Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zarębski - Piano Quintet In G Minor, Opus 34

The musical world has had its share of composers who have died young. A short list of the most famous and influential: Franz Schubert at 31, Wolfgang Mozart at 35, Georges Bizet at 37, George Gershwin at 38, and Frederic Chopin at 39. There are many others who are less well known, and the Polish pianist and composer Juliusz Zarębski falls into this category as he died in 1885 at the age of 31.

Zarębski was a child prodigy with his mother being his first piano teacher. When he was sixteen he went to Vienna to study. After a few years he then moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies and ended up in Rome as a student (and friend) of Franz Liszt.  He began his career as a virtuoso performer in 1874 and performed in many major cities in Europe. In 1883 he retired from performing due to tuberculosis, and devoted the remaining two years of his life to teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and to composition.

Most of his compositions are for the piano, but in 1885 he composed the piano quintet, the musical masterpiece of his young life. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Although written in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt, the quintet was not published until 1931 in Poland. The first movement begins with the solo piano playing softly as the strings enter slowly. Although Zarębski was a piano virtuoso of the highest order, his writing for the instrument in the quintet is as a partnership between all five instruments  There are two main themes in the movement, with other secondary fragments of melody that Zarębski blends together into a flowing, passionate opening movement. The development section takes them to far afield keys distant from the home key of G minor. The recapitulation ends with a powerful coda.

II. Adagio - The second movement opens quietly with muted strings and quiet piano in an impressionistic tonal ambiguity. The first theme in B-flat major emerges in the low register of the first violin as the rest of the strings slowly join the piano accompaniment. This theme is expanded upon by the strings. The tonality shift to G major as the piano ushers in the second theme in the strings. This second theme is an offshoot of material in the first movement. The themes return in a development section of passion mixed with delicacy. The recapitulation of the main theme grows ever more passionate until the tonal vagueness of the introduction to the movement returns. The main theme is gently heard one more time, and the movement ends quietly.

III. Scherzo - The scherzo crackles with energy and continues Zarębski's wide modulations to far-off keys. The movement begins in C minor with rhythmic figures in the strings. The piano enters in octaves and adds to the rhythmic energy. The first of two trios shifts to G-flat major as the piano repeats a G-flat major figure throughout as the strings play a folk - like melody. The scherzo returns and leads to the second trio, which shifts to G major as the trio theme is repeated in the piano to string accompaniment. String harmonics add to the charm of the trio. As the trio seems to be winding down, the theme undergoes a short fugal treatment. The music becomes expressive in a section just before the return of the trio theme and the scherzo.

IV. Finale - Zarębski introduces the final movement with a repeat of the scherzo theme in the piano, which is a surprise to the ear. Zarębski was a late Romantic musician that knew his Liszt and Franck well, for the quintet is a cyclical work with this introduction being the most obvious example of that. After a section of trying to find its way, the music settles into another folk-like melody. This theme grows more impressive until it yields to material from the first movement. Emotions and moods change throughout the rest of the movement as snippets of new and old material are blended together. The first theme of the first movement returns in the coda and Zarębski's treatment of it results in an exuberant ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Violin Sonata No. 1 In D Minor, Opus 75

In 1884 Saint-Saëns went on a concert tour with the violinist Martin Marsick, and perhaps that was the inspiration for the composition of his first violin sonata.  Saint-Saëns had written sonatas for the instrument in his youth, but this is the first one of his maturity.  The sonata was dedicated to Marsick.

The work is in 4 movements, but Saint-Saëns pairs them up in 2 sections as he was later to do with the movements of his 3rd Symphony so that there is only one pause between the second and third movements.

I. Allegro agitato - The first movement is in sonata form, with the first theme being a restless of shifting meters between 6/8 and 9/8 time:
The second theme is more lyrical for contrast. The development puts the first theme through some added tension before the piano and violin have a dialogue in counterpoint. The second theme is also expanded upon by key changes but basically retains its form. The recapitulation adds even more restlessness and tension to the first theme.  The second theme returns with a light, effervescent accompaniment. The second movement begins without pause.

