Thursday, May 29, 2014

Prokofiev - Overture On Hebrew Themes

Sergei Prokofiev was 25 yeas old when the February Revolution of 1917 occurred in Russia. He was already an accomplished concert pianist and composer, and wrote about those times:
The February Revolution found me in Petrograd. I and those I associated with welcomed it with open arms. I was in the streets of Petrograd while the fighting was going on, hiding behind house corners when the shooting came too close.
Despite his enthusiasm for the revolution, Prokofiev felt that there was little need for his music in Russia at this time so he made arrangements in 1918 with the People's Commissar For Education of the new government for a travel visa to the United States. He arrived in San Francisco in August of 1918 and was soon on his way to New York where he had his debut solo concert in September of 1918. But Prokofiev's stay in the United States turned out to not be a successful artistic or financial time. He stayed until 1920, when he left for France.

While he was still in New york in 1919 he was approached by a Russian musical group, the Zimbro Ensemble, with a commission to write a composition for their combination of clarinet, string quartet and piano. The group had just arrived in the United States on a world tour that had been sponsored by a Russian Zionist organization to try and raise money for a conservatory in Jerusalem.  The leader of the group, the clarinetist  Simeon Bellison, requested that the work have a Jewish style to it, so he gave Prokofiev a notebook that had Jewish folk songs in it for possible inclusion in the work.

Simeon Bellison
Initially, Prokofiev showed little interest in the project, but he played through the Jewish folksong notebook one day at the piano and his interest increased. He finished the work and was the pianist at the premiere in 1920.

The overture is in one continuous movement and Prokofiev used two melodies from the notebook given to him, although neither melody has been identified as being authentic Jewish folksong. The clarinet plays the first theme in a style of Jewish Klezmer Music of Eastern Europe.  The second theme is more lyrical and has the quality of melancholy about it as well.  All through the development section a feeling of improvisation is kept as the themes wend their way in and out amid other material. The themes return in what amounts to a recapitulation, after which the first theme returns in a short coda that builds in speed and volume until the piece ends.

Prokofiev didn't think too highly of his composition, perhaps because he had vowed earlier in his career to use only original themes in his work and he may have written this work mainly for money. Despite the composer's own opinion, the piece has remained popular and is one of the few instances where a non-Jewish musician captured the spirit and sound of Jewish music.

Grieg - Cello Sonata In A Minor, Opus 36

Edvard Grieg was by all accounts a bad student. He had no interest in academia, quit school when he was 15 and never went back.  Luckily for him, his musical talent was noticed by the great Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull, who convinced Grieg's parents to allow him to study at  the Leipzig Conservatory.  True to his nature, he didn't much care for his teachers or the conservative curriculum, but he was exposed to music of the masters and was determined to make his way as a professional musician.

In 1860 Grieg suffered from tuberculosis and other lung ailments that left him with only one functioning lung. For the rest of his life he was beset with respiratory infections plus he had a spinal deformity. He eventually developed heart disease later in life. He finished his studies in Leipzig in 1862 and began to give piano recitals.

Grieg composed his only Cello Sonata in 1882 after an extended period when illness and his conducting duties prevented him from composing. He dedicated the work to his brother John, a gifted amateur cellist, perhaps as a peace offering for the brothers were not on good terms. The premiere of the work was given by a different cellist and Grieg at the piano in 1883.

The Cello Sonata is in 3 movements:
I. Allegro agitato - One of the few pieces Grieg wrote in sonata form, this movement begins with a highly agitated theme that literally wallows in romantic emotion. The theme quickens its pace until a serene second theme begins, which slowly unwinds until it reaches a mild climax, after which other material leads to the development section. The second theme goes through key changes and flirts with the passion of the first theme until the first theme reappears for a short reprise which is followed by a brief cadenza for the cello. The recapitulation begins with the first theme and quickly segues into the second theme. A short coda brings the first theme back at a quicker pace until the final chords signal the end of the movement.

II. Andante molto tranquillo - A lyrical theme begins the movement and slowly winds its way to a more agitated middle section. The lyrical theme returns, builds to a climax, and then recedes back to calmness. The end of the movement has the cello playing high in its register, and finally playing a very soft arpeggiated pizzicato chord.

III. Allegro molto e marcato - A short introduction for solo cello begins the movement. The piano interrupts with a spirited accompaniment and the cello joins it in a rustic Norwegian dance. The dance is interrupted by episodes that range from passionate to lyrical, and each time the dance appears, Grieg develops it in some way. The movement continues in this fashion until the last utterance of the dance brings it full circle. A short coda increases the tempo and passion until the cello soars into the top of its register with a passionate, long held note while the piano plays scales that lead to the final chords.

Grieg is more well known for his short, lyrical pieces for piano, the Piano Concerto in A minor and the Peer Gynt music, but his handful of chamber music pieces are some of the most passionate and dramatic music he ever wrote.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Debussy - String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10

The year of 1893 saw the composition or premiere of many classical music pieces that were to become standards of the repertoire; Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony 'Pathetique', Verdi's final opera Falstaff, Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", and Brahms' Six Pieces For Piano Opus 118, and in Paris an original and forward-looking composition -  Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10. 

