You want to hear about real stress? The expectation that Brahms compose a symphony that would essentially be Beethoven’s 10th was a titanic burden. The Schumann’s expected it and fervently hoped Brahms could counter the Wagnerian fever they felt was destroying the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert. Robert Schumann wrote that Brahms was Beethoven’s true successor. And with that gargantuan testimonial, the rest of the musical world too waited to hear Brahms prove it with a symphony. Brahms got earnestly to work and immediately suffered major crises. Those “symphonic failures” eventually became some of the greatest chamber music and concerti in the repertoire.
The first movement especially is a magnificent mess structurally. It begins with a tune so extraordinary that most of us never remember any of the music after it—and that tune never returns after its first statement! On a certain level, the first movement of the concerto can’t decide what it is or what it wants to do. Despite this confusion, Tchaikovsky’s concerto in fact wrestles with the very idea of combining piano and orchestra in a novel and genius fashion. Maybe when hearing the music from this vantage point, it’s the opening grand melody we can start to forget instead of the rest of the piece after it!
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1
We read continually about Tchaikovsky’s difficulties with form, his “mountains of padding” to clumsily move from one section to another, his near nervous breakdowns in coming to grips with symphonic demands. We read that Tchaikovsky was primarily a “melodist” as opposed to being a developmental composer like Brahms or Mahler. Yet today so few people in an audience can even follow the structure of sonata form, the bugaboo that gave Tchaikovsky such tremors, that one can’t help but wonder if there is some correlation between Tchaikovsky’s extreme popularity and his difficulties with form.
His first symphony provides a dramatic example of this conondrum. His struggle composing the piece placed him near death, according to his brother. A first draft received very negative feedback from his mentors. He revised according to their instructions, but again met with disapproval. Two of the movements were performed in St. Petersburg without success. And then Tchaikovsky did an about-face, discarding these approved revisions. The piece was eventually performed in Moscow, met with success, but was not played again for 15 years.
Tchaikovsky later wrote specifically that his difficulties came from the conflict of adapting his melodic inclinations to the symphonic standard of sonata style. In other words, he was a song composer trying to write symphonies. Of this he was now keenly aware. His solution was to develop a set of strategies to highlight his melodic strengths while drawing attention away from his difficulties in development. In essence, he became a supreme craftsman making themes themselves compelling narratives, building them from simple melody and accompaniments into complex textures, and then using exciting devices to bridge between them.
We can recognize this difficulty even today with pop writers or film composers who write concert music. Their attempts are mostly unsuccessful because they attempt to extend their static melodic ideas into a symphonic form that requires dynamic transformation and building narrative. The song composer tends to create a series of songs with bridges. The film composer is skilled at transitions, but is used to working within the confines of a cinematic rhythm and short musical cues, so developing an idea through many transitions and past a couple of minutes is difficult. In both cases, listeners sense a weakness in the bridge material and grandiose inflation to the themes themselves.
Mvt. 2 Gloomy Land, Misty Land
The slow movement lays bare this Tchaikovsky structural problem. A single theme just repeats over and over in different instruments. After a slow chorale introduction by the strings, the oboe presents the melody, followed by the violas and then the cellos. The fourth repeat tosses phrases of the tune among the different instruments. We even get a brief moment of counterpoint—some imitation of the tune between high and low instruments. But then the horns present the theme in full grandiose fashion and the string chorale returns as a bookend to conclude the movement. Nothing could be simpler structurally. Does it work? The answer is barely.
What saves it, or what makes it something more than a pretty tune in a loop, is what Tchaikovsky does with the theme itself. First, it is not a theme like Beethoven or Mozart would write with one or two phrases. It is not a tune like a pop song either, which is often a setup for a short hook or chorus. Instead, it is an entire story unto itself. It’s complicated. It repeats phrases, but in an unpredictable way. The diagram of the theme would be: A A’ BC BB C BB C’.
Tchaikovsky fuses the complexity of the melodic structure with imaginative accompaniments and orchestral colors. When the oboe first presents the theme, the flute accompanies it with willowy arabesque scales, all while the violins intone a pulsing syncopated heartbeat. The violas play the theme over an entirely different accompaniment of clarinet syncopations and bass pizzicato. The cellos lament the theme amid rhapsodic violin tremolos.
The continual variation of accompaniment with its growing intensity is Tchaikovsky’s solution to symphonic development within a melodic style. It gives the “illusion” of developing something that is already complete. I imagine this is what drove Brahms to distraction with Tchaikovsky’s music!
The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first symphony reveals the structural seams of transitions for the initiated listener:
they don’t really go anywhere and rely on modules of chords that ascend or descend. In other words, the sequences sound more clumsy than inevitable. The development has the sound of a fragmentary development section without really going anywhere substantially new.
But the movement also highlights the strengths that would make Tchaikovsky such a world class phenomenon:
•an incredible ear for instrumental color and combinations—the flute and bassoon doubling the opening melody, the arabesques of strings and winds, and the powerful brass intoning chorale style.
•innovative and brilliant writing for the woodwinds—he learned from Mendelssohn how to write virtuoso passages that accent their colors.
an intricacy to thematic writing: imaginative accompaniments, rich harmonic progressions, powerful buildups
Scherzo Mvt. 3
Unlike the first two movements, the Scherzo is a perfect piece. That is, its structure and musical ideas are in complete agreement and show the hand of a master composer. Tchaikovsky’s success here is not entirely surprising, since the dance movement of a symphony is built similarly to song form in discrete sections without traditional development. This is why dance movements are the easiest to listen to in symphonies. We immediately hear that Tchaikovsky has made a keen study of Mendelssohn’s exquisite scherzi, with their brilliant motoric rhythms and colorful textures. The outer scherzi sections are mysterious and quixotic, playing a rhythmic game between accents on the first or second beats. The trio reveals a mature Tchaikovsky theme, a complete song in itself, sung in octaves by violins and celli, and illuminated brilliantly later by figures in the flute and horn.
The bridges to and from the trio are expertly handled, with elements of the scherzo gradually receding and surfacing respectively. How interesting and instructive it is to hear Tchaikovsky’s mastery and assurance with short musical bridges like these, compared to his awkwardness and confusion with sonata style transitions and developments. Short bridges define the specific task of traveling from landscape to another, largely a problem of redefining accompaniment and musical texture. Tchaikovsky was already far advanced in understanding those elements. Sonata transitions, on the other hand, involve fragmenting, combining, and transforming thematic elements to reveal new meanings and potentials that transcend the initial more obvious melodic statement. Here is the root of Tchaikovsky’s struggle. He labored intensely so that his themes were fully mature already in their first statement. They don’t require futher “revelation.” So what was he supposed to do in those sections instead?
Tchaikovsky’s best answer to that question in this symphony is in the finale, where he borrows another Mendelssohn device—fusing fugue into sonata structure. Tchaikovsky composes fugues for both his transition sections and development section. Problem solved! Fugal writing by definition is fragmented and developmental. By deciding on this structure, Tchaikovsky forced himself to deconstruct his intricately woven themes.
And he lets us hear and experience this entire process by beginning with a slow introduction that lays out all his ideas. For once, he opens with a fragment instead of a full blown melody. This fragment repeats 10 times playing out over a chromatic descending bass line (a technique he was to use in all his other symphonies, but most memorably in the 6th symphony, the “Pathetique”). Finally, the violins continue the fragment into a complete “Tchaikovsky-stamped” melancholy melody in minor.
An Allegro transition accelerates the tune in major until the proper “first” theme begins in full majesty. But no sooner does this new theme begin, then we hear it repeated in its opening fragment. This fragment becomes the subject for the first fugal transition. Like Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky creates great excitement in the fugue by accompanying the subject with a countersubject of virtuoso scale passages. This fugue makes a climax in the secondary area and a new tune—the second theme—begins. This second theme receives a bluntly syncopated accompaniment, but it too concludes with repetitions of its opening fragment which becomes fugal. In a mood of probably gleeful and triumphant cunning, Tchaikovsky lets his contrapuntal structure effortlessly transport into a symphonic development section. He bounces from the second theme right back into the first theme without even a hiccup in the fugal texture.
But the real triumph of this movement occurs in the recapitulation when the second theme reappears. After an initial statement, it slows down and boom! We are back in the world of the slow introduction and suddenly realize that this second theme was merely an accelerated version of the initial “Tchaikovsky-stamped” theme from the introduction. I suspect Tchaikovsky intended this to be a revelation for the listener. And with this successful transformation, Tchaikovsky was truly composing with a symphonic conception that greatly transcended his song style. It was this type of effort that probably caused him such enormous struggle and turmoil in producing this work. There is much for us to learn from his process and success.
This was the introduction I gave for my piano recital of the complete Brahms Intermezzi (the first time all of them have been presented together on a single program, as far as I know).
Brahms Intermezzo Talk
Tonight I am playing piano music that has largely been ignored in recital programming. The journey through these pieces will open a new conception of sound for the piano and an intimate emotional energy unique in the classical literature. Brahms, like other Romantic Era composers, gave general poetic titles to his piano pieces: Fantasy, Capriccio, Romance, etc. But as he continued his interest in short piano pieces, he increasingly used the title Intermezzo, or “Interlude,” for his most intimate and soul-searching works.
The Brahms piano intermezzi adhere to the conventional song form of Romantic piano music—three part ABA form where we hear one section of music, followed by a contrasting section, and conclude with a return of the first section. The intermezzi are written on a handful of pages, filled with some of the most complex, intimate, and heart wrenching articulations in Western music. Yet within the piano repertoire they are somewhat hidden; most of them are not well known and are published within collections of pieces with other titles. Further, they are usually slow in tempo and don’t show off virtuoso technique like, say, the warhorses of Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff. Most of them are explicitly not crowd pleasers.
And Brahms probably never intended to have the intermezzi played collectively. Yet since I first learned them as a teenager, I thought performing them together would reveal an intimate and emotional energy that is unique in classical music. Now older with more experience, I go beyond that assertion to state that the intermezzi reveal a side of Brahms even Brahms lovers don’t know—daring experimentation, discoveries of new rhythmic orders, an orchestral treatment of the piano very different from the salon music of Chopin and Liszt, and a density of thought that might be considered musical haiku.
The high treble colors and wide registral spacing in his early Intermezzo in B minor op. 10 #3 suggest the worlds of Debussy and Ravel that were to come later. The arpeggios of his late Intermezzo in B minor op. 119 #1 open the gate to the harmonies of modernism—those of Schoenberg and jazz. In his Intermezzo in A major op. 118 #2 he develops and varies three notes in just a few pages as deeply as Beethoven in his late string quartets. The rhythmic phrasing in the Intermezzo in E minor op. 116#5 borrows ideas from the Middle Ages to create a modern pulse that confuses our intuitions between consonance and dissonance. And even beyond that, the harmonic and textural complexity and just the general resonance of the Intermezzo in E Flat minor, op. 118#6 point to a bold new direction for the sound of the piano itself, where it begins to sound like an orchestra rather than a single instrument.
I believe too that there is a secret to Brahms using the title “Intermezzo.” The word means “interlude” but also means “in the middle.” Brahms loved things that were in the “middle.” He loved codes, things hidden. We know he loved the viola, the clarinet, and the alto voice. In each of the intermezzi, we begin to notice a distinctive quality to the piano writing where significant melodies appear “in the middle” with music above and below them. This “sandwich” texture provides both a distinctive sound quality to these pieces, but also a hidden message, a message Brahms left that there is more in these pieces than first meets the ear! Even in the opening themes, Brahms often presents two melodies at once, where we first notice the top melody, but then later realize the primary melody was underneath. The middle section of each intermezzo reveals a secret development of ideas in the first section. The different intermezzi of each opus actually develop the same musical ideas—a recurring three note motive, a rocking back and forth motive, etc.—ideas that continually recur and grow through all the intermezzi. And so on. All of us who have spent years enjoying this music know that sense of discovery to be true. I hope this recital opens this marvelous experience for many others.
Salonen Conducts Hindemith and Wagner
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
Wagner: Was duftet doch der Flieder so mild from Die Meistersinger
Wagner: Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walkure
Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries from "Die Walküre"
Wagner: Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure
Wagner: “O du mein holden Abendstern” from Tannhauser
Wagner: Vorspiel to Act III to Lohengrin
The music on tonight’s concert emphasizes melody as a tool to follow narrative. The Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis shares with Wagnerian opera the notion that themes in and of themselves can provide an anchor of coherence while everything around them transforms dynamically.
I often think of melody as primarily a mnemonic device. Recall the often less than pleasant experience of someone humming a piece of music in an attempt to have you recognize it. If you’re like me, most of the time you’re hopelessly perplexed. In fact, for the recipient, this particular torture lies only partly from the often less than ideal intonation and rhythm on the part of the enthusiastic hummer. The real problem is that while humming, people inside their head hear the harmony, texture, and accompaniment, but limited by the human voice they can only hum the tune! So for them, the melody absolutely recalls a complex web of musical elements—the chords, the accompaniment, the orchestration, etc. But their listener may only receive the information of a croaking of incoherent intervals and rhythms. Without the other elements, there often isn’t enough information to recognize the music. But once we know a piece of music, melody becomes a powerful encoding and shorthand for an entire sonic landscape. In my Beethoven classes, students memorize and hum the openings of each symphony. In this way, they are able to recall many other musical elements while they are humming. It also provides a long lasting memory of the music. People report years later they can still hum these openings.
When we think of the complexity of Wagner’s world on so many levels—story, characters, singing styles, orchestration, etc.—it makes sense that he would use themes as a way to encode all this information and lead the listener through a dense web of interrelationships. We call those themes leitmotifs, or guiding motives. (Wagner called them Grundthemen or base themes). Once familiar with these leitmotifs, we can identify characters and ideas in a scene simply by listening to the music. Leitmotifs can even foreshadow. When Wotan puts Brünnhilde under a sleep spell that can only be broken by a great hero, we hear Siegfried’s leitmotif in the orchestra. In the opera, Siegfried hasn’t even been born yet! But when we hear his tune, we know he’s the guy who is going to break that spell. Wagner goes deeper with leitmotifs, layering them, transforming them, and using them as almost philosophical commentary to the drama on stage.
Letimotif technique was an important device in early film music. Both Max Steiner’s score to King Kong and Gone With The Wind use dozens of leitmotifs. The ominous chromatic three note descending motif from King Kong and the romantic Tara theme from Gone With The Wind come immediately to mind. When full-length dramatic film was still a relatively new genre, it made sense that a musical guide would help create a coherent storyline. Now that we are all such sophisticated moviegoers and can follow stories forwards, backwards, and sideways, the leitmotif technique would be redundant. Instead of mimicking the storyline, film music today adds a subtle layer of atmosphere or may even play against what we see.
But with complex contemporary music, themes can be a big help to follow the progression of ideas. And that may have been what Hindemith had in mind when he composed Symphonic Metamorphisis on Themes by Weber…
Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber
Sequels continue to be one of the more depressing realities in today’s entertainment. They guarantee some measure of market success by essentially creating a variation of something already proven successful with an established fan base. The cynical insinuation is that audiences most want to see that which they already have seen. Of course, that doesn’t prevent sequels from being effective and well made efforts.
There is some degree of “sequel-ization” in contemporary concert music in the many works based on older familiar music. A famous and well-loved example is Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella based on tunes by Pergolesi (well, actually tunes by various other Baroque composers, but that’s beside the point). In fact, the entire neoclassical movement of the 20th century was a kind of sophisticated type of “sequel-ization,” easing audiences into contemporary harmonic language through the Trojan horse of more familiar baroque and classical forms and themes.
The European émigré composers fleeing Nazi Germany to America were faced with starting over and having to win over an American public. Randy Schoenberg related to me recently that this was a primary reason that his grandfather Arnold Schoenberg composed both his tonal Cello Concerto and Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra on themes by Baroque composers in the 1930s. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony also comes to mind as a work determinedly less dissonant and dense for an American public. Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber is part of this genre of very successful pieces conceived to win over a new American public and indeed, along with his symphony Mathis der Maler, it remains one of Hindemith’s most popular works.
Hindemith began the piece soon after moving to the United States. And like Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, it was originally conceived as a ballet by the same choreographer Stravinsky used, Leonide Massine. However, Hindemith did not approve of Massine’s choice of artist for the scenic backdrops—none other than Salvador Dali—and the project fell through. Hindemith recast the work as a symphony and it was immediately successful after its premiere in 1944 by the New York Philharmonic.
Weber of course was a wonderful Germanic opera composer still well known for his opera Der Freischütz and his imaginative use of the orchestra. But Hindemith takes mostly unknown Weber tunes from a collection he had of piano duets. While Symphonic Metamorphosis makes a fancy title, the piece is surprisingly easy to follow. We might expect an in-depth and cerebral theme and variation process. Instead, Hindemith keeps Weber’s tunes intact so much so that we can practically hum along the entire piece. But he surrounds the melodies with harmonies, textures, and accompaniments in his own style.
The second movement scherzo illustrates this process beautifully. Tubular bells introduce a Chinese tune on the flute. It is actually from Weber’s Turandot, that same story that Puccini made so famous. Well, the tune is “kind of” Chinese. It begins with a pentatonic collection, but ends its phrase outlining a chord a half step below this collection—a trick actually similar to Prokofiev’s tricks in melodies such as Peter and the Wolf. Hindemith repeats the theme again to make sure we’ve “got it” before moving to the next phrase, which uses a similar process and then repeats. The scherzo proper begins with percussion introducing a faster tempo and continually embellishing around the two phrases we heard at the beginning. In other words, the tune stays the same, bouncing around the orchestra, but the accompaniments and textures surrounding it are what actually change. Furious trills and florid accompanimental lines establish a vector of crescendo for the movement. After the climax, the brass play a jazzy syncopated fugue version of the tune—a nod to American audiences? The woodwinds take up the fun. The tubular bells finally appear and introduce the timpani soloing on the first four notes of the tune. A fugal coda ensues building one final time to the timpani and bells continually repeating the opening motive, then fading out to a final brass chord.
There are practically no moments in the entire movement when we’re not hearing the theme, and yet the surrounding landscape is varied sufficiently that we never lose interest. The clever part of this technique is that Hindemith can be sure we’re following him wherever he chooses to go. The advanced gorgeous harmonies of the slow third movement are definitely not the world of Carl Maria von Weber, but those tunes again are always there, so we are always clear. This piece is in ABA form so we get two tunes instead of one! And it is crystal clear when the A tune returns, because of its distinctive opening in two ascending arpeggios.
The finale of Symphonic Metamorphosis is a march, and it sounds big and brassy, like the other march we’ll hear tonight—the overture to Wagner’s Der Meistersinger. But it has much more dynamic variety, with hushed mood changes to minor and wonderful colors from the woodwinds. Here Hindemith is even more overtly tonal. You can write roman numerals under most of these chords. When the bombast comes forth in the final movement, though, the brass and percussion might easily be mistaken for a Tchaikovsky finale.
“I recognize now that the characteristic fabric of my music (always of course in the closest association with the poetic design), which my friends now regard as so new and so significant, owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood. I should now like to call my most delicate and profound art the art of transition, for the whole fabric of my art is made up of such transitions: all that is abrupt and sudden is now repugnant to me; it is often unavoidable and necessary, but even then it may not occur unless the mood has been clearly prepared in advance, so that the suddenness of the transition appears to come as a matter of course.»
Wagner Meistersinger Overture
Wagner’s opera Meistersinger has the solid bass lines and command of classical harmony characteristic of Brahms combined with an abundance of leitmotives that present all the major themes of the opera. It begins with not one, but two celebratory marches. Notice the active bass line in the first one. That signals the importance of counterpoint in this music.
In the middle section, Wagner employs considerable counterpoint as he depicts the various apprentices practicing their music. There are even modernistic moments such as the contrapuntal climax where many themes occur simultaneously, but controlled and overpowered by the march theme in the brass.
