Thursday, November 11, 2021

Franck - Piano Trio No. 4 In B Minor, Opus 2

 César Franck's first acknowledged compositions were 4 piano trios, written while he was still a student in 1840.  Originally, his opus 1 was three piano trios, but he was advised by Liszt to remove the final movement of the third one because of its length and make it a separate composition. This he did, and claimed the work as Piano Trio No. 4, Opus 2. 

Liszt had given the composer  encouragement as the result of these trios, with Liszt participating in performances of them. Franck showed much promise with these first works, but some other works were met with indifference by the public. He concentrated on his organ playing and became one of the most famous organ improvisers of his time, and worked directly with the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, an innovator of the instrument. Franck demonstrated the organs of the maker and showed how they went beyond the traditional organ and were more orchestral.

Franck taught many composers and organists in his classes for many years, and it was later in his life when he composed the works he is more well known for. 

Allegro - Since this was originally the final movement of the Third trio, it is in but one movement. Violin and cello begin the movement with a slithering theme that covers over an octave and is quite chromatic. The two play an octave apart:

This theme recurs all through the movement in various guises. After the strings announce the theme, they immediately repeat it as the piano contributes a B minor chord in the right hand, and a G-sharp diminished chord in the left. These chords combine with the chromatic theme in the strings and creates even more ambiguity and feeling of menace. The volume of the theme increases until a forte is reached and the music modulates. The music goes back to piano, and the pattern of the opening is repeated, only now the music has shifted to E minor.  The piano enters for a repeat of the modulated theme with an E minor chord in the right hand, and a C-sharp diminished chord in the left, so the tension hasn't eased, only shifted to a different key. The 4th bar is again repeated, the theme modulates. The strings are silent as the piano repeats the partial theme three times. A change in tempo and mood begins:

Più lento - This section lasts but 12 bars. The violin is silent as the cello begins by stating a variant of the first bar of the theme, which in essence is the second theme of the exposition:

The cello reaches the D above the bass clef and holds it for half of the 6 measure section as the piano plays slow arpeggios in each hand and simple two-note chords. The music moves from G major to D major in a mood decidedly sweeter than the opening. But it immediately segues into a:

Più presto - This section is but 5 measures long, forte throughout, as the right hand holds an E minor chord as the left hand skitters along in a chromatic triplet pattern. The violin remains silent as the cello holds a B for the entire 5 bars plus 5 more in  the next section that is marked  più lento. The piano now plays E major arpeggios and simple chords and shifts to B major. Yet another modulation brings about the key of D-sharp minor, as the tempo changes to piu presto for two bars as the left hand plays triplets and the right hand holds a D-sharp minor diminished chord.  Another section marked più lento has the violin join with the cello in a held F-sharp as the piano plays arpeggios and chords in F-sharp minor. The music segues into a return of the opening tempo:

Tempo I -  The music gradually shifts tonality to B major as the first theme is heard in the piano, then the strings take it up in a section that repeats the theme as well as the secondary theme. What has gone on before can be considered as an introduction, or the first playing of the exposition that is in loose sonata form. This section can be considered as the actual beginning of the exposition, or a varied repeat of the exposition. The two themes and parts of them are used in either case until it leads to the next section, still in tempo 1, but the key has shifted back to B minor:

Gravement - The term means seriously. This section can be thought of as the development section, and does indeed begin in a quite serious mood stated by the piano and cello. The cello offers up a soaring motif in E minor as the piano plays large E minor chords as the music builds to the next section marked fortissimo.  The strings play long held notes while the piano returns to rapid triplets in both hands. The volume level reaches triple forte until it slows down and another section is reached:

Avec la plus grande expression -  With the greatest of expression. This section is short, and leads to a gradual slowing of the tempo and increase in volume. The music returns to tempo 1  as the strings make commentary over a restless piano accompaniment. The music shifts tonality and continues in drama that ebbs and flows in volume. The restlessness of the piano carries on as references to the first theme are heard in it and the strings. The theme returns with a complex figure in the piano and continues to build until it reaches a full and sudden stop. The next section begins with the strings playing pizzicato with the piano silent. It is a mysterious sounding section as it increases in volume slightly, but always falls back to quiet. This leads to the next section:

Triple piano -  Very softly the piano plays a D-flat low in the bass. This builds into a 2 bar motive akin to the opening theme. The D-flat motive transforms into a C-sharp, and a long and slow section of repeated motives in C-sharp minor are heard in the three instruments. The music shifts tonality to B major, and this section comes to a halt in G-sharp minor after high double stops are played in the strings and tremelos in the piano.  

A tempo - This section begins with a short fantasia-like piano solo on the theme that leads to an emphatic modulation to the key of B major that represents the recapitulation.  The themes are repeated and expanded again until a short coda that increases in tempo and volume ends the work with a part of the theme played in half notes and a solid end to the movement in B major.

