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.