Sunday, June 11, 2017

Liszt - Grandes Études de Paganini

The influence that the virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini exerted on composers and performers of the early 19th century cannot be overestimated. Never had any performer demonstrate the total mastery of an instrument as Paganini did on the violin. He also had a level of showmanship that helped make him world famous.

Franz Liszt was already an accomplished concert pianist when he first heard Paganini in Paris in 1832, and was determined to do for the piano what Paganini did for the violin. He began to practice the piano even more strenuously until he had become the most acclaimed pianist of his time.

It was natural that Liszt would use the music written by the man who inspired him in some way, and the result was the first version of the six Grandes Études de Paganini of 1838, which  contained technical difficulties that were impossible for anyone else to play but Liszt, Eventually in 1851 he revised them and made them less technically demanding, but to this day the revised version contains some of the most technically demanding pieces in the piano repertoire.

I. Étude No. 1 In G Minor (Tremolo) - Among the first published works of Paganini's opus 1 were the famous 24 Caprices For Solo Violin. These works revolutionized violin technique. Paganini opened up possibilities for the violin that were unheard of before his time, and Liszt used some of these works as inspiration for his etudes. The first one in G minor begins with a introduction taken from the 5th Caprice of Paganini and begins with arpeggios. The main body of the etude is taken from the 6th Caprice and consists of a theme placed against tremolos. The piece ends with another arpeggiated reference to the 5th Caprice.

II.  Étude No. 2 In E-flat Major - Taken from the 17th Caprice of Paganini, The theme of this etude is a rather simple one, but the accompaniment and manner of its presentation bristles with scales, arpeggios and all manner of keyboard acrobatics as does the original version for violin.

III.  Étude No. 3 In G-sharp Minor (La Campanella) - This etude is taken from the finale of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 In B Minor. The nickname translates to 'Little Bell', and Liszt gives the impression of a little bell by playing in the piano's high register. It is the most popular of the set.

IV.  Étude No. 4 In E Major (Arpeggio) - Taken from the 1st Caprice of Paganini, this etude is written all in the treble clef on one line in imitation of solo violin music. The lowest note in the piece is the first G below middle C, which is the lowest note on the violin.  

V.  Étude No. 5 In E Major (La Chasse) - From the 9th Caprice of Paganini, this etude has the horn calls and excitement of the translation of its subtitle, The Hunt,

VI.  Étude No. 6 In A Minor -  From what could possibly be the most well known piece of music written by Paganini, the 24th Caprice, a set of variations on an original theme. Liszt was the first among many composers that used this theme for a set of variations. Liszt's version is a kind of translation of the original to pianistic terms, but isn't as inspired as Paganini's original. But Liszt wrote this set of etudes on the music of Paganini to push the boundaries of piano technique and to dazzle audiences, and they have accomplished both.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Debussy - Préludes For Piano Book Two

As with the first book of preludes, Claude Debussy wrote the second book of twelve in a few months between 1912 and 1913.  They are similar in mood to those of the first book, but the music itself is more complex harmonically and there is a greater emphasis on technique. During Debussy's lifetime, Book I sold more copies than Book II, possibly because the nature of the music was that much more unique. Debussy followed the procedure of Book I by placing his descriptive titles of the pieces at the end of the preludes of Book II.

The second book of preludes was Debussy's penultimate foray into music for solo piano. After the set of 12 Etudes written in 1915, Debussy composed no more major works for piano solo.

1) Brouillards (Mists) -  Debussy utilizes bi-tonality to depict layers of mist as the left hands plays on the white keys while the right hand plays on the black keys. This is a sort of visual representation (for the performer at any rate) of mixing while with black to create Debussy's gray colored mist. The music begins in 4/8 time and shifts meter to 3/8, 3/4 and back to 4/8 periodically throughout the piece, adding to the drifting and changing direction and speed of the mist.

2) Feuilles mortes (Dead leaves) -  Supposedly written after an autumnal walk taken by Debussy, this prelude is not morbid in any sense of something dead. It is more like the shifting colors of leaves that have taken on the colors of autumn. It is a subtle depiction of colors through changing tonalities.

3) La puerta del Vino (Wine Gate): Mouvement de Habanera - Carrying on the love of Spanish music by French composers, Debussy composed a companion piece to La sérénade interrompue (The interrupted serenade) of Book I.  The wine gate in question is one located in the Moorish Palace Of The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The rhythm of the habanera dance runs throughout in the bass.
Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens 

4) Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) - Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens was the inspiration for this prelude, in particular a depiction of fairies tight-rope walking on a spider's web. The music begins with fast music that may refer to the fairies flying, with the spider web walking coming a little later.

