Saturday, February 27, 2021

Röntgen - Cello Concerto No. 2 In G Minor

Although not a cellist,  Julius Röntgen, had a love affair with the instrument that lasted over 60 years of his life. He wrote 14 sonatas for cello and piano, 2 sets of variations for cello and piano, 3 cello concertos as well as numerous chamber works that included the instrument. Röntgen was great friends with many cellists, including Pablo Casals which whom he played in chamber music recitals and dedicated some of his cello works to.  Five of his six sons went on to be professional musicians, with
two of them cellists. 

Röntgen was on close terms with what the cello could do and the sounds it could produce. He was a traditionally minded composer, but could also show flashes of experimentation in atonal music, and wrote a bi-tonal symphony as well as impressionistic works from time to time. He had the rock-solid compositional technique that comes with talent and hard work. He wrote over 600 works, with about 100 of those works written in his retirement over the last eight years of his life. Some have said that perhaps his pen wrote too much. But most everything he wrote showed craftsmanship and inspiration. 

The 2nd Cello Concerto In G Minor was composed in 1909 and is dedicated to his friend Pablo Casals. It is in one continuous movement, but consists of 5 distinct sections:

I. Improvisation - Allegro non troppo - The concerto begins with a cello solo that is marked an improvisation, but is more like a written out cadenza. Perhaps the composer was referring to how the section should be played, i.e., freely as an improvisation. This cello solo lasts roughly 2 minutes and is like an overture to an opera as it presents much of the basic material that will be heard in the rest of the concerto. The orchestra enters robustly with more formalized versions of some of the material in the improvisation, a first theme. The cello re-enters with first theme material decorated with cellistic flourishes as the orchestra softly accompanies. This continues until a lyrical 2nd theme is introduced by the oboe. The theme shifts back and forth from minor to major key, and when the cello takes it up, the oboe accompanies it. The cello repeats the main motif of the improvisation section with pizzicato string accompaniment. Soloist and horns segue this first section directly to the next section: 

II. Andante con moto - This short section can be thought of as a kind of development section as motifs reappear briefly in the cello. The bass clarinet shares a mellow accompaniment, after which the pace of the music quickens and the mood brightens as a lead in to the next section:

III. Allegretto scherzando -  The theme of this brief scherzo is played by the cello to a light accompaniment. It is reminiscent of some of the material that has been heard previously, and it has the feeling of a lighthearted jig. A short section leads to the theme repeated in the woodwinds as the cello accompanies. After the cello gives a last rendition of the theme, the oboe repeats the lyrical second theme of the first section. This material segues to the next section:

IV. Andante expressivo - Another theme is introduced by the cello that has a folk song quality. Röntgen was a composer that was much interested in folk song, of his native Germany as well as his adopted Holland. The cello makes its commentary as the woodwinds take up the theme. The music turns more serious as the orchestra takes up the theme. The soloist re-enters with the theme, which now reminds the ear of material previously heard. The trumpet plays the theme as the orchestra becomes more agitated. The music turns mellow again, the horns give out pieces of the 2nd theme and another bridge leads to the final section.

V. Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco - The cello plays a new theme, which repeats parts of the preceding music with the orchestra contributing substantially to the texture. It is the oboe theme from the first section that returns and acts as a kind of focal point to the entire concerto.  Orchestra and soloist keep the music moving until the final cadence.

Shostakovich - Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Major, Opus 102

By the time Dmitri Shostakovich began writing his 2nd Piano Concerto in 1957 he had lived an artistic life full of official censure and criticism. In the age of Stalin's ruthless paranoia, to be officially censured was often times a literal death sentence. Shostakovich managed to stay alive, but it had taken a toll on his already melancholy nature and the mood of much of his music.

But the 2nd Piano concerto is an exception. It was written for Shostakovich's son Maxim as a present for his 19th birthday.  Shostakovich himself said the work had "no redeeming artistic merit," but he may have been getting a head start in averting the inevitable negative criticism some would have.  The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The bassoon enters with the first theme with the piano close behind. The second theme quickens the paced and is played in single notes one octave apart in the piano. Some listeners have detected a similarity between this second theme and the sea shanty What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor. A third theme is played by the piano in single notes two octaves apart. After the third theme is played, the piano plays loud octaves while the orchestra plays a variant of the drunken sailor theme which is developed. The music comes to a tremendous climax and then halts. The piano takes off on its own with a fugal rendition of the first theme until the orchestra returns with the first theme. The drunken sailor theme returns and the movement comes to a close.

Dmitri and Maxim Shostakovich
II. Andante - The second movement is expressive music that touches on Shostakovich's melancholy nature, but in a romantic, tender fashion. The piano gently rises in register as the muted strings are suspended. Cross rhythms give a slight feeling of tension to the broad melody.  At a time when modern music was making extreme demands on players and listeners, Shostakovich's music wrote a short, thoroughly romantic movement that still pleases audiences. The music slowly unwinds and quietly comes to rest. The last movement begins without pause.

III. Allegro - The first theme is a lively dance with a few chuckles thrown in from the piano, which is followed by the second theme in 7/8 time. The third theme is the celebrated tongue in cheek quotation in Hanon piano exercise style, a joke written into the concerto for Maxim. The three themes are repeated, interlaced and developed. The 7/8 theme returns after which a coda finishes the concerto with a thunderous flourish.

There was a time early in Shostakovich's career when he was divided between being a composer or a concert pianist. Although he chose composer (and maintained later in life that he should have been both) he was no slouch as a pianist. Despite his comments about the lack of artistic merit, Shostakovich was fond of the 2nd concerto and played it in concert a few times. He made recordings of both concertos as soloist and they show him to be more than up to the task. His recording of the 2nd piano concerto shows him in fine form as he plays the music at break-neck speed and with a spiky touch in the first movement that fits the character of the movement very well. It is rare that a composer himself leaves a definitive performance of his own work, but Shostakovich did that with both concertos. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Handel - Organ Concerto In B-flat Major, Opus 7, No. 1

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer who spent time in Italy before finally settling in England.  