Wagner: Was duftet doch der Flieder so mild from Die Meistersinger
Der Meistersinger absorbs itself in the question of tradition versus innovation. An original song by a young knight named Walther must compete against the traditional “correct” songs of the other apprentices. Cobbler and Mastersinger Hans Sachs is the only judge moved by Walther’s song. In Act II, he smells the scent of a tree in his front yard, and it evokes memories of Walther’s song. He meditates on its unrefined quality and yet how it had something new about it. (Was duftet doch der Flieder—How it smells of elder). Wagner seamlessly transitions between recitative, arioso, and aria styles to convey a more realistic pattern of conscious thought process. This style became even more subtle in the Ring Cycle and later operas.
Wagner: “O du mein holden Abendstern” from Tannhauser
Song of the Evening Star is a stunning lyric gem from the opera Tännhauser. It is Wolfram’s heartfelt expression of his love for Elizabeth, the lady whom Tännhauser also loves. Unlike Tännhauser, who left Elizabeth and the town of Wartburg for the seductive pleasures of Venusberg, Wolfram has always remained faithful in his heart to her. The song is framed by chords in the woodwinds that seem to be a direct reference (or imitation) of the opening winds in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture—strange for a guy who wrote such nasty things about Mendelssohn as a Jew. But then, all of Wagner’s orchestral innovations owe a debt to Mendelssohn’s music!
Wagner: Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walkure
I get a headache whenever I try to understand the plot of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But I should try to set the context for Wotan’s expressive farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde at the conclusion of the opera. Die Walkure is the second opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Valkyrie’s are Wotan’s daughters charged with taking the souls of fallen heroes to Valhalla where they will form an army to battle Alberich the Nibelung and regain the Ring of power. Wotan has made the painful decision to make Brünnhilde mortal and outcast from the Valkyries. That’s not all. He is about to put her into a magical sleep as punishment for disobedience. What happened? He ordered her to wait for the knight Siegmund to be slain and to take his soul to Valhalla. Brünnhilde instead tried to protect Siegmund because she was moved by the knight’s love and devotion for his recently rediscovered twin sister Sieglinde (both of whom, incidentally, happened to be illegitimate children of Wotan himself). When Wotan discovered Brünnhilde’s interference, he personally ensured that Siegmund died, but Brünnhilde stole Sieglinde away and took her to Valhalla (in plans to be reunited with Siegemund). Instead Wotan appeared and she again ran away with Sieglinde, who it turns out, is pregnant with a son who is to be Siegfried. Migraine city.
For these disobediences, Wotan suspends his favorite daughter in sleep, intending her to be woken and fall in love with the first man to see her. But instead, he slightly relents and places a ring of magic fire around her that can only be parted by a great hero. That great hero, of course, will eventually be Siegfried, with whom she will fall in love, and whose failure will bring the final destruction of the gods. Amen.
Wotan’s farewell to his daughter ends the opera. It’s a potent example of Wagner’s intention of through-composed drama. It is neither recitative or aria, but something in between and far richer. Wotan sings “If I must lose you…then a bridal fire shall burn for you as it never burned for any bride!...let cowards run away from Brünnhilde’s rock! For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!” Brünnhilde’s letimotif blends into hints of the magic fire and sleep motifs. And, of course, when he sings about the one who shall win the bride, we hear the yet unborn Siegfried’s motif.
The centerpiece of this finale is a descending scalar motif repeated in a dazzling sequence of harmonies and colors to convey Brünnhilde’s slumber. It first accompanies Wotan’s song and then extends to a gorgeous orchestral interlude.
The final section of the farewell is when Wotan invokes the god Loge to start the magic fire. Musically we hear a tapestry of the fire motif, Brünnhilde’s slumber motive, Wotan’s descending oath motif. The finale culminates with the foreshadowing of Siegfried.
Upbeat Live November 16, 2010Green Umbrella Concert
Featuring Music by George Crumb
Ancient Voices of Children
American Songbook No. 1
Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group
Jean-Michaël Lavoie, conductorTony Arnold, soprano
George Crumb’s works make for one of concert music’s greatest listening adventures. Nothing is ever familiar. Even while we can see the physical instruments on the stage, it’s difficult to pinpoint just what creates the incredible sounds reaching our ears. In combining exotic instruments and imaginative extended techniques of conventional instruments, Crumb creates a magician’s sonic world. One immediate effect is to instantly transport sensitive listeners from daily reality into a transcendent plane, what poet Robert Bly refers to as the fifth direction, the direction within. Crumb draws attention to this direction with frequent reference and resonance to ritual music from Eastern music, including Tibetan, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.
My association with George Crumb came from a challenge. Composer Ofer Ben-Amots dangled the carrot of participating in a symposium with Crumb celebrating his 75th birthday if I would submit a paper for a proposed book. That seemed like a good deal to me. His music captivated me when I first heard it as an undergraduate. Happily, my paper was accepted and published in a marvelous book of essays titled George Crumb and the Alchemy of Sound published by Colorado College Music Press, and I had several days to meet with Crumb and discuss his musical ideas in some depth.
I admit I was a trifle nervous. My primary thesis was that his music was “anti-counterpoint,” a term I coined to point out that he rarely has more than one thing happening at the same time. For someone who regards the master polyphonist Gustav Mahler as a primary influence, this might not be taken as too great a compliment. Fortunately, George was patient with me. My point was that his music, while deliberately monophonic, resonates polyphonically on a structural level. In other words, his ideas float against each other in a new relativistic conception of musical time. I used the metaphor of drifting continental plates in fact to describe the way he slides musical ideas forwards and backwards against each other. His artistically gorgeous cut-away scores directly illustrate this process. I also talked about the way he uses echoes to create a kind of “meta-counterpoint.” There are literal echoes from repeating material. There are phantom echoes from resonance, often created by playing or singing into an amplified piano. And then there are structural echoes, a new kind of polyphony of ideas. Rather than combining melody, Crumb combines and echoes a complex surface of extended instrumental techniques, exotic instruments, other-music references, and dramatic ritual, to create both a unique sonic space and a temporal trajectory propelled on a journey towards a particular culminating moment.
Those culminating moments are quite evident in the two wonderful examples of Crumb’s music on tonight’s concert, the famous 1970 song cycle on Lorca’s poetry called Ancient Voices of Children, and a very recent song cycle on American folksong titled American Songbook Vol. 1, with the subtitle “River of Life.” The final movement of Ancient Voices is an arrival and reference to the finale of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, a profound musical farewell that Crumb here uses to eulogize childhood. The final movement of “River of Life” culminates by finally bringing the rather independent elements of voice and percussion into the same plane of harmony and textural alignment.
American Songbook No. 1
George Crumb is just now completing his seventh and final volume of American Songbooks. All the volumes of this large cycle are scored for soprano surrounded by amplified piano and a quartet of percussionists. That is hardly a limiting feature to Crumb because the percussionists play on an immense number of traditional, ethnic, and exotic instruments, creating a limitless orchestral palette. And indeed, as you will see tonight, the percussion instruments literally fill the stage. Within the complexity of this remarkably wide timbral palette, the melodies of well known American folk songs and hymns appear faithfully in their recognized pitches and rhythms, with only occasional rhythmic stretching for expression. Crumb explicitly states that the perfection of these folk melodies did not permit him additions or other liberties. But that orthodoxy goes only for the melodies and lyrics!
Harmony, texture, timbre, and accompaniment—those are all on the table and Crumb takes the recognizable tunes he’s known since his youth and embeds them in an original and remarkable sonic world that projects us immediately into a transcendent world of outer and inner space. Instead of the homophonic melody and chords with which we’re familiar, we instead experience a kind of aural “3d,” with the piano and percussion taking us in a sidereal direction plunging us deep into the ethos of the melodies. Accompaniments are intentionally out of alignment with the rhythmic regularity of the melodies. And like all of Crumb’s music, the aggregate of non-Western instruments lends a sacred ritual quality with resonances of gagaku, gamelan, and other Eastern traditions.
American Songbook No. 1 subtitled the “River of Live” was actually the third songbook he composed, but Crumb felt it’s watery theme made an appropriate beginning for the cycle of seven. It is a collection of eight well known hymns and spirituals. The opening song “Shall We Gather At The River?” sets a transcendent, spiritual atmosphere for the entire work. Recently, Crumb told me how much he admired Messiaen’s music for its extended spiritual focus. The devotional aspect is a major theme in this song cycle. A gong, bowed mallets, and a watery web of piano chords evoke the quiet “infinite-cycle” string chorale that plays throughout Charles Ive’s Unanswered Question. After about a minute and a half of this drone, shakers and chimes quietly precede the entrance of the voice hauntingly intoning the song, pianissimo. All sorts of bells and chimes add to this eerie water world, translating the lyrics to a transcendent place far more removed and desolate than the traditional rousing harmonization with which we are familiar. The epilogue further hypnotizes with an extended play of those beautifully eerie piano chords.
Raucous metallic clangor represents “star music” for “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” The tubular chimes make a lot of noise here! A highly contrasting and intimate middle section features gentle vibraphone with water gongs. The haunting watery music of the first song returns as introduction for “Amazing Grace.” In all of Crumb’s music, the moments of clear tonality are carefully calculated for emotional effect and familiarity. Here there is still no real rhythmic alignment with the instruments and voice, but the similar harmonic collection brings this songbook into its first sense of focus. The vibraphone intones and drones the pentatonic collection of the tune around the voice as whistle, bells, and gongs accompany.
The following song marks a dramatic shift as the pianist grabs mallets and gives the inside of the piano three percussive whacks. Those “gong” strikes frame the beginning and end of the revival tune “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” A quiet steady drumbeat ensues, and eventually the musical texture erupts into full tent-revival mode, with energetic syncopated drumming providing an upbeat tempo for ensemble shouts and jubilant “come to Jesus” singing. But for all this rousing music, still, the percussion and avoidance of conventional harmonic progressions place this song in a transcendent dimension. A humorous and rather stunning coda has the singer doing repetitions and stutters of the words. These “mistakes” add to the ritual quality of the music, but apparently reflect Crumb’s memory of a skipped record of this song he heard as a youth. It reflects a powerful disintegration of meaning as well.
Next comes an instrumental interlude that Crumb titles “Time is a Drifting River,” a delicate sparse world of cyclic melodic patterns haunted by bowed mallets, setting up the following dramatically expressive song “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
A lighter mood prevails with “One More River To Cross, “ a fun animal song with playful bells, glissandi, clackers of castanets, and all kinds of crazy sounds. Crumb here gallops through much of the entire “kitchen” of percussion spread across the stage to convey the entire animal menagerie. The hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” provides an intimate contrast to this animal music, with pedal Vibraphone and gong accompanying an extended but subdued vocalise.
In Crumb’s music, a sense of journey is critical and there is inevitably a moment of arrival, a cumulative event of clarity. He is an adept student of Mahler in this regard, especially Mahler’s final climactic movement in his Song of the Earth. The final song of this hymn cycle by Crumb, “Deep River” truly delivers this kind of moment, and there is a considerable difficulty to overcome. The previous hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was also a slow movement. Now we hear a much longer extended slow movement, yet it must feel like an epiphany. I think Crumb’s solution was to finally bring a sense of alignment between the instruments and voice. Through the past eight movements, the piano and percussion have been adrift from the vocal line, inhabiting a deeper place of irregularity and punctuation behind the symmetrical melody. But here at last, singer and instrumentalists come into an alignment that can really be called homophony—the texture of melody and accompaniment we conventionally associate with song. The piano and bells join to form chords we “know” in an extended tonality beneath and in synchronicity with the tune. Other instruments and other tones color these harmonies with quiet overtones of dissonance, recalling the wide sonic tapestry of the cycle, but the centeredness of the harmony—and here we really do have a “home” chord— added to the togetherness of the ensemble in this song do bring a sense of arrival, a sense of return, a sense of home. Wind chime and bell effects hover above the tranquil final piano arpeggiation of a tonic chord. The gongs at the end smear and drown the music back to the nothingness with which it began.
Ancient Voices of Children
Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry has been a deep wellspring of imagination for composers, and especially so for George Crumb. In addition to this piece, he wrote four books of madrigals, Night of the Four Moons, Night Music I, and Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death all on Lorca poems. Crumb writes that the direct inspiration for composing this cycle came from poet’s words “and I will go very far, farther than those hills, farther than the seas, close to the stars, to ask Christ the Lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child.”
The texts of Ancient Voices of Children are five fragments of Lorca’s poems coupled with two instrumental dance interludes, titled “Dances of the Ancient Earth” and “Ghost Dance.” The form is song, interlude, three more songs, another interlude, and the final song. Crumb adds a theatrical possibility of having these two pieces along with the third song danced by a solo performer.
Crumb so beautifully articulates his musical intentions with the text that it’s valuable to quote him directly:“…I have sought musical images that enhance and reinforce the powerful, yet strangely haunting imagery of Lorca's poetry. I feel that the essential meaning of this poetry is concerned with the most primary things: life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea. These "ur-concepts" are embodied in a language which is primitive and stark, but which is capable of infinitely subtle nuance. In a lecture entitled Theory and Function of the "Duende", Lorca has, in fact, identified the essential characteristic of his own poetry. Duende (untranslatable, but roughly: passion, élan, bravura in its deepest, most artistic sense) is for Lorca "all that has dark sounds ... This 'mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained' is in fact the spirit of the earth ... All one knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned ...’ "
Ancient Voices is scored for mezzo-soprano—specifically the virtuosity of Jan DeGaetani—boy soprano, amplified piano (doubling on toy piano), mandolin (doubling on musical saw), oboe (doubling on harmonica), and 3 percussionists playing a large number of instruments that include Tibetan prayer stones (that often create the sound of crickets), Japanese temple bells, and tuned tom-toms. All the players are asked to sing, shout and whisper at different times.
The vocal style of Ancient Voices of Children is striking and original. He composed the piece specifically for the virtuoso contemporary mezzo soprano Jan DeGaetani and her voice defines the work to a considerable extent. When a singer pleases George, he will often remark that she evokes some of “Jan’s quality.” He specifically told me that our singer tonight, Tony Arnold, is especially the closest to Jan. Crumb’s memorable vocal idiom here is the creation of a fantastic vocalise style where phonetic sounds are rapidly sung and warbled directly into an amplified piano to create echoes and a resonant aura of overtones. It also includes all kinds of special effects: flutter-tonguing, percussive tongue-palette, slides, buzzes, whispering, and moments of improvisation.
The opening song, “The little boy was looking for his voice,” establishes a sonic world of drama and ritual we have never heard before. The solo voice begins, yet for the first 3 minutes, we don’t hear a word of the actual text. Instead, all kinds of fantastic phonetic sounds, inflections and effects are sung directly into the amplified piano. The singer is literally “looking for” her voice. The instrumental punctuations also sound unfamiliar and difficult to define, a percussive combination of plucked piano and harp. The sense of ritual from Japanese theater and gagaku heightens when the percussionists scrape tam tams, buzz with their lips, and speak the line “In a drop of water the little boy was looking for his voice.” Again, like nothing we’ve ever heard, this effect is a remarkable word painting for both the image of a drop of water and the lost voice. A boy soprano offstage softly sings the final lines of this poem: “I do not want it for speaking with; I will make a ring of it so that he [the kind of the crickets] may wear my silence on his little finger.”
The second song occupies a sonic world like Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. Soft piano tunes, bells, a musical saw, and hushed whispering establish an uncanny mod for the song’s opening title “I have lost myself in the sea many times.”
The fourth movement Crumb titles “Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle.” It begins with a return of the singer’s fantastic vocalise style with phonetic sounds culminating with the words “mi nino”—my child. Then begins the Circle Music accompanied by a bolero rhythm in the percussion. By this Crumb essentially means the repetition of a cycle of events. Here the cycle has five events, first a dialogue between the mezzo-soprano and off stage boy soprano. The second event is a return of the “flamenco-oboe” from the second movement. The third event is two sung phrases. The fourth event is a return of the dialogue. The fifth event features attacks on the piano strings. and shouts of the percussionists. The cycle then repeats. All the while, the percussion plays under this cycle, sometimes speaking to add to the ritual. The entire movement is a structured crescendo and decrescendo. (shades of Ravel’s Bolero!) After quieting, a sudden scream and percussive punctuation concludes the movement but rings for many seconds and over the haunting beginning of the 5th movement, the heart of the cycle.
The 5th movement, “Each afternoon in Granada a child dies each afternoon,” is the piece de resistance and most imaginative part of Ancient Voices. As in many of Crumb’s pieces, this epiphany moment is a sudden unsheathing of clear tonality. Quiet tremolo chords in the marimbas establish a low major triad. Sung murmers from the percussion with harmonica introduce the singer in a quiet but songful quasi-flamenco lament. It’s not just that the music is stunning by itself, but its placement as a unique tonal sound at this moment that lets us know psychically that we are in the interior of the musical structure. Equally unexpected is the answer to this folk-sung melody: a player piano intoning a reference from Bach, from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, music played by all young piano students. What can you say except “shivers”?
The 6th movement is a delicate instrumental Ghost Dance for maracas and mandolin played with slides like a bottleneck guitar. This is an effect Crumb also creates at times by moving a chisel up and down a piano string.The 7th and final movement utters the phrase that inspired the piece—“I will go very far…to ask Christ the Lord to give me back my ancient soul of a child.” It begins though, “My heart of silk is filled with lights, with lost bells…” and we hear those lost bells in the percussion, harp and piano. Then low piano strings introduce a return of the oboe, now less a flamenco intimation and instead a clear reference to the great oboe solo from Mahler’s farewell finale in the Song of the Earth. Like the Mahler, this movement is all about the space in between the notes. The oboe walks off the stage and the singer begins the poem with gently lyrical phrases. The oboe is heard off stage, now more developed and expressive, but very subdued. Accompanied by bells, the singer then builds her phrase to a high register and climax as she sings “give me back my ancient soul of a child.” Dramatically the boy soprano now walks on stage for the first time and joins the mezzo in a vocalise duet that recalls the opening song with its search for voice.
NEW WEST SYMPHONY NOVEMBER 12-14, 2010
Zivkovic Trio Per Uno for Percussion Trio, Opus 27A. Brott Critics CornerBernstein Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp &Percussion Harrison Canticle No. 3Bizet/Shchedrin The Carmen Ballet for Strings and Percussion
Canticle No. 3 for PercussionLou Harrison There is enormous attractiveness in Lou Harrison’s music, the way it explores exotic tunings, exotic instruments, and world music in textures that are always lyrical and clear. Canticle No. 3 is a 15 minute work in one movement for a percussion ensemble that features the ocarina and microtunally tuned guitar, accompanied by traditional and exotic instruments that include a gong, bass drum, various bells, iron pipes, and a brake drum among others. The music begins with an ocarina tune accompanied by gong, sparse guitar chords, and xylophone. Slit drums and iron pipes pick up the tempo with an accompaniment.
The Canticle feels ritualistic with its cadence of guitar chords and gongs. It also evokes the starts and stops, and tutti passages simultaneous strikes so common to gamelan music. The narrative alternates between melodic passages featuring the ocarina and more lively rhythmic passages with the other percussion. For all the free quality in this music, Harrison is rather strict in terms of rhythmic subdivisions, mostly providing accompaniment in even patterns of eighth notes. No strange tuplets or groupings here. The music really never gets faster or more asymmetrical. Instead, the ear is drawn to the exquisite chamber orchestration of the ensemble, the way Harrison mixes a swatch of gong, slit drums, and xylophone, or ocarina, guitar, and temple blocks. He provides for each instrument a characteristic motif or playing style that makes them actors in a play. For instance, the ocarina always vamps on the same tune. The guitar always riffs on the same 3 chords. The slit drums even have their own melodic shape. As all these elements reappear and recombine, Harrison creates a compelling and haunting atmosphere for this piece, which was written as dance music for performance on concerts along with music of John Cage.
Schedrin: The Carmen Ballet for Strings and Percussion For his wife, the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi ballet, Russian composer Rodion Schedrin arranged Bizet’s music from his opera Carmen in 13 mostly brief movements for strings and percussion. Imagine the unforgettable castanets and tambourine in the famous habanera taking over the entire opera and you get an idea of Schedrin’s conception for this suite of movements. He remains faithful to Bizet’s tunes and harmonies, but he colors, accompanies, and even gives solo melodies to the percussion, making them a section equal to the strings, in essence taking on the role of woodwinds and brass, as well as percussion. Xylophone has a virtuoso part in the Bolero as does the snare drum in the Toreador song and the xylophone and chimes playing tunes in the finale. The whole is a loving mediation on the most memorable music from the opera.
