Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Beethoven - Coriolan Overture

The plays of Shakespeare have inspired other playwrights and composers for many years.  Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Coriolanus, which is based on the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus.  Evidently, a story good enough for Shakespeare was good enough for the early 19th century Viennese playwright Heinrich von Collin. His play was entitled Coriolan, and even though the play had good actors cast, the play itself was not very good. It opened in 1802 and closed shortly after that.

It was the play by the Viennese playwright that Beethoven wrote the overture for, not the Shakespeare version of the story.  The story on which the overture is based:

The Roman General Coriolanus is banished from Rome after he throws a hissy fit over the citizens renouncing his bid to be elected counsel of Rome. In revenge, he goes over to the side of the enemies of Rome and plans to sack the city. He lays siege to the city and refuses to grant amnesty to his own people. In desperation, his wife and mother go to him and plead with him to spare his family. He settles in favor of his family which makes him a traitor to his allies, the enemies of Rome. In Shakespeare's play, Coriolanus' allies kill him while in the Collin play he commits suicide by falling on his sword.

The overture is written in a very distilled sonata form, with the first theme representing the uncompromising rage of Coriolanus while the second theme represents the pleadings from Coriolanus' mother and wife.  The pleadings are consumed by the repetition of the jagged rage of the first theme. The exposition continues to expound the moral dilemma Coriolanus is in, whether to continue to slay all of Rome, including his innocent family, or to spare them. When the main theme is heard at the beginning of the recapitulation, it is now beginning to waver in its resolve. The theme slowly crumbles away, the rage is gone, the heart of Coriolanus quits beating as the music dies with the dull thumps of pizzicato strings.

Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio, and it cost him much in labor and time.  He never again wrote for the opera theater, but that doesn't mean his music couldn't be dramatic.  This overture shows that while Beethoven may not have been a natural composer for dramatic opera, he could write pure music that could convey drama without the use of any words. It was this kind of overture that lead to the symphonic poems of Liszt and others. It would not be a stretch at all to say that this overture could be called a symphonic poem, and it is a very good example of how Beethoven inspired the composers of the Romantic era.

The following video of Carlos Kleiber conducting the overture shows how orchestral conducting is just as much an art as a science. Kleiber translates the mood of the music through his actions, and the orchestra responds. The end of the work shows how much the audience was swept up by the music, for whether they were hypnotized, stunned or perhaps equal measures of both, the applause does not start until the music had long since stopped. That is the greatest tribute an audience can give a performer,  prolonged silence before the applause begins.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Mahler - Symphony No. 4 In G Major

Gustav Mahler was best known in his lifetime as a leader of opera houses and as a conductor with a world wide reputation. During the opera and concert season he gave all he had to these endeavors, but during his summer vacation he gave all he had to composing. Mahler's first three symphonies grew progressively larger and longer, so the audience didn't know what to expect at the premiere of the 4th Symphony.  What they got was a surprise.

The 4th Symphony is written for smaller forces (at least by Mahler's standards). There are no trombones, no choirs, only one soprano soloist that sings in the 4th movement, and the entire symphony takes just under an hour, the shortest symphony Mahler wrote up to that point.  Mahler's 4th can be called his Classical Symphony for its style, forces used and content.

But that doesn't mean the symphony is a trifle. Mahler was a man of incredible emotions that spilled over into his music and the 4th is no exception. The difference is that while there are moments of darkness, for the most part the symphony is in a sunny mood. Mahler began to sketch out the symphony in 1899 but after the summer vacation he put the work in his desk so he could focus on his work as the director of the Vienna Court opera. When he came back to it the next summer, he finished it in only three weeks.

Mahler conducted the premiere of the symphony in 1901 in Munich. It was not a success. The work was roundly booed. The style of the work as well as the thematic material and construction of the symphony gave both sides much to carp about. The anti-Mahler faction thought the composer was trying to pull a fast one by writing music that was different than his earlier works, as if h e were thumbing his nose at them. Some of the pro-Mahler faction that expected another blockbuster work complained about the naiveté of the music, as if he purposefully left his monumental style to write something more accessible for the audience and critics.  But it was this roundly criticized work that became the most performed of all Mahler's symphonies.

I. Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Slowly, not rushing) -  Mahler opens the symphony with flutes, sleigh bells and clarinets:
This short section acts as a prelude that leads to the first theme, a rising figure heard in the violins that changes to a dotted rhythm. After the first theme plays out, a short transition leads to the second theme heard in the low strings. Another theme appears in the oboe and other woodwinds. The opening motive with sleigh bells signals the development section,which is initially taken up with the first theme. A section for solo violin continues the development section that constantly shifts themes and fragments of themes in and out, and transforms them to different themes. The lightness of orchestration belies the fact that this is very complex music. The music reaches a short climax with a trumpet solo and the sleigh bells return. Motives are played in counterpoint and lead up to another climax with trumpet solo. The recapitulation is not as extensive as the exposition and it leads to a short coda where the first theme gradually increases in tempo and volume until it comes to an end.

II. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Moving with leisure, no hurry) -  A scherzo in the form of  a  ländler has a violin playing a solo with an altered tuning; Mahler instructs the soloist to tune all of the strings a full tone higher than usual. Mahler originally marked this movement with the words Death strikes up the dance for us; she scrapes her fiddle bizarrely and leads us up to heaven, but he eventually removed all descriptive headings from this movement as well as the others. The music maintains its leisurely dance pace throughout, complete with string portamento. The movement ends with a shimmering cadence for glockenspiel, triangle. harp and woodwinds.

III. Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peaceful, a little slow) -  A languid theme slowly unwinds over a pizzicato accompaniment. A second theme of a more impassioned nature is played by the cor anglaise, with strings adding commentary. A set of variations on the first theme follows, with an interruption by the second theme amid the variations. A fragment of the first theme plays, and in a flash the music switches to E major and grows loud and noble as the theme for the final movement is announced. The music grows quiet and mysterious and ends in a hush.

IV. Sehr behaglich (Very pleasantly) - Mahler returns once again to a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of old German poems that he drew inspiration from for many years. He used the text from the poem Das himmlische Leben (Life in Heaven), a song about being in
Heaven and how the Saints slaughter animals and prepare meals there. As depicted in the poem, Heaven's not so heavenly for lams, ox and other animals. Mahler instructs the soprano to sing the song as a child, honestly and without parody. The song is interrupted three times by the motive first heard in the introduction to the first movement complete with sleigh bells, but this time played rapidly at a fast tempo and in a minor key. After the third interruption, the song returns to the gentleness of the opening of the movement. On the last two words of the line and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh, the soloist joins the violins in a glissando. The song continues, the cor anglaise and harp play a opening fragment of the movement and the music ends in a barely audible whisper.

Life In Heaven from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
We enjoy heavenly pleasures and
therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult is to be heard in heaven
 All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn't cost a penny in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort grow
in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets they come running right up.

Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Schubert - Symphony No. 8 In B Minor 'Unfinished'

Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 may be the most famous unfinished work in the symphonic repertoire. The two completed movements of the symphony were completed in 1822, as well as a third movement scherzo in piano score with two pages in full score. There has been theories, rumors and downright guesswork as for the reasons the symphony remained unfinished, with none of them more than conjecture.  Because of the depth of feeling and drama of the work it has been called the first Romantic era symphony by some.

The history of the first performance of the work begins shortly after the two movements were completed in 1822. In 1823 Schubert was given an honorary diploma from the Granz Music Society, and in return the composer was going to dedicate a work to the society.  Schubert sent the first two movements of the symphony to Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a prominent member of the group.  There is no evidence that Schubert had any other contact with Hüttenbrenner or that he completed any of the other movements for the work. Indeed, Hüttenbrenner never let anyone else know he had the manuscript until 1865. Why Hüttenbrenner sat on the manuscript for so many years is not known. He finally showed the work to the conductor Johann von Herbeck, the conductor of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Herbeck premiered the two movements and tacked on a movement from an earlier Schubert symphony as a finale, in 1865 in Vienna.  The work was a complete success despite the addition of the finale, and has been an audience favorite ever since.