He was a virtuoso performer on the organ and harpsichord and there is a story of a contest between Handel and Scarlatti in Rome, Italy on organ and harpsichord. Handel was judged superior on the organ while Scarlatti was judged superior on the harpsichord. He was born in the same year as both Scarlatti and J.S. Bach, but he never met Bach.

Handel has been highly esteemed by other composers. Mozart reportedly said of him, "Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." And Beethoven was another admirer. "He was the master of us all, the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb. Go to him and learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means," Beethoven said of him.

He wrote in most forms of his time, but had his fame rest on Italian Opera and Oratorios. He wrote 42 Italian operas and when they fell out of favor he wrote Oratorios, of which his Messiah is the most well-known.  During the intermissions of his Oratorios, Handel would conduct and play an organ concerto for orchestra and organ.  He wrote 16 Oran Concertos, some of which have connections with specific Oratorios.

Most of the Organ Concertos are written for a one-manual organ without foot pedals. The concerto discussed here is an exception as it was first performed on a two-manual organ with pedals. Handel left some of the parts of some concertos out, usually a place in the score that reads ad libitum, or at liberty, and he fully expected the performer to improvise the missing part as was the custom of the day.  That fact makes performances of these concerti unique,  with no performance the same as the last.

This concerto is taken from his Opus 7 set of six concertos.  A contemporary critique of Handel's playing as written in 1776 by Sir John Hawkins in his book General History Of The Science And Practice Of Music:
"A fine and delicate touch, a volant finger, and a ready delivery of passages the most difficult, are the praise of inferior artists: they were not noticed in Handel, whose excellencies were of a far superior kind; and his amazing command of the instrument, the fullness of his harmony, the grandeur and dignity of his style, the copiousness of his imagination, and the fertility of his invention were qualities that absorbed every inferior attainment. When he gave a concerto, his method in general was to introduce it with a voluntary movement on the diapasons, which stole on the ear in a slow and solemn progression; the harmony close wrought, and as full as could possibly be expressed; the passages concatenated with stupendous art, the whole at the same time being perfectly intelligible, and carrying the appearance of great simplicity. This kind of prelude was succeeded by the concerto itself, which he executed with a degree of spirit and firmness that no one ever pretended to equal."
Handel's Organ Concerto Opus 7 No. 1 in B flat Major:

Monday, February 22, 2021

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 27 In E Minor, Opus 90

Beethoven's career took a different turn after the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon in 1805 and 1809. The stress caused by the occupation, plus his increasing deafness put serious composing on the back burner.  In the years 1812 to 1814 after composing his 7th Symphony Beethoven did little composing except for a few pot boilers like Wellington's Victory and the revision of his only opera Fidelio.  

Beethoven finally returned to his more serious composition efforts in 1814 with his 27th piano sonata. It is a two-movement work, and at one time had a program for it written by the composer himself.  The first movement is in E minor, and has the heading Conflict between head and heart, the second movement is in E major and has the heading Conversation with the beloved. The origin of these titles stems from when his friend Count von Lichnowsky, whom Beethoven dedicated the sonata to, asked for the meaning of the music. Beethoven replied that the sonata was a representation of the Count's love life. The Count was contemplating marriage to a woman his family disapproved of, the conflict between head and heart, and a a vision of marital bliss, the conversation with the beloved. Presumably the two had a good laugh over the titles and Beethoven did not have them published with the score. But the music does have the feeling of Beethoven's descriptive headings.

Each movement is prefaced by tempo indications in German instead of Italian, Beethoven's answer to musical nationalism. Tempo indications had traditionally been given in Italian because the first large music publishers happened to be in Venice, Italy. Beethoven was serious about his music and serious about how he valued German music, hence his break with tradition for the sake of German art.

The first movement is restless, the second peaceful. Beethoven was a composer of contrasts, and these two movements contrast each other very much. And it is interesting to note that the second movement is longer than the first, almost twice as long.  Is the second movement wish-fulfillment on the part of Beethoven, a man who had many conflicts, illness and stress in his life, that he could have double the peace and calm in his life as he had stress?  Recent scholarship has shown that for much of Beethoven's life, especially the final decade, he was an ill man. Add to that his deafness, and the will to not only go on living but to grow as an artist must have taken every ounce of strength and determination he could muster.

Whether this sonata actually does follow the program Beethoven gave to the Count, or is something much more personal can never be ascertained. That this is a sonata of contrast is certain. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Shostakovich - Concerto For Piano, Trumpet, And Strings In C Minor, Opus 35

Shostakovich was the soloist at the premiere of this 1st Piano Concerto, also known as Concerto For Piano And Trumpet because of the prominent part for the trumpet.  At the premiere, Shostakovich had the trumpet player sit next to the piano instead of with the rest of the orchestra, which is usually done in modern performances as well. The concerto was premiered in 1933, before Shostakovich's first official government censure.  The concerto is in 4 movements:

I. Allegretto - The piano and orchestra toss out the themes in this movement while the trumpet comments on them. The mood of the movement changes quickly. This is some of Shostakovich's most sarcastic, witty and pithy music and it is reminiscent of  the spontaneity of the first symphony. The movement ends with a dialogue with piano and trumpet.

II. Lento - This movement opens with a slow waltz-like melody. The piano enters,  and expands the waltz into a passionate outburst from the piano and orchestra.  After the climax fades, the strings re-enter gently, with the trumpet playing the waltz theme (with none of the sarcasm of the first movement) over the accompaniment of the orchestra.  The piano and orchestra combine for a heart-felt, gentle close to the movement.

