Sunday, March 29, 2020

Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor

Beethoven's sketchbooks show that he was a very self-critical composer.  Ideas came readily to him,but he was never satisfied with the first blush of inspiration. He would think about, tinker with, write, write and rewrite to try and get the best out of his initial ideas. This critical musical mind also applied to most other composers, especially his contemporaries. Three composers that Beethoven held in great regard were Bach, Handel and Mozart.  Surprisingly, out of those three Beethoven thought Handel was the greatest, because he could write such profound music using simple means.  And in this concerto we see how Handel's influence molded one of Beethoven's musical ideas.

The concerto was composed in 1800 and premiered in 1803 with Beethoven as soloist. As usual with Beethoven, he had no time to write down the solo part so he wrote a few scribbles on music paper to help him remember the music and played it mostly from memory.  On the day of the concert he rose from his bed at five in the morning to copy out the parts for trombone and then made a hasty trip to the concert hall for rehearsals. The concert also had his 2nd symphony and his oratorio Christ On The Mount Of Olives on the program as well as a repeat of his 1st Symphony heard at a previous concert.  This was a very busy time for the thirty-year old composer who was fresh from his studies.

I. Allegro con brio - The opening theme of the third piano concerto is in C minor, positively drenched in C minor. The string section plays the C minor triad ascending, and the C minor triad (plus a few passing notes all in the C minor tonality) descending.

The entire first movement is built on these few notes of C minor, a tribute to Handel and his inventiveness and frugality of notes.  But Beethoven also admired and championed the music of his older contemporary Mozart. He had heard Mozart play and had played for him in preparation to try and be his student. But Beethoven had to leave Vienna in a hurry because of his mother's fatal illness, and by the time he returned to Vienna Mozart was dead.  One of Beethoven's favorite pieces by Mozart was the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, played by Beethoven in public concerts.  Mozart's concerto also begins with the three notes of the C minor triad, but the two works are very different past that.

II. Largo - Beethoven breaks with convention by putting this movement in the key of E major, a key with 4 sharps that is far removed from C minor, which has 3 flats.

III. Rondo: Allegro - The piano begins the movement with a weak beat accented theme that reappears throughout the movement. There are touches of Beethoven’s humor and drama in the movement. After the cadenza, the music switches the mood and key to C major and the concerto ends brightly in that key. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 23 In A Major K.488

Mozart wrote 23 original works for piano and orchestra, and the usual number of 27 includes the first 4 concertos that were arrangements by him of other composer’s music.  Mozart’s later concertos show how he overcame the problem of balancing a soloist’s material with an orchestra, and in the process he changed the genre and became the creator of a new type of concerto.

The years 1784-1786 saw Mozart gaining most of his living through performances of his music, especially the piano concertos. During this three-year period, he wrote 12 piano concertos, with the 23rd being written in 1786. That is amazing enough, but he also kept on writing other works as well as preparing the premiere of his opera La Nozze di Figaro.

The concerts that featured the concertos were held in various locations around Vienna, with larger areas being preferred (more ticket sales).  The orchestration of the concertos reflects how Mozart took into consideration the size of the venue. The 23rd concerto shows a reduction in forces, possibly for a smaller concert site:  one flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, soloist and strings.  It is the first major orchestral work that omits oboes entirely and replaces them with clarinets. No timpani or trumpets add to the lighter texture of the orchestra.

I. Allegro - As is customary in most of the Mozart concertos, a double exposition begins the movement with the first theme stated by the strings, and then by the woodwinds. The full orchestra plays a short development of this theme until a second theme enters. The second theme is graceful, and moves gently downward.  The winds take up the theme, and afterwards there is a tense section in a minor key that leads this somewhat brief first part of the exposition to the entrance of the soloist.

The soloist begins the second half of the double exposition by taking up the first theme, and expanding and decorating it while the orchestra accompanies.  The second theme is treated likewise until a third theme not heard in the beginning is played in the strings. The piano plays a decorated version of this theme.

The development section deals with the third theme with tonalities in major as well as minor. The development section is relatively short, and the recapitulation begins with the first theme in the home key.  The second theme is restated, and after the third theme makes an appearance the orchestra come to a pause for the soloist’s cadenza, written by Mozart and included in the score.   After the brilliant cadenza, the orchestra gently chugs to a close in the home key.

