beginning of the Mass sung by a choir, taken from a psalm) Requiem aeternam dona eis - Rest eternal grant unto them.

The art of music grew for centuries under the auspices of the Church,  so it was natural that composers would set the Mass to music. The coming of the first documented polyphonic Mass in the 15th century brought with it a large number of settings for the Requiem Mass. At first these compositions were quite rigid in structure, but as the art of music grew, so did expression in the Requiem. By the time Giuseppe Verdi came to write his Requiem in 1874, there were many examples already written by composers obscure and famous.

Alessandro Manzoni
The work was written in memory of the Italian novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni whom Verdi admired.  Manzoni had died in 1873 and the Requiem was premiered in 1874 on the one year anniversary of his death. Verdi conducted the first performance that was given, in a Milan church. It was met with limited success, perhaps partly due to the fact that women were only just being allowed to sing in the Catholic church which delayed the work's acceptance in Italy.  But after a short time it fell out of the repertoire until the 1930's.  Some critics found the drama of the music to be more in the style of an opera than a religious work while others found the style of music too radical (meaning too modern). There is no doubt the music is quite dramatic, but it covers pretty much all human emotions which was quite in keeping with Verdi's style. The spirit of Verdi perhaps has had the last laugh, for the Requiem is now one of the most performed works of the choral literature.  Verdi's spirit has another reason to chuckle over the veneration of this religious work, for he was at the most an agnostic and at worst a confirmed atheist.

The Requiem is written for 4 soloists, double choir and a large orchestra. It is in seven parts:

I. INTROIT & KYRIE - Beginning with muted strings that are almost inaudible, the chorus quietly enters. Both sections convey a wish for gentle rest for the departed.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.
A hymn to you is fitting, God of Zion,
and to you shall a vow be made in Jerusalem.
Listen to my prayer;
unto you all flesh shall come.
Grant them rest eternal, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.

Solo Quartet and Chorus
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy

II. DIES IRAE - This longest part of the work portrays the drama of human emotion, something that Verdi was known for in his operas.  The pleading for mercy and a way to salvation is interrupted by the savagery of the Dies Irae.

Dies Irae - In music that shakes the rafters, Verdi portrays the destruction of the world with strings that rip through scale passages, piccolos that screech, brass that roars and a bass drum that gets the hell beat out of it. This section is like an idee fixe as it returns throughout the work, (twice in this part alone) driving home the hopelessness of the sinner on Judgement Day.

 Day of wrath, that day
the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.
 What trembling there will be,
when the judge shall come
to examine all things thoroughly.

Tuba Mirum -  Trumpets off stage join the trumpets in the orchestra for an echoing effect that grows into a tremendous crescendo that spreads to the chorus that has to struggle to be heard over the rolls played on the bass drum.

The trumpet, spreading its wondrous sound
through the tombs of all regions,
will gather all before the throne.

Mors Stupebit
Bass Solo
Death will be stupefied, also nature,
when all creation arises
to answer to the judge.

Liber Scriptus
Mezzo-Soprano Solo and Chorus
A written book will be brought forth,
in which everything shall be contained,
 by which the world shall be judged.
When the judge is therefore seated,
whatever is hidden will be exposed;
nothing shall remain unavenged.
 Day of wrath, that day
the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.

Quid sum miser
Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and Tenor Solos
What am I, a miserable one, to say then?
What patron shall I request,
when the righteous are scarcely secure?

Rex tremendae
Solo Quartet and Chorus
King of fearful majesty,
who freely saves the redeemed,
save me, fount of mercy.

Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano Solos
Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the cause of your journey;
do not abandon me on that day.
Seeking me, you sat down exhausted;
you redeemed me by suffering the cross.
 Such great labor should not be in vain.
Just judge of vengeance,
 make the gift of remission
before the day of accounting.