This trio may be labeled by some as repetitious and episodic, but the imagination and creativity Franck uses in the choice of theme and how he uses it shows an already highly developed dramatic sense for a student of 18 years. The use of two themes based on a single theme was not new in music. Josef Haydn wrote examples of monothematic movements before in his works, but it is a foretaste of what Franck was to become as a mature composer later on in his use of cyclical form. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Bortkiewicz - Sonata for Violin and Piano In G Minor Op 26

Sergei Bortkiewicz was born in the town of Karkhov, Ukraine in 1877, and died in Vienna, his adopted home, in 1952. His music is an amalgamation of the compositional styles of Russian and German composers. He was no advocate of the tremendous changes going on in music of the first half of the 20th century, as he continued to compose in the musical traditions he grew up with. His music has been disparagingly compared to Rachmaninoff's as something akin, but inferior. But  Bortkiewicz was no imitator. He developed his own style which showed his imagination as well as a strong lyrical side to his music that sometimes also looked back with nostalgia on a musical world whose style was no longer on the cutting edge of modernity. 

He faced many depravations in his life, and combined with a meticulous method of composing resulted in but 74 opus numbers, with the vast majority of his compositions being for piano solo. He did write 3 piano concertos, a concerto for violin, and one for cello, two symphonies and a symphonic poem, lieder, and a handful of chamber works. 

He wrote 3 works for violin and piano, with the Sonata In G Minor being his only violin sonata. He composed it in Vienna, and premiered it at the Hague with himself on the piano and his countryman Frank Smit on the violin in 1923.  

I. Sostenuto - Allegro dramatico - The sonata begins with wistful music played by the solo piano.  

The violin enters gently, and continues in the same mood with the piano in an extended introduction, until the violin changes to allegro dramatico with a theme that emerges from the introduction. 
The music proceeds in dramatic fashion until it reaches another theme that is marked Un poco meno mosso, which means a little less movement, a slight slowing of the tempo. After this theme, the music becomes more powerful with another section that brings the exposition to an end. The violin tremolos segue to the first theme being developed as the tremolos move to the piano. The third section of the exposition contributes to the music leading back to the first theme and the recapitulation. The coda slowly begins after a climax by the piano, and the music winds down as the piano plays softly as the violin holds a low G, the lowest note of the violin.  

II. Andante - The second movement is in C minor and begins with a short, slow introduction by the piano. When the violin enters, it is accompanied by arpeggiated chords in the piano.

Then there is a section where the right hand in the piano plays a theme while the left hand and violin accompany. The violin and piano trade off playing a lyric theme. The violin builds the tension by playing octaves until a section marked agitato is played. The music slowly becomes quiet, and a solo for the violin appears. this leads to the first theme reappearing in a section that leads to a tempo designation of andante lacrimoso, which means tearful. The music slowly makes sits way to the end of the movement. And as in the ending of the 1st movement, the violin utters the low G while the piano ends the movement. 

III. Allegro vivace e con brio - The final movement is in G major. The piano plays the opening as the violin has a pizzicato accompaniment. 

The movement alternates from 5/4 to 4/4 for a few bars. There are other changes in meter as the music takes on the characteristics of folk music. The drama is pretty much gone as the music dances its way to the ending in G major.
Sergei Bortkiewicz

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Shostakovich - String Quartet No. 8 In C Minor Opus 110

The String Quartet No. 8, Opus 110 was the only major work that Shostakovich composed outside of Russia.  He was in the East German town of Görlitz. It was shortly after he was forced to join the Communist Party in 1960, and he was there to ostensibly work on music for a film to be made jointly by East German film makers about the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Shostakovich was not inspired to write any film music, but he did write this quartet in three days. Shostakovich wrote a letter to a friend about the quartet:

"While there I was provided with ideal working conditions...The good working conditions were fruitful; while there I composed my Eighth Quartet. There was really no point in racking my brains trying to write film music. At the time I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I wrote this quartet which is ideologically suspect and of no use to anyone. I figured that no one would think of composing a work honoring me after I'm dead, so I'd better do it myself. The title page might read "Dedicated to  the composer himself'". 

The quartet is written in 5 movements without pause: 

I. Largo -  Shostakovich went on in the letter to describe the opening theme of the movement:
"The quartet's main theme is taken from my initials - D, S [E-flat in German notation], C, H [B-flat in German notation].
The movement begins with the solo cello, and in turn all the instruments play the theme, giving it a canonic treatment. The instruments continue to play slowly, and in the next few bars all twelve tones in the chromatic scale are played. The harmonic ambiguity is brought to a stop when the home key of C minor finally arrives, and a quote from his first symphony is played. This entire quartet is full of quotations of his own music, something Shostakovich did often in his later works. The movement suddenly shifts to the next:

II. Allegro molto - The start of this movement is in G-sharp minor, a key that sounds odd in relation to the first movement's delvings in C minor. G major, the dominant of C minor would be the classical progression, but Shostakovich opts for an increase in tension and insecurity. 
The 4-note theme makes its appearance in altered form as the music skids, skitters, and screeches, sometimes quite violently. The movement comes to seamless screeching halt as the music shifts tempo and key, and leads to:

III. Allegretto - This movement is in G minor and repurposes the initial 4-note theme into a grotesque dance. Tension is somewhat relieved, but it's still not music of calmness. The music winds down with a violin solo that leads to:

IV. Largo - One instrument plays a drone as the others play 3 sharply articulated notes in rapid succession. The music then enters into the key of C-sharp minor, with the drone and three notes repeated. The music settles into an uneasy calmness as the volume level is brought down, and the momentum slows to a drag. The feeling is of resigned calmness, a marked contrast to the previous three movements. The drone and 3 note motif reappears, and leads seamlessly to the final movement:

V. Largo - Shostakovich has peppered this quartet with many self-quotations, but there are none in this movement save for the 4-note theme that is now given a contrapuntal treatment as the music remains slow, mournful, and quietly ends in C minor. 