II. Adagio - Written in the key of F-sharp minor, this movement is unique to all the concertos as it is the only one written in that key. The piano begins by playing a gently rocking, melancholy theme. The orchestra comments upon it, and then the soloist expands on it. A short exchange with the orchestra and soloist switches keys from E major to B major, before a middle section emerges in the key of A major. This gives slight relief of the sadness as the piano resumes the main theme. The orchestra and piano slowly move through the secondary material until a coda is reached. With violas and basses playing pizzicato and the violins filling in off the beat, the piano plays a simple addition until the movement quietly ends in F-sharp minor. 

III. Allegro assai - Whatever sadness afflicts the 2nd movement is swept away with the finale. The piano enters with a bouncy theme, just one of the many episodes in this movement that are exchanged between piano and orchestra.  An episode of mention has the piano play up the A major scale and triad as the 1st and 2nd violins along with the violas play chords pizzicato. The orchestra ends the movement in the home key and a concerto filled with Mozartean tunes and themes.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 20 In D Minor K. 466

The world of modern classical music can never know how it was years ago when there was less of a distinction in public music. To be sure, there were innovations and fads as well as each era having its own ‘hits’ in the arts. Mozart himself was a popular performer and composer, at least in the realm of Vienna. His operas were popular, with arias from them becoming popular even with people that did not attend the opera, for a good tune then was just as appealing as it is now. He composed piano music, and chamber music for the playing enjoyment of amateur musicians as well. But it was the piano concerto that Mozart used for showcasing his own performing skills. 

The first 4 of the numbered 27 concertos are arrangements for orchestra and keyboard of other composer’s works. These as well as the next 6 concertos were written while he was in Salzburg. When he moved to Vienna, the writing and performing of his piano concertos contributed much to his making his living as a freelance musician. He commented upon his the first three concertos he wrote in Vienna in a letter to his father in 1782: 
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.... In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.
 Clearly the concertos were written first and foremost to be pleasing to the public, and they were. Mozart held subscription concerts where he played them. As he was busy with other things as well, sometimes the music was written down at the last moment, at least the orchestral parts. Mozart saved time by not writing down the solo part, and played it from memory. For these concerts, Mozart sold the tickets, hired the musicians for the orchestra, and even had his piano moved from his apartment to the concert venue. There was time for only a hasty rehearsal, if there was one at all, and Mozart conducted from the keyboard. Musicologists believe that he must have filled in the harmonies at the keyboard when he was otherwise not playing to make up for any deficiencies in the orchestra due to lack of rehearsal or personnel. 

I. Allegro - Piano Concerto No. 20 is the first piano concerto Mozart wrote in a minor key. Beethoven admired the work, and kept it in his repertoire and wrote cadenzas for it. The romantic era went for the dramatic and passionate in music, and much of Mozart’s music was neglected. This concerto is an exception. 

It was his most popular work. And it isn’t a mystery why, as the movement begins quietly in the strings with the chord of D minor in a syncopated rhythm that adds a sense of tension. The music builds until the rapid motive that was played by the basses ascends to the violins as the 2nd violins and violas add more weight with tremolos as the winds fill out the harmony. A second theme appears in the woodwinds but is soon taken over by the initial theme. The piano enters with a solo passage that leads up to the first theme being passed from strings to piano as it is elaborated on. The second theme makes a brief appearance and leads to a new theme in F major. This theme is also elaborated upon until the piano repeats its lead in theme that signals the beginning of the development section. 

The lead-in theme plays against the opening dramatic string syncopations, and then the orchestra has a dramatic exchange that leads to the beginning of the recapitulation. The piano engages the orchestra in the change within the repeats of elements in the beginning of the movement. There are no seams that show in this movement. The various themes and motives are discernable, but blend together into a whole that not only makes musical sense, but profound musical sense.

The music gives room for the customary cadenza; the one by Beethoven is played in the performance linked. This gives an opportunity to hear one master commenting on another’s work. After the cadenza, the orchestra has the final word as the movement comes to a quietly dramatic close. 

II. Romanze - The movement begins with the solo piano playing a gracefully decorated melody in B-flat major. The music continues in a gentle and calm mood, until a middle section in G minor that gets louder and faster. After the middle section’s passionate outbursts, the music returns to the melody in B-flat major and calmly makes its way to a peaceful close. 

III. Rondo: Allegro assai - The movement begins with the piano playing an ascending figure in D minor, known as a Mannheim rocket. The music restless and makes use of the syncopated rhythm in the strings of the first movement. The movement keeps the tension from going too far by insertions of other motives and keys in more quiet music. The cadenza is reached, and then the piano gets more optimistic as it shifts to the key of D major. The concerto has gone from the darkness of D minor to the light of D major, and ends in that bright key. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 4 In C Minor

 Saint-Saëns was the first major French composer to write a piano concerto, and he treats orchestra and piano as equals, with brilliance and originality. He was devoted to forms used in the past, but that did not stop him from experimenting. He revered the modern composers of his younger years while he grew more critical of the next generation as he got older. But for his contemporaries, he was somewhat of an innovator and known for his novelty, all within the French aesthetic of ‘good taste’. 

