Saturday, February 16, 2013

Franck - Les Djinns

Les Djinns (The Genie) is one of five symphonic poems written by César Franck. As with many of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt (who is credited with the invention of the symphonic poem), it is based on a literary work, the poem of the same name by the French writer Victor Hugo. The poem was part of a collection of Hugo's poems titled Les Orientales, written in 1829.  The poem deals with the unleashing of a Djinn and the resulting storms and evil that accompany the unleashing.

Victor Hugo
This kind of supernatural being is mentioned in the Qurʾan and Islamic theology. They inhabit an unseen world in dimensions beyond the visible universe. The djinn, humans and angels make up the three sentient creations of God. The Qurʾan mentions that the Djinn are made of a smokeless, scorching fire and can be good, evil, or neutral. The Djinn of Hugo's poem is evidently of the nasty kind.

Hugo's poem is written in a form that visually depicts a swirling storm or tornado. Verse one is in two syllables, verse two in three syllables, increasing by one syllable until the middle of the poem. Then a syllable is removed from each successive verse until the end, where two syllables are in the verse as in the beginning.  The original poem was written in French. Here is part of it in English translation, unfortunately the syllables do not match the original French:

Port, walls 
And keeps 
Death’s Halls 
And deeps, 
Grey seas 
Where breeze 
Now flees: 
All sleeps.

From the verge 
Of the flow Sighs emerge— 
Night-airs blow— 
And they toll 
Like a soul 
On patrol 
With a glow. 

The loudest sounds 
Are like a sleigh— 
An elf who bounds 
And skins away. 
He leaps and flows, 
In rhythmic throes 
Springs on his toes 
Across the spray. 

Echoes and entwines 
Like the bells we hear 
At accursed shrines.
 Like a noisy crowd 
Thundering and proud, 
Sometimes it grows loud, 
Sometimes it declines. 

O God! the ghostly sound Of Djinns!—
and how they blare! 
Quick! let’s escape around 
The sunken spiral stair! 
Oh, I have lost my light! 
The shadow of the flight 
Covers the wall—goes right 
Up to the open air. 
(the rest of the translation can be found here)

The original French and the form created by the addition and subtraction of syllables can be seen at the left.  

Victor Hugo was one of the most well-known and influential of the French Romantic writers.  In addition to poetry he also wrote plays and novels (some of the most well-known novels in all of world literature such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

His works influenced not only writers in his own country but in other countries as well, such as the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. His work also influenced many  composers and he was an acquaintance of Berlioz and Liszt.  Victor Hugo was also a graphic artist as he left more than 3,500 drawings and paintings.

Franck wrote Les Djinns in 1884, and the composition is unique in that it is written for orchestra with piano obbligato - in fact it is a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, a rarity.

As with the best of Liszt's symphonic poems, Franck doesn't try to create a musical depiction of the poem itself, but an atmosphere and feeling of the poem. It is left to the imagination of the listener to interpret the music within the context of the poem, or not. The knowledge that Les Djinn was inspired by Hugo's poem is interesting and can add to the enjoyment of the piece, but it isn't necessary.  The title of the piece, Les Djinn, The Genie, is enough to stimulate the imagination. Which is what I think a symphonic poem is supposed to do.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Borodin - Symphony No. 2 In B Minor

Alexander Borodin led a double life as a scientist/chemist and composer in Russia in the 19th century. His output in each of these endeavors was small but significant. In the field of music he had very little formal training, especially in composition. The composition of his 2nd symphony was repeatedly interrupted by other compositions and his work in the laboratory.

The 2nd symphony is regarded by many as his masterpiece. When he visited Liszt in Weimar in 1877 they together played the symphony in a piano arrangement for four-hands. Liszt had admired Borodin's music and was instrumental in getting the first performances of his symphonies outside of Russia. When Borodin told Liszt of his plans to revise the symphony, Liszt replied:

"Heaven forbid! Do not touch it, alter nothing. Your modulations are neither extravagant nor faulty. Your artistic instinct is such that you need not fear to be original. Do not listen to those who would deter you from following your own way. You are on the right road. Similar advice was given to Mozart and to Beethoven, who wisely ignored it."