Trio Per Uno for Percussion Trio, Opus 27
Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic
This exhilarating 3 movement virtuoso work for percussion lasts about 15 movements, Trio per Uno suggests “three bodies-one soul” according to Zivkovic. The outer movements are full of energy and ritualistic infectious drumming rhythms, without pitch, and mostly performed in unison by the ensemble. The haunting middle movement contrasts to such an extreme that it seems like a piece by a different composer! It features all metallic bells playing quiet repetitive patterns (ostinati) in a shimmering but simple 6 note (hexatonic) scale centered around an A major chord. The third movement begins with an ensemble shout and a return to the unpitched drumming with ritual energetic patterns. The shouts and rhythms evoke quite a bit of the quality of the famous Balinese Monkey Chant.
Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion Leonard Bernstein Composed in 1954, Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin, strings, harp, and percussion is essentially a virtuoso violin concerto embracing the most vital characteristics of neoclassicism as embodied by Stravinsky and reinterpreted into an American style by composers such as Barber and Copland. Bernstein explains that the structure of the piece roughly follows the progression of speakers in Plato’s Symposium, each guest at a dinner party discussing a different aspect of love. But knowing that program is only necessary in understanding the radical departure in the finale which abruptly enters the world of Bernstein’s musical theater style. This depicts the point in Plato’s dialogue when the dinner party is interrupted by a band of drunken revelers, hence Bernstein’s modulation to contemporary lighter “party” music.
The four preceding movements are tightly and expertly conceived. A solo violin theme opens the piece quietly. The orchestra develops this tune and transforms it into an Allegro theme to an energetic Sonata form. The second movement is a graceful dance movement that develops towards a delicate but striking two note motif over changing chords. A conversation of two note motifs ensues throughout the ensemble. The writing here is simply exquisite and original in harmonic conception.
The third movement is a brief fun explosive scherzo dialogue between violin and the entire ensemble punctuated by loud percussion. It’s a delight of intricate quick even note passagework.
The fourth movement adagio captures the same timelessness that Stravinsky was going after in such ballets as Agon and Apollo, but here Bernstein accomplishes this in a purely tonal idiom. This movement has all the passion and expressiveness we love in Tchaikovsky, but here in a decidedly American classical idiom. This is the only movement with a real violin cadenza, but it is a lyrical solo, a moment for love to shine, not a virtuoso moment.
The finale begins with the same gravity and expression as the preceding slow movement, but rather Brahmsian in its weighted thick string chords. These chords are the most harmonically “advanced” of the piece. The slow dramatic introductory strings are answered by a remarkable duet of solo violin and cello. The violin and strings continue evoking tunes we’ve heard in the past four movements until a surprising quiet resolution on a major chord accompanied by quiet chime. Then the fast finale movement is off running. The solo violin dialogues with the strings building towards a rollicking tune and things begin to careen. The strings slide into their chords, the violin drunkenly slides up and down. And we’re off to the musical, so to speak. The music that follows is very much the style of Bernstein’s musical theater world, with its tinges of jazz and American pop, apparently intended to capture the flavor of the drunken revelry concluding Plato’s dialogue on love. Bernstein was probably concerned with this stylistic jolt and explained in his own program notes: “If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner-party.”
Friday, October 8, 2010 8:00 pm
Oxnard Performing Arts Center
Saturday,October 9, 2010 8:00 pm
Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
New West Symphony
Andrés Cárdenes, conductor Christopher O'Riley, piano
Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3 in D Minor for Piano &
Orchestra, Opus 30
Dvorák Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Opus 95,
"From the New World"
Fascinating American origins inform both the Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto and Dvorak New World Symphony. The Rachmaninoff concerto was composed expressly for an American tour in 1909. The Dvorak New World Symphony was directly inspired by his visit to the United States and commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Both works had their premieres here in the United States.
Egmont Overture by Beethoven
Conducted by Shuli Katz
Shuli is a retired violinist who has always dreamed of conducting Beethoven’s Egmont. With the New West Symphony she finally has her chance on these concerts. She has no formal conducting training and has had to study and practice to make this work.
Written as incidental music for Goethe’s play, the Egmont overture is archetypal Beethoven “Heroic” period music, from its ominous opening on a single sustained note performed by the entire orchestra to its concluding jubilant heroic fanfare.
For a conductor, Egmont has famous difficulties. First, the plaintive woodwind phrases in the introduction seem to come from nowhere, beginning in the middle of the beat. Indicating their entrance clearly is the first hurdle. Bringing in the low strings in the following phrase leading up to the second orchestral tutti is also technical. Then there is the famous acceleration of four notes in hemiola that transition from the introduction into the sonata allegro proper. Signaling this acceleration clearly while holding the orchestra together is a challenge for every conductor.
These complex rhythmic and tempo changes, though, are a large part of what makes Egmont so interesting to hear. The journey of the piece is extreme. The dramatic opening note performed by the entire orchestra gives way to intimate tragic woodwinds and a general sense of foreboding. The acceleration to the sonata allegro reveals not so much a theme as a dramatic descending line followed by exciting rhythmic punctuations. The coda brings back the winds in tragic chords, only to be swept away with one of the most exciting buildups in Beethoven’s work, one in which the fanfare of victory blazes forth and propels the piece to an exhilarating finale.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov
The exciting finale of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is more than topped by the final buildup in the last movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Ask any pianist and they’ll tell you they vastly prefer the 3rd Rachmaninoff Concerto to the more famous 2nd. The 3rd is certainly a pianist’s concerto—for all its rich harmony and aching melody, it is strewn with intricate and ornate finger work. In most performances, a lot of this very difficult piano part is never even heard because of the thick orchestration it has to cut through. Nevertheless, the piano absolutely conquers in this piece, eventually swallowing the orchestra whole, and in the process evoking some of the most delicate and poignant reveries in its literature. And that’s why we all love this concerto. When the piano seems to get lost in the second theme with a meditation on a 9th chord and just goes off into a new world, that is something very new in concerto literature. And it still gives goosebumps.
The opening theme is as complex as any Tchaikovsky theme, built in three contrasting phrases with intricate harmonic motion. This tune recurs in all three movements actually and its material is pretty much the wellspring for the entire concerto. The piano becomes assertive right after the orchestra states the theme, its decorations leading to the first cadenza of the piece. When the development section winds down, the piano takes over in a cadenza that basically wraps everything up without the orchestra having much chance to do more than summarize in a short coda. That cadenza includes the retransition to the recapitulation—traditionally the climax of thesonata, plus the recap of the first and second themes. That’s not to say that the orchestra part in this concerto is incidental. Not at all. But with this original structure Rachmaninoff shows a wrestling with the dominance of the piano in Chopin’s concerti versus the more equal roles in Beethoven’s.
The second movement Intermezzo is a series of variations on the orchestra’s opening theme, zeroing in especially to its singular motive of a sigh followed by a falling third. The entire movement is built from this germ. A fast waltz variation recalls the opening theme from the first movement—material that has never really left us.
The third movement is a tour de force for the piano, going even farther than the previous movements in virtuosity and speed. The middle section is another theme and variations, one of which recalls both the first and second themes of the first movement, that second theme again sublimely arresting all sense of time. The concluding coda has a tremendously exciting buildup and fiery conclusion. A dizzying descent of double octaves in the piano sets off an accelerating pulse in the orchestra that seems to hurtle the piece over a cliff, ending with the famous Rachmaninoff rhythmic signature—long-short-short-long. It’s about impossible not to stand up and shout “Bravo” after this final signature,
Symphony No. 9 “New World” by Antonin Dvorak
Dvorak, whose mentor was Johannes Brahms, actually worked here in the U.S. and helped to build the foundation for an indigenous American classical music, encouraging composers to seek out their native folk melodies as he had done in Czechoslavakia. The first reviews of this piece in New York heralded it as the greatest symphony composed in America. It was an instant hit and continues to be so today in classical concerts. The prodigious number of great tunes is surely one reason for this success. What is interesting is not that the tunes might have been directly inspired by American Indian or slave songs, but that the tunes interact and coalesce not too unlike the proverbial “melting pot” we often describe in our country. In other words, while each melody is clearly its own tune, Dvorak changes its character to the point that I at least get confused at times which tune I’m hearing return.
The interchangeability of these melodies makes them interesting to study in their own right. Dvorak treats the tunes as global forces in the symphony. He has taken the Beethoven 9th idea of bringing back themes from other movements to a point where that is normative. Familiar themes reappear in EVERY movement of this symphony.So getting to know the themes as dramatic characters is not a bad entry for learning the piece.
Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56 (arr. Debussy)
Fantasiestücke for Clarinet and Piano Op. 73
Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major String Quartet in A Minor
Six Canonic Etudes, Op. 56 (arr. Debussy)Schumann devoted considerable time to contrapuntal studies. He once commented that much to his delight, he would frequently discover afterwards in his compositions that he had written imitative counterpoint subconsciously. In these six studies, he tried his hand at extended imitation with canons that span an entire piece. These works were written for a special piano called the pedal piano that allowed a piano to be played somewhat like an organ. Debussy arranged these rarely heard pieces for two pianos in the version we hear tonight. Probably a great attraction for Debussy is the remarkable way that Schumann maintains his highly lyrical style within strict canonic writing—a tendency found also in Debussy’s music, in fact. Schumann makes this possible first by often letting one voice sustain while the other moves, but also with his considerable harmonic variety that makes the canons become aurally “invisible” to our ears.
The first canon is akin to a Bach toccata in the way it spins out a line over a pedal drone, a bit like the famous Bach Toccata in F Major. But an attentive ear might also notice that it strongly influenced Debussy’s Gradus ad Parnassum from his Children’s Corner Suite! The second canon is a bit of a cheat because it imitates at the octave a measure apart so that essentially every two measures are a melodic repeat. This was a natural way Schumann liked to compose and it makes for delightful surprises when the harmony shifts unexpectedly. The third and fourth canons are expressive and lyrical with canons at the 5th. Again, it’s remarkable that Schumann creates works akin to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, yet all while maintaining strict imitation. The sixth canon is particularly striking—an adagio with exquisite harmony that conjures simultaneously backwords to the world of Beethoven’s late quartets and forward to the touching Fairy Garden from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, all while still sounding pure Schumann!
Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major
The canon makes another striking appearance in the third movement of Schumann’s F major piano trio. Instead of an expected fast scherzo, Schumann creates a slow melancholy and lilting waltz in B flat minor. The melody spins out in strict imitation at the octave. This contrapuntal writing joined to haunting dance music clearly influenced the intermezzos and melancholy scherzi of Brahms.
Schumann’s ensemble writing for his piano trios is markedly more integrated than that of his piano quartet or quintet. In those other works, the piano supplies the bulk of the material and weight. But here in the trios, piano, violin, and cello are equal partners. Some string players find their parts insufficiently challenging or independent, but they are carefully composed and make a powerful combined effect with all three instruments together. Listening to them, it is apparent how much Brahms absorbed and applied to his own piano trios.Rhythmic syncopation and an emphasis on the augmented triad characterize the rousing energy and sound of the first movement, marked sehr lebhaft (very lively). The evolution of the exposition is far more motivic, fragmented, and “worked through” in the way of Haydn or Beethoven than Schumann’s expositions of his piano quintet or piano quartet. Perhaps it is because the entire exposition coheres so strongly that the development section surprises with a new slower lyrical descending theme. This new theme frames the development creating a song within the sonata, inside of which is a highly contrapuntal journey obsessed with the opening motive of the first theme. The slow lyrical theme makes a third and final entrance in the coda, where it gradually accelerates and transforms into the rhythmic exuberance that characterizes the rest of the movement.
Continual changes in rhythm and texture spin out an imaginative lyrical canvas in the expressive second slow movement. Its descending melody recalls the similar shape and mood of the surprise theme from the development section in the first movement. But here the material is far more complex and interesting. The contrasting section varies the same melody but with changing accompaniments that seem to alter its speed. An especially expressive moment is based on a minor version of the famous Pachabel Canon descending sequence of chords. The tempo of this movement has a special fluidity, shifting from slow and expressive to lively in a natural way using the same material.
The third movement is not the fast dance movement we expect. Instead it is another extremely expressive movement, this time in a haunting minor with a syncopated siciliano rhythm that provides the foundation for a running canon that infuses most of the movement. Schumann remarked that composing imitative music was so natural for him, that often he only discovered it afterwards. This is a more intentional model and supremely beautiful. This music clearly inspired Brahms, recalling the minuet in his third symphony, but another piece that seems more literally inspired by this piece is the famous canonic finale of Franck’s Violin Sonate.The casual salon quality of the opening of the finale belies the intense contrapuntal workout that follows in the development section, a process familiar from the first movement. As in Schumann’s other chamber music, the finale also recalls harmony and material from the opening movement. The opening harmonic progression in fact is identical, but here sounds very different because of its slower tempo and relaxed melody.
String Quartet in A Minor
Schumann kept a diary all his life that documented his work. He made a conscious decision in 1842 to devote his time to chamber music. In his diary, he set himself specific projects, such as studying first Haydn, Mozart, and then the Beethoven quartets, before composing his own three quartets. He wrote that he felt he had achieved parity with Haydn’s quartets! What is clear from is that he did study them carefully. Balance between the instruments is skillful. The absence of piano allows him to more fully explore his contrapuntal leanings. But what perhaps strikes the ear most is not how Schumann absorbed Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but how remarkably he imitated Mendelssohn and his string writing while still maintaining his own distinct harmonic and melodic style.
The A minor quartet begins with an imitative slow introduction on a dark expressive theme that is a piece unto itself. One odd thing is that rather than establishing A minor as an arrival, it leads to a transition to F major which becomes the key of the first movement. The material of the exposition is all pastoral and folk like. The development is contrapuntal and darker, recalling more the mood of the introduction. Usually a sonata presents its two contrasting ideas in the exposition, then works them out in the development. Essentially, Schumann imposes a new structure—he treats his exposition as one entire mood and then contrasts it with the development section.
The second movement is a scherzo in A minor that once again shows Schumann’s admiration of Mendelssohn’s scherzos, imitating the delicate and mercurial quality with rapid chordal writing for the strings. The third movement is a slow lyric work, not unlike a Mendelssohn Song Without Words, set in F major, the key of the first movement. Schumann demonstrates a keen understanding and mastery of the inventive accompaniments in the quartet writing of his predecessors. The tune in the violin is first accompanied by a syncopated arpeggio in the viola, and then played by the cello with the viola accompaniment now plucked by the first violin while the second violin plays syncopated double stops. The effect is to create that golden moment in all quartets when the four players are completely individuated, yet contribute to something far greater than their parts. What follows is less a middle section and more an extended bridge of the few measures that connected intervened before the repeat of the tune. This bridge is harmonically intense and developmental in feeling, but suddenly resolves back to F major and a return of the tune.
The final movement of course returns to A minor and it too has a distinctively Mendelssohnian flavor with its rapid chord and arpeggio writing, its unrelenting motoric rhythm, and its moments of measured tremolos that create a sense of magic and an aura of orchestral sound with just the string quartet. A short recapitulation leads to a coda and the most astonishing moment in the quartet: a quiet drone in the violin and cello surrounds a gentle folk tune derived from the nervous passagework in the movements transitions. This moment might recall the great folk/drone moment in the first movement of Haydn’s Emperor string quartet. Then even more curious, the quartet embarks on a chain of even quieter descending harmonic sequences, possibly remotely quoting Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quick and mysterious tremolo passage that follows has even more of the fairy magic of that Mendelssohn work before the music suddenly propels into cadential chords and a stirring close.
Fantasiestücke for Clarinet and Piano Op. 73
These fantasy pieces are often heard with cello, clarinet, violin, or even oboe. Like the Three Romances, the Fairy Tales, and the Adagio and Allegro, this is both salon music (called in Germany Hausmusik) of a very high order and essentially vocal music written without words for solo instrument and piano. It is also a fine example of how important melody was to Robert Schumann. All three pieces have a memorable tune, but it is no accident that the last piece brings back traces of the melodies of the first two, woven in such a way that they fit tightly and organically with the third. The first piece is full of expression and restlessness in minor. The second is an earnest and lively romance. To give the tune forward impetus and a sense of starting in the middle of things, Schumann uses his familiar device of beginning with an unstable dominant 7th chord. Schumann marks the tempo of the third piece Rasch und mit Feuer (rushed and with fire). Its characteristic figure is a rising arpeggio rushing to an ascending appoggiatura. As the melody continues, Schumann inserts the opening phrase of the first movement, now at a faster tempo. And it fits perfectly so that we barely notice. The coda in a sense wraps up all three pieces, because here Schumann introduces the theme from the second piece as well to bring the entire set to conclusion with an accelerated flourish.
Schumann Bio Pt. 3
Robert and Clara had eight children, all while each pursued separate careers. Robert continued to spend most of his time editing the Neue Zeitschrift. Clara continued to concertize. At first Robert joined her, but then couldn’t stand being in her shadow and returned to Leipzig where he would work in depression. Nevertheless, he always had projects. He plunged into studying quartets and then composed three of them. The piano quintet and piano quartet followed. That was the year 1842, known as his chamber music year.
In 1843 he thought about opera. He composed an oratorio, Peri, which he conducted himself. Mendelssohn’s Leipzig Conservatory opened and Robert was made a professor teaching piano, composition and score reading. Reports of both his conducting and teaching were lackluster. He joined Clara reluctantly on her extended concert tour of Russia. He felt like an appendage and went into depression.
Back in Leipzig, he gave up editing the Neue Zeitschrift so he could spend more time composing, specifically an opera. Efforts on Faust and other projects, plus disappointment at not being chosen to succeed Mendelssohn in directing the Gewandhaus Orchestra drove him to another breakdown. Clara and he made the decision to move to Dresden.
In Dresden, he began to recover and taught Clara and himself counterpoint, composing his organ fugues and the fugue for the pedal piano. In 1844 he heard Wagner’s Tannhaüser. The score had not impressed him, but the live performance he found brilliant. They considered moving to Berlin where they had more friends—especially Fanny Mendelssohn, but her sudden death that year made them reconsider. Robert was devastated by Felix’s death the following year.
His obsession with opera continued—how interesting that this master of miniatures hungered for grand statements! He decided finally on Genoveva by Hebbel, a popular story set in the Middle Ages about the sufferings of a count’s wife who is entrusted to the care of his servant knight after the count goes off on a Crusade. The servant lusts after the wife but is spurned. In return he frames her for infidelity and she is imprisoned. The opera was finally performed in Leipzig in 1850, had several moderately successful performances, and then was withdrawn.
Schumann accepted a conducting post in Düsseldorf that afforded him opportunity to perform several of his own orchestral works. His lack of discipline and organization took its toll in the attitude and sound of the orchestra. By the end of the first season, both Schumann and the city were looking for other options. His composing continued to be prolific in spurts, but his mental health began declining. He was at first unable to conduct, and then asked not to conduct the choir especially. Finally he was asked to only conduct his own compositions. Not a happy situation.
During this time he heard the young Joachim and composed his Fantasie and Violin Concerto for him. He later met Joachim’s young friend Johannes Brahms and promoted his career with an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This year, 1853, was Schumann’s last great creative period. In 1854, Schumann fell under hallucinations and tintinitus. He had the famous aural visions of angels and angel music from heaven one day becoming demons and hyenas tearing him apart the next. He asked to be taken to the asylum. Clara persuaded him to go to sleep. The next day he ran out of the house and threw himself into the Rhine river.
After recovering, he was brought to a private asylum and was kept apart from Clara. Seven months later he recovered sufficiently to correspond with Clara and Brahms, Joachim, and his publisher Simrock. This continued another 7 months. He had some visits from Brahms but he was agitated afterwards. Clara he was not allowed to see. Not until nearly two and a half years after Robert went to the asylum did Clara make a visit, after being told the end was near. Robert recognized Clara but could not speak intelligibly. She and Brahms stayed with him for the next two days and he passed away.