Musical influences on the young Debussy were many; Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and he fell under the spell of Wagner for a short time. But Debussy was an original from the start. He took when he had learned from the masters and expanded upon it, forming his own musical aesthetic in the process. During his student years at the Paris Conservatoire he had the reputation of being a rebel. He would begin a Bach prelude by first extemporizing in strange chords and harmonies before launching into a highly romanticized performance. Debussy expressed his musical aesthetic as a student in these words:
I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamoured of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!
The string quartet of 1893 was the only composition Debussy gave an opus number to, thus Debussy's reason for using it isn't known.  It is also the only work that has a key designation.  It is a harbinger of things to come for subsequent works. Debussy pours very different music into the old wine skin of the string quartet. The quartet is in 4 movements:
 I. Animé e très décidé (Decidedly very animated) - Debussy gives a passing nod to sonata form in the first movement. He begins with the first theme right off. This theme is also the basis of the entire quartet as it appears throughout the movements of the quartet in various guises and strange harmonies, thus Debussy also pays homage to Franck and Liszt in using cyclical form. The theme is in the Phrygian mode, a mode related to the minor scale.  The second theme is more lyrical and retains some of the qualities of the initial theme.  Instead of a more traditional development section, Debussy writes subtle variations on the second theme. They appear in different harmonies and scales.  The recapitulation weaves the two themes in and out with shifting harmonic feeling until the movement ends.

II. Assez vif et bien rythmé (Quite lively and well paced) - The movement begins with pizzicato chords in the first violin and cello. The viola plays a figure that repeats while the first violin plays a variant of the main theme of the first movement pizzicato. Debussy marks this section over the first violin part un peu en dehors, somewhat prominent. The music repeats with the roles of the instruments changing. The trio section of this scherzo is but slightly more subdued. The scherzo begins again, new material is introduced that maintains the spikiness of the music. The movement began with one sharp in the key signature, ostensibly G major, but the music is such a kaleidoscope of changing tonal colors that the listener can't be sure of where Debussy is at harmonically. The movement goes its merry way until it ends pianississimo (ppp). Debussy has written a movement that is outwardly consistent with the tradition of string quartets, that is, a scherzo. But the form he uses and the sounds he produces are hardly traditional.

III. Andantino, doucement expressif (Andantino, very expressive) -  Written in the key of D-flat, Debussy varies the main theme of the first movement drastically in sensual music that adds to the imaginative sound palette of the first two movements. The music reaches a climax, and winds down with a repeat of the theme in the last bars that are stunning in their simplicity and serene calmness.

IV. Très modéré (Very moderately) - The finale begins with a section that repeats music heard in the previous three movements, a practice used by composers to create unity within the movements of a work. After this section, the music goes off on its own variations of the main theme. The pace of the music quickens, and the final chords are played.

To our modern ears Debussy's quartet cannot create the same effect that it did to the audiences of 1893, but the premiere of the work met with mixed reactions from listeners and critics.  It went on to become a standard piece of the chamber music repertoire, along with having a great influence on many composers. Debussy began a second quartet, but soon turned his attention to orchestral writing. He wrote very few chamber music works, and only came back to the genre in the years shortly before his death in 1918.

Debussy summed up his thoughts on music later inhis career with these words:
There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art gushing forth — an open-air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It must never be shut in and become an academic art.
He  demonstrated with the writing of his string quartet that he knew the musical traditions of the time very well. He was a true rebel, for he knew exactly what he was rebelling against. He knew the rules, and he chose to break them and go his own way, even in a work that at least on the surface, resembled the traditional form of the string quartet.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Beethoven - Piano Trio In B-flat Major, Opus 97, 'Archduke'

Beethoven was a man as revolutionary in his thoughts about society as he was about music. Tradition has it that Beethoven wrote his now famous opinion of the nobility in a letter to, in fact, a nobleman:
Prince, what you are you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven! 
The quote makes Beethoven seem like a no-nonsense product of the Enlightenment, but the truth is that he was not above mingling with the nobility when it suited his purpose. Many of his most ardent supporters and patrons were members of the nobility.  It was a time when things were beginning to change, when a composer could make a living by selling their compositions to publishers. But before copyright laws and legal protection for a composer's works, the patronage of the nobility could make the difference if a composer would earn much of anything from his works or not.

Archduke Rudolph
To Beethoven's noble patron's credit, they tolerated his rude behavior, crude humor and general disrespect out of admiration for his talent. One of those noble patrons was Archduke Rudolph Of Austria. The Archduke was not only Beethoven's patron, but his piano and composition pupil dating back to 1804.  It was to his nobleman that Beethoven dedicated his Piano Trio, Opus 97, hence the nickname Archduke.

