Monday, August 26, 2013

Glière - Symphony No. 2 in C Minor

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent seizing of power by the Bolsheviks led to a complete change in the Russian way of life. Gone was the old aristocracy (with the execution of Czar Nicholas and his family in 1918) while the communists (in name if not exactly in Marxist theory) made their power felt in the arts as well as every day life. The control of the communists, with lip-service given to the ideals of the revolution, led to the all too-human trait of maintaining power at all costs, created a totalitarian state that was not any better (and perhaps in some ways worse) than the old regime.

It was into this chaos of post-revolution Russia that Reinhold Glière was thrown.  He was not without sympathy to the cause of the October 1905 uprising, as he had been a signer of the manifesto that protested government brutality during the uprising.  He ventured to Berlin to study conducting later in 1905 and stayed until 1907. Upon his return to Moscow he settled into the life of composer and conductor.  After the revolution, he remained a conductor, teacher and composer. But the complexion of his music changed. Gone was the late Romanticism of his music, to be replaced by music more fitting to the 'revolution'.

Glière's three symphonies were written in 1900, 1908 and 1911 respectively.  There was a steady growth in his music from his first to third symphonies which showed influences of composers from his native Russia and Europe. This musical growth was stymied by the revolution and the cultural and artistic control exerted by the new regime. After the death of Lenin, the cultural control grew to be a stranglehold by a paranoid and brutal Stalin. To create any piece of music or art that was not liked by Stalin could be a literal death sentence. The number of people of all walks of life that were murdered under Stalin's orders (implied or explicit) runs into the millions.  The three symphonies of Glière may have been only a prelude to what he might have written under different circumstances.

Glière's Second Symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro pesante - The movement begins straight away with driving rhythm and a powerful theme stated in the horns. The theme is restated and slightly varied, but maintains a forward momentum that comes to a halt with a more quiet section accompanied by muted strings which introduces the expressive second theme. This second theme is but an interlude as the theme fist heard in the horns returns and is developed further. The development section of the movement begins with hushed tones until the horn theme begins again and goes through yet more development. The recapitulation arrives, the horn theme is heard, the second theme returns more passionately than heard in the beginning. There is a climax of the horn theme (the overwhelmingly dominant theme of the movement) and a short coda that incorporates pieces of the main theme and brings the movement to a mystic close.

II. Allegro giocoso - The composer's change of time signature from 3/4 to 2/4 in this scherzo gives it an appealing  quirkiness while the tune of the trio section shows the Russian spirit of the composer. As in the first hearing of the scherzo proper, the bass clarinet can be heard in the accompaniment as the music heads to the brilliant close of the movement.

III. Andante con variazioni - Glière showcases another of his melodies in this set of variations that holds the interest of the listener throughout.  The composer's gifts for melody and symphonic construction are showcased in seven variations that are in turn sweet, melodious, melancholy and boisterous. The theme is brought forth in a short coda with the Cor Anglais, strings and harp that serenely end the movement.

IV . Allegro vivace - A rousing dance opens the movement, with the bass clarinet once again playing a noticeable role. A more expressive theme appears for a brief time until the dance once again takes prominence. A quiet interlude with woodwinds accompanied by strings comes forth, only to be dispelled by the restless dance tune slowly appearing. The xylophone enters as the music gets more hectic and loud, the orchestra clashes, the dance dominates. The music morphs into a maestoso coda of fragments of the dance played in the brass as it comes to a close.

Some of the music in the Second Symphony foreshadows the music Glière was to compose for his masterpiece, the Third Symphony 'Ilya Murometz', but it is by no means an inferior work. It is a work of a great and original musical mind and talent.

That Glière's style changed to fit his political times is a fact that is proven by much of the music written after the 1917 Revolution. What might have been is but speculation. It may be easy for some to label the composer as complicit, a sell-out to the tyranny of his times to save his own ass. But how many might do the same thing, including those who may condemn him? It was a matter of life or death, after all.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lachner - Variations And March From Suite No. 1

Born in 1803, drinking companion of Franz Schubert, conductor and organist, Franz Lachner was also a prolific composer whose career spanned most of the 19th century. His opus numbers ran to 190, with his first compositions written while Schubert and Beethoven were still alive (in the 1820's), and whose last piece was published in 1881.  He worked tirelessly with the orchestra in Munich and made it one of the best in Europe, and if all this wasn't enough he taught for many years also.

