Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Vierne - Piano Quintet In C Minor, Opus 42

From 1914 to 1918 the entire world was engulfed in the first global conflict of its kind. There was no way to predict the carnage, death and destruction that was to come, with an estimated total death count of over 8 million and 21 million wounded.  France was one of the hardest hit countries for deaths with over a million being killed and over 4 million wounded. Louis Vierne composed his Piano Quintet In C Minor in 1917 as a memorial to his son that had recently been killed in the war.

Vierne was born nearly blind with congenital cataracts in 1870, but showed remarkable aptitude for music at a very early age. As Vierne described it:
I came into the world almost completely blind; my parents cosseted me with special warmth, which very early brought about what might be called an almost pathological sensitivity on my part...This state of affairs pursued me my whole life long and gave me of periods of joy, but also periods of inexpressible sorrow.
After graduating from the Paris Conservatory he began his career as did many French musicians of hie era as a teacher, organist, and composer. He was the living the organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 until he died in 1937 while he was giving an organ recital. He wrote extensively for the organ and is most well known for those works, but his piano quintet is one of his few chamber works. It is  in three movements:

I. Poco lento - Moderato -  Vierne's music is known for its chromaticism, a feature that was influenced by Cesar Franck. In the first movement Vierne begins with an introduction with the key signature of C minor, but any tonal center remains a mystery as the music slithers through almost all of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The bleak mood is hardly lifted as the first theme begins. The second theme is ushered in by the cello over chords in the piano. The movement is in sonata form, but  Vierne blends themes and sections so skillfully that it can be difficult for the ear to find its way. The music is beautiful while also being disconcerting in places as the grief of the composer comes out in the music. The rawness of the emotion dies down as the music ends in C major.

II. Larghetto sostenuto - The strings begin the movement, and when the piano enters in becomes the catalyst for music that slowly intensifies until a climax is reached in the middle section. There are moments that recall the first movement as well as the beginning of this movement. After the turbulent middle section, the music winds down and assumes the mood of the beginning of the movement, and it ends in E minor.

III. Maestoso - Allegro molto risoluto - The final movement's opening belong to the solo piano that pounds out sharply accented, odd-sounding chords. These chords are met by the utterance of the strings. The piano returns to tremolo strings, the music quiets, and the tremolo strings begin again. The actual first theme in G minor begins and leads to a fugal section. Themes from the other movements are heard again, especially the second theme of the first movement. There is a jauntiness to the rhythm until a section of eerie quietness occurs in the solo piano. The strings add to the atmosphere and a theme from the second movement is heard. The music becomes loud and fast again and it leads up to a fiery coda that ends in C minor.

After the death of Vierne's son, his sorrows did not end. In 1918 his youngest brother was also killed in WWI.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Bach - Sonata For Viola da Gamba No. 3 In G Minor BWV 1029

Despite his death over 250 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach's music continues to be acknowledged as some of the greatest ever written. He wrote music in all the forms of his time except for opera, and his output was huge. His career spanned a time of great change in not only musical styles but musical instruments themselves.

The piano forte had been invented by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime in the early 18th century, and Bach played some early examples, but it took years before improvements in the piano helped it to render the harpsichord and clavichord as obsolete. The situation was different for the viola da gamba family of instruments. Violas da gamba were becoming rare in Bach's later life as the instruments of the violin family were more suited for the public performance of music. But as viols were a popular amateur instrument, there were still instruments being played by royal amateur musicians for the benefit of private performances in smaller royal venues, and virtuosos of the instrument that were employed by royalty.

Christian Ferdinand Abel
Viols may have descended from the vihuela, an ancestor of the guitar that was played by plucking the strings like a modern guitar. Sometime in the 15th century musicians began to play these instruments with a bow. The viola da gamba retained the flat back, frets, and tuning of the vihuela. The name of the instrument stems from the playing style, as they were held between the legs.

J.S. Bach wrote 3 sonatas for bass viola da gamba and keyboard, and for many years musicologists were unsure what years they were written. Some think they were written around 1720 when Bach was employed at Cöthen as the virtuosoChristian Ferdinand Abel was employed at the court. Others thin that they were written after Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723.

Bass viola da gamba
showing the frets,
rounded shoulders, and 
C-holes of the instrument.
The first two sonatas are sonata da chiesa written in 4 movements; slow-fast-slow-fast, while the third sonata is written in three movements. There have been some musicologists that think this sonata was originally a concerto for unknown instruments.

I. Vivace - After the initial statement of the theme,  The left hand of the keyboard plays a continuo part and fills in the harmonies when the right hand doesn't play. When the right hand enters, the two hands become play notes as written, thus making this sonata a three-part or trio sonata. The theme is traded back and forth between the gamba and the right hand. After excursions to different keys, the theme goes back to G minor and ends the movement.