Schumann on Beethoven:
But do I not also bear the misfortune of never having seen Beethoven, of never pressing my fevered brow into his hand, and would I not have given years of my life if only?...I slowly climb the steps of 200 Schwarzspanierstrasse. Not a breath is stirring. I step into his room. He raises himself up, a lion, a crown upon his head, a splinter in his paw. He speaks of his sufferings. At that same moment thousands of delighted people are passing beneath the columns of the temple of his Symphony in C minor. But the walls are about to collapse. He must leave. He complains that he is left so much alone, that one bothers about him so little. At this moment the basses come to rest upon the lowest note in the Scherzo; not a breath; from a thread above a fathomless chasm are suspended a thousand hearts. The thread snaps, and the grandeur of the noblest things builds rainbow upon rainbow. But we just dash through the streets. Nobody knows him, nobody greets him…The last chords of the symphony resound. The public claps its hands and the Philistine cries out “That is true music!”
2. A Complex Love (and Music) Triangle.
Marchenbilder (Fairy Tales)
Three Romances for Oboe and Piano Op. 94
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47
BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Schumann
Schumann Bio Pt. 2In 1835 young Clara returned from an extended tour. Now 15 years old, she and Robert began their romance. Robert learned that Ernestine was illegitimate and begins to cool their engagement, formally calling it off the beginning of the next year, when he and Clara were passionately in love. This supreme love story in the annals of composers is all a bundle of the complications and idealism that constitute romanticism.
Wieck worked hard to separate them, not wishing his prize daughter to be married to a musician so mentally unstable and impoverished. Schumann sent Clara a copy of his completed piano sonata in F# minor (“dedicated to Clara by Florestan and Eusebius”). Under compulsion from her father, Clara replied by sending him back all her letters and asking him to do the same. The next year the two remained separated and Schumann became jealous of another suitor to Clara, her singing teacher. Meanwhile, he pursued other women in revenge. But then Clara wrote to him asking the return of the letters she had sent back and gave public performances of some of his symphonic etudes. In letters they pledged themselves and Robert formally wrote to Wieck asking for Clara’s hand in marriage. Wieck predictably worked at getting Clara away on another concert tour, this one for 7 months. Though they corresponded, Robert became suicidal again. Clara insisted that Robert become wealthier before they marry. In between he composed the Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana and the C major Phantasie. When she returned, they met often and made plans to settle in Vienna. Schumann moved there in 1838 to establish himself, composing the Arabeske and Blumenstück, among many other piano works.
In 1839 he visited Schubert’s brother and uncovered several masterpieces including the 9th C major symphony. Setbacks came aplenty: he couldn’t get a Viennese publisher for the Neue Zeitschrift. Then his brother Eduard died and Robert had to handle a financial crisis with his family affairs, even considering abandoning music to revive his father’s publishing firm. In correspondence, tension between Robert and Clara continued to develop over finances, but eventually she signed a formal paper to begin legal proceedings to marry Robert without her father’s consent. Robert even tried to get Clara’s mother to help (she had divorced Frederich Weick when Clara was only 4 years old) and was remarried.
The legal proceedings that followed were painful and prolonged. Wieck tried manipulating the system to force delays. He also spread malicious gossip about both Robert and Clara. In one hearing, Wieck had to be silenced because he was so angry. Finally, things came down to the charge of Robert’s drunkenness. Schumann responded to these attacks by obtaining a Ph.D. without thesis in recognition of his achievements as composer, writer, and editor—and received a diploma!
In between all of this, was the great year of song (1840)—the composition of the cycles Liederkreis, Dichterliebe, and Frauenliebe und Leben. Wieck was not able to give proof of Robert’s drunkenness and the courts granted their marriage on August of that year.
Clara wrote in her diary her ardent wish that Robert would turn to symphonic composition. The following year—1841—he did just that, sketching out the Spring Symphony in only 4 days. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere and with that success Schumann continued to write orchestral music, including the first movement of the A minor piano concerto and the 4th symphony (D minor) and then the 3rd symphony (C minor).
Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47
While the Piano Quintet brims with experiments in harmonic form and unified themes, Schumann’s Piano Quartet written at the same time is an intentionally “classical” work. The opening movement with its slow introduction and choral string writing invokes Beethoven’s quartets. The scherzo is a nod to Mendelssohn and the fairy music from his dance scherzos (such as the famous one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Schumann’s finale is a contrapuntal tour de force, a nod to J. S. Bach and the contrapuntal studies he inspired Schumann to pursue throughout his life.
The introduction in the first movement is a romanticized version of Beethoven’s famous cavatina from his string quartet op. 130. A theme is stretched out as a chorale for strings framed by reaching intervals in the piano. The following Allegro presents the same theme, just at high speed, its phrases now separated by extended piano figuration. One quirky thing about this opening movement is that it has no proper secondary area. It has a second theme, per se, but it doesn’t establish a secondary key as is the custom in a sonata. Instead, the harmony continually wanders from the tonic after the primary area until it eventually reaches the dominant at the end of the exposition, evolving rather more in the way of a Baroque dance. Schumann does not tear ideas apart and rebuild them in the way of Beethoven and other sonata composers. Instead, the sequence is his primary device to repeat a theme or its fragment in different keys. This is precisely what he does with this second theme. Its instability is its essence. When Schumann finally reaches the dominant, he states the first theme in this key to let us know we’ve finally reached a goal before beginning the development section. This development section continues as a series of harmonic sequences on the first four notes of the main theme, all on a quest to rediscover the main key. The retransition to the recap plunges into a descending fifth sequence with several inventive chromatic substitutions that sound rather late Romantic (not Classical at all). The energy from this descent and subsequent pedal point on the dominant is unleashed in an unabated accompaniment of repeated chords that shouts over the returning main theme making for an exciting recapitulation.
The second movement with its pixie motoric figuration is certainly a page out of Mendelssohn’s own scherzi, even to the choice of key—g minor, a Mendelssohn favorite. Only in the second brief trio, do we hear “Schumann” with the delicate syncopated chords played by the entire ensemble. Those harmonies begin the third slow movement, intimating Beethoven’s late quartets. But after just three measures, the cello enters with a luscious melody built on falling sevenths. The melody is so literal in its sequences that it is easy to accuse it of sentimentality. But the harmonic voice leading is beautifully conceived and if it is played simply without undue expression, it is moving and effective, especially in the coda where the melody plays out over a pedal point. That low pedal point in B flat becomes especially rich in a final passage of imitated fifths because Schumann requires the cello to tune down its lowest string a whole step from C to that low B flat and sustain an octave.
The final movement literally grows out of this coda, suddenly rapidly spitting out those imitated fifths and propelling straight into a complete fugal exposition. The abrupt change is exciting. After the fugal opening the exposition continues with a second theme in two parts, both of which also derive from material in the preceding slow movement. The fugue plays out fully with a subject that combines both themes in an extended coda complete with stretto and pedal point, bringing the piano quartet to a bravura finish. While certainly a nod to Bach, this movement does not feel any more academic than the brilliant fugue that concludes Mendelssohn’s Octet. Both of these works rediscover a vitality and new imagination from older forms.
Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94These Romances are very much in the style of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, or we might add, “lieder for orchestral instruments.” The writing is lyrical throughout and the partnership of piano and oboe as intimate as one expects of a Schubert or Schumann lied. In the first song, the piano and oboe frequently finish each other’s phrases. Also like Mendelssohn, all three Romances sound deceptively simple but are marvelous examples of phrase extension, taking a melody from 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 measures and beyond. All three also have that same quality of folk song that Brahms himself strove for in his songs.
Marchenbilder (Fairy Tales)Schumann’s four Fairy Tales evoke similar qualities to the Three Romances—folk-like simplicity and extreme lyricism. But each has a distinctive mood: the first lonely and sad, the second exuberant, anxious, and very much a march with its dotted rhythms, the third a breathless scherzo, and the fourth a transcendent lyrical folk song. They are beautifully written for the viola, which weaves seamlessly between the roles of melody, bass, and poignant middle voice.
Variations on a Theme of Schumann by Johannes Brahms
With Robert in the asylum and Clara about to deliver her seventh child, Brahms became an indispensable aid in the Schumann household. In this time Brahms and Clara became close and Brahms composed an extended set of piano variations on a theme Robert had written earlier for Clara, and it undoubtedly brought her great joy and comfort. Clara herself had written a set of variations on this theme, which partially spells out Robert’s pet name for her (Chiara—C#-B-A-G#-A). Brahms uses several quotes from Robert’s own music throughout the set, including the famous “Chopin” movement from Carnaval and a literal quotation from the short piano piece following the theme in Schumann’s Albumblätter collection. The quotations plus the lavish contrapuntal variations all show keen affection for Robert and Clara both. This set of variations is evidence of Brahms’ desire to become part of their private world.
Schumann Lecture I
1. Quintessential Romantic
Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Piano, Op. 70
Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Victor Asuncion, Cater Brey, Chee-Yun, Lynn Harrell, Joseph Kalichstein, Cho-Liang Lin,
Kelly Markgraf, Paul Neubauer and Ken Noda
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
"Schumann’s genius was so little appreciated that when he entered the store of Breitkopf and Hartel with a new manuscript under his arm, the clerks would nudge one another and laugh. One of them told me that they regarded him as a crank and a failure because his pieces remained on the shelf and were in the way."
American Pianist (1829-1908)
Both now and in Schumann’s time, critics tend to whittle him down, far more than others in the pantheon of master composers. We read how his later music is inferior to the works of his youth, attributed not only to his increasing mental instability, but to his being overly prolific, producing too much music too quickly. We also read and believe that his efforts for larger scale projects—symphonies, opera, even chamber music—produced music of less stature than his piano music and songs. All manner of critics are quick to point out failures and weaknesses of various pieces. His legacy is eternally nibbled and bleeding. Two hundred years after his birth, Schumann remains human for us, a non-deity in the composer pantheon. Where Brahms did his best to erase all his bootstraps and destroy all traces of struggle and imperfection, Schumann recorded all his efforts, struggles, successes, and failures in his diary. He is an easy mark for criticism. Just as we are fascinated by the daily trainwrecks of contemporary celebrities, we are drawn irresistibly to the gossip of Schumann’s love affair with Clara, his nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, his manic, flowery, and brilliant musical criticism, his failure as conductor, and all the intrigues in his rocky career. Busts of Schumann don’t sit on people’s pianos like those of Bach and Beethoven. Schumann’s foibles and honesty put him in our grasp still. And for that reason, too, his music lends a special fascination and a personal emotional power all its own. The songs of Dichterliebe and its tortuous struggle with unrequited love strike deep down and touch our own personal experience. We may never have or desire the reverence for Schumann that we do for Beethoven, but he secretly speaks for us in a way that is more familiar. Once his music seeps into our inner ears, we don’t want to let it go.
The quintessential Romantic composer, Schumann especially excelled in lyricism, miniatures, songs, piano music, extra-musical associations, and harmonic invention. There is a secretiveness to his music, a personal coding to his themes that lend especially his piano music the quality of a diary. When we listen to Schumann’s music, we intuit that we are entering a special private world. The coding is sometimes literal, as the ciphers he employed to code people’s names in musical themes. Often a particular theme or harmonic progression embodied strong personal feelings or memories for him. He also used subtle quotations, such as the short stunning phrase of Schubert’s Ave Maria that concludes his song Widmung dedicating his devotion to his bride-to-be Clara. Though preoccupied with counterpoint and musical structure, Schumann was clearly an improviser. His music has the freshness but containment of initial imagination, much more than the multilayer working-out and evolution of an idea that is so evident in Beethoven or Brahms. Schumann’s mastery was of the miniature, and his best work attains the highest perfection, with the tiny jewels from Dichterliebe, Carnaval, and Kinderszenen coming immediately to the ear.
Schumann's Life Pt. 1
His father August Schumann was a bookseller, publisher, and author. When Robert was born, August suffered a nervous disorder that remained until his death in 1826. From the beginning, Robert’s interests were both in music and literature. Robert began piano studies at age 6. At age 12 he composed a Psalm setting and orchestral overture. At age 13 he began to write poetry and contribute articles to one of his father’s publications. At 17 he began keeping a diary and discovered both the romantic writer Jean Paul and the music of Schubert. He composed songs and the beginning of a piano concerto. He improvised daily and worked to compose away from the piano. He wrote a letter to Schubert that he never mailed. He also had taken up smoking and drinking champagne. Given his propensity for manic exuberance, his tendency to become obsessed with particular notions, his difficulty finishing things (the general problem of an improviser), and a general sense of disorganization, it’s remarkable that Schumann somehow contained these chaotic energies sufficiently to put the disciplined time and energy to produce so much finished music and literature.
After high school graduation, Schumann entered the University of Leipzig as a law student in 1828 to please his mother. But he never attended a lecture. Instead he spent the days improvising music, composing piano music and songs, and writing in the style of the German Romantic author Jean Paul. He began to have fears of insanity. In the summer of that first year he began his piano studies with Friedrich Wieck and met 9 year old Clara. Upon hearing of the death of Schubert, it is reported that he cried inconsolably.
The next year he switched to Heidelberg University to learn from a law professor who had published a book on musical aesthetics. In Heidelberg, instead of law he devoted himself to piano practicing and improvisation. He worked on Hummel’s sonatas and concerto and admired the virtuosic writing of Paganini and Moscheles. He was inspired hearing Paganini live in concert. The following year he devoted even more time to composition, eventually producing the Abegg variations. He pleaded with his mother to let him drop law school and pursue music. She met with Frederich Wieck who told her Robert could be one of the world’s foremost pianists with 3 years of intense study and theory. They agreed on a trial period of 6 months and Robert went to live in Wieck’s house.
But Wieck spent most of his time promoting Clara on tour. Robert asked Hummel for lessons, but was turned down. He began studying theory with the conductor of the Leipzig theater. His literary writings increasingly explored fantasy characters, many based on friends. Two of these fantasy characters became his “best friends”—Florestan and Eusebius. Florestan was exuberant, spontaneous, and brilliant. Eusebius was the reflective poet. Schumann felt this dichotomy in his personality quite strongly and initialed many of his pieces with either ‘F’ or ‘E.’ He fell in love with Chopin’s music and decided to write about it. In the article both Florestan and Eusebius appear.
Dissatisfied with being essentially ignored by Wieck, Robert moved out of the house and did not resume lessons when Wieck returned. His finger problem surfaced at this time. Tradition pins the blame on a mechanical device Robert used to strengthen his fingers, but modern scholars believe his finger weakness preceded using this device and that in fact he was suffering from mercury poisoning used to treat syphilis.
He composed a symphonic movement that was performed at one of Clara’s concerts in Zwickau, then revised and performed it again on a program that included Beethoven’s 7th symphony and later in Leipzig with success. Yet he never finished this G minor symphony. He discussed with Wieck and their friends the idea of creating a new musical periodical. Eventually the New Leipzig Periodical for Music (Neue Leipziger Zeitschrift für Musik) preoccupied all of Schumann’s literary efforts. He eventually became editor of the magazine and his penetrating music reviews remain among the most important written work about music and musicians.
Also around this time, Schumann had considered suicide from deep depression with his sister-in-law’s death and later that of his brother Julius.
In 1834, Ernestine from Asch came to study with Wieck and Robert fell for her and the romance of her as a Baron’s daughter, not knowing she was illegitimate. They secretly engaged and he conceived using the name of her hometown Asch as a musical motto for a set of pieces that became the famous op.9 Carnaval.
Notes on the Program
Surpassed only by Schubert’s Winterreise, Dichterliebe is Schumann’s finest work and stands among the top song collections of all time. The matching of poetry and music is unparalleled. Heinrich Heine’s penchant for double meanings that cut through the sentimentality of romanticism provides a fertile soil for Schumann’s multiple musical personae and codes. So much in this song cycle is fresh, startling, and original, that it is studied today as one of the first contemporary approaches to composition.
For instance, emphasizing an individual note beyond its function as part of a musical scale is a common modern device. In his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy continually refers to the note C sharp played by the flute. C sharp becomes both a recurring figure and anchor for this remarkable dreamscape. This piece particularly launched a new era of musical thinking in its liberation of pitch from key. But curiously, C sharp has an astonishing precedent in Schumann’s Dichterliebe written 50 years earlier. The song cycle begins and ends with C sharp, but in completely different contexts. C sharp in the opening song is dissonant, full of yearning and suffering. C sharp at the end of the cycle is respelled as D flat and becomes a place of final rest, transcendence, and tranquility. So rather than belonging to any particular key, the note C sharp comes to symbolize and summarize the entire spiritual journey for meaning and resolution from the poet’s unrequited love.
The cyclic element in Dichterliebe appears on many other levels as well. The opening song Im Wonderschönen Monat Mai itself is circular. It seems to begin in the middle of a phrase, opening with a dissonance that itself moves towards another dissonance. The harmony never rests, but continually moves in sequences that circle around a key without ever establishing it. It is perhaps A major, perhaps F# minor. Then in a revolutionary stroke for music at this time, the song itself ends on a dissonant dominant seventh chord, conveying restlessness, suffering, uncertainty, expectancy, a frame to introduce the other songs in the cycle, all that and more. What a rich musical texture to communicate the complexity behind Heine’s ironic text describing how the poet first expressed his deepest longings to his lover in the month of May when the buds literally burst.
The idea of suspension that ends the first song continues with the second, Aus meinen Thränen, where now the flowers bloom not from the ground, but from his tears, and the birds are now lonely nightingales that spring from his sighs. The singer concludes in a state of suspension a tone above the tonic—the same in fact that ended the first song—leaving the piano to finish the cadence in the home key a tone below. This song seems almost a fragment—only 17 measures. Yet those 17 measures tell a complete story and harmonic journey. Heinrich Schenker, the most prominent theorist of the 20th century, chose precisely this song from the entire musical repertoire as being a perfect summary and encapsulation of all the essential components of tonal music.
Each of the sixteen songs of Dichterliebe is both a world unto itself and a dependent link in the cyclic chain of the larger narrative. For instance, the dramatic climax of the seventh song Ich grolle nicht is certainly complete to stands on its own as a striking recital piece. The poet through seemingly grinding teeth, proclaims he won’t bear a grudge to his cold lover, relating a dream where he saw a serpent feeding on her heart! But the song has even more power when heard in the cycle, because this dramatic transition from spring flowers and birds to a serpent is preceded in the sixth song where the image of the Madonna shockingly transforms into the features of his lover. To go from that corruption of the poet’s spiritual center to the proclamation of Ich grolle nicht is a stunning transition. Schumann heightens the irony with an equally dramatic change in harmony. This piece, among all the other songs, is in C major, a step below the mysterious C sharp that suspends the cycle. C major also has the connotation of a simple key, conveying the ordinary real world, suitable for this quasi-public statement by the poet, but rather jolting as if we suddenly awake from the dream of the other songs.
After this climax, the remainder of the cycle deals with the complexity of the poet’s feelings and yearning for inner peace, essentially going through all the stages of mourning. He passes by the festivities of his lover’s wedding. He indulges in the sarcasm of a jilted lover’s fairy tale, he imagines the flowers that formerly held such promise now trying to soothe him. He dwells in his dreams and the fantasy of their alternate reality until sorrow becomes a dull pain. In the final great song, he imagines burying all these dreams and painful memories of love and sorrow in a gigantic coffin dropped into the sea. Schumann elevates Heine’s poem immeasurably with a concluding piano epilogue equal in length to the song itself in which the dissonant C sharp of the cycle becomes a deep home key over some of the most exquisite piano writing in the Romantic era. In an arabesque of figures, the music “sighs” itself to a final resting place, expressing at last the poet’s complete journey from denial, anger, and depression, to acceptance and resolution. And by concluding with this C sharp, Schumann truly creates a cycle with this song collection, for we can easily imagine this note connecting to the note of the first song, which after all had begun as a remembrance, and beginning all over again.
