Monday, May 30, 2016

Chopin/Liszt - Six Polish Songs

Franz Liszt and Chopin met each other in Paris about 1831, and they performed in concert together a few times. The two composers developed a somewhat uneasy friendship for many reasons, perhaps mostly because of their differing personalities. Liszt was the most dynamic piano virtuoso of the time, and had a huge stage presence and charisma. Chopin was never the towering virtuoso that Liszt was, and his piano playing was more suited to the salon than the concert hall. But Liszt showed no hesitation in showing his admiration for Chopin's compositions, and Chopin admired Liszt's playing abilities.

Chopin was a composer that attended opera on a regular basis and helped create a singing style of
Frederic Chopin
piano playing, but his output for voice is very small. He wrote only 19 completed songs in his lifetime, and a few others that remain incomplete. And though many tried to persuade him to try his hand at opera, he refused. None of his songs were published in his lifetime. It wasn't until 1853 that one of his songs was published. The Opus 74 set of 17 songs was first published in 1859, and it is not a song cycle as there are no connecting themes to the poems. Each song is independent of the other.

After Chopin's death in 1849, Liszt wrote a biography of his friend and transcribed six of Chopin's songs for solo piano. The six transcriptions helped make Chopin's songs better known, and became popular encore pieces. 

I. The Wish, The Maiden's Wish - In the original song, the title is simply The Wish. Liszt gives the song a German title that translates to The Maiden's Wish.  Liszt deftly combines the piano part with the vocal part, and gives three variants of the melody. Liszt's transcriptions can be described as paraphrases. He used the term himself on occasion, and it meant that the work in question was not being literally transcribed, but passed through the filter of Liszt's tremendous genius, sometimes to the benefit of the work, sometimes not.  With Chopin's songs, Liszt makes new pieces of them that are complimentary related to the original. 

II. Spring - For a song titled Spring, the mood is decidedly forlorn as the lyrics to the original song tell of a person lamenting the death of a lover. Liszt reinforces that mood by adding the tempo designation of Andantino maliconico. Liszt doubles the vocal line with octaves.

III. The Ring - Liszt's highly decorated version adds spice and movement to a song about a man seeing the engagement ring he got his former lover still on her hand after she married someone else.  Hardly a sad song, but some of the anger that the man has does come through.

IV. Drinking Song - The previous song segues directly to this jaunty drinking song. Liszt boldly colors the bright and festive melody with glissandos, including a double glissando near the end.

V. My Darling - A passionate song about a beautiful woman and the love a man has for her. As he shows his affection by kissing her, Liszt adds to the original with decorations and short, expressive runs in this longest song of the set.

VI. The Bridegroom - The original song tells of a bridegroom furiously riding his horse to his lover, not knowing she has died. Liszt retains the rushing scale figures to represent the galloping horse, while the rest of the song is a dramatic piece, one inspired by Chopin's original, and transformed into a Listzian composition.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tausig - Das Geisterschiff (The Ghost Ship), Opus 1c

Carl Tausig was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1841. His father gave him his first lessons on the piano and when he was 14 his father took him to Weimar to meet Liszt. He became one of Liszt's favorite students, and went on to become friends with Wagner and Johannes Brahms.  Brahms admired his piano playing so much that he dedicated the Studies For Pianoforte, Variations On A Theme Of Paganini Opus 35 to Tausig.

Tausig was the most famous of Liszt's students, and his technique was equal to his teacher's. He opened up a piano school in Berlin in 1865, but he was ill suited to teaching and it soon closed, so he toured Europe extensively as a pianist and conductor. His interpretive powers were said to be equal to any other performer of the time and superior to most.  His repertoire for the piano ran from Scarlatti to his contemporary composers and he was known for his playing of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. As a composer he made piano transcriptions of orchestral works by other composers and wrote original works for solo piano and orchestra. His touring was so extensive that it undermined his health, and he died of tyhpoid fever in 1871 at the age of 29.

Moritz von Strachwitz
Das Geisterschiff was inspired by a poem written by German poet Moritz von Strachwitz (who like Tausig had a short life as he died in 1847 at the age of 25). The poem is about an encounter in a stormy North Sea between two ships, one with a human crew fighting to survive against a ghost ship of Vikings on another.  Tausig also wrote a version for orchestra, but it is lost along with his other orchestral works.

It is a work in the guise of the New Music of Liszt as Tausig uses extremes of the keyboard as well as a large dynamic range. Tausig uses the whole tone scale in a short section as well as what is thought to be the first example of a chromatic glissando on the piano, where the right hand plays a glissando on the white notes while the chromatic notes are filled in with the left hand:
Towards the end of his short life Tausig's music was showing signs that the fiery disposition he had shown in this piece was beginning to mellow. That he was able to have achieved so much in such a short life gives an indication of what may have lay ahead if he had survived.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wieniawski - Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust, Opus 20

The Germanic legend of Faust was first in book form  in 1587, with various retelling in the 16th and 17th centuries. The legend was used as the subject of a play written by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1604 that was taken from an English translation. The most familiar telling of the story is no doubt the one written by Johann von Goethe in two volumes that were published in 1808 and 1832 respectively.  Goethe's version appeared when the Romantic movement in literature was in full swing, and the movement was to have a profound influence on the art of music soon after.