II. Adagio - This movement is in B-flat major. The left hand plays slow and stately chords while the gamba and right hand weave in and out with an expressive, decorated duet.

III. Allegro -  The music goes back to G minor as the keyboard states the repetitive notes of the first theme with the gamba close behind. There are a variety of themes and modulations until the music settles back into G minor at the end.

This sonata, along with the other two, are also performed in editions for the cello and piano. The accompanying video is a performance on bass viola da gamba and harpsichord.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Puccini - I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums)

Giacomo Puccini was the heir apparent to Giuseppe Verdi in the world of Italian opera in the late 19th and early 20th century, whose operas are still popular. He took the tradition of Italian opera in the direction of Wagner with his sense of orchestration and dramatic flow, while retaining the Italianate penchant for melody.

Puccini came from a family of musicians that stretched back 5 generations. While he was a church organist, he made the 18 mile trip to Pisa on foot to see a performance of Verdi's Aida that inspired him to become a composer of opera, counter to the history of church musicians in his family.

He admitted himself that his true talent was for the stage, and with his ten operas written between 1884 until 1924 (his last opera Turandot was unfinished at his death), he became the premiere opera composer of his time.  Some of these operas went through more than one version, as Puccini rewrote parts of them for various reasons. He also left a body of works outside of opera that are less well known. Many of these were for voice and orchestra. He wrote very few instrumental works, and among them there are 4 works for string quartet; 3 minuets and the elegy Crisantemi  (Chrysanthemums).

Duke of Savoy
Crisantemi was written in memory of his friend the Duke of Savoy, formerly King Amadeo I Of Spain. who died in 1890. Puccini himself said he wrote it in one night after he heard the news. The original version for string quartet (the version heard on the video) is seldom heard as there is a version for string orchestra.

Puccini's mastery of writing for strings is evident in this short work that lasts about 6 minutes. The work consists of two themes, the first is repeated at the end while the second one is in the middle section. It is a work of concentrated dark mood as the 4 instruments pay tribute to Puccini's friend. Puccini thought much of the two melodies used in the work as he reused them in the last act of his opera Manon Lescaut three years later in 1893.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Sonata For Clarinet In E-flat Major, Opus 167

Camille Saint-Saëns was born in 1835 and during his life of 86 years (he died in 1921) he saw many changes in the world. He was a man of brilliant intellect, not only for music, but for the other arts and sciences as well. But music held a special place in his mind and heart, and with the coming of what was in his later years called 'modern music', he became a staunch defender of the classic forms and practices of music that were developed by Liszt and Wagner.

He lived so long that he became a living classic, and he suffered the derision of the younger generation of composers at the turn of the 20th century. He became a musical reactionary, and was publically vocal about his bitterness concerning young composers. He blasted Debussy's music and actively took part in  blocking Debussy's admission into the Institut de France:
We must at all costs bar the door of the Institut against a man capable of such atrocities; they should be put next to the cubist picture.
He also spewed venom in general at any composer of the modern school, and wrote in his book Musical Memories:
There is no longer any question of adding to the old rules new principles which are the natural expression of time and experience, but simply of casting aside all rules and every restraint. "Everyone ought to make his own rules. Music is free and unlimited in its liberty of expression. There are no perfect chords, dissonant chords or false chords. All aggregations of notes are legitimate." That is called, and they believe it, the development of taste.The man with a “developed taste” is not the one who knows how to get new and unexpected results by passing from one key to another, as the great Richard [Wagner] did in Die Meistersinger, but rather the man who abandons all keys and piles up dissonances which he neither introduces nor concludes and who, as a result, grunts his way through music as a pig through a flower garden.
Despite all of that, he was also revered for his artistry and contributions to French musical life. He maintained his piano technique all through his life and impressed members of the audience at a concert in 1921 where he displayed the precision and grace at the piano that he had cultivated many years before.

Saint-Saëns composed some forty works for various chamber ensembles, and during his last year of life he began a series of new compositions for solo wind instruments and piano. His original plan called for sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, cor anglais, and bassoon. He lived long enough to complete three of them; for bassoon, oboe , and clarinet. The sonata for clarinet and piano is cast in 4 short movements:

I. Allegretto - The chamber repertoire for clarinet is limited, and it is the same for the other instruments Saint-Saëns wrote for. He may have gotten the idea for the sonata series from a series of sonata planned by Debussy in 1915-1917. Debussy also completed but three of his sonatas (for cello, violin, and combination of flute/violin/harp. Both composers also took a look backwards to their earlier styles as well as adding some more modern elements to the sonatas. The first movement of this sonata begins with a gently rippling piano accompaniment and a quiet song for the clarinet. The movement is not in sonata form, nor are the other three, as Saint-Saëns uses the earlier forms of the Baroque suite. It is in a type of ternary form, although there is some variation along the way.  The mood is one of elegant ease as the opening material returns and closes out the first movement.