When Schumann had just finished [the piano quintet] Liszt unexpectedly came to Leipzig and insisted on hearing it performed the same night. ‘It was difficult’, Clara Schumann told us, ‘to get four other artists to come at such short notice, but I took a cab and drove about Leipzig until I was fortunate enough to succeed in my mission.’ It was arranged that the performance would take place at 7 o’clock that evening at the Schumann’s house. At that hour all were assembled with the exception of Liszt, who did not make his appearance until 9 o’clock. The quintet was duly played, but at the end Liszt moved towards Schumann and, patronizingly touching his shoulder, exclaimed: ‘No, no, my dear Schumann, this is not the real thing; it is only Kapellmeister music.’ At supper afterwards Liszt indulged in some deprecatory remarks about Mendelssohn. Schumann immediately arose, seized Liszt by the shoulder, and cried, ‘How dare you talk like that of our great Mendelssohn!’ He then left the room. Liszt, the polished man of the world, also rose, and bowing low to Clara Schumann, said: ‘I am deeply sorry to have been the cause of such an unpleasant incident. I feel I am in the wrong place here; pray accept my humble excuses and allow me to depart.’
Edward Speyer: My Life and Friends. 1937, from The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Liebrecht
The Schumann Piano Quintet on its surface seems a conventional chamber work: four movements with the first a sonata, the second a march slow movement, the third a scherzo, and the fourth a sonata rondo. And it “sounds” squarely from the Romantic era, using chromatic harmony but otherwise clearly tonal, hardly revolutionary, Yet these factors belie a subterranean layer of considerable invention. Going past the surface, one is struck by the way the entire piece is an improvisation or meditation of the chords in the opening measures. That progression surfaces in all the other movements. The final movement culminates this obsession with a fugal passage that brings back the theme from the opening first movement layered on top of the theme of the finale. What is going on in the quintet is a game of emergence. The real point and goal is only fully revealed at the end of the piece.
Another point of invention is the bizarre harmonic structure of the last movement itself. It employs a theme that only reveals its true tonal center at the end of the work. Schumann’s novel idea is to tilt the main theme to the minor, so that we believe the tonality of the whole piece to be minor. But in fact, it is actually in E flat major, the tonal center of the entire quintet. As a hint, the second part of the main theme is in this key, but it seems an afterthought and not an arrival. The way E flat is obscured and then revealed turns the idea of sonata form on its head.
Because he tilts the main theme to the minor, the harmony progresses in an unorthodox fashion. The exposition ends in the wrong place, from C minor to G major instead of E flat major to B flat major. That makes the problem of returning to a home key very complicated, since it was never established! The whole concept of sonata is to create a tension that eventually affirms and condenses back to the home key, not to create a tension that continually propels away from the home key. Schumann’s clever solution is to take this centrifugal process further until it unexpectedly reaches the home key. Instead of using the established tradition of falling down to the home key by fifths, Schumann falls up to the home key rising by fifths. Thus the recapitulation begins in the most bizarre place imaginable—C# minor, a half step above the already strange C minor that began the movement. But then rising by fifths, C# minor rises to G# minor and then G# minor rises to D#. In music we respell D# as Eb—they are the same key. And E flat is the elusive home key we’ve been waiting to hear. And not until the coda do we finally get it That’s why the coda is so extended. We need time to get used to this new key that was secretly the center the whole time. He makes of the coda an imaginative opportunity to introduce two different fugatos. The first imitates the theme of this movement. As it evolves, though, discerning ears will notice the harmonic progressions begin to sound familiar from the first movement. Sure enough, the second fugato combines both the main theme from this last movement with the main theme from the first movement. Now to finish the movement and the work, Schumann gives us the main theme from this final movement finally in the home key of E flat, unifying the entire quintet as a single work both melodically and harmonically.
People today are still divided whether Schumann’s experiment works or not. But that debate hasn’t interrupted enjoyment of the piece since its composition. And Schumann’s unabated surface lyricism is a coverlet over all this harmonic complexity. Most of you will probably never understand what all the fuss was about!
Adagio and Allegro for Cello op. 70
This single movement chamber work was originally composed for valve horn and piano. Schumann later made arrangements for violin and cello.
The opening Adagio with its unabated melody is not much different than a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. It is a complete short movement in its own rather than simply an introduction to a faster work.
The Allegro transforms and speeds up many of the figures and progressions of the Adagio. It is a rondo with a principal section in Schumann’s “Florestan” style, all breathless and virtuoso exuberance fuelled by an ascending bass line in the piano. The two contrasting sections are elegant and lyrical, especially the second one that features a syncopated accompaniment in the piano and a solo line that is a complete song in itself. The transition back to the Allegro is abrupt but skillful. A brilliant coda completes the piece.
Overture to Fidelio
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88
Concerto in A Minor for Piano & Orchestra,
Fidelio Overture by Beethoven
In his book The Interior Beethoven, Irving Kolodin noted, “As tended to be the life-long case with Beethoven, the overriding consideration remained: achievement of the objective. How long it might take or how much effort might be required was not merely incidental — such consideration was all but non-existent.”
The repeated attempts of Beethoven to write an overture to his one and only opera, yield to us not one but four different works that are each remarkable in their own way. The third attempt—Leonore Overture No. 3—is so ambitious that it is virtually a symphonic movement rather than a preparation for an opera and it is regularly performed at concerts. The Fidelio overture we hear at this concert is the final overture Beethoven composed and is the one that opens the opera when it is performed today.
Classical overtures are commonly structured as sonatinas—sonatas without development sections. That is the model to which Beethoven returns in the Fidelio Overture, except that the opening is confusing. It begins with a rousing fanfare that seems to set things afoot. But the music immediately quiets and becomes chordal and moody. We realize we are in the midst of a slow introduction. But after awhile this introduction seamlessly becomes the Allegro beginning of the sonata, with the horn now quietly intoning the fanfare as a theme. That isn’t all that is odd about this overture. Far stranger is the secondary area. It’s supposed to be in the dominant—that’s the whole point of a sonata, to contrast two different tonal areas. We only hear the dominant however at the very end of the exposition, so the secondary area really just consists of a short passage of cadential chords instead of a conventional theme. When all this material is recapitulated, Beethoven continues his pun. Here when the secondary area appears, we get the chords we expect—but in a completely wrong key! Beethoven quickly corrects this restating the chords in the correct tonic key, letting us know he is completely aware of what he is doing. After this structural joke, it is off to the races with a joyous rambunctious coda that propels the exuberance of the opening fanfare into an expectation for the opera to follow.
Piano Concerto in A Minor by Robert Schumann
At the last New West Symphony concert our jaws dropped open watching and hearing George Gao perform the Ziguenerweisen —usually an eye and ear popping piece for any violin virtuoso using his or her 4 strings—on the Chinese 2 string violin, the erhu. In an earlier concert in the fall we heard violin virtuoso Suzanne Hou perform Saint-Saens, also with incredible bravura and technique. The thrill of hearing a true virtuoso conquer their instrument and audience is akin to the thrill of watching any great athlete. We revel in the sense of the impossible and a headiness in the sheer achievement. The adrenaline trip for us with virtuosos is naturally a big draw for all concert goers. That kind of trip, though, is precisely not what the Schumann Piano Concerto is about or for what Robert Schumann had any interest. He knew all about it of course. His own piano music has plenty for the virtuoso. And he lived during the time of one of the greatest virtuosos in history—Franz Liszt, who apparently slighted the Schumann concerto by calling it a “concerto without piano.”
But Schumann was out for larger game. He knew that virtuoso piano concerti are a dime a dozen and easily forgotten. He wanted to create lasting poetry, to find a way to take the spiritual achievements of Beethoven in his concerti to this new era of Romanticism. That meant wrestling with all kinds of structural questions. What would be the relationship between the piano and the orchestra? How could a cadenza be part of the structure of the piece instead of just a moment of bravura?
Schumann’s answers to these and other problems have produced one of the most original of concerti. It is one that pianists themselves especially adore. As it is piece that is about growth of a single idea, the falling scale of 3 notes, it is remarkable how the piece grows into itself as it continues, and how we listeners become increasingly infatuated as we become familiar with it. The opening itself is not so remarkable, but by the time we hit the development section where the piano goes as deep and attractive as any Chopin Nocturne, we are completely hooked.
The obsession with the falling scale of three notes—C-B-A—informs most of the material in the first movement. Both “themes” share this same idea, as well as the transition. But the mood change between them is poetic and striking. The primary group is reflective, while the secondary group is restless. Schumann also makes an interesting structural innovation by dispensing with separate expositions for the orchestra first and then the piano. Instead the piano introduces the piece with a fanfare, then the orchestra only introduces the first theme. The piano then follows and both orchestra and piano continue the piece. The development is bipolar—first deeply poetic (Schumann’s Eusebius persona), and then energetic and typically developmental (Schumann’s Florestan persona).
The cadenza occurs in the conventional location, but here it is really a coda in itself, the summation of the entire movement, only played by the piano alone. It is full of technical difficulty, yet we listen not for acrobatics, but for the re-energizing of music that already captivates us. That is what Schumann was going for—our focus being on the music rather than the performer.
The second movement is a beautifully constructed bridge between the two outer movements. It begins with the same scale idea, only now going up instead of down, and in quiet tiptoes echoed between the piano and orchestra. The music is lyrical but lighthearted. That’s why the middle section with its romantic cello lines takes us so by surprise. We don’t expect sublimity, but then it is suddenly there. The cellos sing in their richest tone, engaging in a call and response with the piano.
A brief transition recalling the first movement of the concerto in major sets off the finale, a dance movement that unleashes the piano in nearly a perpetual motion of arabesque patterns, concluding with a fast waltz.
Symphony No. 8 in G Major by Antonin Dvorak
The folk themes are so abundant and fabulous in Dvorak’s 8th Symphony that the music is not only a pleasure to hear, but is rather easy to follow. If all classical music had such direct thematic instruction, apprehending structure would be less problematic. However, this does injustice to Dvorak. His symphony is far more than a bunch of pretty tunes. And in a way, the thematic clarity and abundance belies some very interesting structural experiments. One of these is the question of beginnings. Symphonies usually begin in one of two ways: either they start with a slow introduction, or they start with a main thematic idea in a fast tempo. Dvorak does both and neither. Instead he sets up an interesting duality. The piece begins with a theme in G minor that could be a slow introduction. That gives way to a bird call theme by the flute in G major. That also could be part of a slow introduction. And indeed, the music builds as one would expect to a big statement and we get a third theme in G major. But it is rather short lived to the point that we begin to realize all three of these themes are part of one primary group and that the symphony didn’t really begin with a slow introduction at all.
The secondary group pulls a similar stunt. We hear first a march theme in B minor followed by an exuberant theme in B major. Clear cadences in this new key give way to the music that began the symphony in G minor followed by the G major bird call theme. So are we hearing a repeat of the exposition? That’s something we might expect. But the tonality of G major becomes unstable and we realize we are in the middle of a typically exploratory development section. There is a brief moment in the development section by the way that is orchestrated very unusually—for just woodwinds and French horn. It has the quality of chamber music more than orchestral music, and is a device that would become a hallmark of Mahler’s music just a few years later!
The recapitulation sets things straight as it is supposed to do. The sad G minor theme comes back as a full-blown fast dramatic theme accompanied by strings climbing up and down in scales. Now we are sure that it was never a slow introduction but instead the true beginning of the symphony.
The second movement is even more remarkable. Its first theme presents an ambiguous harmony. It begins in E flat major, then moves to C minor. The second theme has a decidedly East European folk harmony. It starts out in C major but it’s harmonies instead suggest a fourth key, F minor. Why should you care, especially if you don’t have perfect pitch? Well, this harmonic ambiguity helps explain why the themes seem to be fighting one another. For instance, when the first theme returns, the second theme interrupts. The middle of the piece is a gorgeous trio with delicate descending C major scales accompanying a lyrical melody that itself is mostly a scale. A solo violin repeats this theme. But not much later the beautiful trio theme combines and fuses with the first theme itself. So what is fascinating about all of these themes is that they actually all centered around C major, but we only discover this after the fact. This is very unusual structural idea for classical music. Contrast is always achieved by placing different musical sections in different tonal centers. Here Dvorak manages to have all his themes in one tonal center, but he creates contrast by making the first two extremely ambiguous. The extremes of mood also contribute greatly to this effect. The opening chorale is spiritual and gloomy, the second theme is like a sad klezmer tune, and the trio section is delicate, fleet, and soulful.
The great tunes keep coming in the third movement. This is heavy humming material. An opening waltz in g minor recollects the tonality beginning the symphony. The trio melody in G major with its folk leanings to B and E minor, is among Dvorak’s most lyrical melodies. It too is a waltz. The finale of the movement, though, reformulates the trio into a fast delicate duple theme. The movement ends in delicious quiet.
A trumpet fanfare ushers in the finale. This last movement again is simple to hear, but complex in structure. It is both a rondo and accelerating theme and variations put together. The theme is reminiscent to me of Elgar’s music—it has an English baroque character. But Dvorak “fixes” that especially in a rousing bacchanalian variation in quick time, a virile dose of Czechoslovakian folk music, that thrills with a virtuoso horn ascending scale and trill. The theme and variation process is interrupted by a minor Turkish sounding theme that constitutes a central trio section. Particularly remarkable is a passage of descending harmonies by half step. This section with a new theme begins to incorporate elements of the main theme of the piece, sounding like a development section. And indeed it is a retransition that culminates in a victorious statement of the opening trumpet fanfare, this time accompanied harmonically. That dies down and the main theme reappears and the accelerated variation process begins again, pushing into a quick coda that ends the symphony with more than proper enthusiasm.
SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY
May 1, 2010
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Yefim Bronfman, Pianist
The three works on tonight’s program are prime examples of Beethoven’s heroic Middle Period of composition. It was this mature style that helped to establish Romanticism, expanding the forms and styles of Mozart and Haydn into larger proportions and, especially, using a more complex structure of harmony to support this architecture. On the surface of Beethoven’s Middle Period music, we often hear military rhythms, percussive banging textures, and even repeated loops that we today call grooves. But underpinning everything is the concern to develop a musical idea and discover all its possibilities.
One powerful example of a Beethoven musical idea is the repercussions of abrupt shifts of harmony. The fourth piano concerto is a famous example because the piano begins it in one key, G major, but then the orchestra takes it up in a very different key, one quite far away, B major. In a sense the entire piece reels from this rupture of space. Frequent moments in that first movement suddenly find themselves suspended in foreign keys. On a deeper level, the entire second movement—a kind of spoken-sung dialogue between orchestra and piano unique in the literature—takes us abruptly to an inner deep place.
This music was part of Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play Egmont with its theme of victory of tyranny, here with Dutch Count Egmont trying to free the Netherlands from Spain. The overture begins in minor with a dramatic slow introduction followed by a fast sonata style movement. The overture concludes with a rip-dazzling finale in triumphant major.
Beethoven can tell an entire story with one note. He does so with the opening F played by the entire orchestra. It portends “fate” in its opening strength and dying away. Then the slow introduction is on its way with strong violent string chords that contrast with the most tender woodwind lines.
The transition to the fast sonata is a famous example of a musical technique called hemiola, which means changing the accents in a musical pattern to give the effect of speeding up. Here Beethoven takes a pattern in two beats and accelerates it over a larger pattern of three beats. By doing this, different notes get the accent each time and kind of throw us “off” the meter. This acceleration propels the theme of the sonata, which is not really a melody, but a plunging arpeggio in the lower strings that creates more tension than tune.\
The acceleration into the fast sonata goes “nuclear” with the transition to the finale that begins in a fast pattern of two beats and explodes in a triumphant major key. This passage features virtuoso writing especially for the strings who have to practice the heck of it. But it’s so much fun to play!
Piano Concerto #3
There is a great story of someone turning pages for Beethoven at a performance of this concerto where he was the soloist. Apparently, Beethoven did not write out the solo score, but just had notes and scribblings—what the page turner called Egyptian hieroglyphics. He had to wait for Beethoven to vigorously nod and then turn the page, a very stressful situation which Beethoven laughed about at their dinner afterwards.
The third piano concerto is a defining piece for Beethoven’s heroic Middle Period. It is his quintessential “C minor” piece–the same key as his 5th symphony and many other dramatic works. The opening theme has the military-march feel that characterizes much of his music from this period, and would eventually develop into the Eroica symphony and beyond. It also takes both the role of the orchestra and the pianist to new heights. The opening 3 minute orchestral exposition is more a satisfying opening for a symphony than an introduction for a soloist. But when the piano enters, it does so with a dazzling array of virtuoso techniques—scales, arpeggios, double thirds, trills, etc. There is a new physicality, a new muscularity to the piano part that sets it apart from earlier works by Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven’s earlier two concerti. It propels the genre into brand new territory and depth. A favorite moment to many is the orchestral entrance after the piano cadenza. Traditionally this is a barnstorming moment when the orchestra brings everything to a loud close. Instead Beethoven follows the pianos concluding trills with pianissimo chords in the strings decorated with descending arpeggios in the piano that give you goosebumps!
The slow movement imparts this depth. It is an extremely soulful lyric work, but made even more so by its choice of key—E major which is a very remote key from C minor. In this way, Beethoven really puts this heartfelt song in a distant special place using harmonic context. He emphasizes this distance also by having the strings play with their mutes.
This move to the distant keys continues to resonate in the third movement where at one moment Beethoven states his rondo theme in E major—that very distant key of the slow movement, effectively recalling that moment and its distance.
Piano Concerto #4
In a sense, the fourth piano concerto begins from the slow movement of the third piano concerto. The pace even feels the same. But what really establishes the connection, is that both pieces established a distant relationship with a key 3 steps away (from C minor to E major in the 3rd concerto and G major to B major in the 4th concerto). And this distant relationship and its ramifications become an important idea for the entire concerto.
Pianists love to play this concerto of Beethoven’s more than any other. One reason may be that the piano has a special independence from the orchestra. It begins the piece for the orchestra rather than the other way around—which was certainly innovative at the time. But too, when it does finally begin its own exposition, it starts with new material we haven’t heard and a wonderful sense of expectation as to what new worlds it will open.
The slow movement is among Beethoven’s most emotional utterances. The orchestra declaims forcefully and fatefully as if speaking, or as if this is recitative in an operatic moment. The piano plays in the simplest and most tender of chorales, eventually taming the strident strings. While this piece is without question abstract music, it’s difficult not to imagine this dialogue occurring in a special spiritual space. Whether between God and man, or between a person’s inner states, it is music that inspires philosophy, and that is a particular triumph of Beethoven’s Middle Period style that became a goal for much of the important music that followed his time, from Brahms and Wagner, to Mahler and Schoenberg.
Ravel Mother Goose
You can read in your program notes the delightful storytelling in this piece from Mother Goose. There’s the sleeping beauty of the opening pavane, the lost Little Tom Thumb whose breadcrumbs were eaten by birds, the dance of the Pagodas in the bathtub, beauty and the beast, and the fairy garden. But I think that is all less interesting and important than the magical world of sound Ravel has created especially for this work. Many remark that Ravel seems to have tapped into the wonderment of childhood usually lost for adults. That seems true to me, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Stravinsky called Ravel the “Swiss Watchmaker” because of his extreme precision and craftsmanship in orchestration. And that precision and imagination is evident in every page of this score. Ravel has such command of instrumental techniques that it's difficult to realize he originally wrote this piece for two pianos! Yet the two piano version is also absolutely convincing. I think that's because, when you get to the bottom of it, Ravel's harmonic language is where the real magic lies. He moves between chords with a delicacy and imagination that conjures the unique fragrance of the world of fairy tales.
Ravel opens with a sparse piece of only 20 measures! But it’s pure haiku in density. The ingenuity of combining harp and double bass pizzicatos and harmonics as an accompaniment to the flute melody instantly creates an unworldly fragile fuzziness. But the opening 2 part counterpoint is also unique—one flute against a muted horn doubled by muted plucked violas. Weird and wonderful! The use of modal harmony (which he employs in the rest of the work) also conjures an ancient world of magic.
