Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Handel - Messiah

When Charles Jennens gave his libretto of Messiah to George Handel in 1741, he would have no idea that almost 300 years later the oratorio would still be performed and continue to be one of the most famous and popular works for chorus and soloists.  Jennens came from a wealthy landowning family in England who was also a patron of the arts. He was a writer, Bible scholar, and had such a good knowledge of music that he complained about Handel's setting of the text:
Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d... ‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.
Eventually Handel (known for his stubbornness, which was probably intensified by Jenner's inflated ego) made some of the changes suggested by Jenner after the first English performance of the oratorio in 1743. The premiere of the work was given in Dublin, Ireland  during the winter concert season of 1741-1742. The proceeds of the Dublin premiere were given to charity, a practice that continued with every performance of Messiah throughout Handel's lifetime. In England the proceeds were given to The Foundling Hospital in London, and Handel bequeathed a copy of his score to the hospital upon his death.

The 250-plus pages of the score to Messiah were written in 24 days, quite a feat but not out of the ordinary for Handel and other Baroque era composers. Most music that was publicly performed at the time was new music, and the demand was high, so many composers wrote fast and reused their own music as well as the music of others.  The scoring of the work was also done according to the practice of the times, with parts for violins, violas and cellos, figured bass, 4-part chorus and soloists. But additional instruments would double some of the parts at performances when they were available, and not every set piece was included in every performance, thus there can never be a definitive performance of Messiah, but recent musical scholarship has allowed for accurate performances within the musical traditions and practices of the time.  

Messiah has been performed as a sacred piece as well as a work of the concert hall. Jennens and Handel most likely intended it for an evening's entertainment, as were most oratorios of the time. As a complete performance of  Messiah can last two and a half hours, it certainly takes up a full evening.  Hopefully the audience attending Messiah acted better than the typical opera audiences of the time that talked, yelled at each other, booed and cheered singers and kept up a general ruckus throughout the opera. Messiah is divided into three main parts:

1) Sinfony
As oratorios were in many ways unstaged operas, the convention of an overture was used. Here Handel calls it a Sinfony, and it is written in the style of a French overture. It begins with a slow section with double dotted notes in a minor key. The second section is a fugue in a slightly faster tempo.
2) Tenor recitative
Messiah is different from most oratorios as there are no assigned roles to the soloists, and no characters. The words of the King James Version of the Bible are used throught the work, and the first part begins with the foretelling of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament, and then celebrates the birth of Messiah in the New Testament.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God:
speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth  in the wilderness:
prepare ye the way of the Lord,make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

3) Tenor air
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill
made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

4) Chorus
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

5) Bass recitative
This selection for bass shows Handel's flair for emphasizing the text. He makes use of melisma, the technique of using many notes on one part or syllable of a word. The word shake is literally shaken by the soloist:
Handel makes continual use of tone painting to enhance the text, no doubt one of the many reasons why the oratorio remains so popular.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; yet once in a little while, and I will shake the
heav'ns and the earth, the sea, the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire
of all nations shall come.
The Lord whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,
ev'n the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in, behold, he shall come,
saith the Lord of hosts.

6) Alto recitative
But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth.
For he is like a refiner's fire.

7) Chorus
And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may
offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness.

8) Alto recitative
Behold, a virgin shall concieve and bear a son,
and shall call his name Emmanuel,
God with us.

9) Alto air and chorus
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain;
o thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah; behold your God
Arise, shine for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen above thee.

10) Bass recitative
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people;
but the Lord shall rise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee,
And the gentiles shall come to they light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

11) Bass air
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined.

12) Chorus
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God,
the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

13) Pastoral Symphony
A short orchestral interlude that gives the feeling of sheep contentedly grazing, and begins the section of the birth of Messiah

14a) Soprano recitative
There were sheperds, abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.

14b) Soprano recitative

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone
round about them, and they were sore afraid.

15) Soprano recitative
And the angel said unto them fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings
of great joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the
city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

16) Soprano recitative
And suddenly there was with the angel a
multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying:

17) Chorus
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.

18) Soprano air
Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion, shout,
o daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy king cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous Saviour, and he shall speak peace unto the heathen.

19) Alto recitative
Thou shall see the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.

20) Alto air
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm
and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.

21) Chorus
His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The second part deals with the life, death and rising from the dead of Messiah.
22) Chorus
Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.

23) Alto air
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to them
that plucked off the hair, he hid not his face from shame and spitting.

24) Chorus
Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities,
the chastisement of our peace was upon him.

25) Chorus
And with his striped we are healed.

26) Chorus
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.
And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

27) Tenor recitative
All they that see him laugh him to scorn;
they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads saying:

28) Chorus
He trusted in God that he would deliver him:
let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

29) Tenor recitative
Thy rebuke hath broken his heart, he is full of heaviness:
he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man,
neither found he any, to comfort him.

30) Tenor air
Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.

31) Tenor recitative
He was cut off out of the land of the living,
for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken.

32) Tenor air
But thou didst not leave his soul in hell
nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.

33) Chorus
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

34) Tenor recitative
Unto which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my Son,
this day I have begotten thee?