Surprisingly, this quartet is one of Shostakovich's most popular. It has been said that all 5 movements are in different shades of darkness and ambiguity. It was a very emotional work for the composer, as he went on in the letter quoted earlier:
The pseudo-tragedy of this quartet is such that, while I was composing it, the tears just kept streaming down like urine after a half-dozen beers. When I got back home, I tried playing it once or twice on the piano,  and each time I started weeping all over again. But this time, not so much from my pseudo-tragedy, but in amazement of its splendid formal structure. Of course, the self satisfaction implicit in that will no doubt soon be followed by my intoxication on feelings of self-criticism. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Ravel - Piano Trio In A Minor

 Maurice Ravel was a different breed of man and musician. He was a free thinker, a trait that was probably inherited from his mother who was not French, but Basque. His mother was raised in Spain, while his father was an engineer born near the French-Swiss border. Ravel was born in a Basque town, and shortly after his birth his family moved to paris. 

Ravel was a talented student, but not a prodigy. He was actually expelled from the Paris Conservatoire twice as he was a student that could only learn under his terms and not under reactionary methods of the school. But he continued to learn and grow in maturity, talent, and craft. 

Ravel's trio was begun in 1914, but he had planned to write eone for a long time before that. He had already written some of the pieces he is known for, such as the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, in versions for piano and orchestra, Pavane pour une infante défunte, also in version for piano and orchestra, as well as other works. 

Ravel was a master of orchestration, so he well understood that piano tone and string tone can be a problem to balance out. He mastered the problem splendidly in the piano trio, and went beyond the more traditional chamber music quality and made the three instruments blossom together orchestrally.    

I. Modéré -  The work begins with a theme stated by the piano, a theme that was inspired by the Basque songs and dances he heard his mother sing when he was a child. It follows the metrical outline of a Basque dance form, the zortziko. The theme has the unusual time signature of 8/8, which breaks down into the repeating pattern of beats 3+2+3 in the right hand with dotted rhythms while the left hand plays in steady quarter notes and rest and eighth notes. This gives a syncopated, just slightly off-kilter feeling to the theme. 
The theme repeats with the violin and cello playing high in their range, two octaves apart. The theme is repeated and the instruments develop the theme while the piano plays a rhapsodic accompaniment. The movement is in sonata form, but Ravel's veneration of the old forms did not deter him from using them in his own way. The second theme is in A minor in a different mood than the first theme. The development has the persistence of the rhythm of the opening theme playing under the second theme, and the themes weave in and out. Despite sounding so ethereal sometimes, the printed page sees Ravel use tremolo and harmonics in the strings and use of the deep bass notes of the piano. It all comes full circle, but the music fits so well together that the return for the recapitulation is not easy to detect in the orchestral fog of the three instruments. A coda brings the first movement to gentle close in the key of C major.

II. Pantoum. Assez vif - A pantoum is a type of poetic form used by French poets that was taken from Malaysian poetry. An oversimplification of it consists of a poem that consists of four line stanzas with specific rhyming schemes between alternating lines. The form was also used by some American poets. Ravel never explained his use of the term, but Debussy set to music a poem by Charles Baudelaire in the form of a pantoum. Perhaps it refers to how Ravel used alternating lines of music in imitation of the poem. Ravel's tempo indication means 'rather fast', and this movement serves as a scherzo in 3/4 meter.
The Strings pizzicato accompany the pianoasthe movement opens. The strings very their playing mode between bowed notes, pizzicato, left-handed pizzicato, and harmonics. The scherzo is followed by a short trio in F major. In the trio, the strings continue to play in 3/4 time, the piano changes its meter to 4/2. When the scherzo returns, it's 3/4 time for all as the music scurries to the end of the movement.

 III. Passacaille. Très large - The passacaglia is an old dance form from Spain that usually is based on an ostinato that opens the work written in triple meter. It is usually quite slow and serious in nature. Ravel's tempo indication in the score is quarter beat = 40, and that is indeed quite slow. The piano opens the movement with the ostinato theme in F-sharp minor that is derived from the first theme heard in the pantoum movement, and each instrument repeats it verbatim while the others comment. The theme is always present throughout the movement in one form or another, and the variations build in complexity, so much so that the piano is written in 3 staves. After a climax is reached, the music slowly goes back as before, and ends up with the piano having final word.

IV. Final. Animé - The last movement begins with the string instruments shimmering; the violin with arpeggios in harmonics, and the cello in double stopped tremolos at the top of its range:
The time signature is in 5/4, and changes to 7/4 off and on through the movement. The complexities and sonorities of the previous movements come to a pinnacle in the finale. Trills, tremolos, wide spaced arpeggios and upper extremes are exploited and lead to a piano trio sounding very orchestral.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Saint-Saëns - String Quartet No. 1 In E Minor, Opus 112

Camille Saint-Saëns was no stranger to chamber music. He wrote 26 pieces for different chamber ensembles between 1851 and 1898 that included works for violin and piano, cello and piano,  2 piano trios, 2 piano quartets, a piano quintet; even a septet for trumpet, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. Conspicuous by its absence is any works for string quartet.  Student, friend, and fellow composer Gabriel Fauré said that, "Saint-Saëns had a fear of it and only risked himself there towards the end of his life."

