Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 19 - 24

After years of being copied out and passed from musician to musician, Bach's Well Tempered Clavier was published in 1801, almost 100 years later than the manuscript for Book One that is dated 1722. The influence the collection has had on music, musicians and composers since then is immeasurable

Modern times have not lessened its importance to the music lover and musician. They are useful as etudes for the building of a solid keyboard technique, as well as models of the diversity and creativity of fugal form, and examples of the various styles of keyboard music during Bach's era. The set of preludes and fugues holds beauties and difficulties in equal measure. And as the original musical text carries very few tempo designations, articulation and dynamic markings, various editors throughout its publishing histories have added all kinds of guides for the performer which can shed tremendous insight into how Bach's music was perceived in previous generations. And the original text as written by Bach gives the modern performer an opportunity of using their interpretive skills to bring forth a musical performance. And Bach's music can handle much in the way of interpretive variances, as long as the spirit and style of the music is allowed to come forth.

The final six preludes and fugues of the first set continues in the variety that Bach established in the previous ones.

Prelude and Fugue No. 19 In A Major, BWV 864 - It isn't long into this prelude until the listener realizes that the opening bars are actually a subject. This prelude is in fact a fugue itself, a prelude fugue that leads to a fugue.
The fugue is in three voices and the subject begins with a single note that is stranded for three eighth - note rests until the continuation of the subject. This is a little startling to anyone expecting a more common type of subject, but Bach was anything but common and could be quite innovative within his contrapuntal style.

Prelude and Fugue No. 20 In A Minor, BWV 865 - This prelude is in the style of a two part invention,
The 4-voiced fugue has a subject that is three measures long. The first statement of the subject is in the alto voice, and is followed directly by the repeating of the subject in the soprano, bass and tenor voices respectively. The fugue is worked out with many partial repeats as well as other contrapuntal devices, thus lending interest to one of the longer fugues in the book.

Prelude and Fugue No. 21 In B-flat Major, BWV 866 - A stunning example of what early keyboardists would do when they sat down to play. They would loosen up their fingers, get a feel for the instrument they were playing on, and check the acoustics of the room they were in by running up and down the keyboard in scales, arpeggios, broken chords and cadences. This prelude has all of that as the key of B-flat major (with some appearances of other keys) is shown off by the player.
The 3-voices fugue begins with one of Bach's most catchy subjects, one that is 4 bars long. The subject is played through all 3 voices before any development begins. The subject itself goes through very little change throughout.

Prelude and Fugue No. 22 In B-flat Minor, BWV 867 - A prelude that is defined just as much by a two sixteenth notes followed by 3 eighth note rhythm scheme as by any melody, which gives it a feeling of gentle movement.

The fugue is in 5 voices, and as the voices enter one after the other, tension steadily grows along with the complexity. Nonetheless, the tension created is mild as the overall feeling of this fugue is one of calmly unwinding the music until the final ending in the major.


Prelude and Fugue No. 23 In B major, BWV 868 - This prelude is almost entirely made up of repetitions of the sixteenth rest and seven sixteenth notes heard at the beginning in the right hand. This motive makes its way through three different voices.


The fugue is in 4 voices.


Prelude and Fugue No. 24 In B minor, BWV 869 - The key pattern of the Well Tempered Clavier begins with C major, and by alternating with major and minor keys chromatically, ends in B minor. The complexity as well as length of the material meets its culmination with this final entry of Book One. The prelude has a steady walking bass consisting of eighth notes while the right hand comments and embellishes as it goes. There is a sense of calmness throughout the prelude.

The final fugue is in 4 voices with a subject that is two bars long. It leisurely unwinds as the voices weave in and out creating a texture that while complex, makes profound musical sense in a purely aural sense, as do many of the preludes and fugues in this collection.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Widor - Organ Symphony No. 5 In F Minor, Opus 42

The meaning of a word or phrase can change over time, with the word symphony being an example.  A word with Greek roots, the meaning within ancient music referred to sounds that were consonant, that is, sounds that were pleasing to the ear. This meaning also went through many changes, with one being used to describe a musical instrument, especially one that could make more than one sound at the same time.  In the eighteenth century the word became to define a form of music that was written for an ensemble of many instruments, as Classical era composers lead by Haydn and Mozart codified what became to be known as a symphony.