5) Bruyères (Heather) -  A representation of the simple flower of heather. Its pastoral mood and folk song simplicity is similar to La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) of Book I.

6) Général Lavine – eccentric: Dans le style et le mouvement d'un Cakewalk - An example of Debussy's liking of contemporary popular performers. Ed Lavine was an American juggler performer that was billed as General Lavine, The Man That Has Soldiered All His Life. Among his reported tricks was to play the piano with his toes! Debussy saw the General perform in Paris in 1912 and enjoyed his performance so much he immortalized him in this prelude. Debussy wrote other pieces in American ragtime style, with one of them being Minstrels of Book I.

7)  La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) - There is little in the way of description or source of inspiration concerning this piece. It is pure Debussy. Whatever he meant by the title doesn't matter much. It is music of Debussyian sensuality, power and beauty.

8) Ondine : Scherzando - Ondines are mythological Scandinavian water nymphs that sang and danced on the water's surface that could also lure fisherman away from their labors. Debussy shows them playing on the rippling water as well as outbursts that depict their mischievous intent to divert fisherman.

9) Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. (Homage to S. Pickwick) - Debussy made a few trips to England where his music was well received, and he was an avowed Anglophile. This music is a tribute to the English author Charles Dickens, a favorite of Debussy's. Debussy doesn't let his love of everything English prevent him from parody as he begins the prelude with a rude rendition of God Save The King. Various other styles emerge, along with a jig tune towards the end.

Canopic jars
10) Canope (Canopic jar) - Canopic jars were used by ancient Egyptians to hold the vital organs of the deceased while the body and heart were mummified. The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were each kept in separate jars for safekeeping and use in the afterlife. The lids of these clay jars were made in the forms of Egyptian gods, and Debussy had some of these lids on his mantle in his house.

11) Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) - This is in the style of his set of Etudes that were to be written in 1915. The title says it all, as it is comprised of alternating thirds throughout. The musical effect comes from changes in dynamics as the musical elements are rather straightforward.

12) Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) - The final prelude of the entire set of 24 is a grand finale and continuation of all that has gone before. With rapid scales, repeated notes, large chords and glissandos, Debussy depicts skyrockets and other fireworks that are set off on the French Independence Day, July 14th - Bastille Day. The final shooting of massive skyrockets is depicted by a double glissando - the left hand down the white notes, the right hand down the black notes. After the last sparks die away, the Marseillaise rumbles quietly in the background.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Mozart - String Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421

Joseph Haydn was not the first composer to write for two violins, viola and cello, but he did develop the ensemble into a form that has engaged many composers from his time to the present. His 68 string quartets show an unending imagination and creativity. They became the standard to which all other string quartets were judged by.

Mozart's first of 26 string quartets was written in 1770 when he was 14 years of age. As his experience and expertise grew, his quartets began to be inspired by those of Haydn. From 1782-1784 Mozart wrote a set of six string quartets that was dedicated to Haydn. They were published in Vienna in 1785 as Mozart's opus 10, and carried the following dedication from Mozart to Haydn:
To my dear friend Haydn:   A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father's eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,     W.A. Mozart
Haydn himself began the tradition of releasing string quartets in sets of six, which was also followed by Beethoven with his first six quartets. There was usually one quartet in a set that was in a minor key, and Mozart's 15th string quartet, the second one of opus 10,is in the key of D minor. It consists of 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato - Each of the 6 quartets dedicated to Haydn are individual works in character and spirit, with this one being defined to a great extent by its D minor tonality. The first movement begins with a theme in the first violin with an octave drop on the home note of D:
Mozart seldom has only two contrasting themes in his sonata form developments. Such is his gift of melody, he uses what is called theme groups, and the contrast can come between these groups. Minor and major keys are juxtaposed and create a variety of emotion and tension in the exposition, and are expanded naturally in the development section, in some sections contrapuntally. The recapitulation emphasizes minor over major, and some of the brightness of the second theme group has been darkened as a result. The movement ends in D minor.

II. Andante -  The first movement goes from dark to light and back to dark again, and despite being in the key of F major, the second movement is not all sunshine. The music doesn't flow as smoothly, and seems a tad disjointed. The middle section is in the minor, and the mood turns accordingly. But it is a brief time before the music turns back to the mood of the beginning of the movement.

