Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Handel - Keyboard Suite In B-flat Major HWV 434

Handel was known in his own time primarily as a composer of Italian operas and oratorios, but early in his career he wrote music for keyboard as well.  In 1720 he published a book of pieces for keyboard, with some of them probably being composed earlier than that date. It was a very popular set and went through two printings during his lifetime.

There were two other sets of keyboard pieces brought out by Handel's publisher in the 1730's, but these were done without the composer's permission. While the pieces of the first set were ordered by key into suites, the later two sets were more of a hodge-podge of pieces thrown together. The Suite In B-flat Major was included in one of the later sets, and is thought by musicologists to have been written early in Handel's career. The suite as published has a minuet that directly follows the suite. Some modern performances include it for tradition's sake, and some do not.

Prelude and Sonata -  Handel opens the suite with a prelude that is notated in block chords that sketch out the harmony of the beginning, middle and ending of the prelude. This is a good example of what a prelude's original purpose was, that is to warm up the fingers and test the tuning of the instrument. There is a good deal of leeway for the performer to how these block chords may be played (the direction 'arpeggio' appears over the chords):
After the opening blocked chords, Handel writes out the arpeggios according to his wishes until more block chords are reached at about the middle of the piece, when the arpeggios are once again written out. The final measures return to blocked chords and the prelude ends on a B-flat major triad. The part marked sonata begins immediately in a rapid tempo and consists of sections that are repeated at the beginning and ending of the sonata with a middle section that develops the material heard in the repeated sections that resembles a very early predecessor or sonata form. 

Air and variations - This is the same air used by Johannes Brahms in his Variations and Fugue On A Theme Of Handel.  There are five variations on Handel's decorated air in his original:
By simply varying the air with running sixteenth notes, Handel gives the impression of a kind of counterpoint as a repeated bottom notes alternate with a rising note in the same hand. 

Menuet - As mentioned, this menuet is not actually part of the suite, but came directly after the suite in the set. As the menuet is in G minor, the relative minor of B-flat, it began to be played as part of the suite:
It is a typical Handelian menuet, highly decorated with a gently flowing melody with a simple accompaniment.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bach - French Suite No. 5 In G Major BWV 816

Many baroque era composers wrote suites of dances for keyboard. The elements contained in the baroque dance suite were inspired by actual dances, but by the time J.S. Bach wrote his dance suites they were no longer meant to be accompaniment for dancers, but for listening. Bach wrote three sets of dance suites with 6 suites in each set; the English Suites, Partitas, and French Suites.

The French Suites are thought by musicologists to have been written while Bach was Kappelmeister at the court at Cöthen between 1717 - 1723. Bach did not call these French suites. That is a name that came to be used after his death. Although many of the dances of the suite were popularized in France, the dances themselves came from different parts of Europe, so the suites are not particularly 'French' in style any more than his English Suites are 'English' in style. Later musicologists and editors kept up with the tradition of the names to help differentiate between the three sets of suites.

The standard baroque suite consisted of 4 dances, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. and could be augmented by other dance types of the era that could be inserted between the standard ones. French Suite No. 5 consists of seven movements, all of which are in binary form and the key of G major:

I. Allemande - Traditionally the first dance in a baroque suite, Allemande is the French translation of the word German. It is in common time and is in a moderately slow tempo. Bach's example here is in gentle, constantly moving sixteenth notes that weave in and out of the parts. As in all baroque music, ornamentation is part of the music, with some ornaments written in the music by the composer. But a performer of the time could also insert other ornaments in the music as long as it was not overdone and was in good taste  (a highly subjective thing that was most likely as overdone by some performers in that time as it is by some modern performers.)

II. Courante - A dance of French origin, the courante is a lively dance in triple time. The name itself means running, and this example does that in constant liveliness.

III. Sarabande - A dance of Spanish origin, it is also in triple meter. Thought to have evolved from a livelier (and some sources say an indecent) dance of the 16th century, the dance spread to France where it became a slow courtly dance. The lack of sustained tone of the harpsichord and the slow tempo of the sarabande, caused the sarabande to be more heavily decorated with ornaments to help fill out the music with sound.

IV. Gavotte - An addition to the standard suite, it is a danced of French origin that has four beats to the bar. It is moderate to somewhat faster in tempo, and begins on the 3rd beat of the first bar.

V. Bourrée - Another dance of French origin, it is written in 2 beats to the bar and is usually faster and livelier than the gavotte. It begins on the 2nd or downbeat of the first bar, and Bach's example is full of skips and jumps.

VI.  Loure - A slow dance of France, it was also known as the lente gigue, or slow jig. It is characterized by a dotted rhythm and is written in triple time, or as in Bach's example 6/4 time.