The six symphonies Schubert composed before the Unfinished don't resemble it in depth or drama, but Schubert could be a quite dramatic composer when he chose to be as can be heard in his lied Der Erlkönig as well as music in other forms. One theory is that the composition of the symphony coincides with Schubert's diagnosis of syphilis. Considering such a diagnosis in those times was a sentence of suffering, perhaps madness, and certain death, may have been a reason for the dark tone of the music. The symphony is scored for pairs of woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, strings and timpani.
Johann von Herbeck

I. Allegro moderato - It may appear strange that the tempo indication of this movement is allegro moderato, for the music that begins the movement doesn't seem to fit. But Schubert's point in the tempo designation is to make sure that there should be at least some speed to the movement, otherwise the music would sound too heavy to the point of plodding.  Of course just how moderately fast is subject to a conductor's interpretation.  The work opens with the dark cellos and basses playing pianissimo in their lowest ranges. The actual first theme of the movement is carried in the woodwinds while the violins play an agitated accompaniment along with the lower strings. a four-bar transition played by the horns shifts the music from B minor to G major for the second subject that is heard in the cellos over a syncopated accompaniment. A theme group is played after the second theme until a variant of the second theme is played. Transition material leads to the repeat of the exposition. The development section begins with a short transition before the cellos and basses play the opening bars of the symphony again but this time in E minor. The rest of the development concentrates on the first theme and its parts and is punctuated with sforzandi and string tremolos. The syncopated accompaniment of the second theme does show up a few times also. The recapitulation is mostly the usual repetition of themes, only the second theme modulates to D major instead of B major, the parallel major to the home key of B minor.  The music does modulate to B major until the first theme in B minor appears and is expanded into the ending of the emphatic final cadence.

II. Andante con moto - Two bars of introduction lead to the E major first theme of the movement, first played by the strings. This theme has a contrasting section of marching staccato strings until it resumes. A second theme is played in C-sharp minor by the clarinet over a gently syncopated accompaniment by the strings. This theme also has a contrasting section of music played fortissimo before the theme begins again.  All of this serves as the exposition. There is no development section, as the themes are repeated with modulations to other keys and variants. After this plays out, a new theme appears that is derived from the opening measures of the movement. The transition to the second theme that is played by the violins earlier is repeated and varied along with parts of the other themes, and the movement comes to a peaceful close in E major.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Mahler - Symphony No. 3

The Third Symphony was first sketched out with the help of a program as Mahler wrote down headings for each of the movements he planned. As he did preliminary work on the symphony he changed the program numerous times before the music was completed. The original program for the symphony called for seven movements with the following titles:

1. Summer marches in.
2. What the flowers in the meadow tell me.
3. What the creatures in the forest tell me.
4. What man tells me.
5. What the angels tell me
6. What love tells me.
7. What the Child tells me.