The trio was written in 1811, and was not just the last piano trio Beethoven wrote, but at its public premiere in 1814 Beethoven played the piano in public for the last time.  The trio is in 4 movements:

I.  Allegro moderato -  The piano opens the movement with one of Beethoven's most recognizable themes. This theme is expanded along with other minor themes until the second main theme is also begun by the piano. A short transitional section leads to the exposition repeat. The development section separates the first theme into smaller motives and develops them. A part of the development has the piano elaborate on the trills that are heard in the end of the exposition while the strings play a pizzicato accompaniment. The recapitulation begins with a slight variation on the opening motive and then proceeds with the first theme and second theme playing out. A short coda brings back the first theme briefly until it builds to a chord that ends one of Beethoven's most thematically rich movements.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  The first movement's grandeur is contrasted with a witty scherzo. The trio of this scherzo is one of Beethoven's most memorable one. It begins in B-flat minor in the cello with a crawling motive that begins a canon between the three instruments which ends with a crescendo and piano solo. The crawling motive briefly returns for another crescendo, this time the climax of the crescendo has the music change key to E major for a short section. Once again the crawling motive appears and returns to the key of B-flat minor as it slithers and creeps to an even larger crescendo that climaxes to B-flat major. The scherzo returns and dances its way to a short coda that brings back a short section of the crawling motive until the scherzo makes one last quiet appearance, after which the piano plays the last four bars of the movement save for a loud final octave played by all three instruments on the note F, a fifth above the home note of B-flat.

III. Andante cantabile ma però con moto. Poco piu adagio -  A set of variations where the slowly unfolding theme is played and commented upon by all three instruments. Beethoven explores combinations and textures within the piano trio ensemble with the result that justifies Beethoven's own description of himself as a tone poet.  After a short section, the last movement begins without break.

IV. Allegro moderato - Presto -  In Beethoven's early days in Vienna, he was known for his skill and artistry as an improviser on the piano. He would play the most tender music and have his audience thoroughly entranced, and then he would delight in shifting gears and play fast and loud. Something of Beethoven's improvising prank can be heard in the sudden intrusion of the slow movement with the loud chord that signals the beginning of the finale.  The theme of this rondo is a simple tune that Beethoven decorates and expands each time it returns after being interrupted by other material. The movement continues on its way until the last appearance of the theme when the pace quickens. A very short coda marked presto makes a false start, and then the three instruments chase each other to the final B-flat chord.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shostakovich - Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 102

By the time Dmitri Shostakovich began writing his 2nd Piano Concerto in 1957 he had lived an artistic life full of official censure and criticism. In the age of Stalin's ruthless paranoia, to be officially censured was often times a literal death sentence. Shostakovich managed to stay alive, but it had taken a toll on his already melancholy nature and the mood of much of his music.

But the 2nd Piano concerto is an exception. It was written for Shostakovich's son Maxim as a present for his 19th birthday.  Shostakovich himself said the work had "no redeeming artistic merit," but he may have been getting a head start in averting the inevitable negative criticism some would have.  The concerto is in three movements:

I. Allegro - The bassoon enters with the first theme with the piano close behind. The second theme quickens the paced and is played in single notes one octave apart in the piano. Some listeners have detected a similarity between this second theme and the sea shanty What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor. A third theme is played by the piano in single notes two octaves apart. After the third theme is played, the piano plays loud octaves while the orchestra plays a variant of the drunken sailor theme which is developed. The music comes to a tremendous climax and then halts. The piano takes off on its own with a fugal rendition of the first theme until the orchestra returns with the first theme. The drunken sailor theme returns and the movement comes to a close.

Dmitri and Maxim Shostakovich
II. Andante - The second movement is expressive music that touches on Shostakovich's melancholy nature, but in a romantic, tender fashion. The piano gently rises in register as the muted strings are suspended. Cross rhythms give a slight feeling of tension to the broad melody.  At a time when modern music was making extreme demands on players and listeners, Shostakovich's music wrote a short, thoroughly romantic movement that still pleases audiences. The music slowly unwinds and quietly comes to rest. The last movement begins without pause.

III. Allegro - The first theme is a lively dance with a few chuckles thrown in from the piano, which is followed by the second theme in 7/8 time. The third theme is the celebrated tongue in cheek quotation in Hanon piano exercise style, a joke written into the concerto for Maxim. The three themes are repeated, interlaced and developed. The 7/8 theme returns after which a coda finishes the concerto with a thunderous flourish.

There was a time early in Shostakovich's career when he was divided between being a composer or a concert pianist. Although he chose composer (and maintained later in life that he should have been both) he was no slouch as a pianist. Despite his comments about the lack of artistic merit, Shostakovich was fond of the 2nd concerto and played it in concert a few times. He made recordings of both concertos as soloist and they show him to be more than up to the task. His recording of the 2nd piano concerto shows him in fine form as he plays the music at break-neck speed and with a spiky touch in the first movement that fits the character of the movement very well. It is rare that a composer himself leaves a definitive performance of his own work, but Shostakovich did that with both concertos. The video below is a recording of Shostakovich playing his 2nd piano concerto.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mussorgsky - St. John's Eve On The Mountain

Modest Mussorgsky finished his composition St. John's Eve On The Mountain on the very night of the celebration in 1867. St. John's Eve is named for John The Baptist and is linked with ancient pagan rituals, perhaps fertility rituals, that were performed on the day of the summer solstice. The Orthodox kept the date of the ritual but changed its meaning to a religious one by declaring it a day of feasting to honor John The Baptist.