III. Moderato - This movement is less than 2 minutes long, and is generally thought to act as an introduction to the final movement. It is played with weight and depth of tone by the strings, but the piano shines through the quasi-seriousness and the music segues into the finale...

IV. Allegro con brio - The tempo increases, the piano chatters away. In this movement the trumpet becomes more prominent, almost on a par with the piano. The music becomes manic in tempo and intensity. Shostakovich was fond of quoting motifs from his and other composers music. This movement makes reference to Haydn, Mahler, a Jewish folk song, and others. The cadenza for solo piano is derived from Beethoven's Rage Over A Lost  Penny for piano solo.  The music gets more and more animated, until the trumpet plays a repeated figure while the piano and orchestra pound out chords.  The entire ensemble joins together to bring the music to a rousing finish.

Shostakovich was in his late 20's when he wrote this concerto.  His music was everywhere, his fame and popularity assured. In this period of relative freedom to do what he pleased, he composed a concerto that wavers from giddy to serious, music that toys with the listener. After the fiasco instigated by his opera of 1936 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich's life would change, along with his music, to a certain degree. But all that was to come. For the moment, Shostakovich wrote a concerto that thumbed its nose at tradition.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Tchaikovsky - Capriccio Italien, Opus 45

The truth about Tchaikovsky's secret has been long known to the world since his death. The fact that he was homosexual at a time and place where it was looked upon as a very serious matter no doubt contributed to the periods of emotional fragility he had throughout his life.  Tchaikovsky himself fought with his tendencies, for he knew well the consequences if they were discovered. He even went so far as to get married to try and become more normal as defined by society, or at least to give him the appearance of appearing more normal.

That the marriage was a total disaster should be no surprise. Tchaikovsky immediately left his new bride after the honeymoon and promptly had a nervous breakdown. Just what a nervous breakdown is, I've never had explained to me. No doubt it's a catch-all phrase for depression or some such other mental problem. In any case, Tchaikovsky fled to Switzerland. He tried to divorce his wife, and she at first agreed but she changed her mind and threatened to disclose his secret should he press for a divorce.   They stayed married and Tchaikovsky seems to have come to terms with who he was.

After he recuperated from his emotional crisis, he went on to finish an opera, his fourth symphony and violin concerto. Then he roamed Europe and Russia for a few years, never staying in one place for long. He made a trip to Rome during carnival season and it was there he was inspired to write a piece for orchestra based on Italian folk songs. He wrote down some of the songs he heard being played and consulted a volume of Italian folk songs for other examples. It ended up being a very loosely organized composition with songs linked together to make a whole.  In the hands of a lesser composer, the work might have been put together slipshod with the seams showing. But Tchaikovsky was a master composer and excellent craftsman, and the Capriccio Italien works very well on all levels.  It is brilliantly orchestrated and constructed. It has been a crowd-pleaser since it was written and premiered in 1880 in Moscow with Nicolai Rubenstein conducting.

The work opens with a fanfare for trumpets, a tune he heard played outside the window of his hotel in Rome. The piece goes through a number of folk songs of differing moods, and ends with a rousing tarantella, the dance that legend says is caused by the bite of the tarantula spider and makes the victim dance a frenzied dance until death.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Beethoven - Piano Trio In B-flat Major, 'Gassenhauer' Opus 11

When Beethoven came to Vienna in 1792 he began to make a name for himself with his piano playing.  He made the rounds of the elite salons in Vienna and stunned listeners with his impassioned playing and remarkable skill as an improviser.  He had composed and performed his first two piano concertos within three years and began to make a name for himself as a composer. In his early years Beethoven managed to nominally stay within the bounds of musical forms as practiced by Haydn and Mozart, but his harmonic audacity was evident from the start, as well as his delight in sudden dynamic changes and accents. A music critic of the time wrote:
If the composer, with his unusual grasp of harmony, his love of the graver movements, would aim at natural rather than strained or recherché composition, he would set good work before the public, such as would throw into the shade the stale, hurdy-gurdy tunes of many a more talked-about musician.
The Opus 11 trio is written for clarinet, cello and piano and was published with a part for violin instead of the clarinet for use by amateur musicians. Of course the late 18th century had no sound recording technology, so the only way music lovers could hear compositions were by playing them themselves or hiring professional musicians which only the rich nobility could afford. There were some complaints about the difficulty of  Beethoven's compositions, but they still sold well.

The trio was written and published in 1798 and is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro con brio - The trio begins with a unison statement of the first theme. The rest of the themes in the exposition come one after the other and it is difficult to tell what is a theme and what is transitional material, quite similar to what Mozart did (and Beethoven was a great admirer of Mozart) in some of his expositions. There is a full close that does at least divides the themes into two groupings. The exposition is repeated and with such a wealth of thematic material, it needs to be to help the listener grasp what is going on. The development section begins with one of the secondary themes, with a variant of the opening theme following, along with development of it. The recapitulation consists of some of the secondary themes going through Beethoven's highly individualistic modulations until a short coda is reached that abruptly ends the movement.

II. Adagio - The cello sings the opening theme first, then the clarinet. The piano makes its own statement after the two solos, then the instruments gently play off each other. A most satisfying, gently moving interplay between the three instruments keeps the music moving towards the gentle close done by the piano.

III. Allegretto -  This is a set of variations on a tune from a popular opera of the time, The Corsair In Love by Joseph Weigl, which premiered in 1797. The tune is called Pria ch'io l'impegno - Before beginning this awesome task, I need a snack.  Some credited Beethoven's publisher with suggesting the tune to Beethoven, others credit the idea to a clarinetist that commissioned the work from Beethoven.  Whatever the circumstance, it was one of the few times Beethoven used another composer's music for a set of variations. This tune is the basis for the nickname of the trio, Gassenhauer or Popular Song trio. Beethoven writes nine variations full of surprises on the tune and a quirky finale that is no less surprising.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Rimsky -Korsakov - Capriccio Espagnol

Rimsky-Korsakov composed three brilliantly orchestrated works in 1887-1888; Scheherazade, Russian Easter Festival Overture and the first piece composed, Capriccio Espagnol. The orchestration is colorful and bold, with numerous opportunities for the first-chair players for solos, and the Spanish tunes used are memorable.  