He worked on the symphony from 1893 to 1896, doing most of the work on it during the summer  hiatus of the Hamburg Opera where he was chief conductor. At this time Mahler was passionately influenced by Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems. He set many of them to music, and used the songs in his early symphonies, sometimes with words and music and sometimes with only the music. The Third Symphony also includes some of these songs. The 7th movement was to be a setting of another Wunderhorn poem Das himmlische Leben, a poem he had set to music in 1892, but Mahler thought better of it and used the song in the final movement of his 4th Symphony. Mahler  dropped the entire program from the symphony before it was published and premiered. He made his feelings about titles and programs known in a letter to a fellow conductor and composer Josef Krug-Waldsee:
Those titles were an attempt on my part to provide non-musicians with something to hold on to and with a signpost for the intellectual, or better, the expressive content of the various movements and for their relationships to each other and to the whole. That it didn’t work (as, in fact, it could never work) and that it led only to misinterpretations of the most horrendous sort became painfully clear all too quickly. It’s the same disaster that had overtaken me on previous and similar occasions, and now I have once and for all given up commenting, analyzing all such expediencies of whatever sort. These titles . . . will surely say something to you after you know the score. You will draw intimations from them about how I imagined the steady intensification of feeling, from the indistinct, unbending, elemental existence (of the forces of nature) to the tender formation of the human heart, which in turn points toward and reaches a region beyond itself (God). Please express that in your own words without quoting those extremely inadequate titles and that way you will have acted in my spirit. I am very grateful that you asked me [about the titles], for it is by no means inconsequential to me and for the future of my work how it is introduced into “public life.”
The Third Symphony is the longest symphony Mahler composed, and is the longest symphony currently in the repertoire. It takes at least 90 minutes to play, with the first movement alone taking over 30 minutes. Couple that with the huge orchestra Mahler uses, the label of megalomaniac was being used by his critics to describe him.

A group of movements was heard in concert as early as 1897 when movements 2,3 and 6 were played in Berlin.  The premiere of the entire symphony was in 1902 and was conducted by Mahler.  The orchestra calls for quadruple winds, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, two harps, a large percussion section plus two sets of timpani, alto soloist, women's choir, boys choir, and the usual strings. Mahler split the work into two main parts; the first movement constitutes the first part, the other five movements the second part:

I. Kräftig. Entschieden (Strong and decisive) - The first movement was written a year after the remaining 5 movements. Eight horns playing in unison announce the beginning of the symphony:
The introductory theme continues and is punctuated by the orchestra. This introduction brings forth the first theme of movement proper, a slow march in the minor that expands for quite some time. It is solemn intone but is full of whoops and calls from the orchestra. A short drum solo acts as an introduction to a second theme in the major that is lighter in texture. This theme is interrupted by cat calls from the clarinets and a third theme (although at this first hearing it is short and more like a motive than a theme) rushes through the orchestra. The first theme returns and contains a prominent part for solo trombone. This theme grows in intensity until it slowly fades into a repeat of the second theme as well as the cat calls from the clarinets and the following third theme,which this time around is expanded into the fourth theme, another march that is in the major and begins subdued in volume but gradually grows and is punctuated by the snare drum. The new march grows in volume and density as it is played full on by the orchestra. The fourth theme runs its course and the music segues to what can be considered the development section in a very loose sonata form. The first march theme is developed and leads to another solo by the trombone, followed by a solo for cor anglais. The second theme makes an appearance and is developed, followed by a reference to the fourth theme march. Snippets of themes weave in and out as the music moves to a variant of the first theme march that expands. Snippets of other themes enter and leave as the music grows in intensity and speed until it dies away. This is interrupted by snare drums that play in the distance and as they fade away the introduction for eight horns reappears with slight variations, which signals the beginning of the recapitulation. The  first theme is expanded until a very quiet section brings back the fourth theme march. This theme builds while a variant of the horn introduction is played in the background. This major variant of the horn theme (which was also heard briefly in the development section) comes to the fore as Mahler varies and expands it. Motives of themes are combined as the music builds to a climax. A variant of part of the first theme is heard and the orchestra gallops to a rousing ending in the major. When this symphony is given in concert, there is sometimes a short intermission taken at the end of the first movement.

II. Tempo di Menuetto - Mahler writes music in the style of a minuet. More specifically, it is a minuet in the style of Mahler.The middle section has some stormy sections that scurry through the orchestra. But for the most part this movement serves as a few moments for the listener to catch their breath after the rough hewn character of the first movement. The movement ends gently with a violin solo.