35) Chorus
Let all the angels of God worship him.

36) Bass air
Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive,
and received gifts for men, yea even for thine enemies,
that the Lord God might dwell among them.

37) Chorus
The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.

38) Soprano air
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace,
and bring glad tidings of good things.

39) Chorus
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.

40) Bass air
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Anointed.

41) Chorus
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from them.

42) Tenor recitative
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn:
the Lord shall ave them in derision.

43) Tenor air
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
thou shalt dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel.

44) Chorus
One of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written, the Hallelujah chorus is a supreme example of what Beethoven called Handel's genius as, "He created the greatest effect with the smallest of means."

Hallelujah, for the God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
and he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

The final part of the oratorio deals with the Christian promise for the believer on the second coming of Christ.

45) Soprano air
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

46) Chorus
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam we all die, even so in Christ shall all be made live.

47) Bass recitative
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

48) Bass air
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must be put in incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

49) Alto recitative
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
death is swallowed up in victory.

50) Duet, alto and tenor
O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory?
The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law.

51) Chorus
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the
victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

52) Soprano air
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?
It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?
It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is at the
right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.

53) Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth on the throne,
and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Debussy - Nuit d'étoiles (Starry Night)

Claude Debussy is most well known for his works written for piano solo. But he wrote around 55 songs for voice and piano throughout his career as well.  His first published work was in fact a song, Nuit d'étoiles (Starry Night), written to the text of a poem by Théodore de Banville, a French poet and writer of the 19th century.

Debussy wrote the song in 1880 when he was 18 years old. The song is a very good representation of Debussy's early works as well as how nature and literature inspired the young composer.  The original poem has 4 stanzas, but Debussy chose to omit the third one.  The piano accompaniment imitates the lyre mentioned in the first stanza while the voice tells the story of lost love.

Théodore de Banville

Starry Night 
Théodore de Banville
Starry night, under your veils,
under your night air and scents,
With a sad sighing lyre,
I dream of dead loves.

The serene melancholy bursts from
deep in my heart,
And I hear the soul of my love
Tremble in the deep woods.

I remember the fountain,
your blue eyes like the sky,
your breath like roses,
and your eyes like the stars.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Haydn - Symphony No. 47 In G Major Hob. I/47 'Palindrome'

Joseph Haydn worked as a hand to mouth free-lance composer after he was dismissed as a chorister when his voice broke in 1749. His circumstances became more secure when he was hired as Kappellmeister by Count Moritz, a member of the Austrian aristocracy, in 1756. This employment lasted until the Count's finances dried up in 1761 and he had to dismiss his musicians. By this time Haydn had made enough of a name for himself that Prince Paul Anton, the head of the wealthy Esterházy family, hired him as Assistant Kappellmeister. Haydn was hired as full Kappellmeister in 1766. Haydn remained as a full-time employee of the Esterházy family until 1790 when he was offered a salary and a pension, still in the employ of the family but with the freedom to travel and live where he chose.

Haydn's duties as Kappellmeister were many. He must have been a very well-organized and disciplined person, as he was responsible for anything that pertained to music. Among his responsibilities were the hiring, training and firing of musicians, upkeep and maintenance of the musical instruments, acquiring and maintaining the musical library, the staging of operas, rehearsing and conducting the orchestra as well as playing the organ and keyboard.  And on top of all  that, he was also expected to compose music. Operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music (including 175 chamber compositions for various instrument combinations that included the Prince's instrument of choice, the Baryton, a type of bowed gamba with an extra set of plucked strings).  While he was highly respected, he was still considered a member of the servant staff and wore a livery uniform. By contemporary accounts, Haydn's temperament was mild. He was humble by nature, subservient to his employers and had a good sense of humor. He was fair with the musicians in his charge which led them to respect him. The only recorded flaw in his character was greed. After he was allowed to accept commissions for compositions from other patrons besides the Esterházy family, his concern was to make as much money as he could the best way that he could. But looked at a different way, Haydn may not have been greedy so much as wanting to build up financial security after he had suffered from poverty in his earlier years.

His 47th Symphony in G Major was written about 1772, a time when his imagination and craftsmanship worked together to create a symphonic style that was to set the standard for symphonic composition. The symphony is in 4 movements and is considered one if his Sturm und Drang symphonies, although Haydn never used the term himself. The nickname 'palindrome' comes from the 3rd movement minuet which is discussed below:

I. Allegro - The first theme resembles a march and is announced by the dotted rhythms of the horns. The second subject by contrast is free from the dotted rhythm and flows more readily. The exposition is repeated. The development section has the march theme dominate, and by the use of key changes it grows more passionate and tense. The second theme is commented on and leads to the recapitulation. Here Haydn throws the listener a curve, for instead of the first theme appearing in the major key of the beginning, it appears in a minor key. The second theme is played in the home key and as was customary in this era, the section is repeated.

II. Un poco adagio cantabile - A set of 4 variations on a theme in  invertible counterpoint, an example of Haydn's mastery of counterpoint that he learned by studying the music of C.P.E. Bach and working his way through the counterpoint exercises of Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux.

