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.


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.

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

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 In G Major, BWV 1049

 The 4th concerto in the set is written for 2 flutes, solo violin, strings and continuo.  Bach labels the flutes as 'flauti d'echo', and musicologists are not quite sure what specific instrument (or instrument technique) that Bach wanted. Since Bach called the two instruments flauto (flauti in the plural), many consider that it was the recorder that Bach wanted, as otherwise he would have put in the score flauto transverso, or side-blown flutes. Many modern performances use the recorder, but there are some that use the side-blown flute. It is rather a moot point, as the music shines no matter what instrument is used. 

I. Allegro - The recorders play without the solo violin to a sparse downbeat accompaniment as the first movement begins. They play without the solo violin for a considerable amount of time before the soloist enters and the three instruments weave together.  Later in the movement, the violin makes up for its silence in the beginning as it soars in virtuoso double stops, runs, and arpeggios. Based on this, this concerto could almost be considered a violin concerto. Bach's experiment with form and instrument uses makes for a hybrid form of concerto; a cross between a solo concerto and a concerto grosso.  

II. Andante - The slow movement of this concerto is the only one of the set that has all the instruments participate. It is the recorders that contribute the most, as the solo violin is reduced to playing an accompaniment to them. The movement is in E minor, the relative minor of G major. The movement ends with an unresolved chord that leads to the last movement.

III. Presto - The final movement begins with a fugue played by the strings. The solo violin enters and ushers in the recorders as ideas are bounced back and forth by the soloists and strings in contrapuntal style.  

This concerto was also converted to a concerto for harpsichord, recorders and strings, BWV 1057. It is interesting to note that many of Bach's harpsichord concertos were originally for violin. In this reworking, Bach transposes the music down to F major and gives the violin part of the original to the harpsichord. 

The first video is the original Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. The second video is the arrangement Bach made of it, the Harpsichord Concerto No. 6.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Arensky - Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor

Both of Anton Arensky's parents were avid amateur musicians; his mother a pianist and his father a cellist. Arensky was musically precocious as a child and graduated in only three years from the St. Petersburg Conservatory with high honors in 1882. He became professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory shortly after graduation and returned to St. Petersburg and served in the Imperial Chapel from 1895 to 1901. He died in 1906. Arensky's music is for the most part forgotten, except for the Piano Trio No. 1 In D Minor which remains his best known work.  The trio was written in 1894 and dedicated to the memory of Karl Davidov, celebrated cellist and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The first movement is in sonata form and begins with a theme for violin with piano accompaniment. The cello takes up the theme along with the violin after which the piano has its say with the theme. A change in tempo ushers in an interlude that acts as an introduction to the second theme which is played by the cello, violin and piano in turn. This leads to another short interlude that ushers in a third theme that has the piano playing full chord interruptions to its rippling accompaniment of the two strings. The exposition is repeated. The development begins with parts of the first two themes played after each other after which there is an increase in drama until the recapitulation begins. The themes from the exposition return until a tempo change to adagio begins a short coda that has the first theme quietly and poignantly end the movement.

II.  Scherzo, Allegro molto -  This is the only movement in the trio that is in a major key, D major.  A stuttering figure in the violin is accompanied by soft chords from the piano, after which the violin and cello play pizzicato while the piano plays runs up and down the keyboard. The stuttering figure of a quarter note, eighth rest, two sixteenth notes occurs throughout the scherzo's first and second parts. The trio is a romantic waltz in B-flat major. A short transition brings the scherzo back for a repeat. A short coda alternated the stuttering figure in the violin and cello. The piano makes one last solo run up the keyboard and the movement ends in a wisp.

III. Elegia - Adagio - A tribute to the dedicatee of the trio is played by the muted cello, a somber sad theme that is taken up also by the muted violin. A middle section adds a brief respite to the sorrow,  but the sad theme returns with a piano accompaniment of full chords in a subdued dynamic. The movement ends in a hush of long notes in the strings and pianissimo chords in the piano.