Ingemisco - This solo was sung by the late Lucio Pavarotti many times in concert, and is a favorite of tenors.
Tenor Solo
I sigh as one accused;
shame reddens my face.
Spare the supplicant, God.
You who absolved Mary 
 and listened to the thief
have given me hope also.
 My prayers are not worthy,
but you, good one, be merciful,
 lest I burn in everlasting flames!
Place me prominently among your sheep,
 and from the goats separate me,
 placing me in the portion on the right.

Bass Solo and Chorus
Silencing the accursed,
 to acrid flames consigning them,
call me with those blessed.
I pray, bowed and kneeling
my heart contrite as ashes;
take care of me at the last.
Day of wrath, that day
 the world will dissolve in ashes,
as witness David and the Sibyl.

Lacrymosa - After the roar and thunder of the Dies Irae, this is a gentle plea for mercy.

Solo Quartet and Chorus
That tearful day,
when guilty man shall rise
 from the embers to be judged.
 Oh, therefore spare him, God.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

III. OFFERTORY - A beautiful setting for the soloists.

Solo Quartet
Lord Jesu Christ, glorious King,
free the souls of all the faithful dead
 from punishment in the inferno,
and from the deep pit.
Deliver them from the lion's mouth,
lest the abyss swallow them up,
lest they fall into darkness.
But may the standardbearer St. Michael
bring them into the holy light,
as once you promised to Abraham
and his seed.
Sacrifices and prayers we offer
to you, Lord, with praise.
 Receive them for the souls of those
whom today we commemorate;
make them, Lord,
to pass from death to life,
as once you promised to Abraham
and his seed.
Free the souls of all the faithful dead
from punishment in the inferno.
May they pass from death to life.

IV. SANCTUS -  In this rather brief part, the choir is divided into eight parts in counterpoint in music that is jubilant and full of hope.  Near the end the orchestra plays rapid chromatic ascending and descending chromatic scales to good effect.

Choruses I and II
Holy, holy, holy,
 Lord God of the Hosts.
The heavens and earth are filled
 with your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
 Blessed is he who comes
 in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!

V. AGNUS DEI - Soprano and mezzo-soprano sing a simple, gentle melody an octave apart.

Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano Solos and Chorus
 Lamb of God,
who removes the world's sins,
 grant them rest.
Lamb of God,
who removes the world's sins,
grant them rest everlasting.

VI. LUX  AETERNA - The music begins softly and wrapped in mystery. The mezzo-soprano continues pleading for mercy. The bass enters with a chilling solo that reminds all of the seriousness of the consequences (at least in the dogma of the Catholic Church) of not being one of the chosen.

Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Bass Solos
May eternal light shine on them, Lord,
with your saints for eternity,
because you are merciful.
Grant them eternal rest, Lord,
 and may perpetual light shine on them,
with your saints for eternity,
because you are merciful.

VII. LIBERA ME - The final part contains sections of chant, choral fugue, and a trembling soprano that is terrified by the coming judgement. The Dies Irae makes one last appearance to remind the listener about the horror to come that makes the soprano tremble. 

Libera me
Soprano Solo and Chorus
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death,
on that dreadful day,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.
I am made to tremble and to fear,
awaiting the judgement that shall come,
and also at your coming wrath,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved.

Dies irae
That day, day of wrath,
of calamity and misery,
 great and exceedingly bitter day,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.

Requiem aeternam
Grant them rest eternal, Lord,
and may perpetual light shine on them.

Libera me - The soloist grows desperate, only to be answered by a fugue for the chorus.  After the fugue and passionate singing by the soloist that goes from the bottom of her register to the top, the orchestra roars through as section until the soloist grows hushed and is directed by Verdi to sing without strict time as she chants Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death, on that dreadful day. The chorus and soloist sing in a very subdued triple piano dynamic Libera me two times, and the music dies away. 

Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death,
on that dreadful day,
when the heavens and earth shall be moved,
when you come to judge
the world through fire.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Albéniz - Suite española

When the father of Isaac Albéniz realized that his young son displayed prodigious musical talent
(little Isaac reportedly gave his first concert when he was 4 years old), the boy divided his time between studying and giving concerts. His parents took him to Paris, but he was denied entry into the Conservatoire because he was too young.  The pressure put on him by his father to study and give concerts may have been the reason Isaac made many attempts to run away from home.

Albéniz's father was a custom's agent, and on his job-related travels he took Isaac and his younger sister on a concert tour of northern Spain. Isaac was nine years old when his concert career began and by the age of fifteen he had traveled many parts of the world concertizing, and contrary to legends about Albéniz running away from home as a stow away on a ship to South America, his father accompanied him on his travels.

He concertized as a pianist for most of his life, in addition to composing. His style made a major shift from salon pieces to music that reflected the mood, rhythm and style of the traditional music of Spain.  Albéniz's was original in that he did not use folk tunes in his works, but he adapted the style of the Spanish folk tune.

 Suite española originally had only four pieces included, but after Albéniz died in 1909 his publisher added four more pieces to make the version of the work that is most well known.  The original four pieces are named after regions of Spain along with the type of dance or musical form used. Some of the four additional works added after Albéniz's death do not retain this distinction. The names were chosen by the publisher and not Albéniz himself.

All but one of the eight pieces in the suite are in ternary form with a contrasting middle section called a copla, an interlude of a vocal nature.  Albéniz heard many guitar players of Spain, and when some of the pieces from the suite were arranged for guitar he was delighted, and said that was the sound he had in mind when he wrote the pieces.

I. Granada (Serenade) - The meaning of the word serenade is derived from the Italian word for calm.. Albéniz creates a mood of calmness with a simple melody in the bass accompanied by rolled chords in the right hand in imitation of a guitar:
The middle section has the melody move up to the right hand and alternates between minor and major mode. Granada along with Asturias is one of the pieces of this suite most often transcribed for guitar. Granada was the last Arab-held part of Spain, and it was one of Albéniz's favorite places to be, as he wrote in a letter:
I think that Granada, where I am, is 'the treasure of Andalusian music.' I also believe that I must write this, as I am convinced that my youth is full of enough musical experiences to embark in the conquest of this wonderful land, endowed with exquisiteness, cordiality and love, but safe-keeping all this as the Arabs safe-kept the flowers of their garden and the women in their palaces.
II. Cataluña (Courante) -   The only piece in the suite that is not in ternary form. It has a dotted rhythmic pulse in the melody, and after it is played through a short coda brings the piece to a close.  Some have suggested that this piece was in honor of Albéniz's mother who had recently died.

III. Sevilla (Sevillanas) -  The sevillanas are dances that can be mistaken for Flamenco, but while it was influenced by flamenco in the early 19th century it is not the same. After the repeated notes in the bass ends the first section, the middle section begins with a plaintive melody played two octaves apart.

IV. Cádiz (Canción) -  Canción means song in Spanish, and the form is descendant from the saeta, a song of religious nature that may have had Jewish origins that go back to the 16th century. This piece evokes the subtler rhythms of Flamenco.

V. Asturias (Leyenda) - This piece is the most glaring example of the mismatching of a style to a region in the suite. The music of the Asturias region of Spain has nothing in common with the Flamenco style of the music. The subtitle Leyenda meaning Legend,  is not any dance or song form, but it is descriptive of the mood of the piece. It opens with an imitation of a Flamenco guitarist with the melody in the left hand intertwined with the repeated note in the right hand:
Albéniz imitated the guitar so well that this piece was adapted quite readily to the guitar and is more often heard in that version than the original piano version. The entire first section expands on this beginning, and is punctuated by leaps of accented chords in the right hand and octaves in the left while the melody still manages to be carried in the left hand. The slower central section is made up of different subsections that refer to motives in the opening. The first section repeats and a short coda brings one of the most representative of Spanish piano pieces to a hushed ending.