But the changing of the definition did not remain static. Beethoven expanded the symphony to include more movements and even voices within the form.  Symphonies that more or less follow the basic principles of the form are still written, but there is much more freedom in form. 

The symphony for solo instrument is a style of writing that gives the impression of many instruments. Charles Alkan, French pianist and composer of the 19th century wrote what must be one of the first symphonies for solo instrument, in this case the piano, in 1857. Alkan's symphony is in his set of 12 Etudes In All The Minor Keys and is comprised of etudes 4-7, and while the composer wrote very much in a symphonic style, it takes a little effort on the listener's part to imagine the piano as an orchestra. 

Leading the renaissance of organ building in France in the 19th century was Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose family had been organ builders. He was an innovator that worked with composers to create a new type of Romantic organ that was capable of new sonorities and mixtures of sound. These organs with new designs and voices inspired French composers of the time to write music that would take advantage of them.

Widor was the composer that was the most prolific in the writing of oprgan symphonies as he wrote ten from 1872 until 1900. He was the organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris that has Cavaillé-Coll's masterpiece, an instrument with five keyboards, 100 stops and 66,000 pipes. Cavaillé-Coll renovated and added to an existing organ that was built in the 18th century.

The impact of the French Romantic symphonic organ on composers was tremendous. Many French composers were also organists such as Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, César Franck,, and many others. The organs of Cavaillé-Coll were subject to the changes of taste in the 20th century as a return to the sonorities of the Baroque style organ brought about by the organ reform movement in Germany. Some of his organs were changed to reflect this change, but the grand organ of St. Suplice in Paris remains essentially as the builder left it, as it had many qualities of the Baroque style organ retained during its makeover.

Organ Symphony No. 5 is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace -  In the preface to one of the editions of the organ symphonies, Widor wrote:
Such is the modern organ, essentially symphonic. A new instrument requires a new language, another ideal rather than scholastic polyphony...It is when I felt the vibrations of the 6,000 pipes of the St. Suplice organ under my hands and feet that I began my first organ symphonies.
So it was Widor's intention from the start to create something new. And it was also Cavaillé-Coll's intent to have Widor become the organist at St. Suplice. The builder used his influence to help Widor get the training he needed so he could become the organist to realize the potential of his masterwork organ. As Widor's family were also organ builders that knew Cavaillé-Coll, it appears it was preordained for Widor to get the position. And once he had it, he kept it from 1870-1933.

Widor begins the symphony with a theme and variations movement instead of one in sonata form. There are a few variations on this theme, followed by a section with different material somewhat in contrast to the main theme. The next section develops the main theme, and leads to a restatement of the main theme with the full organ.

II. Allegro cantabile - A gentle accompaniment plays to the solo of an oboe stop that is joined a little later by a flute. The theme is repeated and slightly varied as the flute continues its commentary. A middle section is in different registration and mood until the oboe and the main theme return.

III. Andantino quasi allegretto -  The pedal begins the movement and plays an important part in keeping the music moving forward. The music has crescendo marks in the score, something that the symphonic organ could do by the aid of shutters that closed and opened around the pipes to decrease or increase the volume.  This feature, as well as the overall quality of sound and variety of stops, makes Romantic pipe organ music mostly unplayable on older organs. The important pedal part plays itself out and reverts to a simple accompaniment at the end.

IV. Adagio - Written in C major, this movement is the shortest of the five and travels in a slow mood and in a few keys before it ends in C major as it began.