What could have caused Saint-Saëns,an accomplished composer of orchestral works, operas, and all of his previous chamber works, to shy away from  writing a string quartet? Fauré had his own similar fear of the form, as he didn't write but one string quartet himself, at the age of 79 in 1924, and thought the Beethoven string quartets should strike fear into any composer. And even Beethoven himself composed chamber music for other ensembles besides string quartet until he thought he was worthy to carry on the tradition set down by Haydn and Mozart. Perhaps it was the same with Saint-Saëns, as tradition can be a daunting thing. But the form itself is challenging.

There is no room for fluff, no room to hide any inferior music thought in a string quartet. It is music laid bare. Not to say that the string quartet is not capable of amazing color, verve, excitement, solemness, and emotion. But where a clever bit of orchestration can add flavor and color to music, the string quartet is limited. 

Saint-Saëns composed his first string quartet in 1899 when he was 64 years old, and dedicated it to the young Belgian violinist Eugène  , who perhaps encouraged the writing of it, and played in the premiere of the work. Saint-Saëns wrote a letter to his publisher about the quartet:

If I hadn’t written this quartet, the aestheticians would have drawn all kinds of conclusions from this omission, and they would have found what it was in my nature that had stopped me from writing one and why I was incapable of writing one! Have no doubt about it, I know what they’re like. And all the while I had not accomplished this necessary task, I was afraid of passing away too soon, I could not rest easy. Now I don’t care about any of it.

I. Allegro -  The strings all have their mutes on as the quartet begins with an F-sharp in the 1st violin, and the successive notes in the other three instruments of E, C, and A. Theoretically, this could be a F-sharp minor 7th flattened 5th chord (that's a mouthful!) , which for the home key of E minor of the quartet does not make a lot of harmonic sense. But by using enharmonic change the F-sharp to a G-flat, and the result is an A minor 6th chord. As A minor is the dominant chord in the key of E minor, it makes perfect sense. It would have been bad form for Saint-Saëns to use a G-flat as the time signature already states that all F's are sharp. There is a strong tendency for the dominant chord to lead to the tonic key, and so it does. After a few bars of the A minor introduction, the home key states a somewhat wistful theme that winds its way until the mutes come off and a more powerful section begins, skirts a few other keys in the process, and leads to a more mellow theme that is first stated by the cello and makes its way to the other instruments.  Themes eventually return in various guises, especially the more powerful one that leads to the end of the movement. 

II. Molto allegro quasi presto - Leave it to Saint-Saëns to call for music to be played molto allegro - very fast - quasi presto - sort of even faster. Perhaps he was concerned about excessive speed, and once the music begins it makes more sense. The movement is in 2/4 time, and has a metronome setting of quarter note = 184 beats per minute, a quite brisk tempo indeed, but taken any faster there would be the danger of the quirkiness of the syncopation being blurred. The first violin plays a simple theme that begins an eighth note before the accompaniment, and is tied across the bar line to the next bar. The other instruments play pizzicato.  After the first round of the theme, it is repeated in triplets. All 4 instruments join in the syncopation in a section that leads to the main theme once more, until a middle section in E major is reached. The tempo remains quick as a 4-voiced fugue comprises the middle section. The syncopation returns and plays until there is a slight slowing of the tempo and the key changes for a short section in E major. After that, the syncopation returns, with all instruments playing pianissimo. The 1st violin joins the others pizzicato as the movement quietly ends.

III. Molto adagio - The next movement in A Major gives contrast by its calm sweetness, but this movement also has a section marked appassionato. The 1st violin has the most to say, and the movement ends in harmonics high in the range of all 4 instruments.

IV.  Allegro non troppo - The music returns to E minor and restlessness, somewhat in the vein of the 2nd movement, but not nearly so relentless. There is plenty of tension as different rhythms are explored, as once again the 1st violin takes the lead in virtuosity as in the third movement and other parts of the quartet. Saint-Saëns probably had Ysaÿe the dedicatee in mind, for he was one of the premiere virtuoso violinists of the time, and he not only wanted to give him something to show his abilities with, but his own capabilities of violin writing as well. The movement builds to the final section marked Molto allegro as the quartet comes to a passionate close.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Franck - Violin Sonata In A Major

After a youth spent in musical study, composition and performing, César Franck went the way of a family man as he married and settled down to make a living as a church organist and teacher. 

When he was hired as the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, Franck began to compose more, and it was this time in his life when he wrote the works that he is most remembered for. The Violin Sonata In A Major was composed by Franck in 1886 when he was 63 years old and became one of his most popular pieces. The first public performance was in December of 1886, but a private first performance of this happened on the wedding day in September of the virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Franck had given the sonata to him as a wedding present, and after the wedding and a quick rehearsal, Ysaÿe and his pianist sister-in-law gave a performance to the wedding guests. Ysaÿe  kept the sonata in his repertoire for 40 years and helped promote Franck's music. The sonata remains one of the most popular works of Franck, as well as one of the most popular violin sonatas in the repertoire. The sonata is so popular that it exists in many transcriptions for other instruments, but the version for cello and piano is the only one sanctioned by Franck.