He helped make his contemporary composers music better known, even when he didn't like it. He was a promoter of the young Wagner's music and was rewarded for his efforts by having his conducting duties of the Munich orchestra handed to Wagner's protege Hans von Bulow, with Wagner himself playing a key role in the treachery.

Lachner's music was dismissed by Wagner and other followers of the New Music as being old-fashioned, and the stigma has carried over to the modern era. It is true that Lachner's music was not considered modern in the sense that Liszt and Wagner's music was, but it is solidly written and shows that Lachner was not without gifts of melody, structure and orchestration.
The writer Eduard von Bauerfeld, Schubert
and Lachner drinking in Vienna, a drawing
by the artist Moiritz Schwind 

Lachner's Suite No. 1 For orchestra was written in 1861, after he had written his Eighth Symphony, his last work in the form,  in 1851.  He composed a total of 7 orchestral suites, his main form of orchestral composition later in his life. Why he no longer wrote symphonies isn't known. Perhaps the shadow of Beethoven's 9th Symphony was too large for him to go further. Whatever his reasons, his suites are indeed suites in the sense that they are modeled after the Baroque suite in that they contain individual pieces in dance form.

His first suite is in 4 movements, of which the third movement, Variations and March, is discussed here.

The movement begins with a solemn theme in D minor stated by the strings in unison.  The set of variations Lachner writes on this theme show him at his most versatile and creative. Going from minor key to major, from emphatic to gentle, there is plenty of contrapuntal, textural and orchestral diversity to keep the listener's interest. The music drifts from one style into another seamlessly. The movement ends with a rousing march.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ries - Piano Concerto No. 8 'Gruss an den Rhein'

The Ries family and Ludwig van Beethoven's family resided in Bonn, where the elder Franz Ries gave early instruction to young Beethoven. Beethoven remained connected to the Ries family all of his life and held Franz Ries in high regard as Franz had helped Beethoven after the death of his mother.

Ferdinand Ries, son of the elder Franz, traveled to Vienna where Beethoven was living and he had with him a letter of introduction from his father. Ferdinand was already a good musician at the age of eighteen, and Beethoven took him as a piano student from 1803 to 1805.  He further saw to his education by sending him to teachers in Vienna for harmony and counterpoint. The young Ries progressed so well with his studies that Beethoven requested that he play the piano part in the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor in 1804. 

Ferdinand was not only a student but a friend to Beethoven. He became his copyist, helped in negotiations with music publishers, and was involved with the first performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat 'Eroica'. 

Ries fled Vienna in 1805 for fear of conscription in the French Army that occupied Vienna at the time. He concertized his
Ludwig van Beethoven
way around Europe for a few years and finally settled in London, England. He was associated with the great Salomon, the musician and concert promoter that brought Haydn in England a few years before, and Ries was featured in some of Salomon's concerts.  While in London, Ries remained in contact with Beethoven, negotiated terms for the publication of Beethoven's works in England and was instrumental in getting Beethoven a commission for a work for the London Philharmonic orchestra that resulted in the 9th Symphony. 

Ries was a prolific composer and wrote pieces in most of the genres of his time, among them being 7 Symphonies, 9 Piano Concertos, various chamber pieces, and much music for piano. His style can remind the listener of Beethoven, but he was not a copy-cat composer. His music is something of a bridge from Beethoven to composers such as Chopin and Schumann.

The Piano Concerto No. 8 is in three movements:

I. Allegro con spirito - Ries retired in 1824 and moved back to Germany with his English wife.  Despite his retirement, he remained active as composer, pianist and conductor. He wrote the concerto in 1826 and titled it  'Gruss an den Rhein' (Greetings From The Rhine), as a tribute to the river he grew up near. The music of the opening of the first movement has a sweep and feeling to it of the river flowing along its banks. There is a faint reminiscence of his teacher's music to it, especially in the sonata form used, but at the same time Ries speaks with his own voice.

II. Larghetto con moto - A short movement that depicts to my ear a certain melancholy, perhaps of times and people remembered from his youth in Bonn on the Rhine river.