III. Menuetto: Allegretto - The third movement returns to D minor in a rather serious minuet punctuated by chromaticism:

The trio is in D major, and is in stark contrast to the minuet in the delicacy of the theme played in the first violin to pizzicato accompaniment. When the minuet returns, it sounds even more stark after the gentle trio.

IV. Allegretto ma non troppo -  The final movement is a set of variations on a theme in 6/8 time. Only one variation, the last one, is in a different key from the tonic. This final variation is in D major, and gives a little bit of solace before the sadness returns in a coda that adds intensity and drama to the theme. At the very last, the music shifts to D major and ends with a picardy third, which oddly enough adds a feeling of irony and resignation instead of brightness.

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 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.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Paganini - Variations On 'I Palpiti', Opus 13

Long before recorded sound, arias from operas were the hit songs of their day. All through the 19th century, composers and performers extracted the most popular arias and subjected them to arrangements, sets  of variations and paraphrases (as Franz Liszt called them) for performance. Music publishers were fond of these arrangements as they made money on them by selling to professionals as well as accomplished amateurs.

The famed virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini wrote sets of variations on opera tunes and was most likely the only violinist that could play them at the time. Paganini used many of his own compositions and sets of variations for concerts and recitals that took Europe by storm in the early 19th century. Many of these were never published during his lifetime, as he guarded his music that revealed the means of his astounding technique from any would-be rivals.

The Variations On I Palpiti are based on an aria from the 1813 opera Tancredi by Gioachino Rossini. The opera was Rossini's first large success, and the aria Di tanti palpiti (Heartbeats) was one of his most popular tunes of his career.

Paganini uses the technique of retuning the open strings of the violin (scordatura) in this piece. It was one of his tricks that lead to more brilliance in his instrument as well as making some of the passages more feasible. The regular violin tuning of G-D-A-E was changed to A-flat, E-flat, B-flat and F.
There are 3 sections to the work:

I. Introduzione: Larghetto cantabile - The piano part is written in B-flat major while the violin part is written in A major due to the scordatura tuning. This section has the violin singing in a highly decorated introduction.

II.Recitativo, con grande espressione - The music turns to B-flat minor as Paganini shows his own operatic flair in a short section where the piano plays tremolos as the violin sings a recitative.

III. Andantino - After a short transition, Rossini's theme is played. The repeat of the theme is conservatively decorated as Paganini saves the fireworks for the 3 variations on it that follow.

Variation 1 - All manner of triple and double stops, runs, and articulations rush forth in a variation that also includes some runs in harmonics, stopped notes high in the stratosphere and parts where Paganini directs the soloist to play the same note on two strings at once.

Variation 2 -Un poco piu lento - The harmonics of the preceding variation are expanded as much of this variation is played in single stopped as well as double stopped harmonics, an incredibly difficult thing to do for the soloist.

Variation 3 - Quasi presto - The final variation has an increase in tempo as double stops lead to runs played pizzicato in the left hand that alternate with bowed notes as well.  A last statement of the theme brings the work to a brilliant close.

This work has been edited in years gone by when changes in the original composer's music was not only tolerated but expected. The edition by Fritz Kreisler is often played instead of the original and has many changes in both the piano and violin parts. The recording linked below is of Paganini's original score, and save for a few bars of violin chords that begin the work with the piano, the work is complete in its original form.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bach - Sonata For Violin And Keyboard In B Minor BWV 1014

Johann Sebastian Bach came by his reputation as the master of counterpoint and fugue with the 48 Preludes and Fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier, but counterpoint was his life's blood, and appeared in one form or another in most of his compositions. When Bach died in 1750, there was already a movement underfoot to change the tools of musical expression from counterpoint to a simpler form of melody and accompaniment. The result was that Bach was considered old fashioned, even when he was still alive, for some composers. But the genius of Bach knew no limits. He well understood the new trends in music, and could write in the new style as he chose.

The six sonatas for violin and keyboard were written when Bach was in service as the Kappelmeister at Köthen. Prince Leopold was a keen music lover whose court was Calvinist with simple church services that didn't use much in the way of music. Bach was there from 1717-1723, and wrote mostly secular pieces. It was here that he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites, pieces for solo violin and solo cello, and many other pieces.

The new style is blended with the old with the violin sonatas as they are written in the Baroque sonata de chiesa form of four movements with the tempo plan of slow-fast-slow-fast. But Bach makes the instruments partners, as both hands are written out for the keyboard player instead of just a figured bass line for the keyboardist to interpret.