Borodin's Second Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro -  The tonic note of B is heard straight-away in unison by the orchestra, with the strings continuing the powerful tune. The orchestra continues forcefully until it reaches a more lyrical tune.  The first movement's form has caused much discussion in musicological circles, for while it resembles sonata form, Borodin weaves varied repeats (in key and modulation) of the main tune throughout the movement gives this movement a unique sound. The movement ends with a triple forte repetition of the opening theme.

II. Scherzo - Prestissimo - The second movement is written in the very odd time signature of 1/1:
The movement contains odd-shaped 5-bar phrases alternating at times with 4-bar phrases. This phrase structure combined with syncopated measures give the scherzo a tripping, comically stumbling quality. The gentle trio is in contrasting 6/4 time.

III. Andante - With all of Borodin's natural musicality of structure and form, it shouldn't be forgotten that perhaps his greatest gift was melodic in nature. This movement has some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote. It begins gently with harp and clarinet introduction and the horn enters with a gentle melody that is continued by the clarinet accompanied by other winds. There is a middle section that contrasts strongly with the gentleness of the opening, after which the music slowly begins its descent to end as it began, softly and melodiously.

IV. Allegro - The third movement runs directly into the Finale. The form of the movement can be seen as a type of sonata/rondo form but many hear it as a collection of Russian dances held loosely together. The mood is festive and continues until the opening dance returns to give a rousing finish to the work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

C.P.E. Bach - Württemberg Sonata No. 1 In A Minor

The music of C.P.E. Bach had a profound effect on the younger composers of his time, namely Mozart and Haydn. It is one of the ironies of art that in the early 19th century the younger Bach's music came to be appreciated less and less as his father's music came to be appreciated more and more. The elder Bach's music never was completely forgotten, especially his keyboard music. Beethoven studied The Well Temper Clavier as did many other composers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes in hand-written copies that passed from teacher to pupil.

But the younger Bach continued to have a great influence on the art of keyboard playing because of his book Essay On The True Art Of Playing Keyboard Instruments (written in 1753).  The book is a valuable reference to anyone wishing to play the music of the younger Bach and some of his contemporaries. The music of this era continued the musical shorthand of figures written over certain notes that signified trills (and other ornaments of the basic melody) from the music of the previous generation. The meaning and execution of these ornaments can be quite puzzling, even with Bach's book. Different composers in different countries had their own interpretations of the ornaments. What is good for the music of Bach (elder and younger) is not always good for other composers.  Bach states in the book that there is a certain amount of flexibility with what a performer did with an ornament in a specific piece of music, that the overall effect of the piece should be enhanced by the ornamentation which should be a result of the 'good taste' of the performer.

Bach wrote a large amount of music for solo keyboard and his reputation was made with the publication of two sets of sonatas, the  'Prussian' sonatas were dedicated to Frederick The Great and the 'Württemberg' sonatas were dedicated to the grand duke of Württemberg.  The six Württemberg sonatas were written in 1742 while Bach was court musician for Frederick The Great in Berlin.  The sonatas are expressive, chromatic and dramatic, fitting the 'new' style of composition that Bach helped to create. C.P.E. Bach has been called one of the first composers of the classical era.

The first sonata in the set is in A minor and is in three movements:
I. Moderato - This short movement creates tension with its rolled chords and is punctuated by triplets that add a restlessness to the music. The movement consists of two sections that are both repeated, as is the case with early classical era sonatas.  The first section is an early example of sonata form, as there are two themes, with the secondary theme appearing shortly after the first. The second section begins in the relative major (C major) and makes its way back to the original key of A minor.

II. Andante - The gentle opening mood of the andante (in the parallel key of A major)  lasts for 19 bars and is brought to an expressive close by a tempo change to adagio for the 20th bar. The opening theme begins again and the music works its way to an ending of but two 'A' notes, one in the treble and one in the bass.

III. Allegro assai - The last movement returns to the minor key and is highlighted by runs in the right hand as the left hand changes the harmony. This movement is also in two sections that are to be repeated.