II. Adagio -  The second movement is a tender conversation between the two instruments. The violin has the melody in the beginning, but the roles are reversed a little later in the movement. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes more decorated. The movement is all style and grace the moves with a sweet gentleness until it ends in the key it began in, E-flat major.

III. Allegro moderato -  This movement is a gentle scherzo in G minor. There is a feeling of the music being a little off balance due to the many subtle 5-bar phrases Saint-Saëns uses. In its own way, this movement is as gentle as the preceding adagio, and is a good contrast for the finale, which begins without pause.

IV. Allegro molto - Saint-Saëns had run-throughs of the sonata with two different violinists. The first had much trouble with the final movement, as did Marsick himself. But Marsick handled the difficulties as he and Saint-Saëns gave the premiere of the work after its publication. The metronome marking for the movement is quarter note = 168 beats per minute, with a flurry of sixteenth notes that makes the tempo even more difficult. Below are the first three lines of the violin part that in performance are over in a matter of a few seconds:
Saint-Saëns himself remarked to his publisher that it would be called “the hippogriffsonata”, because only a mythical creature would be able to master the final movement. Towards the end of the movement there is a brief return of the second theme of the first movement. It's not only the rapid sixteenth notes that are the difficulty of this movement. There are double and quadruple stops for the soloist as well as notes written in the extreme upper range of the violin. And the piano part is no easy task either. Saint-Saëns himself called this a 'concert sonata', and it became a popular work with violinists and pianists. The movement ends with a flourish in the key of D major.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mozart - String Quintet No. 4 In G Minor K.516

A string quintet ensemble is usually made up of a string quartet; two violins, viola and cello, with the addition of another cello or viola.  On occasion a double bass may be one of the extra instruments. The two string quintets Mozart wrote in 1787 have an additional viola added, because reportedly Mozart's favorite stringed instrument to play was the viola.

The pair of quintets are a study in contrast, as the one in C major is of a decidedly more sunny disposition than the one on G minor, a key that seems to be Mozart's key of passion and deep feeling. He wrote the pair of quintets around the time of the composition of his opera Don Giovanni, as well as the final illness of his father.

I. Allegro - The movement begins straight away with a hushed, agitated theme played in the first violin to an accompaniment from the second violin and first viola:
This theme is traded between violin and viola, and is transformed into the second theme, which begins in G minor but shifts to B-flat major. Lesser motives are heard, but the minor mode lurks throughout the exposition. The development section begins with the first theme. It moves from instrument to instrument as the section remains for the most part in the minor mode. The recapitulation has both themes repeated in G minor, The conventions of the time more often as not would have called for the movement to end in the major mode, but Mozart keeps the music solidly in G minor all the way to the end.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto -  The second movement minuet is far removed from the original courtly dance. It is in G minor, and is punctuated by two loud chords heard on the 3rd beat of the 4th and 6th bar:
The trio is in G major, but still has a shade of melancholy over it.

III. Adagio ma non troppo - Played with mutes on all five instruments throughout its length, the third movement is in E-flat major. Mozart's chromatic transition to the second theme in B-flat minor is taken up again as this minor key theme transforms into B-flat major and is repeated. The music delves back into despair once more before the sweetness of E-flat major brings the movement to a close.

IV.  Adagio - Allegro - Mozart begins the final movement in the darkness of G minor once again. But after the music shifts tempo, key to G major in 6/8 time,  The preceding dark movements are balanced out by this rondo, as is in full keeping with the music aesthetic of the Classical era.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Verdi - String Quartet In E Minor

Giuseppe Verdi is most well remembered as a composer of operas. His first opera, Oberto had its premiere  in 1839, and his last, Falstaff was premiered in 1893.  Some of his operas are the most popular ever written and are still performed by opera companies around the world.

He was born in 1813 and showed great musical talent early on. By the age of 8 he was the official paid organist of the church of Busseto which was near the village where he was born. At twelve years of age he became a student of a maestro da capella at St. Bartolomeo church in Busseto and also became acquainted with the Philharmonic Society there. He played in local concerts to great success and began composing.