III. Menuetto e trio,  Menuetto al Roverso - The movement that gives this symphony its nickname. A palindrome is a word, phrase, or number that reads the same backward or forward. In this case, it is music that is played forwards, then backwards. The minuet is in two parts, and Haydn directs the musicians to play each part twice to the double bar, then twice in reverse. The trio is directed to do the same:
Haydn pulls off a piece of subtle musical trickery, kind of an inside joke that wouldn't be detected by the casual listener. Through the use of accents and the melodies themselves, Haydn accomplishes his inside joke while making the music make sense. This movement was supposedly a favorite of Mozart's.

IV. Presto assai - A fast-paced movement with a sprinkling of dissonance to good effect. A rousing finale to a unique symphony.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Purcell - Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary

The English-born Henry Purcell is part of a group of composers that made their mark in music and died before the age of 40, as he died at the age of 36 in 1695.  Purcell brought his gifts to music mainly through songs, anthems, incidental music for the theater and opera. His first known composition was dated 1670 when he was 11 years old, and he continued to compose up until the time of his death.

Music For The Funeral Of Queen Mary was written upon the death of Queen Mary, the daughter of James II, King Of England. She had been married to William Of Orange of the Netherlands in 1677 as a way to patch up differences between the two countries. After James II had tried to return England to Catholicism, William and Mary (both Protestants) were invited to invade England by the members of parliament that were against King James II. The result was that in 1688 William sailed to England in over 400 ships and with 14,000 troops. He marched on London and gathered more and more local support the farther he went. The peaceful change of rule came to be known as the Glorious Revolution and the couple were crowned in 1689 as King William III and Queen Mary II.

William III made most of the decisions for the country as King, but when her husband was out of the country fighting the ongoing war with France, she proved herself an intelligent and capable ruler. She was a very popular ruler, and when she died in 1694 of smallpox, her husband and the nation went into mourning.  Her funeral was the first of any royal that was attended by both House of Parliament. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Purcell wrote new music based on previously written compositions for the Funeral Music For Queen Mary.  Purcell wrote the work for the usual four voiced choir of soprano, alto, tenor and bass; 4 flatt trumpets (in essence a slide trumpet that could play in minor keys), organ and basso continuo. Modern performances include timpani, which may or may not have been used when the music was played at the funeral.

The performance of the work in the link below is comprised of seven parts:

1) The Queen's Funeral March, Sounded Before Her Chariot -  The most well known part of the funeral music. The four trumpets play the march the first time quietly with the timpani adding muffled accents. The march is repeated at a higher volume, along with sparse ornaments in the trumpets.

2) Man That Is Born Of A Woman - The texts for the anthem is taken from the Common Book Of Prayer of the Church Of England
Man that is born of a woman
hath but a short time to live,
and is full of misery. He cometh up,
and is cut down like a flower;
he fleeth as it were a shadow,
and ne'er continueth in one stay.

3) Canzona - A short interlude for instruments only. The canzona was developed from various other forms and was used in the 16th and 17th centuries.

4) In The Midst Of Life We Are In Death -
Queen Mary II
In the midst of life we are in death:
of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord, O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains
of eternal death.

5) Canzona - The previous short interlude is repeated.

6) Thou knowest, Lord
Thou knowest, Lord,
the secrets of our hearts;
shut not thy merciful ears
unto our pray'rs; but spare us, Lord most holy,
O God most mighty.
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
thou most worthy Judge eternal,
suffer us not, at our last hour,
for any pains of death, to fall from thee. Amen.

7) The Queen's Funeral March - The peaceful amen just sung is brought into perspective with the repeat of the mournful march.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Haydn - Symphony No. 44 In E Minor 'Trauer' Hob. I/44

Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 44 was written in 1772, and the nickname of the symphony translates to 'mourning'. The symphony was written in Haydn's sturm und drang (storm and stress) period. He had been in the employ as Kapellmeister of the royal Esterhazy family since 1766, and some of the symphonies he wrote between 1766 and 1772 show how much Haydn was experimenting (with the full consent of his royal patron). The two minor key symphonies of this time No. 49 'La Passsione' and  No. 44 'Trauer' are especially expressive, dramatic and different. Haydn wrote a total of seven minor key symphonies in seven years in a time when minor keys were seldom used as the home key for a symphony.  They are evidence that Haydn had a stormier side to his musical nature, at least in his younger days.

Symphony No. 44 has 4 movements:
I. Allegro con brio - The movement begins with a 4-note motif that is heard throughout the movement in various keys and guises. Haydn was very adept at constructing an entire movement from a short motif, and it is one part of his style that Beethoven his student must have admired as he used the same technique in some of his music.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto,canon in diapason - Here Haydn reverses the order of the inner movements and balances the first and third movement's emotions and moods with a minuet. But it is not a typical minuet of the time. First off, it is in the same key as the opening movement. In fact, the first, second and third movements of the symphony have the same home key of E minor. Haydn also writes the minuet in canon; the first measure is heard in the higher strings, the lower strings enter one bar later while the upper strings continue. The low strings remain one bar behind, even lagging two bars behind in one section, until the trio which is very short.