VI. Aragón (Fantasía) -  This piece has a reoccurring motive of a triplet on the second beat of the measure throughout. Repeated sixteenth notes herald the middle section which is title copla by the composer. It is a mellow theme in thirds. The copla does not last long, as the tempo of the beginning returns and the music plays a variant of the opening theme that magically repeats, twists and turns upon itself.  A short section with rolled chords in the right hand over a melody in the left segues to a repeat of the first section. A coda closes this excellent piece solidly in F major.

VII. Castilla (Seguidilla) - In another guitar inspired rhythm, the melody is in the left hand in this seguidillas, an ancient Castillian dance.

VIII. Cuba (Capriccio) -  Has also been referred to as a nocturne, Albéniz included Cuba as a region of Spain because it was indeed a possession of Spain at the time the piece was written, and Albéniz had played many concerts there. The piece is in 6/8 time and the first section's main feature is a melody that in the second and third bar of the phrase plays two notes against three in the left hand:
The middle section is in more the mood of a nocturne.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Rachmaninoff - Symphonic Dances, Opus 45

 Sergei Rachmaninoff completed his last major work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940. It had a good reception at the time of its premiere in 1941 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But subsequent performances were received lukewarmly, and Ormandy showed no interest in recording the work. 

It was the time of the modernists like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who each in their own style changed the world of classical music for composers and audiences. Rachmaninoff's music looked backwards instead of forwards. Indeed, his previous composition, the Third Symphony,  was akin to the Symphonic Dances as it reflected his past. Rachmaninoff himself knew this better than anyone else. Interviewed in 1939, he admitted:

I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.

After leaving Russia at a time of great political and cultural upheaval in 1917, Rachmaninoff eventually made his way to the United States and relied on his incredible piano technique and conducting skills to make a living for himself and family. He grew to become financially well-off, so much so that he could afford another home in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he would spend time during the concert off season. It was there that he composed most of his later works. Symphonic Dances was the only major work that was composed in The United States.  

I. Non allegro - The music begins quietly with the ticking of strings and the commentary of solo woodwinds in turn. The music turns loud with drums punctuating a rhythmic drive that continues throughout the first section. A piano joins in as the rhythmic dance continues. instruments in turn enter and make their comments, almost like the music is a concerto for orchestra. The first section winds down as the oboe and clarinet herald the beginning of the middle section which is carried by a solo saxophone. The saxophone makes few appearances in the symphony orchestra, but Rachmaninoff's use of it makes a listener wonder why. The tone of the instrument blends nicely with the rest of the woodwinds. Rachmaninoff may have written in a less than modern style for the time, but there is no doubting his skill and talent for orchestration and melody. 

The first section returns with brilliance as Rachmaninoff continues to showcase the differing timbres of the orchestral instruments. As the movement begins to wind down, a new theme is played by the strings and accompanied by piano, glockenspiel, and harp. This theme is a reworking of a theme from his 1st Symphony, which was heard only once in 1897 in Russia. The work had a disastrous premiere, and Rachmaninoff abandoned it. After the reminiscence of the theme, the movement quietly ends with short snippets of the beginning. 

II. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) - It is indeed a waltz as Rachmaninoff designates, but it begins in 6/8 time rather than the usual 3/4 time of a waltz. Rachmaninoff visits the waltz form with ingenuity, a continuation of instrument spotlighting and nostalgia, with some eerie sounds thrown in, like the sounds of muted horns and trumpets. There is a solo for violin that leads the proceedings. There is an atmosphere of haunted dreaminess in the music. The pace quickens near the end, as the instruments (or dancers) scurry off the dance floor. 

III. Lento assai - Allegro vivace -  After the poor reception of his Third Symphony in 1936,  Rachmaninoff vowed to cease composing. His career of concert pianist and conductor were taking up most of his time, and felt underappreciated as a composer. But it wasn't the first time that he had tried to give up composing. After the disaster of his First Symphony, he stopped composing for three years. And like so many years ago, the inner drive for creative work returned to him in 1940 when he wrote the Symphonic Dances. The final movement has the same basic A-B-A form as the other two, and it shares the brilliance in orchestration as well. A section from his setting of the Russian Orthodox All Night Vigil is used, along with what was a somewhat ubiquitous theme for Rachmaninoff, the Latin hymn Dies irae. The Dies irae theme was referenced in many of his compositions. 