He traveled to Milan to enroll in the conservatory there, but was turned down possibly due to his age. He studied with a local teacher, and after that began a life of teaching and composing. His first opera was a success in 1839, and he went on to compose 28 operas in his long life.

Verdi was in Naples in 1873 to supervise a production of his latest opera Aida when the only string quartet of his career was composed. The lead soprano of the production became ill, so rehearsals were suspended awaiting her return to health. Verdi wrote the string quartet as something to keep busy with during the delay. After the delay had ended and the opera had been performed, the quartet was premiered in Verdi's house in Naples.  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Verdi's first movement shows that he well understood sonata form. He puts his own art and craftsmanship in the general outline of the form proves his mastery of it. The first theme reflects his gift for melody as it plays out in an undercurrent of chamber-music appropriate drama and urgency. The second theme contrasts with its more calm nature. The development focuses on parts of the main theme for the most part. The recapitulation gives equal time to the second theme to the exclusion of the first theme. The coda brings back the first theme and closes the movement in the tonic E minor.

II. Andantino - Verdi himself gave his quartet short shrift when he said:
I've written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don't know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it's a Quartet!
The above quote may give the impression that he thought little of his only string quartet. That he refused to have it published for three years after its composition may also add to that illusion. But his mastery of the form as shown in the first movement shows that he gave the work his best effort. Perhaps he spoke disparagingly of it so as to not invite any suggestion that he write more quartets. He was a composer for the stage first and foremost. That was where his talent and desire lay. Whatever his motivation, this second movement consists of a simple melody that is given an artistically subdued treatment. A little over halfway through the movement, a more aggressive theme brings the movement to a climax before the main theme returns for another section of development.

III. Prestissimo - The key of E minor returns in this rhythmically biting scherzo, the shortest movement of the quartet. The trio in A major is a song for the cello with pizzicato accompaniment.

IV. Scherzo Fuga: Allegro assai mosso - Verdi calls this a scherzo fugue, which means despite the use of the form, a certain amount of good humor is in the mix. Verdi shifts the tonal center chromatically often, and the music is constantly moving forward until the key of E major brings the work to a close.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 13 - 18

There is much discussion in classical music circles whether to play the Well Tempered Clavier on the modern piano or on the instruments of Bach's time. There is no evidence that Bach had any particular keyboard instrument in mind when he wrote the WTC. Harpsichord, clavichord, organ, even a little-known keyboard instrument called the lautenwerk (lute harpsichord) that had gut strings and sounded like a lute, all could have been used to play the pieces.

The piano was still in its infancy in Bach's time, but he did play the improved pianos of the organ builder Silbermann and liked them. The important thing to remember is that whichever instrument is used, it is the music that needs to be brought to life by the musical taste, intelligence, and technique of the performer. 

Prelude and Fugue No. 13 In F-sharp Major BWV 858 - 
This prelude is in the key of F-sharp major, one of the most complex key signatures that was made available for keyboardists with the tempered keyboard tunings in vogue. It is short, and written in the uncommon time signature of 12/16 to facilitate the ease of reading and to remove the necessity of including triplet notation.is similar in style to Bach's two-part inventions:
The subject of the corresponding fugue for 3 voices is two bars long. This subject is heard eight times throughout the fugue, and there are two counter subjects. 


Prelude and Fugue No. 14 In F-sharp Minor BWV 859 - 
Some of the preludes of the WTC are fugues in their own right. Such is the case with this one. It is a strictly written fugue for 2 voices.


The subject of this fugue for 4 voices is four bars long. The mood seems to be one of calmness.

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 In G Major BWV 860 - 
The 24/16 time signature and arpeggiated chords in triplets gives no doubt that this prelude is to be played at a lively tempo.




The fugue is for 3 voices and is a perfect partner to the virtuosic prelude. The subject of the fugue is 4 bars long and is heard many times during the course of the work. Some of these recurrences are incomplete repetitions, and there are numerous episodes. All of this makes for one of the longest and most complex of all the fugues of the WTC.