III. Adagio - If tradition is to believed,  Haydn himself gave the symphony the nickname 'mourning', in no small part because of this movement. Haydn must have had a real liking for this music, as later in life he requested that it be played at his funeral.  The key is E major, the melody is played in muted violins and is not a funeral dirge by any means. It is gentle, graceful music that perhaps reflects Haydn's deeply Catholic religious views about death.

IV. Finale: Presto - The theme of this movement is first heard in unison from the orchestra and careens through the entire movement at a fast pace. The drama stated in the first movement is intensified in this very rapid Haydn finale until the music finally halts with two loud chords.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach - 'Gaelic' Symphony In E Minor

For most of the history of music, composing was essentially an exclusive male endeavor.  Women could be performers, but mostly in drawing rooms and parlors. The thought of a woman writing anything more serious than piano tunes and songs for the parlor was thought to be unfeminine. There were women composers throughout history nonetheless, but in a world dominated by men, few had the opportunity to have their music performed or published.  In the last quarter of the 19th century a woman composer of serious art music came on the scene in the United States.  She was born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867 and she was a music child prodigy. By the age of four she could play hymns at the piano from memory after hearing them only once, and wrote her first compositions. She also taught herself to read at the same age, and at age six she began formal piano lessons with her mother. A year later she was playing in public music by Beethoven, Chopin, and her own compositions. She made her professional debut in Boston in 1883 and also played as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra the same year.

She married prominent Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885 at age 19.  She acquiesced to her husband's request to severely limit her concert appearances, but he encouraged her to compose.  After her marriage she was known (at her insistence) as Mrs. H.H.A Beach. After the successful performance of her Mass In E-flat Major in 1892 she was accepted as an American composer of the first rank.  After her husband's death in 1910, she resumed her concert pianist career by touring Europe and was acclaimed there as a performer and composer.

Beach wrote the Gaelic Symphony in 1894-1896 and the work was influenced by Antonín Dvořák's 9th Symphony 'From The New World', although Beach rejected the notion that American composers needed to use African American and Native American folks songs for inspiration. She had this to say about Dvořák's symphony:
"The symphony as a whole made a far better impression on me than at its first performance last year. It is interesting throughout, the machinery of it admirably managed, the orchestral and harmonic coloring done by a master. It seems to me light in calibre, however, and to represent only the peaceful, sunny side of the negro character and life. Not for a moment does it suggest their suffering, heartbreaks, slavery."
Beach chose Irish folk tunes as the basis for her symphony. Although not all of the themes used in her symphony are true Irish folk tunes,  her original themes are based on and influenced by Irish tunes. The symphony was premiered in 1896 and played four more times by the Boston orchestra and was also played in other cities across the country. The Gaelic Symphony was the first symphony written by a American woman composer and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - The first movement is in sonata form with the first and second themes being taken from Beach's own song of 1892 Dark is the Night. The first theme is in the tempo of a march. The second theme is more lyrical. The final theme of the exposition is an Irish jig called Connor O'Reilly of Clounish. The development section uses the first two themes only. The recapitulation is ushered in by a solo clarinet. The recapitulation uses the same themes in the same order as the beginning. Beach wraps up the first movement with an impressive summing up of the main themes in the coda.

II. Alla siciliana - Allegro vivace - Andante -  An Irish tune is heard on the oboe in a gently rocking tempo, after which the music increases in tempo written in 2/4 time instead of the usual 3/4 time of a scherzo. After the ever-moving scherzo section, the music returns to the opening mood and pace. This movement is a reverse scherzo, the fast-moving scherzo sections and trio sections trade places. After the second playing of the andante, the scherzo reappears briefly to end the movement.

III. Lento con molto espressione - This movement is in sonata form and uses two Irish songs. The first is played by solo cello and violin, the second by brass and the orchestra. Both themes are developed at length. The recapitulation recalls the themes, the first in the bass clarinet, cello and violin, the second by strings and woodwind. The movement ends with the bass clarinet and strings.

IV. Allegro di molto -  The last movement is also in sonata form and consists of two themes that are based on Beach's original themes from the first movement. The first a spirited dance, the second played in the low strings is more lyrical. The development section uses both themes played in different keys. The recapitulation has the first theme repeated in E minor while the second theme is repeated in E major. The brass section ends the symphony on a note of triumph.

While Beach received solid training as a pianist, she only had one year of instruction in harmony and counterpoint and no formal training in orchestration at all. As a composer she was self-taught, a fact that is made all the more amazing after hearing her Gaelic Symphony 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Alice Mary Smith - Symphony In C Minor

In the 19th century, the only types of music considered suitable by the musical establishment (a male-exclusive entity) for women to write were short piano pieces and songs for the drawing room. Larger scale chamber music and orchestral music was considered un-lady like and were rarely performed. But with the help and encouragement of her teachers William Sterndale Bennett and George McFarren (both devoted to Felix Mendelssohn's music), Alice Mary Smith went on to write not only piano pieces and songs, but chamber music and large scale works for orchestra.