V. Toccata - Widor wrote in many other genres besides organ music, and was an accomplished orchestrator, having written a book on instrumentation. But this is the piece that he is most well known. It is a favorite encore for organists and is used as a ceremonial piece, as in royal weddings. It consists of staccato sixteenth notes in the right hand throughout, with accent chords in the left hand. The theme itself, more like a motive than a melody, is in the pedals and played by the feet. it is in triple forte for most of its length, although effective use is made of volume variances in the middle of the piece when the music shifts from F major to D major. It has been recorded countless times, all too often at too fast of a tempo. The score calls for quarter note = 118, and since the music is in 4/2 time, the tempo is brisk to be sure, but shouldn't be excessive. But it makes an impression as a showoff piece at a rapid tempo, although the harmonic progression can be blurred because of that.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Alkan - 25 Preludes, Opus 31

As the word implies, the musical prelude began as a extemporized piece that acted as an introduction to another work, most of them for keyboard or lute. This was done to check the tuning of the instrument as well as to limber up the fingers of the player. They set the key and tempo of the piece to come as well. They became a part of set music practice in the 16th century into the middle of the 18th century.

Johann Sebastian Bach's preludes for organ and the set of 48 preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier became the model for other composers, and as the fugue grew out of fashion, the prelude came into its own. They retained the name, but no longer were an introduction to a fugue or other piece, but a work by themselves.

Writing a set of preludes in all the major and minor keys became a tradition that many composers followed. While Chopin's opus 28 set of preludes published in 1839 were not the first set of preludes without fugues, the quality and variety contained within the set rapidly made them the standard.

The opus 31 set by Charles Alkan was published in 1847 and contain an additional 25th prelude that serves as an ending. Alkan's preludes have similarities as well as differences with Chopin's set. Both sets are a collection of short pieces that are not complex in form. Some of Chopin's preludes are more harmonically adventurous, while Alkan opts for descriptive titles for some of his, something which Chopin never did.

Alkan's preludes are separated into three books:

Book I
1. Lentement (Slowly), C major - The first prelude is not complex and is but one page long. The melody moves between octaves played in the right hand. Performer indications are few, and the preformer needs to bring out the inner melody and follow what indications there are and bring feeling to what can be a mundane piece.

2. Assez lentement (quite slowly), F minor - The first section is in 6/8 time and plays out in the key of F minor. The music is marked cantabile with short statements for the right hand while the left hand plays a one chord accompaniment. The next section shifts the music to cut time, the key to F major, while the tempo increases. The music moves back and forth between these two sections until it ends in F major.

3. Dans le genre ancien (In the ancient genre), D-flat major - The ancient genre being the late Baroque era of Bach, the printed music shows how these preludes can be played on the organ or pedal piano as well as the regular piano. Alkan was a virtuoso of the pedal piano, which had a keyboard at the bottom of the piano like an organ pedal board.

4. Prière du soir (Evening prayer) , F-sharp minor - Alkan was Jewish, and this prelude brings some of the feeling of his Jewishness to the set. A prelude simple in form, marked to be played con devozione (with devotion).

5. Psaume 150me (Psalm 150), D major - Written in 3 staves, one of them being a part for pedal board. Inspired by Psalm 150:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
 
6. Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue (Ancient melody of the synagogue), G minor - Another piece reflecting Alkan's Jewishness, the voice of the cantor of the synagogue. The tempo indication is Andante flebile (moderately and mournfully).

7. Librement mais sans secousses (Freely but without bumps), E-flat major - Light in mood and in execution 'without bumps'.

8. Le chanson de la folle au bord de la mer (The song of the insane woman by the sea), A-flat minor - While there are few recordings of the complete preludes, this one turns up as an addition to recordings of other works. It is a strange work, an early example of French music impressionism. It begins with the depiction of waves with large chords at the lower end of the keyboard. The song enters at the other extreme high up on the keyboard. The middle section has the tempo and volume increase as the waves get more pronounced and the song more frantic until a climax is reached. The music retreats back to the nearly catatonic as the song becomes quiet and more fragmented until the end is reached.

9. Placiditas (Gently), E major - Marked Tranquillo in tempo molto independente (tranquil with a much independent tempo) this is the emotional opposite to the previous prelude and brings the first book to a close.

Book II
10. Dans le style fugué (In the fugue style), A minor - A two-page fugue played molto presto. 

11. Un petit rien (A little nothing), F major - As the name implies, a simple prelude to be played rather fast but gently.

12. Le temps qui n'est plus (Times that are no more), B-flat minor - A melancholy prelude, lamenting the loss of treasured times of the past.