Of the five piano concertos, No. 2 in G minor is the only one that is solidly in the repertoire, with No. 4 having an occasional performance. Both concertos are innovative in form, with No. 4 being similar in form to Symphony No. 3. Musicologist Daniel M. Fallon has written a paper that goes in depth concerning  the 4th piano concerto and its relation to early sketches for a symphony that was never written. The paper is free to download at the link and is titled:  The Genesis Of Saint-Saëns’ Piano ConcertoNo. 4. The abstract of the paper states:

Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 4 was based on an introduction to an unfinished symphony, which the 19-year-old composer wrote and then abandoned. Nearly every bar of the concerto evolves from this draft, providing a rare opportunity to understand Saint-Saëns' compositional craft.

I. Allegro moderato - Andante - This concerto consists of two main movements, with two distinct sections within each.  The movement begins with a chromatic theme in the strings that is soon taken up by the piano. This theme is traded off by piano and orchestra and builds in brilliance in the piano until the full orchestra repeats the theme forte.  The theme then moves into the woodwinds as the piano and pizzicato strings accompany.  Saint-Saëns shows his feeling for orchestral and pianistic color as it is essentially the same theme repeated throughout the first section, but he avoids monotony with his skill of orchestration. This section comes to a close and a bridge begins that announces the second section of the movement. 

The second section begins in the woodwinds that play a chorale theme with the piano accompanying with rapid scales. This theme is varied for the rest of the movement as the piano part becomes more florid until the music calms and begins a slow transition to the second movement.

II. Allegro vivace -  Andante -  Allegro -  The second movement begins with a return to the material that was used as a bridge for the first and second sections of the first movement. The first section of this movement serves as a scherzo. The first theme of the first movement reappears in the strings as the piano cavorts in triplets. The theme is varied until a new energetic theme appears and alternates with the initial theme. The bridge theme reappears, as the other two themes play off each other. The music flows into the Andante section in a reminiscence of the chorale theme of the first movement that receives a fugal treatment.  The chorale continues and slowly builds in volume and intensity, which leads to the final Allegro section.

This section’s theme is actually the chorale theme played in C major in ¾ time, and it is initially heard in single notes in the right hand of the piano with a pizzicato accompaniment.  The piano and orchestra alternate playing the theme and accompaniment as Saint-Saëns continues keeping the ear of the listener interested in the theme with subtle variations on it.  The piano glitters and combines with the orchestra to bring the concerto to a brilliant close.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Saint-Saëns - Piano Concerto No. 5 'Egyptian'

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy composing his first piece when 4 years old. At his first public recital at the age of 10 years old, he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15, along with other pieces by Bach, Handel, Hummel and others. For an encore he offered to play any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory. His precociousness did not end with music; for he learned how to read and write by the time he was three. He also studied and wrote about geology, acoustics, archeology, botany and many other scientific subjects as well as history.

 He once said of himself, "I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples." He was one of the most naturally gifted musicians that ever lived, and his seemingly easy facility for composing lead some to criticize his lack of feeling in some of his compositions. There is a natural virtuosity to a lot of his music, whether it is as lacking in emotion as some contend is a matter of taste.

 He wrote the 5th piano Concerto to commemorate his 50th anniversary of his debut in 1846. Saint-Saëns practiced diligently throughout his life to keep his keyboard technique in excellent condition, and remained a virtuoso on the piano and organ his entire life. He was the soloist in the premiere of the work on May 6, 1896.

 Allegro animato - Soft orchestral chords in the woodwinds with pizzicato accompaniment from the strings open the concerto, with the piano entering shortly after with the first theme. The strings take up the theme as the soloist plays a counter melody in the style of the pizzicato accompaniment. There was a 20-year span between the composition of Saint-Saëns’ 4th piano concerto and the 5th, but his elegance of expression and virtuosity remained intact as the piano ripples with scales and arpeggios as the first theme returns and is developed. The music works up to the transition to the second main theme, melancholy music that stands in contrast to the first theme.