Born in London in 1839 to a well to do family, Smith showed a talent for music early on. Her family was financially able to have her study music privately with the above mentioned teachers. Her first work to be published was a song titled Weep No More!, and her first large composition was a Piano Quartet performed in 1861.  She continued to compose and was elected Female Professional Associate of the Philharmonic Society. She was married to Frederick Meadows White in 1867 and did not compose any major works for a few years as she concentrated on her two daughters. Her husband was an amateur musician that encouraged her to begin composing again, which she did in 1869.

Smith joined the Musical Society of London in 1861, an organization of contemporary composers who as members gained the opportunity of hearing their works in performance. The Symphony In C Minor, written when she was 24, was played at one of these concerts in 1863. A review of the concert appeared in the Illustrated London News:
On the same evening, at the Hanover-square Rooms, the Musical society of London had a trial-performance of new orchestral compositions by members of the society. Several symphonies and overtures were performed by a full and excellent orchestra, which did them every justice. Amongst the most remarkable was a symphony in C minor by Miss Alice Mary Smith and a symphony in A minor by Mr. John Francis Barnett, both admirable compositions, which did honour to the talents of their authors.  Miss Smith's symphony especially, coming from the pen of a young lady, was striking proof of the sound studies and high attainments of the female votaries of the art in this country. We trust that these symphonies will be brought before the public in the course of the ensuing season. 
Symphony In C Minor is scored for woodwinds in pairs, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings. It is in four movements:

I. Grave - Allegro ma non troppo - With Smith having been taught by two advocates of Mendelssohn's music, Smith used Mendelssohn's symphonies as models  The movement begins with a melancholy introduction that is followed by a tempo increase and a 4-bar lead in to the first theme played by the violas.
This short motive in C minor is passed up through the strings before it is expanded. Other instruments take it up until a section of transition brings forth the second theme in E-flat major played in the 1st violins.

This motive is repeated and expanded before it leads directly to yet another theme, a motive played by the horns and answered by the woodwinds:
This theme is also expanded and repeated until it leads directly to the first theme appearing briefly in the major until the opening lead-in of the movement heralds the repeat of the exposition.  The development section begins with the first theme and Smith goes through many key changes as certain fragments of the theme are emphasized. The second theme also goes through a working out that is invaded by segments of the first theme.  A section of transition brings the recapitulation of the themes. The first theme returns in the coda and leads to a tempo increase and the emphatic end of the movement.

II. Allegretto amorevole -  The second movement does away with trumpets and timpani, in music similar to the piano works of the genteel Victorian salon. Smith uses the tempo modifier amorevole, a term Mendelssohn used for music of a similar sentiment.

III. Allegro ma non troppo - Poco meno mosso -  Smith uses no repeats in this short scherzo-like movement. The quality of the writing for woodwinds in this movement as well as the other three show that Smith had a good feel for orchestra color.

IV.  Allegro maestoso - A rondo with the main theme in C major. There are fleeting moments of drama, and about in the middle of the movement a solo for oboe that returns to a theme in the first movement. The strings enter and play a pizzicato accompaniment to the cadenza-like section, there is a partial close and the main theme returns. A coda wraps up the movement in good Mendelssohnian tradition.

Smith was went on to compose many other works for orchestra, including another Symphony In A Minor. In 1883 she was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Academy Of Music, an award that was only bestowed on the most distinguished and accomplished composers.  She went on to compose the most orchestral works of any English female composer in the 19th century.

She was not only known in England, as her fame was such that in the United States the the New York Times ran a lengthy obituary when she died in 1884 of typhoid fever at the age of 45.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Pejačević- Symphony In F-sharp Minor

With very few exceptions, the world of professional classical music was closed to women until the 20th century. Whether instrumentalist, conductor or composer, serious music was considered an exclusive male domain. The only music related occupation open to women was teaching. Women of the upper middle class were taught a musical instrument, usually the piano or violin, more as an avocation or social grace.

Men perpetuated the status quo of male domination in music (as well as society in general).
Instrumentalists, conductors, composers and music publishers actively prevented almost all women from pursuing a career in music. Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn's older sister was a fine pianist and musician as well as a composer, but her father discouraged her from composition. Brother Felix privately encouraged her, but his public statements were different:
From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.
The same was true of Clara Wieck-Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann. She was one of the most brilliant pianists of the 19th century, and after her husband's death she continued to concertize to provide for her large family.  She was also a composer, but after her husband died she gave it up saying:
I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?
Her husband Robert (who evidently supported her composing activities) gave the reasons why she never went farther as a composer:
Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.
Late in the 19th century the male stranglehold on music began to lessen, at least as far as musical composition was concerned. Amy Mary Smith in England and Amy Beach in America are two examples of women who overcame gender bias as composers. A woman composer of the early 20th century was the Croatian Dora Pejačević.

She was descended from the noble Pejačević family of Croatia on her father's side. Her mother was an Hungarian Countess who was a fine pianist and Dora received her first lessons in piano from her. Dora was a woman of learning and culture, she could speak and read several languages. Although  Pejačević was a member of the aristocracy, she seemed to be down to earth and had more of an affinity for common people than the aristocrats of her own class. World War One affected her greatly as she saw all the suffering and pain it caused, which turned her into a socialist. She spent most of her life dedicated to her art, but her loneliness caused her to marry in 1921. She died from complications from childbirth in 1923.