Franck didn't live to see much of his music become truly popular with the public. The handful of works that he is remembered for, among them the Symphony In D Minor, Piano Quintet In F Minor, and the Violin Sonata In A, were all written in the last years of his life. He was very influential with his students at the Paris Conservatoire, and they as well as friends such as Ysaÿe kept his music before the public. 

I. Allegretto ben moderato - The movement has but two themes, the first one is a sweet song for the violin as the piano accompanies. Originally Franck wanted this movement to be played very slowly, but it was Ysaÿe that convinced him by his performance of the piece to increase the tempo to allegretto. 
The second theme is for the piano alone. The themes go through various keys as was Franck's style at the time to be quite chromatic. The two themes don't merge together in the relatively short movement, but maintain their individual character with each repetition. The violin's theme especially reappears in other movements. The movement ends quietly in the home key.

II. Allegro - The next movement is in D minor and is essentially a scherzo for the piano with another layer added to it with the violin's part. The piano begins the movement and plays for 13 turbulent bars before the violin enters and reinforces the piano's theme that is there amongst the filigree passages. 
The music gradually becomes slower until a section marked Quasi lento, where parts of themes heard in the first movement are reminisced over. This section continues for a few bars until the music gradually shifts keys to C-sharp minor and the scherzo returns. The music shifts once again in key, this time to C minor as it works its way back to the key of D minor with continual references to themes heard in the first movement. Another key change to D major for a short section that leads to a section marked Poco piu lento. The violin part is labeled con fantasia and as the previous slow section, this is brief and leads to D minor returning as the scherzo slowly begins again. The violin as well as the piano becomes turbulent, and leads to a bright ending to the movement in D major. 

III. Ben moderato: Recitativo-Fantasia - The key signature is ostensibly A minor, but the chromaticism of the music doesn't dwell in any one key very long. The piano begins the third movement playing three bars with the violin entering near the ends of the 4th bar with the designation largamente con fantasia, which roughly means slowly and freely. The violin and piano are partners in music that does much chromatic roaming, with waxing and waning of tempo and feeling. The key shifts to F-sharp minor and the music becomes very tender and tranquil, and then turns more dramatic. Near the end a section has the violin play a very recognizable variant of the first theme of the first movement. The music grows quiet, and the movement ends.

IV. Allegretto poco mosso - The violin's theme is tagged along by the piano a few steps behind. The mood of the movement is more or less pleasant in nature, but there are more passionate sections. 
More references to what has gone before appear, as Franck makes his way to the sunny ending.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Haydn- Symphony No. 101 'Clock'

The dozen symphonies Haydn wrote for Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario that coaxed Haydn to come to London, represent Haydn at his best. They are the culmination of many years of composition and Haydn made sure that they were the finest he could produce,  twelve masterpieces of the symphonic form that were written in London and Vienna over a five year period, for performance at Salomon's concerts.   Haydn made two visits to London, each time an extended stay that saw him not only giving concerts but meeting all kinds of people and being lavishly entertained at parties. He was a celebrity, the most famous composer in Europe at the time. He was a composer with a huge reputation that he was not aware of, due to his being isolated in the Esterhazy palace in the woods of Hungary. But his music had been known by many, and the English were particularly taken with his music.

I. Adagio - Presto - Symphony 101 begins with a dark, brooding introduction that has a sense of foreboding. But it ends up being one of Haydn's little jokes, as the music suddenly lightens in mood with the playing of the main theme.  The second theme is stated first in the violins, then the winds.  The development section has the themes being transformed and varied. The recapitulation leads to a short coda that rounds out the movement.

II. Andante - The second movement is where the nickname 'clock' come from, due to the pizzicato strings and staccato bassoon accompaniment sounding like the ticking of a clock. Haydn changes keys, expands and contracts the music and keeps interest in the music by the return of the 'clock' accompaniment, but this time it is played by the flutes and bassoons. After some more 'ticking' the movement draws to a quiet close.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto - The third movement  is marked minuet,  but it is far from the graceful dance of the French court. Haydn has written a heavily accented German peasant dance that merrily stomps its way until the more laid back trio, but the stomping appears here and there in the trio as well. Finally the peasant's happy foot stomping silences the trio, the dance is repeated and clomps to the end.

IV. Vivace - The finale's two themes are stated in the beginning, repeated, and then are woven through a development section until there is a fugal section that uses the first theme. The fugue works its way through the entire orchestra, and the movement ends with the first theme, and a short coda.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Mozart - Sonata For Piano And Violin In E Minor K.304

Mozart had traveled extensively in Europe as a child prodigy, and after visiting many of the capitals of 18th century Europe between the years 1762 to 1773, he settled into a position as court musician at Salzburg. His low wages and discontent at the court prompted him (with full encouragement from his father Leopold) to travel to other areas and look for a new position.