The work is in one continuous movement but consists of 5 different sections:

Albarado - A festive dance celebrating the morning sun opens the work.
Theme and variations - The tune is first played by the horns and then is carried to different instruments of the orchestra.
Albarado -  The same tune as in  the first section, but in a different key.
Scene and gypsy song -  This section begins with five solos by different instruments played over drum rolls that lead into a fast dance in triple time.
 Fandango from the Asturias - A fast and energetic dance that leads to a repeat of the Albarado theme which finishes the work.

Rimsky-Korsakov originally was going to compose a virtuoso work for violin and orchestra on Spanish themes but he changed his mind. Evidently he kept some of the solo violin virtuoso passages and gave them to the concertmaster of the orchestra.

At the premiere of the piece in 1887 with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting, the audience demanded that the entire work be repeated after the first hearing. During rehearsals of the work the orchestra members kept interrupting the rehearsals to applaud the composer.  Even so, Rimsky-Korsakov took exception to positive reactions of the piece that reacted to the orchestration of the piece,while seeming to ignore other aspects of the work. He vented his displeasure in his autobiography:
The opinion formed by both critics and the public, that the Capriccio is a magnificently orchestrated piece - is wrong. The Capriccio is a brilliant composition for the orchestra. The change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for instruments solo, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration. The Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for putting in use multiform orchestral effects. All in all, the Capriccio is undoubtedly a purely external piece, but vividly brilliant for all that. 
It is hard to imagine that Rimsky-Korsakov first had a career in the Russian Navy. He began composing as an untrained amateur and actually was appointed Professor of Practical Composition at the St. Petersburg conservatory despite his lack of even some basic music fundamentals. He managed to stay one step ahead of his students and studied all of these on his own and formed himself into an excellent teacher, master of orchestration, composer and conductor.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Rachmaninoff - Trio Élégiaque No. 1 In G Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote two piano trios within a year of each other, and both were called Trio Élégiaque (elegiac, or mournful trio). The first was written in 1892 when Rachmaninoff was 19 years old. He wrote it in a three-day period, and he was the pianist at the premiere of the work a few days later.  The second trio was written in 1893 shortly after the death of Tchaikovsky, a composer Rachmaninoff admired. So the second trio is actually an elegy in remembrance of Tchaikovsky, but the first was written when Tchaikovsky was in good health the year before.

The first trio is in but one movement, and is modeled somewhat after Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio In A Minor written in 1882, which was written in memory of Tchaikovsky's deceased friend Nicolai Rubinstein. This work made a lasting impression on Rachmaninoff and influenced him greatly when he composed his own trios.

The work opens with the violin and cello slowly and softly playing a repetitive figure that gradually grows in intensity. The piano enters with the theme that dominates the work:

This theme goes through various changes in the twelve sections that make up the trio, and in the end is transformed into a funeral march, as the Tchaikovsky trio does.

Rachmaninoff was still a student when he composed this trio, but he already had the emotional intensity and sense of instrumental color that was to be a part of his future compositions.

On account of it being a student work or its short length (it takes about 15 minutes to perform),  Trio Élégiaque No. 1 In G Minor was not published in Rachmaninoff's lifetime. The first edition appeared in 1947, and the work has no opus number.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Hiller - Piano Concerto No. 2 In F-sharp Minor, Opus 69

Ferdinand Hiller was born in 1811 in Frankfurt am Main to Jewish parents. His natural music ability was recognized early and he had learned his studies well enough by the age of 10 that he performed a Mozart piano concerto in public and wrote his first compositions two years later. His life was a veritable who's who of acquaintances of European music from his early years on. His piano technique grew to be one of the best in all of Europe. 

He met Felix Mendelssohn in 1822 and struck up a friendship that lasted until they had a falling out in 1843. He went on to study with Johann Hummel in Weimar from 1825 to 1827, and when Hummel went to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven, Hiller was with him at the deathbed. While in Vienna, he went with Hummel to hear Franz Schubert and Johann Vogl perform Schubert's Winterreise.  After his time with Hummel he went to Paris for a few years, and then went to Italy as he hoped to write a successful opera. 

In Milan he met and befriended Rossini, and went on to meet and know Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Luigi Cherubini, Charles Valentin-Alkan, and Richard Wagner. Robert Schumann dedicated his Piano Concerto In A Minor to Hiller, and Chopin dedicated the three nocturnes of Opus 15 to him. It was Hiller's personality that allowed him to maintain so many acquaintances of some highly artistically temperamented composers. He was by most accounts a charming man, and after he married his wife Antonka in 1840, their home became a meeting place for musicians and intelligentsia. He was also a teacher, lecturer and writer whose articles were published in many of the musical periodicals of the time. 

Although Hiller had a profound influence on European music as a composer, conductor, pianist, and author, he was not an advocate of the New German School Of Music that was led by Liszt and Wagner. He remained an essentially conservative musician and composer. He was a fine conductor, but avoided playing the works of some of his friends. Perhaps that is one reason that his music was so rapidly forgotten after his death in 1885.  He wrote 3 piano concertos among his other numerous works. 