Mussorgsky wrote several versions of the work. He originally had an idea for an opera based on a story written by Gogol titled St. John's Eve.  that involved witchcraft. He later considered writing a different opera based on a play by his friend Baron Georgiy Mengden titled The Witch. Mussorgsky wrote of his idea for the opera in a letter to his mentor Balakirev:
I have also received some highly interesting work which needs to be prepared for the coming summer. This work is: a whole act on The Bald Mountain (from Mengden's drama The Witch), a witches' sabbath, separate episodes of sorcerers, a ceremonial march of all this rubbish, a finale—glory to the sabbath... The libretto is very good. There are already some materials, perhaps a very good thing will come of it.
There is no existing music for either planned opera.  Mussorgsky then decided to write a tone poem for orchestra that incorporated the ideas from both planned operas. In turn, the written works that inspired the tone poem were themselves based on folk legends, of which Mussorgsky writes about in a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky, a professor of Russian history and language:
So far as my memory doesn't deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, ... gossip, play tricks and await their chief—Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches' praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. So this is what I've done. At the head of my score I've put its content: 1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan's journey; 3. Obscene praises of Satan; and 4. Sabbath ... The form and character of the composition are Russian and original ... I wrote St. John's Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God ... While at work on St. John's Eve I didn't sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John's Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn't know what was happening within me ... I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.
Mussorgsky sent the finished score to Balakirev and was mortified when his mentor severely criticized the work, and refused to perform it. Mussorgsky continued ot revamp the music, first in the opera Mlada, another planned work that was never written, and yet again in another opera The Fair At Sorochyntsi, a work that was still not finished when Mussorgsky died in 1881. The original score  had to wait for its first performance until the 20th century after the manuscript was found in the Leningrad Conservatory in the 1920's. After a handful of performances the work languished further until the 1960's when it began to be played occasionally.

Rimsky-Korsakov
Rimsky-Korsakov revised the work a few years after Mussorgsky's death and published it as A Night On Bare Mountain.  Rimsky-Korsakov's work is not so much a revision of Mussorgsky's as it is an original composition based on the original. Rimsky-Korsakov made performing editions of Mussorgsky's unfinished works and for many years Rimsky-Korsakov's versions were all that were available. The original versions of Mussorgsky's works started to come to light when Stokowski performed the original version of the opera Boris Godonov in 1929 instead of the Rimsky-Korsakov edition.  Stokowski also made a version of Rimsky-Korsakov's work for the Walt Disney movie Fantasia in 1940.

Mussorgsky's original tone poem compared to Rimsky-Korsakov's work is more fragmented and can sound rather crude. But the music fits the subject matter, as Mussorgsy makes up for his lack of compositional technique with brilliant orchestral colors and powerful effects.  Below is a video of Mussorgsky's original, along with a video of Rimsky-Korsakov's version for comparison.



Saturday, May 17, 2014

Schubert - Piano Sonata No. 21 In B-flat Major, D. 960

The last three piano sonatas of Franz Schubert were written during the last months of his life. Schubert had been suffering from the effects of syphilis for some time, but he coped with the symptoms and even put on a concert of his own works in March of 1828 that was a success with the public and critics. Music publishers were beginning to show more interest in his works, and for a very short time Schubert was free from financial worries.

Despite his illness, Schubert continued to compose one work after the other. Starting in the spring of 1828 he composed many works, among them a Mass, various piano pieces, many songs that were printed posthumously in a collection titled Schwanengesang, as well as the three final piano sonatas.  In September of 1828 his health took a turn for the worse and his doctor advised him move out of the city, so he moved into his brother Ferdinand's house which was in the suburbs of Vienna.  Up until the very last weeks of his life Schubert continued to compose until he no longer was able.  Schubert finished his last piano sonata on September 26, 1828. He died November 19, 1828. He was but 31 years old.

The last three piano sonatas were not published until ten years after Schubert's death. Schubert's piano sonatas were neglected during most of the 19th century. His other music came to be revered, but the common opinion about his piano sonatas were that they were inferior to his other works. Even Robert Schumann, to whom the publisher of the last sonatas dedicated the works, was of this opinion:
Whether they were written from his sickbed or not, I have been unable to determine. The music would suggest that they were. And yet it is possible that one imagines things when the portentous designation, ‘last works,’ crowds one’s fantasy with thoughts of impending death. Be that as may, these sonatas strike me as differing conspicuously from his others, particularly in a much greater simplicity of invention, in a voluntary renunciation of brilliant novelty—an area in which he otherwise made heavy demands upon himself—and in the spinning out of certain general musical ideas instead of adding new threads to them from phrase to phrase, as was otherwise his custom. It is as though there could be no ending, nor any embarrassment about what should come next. Even musically and melodically it ripples along from page to page, interrupted here and there by single more abrupt impulses—which quickly subside.
An exception to this 19th century opinion was Brahms, who was fond of the sonatas and studied them intensely. The sonatas continued to be neglected until early in the 20th century when a handful of pianists like Artur Schnabel championed the works and played them in recitals. The last piano sonata is in 4 movements:

I. Molto moderato -  No doubt one of the reasons for the negative attitudes about this piano sonata is the inordinate length of the first movement. This first movement averages about twenty minutes if the exposition repeat is taken, which is as long as many complete sonatas.  Because of the length of this movement some pianists do not take the exposition repeat, thus shortening the work. The exposition repeat became somewhat of an option with later composers, but with Schubert it is essential.  There are many things that differentiate the later sonatas from the earlier ones, one of which is the long, lyrical themes that take time to unfold, which contribute to the length of movements.  The first theme of this movement begins with a theme that is calm and lyrical. This theme is interrupted by a trill on G-flat, a most unusual interruption that sounds foreign harmonically, almost sinister. The theme resumes after this intrusion and is then slightly developed by means of a key change to G-flat. Schubert modulates back to the tonal center of B-flat for the rest of the theme. Schubert then introduces what amounts to a long transition to the second main theme of the movement. He begins this transition material in the key of F-sharp minor, moves the home key and then the second theme makes its appearance in the key of F major. More transition material appears before the music of the first ending of the exposition appears, music that is unique and not heard again in the movement. The exposition is repeated verbatim, except for new transition material that leads to the development section. The development section is extensive and modulates quite often to many different keys. The development section comes to an end with the repeat of the mysterious trill on G-flat. The recapitulation repeats the exposition material with the obligatory changes in key to the home key of B-flat major. A short coda brings back the first theme along with the trill on G-flat and the movement ends in B-flat major.

II. Andante sustenuto -  Schubert has more harmonic surprises in the second movement. It begins in C-sharp minor, a key that played a role in the development section of the previous movement. The theme is a sad one that is intensified by the accompaniment that covers the bottom, middle and top of the keyboard. A contrasting middle section begins in A major and does its share of harmonic roaming. The first theme returns with some slight alterations. The mood is still sad, but the alterations in the accompaniment have given it an added tension. The theme modulates and finally comes to rest in C-sharp major and the movement ends quietly.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza - The scherzo is in B-flat major and lightens up the mood of two preceding brooding movements. The trio section is in B-flat minor and Schubert creates rhythmic instability by tying notes over the bar line and accenting notes in the left hand, sometimes on the beat, sometimes off the beat. The scherzo is repeated and with a very short coda it comes to a close.

IV. Allegro ma non troppo – Presto -  A movement in sonata form with three main themes. The first is in B-flat major and begins with an octave on G. This is repeated each time the first subject is played. The second theme is more mobile and  in F major. The third theme begins with a sharp double forte outburst in F minor. After the third theme is played through, material from the first theme leads directly to the development as the exposition is not repeated. The development section deals with the first theme only. The three themes are repeated in the recapitulation, and the work ends with a coda that is marked presto.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bartók - Two Romanian Dances For Piano, Opus 8a

Along with his friend and fellow Hungarian  Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók explored and collected folk music of Hungary and the surrounding areas. He did this from 1908 until the First World War curtailed his ability to travel safely.  The two young composers were among a handful of musicians that laid the groundwork for the field of study that came to be called ethnomusicology.

The two young composers discovered that the so-called Hungarian music Liszt quoted in his Hungarian Rhapsodies were different than the Magyar music he heard in the small peasant villages. Bartók found that much of the old folk music he heard was based on the pentatonic scale, the scale used in Asian folk music, while the music liszt considerd Hungarian was popular tunes written by Romani (Gypsy) musicians that used different scales and structure.  For a time  Bartók was highly critical of Liszt's brand of Hungarian music, but later he came to appreciate the older composer's contributions to music.

Zoltán Kodály
 Bartók was influenced early on by the composers Strauss, Brahms and Debussy. Liszt was also an influence as well as Stravinsky. To this eclectic mix  Bartók  incorporated what he had learned from his study of authentic folk music into his compositions, and not just the folk music of his native Hungary as he writes:
I have collected Hungarian, as well as Slovak and Romanian folk music, and used it as models. And, before the world war, I even made a journey to North Africa in order to collect and study the Arab peasant music of the Sahara Desert.
The Two Romanian Dances were written in 1910 when  he was studying and collecting folk music.

Bartok recording folk songs early in the 20th century
Number 1, Allegro vivace -  The first dance begins with the pianist playing both theme and accompaniment deep within the bass registry . This theme is heard throughout the piece and is hinted at in a middle section marked lento.  The theme returns and makes its way to the end, which is a final utterance of a fragment of the theme.  Bartók manages to keep interest in the piece by frequent changes in time signature, dynamics and tempo.

Number 2, Poco allegretto - An odd mix of themes and moods that veer from humorous to violent. Bartók makes it difficult to know where the music is going, but there's no doubt it is going there with a vengence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bartók - The Miraculous Mandarin Suite

An Hungarian author by the name of Menyhért Lengyel wrote a piece in 1916 called The Miraculous Mandarin which was published in a Hungarian literary magazine in 1917.  Shortly after it was published, rumors began to float around that the work, called a pantomime grotesque by the author, was going to be set to music by a Hungarian composer who was not mentioned by name.  Whether or not the composer referred to in the article was indeed Béla Bartók is a matter of some debate among historians.