III. - Rondo:Allegro molto - The calmness of the preceding movement is swept away by the full orchestra as it introduces the soloist in a cadenza of stunning virtuosity. After this, the rondo theme begins and the orchestra and piano engage in a rapid-fire dialog. Ries' piano writing in this movement is brilliant and demanding. The influence of Beethoven on Ries' music is somewhat less in this movement, save for the virtuoso treatment of both soloist and orchestra.  The piano glitters in the finale to the movement, and the orchestra brings the concerto to a close.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sibelius - Symphony No. 3 In C Major

Jean Sibelius continued to write tonal music at a time in the early 20th century when many of his contemporaries were stretching the limits of tonality and music itself. Sibelius was well aware of the trends in the music of his time as he traveled extensively in Europe (and once to the United States) as concert goer, concert giver (he was an accomplished conductor) and tourist. He was called a musical conservative by some, but others looked upon him as the opposite. In truth, his music evolved from differing influences into his own unique style.

His first two symphonies were Romantic in style and showed the influence of Tchaikovsky and Bruckner. With his Third Symphony his style grew more akin to Beethoven in that his music showed an organic growth from scraps of thematic material, and was classical in musical and orchestral style. 

The Third Symphony was begun in 1904 and completed in 1907.  It was premiered in Helsinki, Finland by the Helsinki Philharmonic conducted by the composer. The symphony was met with mixed critical reviews, but Sibelius was not bothered by reviews good or bad. He once said, "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic." Sibelius' thoughts on symphonic composition:
"Since Beethoven’s time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems. In some cases the composers have given us a program or have at least suggested what they had in mind; in other cases it is evident that they were concerned with describing or illustrating something, be it a landscape or a series of pictures. That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal. My symphonies are music — conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician: for me, music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last. … I am particularly pleased to see it explicitly stressed that my [symphonies] are founded on classical symphonic form, and also that wholly misleading speculations about descriptions of nature and about folklore are being gotten rid of."
I. Allegro moderato - The first movement grows out of three themes that are heard at the outset. The music flows from these short themes in Sibelius' own type of form until the brass give out the final chords. 

II. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto -   "At a slightly quicker pace than a walk, with motion, kind of moderately fast," is roughly what the composer's Italian tempo indications mean. This is a good example of a composer trying to give direction to the performer how the music should be played, and is much an indication of mood as of velocity.  Here is where the experience of the musicians comes into play, as it is a matter of interpretation. It is trying to put a fine point on something that doesn't really exist on the printed page, but only exists in time - when the music is being played.  As ambiguous as that is, it is a vital part of interpretation. In any given performance, the interpretation of this tempo indication can 'make or break' the performance.  This is music of mystery, with the theme written in the distant key of G-sharp minor, and is interlaced with other material in a movement of quiet contrast. 

III. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto - The final movement incorporates a scherzo and finale. Fragments of the first two movements whisk by, along with new material and the symphony relentlessly moves to the end of the symphony.  


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mozart - String Quartet No. 19 in C Major 'Dissonant'

Two of the greatest composers of the classical music era happened to be good friends. Although there was 24 years difference between Mozart and the older Haydn, they came to know and respect one another during the winter months that Haydn spent in Vienna. There are many anecdotes concerning the two and their genuine affection and respect for one another.  As for Mozart's thoughts on Haydn, the following is an example:
At a private party a new work of Joseph Haydn was being performed. Besides Mozart there were a number of other musicians present, among them a certain man who was never known to praise anyone but himself. He was standing next to Mozart and found fault with one thing after another. For a while Mozart listened patiently; when he could bear it no longer and the fault-finder once more conceitedly declared: "I would not have done that", Mozart retorted: "Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate."
Joseph Haydn 
As for Haydn's opinion of Mozart, he told Mozart's father Leopold the following:
"Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition."
It was Haydn's influence that set Mozart to writing string quartets, with an excellent set of six quartets published in 1785 and dedicated to Haydn. Quartet No. 19 in C Major was the last one in this set.

I. Adagio - Allegro - The first movement of this quartet begins with a slow introduction. It was this slow introduction with its daring (for the time at least) harmonies that led to the nickname 'dissonant'. It's been said that some music dealers returned the manuscripts to the publisher because they thought these harmonies were mistakes, and that a Hungarian nobleman got so angry over the supposed mistakes that he tore up the music. Even Haydn was initially shocked by the dissonance, but his faith in his friend didn't waver. He eventually defended his friend by saying, "Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it.”  Mozart's dissonant introduction stands in stark contrast to the music of the rest of the movement.

II. Andante cantabile - This movement is in sonatina form, which is sonata form without the development section.

III. Menuetto, Allegro - An elegant minuet in the home key of C major with a contrasting trio section in the  parallel key of C minor.