He resigned his position at court and began a trip with his mother in September of 1777. He traveled to Mannheim, Paris and Munich and on this trip he met many other musicians and continued to compose. The trip didn't end up with any new employment, and added to that disappointment was the death of his mother in Paris in 1778.  While he was on this trip he composed seven Sonatas For Keyboard And Violin as well as other music. Six of these sonatas were published in Paris in 1778.

There was once the thought that this sonata in E minor was written after his mother had died, but there is no evidence for that. Out of 36 Sonatas For Keyboard And Violin, it is the only one written in a minor key and the only instrumental work that Mozart ever wrote in E minor. The title of all of Mozart's works in this genre is a reflection of the era in which they were written. These were essentially keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment, but Mozart and other composers were changing the genre so that the violin was more of an equal participant. The Sonata For Piano And Violin In E Minor is in two movements:

I. Allegro -  Evidence of the equal partnership between keyboard and violin begins straight away with the first theme played in unison by both instruments:
The second dotted rhythm theme delves into G major, but the exposition is dominated by the first theme. The short development section is also concerned with the first theme. The recapitulation has the second theme modulate to the minor, and after a short coda the movement ends.

II. Tempo di minuetto - This movement also begins in E minor and makes excursions into other major keys. But it returns to the contemplative and graceful minuet melody. The middle section is music in the calming key of E major. The plaintive minuet returns and with a short coda the sonata is brought to a close.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 2 In D Major Hob. VII/2

Haydn's employment by the rich and famous Esterhazy family at their hunting lodge palace deep in the forests of Hungary assured that he would have a ready-made audience,  and although Prince Esterhazy would have had other musicians visit on occasion, Haydn would be in relative isolation and as he wrote in his own words:

“My sovereign was satisfied with all my endeavors. I was assured of applause and, as head of an orchestra, was able to experiment, to find out what enhances and detracts from effect, in other words, to improve, add, delete, and try out. As I was shut off from the world, no one in my surroundings would vex and confuse me, and so I was destined for originality.”
The sheer amount of music Haydn composed in his thirty-odd year employment by the Prince is staggering. Symphonies, operas, chamber music, and concertos rolled off Haydn's pen one right after the other. The Cello Concerto No.2 also shows that Haydn had some top-notch players in his small symphony orchestra. Anton Kraft was a cellist in the Prince's employ and Haydn wrote the 2nd concerto to highlight his talents.  After the split up of the Prince's orchestra in 1790, Kraft went on to be regarded as the foremost master of the cello in Vienna, no mean feat in the city of music and musicians.

Haydn began composing the concerto in 1783, close to the time when Haydn himself had been startled to learn that while he may have felt isolated at the Esterhazy Palace,  the world had caught up with his music and he was a famous man. It was also about this time that he received the commission for the 'Paris' symphonies.

The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  The first movement lacks the tension and contrast that Haydn's first movements can have. There is a leisure feeling to it,  and the orchestra never overshadows the soloist. Haydn' puts the spotlight firmly on the cellist.

II.Adagio - The cello shows off its ability to sing when a master is playing it.

III.Rondo (Allegro) -  The rondo is built out of the motif first heard in the cello, and like the first movement there is very little tension. The work ends simply, but charmingly.

The cello concerto is not one of Haydn's most difficult pieces, but the solo part is very challenging in the first and last movements as Haydn demands playing in double stops and octaves. The concerto is meant to be played by a virtuoso such as Anton Kraft, someone who can throw off the covert virtuosity of the piece and make the cello sing.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Mozart - Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major K. 543

Research has shown that Mozart composed more than the 41 symphonies that have been traditionally attributed to him. There is no definite number that has been agreed upon, but it is over fifty. In 1788 from July until September, Mozart composed what is traditionally known as his final three symphonies, numbers; 39, 40 and 41, and for identification sake, it helps to think of them with those numbers, even if they're not accurate.

All three are more difficult than his previous symphonies as his style was getting more refined and his mode of expression was growing. It is hard to believe, but these three later symphonies must have been more difficult for performers and listeners alike because of their departure from conventions of the time. All three were longer than the usual symphony, just one aspect that made them the precursor of the mighty set of symphonies Beethoven was to write in his career.

I. Adagio - Allegro -  This the only mature symphony of Mozart's that does not include oboes. This gives the clarinets much more responsibility and contributes to the sound of this symphony overall. The symphony begins with a lengthy introduction, something that was rare with Mozart.

The double-dotted rhythm gives an air of majesty to the opening. It slowly moves its way until the first hesitating notes of the first theme are heard. It rapidly coalesces into the full theme. The music proceeds into the second theme group that maintains an air of majesty with a handful of motives. This enrichment of the second theme group gives Mozart more to expand upon in the development section. The exposition is repeated.

II. Andante con moto -  In A-flat major, the movement begins in the strings in a persistent dotted rhythm.

The woodwinds enter in a new section that is more energetic and dips into the minor mode. The dotted rhythm shows up throughout the movement in different instruments as transitions are made into different material. The orchestra takes a casual stroll through the movement until the A-flat major chord.

III. Menuetto - The minuet as Mozart and Haydn wrote it in their later symphonies was not the genteel, feminine dance of the Baroque era, but the forerunner of the orchestral scherzo, rhythmic and a little more rustic.
The trio shows how the clarinets make up for the lack of oboes as the melody is played by one at the top of its register while the second plays and accompaniment in its lower register.