The movement begins with a reworking of snippets of the Dies irae, punctuated by bells and other percussion. The Dies irae continues with syncopations until a climax is reached. A different, more laid-back version of the theme is heard in low strings with the glissandos of harps. parts of the Russian Orthodox litany is also heard. The middle section is in contrast to the two turbulent outer sections, with parts of it vaguely similar to the Dies irae theme that are more tranquil. The final section brings back the Dies irae theme, but this time it is in competition with a Russian chant Blessed Is The Lord. The Russian chant wins out, and a new theme, Allilyua, taken from his 1915 work for chorus All-Night Vigil. The work ends in a blaze of rhythmic percussion and full orchestra.

Rachmaninoff was 67 years old when he wrote Symphonic Dances, and his many years of extensive traveling, piano playing (piano players are prone to bad backs and arthritis), and cigarette smoking took a toll on his health. The concert season of 1939 was especially tiring for him, and he himself said after writing the work, "It must have been my final spark". He was a deeply religious man, and at the end of the manuscript he wrote, "I thank thee, Lord." 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Cowell - The Banshee

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was an American composer, teacher and pianist.  He was a part of the avant-garde movement in music at the turn of the 20th century, and experimented with complex rhythms, atonality, and was an early advocate of the use of tone clusters

He also would play directly on the strings of the piano, sometimes for the entire piano piece. The Banshee is one of those pieces. A Banshee is from Irish mythology, is usually female. and appears as an omen of death and to bring messages from the other world.  The Banshee begins to wail when someone is about to die, and some legends say that each Irish family has their own Banshee. 

The work is for two performers and a grand piano. One performer merely holds down the damper pedal of the piano while the other stands at the bend of the piano. Cowell directs this performer to wave their hands over the strings like a harp, to pluck the strings, to scrape their fingernails over the strings of the bass notes. Cowell brings out some very distinctive, different sounds from the piano, well suited to the subject of the piece.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Saint-Saëns - La Muse et le Poète, Opus 132

In 1907 a statue of Saint-Saëns was exhibited in the Paris Salon. An admirer of Saint-Saëns saw it, a Mme. J-Henry Carruette, (obviously a woman of means), and wanted to present it to the town of Dieppe. But there was an actual law at the time that strictly forbade a statue being erected to a living person. Mme Carutte (and no doubt others) worked some political magic, and the statue was allowed to be erected. The irascible Saint-Saëns was not impressed. He considered that he must be dead to have a statue erected, so therefore he didn't have to make a speech at the unveiling. 

When Mme. Carruette died in 1909, Saint-Saëns wrote a one-movement piano trio and dedicated it to her. Despite the objections of Saint-Saëns, his publisher insisted on giving the title The Muse And The Poet to the work. But Saint-Saëns obviously like the work, so he orchestrated it shortly afterwards, and that is the version that is played today. 

At the time, Saint-Saëns was bristling against the dominance of German formal music structures, so the piece has an improvisatory quality to it. Saint-Saëns grew more and more against German music, to the point of demanding that it should never be played in France during World War One. 

As much as Saint-Saëns disliked the title, it isn't inappropriate. The music begins in a somber tone with the orchestra, but when the violin enters, the mood brightens. The cello enters and things get gloomy again, but the violin keeps going and convinces the cello to brighten its mood too. The work is a difficult one for the soloists, but Saint-Saëns said it was a conversation between the two soloists instead of a debate between two virtuosos.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Verdi - Don Carlo, Grand Inquisitor Scene

Guiseppe Verdi's longest opera is Don Carlo, and was written in 1866 to a French libretto that was taken from a German play by Friedrich Schiller titled Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (Don Carlos, Infante Of Spain) as well as elements from a contemporary play about Phillip II of Spain. As if that isn't enough rigamarole for an opera subject, the opera went through an Italian translation almost immediately as well as numerous changes and versions over the years. The original opera was in 5 acts and took almost 4 hours to perform, so Verdi himself made some of the changes to accommodate the action and the audience. 