Again, Ravel’s simple but carefully modulating harmonies make a chord progression that just feels perfect on every beat. Here he uses an ancient technique from Renaissance music—fauxbordon—the triple layering of a melody to form a series of parallel chords. Here those rising and falling chords impart lost wandering in the forest.
Empress of the Pagodas
The harmonic language here is appropriately pentatonic to impart Chinese music. But what really catches our ear in this piece is the exquisite combination of instruments—harp, celesta, and xylophone, all colored with muted and plucked strings and accompanying the woodwinds.
Beauty and the Beast
A supremely beautiful and elegant waltz. Ravel again dazzles us with his command of harmony. But there are other delights, such as the way the melody “kisses” the accompaniment at the end of its phrase (its last note leads to the opening note of the accompaniment) and the imaginative contrabassoon solo that represents the beast.
The Fairy Garden
On one hand, one wants to say little of this piece in case talking about it obliterates it, because it indeed is so beautiful and fragile with its slow chorale procession of chords. It’s as if harmony itself is making a procession. In fact, the fairy garden reveals the secret of Western Harmony. Within C major are the hidden overtones. These frequencies are very high and very soft so we don’t actually hear them. But they are present and Ravel reveals them as magic in this piece when the harmony shifts from C major to E major (actually E mixolydian) in the highest register of the orchestra. In this way, Ravel makes apparent chords that are already there but are “invisible” to us in the conventional world. The emotional effect of laying them bare with the harp, celeste, and high strings uncannily transports us to the world of childhood, that special world invisible to us as adults but that in special moments we recall in which the world is a place of magic, vivid color, and exquisite beauty. Yet also a place that is very fragile and needs protection to endure. All this Ravel communicates abstractly in this exquisite miniature of a finale.
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2
It’s called the “Little Russian” because that is the nickname for the Ukraine and Tchaikovsky uses 3 Ukrainian folk songs in the piece.
The first movement is encased and dominated by the Russian song Down by Mother Volga. An extensive slow introduction introduces this song with first solo horn and bassoon, then other instruments elaborately accompanied in the orchestra. What’s strange is that this opening tune is so central to the work, that after the slow introduction the two new themes that constitute the sonata seem far less important! Even the connecting material so important to sonata form falls by the wayside because the introduction is so extensive. Instead of the conventional transition section between the primary and secondary themes, Tchaikovsky just immediately jumps from one to the other!
The song reappears in the development and again in the extensive coda that balances the long introduction, ending the movement plaintively again first with the horn, then with the bassoon. In every way, the “symphonic” material of the sonata and its very form is swallowed whole by this song.
The inner movements are straightforward in that they have great tunes but no real surprises. The second movement Tchaikovsky adapted from his opera Undine. The hummable march tune is treated to Tchaikovsky’s usual genius for florid accompaniment. The 3rd movement scherzo moves forward in an infectious perpetual motion.
The finale is conventionally admired for its clever continuous variations of the first theme. But far more interesting and inventive is the way he weaves the first and second themes together in the development. The second theme appears there unmoored from a central tone center. It keeps slipping and sliding from key to key. Then elements of the first theme appear and the second theme adapts the rhythm of the first theme. The tussle continues and eventually the first theme takes over but plays spasmodically in the syncopated rhythm of the second theme. This fascinating genetic interplay becomes increasingly involved until we find ourselves spilled out back into the tonic key and the recapitulation. An incredible ride!
UBL January 7, 2010 Brahms Piano Concerto 2, Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 2
Russell Steinberg, composer, conductor and performer; in conversation with Bramwell Tovey. Mr. Steinberg is the Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, and is on the faculty at UCLA.
Watts Plays Brahms
FEATURED ARTISTS:Los Angeles Philharmonic Bramwell Tovey, conductor André Watts, piano PROGRAM:Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2, "London" Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Russell Steinberg Lecture Notes
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2—The —Piano as a Magical Variation Machine
Despite its length and majesty, the Brahms 2nd piano concerto is in some ways more a chamber work than a concerto. The opening establishes this intimacy with the dialogue between French horn and the piano. But the conversational approach continues with a woodwind phrase answered by the strings. This is a preface, of course, to the symphonic orchestral music that follows, yet it establishes a personal relationship with the piano and the orchestra that blossoms in all kinds of surprises—most notably in the extended cello solo that is such an intrinsic part of the slow movement. Name another concerto where the soloist willingly gives up so much control! ☺
Another important point is that the piano and orchestra are equal partners in this piece, and I don’t just mean that they share the material equally, but that Brahms writes for the piano in a way that makes it sound orchestral, more than “virtuoso solo.” For one thing, his phrases often encompass the entire register of the piano—the opening arpeggio being a prime example. Also, he writes very thickly for the piano—thick chords, thick counterpoint—which also gives the instrument an orchestral sound.
But there is something more to this than just friendly banter between the piano and its orchestral friends. Brahms uses this conversational approach as a compositional idea to evolve the music as a continuous set of variations. There seem to be two structural planes unfolding simultaneously. one is the familiar way we know from other concertos: sonata form with all the trimmings—themes galore in the primary and secondary areas, interesting transition sections, a marvelous development section that combines the themes in fragments like a good sonata is supposed to, ending with a marvelous retransition back to the main theme. All that stuff is there. But at the same time there is a continual unifying process whereby it seems every new section of music is just an embellishment and fantasy of the preceding section. This process is so continuous and involved that we sense the entire work—and I mean all four movements, not just the first—is a web of variations based on the opening kernel of notes that the horn plays in the first two measures.
Maybe that’s why we often hear the comment that while the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto has moments of titanic force, it largely holds this force at bay and in fact tends much more often towards a relaxed state. The reason is that instead of the Beethovenian evolution of one note inexorably leading to the next, this piece grows by phrases that are variations of each other. So while a phrase itself may build in tension, that tension relaxes as the music regroups with a new variation that builds all over again.
A great example of this process is the transition section in the first movement. We first hear it in the orchestra as a brief passage—just a few wisps of notes in groups of three, rising in half step. But when the piano gets hold of the transition in its own exposition, it expands into a miniature complete piece in itself, not so unlike Brahms’ intermezzi. A simple idea becomes increasingly elaborate as both piano and orchestra circle it and add embellishments, lengthening one part, shortening another, enriching the harmony here, adding rhythmic complexity there. This transition has maybe 5 continuous variations, the last one revisiting the simple ascending notes that began the whole process.
As we listen to more and more of this piece, we begin to sense that even something as basic as those wispy three notes of the transition section come from something earlier. In fact, they are themselves a compressed variation of the opening three ascending notes of the piece that the horn plays. And that’s how it goes all through this first movement.
The variation process was there from the beginning where I first mentioned the entwined relationship of the piano and orchestra. After the piano serves as a sort of reverberating echo for the horn and the winds answer with the second part of the theme, the piano takes off in a fantasy that again is like a mini-series of variations—the first compressing the opening arpeggios and fragmenting the theme to just two notes, the second a chordal hymn, the third an ostinato of the theme over a dominant pedal point. In a substantial way, these flights of fanasy into a world of variations are the piano’s cadenzas. So instead of the idea of a section to show off piano technique, Brahms spotlights the piano as a kind of magical variation machine.
Brahms clearly prided himself on the seamlessness of his craft. Ideas just seem to melt into each other. One glorious moment in the first movement is the way he prepares the recapitulation. The piano ripples arpeggios, playing with the two note motive that has been its material for most of the piece. Underneath, the bass rumbles a motive from the first theme on a pedal tone. The whole texture is similar to passages Rachmaninoff liked to meditate on in his own piano concerti. But then the piano begins slow trills that climb in register while the strings subtly change harmony to prepare the return of the home key. The horn and strings enter with the theme almost unnoticed as the piano winds down this intricate passagework smoothly into the same arpeggios it used at the beginning of the piece. And we’re back.
2nd Mvt.Brahms plays around with form in the scherzo in such an interesting way. Usually the scherzo is a dance in two parts: the scherzo, which is a speeded-up minuet and a trio. But here, Brahms combines this all into a sonata form, placing the trio inside the development section. Very clever and almost so seamless to be undetectable!
The 3 note Do-Re-Mi motive of the first movement continues in the scherzo—first up in the piano, and then down in the strings. The tune is characterized by an opening trill that gives energy to the whole piece. The second theme is also consumed with this trill played elongated and regular speed, in the foreground and the accompaniment.
This elongation forms the accompaniment of the trio section, itself embedded in the development section. The second part of the trio section is whirling vortex of piano chromatic passagework—all a greatly accelerated variation of the trill motive that dominates the piece.
The relation of piano and orchestra is a completely integrated partnership in this movement. The opening material features the piano in the foreground and the orchestra in accompaniment. In the recapitulation, these roles are reversed and the music fits equally well. One reason is that Brahms writes for the piano in its full register, essentially making it an “orchestra.”
3rd MovementThe luscious cello solo opening this movement is probably the most anticipated moment for lovers of this concerto. Again, it sounds so reminiscent of the themes from the first movement. But its really all about descending scales. [Of course, the accumulation of scales, both ascending (finale) and descending (here) share as common ancestor the Do-Re-Mi opening of the concerto]Underneath the solo cello, the cello section accompanies with a descending scale in the home key of Bb. In the second phrase, the violins sound a beautiful high Bb and then descend over the cello’s second phrase, forming the most gorgeous counterpoint. Then listen how the cello takes over this descent near the end of its solo. And typical of Brahms, the cello doesn’t conclude in a way that calls attention to itself. Instead, it just kind of dissolves back into the orchestra.
The piano entrance sounds from the depths in a slow motion version of its arpeggios with the horn in the first movement. Then it plays alone for an extended time in a fantasy that recalls the beautiful solos in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. As you would guess, it is varying the gorgeous descending lines that the violins and cello played earlier.
In the middle section, the trills from the earlier movements re-enter and the theme undergoes far more dramatic variation. The pianist’s left and right hands play chords in syncopation for much of this section.
The retransition is the golden moment of this concerto. The piano contrasts long slow arpeggios in the bass and center register with isolated fragments in the extreme treble of the instrument—here it is a complete but delicate orchestra in itself, accompanied as quietly as possible first by clarinet, then strings. We are in distant harmonic regions here. And when the cello theme returns, it is in this very distant key of F# major, not the Bb major of the opening. This is a false return. As the first phase concludes, the cello and strings play a subtle, delicious, and ever-so-smooth modulation back to the home key and the cello begins the theme proper.
The love-fest continues with the coda. The cello’s slow descent is in duet with the piano’s sublime rising arpeggios. The piano breaks out with ascending scale in trills. At its peak, the cello re-enters for one final descent. The piano answers in a rising chordal arpeggio that spans the entire register of the instrument. The movement ends in the tonic chord played by the orchestra.
Mvt. 4By now, the piano and orchestra are so cozy, they are even finishing each other’s phrases (the Hungarian folk-sounding second theme). All the energy of trills and arpeggios that have characterized the concerto come to the fore here not as any dramatic terror, rather as the lightest most scrumptious soufflé. The jaunty opening piano theme is light as it goes, but the magic really happens after the piano finishes the theme. It quiets down on the dominant, and then the surprise—a lightning fast but delicate rising scale of thirds sails right up near the very top of the instrument in a trill which ushers in the full orchestra playing the theme. This unexpected swoosh happens so fast it almost has the effect of tickling our ears. We definitely want to hear it again!
But we are easily and decadently diverted with the second theme, which has the character of a Hungarian folk-tune, with all its chromatic melancholy. The contrasting melodies, first one played by the clarinet, and then another by the piano, quickly lighten the mood again. When the Hungarian tune re-enters, this time it is in a playful manner with the orchestra and piano finishing each other’s phrases! Ralph Vaughan WilliamsA London Symphony (Symphony No. 2)
Is it just me, or is it strange that a wonderful 20th composer who was NOT Shostakovich wrote 9 symphonies that we don’t know that well? And this is gorgeous music.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was an enthusiastic collector of English folk songs and hymns. The extremely lyric nature of his music clearly shows this influence. Later in life he became president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
This “London Symphony” was composed in 1912-1913 and premiered in 1914, a year after the infamous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But Vaughan William’s piece has little interest in revolution. Instead it reveals its composer on as intimate a footing with his country’s folk music as Dvorak was with his. It is difficult to tell Vaughan William’s original tunes from his quotations, so wedded are they in style and melodic beauty. One interesting and strange thing, though, is that for all its “Englishness,” the second symphony is also very French influenced. Many moments recall Ravel and Debussy—particularly the development section of the first movement and the third movement scherzo—and that’s probably in part because Vaughan Williams studied orchestration with Ravel for a short time.
Shortly after the successful premiere, the score was unfortunately sent to a conductor in Germany just before the outbreak of World War !; the score to the symphony was lost Vaughan Williams reconstructed the score with friends of his from the orchestral parts. Years later while working on his fourth symphony, he worked out a major revision of the piece and that is what is performed today. It is 20 minutes shorter than the original.
There is a program to this symphony that draws attention to various parks and squares around London as its inspiration. While that was a successful point of entry for his contemporary listeners, Vaughan Williams melodic strains communicate its narrative with sufficient clarity to not really need an intermediary. And that was his preference as well—like many late Romantic composers, he was uncomfortable with audiences relying on a narrative program to follow music.
The opening introduction in the first movement is quite extended—over 3 minutes—and it is especially sublime with the double basses filling a deep canyon of pentatonic sound that gradually unfolds in a string chorale of slow gorgeous harmonies leading to the Big Ben chimes quotation in harp and brass. The first movement is a conventional sonata. It really shines in Vaughan-Williams exuberant invented folk materials in the transition section and second theme. The development fragments all of this as expected, but then dissolves in an expressive passage for strings and harp. Here at the heart of the movement, the texture becomes contrapuntal and very Ravel-like with the addition of winds.The recapitulation begins with the first group material very mysterious. The second theme is treated contrapuntally in a way not dissimilar to the way Aaron Copland does with American folk tunes in many of his pieces.
Conductor Bramwell Tovey made the interesting point that with this symphony Vaughan Williams, along with Elgar and Holst, initiated a renaissance in English concert music, the likes of which hadn't been heard since Henry Purcell. I note that we Americans don't know this music very well,and I surmise that the commotion from Stavinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok from this time may have been responsible for this wonderful English music not cutting through "the noise." But listen to the slow movement of this Vaughan Williams symphony and you can't help but notice its language of 1913 fits like a glove to the musical language of epic American films circa 2000! Clearly, some composers have taken note!
RUSSELL STEINBERG UPBEAT LIVE TALK ON
Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 7:00 PM
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Simon Rattle, Conductor
Wagner: Meistersinger Overture
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1
Brahms: Symphony No. 2
The Brahms vs. Wagner controversy that dominated the latter 19th century made for a fierce divide in the musical world. However, Brahms once told Wagner he was actually the greatest Wagnerian. By that, I think he meant that his musical understanding was deeper than other adherents so that he could actually understand the depths of Wagner’s genius. And early music of Brahms leans strongly towards Wagner’s color and thematic devices. In his twenties, he in fact first flirted with joining the futurist school of Liszt and Wagner, but then decidedly refuted it as too superficial for his own path. But that was not a flippant choice. Brahms once said that if he looked at the score of Tristan in the morning, the whole rest of his day was ruined. Any of you who have fallen under the spell of Tristan know what her was talking about—Tristan’s obsessive harmonic sequences and leitmotives are hard to get out of your head. It is music of hedonism and excess. The Brahms aesthetic, on the other hand, is an onion, evolving layer upon layer of motivic development. Beneath its sunny pastoral landscape is a network of roots that go to the center of the earth. Its emotional intensity comes not from the surface of its harmonies and melodies, but from the power of its total narrative.
Schoenberg was the greatest student of both Brahms and Wagner. His command of orchestration, harmony, color, and counterpoint took Wagner’s vision to its next evolutionary step. But his passion for musical structure and developing variation—a passion that consumed him his entire life and led to innovations such as his twelve tone method, among many others—that passion marks him even more as the composer most continuing the legacy of Brahms.
Wagner Meistersinger Overture
Wagner’s opera Meistersinger was much admired by Brahms and Schoenberg. It is a fitting connection between these two composers as well. It has the solid bass lines and command of classical harmony characteristic of Brahms combined with the abundance of leitmotives that so informed Schoenberg’s compositional approach. It begins with two celebratory marches. Notice the active bass line in the first one.
In the middle section, Wagner employs considerable counterpoint as he depicts the various apprentices practicing their music. There are even modernistic moments such as the climax where many themes occur simultaneously, but controlled and overpowered by the march theme in the brass.This contrapuntal music provides a splendid transition for us to discuss Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony.
Schoenberg Chamber Symphony
My piano teacher Earle Voorhies often told me about attending a lecture where Schoenberg said if people wanted to understand his music, they needed to listen to it at least a hundred times. Mr. Voorhies pointed out that music shouldn’t need 100 listenings to be comprehensible. And folks, that in a nutshell, is our dilemma…
Schoenberg’s music is highly concentrated. To make a ridiculous analogy, the first time you hear a Schoenberg piece it’s a little bit like drinking Coca Cola syrup—not the drink, but the concentrated syrup—straight up! The music is just too rich, there is too much going on, to comprehend it all. And when you try, it’s like spraining your brain.
But for all that, Schoenberg was right. Once you listen repeatedly, all those melodies he presents simultaneously start to sort themselves out and the music not only begins to make marvelous sense, but communicates intense expression. This was why Schoenberg couldn’t understand why his music was so hated during his lifetime. He was writing still in the spirit of Brahms and Richard Strauss, but his content is so thick and quick changing, that people had and still have a hard time digesting it.
This Chamber Symphony No. 1 with its concentrated musical ideas was part of a breakthrough in Schoenberg’s writing around 1905 and 1906 that led to atonal music. This piece stretches the limits of tonality. It has many different kinds of musics, ranging from lush sounds of Strauss and Mahler, to very futuristic sonorities that for us today recall Hindemith and Bartok.
The opening is itself a challenge to tonality because it defines a new harmonic world—one built on the interval of fourths instead of the interval of thirds that characterize all the major and minor chords we know so well. The very next harmonies are also strange—augmented chords. These are built on thirds all right, but the wrong kind of thirds! They are too big and build an exotic whole tone scale instead of major and minor.
But if we untangle things for a moment, we can recognize an opening not dissimilar to Richard Strauss’s famous orchestral tone poem Don Juan. The opening horn rising fourths has the same swoop as Don Juan—as does the main theme.
In fact, Schoenberg is really doing the same thing Richard Strauss was doing—creating an instrumental opera narrative using leitmotives. That is, the themes become characters and ideas that interact as they do in Wagner’s operas. Strauss too, incidentally, gets very contrapuntally complex at times for the same reason as Schoenberg: too many characters speaking simultaneously!
There are several moments in the Chamber Symphony where the two ideas we’ve discussed—the rising fourths and the “Don Juan-like” main theme engage in complex conversation. Strauss’s Tone Poems merge this Wagnerian leitmotive style with symphonic sonata structure—the stuff that fuels the music of Beethoven and Brahms. And essentially, Schoenberg is doing the same thing. Only in this piece, he borrows a trick he learned from Franz Liszt’s groundbreaking B minor piano sonata where Liszt bunches all 4 movements together into one continuous movement.
That’s what Schoenberg does here in this chamber symphony. The first movement does the sonata form thing—exposition and development. But then it has an underplayed recap that is truncated with a remarkable passage, one that both recalls the strange fourth harmony from the opening and heralds the new music of the 20th century.
After this transition, we hear a slow movement. Schoenberg uses the fourths to make a transition again to a quasi scherzo movement, and again to a finale that functions as a recapitulation of the entire piece. The coda is particularly stirring because the heroic main Don Juan-like theme finally rises to the surface and overpowers the texture, asserting first its augmented harmonies, and finally resolving to a tonic E major chord to finish the piece.