 These two themes trade off appearances in the development section, with frequent changes of key. The first theme becomes more aggressive as it appears, while the second theme retains much of its melancholy mood. The first theme seems to reappear to begin the recapitulation, as the strings state it and the soloist plays scales and gentle figures. But is it the recapitulation, or is the development section continuing? Saint-Saëns doesn’t allow a formal return to the opening music, but melds the two themes into a continuing development until a coda appears that gives one more transfiguration of the second theme, and the initial theme then leads to a quiet ending of the movement.

 Andante - The opening of this movement, traditionally the slow section of a piano concerto, breaks with convention as the movement begins with a loud chord by the orchestra, with ensuing rhythmic motives played by the strings that are underpinned by chords from the brass. The piano plays exotic runs over this accompaniment until the piano joins with the woodwinds to move to a slower section dominated by the piano and strings. The soloist plays a simple melody in the extreme treble range of the keyboard that leads to a section labeled quasi recitativo.

 A flute joins in as the piano in gentle runs up and down the keyboard. The 1st violins and cellos gently take up the theme to an accompaniment by the other strings and the piano, with the section played at a whispering pianissimo. A Nubian boat song that the composer heard on his African trips is quoted as the section winds its way through this and other exotic tunes.

 The piano and strings combine in imitation of frogs, crickets, and other creatures heard during the hot and humid nights in Egypt, the 2nd violins and violas play sul ponticello very gently while the piano plays repeated notes in each hand that are labeled quasi cadenza.

 The piano plays in the extreme treble once again, after which gentle runs up the keyboard bring the movement back to where it started with the rhythmic violins answered by the soloist. The music ends with mysterious tremolos played by the strings as the piano slowly makes its way to the top of the keyboard and quietly brings one of Saint-Saëns most imaginative pieces of music to a close.

 Molto allegro - The shortest movement of the concerto begins with the piano rumbling deep in the bass, until the exuberant first theme rushes to the forefront. The piano goes up and down the keyboard while the orchestra supports it in the background. A second mellower theme emerges, and is passed from soloist to orchestra. Saint-Saëns again shows his virtuosity as a soloist in the rapid figures heard in the piano.

 The first theme returns (along with the rumbling in the bass) and is dramatically developed. Both themes return after a shortened development section, and the concerto ends with the entire orchestra playing a fortissimo coda.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Mozart - Symphony No. 41 In C Major, K. 551

Such was the impression that Mozart's 41'st symphony made on 18th century and early 19th century listeners, that the symphony was given the nickname 'Jupiter'. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, and is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus, the god of lightning and storms.

And it is a large work in every way. It is the longest symphony Mozart wrote, and pushes at the edges of the Classical era envelope of expression, skirting ever so closely to the approaching new era of Romanticism.  The three final symphonies are a trilogy, where No. 39 is firmly rooted in the Classical era but shows flashes of expanding the style of expression, while No. 40 bounces against convention in its more outward flashes of emotion, content, and key. No. 41 is the all-around grandest of them all, and continues to attract listeners after over 200 years. 

As large and grand as it is, Mozart did not include clarinets, nor did he write a revision with them included as he did for symphony No. 40.

I. Allegro vivace - Mozart does away with any kind of introduction and jumps right into the first theme group that begins loudly and with an upward figure drenched in C major. Two bars of more quiet music immediately answer this, and then the first two measures are heard again, this time in G major. The music continues in dotted rhythmic fanfares in the woodwinds and horns, with the 1st violins sketching out the harmony while the 2nd violins and violas play rapid downward runs. There is nothing harmonically that is daring in the first few bars. Rather, it is the tried and true chord progression of tonic, dominant seventh, subdominant, in this case C major, G dominant 7th, F major. But this beginning proves that a skilled and gifted composer can make a simple chord progression sound exciting.

The two motives are developed in the next section, which leads to the second theme group, which is begun quietly in the key of G major. There is a section in C minor that is in contrast to what has proceeded, after which the music flows back into the fanfare dotted rhythms. There is a third theme to be heard, then the fanfares return and the exposition is repeated.

The music shifts to E-flat major at the beginning of the development section, and parts of the third theme are developed until Mozart pulls a little bit of a trick on the listener. The opening theme is heard softly, as an anticipation of the recapitulation, but the fanfares come back and are expanded until the true recapitulation begins with the usual changing of keys of the second theme group along with some small development. The movement ends with a final fanfare.

II. Andante cantabile - The strings are muted in this movement, a type of extended song form.

The music begins in F major. An episode follows in snatches of F minor and C minor. The first theme returns with a more decorated accompaniment. This movement is in sonata form, so Mozart inserts a repeat sign that is not always adhered to in modern performances. This movement has some of the most beautiful music Mozart ever wrote, along with some emotionally more acute sections.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto -  Another Mozart menuetto that has little resemblance to the French dance. It resembles a Ländler, and has its chromatic moments as much of late Mozart does. 