The story is based on the conflicts of Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, and his father King Phillip II of Spain. One of the main dramatic points of the opera was taken from the fact that the wedding plans for Don Carlos were changed by a peace treaty that demanded that the same woman marry his father instead! 

The opera had its French premiere in March of 1867 and was titled Don Carlos. The Italian version premiered not in Italy, but London in June of 1867 and was titled Don Carlo. With many version over the years, the opera was performed in the remainder of the 19th century but fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that the work entered the repertoire in two main versions, both in Italian. 

There are some fine scenes in the opera, with one of the best being the Grand Inquisitor Scene. As with many grand opera plots, the only way to make any sense of a scene is to know what in the works is going on, so here's is a synopsis of the goings-on up until the scene:

King Phillip indeed marries Don Carlo's former fiancee, but he suspects that Don Carlo is having an affair with her. Don Carlo does tell his step-mother that he still loves her, but she refuses his advances. His friend Rodrigue, Marquis of Posa tries to convince Don Carlo to leave Spain and go to Flanders to engage in political work and forget his lovesickness. 

Another woman, Princess Eboli loves Don Carlos, and tries to blackmail him into marrying her by threatening to tell the King that his wife has been unfaithful with Don Carlo. (When he rejects her, she does just that. Meanwhile, preparations are being made by the monks for an auto-da-fé, the burning in public of heretics.) The public celebrates and King Phillip II tells them he will protect them. Don Carlo enters with envoys from Flanders that plead for their country's freedom. Don Carlo demands that that the King give him authority to rule Flanders, but the King scornfully refuses. Don Carlo draws his sword, but Posa takes it from him. The King is impressed with Posa's loyalty and considers him a friend, even when he knows the Grand Inquisitor is watching Posa because of his concern for the Flemish nation. Guards arrest Don Carlo as the wood is ignited and the heretics are burned alive.

The King can't sleep, and bemoans the fact that his new bride doesn't love him in an aria in his study Ella giammai m'amòAfter his lament, the Grand Inquisitor scene begins. It is a duet for King Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor, both roles sung by a bass.

The blind, ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor is announced and is lead into the King's apartment by two monks. When the King asks if the Church will object to him putting his own son to death, the Inquisitor replies that the King will be in good company: God sacrificed His own son. In return for his support, the Inquisitor demands that the King have Posa killed. The King refuses at first to kill his friend, whom he admires and likes. However, the Grand Inquisitor reminds the King that the Inquisition can take down any king; he has created and destroyed other rulers before. Frightened and overwhelmed, the King begs the Grand Inquisitor to forget about the past discussion. The latter replies – perhaps! – and leaves. The King bitterly muses on his helplessness to oppose the Church.

The first video of the scene has English subtitles, the libretto is at  the end of the post:

The next video is a great performance by Nicolai Ghiaurov as King Phillip, and Martti Talvela as the Grand Inquisitor:

The final video is from a production for German television with Josef Greindl as the King and Martti Talvela once again as the Inquisitor. It has been translated to German, and the performance is stunning.

The libretto for the scene:

The Grand Inquisitor!

Exit Lerma. The Grand Inquisitor, ninety years old and blind, enters, assisted by two Dominicans.

Am I before the King?

Yes, I need your help, my father, enlighten me.
Carlos has filled my heart with bitter sadness,
the Infante has rebelled in arms against his father.

What have you decided to do about him?

Everything … or nothing!

Explain yourself!

He must go away … or by the sword …

Well then?

If I strike down the Infante, will your hand absolve me?


The peace of the world is worth the blood of a son.