I. Moderato, ma con energia e con fuoco -  Although Hiller was a somewhat conservative composer, that doesn't mean he didn't have some different ideas on how to meet the challenge of writing a work for soloist and orchestra. His 1st concerto written about 1829 was in the mold of many concertos written by composers/pianist in that the first movement begins with the orchestra presenting the themes of the movement. This 2nd concerto written in about 1843 begins with the piano stating a rhythmic first theme with the orchestra adding a few accents. Another theme emerges after the first, this one of a more lyrical nature. Yet another theme is first stated by the orchestra, and the soloist adds its own decorated version of it. A short development section leads to a return to the first theme and a compression of the exposition as themes are combined and played through until the orchestra reaches a cadence that brings forth a piano solo directly to the next movement. 

II. Andante espressivo - Several lyrical motifs are brought forth in this movement where the soloist is the main attraction. The orchestra accompanies lightly and only a few times carries thematic material, and when it does the piano adds a filigree of an accompaniment. The first theme returns and endswith three quiet chords from the piano. 

III. Allegro con fuoco -  The orchestra begins the movement and the piano enters with the first theme. The piano also presents the second theme as well. The movement consists of these two themes developing and weaving in and out between soloist and orchestra in various keys. The piano has many embellishments that add variety to the themes The movement ends with a flourish from the piano in octaves while the orchestra plays the closing cadence.

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4 In F Minor, Opus 36

For many of the Romantic era composers,  the writing of symphonies presented problems. Especially with the use of sonata form. The great symphonic composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and even Bruckner used themes when they used sonata form while the Romantics used melodies.

What created the problem was the differences between a theme and a melody. A theme can be a short motif, such as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or it can be as long as a Brucknerian theme from one of his symphonies.  It is the character of the theme, the way that it can be changed and developed, that made for the success and utilization of sonata form.  A melody can be beautiful and complete in itself, but not all melodies can be successfully used and developed in sonata form in a symphony.  That is the dilemma that Romantics like Tchaikovsky faced when he began to write symphonies.

Tchaikovsky had a great gift for melody, but he was not the supreme architect like Beethoven who could take a few notes and construct a finely wrought symphonic structure around it. Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies were written in a more strict adherence to sonata form and structure. It wasn't until his 4th symphony that Tchaikovsky wrote a symphony in a very loose symphonic structure.  The 4th was not immediately popular, the premiere of it caused much criticism, probably due to the fact that if a regular concert-goer that was in the audience expected a 'traditional' symphony, they most certainly didn't get one.  But time has proven that Tchaikovsky's way with the symphonic form allowed him to stay more true to his talent. The three symphonies he wrote in this loose form are played way more often than those first three that are closer to tradition.

The 4th Symphony is in the traditional four movements:

I. Andante sostenuto — Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo - The many changes of tempo in this movement tell a great deal about the musical and emotional content of it. This movement alone is longer than the other three put together. The music has vitality and power, with melodies that weave in and out of the loose structure,  melodies that are developed, and some that aren't heard but once.  Tchaikovsky's newly discovered way to write a first movement for a symphony fits his musicianship and temperament very well. There is always drama in Tchaikovsky's music, and this movement runs the length of emotion from calm reserve to borderline hysteria.

II.  Andantino in modo di canzona - A beautiful melody is played and configured, with a central section of reflection on things already heard that builds into climax that is related more to the first movement than this one. The opening melody is heard again and there is more of a darkness to it now than the beginning. The music slowly and gently comes to a quiet close.

III. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro -  One of the most original orchestrations of a master orchestrator, this movement has the strings playing pizzicato throughout. The winds pick up after the opening and play a tune until the brasses interrupt with a marching tune reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's ballet music. The strings return as in the opening, then enter into a dialog with the winds, the music is again interrupted by the marching brass, the pizzicato strings return and end the movement on a quiet note.

IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco - The movement begins with a clash of cymbals and a rollicking tune. After that, Tchaikovsky quotes and old Russian song, In the Field Stood a Birch Tree. The tune is repeated a few times with different instruments, the first theme that began the movement returns until  the orchestra carries on with variants on the old Russian song. A direct quote from the beginning of the first movement interrupts the proceedings and leads back to the opening of the movement. Snatches of the old Russian folk song are heard and the orchestra whips itself into a grand ending.


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Mozart - String Quintet No. 4 In G Minor K.516

A string quintet ensemble is usually made up of a string quartet; two violins, viola and cello, with the addition of another cello or viola.  On occasion a double bass may be one of the extra instruments. The two string quintets Mozart wrote in 1787 have an additional viola added, because reportedly Mozart's favorite stringed instrument to play was the viola.

The pair of quintets are a study in contrast, as the one in C major is of a decidedly more sunny disposition than the one on G minor, a key that seems to be Mozart's key of passion and deep feeling. He wrote the pair of quintets around the time of the composition of his opera Don Giovanni, as well as the final illness of his father.

I. Allegro - The movement begins straight away with a hushed, agitated theme played in the first violin to an accompaniment from the second violin and first viola:
This theme is traded between violin and viola, and is transformed into the second theme, which begins in G minor but shifts to B-flat major. Lesser motives are heard, but the minor mode lurks throughout the exposition. The development section begins with the first theme. It moves from instrument to instrument as the section remains for the most part in the minor mode. The recapitulation has both themes repeated in G minor, The conventions of the time more often as not would have called for the movement to end in the major mode, but Mozart keeps the music solidly in G minor all the way to the end.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto -  The second movement minuet is far removed from the original courtly dance. It is in G minor, and is punctuated by two loud chords heard on the 3rd beat of the 4th and 6th bar:
The trio is in G major, but still has a shade of melancholy over it.

III. Adagio ma non troppo - Played with mutes on all five instruments throughout its length, the third movement is in E-flat major. Mozart's chromatic transition to the second theme in B-flat minor is taken up again as this minor key theme transforms into B-flat major and is repeated. The music delves back into despair once more before the sweetness of E-flat major brings the movement to a close.