IV. Allegro - A finale that is somewhat of a rarity for Mozart, in that the emphasis is on the main theme heard from the beginning of the movement in the violins.

The theme is subject for discussion within the orchestra, but it always returns unscathed. The Haydnesque theme does go through a dramatic phase during the development section, but it soon returns to its rapidly bright mood and ends the symphony abruptly.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Rimsky-Korsakov - Russian Easter Overture

This composition was based on Russian Orthodox liturgical themes found by Rimsky-Korsakov in an old book. His idea was to highlight the pagan origins of the Easter Festival and how the more modern Orthodox festival and tradition had its roots in the old pagan ways. Rimsky-Korsakov was a non believer but he seems to have had an interest in the music of the church.Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own program notes for the work, as written in his autobiography:

"This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture. . . . The rather lengthy slow introduction . . . on the theme “Let God arise” [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody “An angel cried out” [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the Holy Sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the Resurrection—in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro —the theme “Let them also that hate Him flee before Him”—led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ's matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dancelike tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton's rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest's reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, “Christ is arisen,” which forms a sort of subsidiary part of the overture, appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda."

The work was composed in 1887-1888 and the premiere was lead by the composer late in 1888. It was one of his last works for orchestra as he devoted his time almost exclusively to writing opera. The work is full of orchestral color and shows Rimsky-Korsakov a master of the orchestra.  It opens with the very different time signature of 5/2, and in the last section of the work time signatures of 3/1 and 2/1 are used.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Shostakovich - Symphony No. 9

When politics is mixed with art, the artist needs to beware.  Shostakovich is a case in point. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union used the music of Shostakovich as a rallying cry for the defeat of Nazi aggression. Shostakovich wrote parts of his 7th Symphony, nicknamed 'Leningrad' during the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. That symphony in particular was not only used by the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool, but the symphony was internationally popular during the war  as a representation of opposition to Nazi totalitarianism and militarism. How ironic that the citizen of a totalitarian nation created art that was used against another totalitarian nation! But so it goes in the world of international politics where finger pointing many times is used as a diversionary tactic so no one will notice what you are doing.

Shostakovich was treated as a national hero, at least on the surface. He still remembered the official condemnations (Stalin's decree filtered through the voice of a music critic in the official part newspaper Pravda)  he suffered through in the 1930's.  Shostakovich's next symphony,  Number Eight, written in 1943,  was a long, brooding work that kept up the theme (at least on the surface) of Soviet suffering during the war. Shostakovich had learned to write music on different levels of meaning since his official censure, so this symphony, like the seventh, had more to do with Shostakovich's feelings about the Russian people's suffering (and his own) than any official theme. But he stayed in the good graces of the powers that be (translate that to Stalin) with the Eighth Symphony.

Fast forward to 1945 and the end of the war. Shostakovich already was thinking about his Ninth Symphony in 1944, a work the composer said himself would be a celebratory work over the defeat of Nazi Germany, complete with soloists and chorus.  After the past two huge symphonies,  the expectation was a work of huge dimensions in keeping with the ninth symphonies of Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner and Mahler.  The composer said he already had part of the massive first movement written in early 1945. He set aside the composition for three months and completed it later in 1945.

Whatever happened during that three moth hiatus is not known, but the Ninth Symphony  turned out to be nothing like the composer had promised. It is a short work, more like a Haydn symphony in form and mood, far from the triumphant victory symphony that was expected. Shostakovich himself said of the work, "Musicians will like to play it, and critics will delight in blasting it."  The initial reception was favorable, but less than a year after the premiere, the work was officially banned and the composer denounced. The composer was in the official dog house once again.

The symphony is in five movements, the last three played without pause:

I Allegro - A Haydenesque movement in classical sonata form.  The trombone and piccolo have prominent roles as the orchestra plays in a jovial mood.

II.Moderato -  Music that is in a controlled, restrained, melancholy mood.

III. Presto - A nose-thumbing scherzo that prances along until...

IV. Largo - The brass introduces the bassoon as soloist in sad, mournful music, and then...

V. Allegretto - Allegro - The bassoon changes its 'tune' into a tongue in cheek melody that snickers in the low register of the instrument, which leads into a edgy, folk dance-like music that zips along until the orchestra scurries to an end.

Shostakovich's musical personality can be very complex. From bombast to beautiful, from official kow-towing to nose-thumbing independence. He spent the majority of his life in conflict between his artistic nature and what was officially demanded of him. He managed to resolve this conflict somewhat by basically composing two kinds of works; works that came from his artistic heart and works to try and satisfy the powers that be.  Sometimes the music is obvious which kind it is, sometimes Shostakovich manages to blur the two, as with his Fifth Symphony. But with the Ninth Symphony there is no blur. It is a short, witty and joyous work that occasionally grows serious. In other words, it is full of changing moods and emotions, but seldom gets too serious.  He knew it was not the work expected of him. He knew he would mostly likely get in trouble once again.  He probably didn't breathe any easier after the premiere and the initial favorable response. He knew the 'system' well enough to be wary. And he was right. But he wrote the symphony as his talent dictated, had it performed and took the consequences.  It may not have been as much an act of artistic courage but of artistic necessity. Whatever the reason or the cause, the Ninth Symphony is one of Shostakovich's most accessible and well-written compositions.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Mozart - Piano Quartet No. 2 In E-flat Major K.493

A piano quartet is any composition that is for piano and three other instruments. There have been various combinations of instruments and the piano, but the standard instrumentation is that of one violin, one viola, one cello, and piano.