Bartók read Lengyel's piece and immediately wrote down some music inspired by the content of the work.  Bartók played his musical ideas to Lengyel, and the author was delighted with it. The two had not met before then, but became friends and collaborators.  While Bartók  worked on the score for the ballet, he wrote to his wife about the music:
It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium... the audience will be introduced to the den of thieves at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.
The First World War delayed the completion of the score until 1919 with the orchestration taking yet another three years, and the first staging of the ballet had to wait until 1926. The premiere of what was now being called a dance pantomime occurred in Cologne, Germany. A short synopsis of the lurid story of the work in Bartók's own words:
Menyhért Lengyel
Just listen to how beautiful the story is. Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning... the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish, whereupon he drops dead.
 Not many who heard the premiere agreed with Bartók's beautiful story opinion, as the performance caused a huge scandal as reported in a German music journal:
Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels... has lived to see its first true  scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping, and booing... which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the safety curtain went down... The press, with the exception of the left, protests, the clergy of both denominations hold meetings, the mayor of the city intervenes dictatorially and bans the pantomime from the repertoire... Waves of moral outrage engulf the city...
Bartók prepared the suite of the ballet that uses roughly two-thirds of the music.  The suite was first performed in Hungary in 1928.

The suite begins with a depiction of the chaos and noise of the city. Three tramps are in a room. They have no money so they enlist the help of a girl to dance seductively in front of their window to try and lure men into the room so they can rob them. The girl's seductive dance is portrayed by the clarinet. The first man that is lured into the room is an old man. He pursues the girl, but once the tramps discover he has no money he is thrown out of the room. The clarinet again depicts the seductive dance of the girl and this time a  young man enters the room. He begins to dance with the girl, and his passion grows. But he also does not have any money so the tramps throw him out.  Again the girl dances, and this time she attracts a wealthy Chinese man, a Mandarin (portrayed by trombone glissandos) The tramps hide as they hear the Mandarin's footsteps up the stairs to the room. The Mandarin stands in the doorway and the tramps encourage the girl to keep dancing. The Mandarin makes a lunge for the girl and embraces her. She escapes and the Mandarin begins to chase her with the tramps close behind. The suite ends with the chase that takes the form of a fugue, and brash chords for full orchestra. The full ballet continues with the repeated efforts of the tramps to kill the Mandarin. They try to smother him with pillows and stab him three times with a rusty sword, but he still grabs the girl. They hang him from a light pole, but the pole falls and the Mandarin's body begins to glow eerily.  The girl finally submits to the Mandarin, and after his passion has been satisfied his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dvořák - Symphony No. 7 In D Minor

Antonín Dvořák began to plan his 7th Symphony after he had heard the 3rd Symphony of Johannes Brahms. Dvořák admired Brahms' new symphony and it inspired him to write a new one of his own.  Brahms had befriended the younger composer and helped him get his works published. Shortly after Dvořák had heard the Brahms' 3rd Symphony, he had been made an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society of London on the basis of the popularity of Dvořák's music in England. To further honor the composer, the organization commissioned Dvořák to write a new symphony.

Dvořák took the membership and commission (the 7th was the only symphony written on commission) as an honor as well as an opportunity. He saw the chance for his symphonic music to reach a larger audience as well as show his support for the political struggles of the Czechs.  The symphony was begun in December of 1884 and completed March 1885. The first performance was April of 1885 in London with Dvořák himself conducting the orchestra. The symphony was a great success at its premiere, but Dvořák had to go through protracted negotiations with his publisher to publish it.

The 7th is unique among Dvořák's symphonies for its tragic undertones as well as the lessening of native Czech music influence. It was not possible for Dvořák to write music that eschewed completely the influence of his native land, but the 7th combines those influences with a more Germanic musical language.

Dvořák is seldom thought of as an overly ambitious composer. His personality was such that he maintained an honest humility most of the time, but the 7th Symphony shows that he did want his music heard by a larger audience, perhaps an audience as large as his friend Brahms' music.

The 7th Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro maestoso -  The music begins with the first theme in a movement that has many. The first theme reaches a climax after much expansion where upon the second main theme of more lyricism begins. The first theme is played again in the major mode with all indications of a repeat of the exposition, but it leads directly to the development section, which is rather short.  The recapitulation is condensed, as both themes are worked through.  The first theme returns and builds to a dramatic climax. The first theme is quietly stated once again as the music slowly evaporates.

II.  Poco adagio in F major -  At the time of the writing of the symphony, Dvořák had recently experienced two personal losses; the death of his mother and the institutionalization of his friend and fellow Czech composer Smetana.  The music of this movement is melancholy with bursts of passion with an ending almost inaudible.

III. Scherzo: Vivace – Poco meno mosso -  The movement that reflects Dvořák's Czech heritage, as it is a Furiant, a dance of Bohemia. The music trips along as some instruments play in three to the bar while others play in two to the bar cross rhythms. The trio is in a more idyllic mood and is extended out more than usual as Dvořák elaborates at length. The trio is beaten into silence by material that leads to the return of the scherzo.  The coda of the scherzo floats the feeling of tragedy from the first two movements over to the violent ending of this movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro -  The first theme begins with a grand sigh from the low strings which leads to the rest of the first theme. Then follows a march like second theme. Other minor themes that are played until a third main theme in A major is heard. The development section with a working out of the first theme which builds to an appearance of the march theme. The development of the first theme returns as lead in to a highly condensed recapitulation where the first theme gains in power and passion.  The third theme repeats, a coda builds until the music shifts to a D major ending.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Liszt - Six Consolations

Franz Liszt was not only a musician of astounding technical abilities, but of pure musicianship as well. He could sight read the most complex piano music, and could play from a full orchestra score while transcribing the many staves into an intelligible interpretation for piano.  There was hardly an aspect of musical performance that he was not a master of.  So it is not too surprising that when he began to compose, very little of his music would be easy or simple.