Her Symphony In F-sharp Minor is the only symphony she wrote and she worked on it from 1916- 1917 and revised it in 1920.  The premiere of the work was given in 1920 in Dresden and was such a success that the great conductor Arthur Nikisch performed it in concert.  The symphony is a work in late Romantic style and is in four movements:

I. Andante maestoso - Allegro con moto -  The movement is in a type of very loose sonata form, with one main theme and many differing short motives. It begins with a dramatic introduction that is punctuated by the brass. A short motive is gently begun by the woodwinds and the violins continue it as it unwinds. The main theme has slightly more energy to it while still remaining lyrical. A second theme is chromatic and lyrical. Chromatic motives pile up until the first theme returns in an extended form, and it is then that the listener finds themselves in the development section of the first movement. Motives interrupt the first theme's chromatic journey. Themes already heard enter and leave, with the first theme always returning. The short introduction returns and signals the end of the movement in the entire orchestra.

II. Andante sostenuto - A solo oboe begins by playing the main theme of the movement. Other winds join in while the low strings accompany.  A bass clarinet adds to the texture before the strings give their version of the theme. The theme is developed as it continues until a counter melody is heard in the oboe as the strings play a fragment of the theme. In the middle of the movement another theme that is first heard in the low strings is played and developed chromatically. This theme goes through a chromatically intense climax before it winds down with hints of the first theme until the first theme returns in the bass clarinet. The first theme then continues its journey as it ebbs and flows back to where it began in the solo oboe. A short coda ends the movement.

III. Scherzo: Molto allegro - The chromaticism continues with the scherzo. The pace slows as a solo cello introduces a very short section (presumably the trio) before the scherzo resumes. Another short section of smooth lyricism interrupts until the chugging scherzo returns a final time. A short coda picks up the pace and ends the movement with a snicker.

IV. Allegro appassionato -  The finale begins with a rugged theme that is punctuated by cymbal crashes and brass. Just before the beginning of the second theme there is a motive played by full orchestra that must have sounded quite modern to the audiences of 1920. The second theme is more lyrical and is carried in the strings. After the second theme of the movement the theme from the second movement makes an appearance. The themes are then repeated with slight variations. The development concentrates on the theme from the second movement. The first theme returns and takes the music to a coda that ends the work in a minor key.

It is no wonder that Arthur Nikisch wanted to conduct Pejačević's symphony. She had an excellent sense of orchestral color as well as a good rhythmic and melodic gift. The structure of the symphony is loose and almost rhapsodic with its piling up of motives and themes, but she handled the material with such deftness and feel for instrumental color that the seams do not show, which makes for a very effective and enjoyable symphony.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Brahms - Rhapsody For Piano in G Minor

Like many composers in the 19th century, Brahms made his reputation by playing his own and other composers pieces on the piano.  From what I've read, he was not the most brilliant of pianists as far as technique, but he was very musical.  In his later years he hated to practice and played the premiere of his 2nd  Piano Concerto after hardly touching a piano in years.  He admitted he had better things to do than practice the piano three hours a day.

He played his own compositions to Robert and Clara Schumann in their home when he was 20 years old. Robert Schumann was not only a composer, but was an influential critic and writer.  Brahms had been on concert tour with a Hungarian violinist as an accompanist  when Joseph Joachim heard him, introduced him to Liszt and gave him a letter of introduction to the Schumanns. Schumann wrote about him in an article titled 'New Paths' in a music journal and hailed him as a genius.

Brahms continued to compose and be involved in the musical life of Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Vienna. His compositions were met with mixed results, his first piano concerto was roundly criticized and hissed at the first performance. It wasn't until he composed his German Requiem in 1868 that Brahms got his European reputation as a great composer.

A contemporary of Brahms said that he played the piano like a composer.  If his playing style is reflected in his music for solo piano, he was not a brilliant technician. his piano music is not full of scales running up and down the keyboard, but rather much of his music is dense with thick chords, with the melody embedded sometimes in an inner voice, sometimes an outer voice. This aspect of his music makes it difficult to play in its own way. Brahms piano music is not so much difficult because of technical glitter, but of musical substance and balance. Brahms had a tendency to write music in phrases made up of odd numbers of measures. Instead of 4-bar phrases Brahms many times writes 5-bar phrases. Couple this with the aforementioned thick chordal structure, and you've unlocked some of the reasons why Brahms music can sound not quite conventional, but not quite radical either. Brahms indeed found his own voice.

The Rhapsody For Piano in G minor is one of two that Brahms wrote in 1879 at the height of his popularity. It  is in many ways typical Brahms. A lot going on, danger of the melody being swamped by all the inner workings, first theme threading through the accompaniment, the Brahmsian dilemma of keeping everything in balance.  But Brahms leads the way for the pianist, as long as they remain alert and pay attention. Even the ritard at the end of the piece is worked out by Brahms, as the final six bars hold the melody in tied whole notes while the accompaniment is marked 'quasi ritard' and notated thus, with the eighth note accompaniment turning into quarter note triplets, and then to quarter notes thus creating Brahms' 'quasi ritard':

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Schumann - Piano Quintet In E-flat Major

Before 1842, Robert Schumann had written only one piece for chamber ensemble, a piano quartet in 1829, but that all changed in the year that as been called his chamber music year. After studying the chamber works of the masters, he wrote three string quartets, a piano quartet, a piece for piano trio and a piano quintet.