IV. Finale - Allegro non troppo -  The beginning of the finale is dramatic, but amid the drama Arensky revisits themes already heard. The middle section from the third movement appears like a ghostly reminder of things past, and the initial theme from the first movement also makes an appearance to further remind the listener of the past.  A coda built from the opening of the fourth movement ends the trio.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto No. 2 In G Major

 The immense popularity of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto in B-flat minor has caused his other two concertos to be somewhat overlooked. This has changed in the past few years as more performances and recordings of the other two concertos have been occuring. While the third concerto exists in but one movement and was published posthumously, the second concerto is a full-fledged Romantic concerto with three movements.

Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in 1879-1880, and the world premiere was in New York City in 1881. 

I. Allegro brillante e molto vivace - Tchaikovsky had told a friend years earlier that he would never write a piano concerto because he disliked the sound of the piano with orchestra, but he worked out his initial dislike of the sonority in his first piano concerto. With the second, he created an atmosphere where the piano interjects many solo sections within the framework.  The orchestra opens the movement with a march-like theme that is soon taken up by the piano.  This is soon followed by a virtuosic cadenza for soloist. After this, the clarinet heralds the second theme that is presented by the piano, and is developed by the piano and flute. The orchestra takes up the second theme while the piano plays accompaniment figures. The development of the second theme continues with octaves in the piano with interjections by the orchestra. The second theme is played in a variant by the orchestra, and slowly winds down to the beginning of the development section. 

The piano and flute take up the second theme until the piano has another cadenza. The orchestra plays a section in the development until there is another piano cadenza, this one very virtuosic. This leads to the recapitulation which begins with the orchestra. A stunning coda brings  the movement to a close.

II. Andante non troppo - The concerto was published in 1881, but Tchaikovsky was disappointed by the unpopular reception the concerto received after the first performances. He thought it was one of his best compositions. He made some cuts and alterations in it, and in 1888 his publisher suggested that it be reprinted. Alexander Siloti, one of Tchaikovsky's pupils, suggested some cuts in the work, mainly in the second movement. Tchaikovsky rejected most of these suggestions, but the concerto was reprinted after his death in 1893 with all of Siloti's cuts and edits. This edition of the concerto was the dominant version played for many years until the complete works of Tchaikovsky were printed in 1955.  The sections cut in Siloti's version of the second movement were the solo sections for violin and cello, which reduced the movement to around 7 minutes duration, roughly half the time of the original. 

The movement begins with a short introduction by the orchestra that leads to a solo violin that plays along until a solo cello joins it in a duet. The soloist is silent for an extended time in the beginning of the movement, so that along with the total performance time of about 45 minutes prompted Siloti to make the cuts. Why anyone would think that they knew better than the composer in this matter is a mystery, but it was a time before the more modern era of urtext editions and the thought that what the composer had written was sacrosanct. The piano enters and plays its version of the music. slowly tension builds until the cello and violin return to play a duet that brings the movement back to the mood of the beginning. The piano joins them in a mostly secondary role until it has a short solo before the orchestra and piano bring the movement to a close. 

III. Allegro con fuoco - The soloist is the only star in the finale with fleet fingerwork and octaves. The movement has two main themes, the first heard straight away and the second soon after. Near the ned of the movement, the pianist thunders away, and then slowly gets softer and softer, until there is a momentary silence before the orchestra loudly begins the music anew, until with a thunder of chords and arpeggios, the soloist and orchestra end the concerto.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 In F Major, BWV 1046

Musicians in Bach's era were treated much as any other servant by many of the royals that employed them.  So it was inevitable that a musician such as Bach would have his share of difficulties. Sometimes it was not the royals that gave him as much trouble as the city councils in the towns he was employed. Bach could be headstrong, as his focus was on giving the best music performances possible, while many members of the city councils couldn't understand why he couldn't make do with what the previous head musician in their employ did. But Bach proved to be shrewd as well as headstrong in his desire to get and keep the musical reputation he strove for. He prevailed more often as not. 