13. J'étais endormie, mais mon cœur veillait (I was asleep, but my heart was awake), G-flat major - Written throughout in cut time (equivilent to 2/2 time) each half note beat is subdivided into 5 eighth note quintuplets, essentially making this a prelude in 10/8 time, a novelty for the era. The title refers to a passage from the Old Testament book Song Of Solomon. Alkan was a scholar of the Old Testament.

14. Rapidement (Quickly), B minor - To be played rapidly. It has a contrasting middle section.

15. Dans le genre gothique (In the gothic genre), G major - I do not know what Alkan meant by 'gothic', but this gentle prelude represents the key of G major well.

16 Assez lentement (Very slowly), C minor - A prelude that begins sadly, with each voice entering in counterpoint. The middle section has a few moments when light enters into the music, but it mostly stays in a melancholy mood until a Picardy third ends the piece in C major.

17. Rêve d'amour (Dream of love), A-flat major - The prelude begins in A-flat major, with a middle section that shifts to A major. Another section shifts the key to E minor, and a impassioned chromatic section leads back to the ending section marked palpitant in A-flat major.

Book III

18. Sans trop de mouvement (Without too much movement), C-sharp minor - The indication at the beginning of the prelude refers to only the 4-bar introduction. The actual prelude is a romance that shifts between C-sharp minor and C-sharp major. It ends in C-sharp major.

19. Prière du matin (Morning prayer), A major - Another spiritual prelude that looks simple on the page, but needs the proper feeling and attention to the melody.

20. Modérement vite et bien caracterise (Moderately fast and with spirit), D minor - Octaves and thick, heavily accented chords bring out the aggressive nature of this prelude.

21. Doucement (Gently), B-flat major - The alternating B-flat notes are all that are heard in the left hand and lend a simple, bell-like accompaniment to the shifting chords in the right.

22. Anniversaire (Anniversary), E-flat minor - The music plods along in the home key with deep bass notes giving the accompaniment. The music lightens in the final section as the key shifts to E-flat major.

23. Assez vite (Quite fast), B major - A prelude of grace, to be played fast.

24. Étude de velocite (Velocity study), E minor - The only prelude with the overt attention to technique, rapid finger technique to be precise. This prelude resembles the style of Chopin in his Etudes.

25. Prière (Prayer) , C major - The longest in performance length, this prelude moves at a very slow tempo in mostly block chords. It is a hymn of harmonic richness, reverence, and ends the set as it had began, in the key of C major.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Chopin - Ballade No. 1 In G Minor, Opus 23

The history of the term ballad begins with a type of French medieval narrative song which was generally danced to. Ballet derives from the same base word in French, so both words have the action of dance in common. But while the etymology of the word may be French, the ballad was a narrative song or poem that has been historically found across Europe and England and were associated with minstrels for centuries.

This cursory description of what an historical ballad is has a direct bearing on the term as it is used in the instrumental form of the same name. The historical ballad tells a story in verse with or without music, while the Romantic era ballad is an instrumental work. More specifically, in the case of Chopin's use of the term, it is a musical composition for solo piano that tells a story in purely musical terms. 

When the first ballade was published in 1836 it was considered somewhat of a novelty at the time, for no composer had used the term for a work for solo piano before Chopin. Chopin wrote four ballades (the spelling he used derives from French) during his lifetime, from 1831 to 1842. During his second trip to Vienna in 1831, he began to write the first ballade. He completed it in 1835 after he had moved to Paris. Each of the 4 Ballades are singular works. There are a few purely technical similarities between them, but musically and emotionally they are separate pieces. They contain some of the most  difficult technical and interpretive challenges of any pieces for solo piano in the repertoire.

Lento -  The ballade begins with seven bars of slow arpeggios in common time that serves as a recitative/introduction to the work. 

Moderato - The short introduction blends into the first of two primary themes, a gently pensive theme in 6/4 time and the home key of G minor. After this theme is repeated and slightly expanded, a motive is heard and passage work leads to the second major theme with the indication,

Meno mosso -  This theme is in E-flat major. This theme gets a proper hearing and elaboration, and leads up to the next section.