Schumann wrote the quintet in a few weeks during the summer of 1842. He dedicated the work to his wife Clara and she was to play the piano part in a private performance of the work in December of 1842. Illness prevented her participation, but Felix Mendelssohn took her place and in a feat of pure musicianship sight-read the piano part. Mendelssohn had some helpful suggestions for the piece after the performance, and Schumann revised  the work accordingly.

The Piano Quintet is one of Schumann's greatest works and was very influential in changing the way composers wrote for the combination of string quartet and piano. The work has music of chamber music intimacy along with music that is more symphonic. The quintet is in 4 movements:
Clara Schumann

I. Allegro brillante -  All five instruments present the driving, robust first theme. The second theme is played by piano alone, and then taken up by the violin and cello. The exposition is repeated.  The development section begins with section of transition for piano and cello. The first theme dominates the development section and the reappearance of it in its original form signals the start of the recapitulation. After the second theme the movement draws to a spirited close with parts of the first theme.

II.  In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largamente - Perhaps the most well known movement of the quintet is this funeral march in C minor. It begins with 2 bars of introduction from the solo piano, after which the first violin plays the lugubrious melody. The second violin takes up the next part of the theme, with the first violin resuming the melody until the viola takes it up. The second part of the march is repeated and ends quietly. A section of contrast begins in C major with the new theme played as a duet between cello and violin. As with the funeral march, this lyrical theme's second part is repeated. The funeral march is played through again, and after a short transition another section interrupts the march with highly agitated music in F minor that has the piano playing in staccato triplet eighth notes with biting notes in the strings. The second part of this section is also repeated. The funeral march theme returns in the viola with an increased agitation in the accompaniment. The lyrical theme returns, this time in F major. Once more the funeral march plays out, and the movement ends with the piano silent as the strings play a C major chord in harmonics.

III. Scherzo: Molto vivace -  Scampering scales cavort in the scherzo until the first of two trios is reached.  The trio is a duet in canon for violin and viola. The scherzo takes flight until the second trio is reached. This trio is full of nervous energy as the instruments play four-note motives throughout. The scherzo returns for one more repeat and a coda brings the scherzo to  an end.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo - Schumann begins the finale in the key of G minor and gradually makes his way back to the home key of E-flat major. But Schumann goes even further afield with the second subject as it is in the key of E major. Towards the end of this movement Schumann brings unity to the work by a stroke of contrapuntal prestidigitation as he brings back the first theme of the first movement as the subject of a  fugue that uses the first theme of the last movement as a counter subject, in essence a double fugue. All of this complexity gives the five instruments a very large, almost orchestral sound. The work ends in a brilliant fortissimo E-flat major chord.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Schubert - String Quintet In C Major D. 956

Schubert's String Quintet In C Major adds a second cello to a standard string quartet setting instead of a second viola as Mozart and Beethoven did in their string quintets. No one knows why Schubert chose an extra cello for his quintet, but the result is music that uses the added depth and sonority of the second cello to good advantage.

Schubert composed the quintet in 1828, and wrote to a publisher offering it along with other works. In the letter Schubert says that rehearsals for the quintet were to begin in a few days, but it isn't certain if this ever happened. The music publisher refused the quintet, and it lay forgotten until it was rediscovered and had its first known public performance in 1850. It was published three years later in 1853, and came to be regarded by Schumann and a young Brahms to be one of the finest chamber music work ever written.

The quintet is like the other handful of masterpieces Schubert wrote in his last months of life that expanded the form and content of music.  It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo -  This is an example of Schubert's expanded first movement settings as it takes roughly a third of the playing time of the entire work. With a wealth of thematic material and a rich harmonic language, this movement alone takes about 19 minutes to play. It starts with a dynamic swell that begins on the chord of C major but at the crest of the swell the chord changes to what can be defined as a C diminished seventh, a minor chord.
A short section leads to a different tonally ambiguous chord exchange, and now the music  reveals that this is not an introduction, but a thematic group that continues in kaleidoscopic harmonies until a second theme in E-flat is stated by the cellos:

This theme moves to the higher strings and is repeated.  A section in G major brings the music back to the second theme and the exposition is repeated. The development section alternates between the serene and the dramatic as the music spotlights sections of themes in a dizzying array of major and minor keys. Schubert manages to segue from one to the other effortlessly until the recapitulation brings the music back to the beginning chords. Key changes continue as Schubert blends themes and keys as a painter blends colors and shadows. The coda gives a sense of continuing the themes even farther as the opening chords are heard again along with a modulation, but it is actually a summing up as Schubert winds down the movement and the music ends firmly in C major.

II. Adagio - The second movement is in E major, and begins with a tender theme played by second violin and viola. The first violin plays an accompanying figure as the one cello adds harmonic depth to the theme while the second cello plays a pizzicato accompaniment:
The instruments blend together as the music gently and slowly flows on its way, getting even more quiet as it goes, until a crescendo of trills leads to an agitated middle section in F minor. A quiet section coaxes the tender theme back for a replaying, but this time with a varied accompaniment which adds a slight nervous edge to it. Near the end, the trilled crescendo that lead to the agitated middle section makes a brief appearance in the first violin, but as quickly as it came it retreats as the music comes to an end in E major.

III. Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Andante sostenuto -  Schubert returns to the home key of C major as he increases the loudness and sonority of the five instruments by playing 9-note chords at fortissimo in this boisterous scherzo:
The trio section generally is in contrast to the scherzo itself, but Schubert makes an extreme contrast, first of all with the key change from C major to D-flat major, a key that is quite remote from the home key. The tempo also slows as the mysterious music of the trio quietly hesitates its way to a repeat of the scherzo.

IV. Allegretto - Schubert's first theme of this movement is reminiscent of the dance music he was fond of. The movement is in the form of a rondo with elements of sonata form as well, a hybrid of the two forms. The key has returned to C major (although the theme begins in shadows of C minor), and the violin plays the theme as the other instruments give an accompaniment:
 The second theme is a graceful tune in G major played by the first violin and first cello:
Schubert's melodic gifts were second to none, so along with these two themes there are other tunes and parts of tunes that appear. After Schubert has ran his course with these themes, he builds up excitement by increasing the tempo in the coda. With a triple forte passage, Schubert leads to the final notes, a D-flat grace note before the final unison C, thus ends a work that constantly moves from profound beauty to despair and back again with an intensity that was the beginning of the Romantic era in music.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Tchaikovsky - Romeo And Juliet Overture - Fantasy

William Shakespeare's plays have inspired many composers, especially in the Romantic era. Over 20 operas
have been written based on the play, some ballets (most notably by Prokofiev), a dramatic symphony by Berlioz and the modern adaptation West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein.  Perhaps the most
well-known work based on a Shakespeare play is the Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy by Tchaikovsky.

The piece was written by Tchaikovsky when he was 28 years old in 1869 while he was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. It was written at the suggestion of Mily Balakirev, the leader of the group of Russian nationalistic composers called The Five. Tchaikovsky had already written his first symphony and a symphonic poem and complained that he was already burned out, but Balakirev pestered him until he began work on it. Balakirev gave him some advice on technical matters of form and critiqued the first version of the work. 

The second version of the work was not an immediate success. It was even hissed the first time it was played in Vienna. But The Five composers embraced the work, even though Tchaikovsky was not considered in their group. About ten years after the premiere of the second version Tchaikovsky revised it again, changed the ending and added Overture - Fantasy to the title. It is this third version that is played in concerts. 

Shakespeare based Romeo And Juliet on a story from Italy written in the middle of the 16th century, but the theme of tragic romance goes back way before the 16th century. Shakespeare fleshed out the story by adding characters and expanding the plot. A short synopsis:
The story is set in Verona, and revolves around the conflicts between two families that are sworn enemies, the Montagues and Capulets.  Romeo is the son of the patriarch of the Montagues, and he attends a ball given by the Capulets to try and meet a woman that he is attracted to, but he meets Juliet instead at the ball and falls in love with her. They meet after the ball (the famous balcony scene) and agree to marry despite their families' mutual hatred. With the help of Friar Laurence they are married the next day. Trouble brews and lives are taken after a fight between supporters of the families. Romeo is banished from Verona, and as Romeo and Juliet's marriage is a secret, Juliet is betrothed to another. Romeo steals away and spends the night with Juliet.  Juliet's family tries to force her to marry another, and Juliet goes to Friar Laurence for help. He gives her a potion that will make it appear as if she is dead and promises to send word to Romeo about the plan. Romeo returns to Juliet's chamber but he wasn't informed of the potion and thinks her dead. He gets poison and goes to the crypt where Juliet lays. The other to whom Juliet was betrothed is in the crypt mourning her death, Romeo kills him and drinks the poison. After Romeo dies Juliet awakens from her potion-induced sleep, sees that Romeo has killed himself, so she kills herself with Romeo's dagger. Members from the two families find all three of them dead in the crypt, and realizing the tragedy their family feud has caused, reconcile with one another. 
The play itself has many side plots and Shakespeare combines some comic scenes with the dramatic and
tragic to keep a steady build-up to the climax of the play. Tchaikovsky uses dramatic and tragic elements of the play to construct his Romeo And Juliet Overture-Fantasy.

The work is a tone poem written in sonata form. The opening of the work is an introduction based on the character Friar Laurence.  Friar Laurence is a man of the church, in Verona no doubt it is the Catholic church, but Tchaikovsky, a Russian,  gives the introduction the solemn tones of a Russian orthodox chant! The next theme is one of agitation and drama as it represents the warring Montague and Capulet families, with cymbal clashes symbolizing the clanking together of swords. The next theme is one of soaring passion and beauty, the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. These three themes make up the exposition of the piece.

In the next section of the piece only the themes are developed. After the development, the themes return and move towards a representation by cymbal clashes of the suicides of the lovers. An epilogue with a steady pattern of timpani taps underscores a beautiful reminiscence of the lovers by the woodwinds, the love theme enters one last time and the work ends with a loud climax by the orchestra.