Can I as a Christian sacrifice my son to the world?

God sacrificed his own, to save us all.

Can you justify in all cases such a harsh faith?

Wherever a Christian follows the faith of Calvary.

Will the ties of nature and blood remain silent in me?

Everything bows and is silent when faith speaks!

It is well!

Philip II has nothing more to say to me?


Then I shall speak to you, Sire!
In this beautiful land, untainted by heresy,
a man dares to undermine the divine order.
He is a friend of the King, his intimate confidant,
the tempting demon who is pushing him to the brink.
The criminal intent of which you accuse the Infante
is but child's play compared with his,
and I, the Inquisitor, I, as long as I raise
against obscure criminals the hand which wields the sword,
while forgoing my wrath against those with power in the world,
I let live in peace this great wrongdoer … and you!

To see us through the days of trial in which we live,
I have sought in my court, that vast desert of men,
a man, a sure friend … and I have found him!

A man? And by what right do you call yourself King,
Sire, if you have equals?

Be quiet, priest!

The spirit of the reformers already enters your soul!
You wish to throw off with your feeble hand
the holy yoke which covers the Roman universe!
Return to your duty! The Church, like a good mother,
can still embrace a sincere penitent.
Deliver the Marquis of Posa to us!

No, never!

O King, if I were not here, in this palace
today, by the living God, tomorrow you yourself,
you would be before us at the supreme tribunal!

Priest! I have suffered your criminal audacity for too long!

Why do you evoke the shade of Samuel?
I have given two kings to this mighty empire,
my whole life's work, you want to destroy it …
What did I come here for? What do you want of me?

He starts to leave.

My father, may peace be restored between us.

continuing to move off

Let the past be forgotten!

at the door, as he leaves

The pride of the King withers before the pride of the priest!

Mussorgsky - Song Cycle 'Sunless'

Modest Mussorgsky was in many ways a musical dilettante, for while he was a naturally gifted musician, he had very little formal training.  This was not looked upon by his mentor Balakirev as a bad thing. On the contrary, a lack of formal training was considered something that would help free the creative artist to express himself without the artificial fetters of pedantic methods.

Mussorgsky's life was a struggle after he gave up the family tradition of professional military service for music. He had to accept a minor bureaucratic position to make ends meet financially. A recurring problem with alcohol (possibly obtained while he was in military cadet school) made nothing easier and eventually cost him his life in 1881 at the age of 42. His lack of formal musical training also led to struggles with his composing.  He had plenty of ideas, but with a few notable exceptions, he left many of his works incomplete, some consisting of only a few sketches. He was both blessed and cursed with an excellent memory, which led to reports of works that Mussorgsky played at the the piano that were never written down.

The most numerous works that Mussorgsky did write down are his songs for voice and piano. In this genre Mussorgsky excelled and he brought a new fusion of the Russian language and music.  Mussorgsky was a cultured, well-read man and as such could be very selective in the texts he set to music. The poet that he used for his two song cycles Songs And Dances Of Death and Sunless was his distant relative Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov.  The two impoverished men shared a small apartment together for about two years until Kutuzov married.

Sunless (also translated as Without Sun) was composed in 1874 at a low time in Mussorgsky's life. His opera Boris Gudonov had finally had its premiere early in 1874 after two other versions had been rejected. The opera was a success with the public but the critics were very hostile to the work. This, along with other setbacks and frustrations as well as his hatred of the boredom of his bureaucratic job, brought on depression that was made worse by excessive drinking.  There are six songs in the cycle that reflect Mussorgsky's mood during this time.

I want to thank Sergy Rybin for extending his kind permission to include his translation of the Russian texts:

Within Four Walls
All six songs of the cycle are highly introspective, and the slow moving piano accompaniment sets the stage for a song that conveighs the barren feelings of being alone with the four walls.

