Monday, December 21, 2020

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

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

Piano Trio No. 2 is in 5 movements:

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

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

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

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

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


Berlioz - Grande Messe Des Morts (Requiem) Opus 5

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

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

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

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

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

The Requiem is in ten sections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2020

Mendelssohn - Octet in E-flat Major

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

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

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

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

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