As with most forms of chamber music, the piano quartet naturally evolved from sonatas for one or more instruments with a figured bass accompaniment. The first quartets with keyboard were no doubt played on the harpsichord, but in the latter part of the 18th century the added means of expression that the piano had relegated the harpsichord to disuse. So it is not any coincidence that Mozart was the first composer of high standing that composed for the piano and string trio, as he much preferred the piano.

Mozart didn't come to the form willy-nilly. His incentive to write in the form was monetary as it came as a commission to write three works for the new and novel ensemble. His first effort was the Piano Quartet In G Minor K. 478. Tradition has it that the publisher was dissatisfied with the difficulty and mood of the work and withdrew his commission. Whether that story is apocryphal or not, Mozart followed up with another piano quartet shortly after that. Both quartets were written between 1785-1786, and the form has seen many other composers turn to it since.

Mozart hit the pinnacle of his success as a composer and pianist around this time, and both of his piano quartets are as miniature piano concertos in style and three-movement form.

I. Allegro -  Mozart's first piano quartet is in the key of G minor, a key that Mozart reserved for his most passionate music. In contrast, this E-flat quartet is of a more lyrical style. But it too has its passions. The opening section sounds like the beginning of a concerto as strings and piano combine. Soon the strings separate from the piano as a wealth of themes and motives spill out into the music. Where other composers may have two or three themes in a sonata exposition, Mozart has many. His melodic gift is incredible. There has been two schools of thought on observing the repeats of an exposition. Some say take them, some say not. With Mozart for me, it is not an option. There are so many themes that I want to have a chance to hear them again before he starts to change them. And change them he does, in the development section. It is always interesting which motive he chooses to elaborate on. The recapitulation also contains some elaborations on themes as well as key changes. The viola, reported to be Mozart's choice of strings to play, has more to say in the recapitulation as well. The movement ends in a rousing short coda.

II. Larghetto - The second movement is in A-flat major, and begins with a short solo for piano. As in the first movement, the piano part is mostly a simple melodic treble with a thinly scored bass. This movement is also in sonata form. The strings provide most of the accompaniment for the lightly decorated piano part. This sweet song winds down in a short coda that ends with a delicate run for the piano.

III. Allegretto - The piano begins the rondo finale with the strings soon having their say. The mood remains of purity as the music returns to the opening rondo theme (which itself is changed here and there) after each varying episode. As with the other two movements, the music of the finale is classical chamber music at its best by one of the masters of the Classical era. Piano and strings have one last discussion about the rondo theme before the movement ends.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Haydn - String Quartet In C Major, Opus 76, No. 3 'Emperor'

The six string quartets of Opus 76 were composed in 1796-1797 and were the last complete set of quartets that Haydn wrote. He had been publishing string quartets in groups of six almost from the time he first wrote them, and Mozart followed suit. Beethoven kept up the tradition when he published his first six string quartets as Opus 18.

Joseph Haydn's String Quartet In C Major, Opus 76, No. 3 gets its nickname  from the second movement which is a set of variations on the tune of the Austrian National Anthem God Save Emperor Franz that he had written in 1797. Austria did not actually adopt the anthem until 1847. The anthem was popular early on and was adopted by Germany with a different title and words:  Deutschland über Alles. The tune was kept as the anthem of Germany after World War One by the Wiemar Republic, retained as the anthem by Nazi Germany, and is still the national anthem of Germany today.

By the time Haydn wrote Opus 76 he had returned from his triumphant tours of England in 1795 and while he was retained as Kappelmeister at the Esterházy court, it was only on a part time basis. He was now a famous man and after having served his employer for so many years was now free to compose as he wished, and also to accept commissions for works. The Hungarian Count Joseph von Erdödy commissioned the six quartets of opus 76 and was the dedicatee. For this reason the set is also known as the Erdödy Quartets. 

String Quartet Opus 76, No. 3 In C Major is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro -  The first theme is heard straight away, and after a few bars the theme changes to a dotted rhythm. The last part of the theme resembles the opening, and after a short transition the second theme in G major is heard. The exposition is repeated. The development begins with the dotted rhythm of the first theme and a dialog between the instruments constructed around a fragment of the beginning of the first theme. Then the viola and cello alternate playing two-note chords at the distance of a fifth while the violins play an extended variant of the dotted rhythm of the first theme which gives the impression of a village dance tune. The recapitulation repeats the two themes with the  modulation of the second theme to the tonic, C major. After the recapitulation Haydn has the development and recapitulation repeated. After that the second ending of the section brings the movement to a close in C major.

II. Poco adagio, cantabile -  The movement is in G major, the theme is God Save The Emperor Franz and Haydn writes 4 variations on it.

III. Menuetto - Allegretto -  The minuet is in C major, the trio is in A minor.

IV. Finale, Presto - The finale begins in C minor, and after the exposition, development and recapitulation, the themes finally modulate to C major in the coda.