Some of his piano compositions have tremendous technical difficulties, not to mention musical and interpretive problems, and it is doubtful if any other pianist at the time could play some of them. But later in his career as a composer he began to simplify some of his work. The Six Consolations for piano are a case in point. He sketched some of the pieces as early as 1844, with the six pieces being completed in 1849. This first version was not printed during Liszt's lifetime, and Liszt rewrote the set in 1849-1850 and replaced some of them with new compositions and simplified the rest. There's no known record of why Liszt titled them Consolations, but all six pieces are in the general vein of nocturnes.

I. Andante con moto - There is a harmonic pattern to the set as the first two pieces are in E major, the middle two in D-flat major, and the last two in E major. The first consolation is also the shortest and acts as a prelude to the set.

II. Un poco più mosso - The second consolation is full of graceful runs and a gentle melody that is treated in different ways in different registers of the piano. Although this piano piece can sound simple, there are still plenty of technical problems in keeping a proper focus on the melody that shifts from one hand to the other, as well as keeping the delicate accompaniment far enough in the background so as not to overcome the melody but yet keeping it audible enough to help with the feeling of the piece.

III. Lento placido - Written in in D-flat major, this is the most popular piece in the set. This nocturne shows the influence Chopin's music had on Liszt. The runs towards the end are not of the glittering kind, but are gentle and of a slightly burnished sheen that caps off one of Liszt's most subtle and satisfying pieces.

IV. Quasi Adagio - Another piece in D-flat major with a theme that is repeated in different ways, all the while remaining true to its introspective and calm nature.

V. Andantino -  The key returns to E major with a simple melody. Liszt maintains interest in this short piece by subtle means and keeps the melody singing throughout.

VI. Allegretto sempre cantabile -  Another singing melody that upon each repetition grows more complex. Balance between melody and rolled chords in both hands is one of the difficulties of this piece, along with the short quicksilver cadenza at the end of the middle section. After the singing melody is heard fortissimo accompanied by large rolled chords, music that harks back to the first consolation acts as a coda to the last piece and along with the harmonic structure of the set, gives us a clue that Liszt may have preferred these pieces be played one right after the other.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Röntgen - Viola Sonata In C Minor

With very few exceptions the master composers of the Classical and Romantic eras did not consider the viola a solo instrument. Its place among the string quartet and orchestral string section was used most often to fill in the middle notes of the harmonic scheme of the work in question. For that reason some composers enjoyed playing the instrument as it got them 'inside' the harmony. J.S. Bach was said to be fond of  the instrument and when the composers Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf got together to play string quartets with Dittersdorf's student Vanhal, Mozart played the viola. Mozart also composed string quintets for two violins, two violas and cello, works that gave more of the thematic material to the viola than previously.

The viola was gradually given more important work to do, until in the late 19th century and 20th century the instrument was looked upon as a solo instrument as well. This was due not in small part to some musicians that raised the level of viola playing to virtuoso status, thus giving composers more incentive to write works that could exploit the viola's unique tonal qualities.

Julius Röntgen's greatest period of composing activity came after he retired from public life in 1924, a time that was ripe with experimentation and the avant garde in classical music. While Röntgen was familiar with the trends in music of his time, he remained somewhat conservative in his musical language and use of form. For that reason, his music was mostly forgotten shortly after his death in 1932, but with the passage of time his music has come to be appreciated. As his friend Donald Tovey said of him in memoriam:
Röntgen's compositions, published and unpublished, cover the whole range of music in every art form; they all show consummate mastery in every aspect of technique. Even in the most facile there is beauty and wit. Each series of works culminates in something that has the uniqueness of a living masterpiece.
Röntgen wrote three sonatas for viola and piano, one in C minor in 1924 and two in 1925; one in A-flat major and one in A minor. The Viola Sonata In C minor of 1924 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro assai - The viola begins the movement with a motive that recurs in other parts of the work. The first section of the movement acts as an exposition for themes and fragments of others. The development section flows from the exposition and leads to the recapitulation where themes are expanded and the movement ends suddenly.

II. Andante mesto - lento, quasi fantasia -  Perhaps the most interesting of the 4 movements begins with the viola once again playing solo, this time a rhythmic motive that is somewhat related to the opening motive of the first movement, that soon accompanies the piano's theme high in its register. The instruments change places with both playing low in their registers as the viola takes the thematic material with the piano accompanying. The opening material is repeated, this time with a few loud interruptions by the piano.  A contrasting lyrical theme is played by the viola, which is briefly interrupted by the motive of the opening of the first movement. The contrasting theme alternates with the opening material of the first movement until the music quietly ends.

III. Allegro molto -  A hyperactive movement that is a scherzo. The trio is reminiscent of Debussy in its tonal palette and gentle rhythm. The scherzo is repeated, along with a final reference to the trio section, and the movement fades away.

