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.

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.

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