C.P.E. Bach readily gave praise to his father as a great musician and teacher (the only teacher he ever had) but that didn't prevent the younger Bach from calling his father's music old-fashioned. C.P.E. Bach was a fine performer and was an innovator and influential composer. His music is no longer forgotten, but it still is rare to hear some of it. To my ears, there is something different about his music, something that is very attractive, even quirky. With more of it being made available on recordings, there is still much I want to listen to and explore.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lachner - Symphony No. 8 In G Minor

Franz Lachner's life spanned almost  the entire 19th century. He was born in 1803 in Bavaria and early in his career he was introduced to Beethoven and was a close personal friend to Franz Schubert.  Besides being a composer he was also an organist, teacher and a highly respected orchestral and operatic conductor.

After many different conducting posts he became the music director in Munich and raised the quality of the orchestra to a very high level.  He unselfishly used his power and influence to promote the music of contemporary composers. He especially made sure that he gave Wagner's operas exposure, even though he personally didn't like it. He understood the importance of Wagner and his music and drilled his orchestra to even higher levels so that the premiere of Tristan and Isolde could be held in Munich.

King Ludwig II
Wagner's fanatical patron, King Ludwig II, ascended to the throne of Bavaria in 1864. With typical 'gratitude' that Wagner showed to everyone that helped him, Wagner saw to it that  Lachner was unceremoniously dumped as Munich's music director. After Lachner had worked very hard with the orchestra to make Wagner's opera a success in Munich, he was replaced by Wagner's crony Hans Von Bülow (who later in his career would also pay the price for promoting Wagner's music). Lachner lost all of the positions in Munich that he held under the directorship of the orchestra and did not conduct the premiere of the opera.  He was on extended leave until his contract expired in 1868 and was given a generous retirement sum. He evidently never turned bitter about it all, and remained a respected elder statesman of music until he died in 1890.

He composed operas, chamber music, string quartets, pieces for organ and eight symphonies. The  Symphony No. 8 In G Minor was written in 1851. It is in the traditional 4 movements:

I.  Andante - Allegro Maestoso -  The first movement begins with a long, somewhat brooding introduction. The main theme then slowly unfolds with a subdued heroism that turns more dramatic. This theme segues into a second them that is more serene. Outbursts from the orchestra heighten the drama. After the exposition and recapitulation, a plaintive song by the solo bassoon is interrupted by an exuberant coda.
II. Andante - A flowing movement with a gentle theme that has a sense of continual development.
II. Scherzo - A rapid, jig-like scherzo with a few thumps and bumps for good measure. After the initial statements of the theme, it turns into a subject for fugal treatment.  The trio is lightly played by flutes with string accompaniment.
IV. Finale - Allegro Vivace -  A chattering theme begins the movement, other themes are heard with parts of the 'chattering' punctuating them. The main them is heard near the end along the secondary theme in a kind of sonata form recapitulation. The music ends in a dramatic cadence after a short coda.

The music of Lachner and other so-called minor composers can help us to remember that the great composers did not create their music in a vacuum. They were part of a continuum of their time that included musicians like Lachner who were rock-solid musicians and craftsmen composers. Lachner's music is well-written, and shows inspiration and profundity in places.  He was an important musician of his time, and as such created his own music and helped to create the music of others by teaching and promoting.  I personally enjoy listening to this symphony and look forward to exploring more of his works.

Schubert - Symphony No. 5 In B-flat Major

Schubert began his life as a composer at an early age. By the time he was 19 he had written this 5th symphony and many other works. Schubert's affinity for orchestral writing no doubt came from his experience in the school for musicians he attended. He played viola in the school orchestra and may have conducted also. The school orchestra played many works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the young Schubert absorbed the influences of these composers so quickly that he had a very good understanding of classical form.

Schubert's love for the music of Mozart is apparent in this symphony. He composed this symphony almost like chamber music, as the style of the music and the orchestration has a Mozartean lightness. The 5th symphony is unique from the rest of Schubert's because there are no clarinets, trumpets or timpani in the score, and only one flute.  The symphony was composed in 1816, the same year as his Symphony No.4. The contrasts between the two symphonies are striking. The 5th shows Schubert's progress in his mastery of orchestral writing.

The life of Franz Schubert was one of the marvels of human creativity and industriousness, a man who died when he was 31 years old and whose compositions number 998 according to Otto Erich Deutsch, the musicologist that created a catalog of Schubert's works listed chronologically by composition date. His influence on later musicians such as Liszt, Schumann, and Bruckner was profound.  He has been called by some one of the composers that began the Romantic age of classical music.