Brahms Symphony No. 2
This is a symphony about the evolution of ideas. Everything germinates from the opening bud and the piece develops and grows like a living thing. This aesthetic concept Brahms refined from his deep understanding of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. If we try to understand why he expressed distaste for Tchaikovsky’s music, part of the reason might be that Tchaikovsky made melody the supreme control in his symphonies, rather than the servant for underlying smaller motives. For Brahms, this was to confuse the prime motivator in music. And today, I think we can safely say that Tchaikovsky’s aesthetic won hands down. The music written today, whether pop or classical, is usually not in the least concerned with the germination of a single idea. Today we live in a culture dedicated to distraction and the moment, hoping for something spectacular with little regard to its connection with what preceded.
Those of you here recognize the problem with this, especially listening to great music. What you want is a listening handle to help you connect in this case 40 some odd minutes of unfolding music.
That the Brahms 2nd is about germination is pretty apparent comparing the beginning, say, of the first and last movement. Both begin with the same D-C#-D motive. It seems that this rocking back and forth idea is an important generator of ideas in this music. Ernst Toch in his wonderful book on form called The Shaping Forces of Music gives a penetrating analysis of the Brahms 2nd which I heartily recommend reading. He is fascinated by two aspects of Brahms’ craft: the way subterranean elements control the larger form and the way Brahms knits ideas together so intricately that they fuse into a single entity, no longer being separate ideas.
Sing the opening melody of the symphony. This melody is what we hang on to and remember. But strangely, it doesn’t appear very often as a complete tune. Instead, something underneath and more subtle calls the shots: the rocking back and forth idea mentioned previously. Let’s trace the germination of this motive. First it is an accompaniment to the main theme. Then Brahms stretches out the motive, and as if stretching out a coil, the motive then rebounds with greater energy and spins out the transition theme. The transition section gains drama as our rocking motive fragments and erupts into the foreground. Now it has all of our attention. But Toch points out something very interesting. If we play the accompaniment to this transition theme rocking motive very slowly, we notice something familiar: this accompaniment is in fact just an accelerated version of the opening Horn theme. Brahms is showing how elastic his ideas can be. He can transform something from being a main character to becoming a subordinate character, or even just part of the landscape.
Perhaps the most beautiful tune in the first movement is the sad minor theme. The way Brahms harmonizes this tune is one reason we adore his music. It is bittersweet: in other words, it fuses major and minor together in a way that combines the chords into one complex feeling.
Notice that again we hear rocking back and forth motion like a lullaby in this theme. But a most fascinating discovery is that the accompaniment to this tune is also an accelerated version of the Horn theme. Again what was foreground is now distant background.
The closing section transforms the rocking idea into a dramatic jumping character. You get the idea. Brahms has taken a subterranean element and through germination, shown it to be the hidden DNA of the piece, controlling its growth and eventually “taking over” the whole show.
To hear how organically subtle Brahms can get, listen to the recapitulation. At first it seems something is missing—the main theme returns, but without the three rocking bass notes that introduce it—those same notes that have been dominating the entire movement. But listen closer and you can hear those notes hidden, stretched out in one of the trombones harmonizing the chords we hear just before the main theme returns.
The intense expression from the outset is due to a melody of extraordinary complexity. To understand what makes this melody so complex, keep in mind that most melodies have two parts. Sometimes this is called question-answer, antecedent-consequent, or sometimes just A and B. That has to do with our intense need for a combination of repetition and contrast. So the design we most often hear is question-question, answer-answer, or question-answer question-answer.
Well, this opening melody of the Brahms 2nd movement has not two, but 6 different parts, and these six parts are interwoven tightly with such ingenuity, that it is difficult to deconstruct them. Brahms contorts these six parts ingeniously. He begins some of them a beat early or a beat late, he stretches and compresses them, then weaves them together so tightly that the result is one great extended super phrase of high expression.
The third movement provides a delightful example of developing variation, where one motive spills into various transformations of itself, so strikingly different that at first we’re not sure how they are related.
The movement begins with bucolic gentle rocking motive. Brahms then makes it a fast dance with repeated notes. Then he turn it upside down, gives it a syncopated rhythm and it becomes a rousing group peasant dance. By this point, it doesn’t sound a bit like the beginning, though it uses precisely the same material.
The same turning motive from the first movement introduces both principal themes in the finale—literally it begins the first theme and in inversion in the second theme. By now, we might recognize that this motive is simply a stretched out trill. Brahms makes this obvious later in the movement where the strings first harmonize a slow trill. At the conclusion of the piece, the trill creates a momentum that finishes the work not only with bravura, but with a strong reminiscence of the ending of Beethoven’s 9th symphony—whose Ode To Joe tune is also structured around a turning-trill figure! As you continue to listen to this symphony, discover for yourself the full evolution of this motive.
RUSSELL STEINBERG UPBEAT LIVE TALK ON
Monday November 23, 2009, 7:00 PM Walt Disney Concert Hall
Simon Rattle, conductor
BRAHMS: Piano Qt. 1
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1
BRAHMS: Piano Qt. 1
Schoenberg orchestrated the work in 1937, and it was premiered and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of then-Music Director Otto Klemperer at one of the Orchestra’s Saturday Evening Concerts. Schoenberg explained the rationale behind his orchestration in a letter to Alfred Frankenstein, the music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle:
“1. I like the piece
2. It is seldom played
3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.”
One way Schoenberg did this, incidentally, was to give the piano part largely to the woodwinds! Their lighter sound certainly changes the balance of the piece from the kind of titanic piano writing with deep bass chords Brahms used in the piano quartet version.
Schoenberg at this time, having emigrated from Vienna to Los Angeles, was in a period of reflection on the relationship of his music with that of the masters preceding him. His American students were surprised that lessons with him did not include discussion of his twelve tone method, but instead involved intense discussions of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Klemperer commented at the premiere about Schoenberg’s arrangement of this Brahms piano quartet: “You can’t even hear the original quartet, so beautiful is the arrangement.” By that he meant Schoenberg had made the work truly symphonic.
The first movement provides a strong example of Brahms’s famous technique developing variation—a technique that obsessed Schoenberg in his own music. Developing variation is a musical analog to germination in organic evolution, where the essence of a single cell multiplies continuously with incredible diversity to create an entire organism. For Brahms, the opening musical ideas in his music contain these “stem” cells that then multiply and mutate with extraordinary imagination. He still composes in the same sonata style of the classical masters—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but this developing variation process permeates the music from the very first notes into a continuing saga that transcends the classical structure. This process of course is also evident in Haydn and even more in Beethoven, but Brahms emphasized it to the point that every subsequent idea is a kind of hide-and-seek game to discover the relationship with the original melodic germ. This process extends throughout all the movements of the work. You can hear the opening of all four movements as a variation of a single idea that binds together the whole piano quartet!
The opening tune:
The opening augmented triad hints at the contrast of major and minor with the F#, F natural shifts
The curling tail of thirds that descends (C-Eb-D; G-Bb-A) becomes a running commentary throughout the piece
The outline of a descending scale with chromatic notes—
The second theme: reverses this process with an ascending scale that uses chromatic notes. The hint of major mode in this minor surfaces at the third statement of this tune, which breaks through into major in a over a quicker expressive texture.
The overall impression of this movement is of a theme that is twisted upside down and backwards and forwards. Its contrapuntal dimension surely delighted Schoenberg, who had taken these ideas and placed them as the organizing foundation for his own musical breakthrough with his twelve tone system.
The inner movements are a scherzo and Andante, with the delight and depth of expression we associate with Brahms. But I want to cut to the chase with the finale, a fiery Hungarian-style rondo. Here is where Schoenberg’s orchestration brings Brahms to a whole new level of color with a whole battery of percussion that includes a xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, and drums. The vigor and virtuosity of this movement vies with Tchaikovsky and all the other 19th century Russian colorists. And that’s probably something Schoenberg wanted to make apparent with his orchestration. Brahms could outdo them in splash and bling, yet still within his strong structural foundation.
The finale is actually preceded by a cadenza. And here Schoenberg goes to town, not being limited by the 4 instruments of the quartet. The first soloist is a clarinet, perhaps a nod to Brahms’ concentration on the clarinet late in his life. Then a violin takes over, and introduces a string quartet! Winds and the other strings gradually join in and increase the tempo. A huge snake of an ascending scale in the strings brings back the main Hungarian theme and the piece accumulates a blazingly fast pace racing to the end.
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1
The expectation that Brahms compose a symphony that would essentially be Beethoven’s 10th became a burden difficult to imagine today. But it was a very real burden to Brahms. The Schumann’s expected it and fervently hoped Brahms could counter the Wagnerian fever they felt was destroying the legacy of Beethoven and Schubert. Robert Schumann wrote that Brahms was Beethoven’s true successor. And with that gargantuan testimonial, the rest of the musical world too waited to hear Brahms prove it with a symphony.
Brahms got earnestly to work and immediately suffered major crises in trying to measure up to Beethoven. Those “symphonic failures” eventually became some of the greatest chamber music and concerti in the repertoire. One early attempt was recast as the F minor Piano Quintet. Another became the first piano concerto in D minor. Both these works conjure the drama and motivic development of Beethoven, but in Brahms’ original style. Even late into his thirties, Brahms didn’t have the confidence to write a large scale orchestral work. Finally, he came up with the notion of writing a series of variations, a more confined structure that would free him to experiment with orchestration. This work was the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. It’s tremendous success finally persuaded him he was ready for a full symphony and by age 40, he released the Symphony No. 1 for public performance.
This piece has everything in it—everything he thought his audience might demand of a Beethoven “10th.” It’s in the proper Beethoven key of C minor. It has all the darkness and drama of Beethoven’s heroic period. But it also references later Beethoven, particularly the ninth symphony, in that this piece too is a cumulative journey. Where the Beethoven 9th accumulates into Schiller’s Ode to Joy and the entrance of vocal soloists and full choir, the Brahms 1st culminates first into an alpine Sheperd hymn (played by the horn) and then into a glorious instrumental melody that clearly references Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Like the Beethoven, the entrance of this melody is felt and is intended as a spiritual moment.
The ideas of the entire symphony are condensed in the opening introduction. The timpani drums incessantly on the tonic—and indeed the timpani will have a larger role in this work than almost any other symphony. One can’t help recalling the famous timpani pedal point before the finale of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. I’m sure this was intentional.
Above the timpani are two soaring contrapuntal lines—one going up, the other down. The effect is of incredible tension, as if they are stretching the piece apart to some titanic breaking point—harmonically especially, with all kinds of clashing dissonance, but also rhythmically. The rest of the piece wrestles with these ideas.
This powerful introduction, incidentally, was composed after Brahms had already written the rest of the movement. The opening Allegro quickly summarizes the rising-falling tension and then is off with a theme of muscular rising and falling leaps.
Brahms develops music continually. So in a sense, his development “section” begins immediately in his music. This piece has that same feeling. Everything refers back to the opening. The Second Theme is very similar to the First Theme, only more relaxed and in a major key.
The beginning of the lyrical second movement always sounds a little awkward with the orchestra to me. I think that’s because it feels so much like a piano piece. But we can experience the depth of Brahms’ imagination with the way he elaborates and orchestrates this tune when it returns later on. Here it is so full, so magnificent and noble with the new opening line the violins play, and so varied in color, that only an orchestra could realize it.
The third movement is a gentle pastoral dance in duple meter that begins with the clarinet. This theme develops in variations. The contrasting trio has a triple “hunting song” feel. Discerning ears will notice that this new tune is also a variation of the opening clarinet theme.
The finale is nearly a 20 minute journey—definitely an ‘E’ ticket. It begins tragically, recalling the stretching apart from the beginning of the symphony. Then something truly strange occurs. The strings continue this tension in an extended passage plucking their strings. This tension accumulates in a passionate outburst of bowed strings and comes to a crashing halt with the rolling timpani. And then….a beam of sunlight! The horn plays this Shepherd tune and dispels the gloom. The strings play luminous tremolos above the horn, very much creating the magic that Wagner conjured in his operas.
When this shepherd tune returns in the recapitulation, it is accompanied by the incessant banging of the timpani—a clear reference to the sound that started the whole symphony. But now it’s sound is not foreboding or funereal. It’s clearly joyful—even though it’s playing the same note and just as loud as before!
With this exquisite preparation, the song of joy unfolds. Note that its second phrase is very similar to the second phrase of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. But because the opening phrase is different, we have a hard time placing just why it’s the same at first. I think the careful construction of this theme displays Brahms’ deviousness, both to us the public, and to the idea of having to measure up to Beethoven.
Yesterday we lost one of the true greats. Composer Leon Kirchner passed away, peacefully, in his sleep, at his home in New York, cared for by his marvelous companion Sally Wardwell. Kirchner was among the most important American composers of our time. His impressive bio is readily accessible, so you can read about his marvelous accomplishments and accolades in other places. (For instance, here)
For those of you not familiar with his music, I recommend starting with these masterpieces:
Piano Trio #1
Music for Orchestra I (from his opera Lily)
and his lush Mahlerian Cello Concerto performed by Yo Yo Ma.
As most of you know, I had the privilege to study with Kirchner at Harvard University in the years just before he retired. I have never known another musician that "heard" music as deeply as Leon. Whether it was the way he conceptualized the entire gestalt of the most complex pieces, or the way he would trace the evolution of a single trill of Schubert into its “colossal ramifications,” he was the real deal. He embodied the full consciousness of the entire tradition of Western music. He came to such clarity through his own rigorous studies, especially with Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch, and Roger Sessions.
To sit in his seminars was to feel like you were tapping into a continuous musical conversation emanating from Bach and welling up through Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, then onward to Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg and beyond. He carried all that awareness of who Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. “really were." Tangents were frequent and we often found ourselves in the worlds of physics, mathematics, visual art, and literature. It was intoxicating stuff, and those of us present never forgot it. Music mattered. Period.
He retired from Harvard rather bitter. After decades of passionate teaching, he had little support from colleagues and lamented the time lost from composition. But in the years that followed, he entered a golden period of writing and received a growing number of world class performances. I particularly remember the triumph he had when Yo Yo Ma performed his cello concerto with the New York Philharmonic. The recording of that work went on to receive a Grammy. But as we walked together in Lincoln Center, what pleased him most was that he was being cheered in the same place that jeered him decades ago at the premiere of his opera Lily, an event that continued to haunt him.
Even in the last wonderful afternoon I spent with him this July, he talked about wanting to have the energy to rewrite the entire opera. We spent that day listening to the recording of his special 90th birthday concert at Columbia University. I hope this gets published—he coached all the performances and they are transcendent.
That day he talked a great deal about his experiences with Schoenberg and Shostakovich. I particularly loved his phrase for Shostakovich, whom he said “came fully equipped.” By “fully equipped,” Kirchner meant that Shostakovich played piano on a world class level, conducted more than competently, could read the most complex scores in total comprehension possibly faster than anyone, and, oh yeah, write music on a level maybe a few hundred people achieved in Western history. That was what it took in Kirchner’s mind to be “fully equipped.”
Kirchner inspired and instructed many generations of students. Cellist Yo Yo Ma and Composer John Adams are probably the most famous, but he had an impact on innumerable important artists working today. For instance, Alan Gilbert, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, was a student in Kirchner’s famous Music 180 class. I still stay in contact and have enormous respect for many of my own “Kirchner” colleagues, such as pianists Lisa Weiss and Joel Fan, bassoonist/violist/music historian Derek Katz, and composers Roger Bourland, Noam Elkies, and Gary Noland.
For his students and friends, Leon was both an inspiring and terrifying figure. His powerful comments could lift you to the heights or send you into deep depression. His ego was formidable and he could be a bully. Yo Yo Ma really got it right when he told me he called Kirchner his “boulder.” You couldn’t resist or fight the boulder; you had to discover a way to go around it, or else get run over!
But that all dissolved when Kirchner talked about music. He became then the most truly humble spirit imaginable. And that was the main thing: whenever he talked about music, nothing else in the universe seemed more important. It brought all of us to a sense of high purpose, to a sense that we were participants in this beautiful musical dialogue across the centuries.
Next year the University of Rochester Press will publish Leon Kirchner’s authorized biography, written by Robert Riggs, another marvelous Kirchner student. Look forward to that. But in the meantime, check out his recordings!
Mendelssohn Bio Continued
At age 20, Mendelssohn conducted the revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn’s strong knowledge of Bach’s music was very unusual for his time because to the general public, J.S. Bach was largely unknown. In fact, after Bach’s death, his music remained eclipsed by the more popular music of Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel. Even his sons C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach remained far more popular. Bach was considered conservative, academic, and not worth much listening.
That all changed after young Mendelssohn premiered the St. Matthew Passion. He was aided by his actor friend Eduard Devrient, who in his memoirs, recalled Felix telling him: 'To think that it took an actor and a Jew's son (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!’
The acclaim for this performance made Mendelssohn world famous. He was later appointed music director in Düsseldorf and spearheaded a revival of Handel’s music in Germany. Handel, you’ll remember, was revered in England, where he spent most of his life. In fact, he is buried in Westminster Abbey. But Handel’s music was not as well known in his homeland of Germany. But like Handel, Mendelssohn also became much in demand in England where he performed his own music and performed for Queen Victoria. He edited English editions of Handel’s oratorios and later premiered his own oratorioElijah. On his last visit to England, he himself played the piano solo for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and conducted his own Scottish Symphony No. 3.
Mendelssohn’s most important appointment was in Leipzig, the town where Bach spent most of his life. He became the fifth conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and became perhaps the world’s first great artistic director for over ten years, from 1835-1846. Leipzig, of course, was the city where J.S. Bach spent most of his life, and that must have been a strong connection for Mendelssohn. He championed much contemporary music including the premiere of Schubert’s Ninth symphony, given after Schumann himself discovered the manuscript at Schubert’s brother’s house. Mendelssohn also performed Schumann’s music—the first two symphonies and the piano concerto. And he revived Bach’s concerto for 3 keyboards with him and Clara Schumann as two of the pianists. He promoted Mozart’s symphonies and all the works of Beethoven. He began a special series called “historical concerts”—a bit like our music appreciation concerts—in which he introduced people to Handel, Haydn, and many other Baroque and Classical era composers. In short, he did a lot to build the repertoire that is common in our symphony halls today.
He also invited leading soloists around Europe to perform with the orchestra, worked to secure better financial terms for the musicians, and kept a very high level of performance. The orchestra became Mendelssohn’s orchestra! He also performed as soloist himself on piano and organ. All this was a huge innovation and achievement, and all of us are indebted to Mendelssohn for this service.
For all this, he received a large salary and permission to be away from Leipzig for half the year. Doesn’t that sound similar to today’s conductors? Gustavo Dudamel, for instance, will only be conducting our LA Philharmonic for less than 3 months this next year. Mendelssohn spent his summers composing and performing at music festivals such as this one where we gather. Some of his were the Lower Rhein Music Festival and the Cologne Choral Festival.
In an interesting aside, Richard Wagner submitted his first symphony to Mendelssohn for performance, which Mendelssohn apparently mislaid. That anecdote probably bears relevance in Wagner’s later horrible diatribe against Mendelssohn in his infamous essay “Judaism in Music.”
Later in Leipzig, 1839, a lawyer left a large bequest to create an arts institute and Mendelssohn successfully petitioned to have this money go to the creation of a music academy. Thus Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory. He became its first director and included Robert Schumann and Joseph Joachim, among others, on its faculty. His innovations included requirements for students to participate in chamber music and orchestras, regular exams, and student evening recitals—pretty much the hallmarks of our present day conservatories. The Leipzig Conservatory is the oldest continuing music school in Germany, but was renamed the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy School of Music and Theater in 1972. You’ve heard of some of its alumni, I believe—Sir Arthur Sullivan, Edvard Grieg, Isaac Albeniz, Miklos Rosza, Klauss Tennstedt, Kurt Masur, to name a few!
His duties with the Leipzig orchestra and conservatory were only half his work. He also toured regularly. In 1844 he made his eighth visit to England conducting six concerts of his own works and Bach and Beethoven. He was a welcome guest of Queen Victoria. He composed rapidly in the summer and other holidays. The famous violin concerto and the string quintet in B flat major came from these holidays. Many comment that his health failed because he was simply working himself to death. By 1845, his doctors were advising him to cut back, but performance commitments in Germany and England made that difficult.