IV.  Adagio - Allegro - Mozart begins the final movement in the darkness of G minor once again. But after the music shifts tempo, key to G major in 6/8 time,  The preceding dark movements are balanced out by this rondo, as is in full keeping with the music aesthetic of the Classical era. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Henselt - Piano Concerto In F Minor, Opus 16

 If there was ever a pianist afflicted with compulsive piano practicing, it had to be Adolph von Henselt (1814 - 1889), a German pianist, teacher and composer. He would practice ten  hours a day, read the Bible he had on his piano music stand while he did finger exercises, and when he gave a concert he had a dummy piano offstage to practice on between the selections he played and at intermission.  He practiced so much that he would dampen the strings of his piano with quills so the sound wouldn't get on his nerves.

And a nervous man he was, at least before and during a concert. He had such a bad case of stage fright every time he had to play in public that he would get physically sick. He would have to be pushed out onto the stage to start his recitals, play through the selection and then literally run back off the stage.  He toured extensively in Germany in 1836. He realized that he didn't have the nerves to be a traveling virtuoso, so he settled in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1838. He had previously played there before the Czar, who took a liking to his music and to Henselt.  By the time Henselt had turned 33, his touring days were over. He gave only a handful of concerts after that.

All of the compulsive practice gave Henselt an astounding technique. He was most well known for an incredible hand span on the keyboard. Through diligent (and compulsive) stretching of his hand and fingers his relatively small hands were able to extend a twelfth. His left hand could play the chord C-E-G-C-F without resorting to the use of the pedal or arppegiating the chord. He wrote etudes for the piano in all the major and minor keys, and like Chopin's etudes each one addressed a specific problem of technique.  Much of his reputation was because of these etudes, some of which drove most pianists to despair.

Henselt also composed a few chamber pieces, a piano concerto that Anton Rubinstein finally gave up trying to learn (along with the etudes) because, "it was a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand. In this respect, Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak."

Henselt became a great influence in the musical life of Russia after he moved there.  He spent the rest of his life in St. Petersburg, only leaving occasionally for a trip back to his native Germany.  He taught piano at the conservatory and later became Inspector General of all the music instruction institutions in Russia. He influenced and helped bring about the Russian school of piano playing that was well-represented  by pianists such as Rachmaninoff.  Henselt also gave up his career as a composer early on. After he finished his piano concerto in F minor, he wrote virtually nothing else for the rest of his life.

By all indications, Henselt was a complicated man. He was a terror as a piano teacher as he could tolerate no imperfection or mistakes. Patience was not one of his virtues. But yet he was highly influential and helped create a whole national school of Russian virtuoso piano players.  He composed relatively little, yet his compositions show the talent of a master. He was one of the greatest pianist that ever touched the instrument, and equal of Liszt said some.  Yet he had such a bad case of stage fright that he concertized for only a short time.  He will in many ways remain an enigma. Clara Schumann gave the premiere of the concerto in 1844, with a few other pianists tackling the difficulties for performance. Henselt performed the concerto but rarely. 

I. Allegro patetico - The concerto begins with the orchestra playing themes that will be heard again when the soloist enters, typical of a concerto of this era. The opening orchestral exposition is the only time the piano does not play, thus making stamina an integral part of the writing. Filled with every kind of piano configuration, the music sounds well, a great example of an early Romantic era concerto and many of the difficulties in execution aren't obvious to the listener without a score. Even in the more lyrical parts of the movement, the soloist has to deal with virtuoso piano writing.  After the exposition, parts of the development has the orchestra play a lyrical variant of a theme, after which the piano enters and expands on it. The recapitulation goes through the usual repeat of the themes.  The movement comes to a close in a coda where the piano plays a cascade of descending octaves and the orchestra takes up the first theme that has been transposed to a major key. 

II. Larghetto - The lyrical second movement brings a change of mood to the concerto, but even in the most lyrical passages, Henselt writes mitt-fulls of notes. The middle section of the movement grows more impassioned before the lyricism returns to end the movement with a segue directly to the finale.

III.  Allegro agitato - The entrance of the soloist in this movement is in thundering octaves which leads to the theme of the rondo.

This concerto is an attractive piece of music, and Henselt shows that he was more than an average composer for the orchestra. But it will always be most well known for the horrendously difficult piano part. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Rossini - Bassoon Concerto

 From the years 1812 to 1822 Gioachino Rossini wrote thirty operas, or the average of three every year for ten years. These works were his most popular, and he wrote nine more up to the year of 1829 when his last famous opera, 'William Tell' was written. It was the last opera Rossini was to write, as he went into a forty year retirement. He wrote some music during these last forty years, including in the last ten years of his life a collection of 150 pieces in various forms that he called Péchés de vieillesse, or Sins Of Old Age.  There had been rumors that Rossini had written a bassoon concerto, but it wasn't until the 1990's that a manuscript score was found in a library in Italy of a bassoon concerto which on the front piece states that it was by Rossini.

The story goes that Rossini had written the work for Nazareno Gatti, a bassoon student, for his final examination.  Rossini was an advisor at the music school in Bologna where Gatti attended, but scholars aren't sure how much Rossini was involved with writing the concerto. He may have sketched it out for someone else to finish, as he did with many of his compositions during his retirement. Some say Gatti finished it, or Gatti may have wrote the entire work and put Rossini's name to it. In any event, scholars agree it was written in the 1840's and in the style of Rossini. If it truly was written by Rossini, it would represent his final work for orchestra, as the aforementioned Péchés de vieillesse were chamber works or solo piano.

I. Allegro - The work opens in the key of B-flat major with the orchestra stating the themes of the movement as per usual in a concerto, especially this movement that is built more in Classical era form and techniques than Romantic.  The bassoon enters and plays  the first theme along with punctuations of the low registers of the instrument. The orchestra begins the second theme with light pizzicato violins. The clarinets play along with the soloist and the music goes into the development section.  The soloist gets a chance to show off the instrument and after the recapitulation a short coda allows the bassoon to reach the heights and depths of its range as the music comes to a close.