A tiny room, quiet and pleasant,
An impenetrable darkness, irresponsive darkness;
A deep thought, a sorrowful song;
A treasured hope in the beating heart;

Speedy flight of moment after moment;
A petrified glance at a far-away happiness;
Plenty of doubt, plenty of endurance.
Here it is, my night, night of solitude.
translation © Sergy Rybin

You Have Not Recognized Me In The Crowd
This song is ostensibly written in D major like the first song in the set, but the very first chord of the accompaniment takes the music to a different tonal landscape. Harmonies restlessly shift in this very short song that ends with a odd sounding chord that gives no feeling of resolution.

You have not recognized me in the crowd,
Your glance did not say anything.
But I felt wonder and fright
When I caught it:

It was only a moment;
But believe me, within it I re-lived again
All the delights of past love,
All the bitterness of oblivion and tears!
translation © Sergy Rybin

Over Is The Idle And Clamorous Day
Over is the idle and clamorous day;
Human life has fallen silent and a-slumber.
Everything is quiet. The shadow of the May night
Embraces the sleeping capital.

But sleep escapes from my eyes.
And by the rays of the next dawn
My imagination is leafing through
The pages of the lost years.

As if again breathing in the poison
Of spring's amorous dreams,
I resurrect in my soul the stream
Of hopes, surges, illusions...

Alas, those are only ghosts!
I am bored with this dead crowd,
And the noise of their old chatter
Already has no power over me.

Only one shadow, the only one of all,
Appeared to me, breathing with love, and,
Like a true friend of the past days,
Bent down by the bedstead.

And bravely I gave to her alone
All my soul in a silent tear,
Unseen by no one, full of happiness,
In a tear I saved for so long!
translation © Sergy Rybin

Be Bored
Perhaps Mussorgsky gave the listener a glimpse of his boring bureaucratic job in this pessimistic song.

Be bored. You were created for boredom.
Without burning feelings there is no joy,
As there is no reunion without separation,
As without struggle there are no victories.

Be bored. Be bored listening to words of love,
Immersed in the stillness of your empty heart,
Responding with a fake greeting
To the truth of an innocent dream.

Be bored. From birth to the grave
Your path is written beforehand:
Drop by drop you'll waste your powers,
Then you'll die, and God be with you...
And God be with you!
translation © Sergy Rybin

Passive and passionate alternate until the ultimate ending of death is reached with the quiet tolling of a distant bell played by the piano.

In the mist the night is in slumber. Silent star
Flickering, lonely, through the veil of clouds.
Sorrowfully ringing their bells in the distance,
Herds of grazing horses.
As night clouds my changing thoughts
Fly above me, disturbed and gloomy;
There are gleams of hopes in them, which were once dear,
Which are long lost, long dead.
There are regrets in them... and tears.
Thoughts rush along endlessly;
At times, transformed into features of a loved face,
They call for me, awakening in my soul former dreams again,
At times, merged into black darkness, full of silent threat,
Frighten my timid mind with the future's struggle, 
And I hear in the distance life's discordant noise,
Laughter of the soulless crowd, the muttering of treacherous feuding,
The irrepressible whisper of life's banality,
And the grim ringing of death!..
A rising star, as if full of shyness,
Is hiding her bright face in a joyless mist,
Like my future, mute and impenetrable.
translation © Sergy Rybin

Above The River
The text is reflected in the gently rolling thirds in the bass of the piano while the treble gives support to the melody of the singer. The contemplation of death being the only way out, whether brought on naturally or by suicide, is chilling.

Pensive moon crescent, far-away stars
Admiring the waters from a blue sky.
I look in silence at the deep waters;
My heart senses magical secrets in them.
They splash mysteriously, tender-caressing waves;
There is much mystical power in their muttering.
I hear boundless thoughts and passions...
Unknown voice, which stirs my soul,
Caresses, frightens, and evokes doubts.
When it commands me to listen -- I can't move;
When it drives me away -- I want to run in fear;
When it calls into the depths -- I want to jump without hesitation.
translation © Sergy Rybin