Mendelssohn married Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Protestant clergyman, when he was 28 and had five children with her. In his mid-thirties, just four years before his death, he reputedly had an affair with the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. The Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, founded by Lind after his death, reportedly has an affidavit from Lind’s husband that it will not release. It reportedly describes Felix’s request to Lind in 1847 that they elope and travel to America. What is certain is that Mendelssohn and Lind were very close in his last years.
In 1846, he composed the oratorio Elijah in his “time off” on a spring and summer break . His tenth visit to England was centered around the huge success of Elijah. But on returning home to Germany, he heard about Fanny’s death. He went to several places to recover from the news—Baden-Baden, and later Interlaken where he composed his F minor string quartet as a requiem for his sister. Returning finally to Leipzig, friends commented on how frail he looked. He visited his sister’s grave finally in Berlin and became seriously ill, not being able to conduct his Gewandhaus concerts. In October he suffered a stroke and then had a series of strokes, finally dying in November. He was buried near his sister in Berlin, but memorial concerts were given throughout Germany and England.
Mendelssohn’s aesthetic outlook is regularly called conservative; not just conservative in the sense of appreciation for the older music of Bach, but in an aversion to the excesses of Romanticism. He particularly disliked the French composers, such as Berlioz or Meyerbeer (to whom he was distantly related). He was also not a fan of Liszt or Wagner. Wagner lead an army of detractors after Mendelssohn’s death aimed at reducing his achievements. The Nazis banned all performances of his music. And what I notice is that the true remaining champions of Mendelssohn’s music in our time are those of us who love chamber music. Chamber music lovers seem immune to political rhetoric. For them (us), it seems less important that music be important than that it be beautiful. And Mendelssohn never fails us on that account.
Want to know why the wedding march from Midsummer Night’s Dream is played at all weddings? Queen Victoria ordered it played for her daughter’s wedding in 1858.Hark the Herald Angels Sing, one of the most celebrated Christmas carols, is a tune from Mendelssohn’s secular canata Festgesang adapted and set to words by Charles Wesley.
ON WINGS OF SONG, Op. 34
This became one of Mendelssohn’s most popular songs. As always, his lyrical gift is unerring. Unlike Schubert and later lied composers, Mendelssohn tends to let the music reign supreme over the words. Most of his songs are strophic-that is, the music stays the same through the different poetic stanzas. This particular piece has inspired arrangements for other instruments.
BERLIOZ LA NUITS D’ETÉ (Summer Nights)
Mendelssohn and Berlioz
Mendelssohn and Berlioz met first in Rome in 1831. They met again after the first performance of Mendelssohn’s revised cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht which Berlioz attended and apparently liked very much. Berlioz was in Germany touring and having difficulty making an impression. Mendelssohn came to his aid and helped prepare his Leipzig performances, bringing Berlioz his first recognition in Germany.
Berlioz’s song cycle “Summer Nights” has the distinction of being the first orchestral set of songs. Tonight we hear them in their original version for voice and piano. That Mendelssohn supported Berlioz is surprising because their aesthetic is so markedly different. This music, unlike Mendelssohn’s, is not “Bach bound.” It is not ruled by a bass line and clearly functional harmonic progression. Instead it takes surprising harmonic leaps and dramatic textural changes. Its figuration is especially fresh and original, sometimes even harsh and abrupt. Whereas Mendelssohn sets his music strophically, Berlioz lets the text waft the music to surprising realms.
MENDELSSOHN String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80
If it hasn’t already been written, there is a great doctoral thesis waiting to be created on the differing influence of Beethoven on Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Both of them were on fire for Beethoven’s dramatic music. Felix absorbed Beethoven’s dramatic harmonies and textures, but he kept them rooted in his Bachian aesthetic of a continuing moving bass line and consistent motoric rhythmic patterns, all over an essentially lyrical framework. Fanny strayed further than Felix, clearly enticed by Beethoven’s experimental harmonies and textural juxtapositions. In her music she hints at letting the bass line go for awhile and letting the musical motives dominate. Fanny died May 1847, and that summer in July Mendelssohn vacationed in Interlaken and composed his last string quartet as a requiem for his sister. I gather that he was celebration Fanny’s adoration of Beethoven and this quartet has all kind of Beethovenian references. It has in fact the feel of Beethoven’s early f minor piano sonata as well as the later Appassionata sonata and his string quartets. The second movement uses the rhythmic games that Beethoven loved to use in his scherzi and the slow movement opens similarly to the great cavatina from Beethoven’s op. 130 quartet.
Mendelssohn’s music is always finely knit, something learned from his careful study of J.S.Bach. The seams where events begin and end are often invisible. The opening of this quartet is a case in point. It opens with dramatic tremolos and stormy scales. But this opening might not really be the beginning! What sticks in our memory is the phrase after these scales with its dramatic dotted rhythms and imitation. That might have us conclude that the opening was an introduction to this other phrase. However, then the process repeats with the tremolos and scales returning. We expect the dotted rhythm to return as well, and it does. But now it is less dramatic and has a true melody. Could this be the real theme of the movement? We only learn the answer at the recapitulation after the development section. The retransition is an extension of those opening tremolos and scales. And the return to the home key only happens with the quieter dotted rhythm theme. Now, finally, we know that this quieter theme is the true “beginning” and the true first theme of the movement.
A similar game, but far more expressive, is the opening of the adagio third movement. The cello plays a solo low turning phrase before the violin begins the theme. But the end of the theme uses those very same turning notes. So in retrospect, we realize that the opening of the piece was the end of the phrase, not its beginning. Mendelssohn focuses increasingly on this turn as the piece unfolds, increasing its length and drama as an extended upbeat to the theme.
The second movement uses a splendid metrical game called hemiola. The lower strings play a fast rhythm in threes while the first violin plays a rhythm in threes twice as slow above it. This push and pull is a often used, but powerful technique from Beethoven’s arsenal. It creates confusion and excitement until the faster rhythm in threes “wins out.”
MENDELSSOHN Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Piano and Strings
In the "olden" days, before widespread publishing, composers learned their craft by literally copying music. There is a legend of young Sebastian Bach’s uncle not allowing the boy to use the organ book, which was stashed in a cabinet under lock and key. Sebastian got hold of the key, took the book late at night, and by candlelight, copied the entire thing. The other tried and true method for learning composition is to model the structure and ideas of a piece of music or a particular composer using original material.
Mendelssohn apparently did that to a considerable degree. One reason he undoubtedly matured so fast, was that he wrote an incredible amount of music that shows him methodically absorbing the music of Bach and Mozart. Just try to imagine yourself writing 12 string symphonies between ages 12 and 14. Doing that, you have to learn a thing or two. At age 14, he composed this concerto for violin and piano. It is evidence of exquisite craftsmanship. Nevertheless, it’s a funny thing. Let me demonstrate.
Listen to the opening. That could be music from any of a number of baroque composers, the way it begins imitating a short subject in d minor. But now listen to the second theme— it sounds like a student imitating Mozart—a style of music about 50 years later than the opening. And that’s how this piece goes. The second movement has a piano solo very much in the style of early Beethoven. The third movement extends clearly into the Romantic Era with a brisk wild folk music. And of course, many moments in the concerto reveal what will eventually become Mendelssohn’s personal style. But that’s how this concerto goes. It mashes all these different kinds of music and styles together and somehow it all works! The level of virtuosity is also astonishing, especially in the fireworks of the third movement. Young Mendelssohn clearly wrote the piece with his own technical proficiency in mind.
Notes for Mendelssohn Concert at La Jolla Aug. 4, 2009
"Songs Without Words" in E Major, Op.19 No.1
Scherzo from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Variations on "Wedding March"
Orion Weiss, piano
Sextet for Piano and Strings in D Major, Op. 110
Helen Huang, piano; Benjamin Jacobson, violin
Jonathan Moerschel, Andrew Bulbrook, violas
Eric Byers, cello; Chris Hanulik, bass
Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20
David Chan, Cho-Liang Lin, J Freivogel, Sae Niwa, violins, Heiichiro Ohyama, Sam Quintal, violas, Carter Brey, Rachel Henderson, cello
A particular delight of our La Jolla Music SummerFest to get to know the master composers through their chamber music, because it is this body of work that affords the most intimate sharing of their spirit and musical personalities. Last year we entered the living room of the Schumann’s and immersed ourselves in the music of Brahms. This year we spend time with the Mendelssohn’s and their highly cultured world.
Felix Mendelssohn’s contributions significantly shaped what we think of today as the classical music world. He was a true musical super hero—a tremendously gifted concert pianist, a great conductor, an educator, and one of the greatest composers of his day. His revival performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at age 20 spearheaded the J.S. Bach cult that continues to this day to dominate our musical aesthetics. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Dr. Lewis Thomas who, when asked which piece of music would be most appropriate to include on the disc in the Voyager Spacecraft headed for the stars, said “"I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but... we can tell the harder truths later."
This nearly universal consensus of the great minds about J.S. Bach was the progeny of Felix Mendelssohn’s efforts. Mendelssohn was also the first modern conductor in the sense of being an artistic director; he was the first to be identified as the special interpreter of the orchestras he lead. He was truly an artistic director. For his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he initiated a special series to educate his audience about early music. He was a champion of contemporary composers, premiering the works of Schumann and Berlioz. He was also an important music educator, and founded the Leipzig Music Conservatory. And for us here tonight, his contribution to chamber music has been enormous, spanning his first early efforts such as the Octet composed at age 16 all the way to the final string quartet. We still very much live in Mendelssohn’s world.
A funny impediment for us in classical music appreciation is the complexity of jargon, and that certainly includes the complexity of composer’s names. Mendelssohn’s full name was Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. He signed his name as Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. The inclusion of Bartholdy was a nod to his father, while retaining Mendelssohn was a conscious rebellion and identification with his famous grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn. Inside these names is a rather interesting story.
Nineteenth century Germany was not an entirely friendly place for Jews (for that matter, neither were the centuries before and certainly not the century after!). Felix’s father Abraham became a successful banker and made the decision to convert to Lutheranism. He decided his father Moses was wrong. Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn was an important 18th century philosopher. Among his many achievements was a plea for religious tolerance and understanding, as he strived for equality as a Jew in a Christian society.
Moses engaged in vigorous philosophical debates defending Judaism. Many of his ideas formed a basis for what later became the Reform Jewish movement.
Trying to explain himself later to his son, Abraham wrote to Felix "There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius". That was an obvious reference to his own father Moses, who was hailed as the “German Plato” because of one of his books modeled after Plato’s dialogue on immortality, and the “Jewish Luther” for his defense of Judaism in modern Germany. Abraham had Felix converted at age 7 and at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, changed the family’s last name to Bartholdy. “Bartholdy” was the name of a piece of property the brother-in-law owned! For good measure, the strong German names Jakob and Ludwig were tacked on to Felix as well!
Felix, however, greatly admired his grandfather and insisted on keeping the name Mendelssohn. That help explains why after he conducted the phenomenally successful revival of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, he exclaimed that it took a Jew to bring back to Christians the greatest Christian piece of music. In other words, even though a Lutheran, Mendelssohn at age 20 clearly identified as a Jew.
Felix had a brother Paul and two sisters, Fanny and Rebecca. Felix’s close relationship to his older sister Fanny is well known and it is an eerie echo of Wolfgang Mozart and his older sister Nannerl. Many regarded Fanny’s musical talent equal to Felix. She too became a fine pianist and composer. But as a woman, father Abraham, much like Mozart’s father, saw little hope of her successfully establishing a career, and so placed emphasis on the musical education of son Felix.
Aunt Sarah Levy
Felix was a child prodigy pianist and at age 8 already took composition lessons with Carl Fredrich Zelter, recommended by his Aunt Sarah Levy. Imagine having Aunt Sarah as your aunt. She was a remarkable pianist and played in the Berlin SingAkademie orchestra. Her teacher was Wilhelm Frederich Bach, Sebastian’s oldest son—you know, the one that J.S. thought had all the talent, alcoholism aside. Later she became a patron of C.P. E. Bach whose music essentially established the transition from Baroque to the style of the Classical era. Aunt Sarah owned many original Bach family manuscripts that she donated to the Berlin SingAkademie, a music school that the Mendelssohn family generously patronized. Undoubtedly it was Aunt Sarah’s influence that formed the aesthetic core of Felix around the music of J.S. Bach that would last his lifetime. His composition teacher Carl Zelter was the musical director of the SingAkademie orchestra and also was clearly steeped in the music of the Bachs.
But in addition to Aunt Sarah, the Mendelssohn household was a meeting place for prominent philosophers like Hegel and Goethe. In fact, Zelter introduced Felix to Goethe when he was 12. Goethe’s comments are very interesting:
“Musical prodigies […] are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age." "And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?" said Zelter. "Yes", answered Goethe, "[…] but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time, that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child"
Felix and Goethe developed a close friendship. They shared many common beliefs, except on the subject of Beethoven. Goethe had met Beethoven but never came to enjoy his music. As late as 1830, Mendelssohn tried one last time to interest the aging poet in Beethoven's music, enthusiastically playing the first movement of the Fifth Symphony at the piano. “But that does not move one,” Goethe responded, “it is merely astounding, grandiose.”
Mendelssohn’s education was formidable. He spoke English, Italian, and Latin in addition to German. He was a visual artist as well, excelling in pencil and watercolor. He had a passion for classical literature and studied aesthetics, history, and geography at the University of Berlin
The amount of music that young Felix Mendelssohn composed was staggering. Between ages 12 and 14 he composed 12 string symphonies. At age 15 he composed his first symphony. And at age 16 he composed the famous string Octet, still universally regarded as a masterpiece. Mozart at age 16 had not yet reached his own maturity. But Felix Mendelssohn at age 16 was writing fully in the mature style that he was to continue the rest of his life. The next year he wrote his overture to A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream—another masterpiece that is frequently performed every year.
This early leap to mature composition is regarded both as phenomenal and disappointing. Many listeners despair of hearing any evident evolution in Mendelssohn’s music, unlike that of Beethoven, Haydn, or even Mozart. They ask why the youthful composer of the Octet didn’t mature into great profundity like we hear in late Beethoven. But like his contemporary Chopin and later on Camille Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn had a clear aesthetic conviction and didn’t waver in his writing. Those composers maintained not only their style, but a consistently high quality level in all their music throughout their lives. In other words, they weren’t in angst and desperate search for their identities.
A word about performing Mendelssohn—Mendelssohn’s music is even more fun to play than it is to listen. This is not a denigration of the music, but rather to point out that Mendelssohn writes music that delights the fingers. It fits each instrument in a comfortable yet challenging way. When performing Beethoven or Berlioz, for instance, a performer must, in a sense twist and distort their instrument to recreate the composer’s ideas, all while making it sound natural. That’s the magic that happens in master classes at festivals like these. In other words, for composers like Beethoven and Berlioz, their musical ideas transcend the instruments for which they write, even while capturing and even rediscovering the essence of those instruments. Mendelssohn’s music, on the other hand, just fits right out of the box! His piano music, for instance, can be difficult or virtuosic, but he never asks the hands to do the impossible, as Beethoven or even Bach do without concern. For that reason, there is great pleasure in performing Mendelssohn, and that will be evident in this evening’s performance.
“Songs Without Words” op. 19 #1
Both Felix and Fanny composed lyric pieces for piano titled “Songs Without Words.” Felix published his in sets of six pieces each. All pianists study these gems at one time or another. This first one in E major provides a perfect miniature for understanding Mendelssohn’s style.
1) He establishes a fluid accompaniment that continues to the end of the piece. Mendelssohn’s accompaniments are both a strength and weakness. They are frequently complex and original, but their omnipresence can tire the ear and make for a monotonous texture
2) Like Bach’s music, his bass line and harmonies move fairly quickly with a clear function from chord to chord
3) He knows how to milk gorgeous chords at the right moment. The E major +6 chord in this piece is a youthful luminous moment
4) Like Schubert, his music is centered around the melodic, rather than the motivic as with Haydn and Beethoven
Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” arr. Rachmaninoff
Highly regarded for its tone painting of the magic forest in Shakespeare’s comedy, this Scherzo is probably Mendelssohn’s most famous. The lightness and exquisite musical painting became a characteristic of his scherzi. Like Haydn’s witty fourth movements, one tends to always look forward to hearing a Mendelssohn scherzo. One point you don’t often read or hear about is that Mendelssohn tended to compose his Scherzo movements as sonatas, rather than the traditional dance form with a middle Trio section. This more elaborate setup let him run a little more fantastical with his musical motives in a development section. In the orchestral version, the winds and scurrying strings conjure the world of fairies and pixie dust. There’s also the famous braying of Bottom when he’s turned into an ass. Rachmaninoff translates all the fairy effect beautifully with delicate and virtuosic chromatic chords, especially for the piano’s upper register. There’s so much going on, it’s difficult to believe one player is doing it all! Horowitz frequently used this as an encore piece as well in his recitals.
Variations on “Wedding March” (Franz Liszt)
Franz Liszt was a friend of Mendelssohn. These variations are as much about him as that of his friend, with their incredible bravura and titanic conception of the entire instrument.
PIANO SEXTET, OP. 110
As you listen to the piano sextet, keep in mind it was written by a 15 year old. And that 15 year old’s scrawlings from 200 years ago continue to give pleasure to chamber musicians and audiences. The instrumentation is unusual because the string ensemble includes bass—the instrumentation is piano, violin, two violas, cello, and bass. The relatively high tessitura of the piano writing makes up for the missing second violin. This piece already shows Mendelssohn in command of harmony, instrumentation, and early Romantic development of classical forms along the lines of Schubert. It also gives ample evidence for a strong lyrical gift.
The first movement establishes immediately the chromatic passing tones—
F#-G-G#-A—that become a common device throughout the work. To the ear this piece is very much a piano concerto.
There are few startling moments in this music, but one of them is the second movement, because it is placed in the very distant and unusual key of F# major—a fistful of six sharps in the key signature, making intonation a challenge, but more importantly, lending a special haze and hue to all the harmonies of a lyric tone poem.
The third movement is marked as a minuet, but it’s really a rollicking dance in 6/8 time, almost like a sea-shanty. The trio continues the fun with the piano throwing in good-natured chromatic scales as rousing decoration.
Ebullience continues in the finale with its opening piano solo. The big surprise is a return of the rollicking minuet in the coda, a reference to Beethoven’s trick in the 5th symphony of bringing back his ghost scherzo in the finale.
OCTET, OP. 20
What a difference a year makes! The piano sextet of 15 year-old Mendelssohn shows a command of instrumentation and the classical forms as interpreted by the early Romantic composers. But the Octet of 16 year-old Mendelssohn displays a leap of imagination far beyond that. The sheer aural power of the work is staggering and surprising to us even today. The Beethovenian scope of the first movement and the contrapuntal control of the fugato in the finale are wondrous. It’s also an absolute blast to play.
The first movement is an extensive sonata in the Beethoven Heroic key of E flat major. Mendelssohn here deliberately conjures Beethoven’s grandiosity (and also foreshadows that of the future Brahms). The opening violin theme also foreshadows the wide register of Richard Strauss’s melodies, such as the opening of Don Juan, with its range of over three octaves. In fact, the first violin’s emphasis of the upper register in this movement is striking, lending it a concerto feel. The second movement is a brooding lyric piece. The third movement is one of Mendelssohn’s most delightful scherzos, foreshadowing the great scherzo we hear earlier in the program from Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s marked Allegro leggierissimo—lively and extremely quiet and light. Credited with inspiration from Goethe’s Walpurgis Night scene in Faust, this music conjures a fantastical mood. Instead of the conventional scherzo and trio, Mendelssohn composes this in sonata style. The fourth movement raises the ante with an opening fugato in 8 voices! The energy and momentum of this subject is fierce, and never lets up through the entire movement. The elements of the sonata literally play over it. In a continual acknowledgement to Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Mendelssohn brings back the Scherzo tune in this finale, binding the two movements together. Because of the continual fast passagework, the recapitulation is seamlessly joined with the previous development section. It is also very truncated: first theme, and bam! Second theme, no transition. Then in a very unusual move, Mendelssohn introduces two NEW lyrical themes in the closing section and follows with a operatic finale section in the coda.