II. Largo - The music shifts from B-flat major to C minor, a key quite distant from B-flat major.  In this lyrical movement the bassoon sings as if it is a soloist in a scene from an opera. The tonal range of the movement showcases the bassoons unique timbre changes in its registers. The movement ends with dramatic tremoloes in the strings as the music fades away.

III. Rondo - The plethora of notes for the soloist doesn't let up in the finale, nor their extreme ranges. The music is in the key of F major, something different than many concertos of this time as it isn't in the same key of the first movement. The title page of the manuscript states that it is a Concerto da Esperimento , or an Examination Concerto. The music truly is a test for the soloists technical and musical abilities. The question of its authorship not withstanding, this concerto is a fine representation of what the bassoon can do in the hands of a virtuoso, and is a valuable addition to the repertoire. 


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Debussy - Première Rhapsodie For Clarinet And Orchestra

 In 1909 the Director of the Paris Conservatoire Gabriel Fauré appointed Debussy to the Board Of Directors. This position obligated Debussy to compose test pieces for Conservatoire students and be an adjudicator in examinations. His first duties in this post were to write two pieces for the clarinet department examinations, as well as be on the panel of judges. 

Debussy wrote the shorter Petit Pièce and the longer Première Rhapsodie in 1910, both for clarinet with piano accompaniment. Evidently Debussy was not looking forward to listening to a class of clarinetists playing the two pieces over and over again, but as it turned out Debussy was delighted with the experience and how well his pieces sounded as he wrote in a letter to his publisher:

“The clarinet competitions went extremely well, and, to judge by the expressions on the faces of my colleagues, the Rhapsodie was a success.”

Prospère Mimart

The success of the piece suggested that it was more than a student examination piece, so Debussy made an orchestrated version in 1911. It was dedicated to the professor of clarinet at the Paris Conservatoire Prospère Mimart, who also premiered the orchestral version in 1911. It has remained one of the most played pieces for clarinet solo in the repertoire ever since, and is still heard in clarinet examinations in the piano accompanied version. 

The piece is in free form, true to the name of rhapsody, and offers many technical challenges for the soloist in breath, endurance, and range. It is a piece for a advanced student or a professional clarinetist. Debussy fulfilled  the requirements of an examination piece as the work covers all aspects of a virtuoso technique and musicality, while also writing a musical piece that the music lover who knows nothing about clarinet technique can enjoy. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 32 In C Minor Opus 111

The piano played a key role in the life of Beethoven. It was as a young virtuoso that he made his first mark in his adopted home of Vienna.  As he played in the salons and homes of his patrons, his reputation as a pianist grew. His skill as a improviser was unmatched, his contemporaries called him the greatest improviser of his era.

It was a natural thing for Beethoven to compose for the piano. Not that it came to him easily. We have proof in the form of his sketchbooks how he would mull things over on paper and in his mind until the composition was as he wanted it, polishing and perfecting.  The thirty two piano sonatas he wrote are part of the core piano repertoire and music in general. They hold a vast mount of musical ideas, challenges for playing and interpretation, and the sheer variety and range of emotion contained within them dictate that they will remain part of the core repertoire. If Beethoven had written nothing but these 32 sonatas, chances are he would still be regarded as a great composer.

Beethoven wrote his final sonata in 1821-1822, twenty seven years from the writing of his first, but there is more than years that separate the two. The first sonata is full of youthful exuberance, is in four movements, and shows flashes of originality and brilliance while still maintaining at least a passing nod to the sonata structures of Haydn and Mozart.

The last sonata sees a Beethoven that has weathered much, learned much, and progressed much. The work is in two movements, the first being written in raw-sinewed, sprawling sonata form that has a short introduction that Chopin paid tribute to in the opening of his 2nd piano sonata (Beethoven's 32nd piano sonata was a favorite of Chopin's). it also has a first theme that is deep and ominous  that is given a fugal treatment in the middle of the movement. The second movement is an Arrietta and variations that take piano writing to new heights and sounds. From the jazz-sounding section to the cosmic trills near the end of the work, Beethoven transcends the instrument and writes music of a purity that is rare and beautiful. 

When it is remembered that Beethoven was almost totally deaf when he composed this sonata, we can only marvel at the precision and clarity of his 'mind's ear' that created something so beautiful, had the wherewithal to write it down in such a precise way, without ever actually 'hearing' it.  Just look at the two lines of music for one of the Arietta variations printed below:

The variations end with sustained trills that accompany the theme as the music slowly winds down and ends.

Handel - Organ Concerto In G Minor Opus 4, No. 1 HWV 298

Handel's fame during his life was based on his abilities as a performer as well as his success as a composer.  There is the legend of his participating in a contest with Domenico Scarlatti for bragging rights concerning their performing abilities. Tradition has it that while Scarlatti was chosen as the winner on the harpsichord, Handel was chosen as having even greater abilities on the organ. Scarlatti himself is thought to have said that Handel was the first person that ever showed him the potential of the organ.

Be that truth or fiction, Handel was definitely a virtuoso on the organ, which Handel decided to use to his advantage.  Opera in 18th century London was the rock concert of its day. With audiences dividing into different camps for different composers and singers,  opera companies would vie for the most popular singers to ensure that the box office would sell out. Handel's direct competition at the time was a rival opera company that had just hired the famous castrato singer Farinelli, who was setting the London opera scene on its ear. Handel himself tried to secure Farinelli's services for his opera company, but when he couldn't meet his price, Farinelli's singing lured so many people away from Handel's operas that it threatened to bankrupt him.

Handel first played the G minor organ concerto in a performance of his choral work Alexander's Feast in 1736. It was shortly after this in 1737 that Handel suffered a stroke that temporarily cost him the use of his right hand and arm. He was recovering from this until May of the same year when he had a relapse. All of the symptoms vanished after he took the waters at the spa town of Aachen in Germany.