He had a wide reputation as the most knowledgeable musician concerning the organ. He earned extra money by traveling and assessing organs and what was needed to repair theme, as well as working as a consultant when new organs were being built. In the process, he would demonstrate by playing the organ in question, and as he was known as the best organist in the area, his reputation grew. He made contacts which aided him in his negotiation for future positions.

Bach also knew how to talk the talk of the era to royals. He sent the set of 6 concertos
(in his own handwriting) that are now called The Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, while he was still employed by Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Bach had been hired by the Prince in 1717, and as the Prince was a lover of music, Bach did well there. But when the Prince got married in 1720 to a woman that didn't care for music, the importance of music in the court began to diminish. So Bach went job hunting, and along with the 6 concertos (a quite impressive resume), he sent along a dedication to the Margrave originally in French:

Since I had a few years ago, the good luck of being heard by Your Royal Highness, by virtue of his command, & that I observed then, that He took some pleasure in the small talents that Heaven gave me for Music, & that in taking leave of Your Royal Highness, He wished to make me the honor of ordering to send Him some pieces of my Composition: I therefore according to his very gracious orders, took the liberty of giving my very-humble respects to Your Royal Highness, by the present Concertos, which I have arranged for several Instruments; praying Him very-humbly to not want to judge their imperfection, according to the severity of fine and delicate taste, that everyone knows that He has for musical pieces... 

It took two years from the time the Margrave ordered Bach to send him some compositions until they were sent, and they weren't specially composed for the Margrave. There is musicological evidence that shows the concertos had been written earlier. Whether Bach was honestly considered for the job or not is not known. What is known is that Bach took the job of Cantor in Leipzig in 1723, and stayed there the rest of his life. Whether the Margrave acknowledged the gift or had them performed isn't known. 

There was no standardized orchestra in Bach's time. He would write for the instruments that were available to him. The instrumentation for this concerto is 3 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns (natural horns with no valves), violino piccolo, violin I and II, viola, cello, violone (double bass of the viol family of stringed instruments) and continuo. This is the only concerto of the set that is in 4 movements.

I. Allegro -  This movement, along with the second movement was used in 1713. Bach rewrote the movement to include the violino piccolo. The movement begins with the hunting horns playing traditional hunting calls as the rest of the orchestra plays. Instruments take their turn in presenting themes while the horns punctuate the background with triplets. But the horns are more than an accompaniment; they have their time in the spotlight presenting themes as well, and never fade in the background much. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of this movement is the role the horns play in the ensemble, and even in the disruption of it.

II. Adagio -  A solo oboe begins this movement, followed by the violino piccolo, a small violin that was tuned a minor third above a standard violin. These two instruments play off each other in a duet that is accompanied by the orchestra, minus horns. At the end, the falling notes of the bass alternate with the oboes and strings.

III. Allegro - The violino piccolo has solo material throughout this movement with a wonderful chugging rhythm in the bass. A distinctive touch is when the music comes to a slowdown with two bars of adagio tempo before the music resumes its original speed. Some musicologists believe this music first turned up in a previous cantata. 

IV. Menuet - Trio, Menuet da capo: Polacca, Menuet da capo: Trio II, Menuet da capo - In writing technique, all the movements are in the mood of the concerto grosso, but in form they resemble the multiple orchestral suites of the time. The final movement is a graceful minuet, and after the trio for bassoon and oboes is done, a reprise of the menuet would usually end the movement. But Bach adds two more sections; a Polacca (Italian for Polonaise, a Polish dance) for strings, a reprise of the minuet, and a second trio for horns and oboes. One more reprise of the minuet brings the concerto to an end.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Schubert - Piano Sonata No. 19 In C Minor, D.958

The last months of Franz Schubert's life were times of great physical illness matched with great musical creativity. But for most of his short life, Schubert was not anything if not prolific, as he wrote more than 1,500 works by the time of his death in 1828 at the age of 31.  The final three piano sonatas were but a part of the works composed in his final months, and it wasn't until Schubert was ten years dead that they were published. Even then, it took many years for these last sonatas and most of Schubert's piano music to escape the neglect of the 19th century. 