These sonatas were not published until the early 19th century, but they were circulated by hand-made copies, and the music loving government official and patron of the arts Baron Gottfried van Swieten had copies of many of Bach's compositions in his music library. His weekly salon of performances of Bach's music helped musicians and music lovers become acquainted with Bach's music and lead to the revival of Bach's reputation in the 19th century.

I. Adagio - The first movement begins with the keyboard playing solo before the violin enters:
The violin sings a soulful lament as the keyboard continues to build on the initial ideas. The result is a short movement where the violin, right hand and left hand of the keyboard combine to make the texture of a trio.

II. Allegro -  The second movement begins with a fugal subject stated by the violin with an accompaniment:
The two instruments trade the subject back and forth until a middle section is reached. The middle section begins in the major and continues with the subject. The opening key of B minor subject returns and Bach continues to play effortlessly as it weaves in and out until the end of the movement.

III. Andante - The violin and right hand of the keyboard play in counterpoint in D major as the left hand maintains the bass:
Further along in the movement the two voices sing as duet before the movement ends gently.

IV. Allegro -  The final movement, like most of the fast movements in the sonatas, has the violin and right hand play in counterpoint:
The movement is in two sections, both of which are repeated.

Fauré - Piano Quartet No. 1 In C Minor, Opus 15

Gabriel Fauré was the only member of his family that showed a talent for music. His father was a schoolmaster that became the head of teacher training college. His father was advised of his son's musical talent and made the decision to send him to Paris to the School Of Classical And Religious Music (which was founded and run by Louis Niedemeyer) when Fauré was 9 years old to study music. When Niedemeyer died in 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns came to the school and became in charge of piano studies and introduced the contemporary modern composers such as Liszt and Wagner to the students.  Fauré and Saint-Saëns became great friends and their friendship lasted until the death of Saint-Saëns 60 years later.

After 11 years of study, Fauré made his living as a church organist and piano teacher. He had little time for composing, but later in life he gained notoriety as a composer as well as the head of the Paris Conservatoire.

Fauré's 1st piano quartet is an early piece that was begun in 1876 and completed in 1879. Fauré played the piano part in the premiere of the piano quartet in 1880, after which he revised the work and wrote an entirely new last movement in 1883.  It has 4 movements:

I. Allegro molto moderato -  Fauré composed about 20 works for chamber ensemble, and save for one string quartet written late in life, all of them include the piano. The piano always takes an active and key role in his chamber works, and this is shown in the first movement of this work. The first C minor theme is in dotted rhythm in the strings that is accented by the off-the-beat comments of the piano:
This initial theme plays itself out and leads to the second theme that is in the major and more lyrical in nature. The second theme is economical in its parts, but Fauré develops the theme until a third theme is heard, which leads to a short reference to the first theme. There is a seamless transition to the development section as the first theme is explored. The dotted rhythm is heard in different guises and keys. Themes and rhythms meld into a seamless development section until the recapitulation begins with the first theme repeat. Fauré handles modulations with a deft smoothness that results in very pleasant music to the ear. There is contrast, but it is not a startling, dramatic contrast. The key of C minor is one of storm and passion to other composers, but Fauré uses it in his own lyrical style. The movement ends delicately in C major.

II. Scherzo: Allegro vivo -  The music begins in E-flat major, but C minor keeps appearing as the strings play a delicate pizzicato to the piano's quirkiness:
Unlike many other scherzos, this one is in two in a bar in a time signature that shifts from 6/8 to 2/4. The middle trio is in B-flat major and has muted strings accompanying the piano.

III. Adagio - The piano trio was written at a time in Fauré's life when he was with a woman he had been wooing for 5 years before they became engaged in 1877. They were engaged for about four months until the woman broke off the engagement. Fauré was heartbroken, and the slow movement of the quartet is the only hint of what he may have been feeling. The movement begins with a slow song in C minor:
The middle section of the movement strives for more of a dreamy lyricism, but the sadness of the opening returns. The movement is a model of classical restraint, and ends intimately in C minor.

IV. Allegro molto -  The finale begins with a dotted theme in C minor that hearkens back to the beginning of the quartet:
 The second theme begins in E-flat major, but doesn't seem to stay in that key very long. This movement perhaps carries more drama than the others, but it is still within Fauré's artistic sensibilities. There is a restless energy that climaxes in the middle of the movement, after which the piano continues to scamper as the violin and viola trade off motives. The cello enters as a reinforcement of the violin and viola as the piano can hold its own. The music gradually changes to the brightness of C major and it ends in that key after a coda that makes a few references to the dotted rhythms of previous movements.


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