II. Allegro animato -  A gentle scherzo, this retains the elegant feeling of theo pening movement and is also in ternary form. The short middle section contains leaps of a twelfth before the opening material returns.

III. Lento - A very slow and lugubrious section in E-flat minor begins the movement as the piano matches the depth of the low notes of the clarinet. The lowest notes of the clarinet, called the chalumeau register, are noted for their distinctive sound. The volume rises until the clarinet goes silent as tghe piano plays rolled chords. After a short pause, the second half of the movement has both instruments playing higher notes at a softer dynamic until the piano arpeggiates until the beginning of the final movement that is played without a break.

IV. Molto allegro - Allegretto -  The most virtuosic movement of the sonata, the clarinet displays its agility with rapid runs. The music continues until a soft transition returns to an unchanged repeat of the opening of the sonata.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Paganini - Variations On 'I Palpiti', Opus 13

Long before recorded sound, arias from operas were the hit songs of their day. All through the 19th century, composers and performers extracted the most popular arias and subjected them to arrangements, sets  of variations and paraphrases (as Franz Liszt called them) for performance. Music publishers were fond of these arrangements as they made money on them by selling to professionals as well as accomplished amateurs.

The famed virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini wrote sets of variations on opera tunes and was most likely the only violinist that could play them at the time. Paganini used many of his own compositions and sets of variations for concerts and recitals that took Europe by storm in the early 19th century. Many of these were never published during his lifetime, as he guarded his music that revealed the means of his astounding technique from any would-be rivals.

The Variations On I Palpiti are based on an aria from the 1813 opera Tancredi by Gioachino Rossini. The opera was Rossini's first large success, and the aria Di tanti palpiti (Heartbeats) was one of his most popular tunes of his career.

Paganini uses the technique of retuning the open strings of the violin (scordatura) in this piece. It was one of his tricks that lead to more brilliance in his instrument as well as making some of the passages more feasible. The regular violin tuning of G-D-A-E was changed to A-flat, E-flat, B-flat and F.
There are 3 sections to the work:

I. Introduzione: Larghetto cantabile - The piano part is written in B-flat major while the violin part is written in A major due to the scordatura tuning. This section has the violin singing in a highly decorated introduction.

II.Recitativo, con grande espressione - The music turns to B-flat minor as Paganini shows his own operatic flair in a short section where the piano plays tremolos as the violin sings a recitative.

III. Andantino - After a short transition, Rossini's theme is played. The repeat of the theme is conservatively decorated as Paganini saves the fireworks for the 3 variations on it that follow.

Variation 1 - All manner of triple and double stops, runs, and articulations rush forth in a variation that also includes some runs in harmonics, stopped notes high in the stratosphere and parts where Paganini directs the soloist to play the same note on two strings at once.

Variation 2 -Un poco piu lento - The harmonics of the preceding variation are expanded as much of this variation is played in single stopped as well as double stopped harmonics, an incredibly difficult thing to do for the soloist.

Variation 3 - Quasi presto - The final variation has an increase in tempo as double stops lead to runs played pizzicato in the left hand that alternate with bowed notes as well.  A last statement of the theme brings the work to a brilliant close.

This work has been edited in years gone by when changes in the original composer's music was not only tolerated but expected. The edition by Fritz Kreisler is often played instead of the original and has many changes in both the piano and violin parts. The recording linked below is of Paganini's original score, and save for a few bars of violin chords that begin the work with the piano, the work is complete in its original form.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bach - Sonata For Violin And Keyboard In B Minor BWV 1014

Johann Sebastian Bach came by his reputation as the master of counterpoint and fugue with the 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier, but counterpoint was his life's blood, and appeared in one form or another in most of his compositions. When Bach died in 1750, there was already a movement underfoot to change the tools of musical expression from counterpoint to a simpler form of melody and accompaniment. The result was that Bach was considered old fashioned, even when he was still alive, for some composers. But the genius of Bach knew no limits. He well understood the new trends in music, and could write in the new style as he chose.

The six sonatas for violin and keyboard were written when Bach was in service as the Kappelmeister at Köthen. Prince Leopold was a keen music lover whose court was Calvinist with simple church services that didn't use much in the way of music. Bach was there from 1717-1723, and wrote mostly secular pieces. It was here that he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites, pieces for solo violin and solo cello, and many other pieces.

The new style is blended with the old with the violin sonatas as they are written in the Baroque sonata de chiesa form of four movements with the tempo plan of slow-fast-slow-fast. But Bach makes the instruments partners, as both hands are written out for the keyboard player instead of just a figured bass line for the keyboardist to interpret.