The Piano Sonata No. 19 In C Minor, D.958 is the first of this set of sonatas, and while all three of them have some similarities in structure, it is the C minor that is different in mood and character. 

I. Allegro - As other authors have mentioned, the comparison with this sonata to those of Beethoven has been made many times. It does share the key of C minor with the powerful works of Beethoven in the same key. But Schubert's piano sonatas may have suffered in reputation by comparison to Beethoven's. What composer's wouldn't? But in the latter half of the 20th century, Schubert's sonatas were taken on their own terms, which is a good tactic to use for any music lover. This first movement begins with the starkness of a C minor chord, that shortly makes its way to a downward A-flat major scale, an example of Schubert's ear for combining differing harmonies. The C minor theme is repeated in a variation with a moving bass line that soon shifts keys to E-flat, relative major of C minor. Indeed, E-flat major is the key of the second theme which at first hearing, is calmer in nature, but upon the repetition this theme is varied by playing in octaves while the accompaniment is in triplets. This adds underlying tension to the music. Then there is a section that adds to the tension with shifting harmonies such as E-flat minor and A-flat minor. A final section of the exposition brings back the second theme, again with shifting harmonies. The exposition is repeated.

The key of A-flat major returns with the chord that leads off the development section, music that could have played a role in the development of Brahms, as the beginning sounds similar to the music of Brahms, who was an editor of some of Schubert's music. Most of the development deals with more shifting harmonies and a restless base.

The recapitulation begins with the first theme, along with variations in the next sections until the second theme is reached, which in this repetition is in C major, parallel key of C minor. The coda winds down the music with the second theme being in C minor, and the movement ends pianissimo.

II. Adagio - It was rare for Schubert to use the designation adagio for a movement, and it begins in A-flat major. The second theme shifts the key to A minor, and is much more agitated. The first theme is played again, with changes in harmony that change its benign mood into something darker. Once again, the second theme begins and darkens the mood. The first theme returns one last time and with changing keys, sounds somewhat deflated from before. It tries one last time to return to what it was before, but it quietly ends. 

III. Menuetto: Allegro - Trio -  Tranquility is in this movement more so than the preceding, but as incongruous as it may be to say, a disquietude is displayed with the bars of rest that interrupt the theme. The theme is in E-flat, but drifts into C minor and other keys. The key of A-flat major makes an appearance in the trio, with appearances of E-flat minor and other keys. 

IV. Allegro - The final movement is in 6/8 time and is in the style of a tarantella. The music is in sonata form and begins in the home key of C minor for the first theme. The music drifts into other keys until a variant of this theme is played in C major. As this theme temporarily runs itself out, a transitional section in D-flat leads to the next theme in C-sharp minor. This theme is punctuated by a resounding rhythm in the left hand as the right hand crosses over it to play the theme. This theme continues to develop with modulations to A minor, E-flat major, E-flat minor, and leads to a third theme in E-flat major. 

After this theme, a rest of two measures for the music to catch its breath brings a section in B major which leads to a development section that maintains the chromaticism of the sonata as it dances its way until a fermata over an eighth rest that signals the recapitulation. 

The first theme is heard in the home key, the second theme changes key to B-flat minor, the third theme repeats in C major. A section in A-flat major leads to the coda with the first theme. Previous material is heard in different keys until the key of C minor takes off on two-note figures that outline the C minor triad (with a few accidentals that belong to G major) for 5 octaves while the bass plays a broken C minor chord (with a few accidentals that belong to G major). This 5-octave descent decreases the volume over its course until it reaches pianissimo. The music ends fortissimo the way it started; with a C minor chord.