The concerto begins with a slow, stately movement that has two main themes that are developed freely with the organ answering the orchestra in decorated replies. There follows an allegro movement that continues the decorative organ responses to the orchestra with different themes. The short adagio leads to a minuet and two variations.

The Handel organ concertos are a milestone in the development of the keyboard concertos of the Classic and Romantic ages.  While there are many examples of concertos for violin and other instruments before Handel and Bach's time, it is Handel and Bach that set the stage for the concerto for solo keyboard and orchestra that gave Mozart and Beethoven notoriety as virtuoso performers.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Haydn - Symphony 82 in C Major, 'The Bear'

Joseph Haydn was Kappelmeister for almost thirty years for the affluent Esterházy family at their isolated and remote estate in Hungary.  "I was cut off from the world. There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original," Haydn has been quoted as saying.  He composed endlessly for his patrons at the estate, was in charge of the care and upkeep of the instruments, lead the orchestra, played in chamber music groups, and lead the production of operas at the estate. 

Haydn's fame as a composer grew despite his isolation, and he was granted permission from his employers to accept commissions for works from others. Haydn's works were known in France, and a group led by Claude-François-Marie Rigoley in Paris commissioned six symphonies from Haydn for the orchestra Le Concert de la loge Olympique (Orchestra of the 'Olympic' {Masonic} Lodge). This was one of the largest and most famous orchestras of the time, and Haydn did not disappoint as all six symphonies were very well received.   The first numbered of these symphonies was number 82 in C Major, 'The Bear' (L'Ours in French). 

I. Vivace assai -  Haydn took delight in writing for such large forces, as the Paris Orchestra is said to have had 40 violins alone, while Haydn's usual forces at the Esterházy family estate usually numbered no more than a total of 25 of all instruments. Haydn begins with a robust theme that outlines the C major chord in repeated notes in the strings. Haydn gave the option of playing this symphony with two horns, or two trumpets, or two of each. As usual, the second theme is in the dominant key, in this case G major, and is played by 1st violins and flute with a light staccato accompaniment by the 2nd violins and a drone of one note played by a solo bassoon.  The development goes through differing keys through scraps of each main theme until the recapitulation is reached. The first theme is sounded, and makes its way to a modulation of the second theme to C major as well. This time the theme is heard in the 1st violins and solo bassoon that plays high in its register. The drone notes are played by the two horns. The movement is rounded out with a short coda in the home key and ends with a flourish as it began.

II. Allegretto - Haydn eschews a slow movement for a double variation, which he was very fond of as he used the form many times. Double variation form is like a theme and variations, but it has two themes that are varied. The first theme is in F major. The second theme is in F minor. These two themes alternate with each other, and each time they are heard changes are made. Sometimes in instrumentation, sometimes in small details. The first theme finally wins out and the movement ends with a fragment of it quietly played. 

III. Menuet e trio - In the third movement, Haydn bows to the grace of the French dance,  with punctuations added by the timpani. The trio showcases the winds, no doubt to the delight of the French audience and the orchestra players. 

IV. Finale: Vivace - This is the movement that gave the symphony it's nickname, for the droning strings reminded contemporary audiences of the dancing bears that would 'dance' to music from bagpipes. Bears were stolen from their mothers when small cubs, and trained to dance for the amusement of people (especially royalty) and for the fortune of their owners. To say it was a miserable existence for the bear is an understatement. 

History does not say who gave the music the name, as Haydn didn't give nicknames to any of his works. But it does convey the feeling of the steady beat of the bagpipe drone, and the rustic atmosphere that was part of this kind of music. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Brahms - Symphony No. 4 In E Minor Opus 98

Johannes Brahms was one of the first master composers that was also a musicologist. He especially enjoyed studying and analyzing the works of the Baroque masters Handel and Bach. Brahms combined the forms from the Baroque era and the opulence of the Romantic era into some of his compositions, with the 4th symphony being a good example.

Brahms came late to symphony writing, as he was forty two when his first symphony was written and performed in 1876. He wrote three more by 1885 and although he lived another thirteen years, he wrote no more symphonies.  

His fourth symphony is the culmination of all he learned while writing the first three, and he instills the symphony with a range of powerful emotions that prove that no matter his conservative leanings, Brahms was a product of the Romantic era as much as any other composer.

The 4th symphony has four movements: 

I. Allegro non troppo - The strings begin with a restless two-note motive that appears throughout the movement. The restless nature of the music continues until the drama and intensity grow into a thundering final cadence and the movement comes to a tragic close.

II. Andante moderato - A  melancholy melody gently plays through the remains of the previous tragedy. It is not so much a restful respite, but a gentle reminder that things are what they are, and we must bear them with grace and dignity.

III. Allegro giocoso - A scherzo in all but name, Brahms rough-house humor comes through in this movement, notable for the of a triangle which was very unusual for Brahms. The scherzo offers an extended break from seriousness, and considering what follows was much needed for the sake of contrast.

IV. Allegro energico e passionato - The tragedy of the first movement is extended in the finale. Brahms chose to cast the music in the form of a passacaglia, one of the Baroque forms that he had studied. The thirty two variations contained within the movement are based on a base line from a Bach cantata, Number 150 Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich,  (I Long To Be Near You, Lord). . Brahms states the harmonized bass line in woodwinds and brass to begin the movement:

The variations go through many guises, transformations and workings, but the bass line is always present in one form or another. Sometimes the bass line is felt more than heard, but it is there, like a truth of life that can be felt and heard but not explained.  Unlike the similar chaconne, a passacaglia can have the bass line move in any voice, not just the bass, and Brahms does just that. It is music that moves to the end without resolving of life. All we know is that we've been on a journey, and that just may be the important thing.