Prelude and Fugue No. 16 In G Minor BWV 861 - 
The overall calm nature of this prelude is given spice by the opening trill in the right hand.
The 4-voiced fugue that follows is slow in tempo and tension builds up by the many repeats of the subject. This tension is relaxed at the end by the ubiquitous Picardy third.

Prelude and Fugue No. 17 In A-flat Major BWV 862 - 
The opening motive heard in the right hand dominates the prelude and is heard in different harmonic guises almost throughout. An example of how Bach could write music by using the most elemental and short musical motives.


The subject of the 4-voiced fugue is short, and like the motive of the prelude is heard numerous times throughout.


Prelude and Fugue No. 18 In G-sharp Minor BWV 863 - 
Another key that was once thought of as theoretical on account of its many sharps, it is an enharmonic equivalent for A-flat minor, a key with 7 flats. It is essentially in 3 parts, with a feeling that it should not be played too slowly.
The fugue is for 4 voices, with a subject that is two bars long. Outside of harmonic changes, this subject is heard with none of the usual alterations heard in many fugues. It is a fugue that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and there is little tension created because of the verbatim repetitions of the subject. Nonetheless, the appeal of the subject maintains interest.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mozart - Piano Quartet No. 2 In E-flat Major K.493

A piano quartet is any composition that is for piano and three other instruments. There have been various combinations of instruments and the piano, but the standard instrumentation is that of one violin, one viola, one cello, and piano.

As with most forms of chamber music, the piano quartet naturally evolved from sonatas for one or more instruments with a figured bass accompaniment. The first quartets with keyboard were no doubt played on the harpsichord, but in the latter part of the 18th century the added means of expression that the piano had relegated the harpsichord to disuse. So it is not any coincidence that Mozart was the first composer of high standing that composed for the piano and string trio, as he much preferred the piano.

Mozart didn't come to the form willy-nilly. His incentive to write in the form was monetary as it came as a commission to write three works for the new and novel ensemble. His first effort was the Piano Quartet In G Minor K. 478. Tradition has it that the publisher was dissatisfied with the difficulty and mood of the work and withdrew his commission. Whether that story is apocryphal or not, Mozart followed up with another piano quartet shortly after that. Both quartets were written between 1785-1786, and the form has seen many other composers turn to it since.

Mozart hit the pinnacle of his success as a composer and pianist around this time, and both of his piano quartets are as miniature piano concertos in style and three-movement form.

I. Allegro -  Mozart's first piano quartet is in the key of G minor, a key that Mozart reserved for his most passionate music. In contrast, this E-flat quartet is of a more lyrical style. But it too has its passions. The opening section sounds like the beginning of a concerto as strings and piano combine. Soon the strings separate from the piano as a wealth of themes and motives spill out into the music. Where other composers may have two or three themes in a sonata exposition, Mozart has many. His melodic gift is incredible. There has been two schools of thought on observing the repeats of an exposition. Some say take them, some say not. With Mozart for me, it is not an option. There are so many themes that I want to have a chance to hear them again before he starts to change them. And change them he does, in the development section. It is always interesting which motive he chooses to elaborate on. The recapitulation also contains some elaborations on themes as well as key changes. The viola, reported to be Mozart's choice of strings to play, has more to say in the recapitulation as well. The movement ends in a rousing short coda.

II. Larghetto - The second movement is in A-flat major, and begins with a short solo for piano. As in the first movement, the piano part is mostly a simple melodic treble with a thinly scored bass. This movement is also in sonata form. The strings provide most of the accompaniment for the lightly decorated piano part. This sweet song winds down in a short coda that ends with a delicate run for the piano.

III. Allegretto - The piano begins the rondo finale with the strings soon having their say. The mood remains of purity as the music returns to the opening rondo theme (which itself is changed here and there) after each varying episode. As with the other two movements, the music of the finale is classical chamber music at its best by one of the masters of the Classical era. Piano and strings have one last discussion about the rondo theme before the movement ends.

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.

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