It goes stomping on its merry way until the trio. The first part of the trio is gentle in character, while the second part is in a minor key and more forceful. In the beginning of the second part of the trio, the first four notes in the flute, oboe, bassoon, and violin contain what will become a prominent theme of the upcoming final movement.

IV. Molto allegro -  The finale begins with the theme that was foreshadowed in the trio of the previous movement.

This theme proceeds until another theme is heard. After that, the first theme is fugally developed. There are a total of five primary themes in this movement. They enter alone, sometimes in counterpoint to another; sometimes each theme is treated fugally by itself.  There is ready evidence that Mozart was flexing his compositional muscle with this movement, but the most astounding is yet to come.  Just before the end of the symphony, there is a coda that includes all five of the primary themes played together, each one a voice in a 5-part fugue.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Mozart - Symphony No. 40 In G Minor, K. 550

Not all composers keep a record of when a composition was written, but Mozart kept a catalog of his compositions, so we do know that his final three symphonies were composed over the summer of 1788.  Musicologists have disagreed whether any of the last three symphonies were performed in Mozart's time, but in the case of the 40th Symphony, it exists in two versions. The original with no clarinets, and the revision with clarinets added. It's improbable that Mozart would have revised the symphony without a performance of the original version. 

Mozart was fond of the clarinet, but at the time it hadn't become a permanent member of the orchestra. That began to change in the 1780's. Mozart had a great understanding of wind instruments and their possibilities. With its large range of notes, flexible dynamic range, and different tone colors, the clarinet became a valuable member of the orchestra in a short time.  

Mozart used the key of G minor in isolated instances in many works, but based only four major compositions on that key; String Quintet No. 4  K.516 Piano Quartet No. 1 K.478, Symphony No. 25 K.183/173db, and Symphony No. 40. It is a key that depicts sadness, tragedy, sometimes even rage, in Mozart's music.

I. Molto allegro - The symphony begins with the disquieting murmur of the violas playing an accompaniment three quarters of a bar before the theme itself begins. The theme is a simple one of slurred eighth notes and quarter notes that sigh out the theme with an occasional louder outburst. The second theme is chromatic in nature, but is rooted in the key of B-flat major.
The first theme is heard again, and is shortly developed into the key of B-flat major, and the exposition is repeated.  The development begins strangely in the key of F-sharp, and snippets of the first theme go through numerous transformations of key and sections of intensity alternating with sections of quiet tension. The recapitulation has the return of the first theme in G minor, and a longer section that segues to the second theme, this time played in the home key of G minor. A coda includes a rising, syncopated section that leads to the final statement of part of the first theme, and the closing chord in G minor. 

II. Andante -  The movement is in E-flat major, and begins with a lyrical theme that weaves its way contrapuntally through the orchestra. It is written in sonata form and has a chromatic character to the music similar to the first movement. There is an increase in volume and tension in the development section. The recapitulation plays through the music until the music ends calmly.

III.  Menuetto - Allegretto - The key of G minor returns with the next movement. Although marked a 'menuetto', it bears no resemblance to the refined dance. It is gruff, off the beat accented music that begins with two irregular three-bar phrases. This music also has a fair amount of chromaticism going on, which in this case adds to the terseness.
 The trio is in marked contrast, and has a dialogue between strings and winds, in the key of G major.

IV. Finale - Allegro assai -  The finale begins with a Mannheim rocket in the first violins. This quiet snippet is followed by a louder answer in the orchestra. 

The theme alternates from piano statement to forte answer, until a section of running eighth notes leads to the second theme in B-flat major which leads to the exposition being repeated. 

The lead-in to the development is an astounding eight bars of music that begins with the Mannheim rocket in B-flat major that suddenly loses all sense of key. In 1788, Mozart wrote a section of music that carries on the chromaticism of the 3 previous movements to the ultimate extreme as all the notes but one of the chromatic scale are played over 4 octaves in unison by the full orchestra.
The only note left out of this tonal and rhythmic chaos is G natural, as if to disorient the listener even more by denying the sounding of the tonic note. The development continues with chromaticism that must have been alarming to listeners at the time. The music turns borderline violent as themes are stated against each other in counterpoint, when suddenly the first theme returns with the recapitulation. The second theme appears in G minor, and running eighth notes keep up the severity until the closing G minor chord.