III.  Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortably, like a scherzo) - This movement makes references to a Wunderhorn song Mahler wrote titled Ablösung im Sommer (Relief In Summer). The text of the song deals with a dead cuckoo and a nightingale. There's been many translations of the text  of the poem, but when Mahler set the words he also inserted lines that he wrote himself. As with so many aspects of this huge work, there have been many interpretations of the meaning of the song by itself and in the context of the symphony. Suffice to say that falls in with Mahler's original heading for the movement What The Creatures In The Forest Tell Me (especially the birds evidently).  One of the novel features of this movement is the sudden change of the mood as an offstage trumpet plays a theme over a very quiet accompaniment. Mahler instructs the soloist to play  the instrument as a posthorn.  Sometimes the solo is played on an actual posthorn, but more often it is played on a trumpet or flugelhorn. The offstage trumpet interrupts the scherzo 3 times. In between the 2nd and third interruption, the scherzo gets particularly vigorous and loud, and to encourage the general raucousness Mahler writes the direction in the score Grob! (complete with exclamation point) which translates to roughly or crude. The third trumpet interruption is the longest and more complex, complete with bird song imitations. After an almost inaudible transition, the scherzo starts up but quickly gains power and volume as a tremendous climax thunders through the orchestra. this leads to a fragment of the scherzo returning in a loud, highly punctuated version, and amid another tremendous climax the movement ends.

IV. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously) - The previous movements have shown Mahler's love and understanding of nature, but with this movement the music depicts the darkness of night. The movement begins with strings alternating gently between notes with harps adding a hushed texture. The entire movement remains quiet, the accompaniment hardly moving harmonically as the alto soloist sings a simple melody to the words of the Midnight Song from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Mahler gets a particularly novel effect for the oboe and cor anglaise by writing a slur over two notes with the direction hinaufziehen, literally meaning to pull or move up. There is general agreement that Mahler intended a glissando with this word:
This is not possible on the modern version of the oboe used by most players. But it was possible on the German made instrument used in the orchestras Mahler directed. Modern scholarship and technique have shown ways this directive can be accomplished, and while it may seem a minor detail, the sliding notes give a particularly earthy quality to the music, something Mahler evidently intended. The above musical example also shows the detail and care Mahler took in notating his scores.

Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, Midnight Song:
O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
"I slept, I slept -,
from a deep dream have I awoken: -
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain -,
joy - deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy seeks eternity -,
- seeks deep, deep eternity!"

The movement ends in the same dark, quiet tones in which it began and leads directly to the next movement.

V. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression) - Another Wunderhorn text is used in the 5th movement, Armer Kinder Bettlerlied (Poor children's Begging song) written for women's choir, boy's choir and soloist. The movement begins with the boy's choir imitating bells.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Armer Kinder Bettlerlied
 Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"
"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"
"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

VI. Langsam - Ruhevoll - Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt) - In length and complexity, the final movement resembles the first massive movement, but the character and tone of the finale is quite different. It is full of joy and pain as Mahler unwinds some of the most heartfelt music he ever wrote. The music ebbs and flows, echoes things heard before (in this symphony and in the 2nd Symphony). Ending a symphony with an adagio movement was not common. Mahler had done it in the 2nd Symphony, and as in that work the 3rd Symphony adagio is the culmination of the symphony. If this is what Mahler meant when he wrote out headings for the movements of this symphony, that this is what love told him, he takes the listener through his complex and deep emotions with this music. It takes its time as it describes in tones Mahler's depth of compassion and spirituality. The movement seems to suspend time, but the build up reaches an incredible ending the timpani, low strings, bassoon and contra bassoon play the notes D and A, the tonic and the dominant of D major. The trumpets play a noble motive while the rest of the brass and woodwind play chords, all over divided violins and violas that play shimmering tremolos. Mahler has one last request written in the score when the full orchestra reaches the huge final D major chord, Nicht abressien, don't cut it off. Let the final chord ring out to end one of the most stunning symphonies ever written.