The most well known opera based on the legend was written by the French composer Charles Gounod, from a libretto in French that came from an adaptation of Goethe's Faust, Part One. The opera premiered in 1859 but did poorly. In 1862 the opera returned to the stage and was a sensation. It went on to be one of the most internationally performed operas in the remainder of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.

Gounod's Faust is opera in the grand style, complete with dramatic action and tuneful melodies that mirror the action and emotion of the story, so it is no mystery why there are so many musical works that use some of these tunes as the basis of variations and paraphrases. In the tradition of the time, virtuoso performers as well as composers, would use these tunes to attract audiences to concerts and recitals. Two of the most well known violin virtuosos of the 19th century, Pablo Sarasate and Henryk Wieniawski wrote works based on Gounod's Faust. Sarasate wrote his Concert Fantasy On Themes From Gounod's 'Faust' in 1874, but Wieniawski wrote his Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust in 1865 while the initial success of the opera was still strong.

Fantasia Brilliante On Themes From Gounod's Faust is in one continuous movement that consists of five sections, each one incorporating different themes from the opera. The third section includes Méphistophélès's melody  Le veau d’or (The Golden Calf, a song about the greed of man) and the final section uses the waltz music from the second act. The work exists in two version, for soloist and orchestra, and for soloist and piano.

Monday, May 16, 2016

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









Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp major BWV 858

Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor BWV 859 

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in G major BWV 860 

Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor BWV 861 

Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A-flat major BWV 862

Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp minor BWV 863

Monday, May 9, 2016

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26

Johannes Brahms was encouraged to travel from his hometown of Hamburg to Vienna by his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. They thought it was important for someone of Brahms' musical talent to go to the  music capital of German music to expand his horizons in the city where Beethoven and Schubert had lived.

So in 1862 when he was 29 years old, Brahms made the trip to Vienna and took with him two piano quartets that he had written in Hamburg; Quartet No. 1 In G Minor (opus 25) and Quartet No. 2 In A Major (opus 26).  The first piano quartet with its fiery Rondo alla Zingarese finale was an immediate success, while the more introspective second quartet was not as enthusiastically received. Brahms' music may have been a tough nut to crack for the ears of the Viennese listeners that had already turned rather conservative.   He was a composer that revered the composers of the past , but his melodic and harmonic language along with his structural style were quite new. But Brahms wrote in more traditional forms, and that fact was a harbinger of the split in music that was to happen a few years later.  Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, the main figures in the New Music movement, wrote no chamber music or traditional symphonies, so Brahms by default became the leader of the opposing camp in what was to be called The War Of The Romantics.

Along with Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a major influence on Brahms' compositions.  Schubert was most known for his songs during his lifetime, but he left over 1,000 works in various forms after his death. His music was to become a great influence on many composers, including Brahms who made a study of some of Schubert's chamber music, especially the String Quintet In C Major that was written in 1828, the year of  Schubert's death.

Like Schubert's last works, Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26 is one of Brahms' longest works and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the main theme:
This theme is passed to the strings before it is taken up again by the piano in a fortissimo dynamic that retains the lyricism of the theme while increasing the intensity. There are other themes in this exposition, the number depending on who is doing the listening. Throughout, the lyricism is maintained, similar to the unending melodies of Schubert's late works. The exposition is repeated, and then moves smoothly into the development section. Again, the lyricism prevails as Brahms takes the ear through an adventure of key changes while snatches of themes are expanded upon. The recapitulation brings back the themes in seamless transposing of keys. Fragments of the main theme play in the coda as the movement winds down until it ends in forte.

II. Poco Adagio - The only movement of this quartet that is not in sonata form is this one. it is in rondo form. All the strings are muted as the piano plays in a soft register. In what may have been a tribute to his mentor Robert Schumann who had died a few years before this work was written, piano arpeggios add to the expressive coloration of texture as the music drifts to the gentle ending where the arpeggios sweetly accentuate the long notes in the strings.

III. Scherzo: Poco Allegro - A unique movement as the scherzo and trio are both in sonata form. The trio is in D minor, and a novel effect is made by Brahms by the use of grace notes:
The scherzo is repeated and the chromatic arpeggios in the piano make a fitting close to the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The first theme is accented off the beat, and has some elements of Gypsy music as the finale of the 1st quartet, but this time much less frantic. This movement is in sonata form mostly, but has elements of a rondo as well. The music continues in a lyrical vein until the intensity ramps up slightly for a fine finish to the quartet.


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