IV. Allegro molto - Written in sonata form, this music returns to the mood of the first movement.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bortkiewicz - Piano Concerto No. 2 For Left Hand Alone

As if playing the piano with two hands isn't challenge enough, there is a sizable repertoire of music for the left hand alone. Why music for only one hand at the piano? The reasons are many. In a world where right-handed people vastly outnumber left handed people, the invention of the keyboard naturally favored the right hand. The melody is most often carried in the right hand, while the left is accompaniment.  But there is plenty of keyboard music written that demands much of both hands, hence some left hand piano music was written to help develop it enough to play the more demanding music of composers.

Paul Wittgenstein
In some cases, loss or severe injury to the right hand of some pianists have left them with only the left hand to play with. Such is the case of Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist. He served in World War One, was wounded in the right elbow and had to have his right arm amputated while he was in a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia. He was a classically trained pianist, and was determined to continue his pursuit of a career of a concert pianist after the war. There were some pieces for left hand alone and he transcribed other works for his own use, but the fact that Wittgenstein was the son of
a wealthy industrialist offered him the opportunity to commission works for left hand alone from some of the top composers in the first half of the 20th century. He commissioned works from Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Bortkiewicz and others.

Wittgenstein played the premiere of the Bortkiewicz concerto in 1923 in Vienna. Wittgenstein was pleased with the work and played it many times before World War Two.  As with all of the works Wittgenstein commissioned, he held exclusive performing rights to the concerto until his death in 1961. Even after that, Wittgenstein's widow would not allow the scores to leave his library. It has been only within the past few years that some of this left-handed piano repertoire has become available.

The concerto is divided into four tempo sections, but can be thought of as being in two distinct movements in a unique form:

Allegro dramatico - The composer begins with a loud theme for orchestra, after which the solo piano enters with a dramatic melody which is taken up by the orchestra while the piano accompanies with figures that make the listener forget that there is only one hand being used.  The second theme is traded off between piano and orchestra and is of a more quiet but still restless nature.
Allegretto - The next section acts as the usual slow movement in a concerto. New themes are stated, the piano has an extended solo, and the orchestra assumes a more gentle demeanor as the piano and orchestra engage in an atmospheric dialog.
Allegro dramatico - The material from the beginning interrupts with what amounts to the recapitulation of this first movement.
Allegro vivo - The music of this second movement is in contrast to what has transpired. It is an uncomplicated but interesting dance that unwinds into a rousing finish to the concerto.

The skill and artistry in which Bortkiewicz writes for the left hand and orchestra makes this concerto one of my favorites.  A solid knowledge of piano technique and use of left-hand devices and pedalling creates an illusion so strong that if the listener didn't know better, they would think this is being played by two hands.

Schubert - Symphony No. 2 In B-flat

Franz Schubert's gifts showed themselves early, and by the time he was a teenager he was writing symphonies for full orchestra. His first symphony was written in 1813 when he was sixteen years old, and as soon as it was completed he began work on his second symphony which he began late in 1814 and finished in the spring of 1815.  During this time Schubert was a schoolmaster, having been trained to follow in his  father's profession. He soon grew tired of the monotony of teaching and quit his schoolmaster's duties in 1818 to devote himself to music.

Schubert's education included time in the Imperial and Royal Seminary in Vienna as a chorister. He also played in the school orchestra, which played music every evening. Schubert was exposed to a great deal of music during his time at the Seminary in Vienna, especially the music of Mozart, which remained a favorite of his.

The public performance of the Second Symphony wasn't given until 1877, many years after Schubert's death, but Schubert dedicated the symphony to his music master at the Seminary and the symphony could have had it's first performance by the school orchestra.

The symphony is in 4 movements:

I. Largo - Allegro vivace - Schubert begins with an introduction consisting of a robust fanfare that leads into a slow, lyrical section. This soon give way to the beginning of the first movement proper, written in sonata form. The first theme chatters away in the tonic key of B-flat which is followed by a second theme that is not in the expected dominant key of F major, but is in E-flat major.  After a working out of themes in the development, the recapitulation appears. Schubert keeps the music lyrically moving, and the movement ends in the tonic key.

II . Andante - The second movement is a set of five variations on an original theme. The orchestration is varied as well as the theme itself as Schubert makes music that is reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn.

III. Menuetto - Music in the style of Haydn's peasant-stomp minuets.

IV. - Presto - Rapid music in rondo form. Already at age seventeen, Schubert shows a remarkable deftness for harmonic surprises that go against convention, but still make musical sense.