These sonatas were not published until the early 19th century, but they were circulated by hand-made copies, and the music loving government official and patron of the arts Baron Gottfried van Swieten had copies of many of Bach's compositions in his music library. His weekly salon of performances of Bach's music helped musicians and music lovers become acquainted with Bach's music and lead to the revival of Bach's reputation in the 19th century.

I. Adagio - The first movement begins with the keyboard playing solo before the violin enters:
The violin sings a soulful lament as the keyboard continues to build on the initial ideas. The result is a short movement where the violin, right hand and left hand of the keyboard combine to make the texture of a trio.

II. Allegro -  The second movement begins with a fugal subject stated by the violin with an accompaniment:
The two instruments trade the subject back and forth until a middle section is reached. The middle section begins in the major and continues with the subject. The opening key of B minor subject returns and Bach continues to play effortlessly as it weaves in and out until the end of the movement.

III. Andante - The violin and right hand of the keyboard play in counterpoint in D major as the left hand maintains the bass:
Further along in the movement the two voices sing as duet before the movement ends gently.

IV. Allegro -  The final movement, like most of the fast movements in the sonatas, has the violin and right hand play in counterpoint:
The movement is in two sections, both of which are repeated.

Fauré - Piano Quartet No. 1 In C Minor, Opus 15

Gabriel Fauré was the only member of his family that showed a talent for music. His father was a schoolmaster that became the head of teacher training college. His father was advised of his son's musical talent and made the decision to send him to Paris to the School Of Classical And Religious Music (which was founded and run by Louis Niedemeyer) when Fauré was 9 years old to study music. When Niedemeyer died in 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns came to the school and became in charge of piano studies and introduced the contemporary modern composers such as Liszt and Wagner to the students.  Fauré and Saint-Saëns became great friends and their friendship lasted until the death of Saint-Saëns 60 years later.

After 11 years of study, Fauré made his living as a church organist and piano teacher. He had little time for composing, but later in life he gained notoriety as a composer as well as the head of the Paris Conservatoire.

Fauré's 1st piano quartet is an early piece that was begun in 1876 and completed in 1879. Fauré played the piano part in the premiere of the piano quartet in 1880, after which he revised the work and wrote an entirely new last movement in 1883.  It has 4 movements:

I. Allegro molto moderato -  Fauré composed about 20 works for chamber ensemble, and save for one string quartet written late in life, all of them include the piano. The piano always takes an active and key role in his chamber works, and this is shown in the first movement of this work. The first C minor theme is in dotted rhythm in the strings that is accented by the off-the-beat comments of the piano:
This initial theme plays itself out and leads to the second theme that is in the major and more lyrical in nature. The second theme is economical in its parts, but Fauré develops the theme until a third theme is heard, which leads to a short reference to the first theme. There is a seamless transition to the development section as the first theme is explored. The dotted rhythm is heard in different guises and keys. Themes and rhythms meld into a seamless development section until the recapitulation begins with the first theme repeat. Fauré handles modulations with a deft smoothness that results in very pleasant music to the ear. There is contrast, but it is not a startling, dramatic contrast. The key of C minor is one of storm and passion to other composers, but Fauré uses it in his own lyrical style. The movement ends delicately in C major.

II. Scherzo: Allegro vivo -  The music begins in E-flat major, but C minor keeps appearing as the strings play a delicate pizzicato to the piano's quirkiness:
Unlike many other scherzos, this one is in two in a bar in a time signature that shifts from 6/8 to 2/4. The middle trio is in B-flat major and has muted strings accompanying the piano.

III. Adagio - The piano trio was written at a time in Fauré's life when he was with a woman he had been wooing for 5 years before they became engaged in 1877. They were engaged for about four months until the woman broke off the engagement. Fauré was heartbroken, and the slow movement of the quartet is the only hint of what he may have been feeling. The movement begins with a slow song in C minor:
The middle section of the movement strives for more of a dreamy lyricism, but the sadness of the opening returns. The movement is a model of classical restraint, and ends intimately in C minor.

IV. Allegro molto -  The finale begins with a dotted theme in C minor that hearkens back to the beginning of the quartet:
 The second theme begins in E-flat major, but doesn't seem to stay in that key very long. This movement perhaps carries more drama than the others, but it is still within Fauré's artistic sensibilities. There is a restless energy that climaxes in the middle of the movement, after which the piano continues to scamper as the violin and viola trade off motives. The cello enters as a reinforcement of the violin and viola as the piano can hold its own. The music gradually changes to the brightness of C major and it ends in that key after a coda that makes a few references to the dotted rhythms of previous movements.