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.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Hindemith - Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

 Paul Hindemith was a prolific composer, teacher, conductor and violist. Hindemith had played 2nd violin in other quartets until after World War One, when he switched to the viola. He formed and played with the Amar Quartet from 1921 until 1933, and was considered one of the world's premiere violists. 

Some of his compositions were played at a contemporary music festival in Salzburg in 1922 and as a result was beginning to be noticed internationally. He became an organizer of another music festival in Germany and had some works by Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg performed. With the rise the Hitler regime, Hindemith's music was being labeled as degenerate by some high-ranking Nazi officials while others disagreed. His music continued to vacillate in and out of favor. Hindemith had been Professor at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik in Berlin since 1927, and with continuing pressure from Joseph Goebbels to resign from the school, he accepted an invitation from the Turkish government to go to Ankara in 1935 to help reorganize musical education in that country. He also had a tour of The United States in the 1930's as a viola soloist. By 1938, Hindemith had decided to emigrate to Switzerland with his wife, who had Jewish ancestry. 

He went to The United States in 1940 and began teaching at Yale University and became a U.S. citizen in 1946. He went back to Europe in 1953 and taught at the university in Zürich until her retired from teaching in 1957, but continued to conduct and compose up to his death in 1963.

Hindemith's music went through different phases, from late romanticism of his first works to a highly contrapuntal style later on. He composed in all musical forms and combinations of instruments, some of them quite unique. Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber was first suggested to him as a ballet taken from the music of Carl Maria von Weber, an early romantic - era composer.  When the project fell through, Hindemith wrote the Symphonic Metamorphosis in 1943. 

The work is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro -  Hindemith took the themes and the structure of the themes and kept them relatively the same, while harmonies, textures, and most everything else was fair game for change. The themes he used came from works that were originally written for piano, so the orchestration is all Hindemith. This first movement's themes came from a Piano Duet For Four Hands, Opus 60, No. 4 ,and consists of two themes, the first of which is:

Hindemith underlines the militaristic march feeling of the theme with the orchestration and the subtle changes of harmony. 

II. Scherzo: (Turandot) -  Moderato - Lively -  This movement uses the theme from Weber's incidental music to the play Turandot, Opus 37. The legend of Turandot that inspired the play was the same legend that inspired Puccini's unfinished opera of the same name.The theme is taken from the overture: 

The theme is repeated numerous times, and Hindemith treats each repetition in a different style,  with an exceptionally creative one has the percussion play off one another. Not surprisingly from an accomplished musical theorist and contrapuntalist, Hindemith uses counterpoint as well. The music grows into a more modern repetition before the music ends in a simple, quiet chord. 

III. Andantino - The third movement is more lyrical and serves as a contrast to the scherzo. The woodwinds are highlighted with solos as they are accompanied by complex harmonies in smooth and mellow music.

IV. Marsch -  The final movement is from Opus 60, N0. 7, the same collection that the first movement came from. The movement begins with the brass playing the first measures:

The music grows more and more intense with each repetition, with an undercurrent of near menace until the middle section in the major is first heard in the horns. Textures and harmonies grow more complex, and the opening music repeats in subdued dynamic initially, but the orchestra's brass roar out the middle section again. The opening motive is heard one more time and the music comes to a rousing finish.  Hindemith got all that he could from the themes he used,  and the work shows Hindemith's skill and talent for orchestration as well as developing a theme.