Besides some of his songs, much of Schubert's music was not performed in his lifetime. Among his 9 symphonies, the 5th was the only symphony performed in his lifetime at a private concert in 1817.

Symphony No. 5 is in the traditional 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Unlike Schubert's previous four symphonies, the 5th doesn't begin with a slow introduction, but with the beginning of the first subject.  The movement is in sonata form.
II. Andante - A movement that reflects the style of Mozart while retaining Schubert's lyrical style.
III. Menuetto Allegro molto - This movement also resembles Mozart's 'peasant stomp' minuets and could be called a scherzo.
IV.Allegro vivace - The finale is in sonata form and rounds off the work with movement and a little drama in places.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Liszt - Orpheus

The series of 13 tone poems Liszt wrote were inspired in content by his readings in classical literature, biography, mythology and history. Liszt made up for a lack of formal education in his younger years because of his constant piano practice and concertizing by reading voraciously.

In musical structure, he was inspired by Beethoven's repeating thematic material in separate movements and the unity this gave the work as a whole. Hector Berlioz's work Symphony Fantastique was also an influence. Liszt liked the work so much that he helped to promote the work by making a piano transcription of it.

The tone poem is a direct descendant of the operatic and concert overture. As operatic overtures signaled a beginning of an opera and often quoted the main themes that were to be heard, the concert overture was usually written in sonata form and could be a singular piece of music that began a dramatic play, or the music could have a descriptive setting.  Liszt took these qualities, plus the feeling of the first movement in a symphony (usually written in sonata form and many times was the movement that held the most musical weight). He took the idea of thematic unity further than Beethoven, and used what is called cyclic form, where the entire piece has common themes repeated, sometimes verbatim, sometimes varied. Like many other 'new' things, Liszt did not invent cyclic form so much as revive it for there is examples of it in Renaissance music. There are also examples of it in Haydn's music, and of course Beethoven made use of it.

In the preface to the score of Orpheus Liszt wrote:

“I saw in my mind’s eye an Etruscan vase in the Louvre, representing the first poet-musician. I thought to see round about him wild beasts listening in ravishment: man’s brutal instincts quelled to silence.... Humanity today, as formerly and always, preserves in its breast instincts of ferocity, brutality and sensuality, which it is the mission of art to soften, sweeten and ennoble.”

Orpheus is written in a loose sonata form. The piece begins with two harps playing ascending passages in imitation of Orpheus' lyre.The piece is restrained and contemplative,  Liszt's tribute to the depth of feeling and redeeming qualities he heard and saw in music and art in general.

Liszt wrote most of his tone poems while he was kappelmeister in Wiemar in 1852-1854.  Most of them are not in the immediate concert repertoire except for Les Preludes. They were experiments in form, structure, orchestration and material. Some are more satisfying musically than others, but all of them are at the least interesting.  That more of them are not heard in the concert hall may say something about the tone poems, but it surely says something about the state of the modern day concert hall.

Vivaldi - Concerto For Guitar And Strings

Vivaldi's Concerto For Guitar, Strings and Continuo is one of the hundreds of concertos Vivaldi wrote when he was the master of violin at the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà  (The Devout Hospital of Mercy), an orphanage in Venice. He was associated with the orphanage for thirty years And wrote many of his most well known works while there.  He wrote concertos for combinations of solo instruments as well as single solo instruments.

This concerto is in three movements. The first movement begins with a statement by the strings. The solo guitar enters and the soloist and strings trade statements back and forth in the traditional ritornello form of the time.  The second movement is a gentle siciliano that begins in the major but is calmly punctuated in the minor in the middle section. The finale is a rollicking jig.

Vivaldi was one of the great composers and violinists of his time. His concertos follow a formula, but within those confines he created music that can touch the heart and lift the spirit.  His influence was wide and far, as J.S.Bach knew his compositions and arranged some of the concertos for solo organ and groups of harpsichords.

After his death in 1741, Vivaldi's music was generally forgotten. It wasn't until the early 20th century that some of his works were rediscovered by musicians and musicologists. He wrote over 500 concertos,  with about 230 for solo violin. This concerto was originally written for lute, but is played on the guitar in most modern performances.