VII. Gigue - For the end of this suite Bach uses the last of the four basic dances, the Gigue or Jig, a dance of Irish/English origins. It is a lively dance, and Bach writes it in 12/16 time, which is a compound 2 in a bar meter. It is a 3-voice fugue and the subject is reeled off in sixteenth notes, 6 of them to each beat of the bar:
The subject is first heard in the soprano voice, then the alto, finally the bass. There are a few episodes and a final statement of the subject before the end of the first section, which is then repeated. Bach then turns the whole thing topsy-turvy in the second section as the subject is inverted and begins in the bass first:
After an episode, the inverted subject is played in the soprano. More episodes occur, and when the section reaches the end it too is repeated. It is a brilliant end to one of Bach's most familiar keyboard suites, one that balances enjoyable melodies with well-crafted counterpoint.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Schubert - String Quintet in C Major D. 956

Schubert's String Quintet In C Major adds a second cello to a standard string quartet setting instead of a second viola as Mozart and Beethoven did in their string quintets. No one knows why Schubert chose an extra cello for his quintet, but the result is music that uses the added depth and sonority of the second cello to good advantage.

Schubert composed the quintet in 1828, and wrote to a publisher offering it along with other works. In the letter Schubert says that rehearsals for the quintet were to begin in a few days, but it isn't certain if this ever happened. The music publisher refused the quintet, and it lay forgotten until it was rediscovered and had its first known public performance in 1850. It was published three years later in 1853, and came to be regarded by Schumann and a young Brahms to be one of the finest chamber music work ever written.

The quintet is like the other handful of masterpieces Schubert wrote in his last months of life that expanded the form and content of music.  It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro ma non troppo -  This is an example of Schubert's expanded first movement settings as it takes roughly a third of the playing time of the entire work. With a wealth of thematic material and a rich harmonic language, this movement alone takes about 19 minutes to play. It starts with a dynamic swell that begins on the chord of C major but at the crest of the swell the chord changes to what can be defined as a C diminished seventh, a minor chord.
A short section leads to a different tonally ambiguous chord exchange, and now the music  reveals that this is not an introduction, but a thematic group that continues in kaleidoscopic harmonies until a second theme in E-flat is stated by the cellos:

This theme moves to the higher strings and is repeated.  A section in G major brings the music back to the second theme and the exposition is repeated. The development section alternates between the serene and the dramatic as the music spotlights sections of themes in a dizzying array of major and minor keys. Schubert manages to segue from one to the other effortlessly until the recapitulation brings the music back to the beginning chords. Key changes continue as Schubert blends themes and keys as a painter blends colors and shadows. The coda gives a sense of continuing the themes even farther as the opening chords are heard again along with a modulation, but it is actually a summing up as Schubert winds down the movement and the music ends firmly in C major.

II. Adagio - The second movement is in E major, and begins with a tender theme played by second violin and viola. The first violin plays an accompanying figure as the one cello adds harmonic depth to the theme while the second cello plays a pizzicato accompaniment:
The instruments blend together as the music gently and slowly flows on its way, getting even more quiet as it goes, until a crescendo of trills leads to an agitated middle section in F minor. A quiet section coaxes the tender theme back for a replaying, but this time with a varied accompaniment which adds a slight nervous edge to it. Near the end, the trilled crescendo that lead to the agitated middle section makes a brief appearance in the first violin, but as quickly as it came it retreats as the music comes to an end in E major.

III. Scherzo: Presto – Trio: Andante sostenuto -  Schubert returns to the home key of C major as he increases the loudness and sonority of the five instruments by playing 9-note chords at fortissimo in this boisterous scherzo:
The trio section generally is in contrast to the scherzo itself, but Schubert makes an extreme contrast, first of all with the key change from C major to D-flat major, a key that is quite remote from the home key. The tempo also slows as the mysterious music of the trio quietly hesitates its way to a repeat of the scherzo.

IV. Allegretto - Schubert's first theme of this movement is reminiscent of the dance music he was fond of. The movement is in the form of a rondo with elements of sonata form as well, a hybrid of the two forms. The key has returned to C major (although the theme begins in shadows of C minor), and the violin plays the theme as the other instruments give an accompaniment:
 The second theme is a graceful tune in G major played by the first violin and first cello:
Schubert's melodic gifts were second to none, so along with these two themes there are other tunes and parts of tunes that appear. After Schubert has ran his course with these themes, he builds up excitement by increasing the tempo in the coda. With a triple forte passage, Schubert leads to the final notes, a D-flat grace note before the final unison C, thus ends a work that constantly moves from profound beauty to despair and back again with an intensity that was the beginning of the Romantic era in music.

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