IV. Un poco sostenuto - allegro molto -  The movement begins slowly with a section that sounds strangely modern, evidence that Röntgen was not always the musical reactionary he was accused of being.  The piano plays the theme to the viola's arpeggios until the movement shifts gears and the music becomes faster paced and the theme gets a grand treatment from both instruments. The movement ends with a brief reference to the opening motive of the first movement.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Saint-Saëns - Piano Trio No. 2 In E Minor, Opus 92

Saint-Saëns is a composer accused by some of superficiality and glibness, but the second piano trio shows the criticism to be unjust.  Gone is the Mendelssohnian early romanticism of his earlier piano trio. The second trio was written in 1892, a time when Saint-Saëns was looked upon as an ultraconservative, and as such his music was out of fashion and not played very much.  Nonetheless, he continued to compose and even experimented with different musical language.  He lived almost another thirty years after he wrote the second piano trio, and ended his composing career with sonatas for wind instruments (one each for clarinet, oboe, and bassoon) and a few piece for piano and voice, in 1921.

Piano Trio No. 2 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with a theme taken up by violin and cello as the piano plays an agitated accompaniment. A second theme is in E major. The development section expands the themes amid a general feeling of turmoil and passion. The themes return in the recapitulation, after which the agitation of the opening of the movement returns in the coda and after a run from the piano a unique cadence ends the movement.

II. Allegretto - The beginning of the movement gives the impression that it is going to be one of Saint-Saëns' delicate trifles, as a tripping tune in E major and 5/8 time is played.  Contrasting sections in the minor show that the movement is not just gentle salon mood music. The piano has some particularly brilliant music in the contrasting sections. The opening theme has the final say in an emphatic close.

III. Andante con moto - Written in A-flat major, this movement has a lyrical theme that is the basis of the entire movement.

IV. Grazioso, poco allegro - A graceful movement that begins in G major with a waltz-like tune. There is a slight contrasting section, more like an intermezzo.  The interplay between the instruments begins again with the opening theme as the music slows down and ends.

V.  Allegro -  Two themes, the first in E minor and the next in E major, begin the movement. Material is treated contrapuntally on its own before the first theme is integrated into it. The second theme returns and leads to a very rapid version of the first theme and the ending chords.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Schumann - Piano Quintet In E-flat Major

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Shostakovich - Piano Trio No. 2 In E Minor Opus 67

Dmitri Shostakovich was refining his technique and losing some of his more radical avant garde style before the official denouncement of 1936, but  the denouncement forced him to try and write works that would curry public and more importantly Stalin's favor.  It was a life or death situation for the composer, and he knew it.

The 5th Symphony was written and titled An artist's creative response to just criticism. The work was a great success officially and with the public and Shostakovich had at least temporarily dodged the literal bullet, even though he put some subtle hints in the work that suggest it wasn't as heartfelt a rehabilitation as it appeared on the surface.  But Shostakovich had learned his lesson well. Stalin and his cronies were not men to be crossed, so Shostakovich wrote music to please Stalin, (all the while inserting subtle nose-thumbing) along with music that he wrote to please himself. He called these "works for the drawer", compositions that he could experiment with out of the public view. Many of these compositions remained in his desk drawer until the death of Stalin.

Shostakovich and Sollertinsky
Shostakovich was one of the great composers of string quartets of the 20th century, as he wrote 15 of them. They stand far and away as the form that he wrote most of his chamber music in.  He wrote the 2nd Piano Trio in 1944 during World War Two when he was 38 years old.  Shostakovich had come to international attention with the writing of his 7th Symphony earlier in the war, and as the 7th Symphony has been called a requiem for the 25 million Russians who perished in the war,  the 2nd Piano Trio can also be thought of as a requiem; this time for his good friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a critic and musicologist that suddenly died of a heart attack.
  The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Andante -  The work begins with the solo cello playing a theme in high, eerie harmonics. The violin enters, and the piano enters as all three instruments participate in a fugue that acts as an introduction to the rest of the movement.  Part of the fugue theme is incorporated into the first theme of the movement proper. Other themes are presented and the tempo varies as Shostakovich develops them all in the spirit of a folk tune, but with an edge. The movement ends quietly.

II. Allegro con brio -  The scherzo has Shostakovich sarcastically thumbing his nose as notes are repeated and tossed back and forth between the three instruments. The music never settles into anything more than a frenzied dance, and soon ends.

III. Largo -  The piano begins the movement with heavy chords. The violin enters with a sad theme as the piano chords continue to plod underneath. The cello enters and sings the lament as the violin plays a counter melody. This music is in the form of a chaconne, a set of variations over a ground bass played by the piano. The music remains slow and mournful throughout the movement, and ends with a quiet whimper from the strings.

IV. Allegretto -  The last movement begins with a Shostakovian dance tune, a theme that has the feeling of Jewish folk music,  first heard in the pizzicati violin, and then in the piano while both strings play pizzicato. The material of the march is developed at length. The theme from the first movement introduction returns, the dance music interrupts at length until the chords from the third movement chaconne appear out of nowhere. The Jewish dance tune briefly returns, slowly played in the strings, and the movement quietly ends in E major with the strings playing pizzicato over a piano chord.

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