What has gone on before may be considered as the exposition of a piece in Chopin's personal use of sonata form, as the first theme reappears. It gradually leads to the reappearance of the second theme in a more powerful rendering in a different key. Another motive is heard, and leads to what can be considered as a recapitulation, although the themes appear in reverse order than they did in the exposition.  A stunning coda begins, complete with powerful runs in both hands alternating with solemnly quiet chords until a thunder of octaves brings the piece to a close.

In the end, no amount of analysis slight or detailed will convey the strength of Chopin's artistry in this ballade. Or is there anything of much value to trying to tie the ballade with any kind of literary work. Chopin made no reference to any outside inspiration. It is as Chopin intended; a story told in purely musical terms to be understood by emotions and feelings brought on by the music. In that aspect, Chopin is one of the most Romantic of all Romantic era composers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Schubert - Four Impromptus D. 935 (Op. posth. 142)

The word impromptu by definition implies something that is spontaneous, improvised. That definition does not really imply in music, for the impromptus as written by Schubert and other composers are hardly improvisations. They are well-crafted short pieces for the piano that have a definite structure.

Schubert wrote eight impromptus, but he was not the first to use the term. The first known use of the word for published musical works was by the Czech composer and pianist Jan Václav Voříšek in his opus 7 set of six piano pieces in 1822.  Voříšek and Schubert knew each other in Vienna, and Schubert may have been inspired by Voříšek's opus 7 set.

All eight of Schubert's impromptus were written in 1827, a year before the composer died. Two of them were published shortly after they were written, and Schubert's publisher suggested calling them impromptus. The other six were published sporadically after his death. The complete set of eight was published in 1857, thirty years after they were written, and are now considered to be in two sets of four each; D.899 and D.935. The four pieces of D.935 are discussed below:

1) F Minor - This impromptu can be broken down into 3 major sections. The first section is a group of themes that begins with one in F minor:
The second section is in A-flat major and is of a decidedly more lyrical nature. The third and longer section enters in A-flat minor with alternating statements in the treble and bass with a continuing accompaniment. This section modulates to the major before sections 1 and 2 are repeated. The third section is also repeated, this time in the home key. The first section makes one more brief appearance to end the piece.

2) A-flat Major -  Written in the same form as a minuet with the opening in A-flat major:
The trio section begins in D-flat major in triplets. The key changes to D-flat minor before the opening material returns.

3) B-flat Major, Theme and Variations -  A theme with 5 variations:
Variation I has the theme repeated in a dotted rhythm at the top of the right hand with an accompaniment also played in the right hand and left hand.
Variation II has the theme ornamented.
Variation III is in B-flat minor. Somber chords in the left hand accompany the moody minor variation of the theme.
Variation IV is in G-flat major with the theme carried in the left hand at the start. The theme alternates between hands.
Variation V has the theme return to the home key of B-flat major as the theme is delicately outlined with runs in the right hand. A short coda ends the piece.

4) F minor, Tempo Scherzando - Written in F minor and in 3/8 time. As Schubert was wont to do in his later works the form (which is ternary) is expanded with many different sections and themes within the parts as well as going far afield from the home key within the piece. The first part has 4 different sections and begins with the scherzo theme:
The second part has two sections and functions as a trio. The first part is repeated after the trio. A long coda section picks up the tempo towards the end and the piece ends with a thundering F minor scale the length of the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Rhapsody For Organ No. 3 From 'Three Rhapsodies On Folk Songs From Brittany', Opus 7

Camille Saint-Saëns was an example of the consummate musician as he was a performer, conductor, composer and musicologist. Music was not his only interest, as he also studied many areas of science such as archeology, botany and especially astronomy. He was keen on mathematics and literature as well.

His musical output included works for solo piano, piano and orchestra, symphonies, opera, and chamber music. He also composed music for the solo organ, but much of it is relatively unknown. It was as a professional organist that Saint-Saëns started his musical career when he was 18 years old in 1853 as church organist in Paris. He spent around 20 years in the service of the church, and then made his way as a freelance composer, performer on the piano and organ, and conductor.

Saint-Saëns held only one teaching position in his entire career, at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris, a school that was founded to develop organists and musicians for the churches of France. He was the head of piano studies and remained at the school for 5 years. One of the students he taught there was Gabriel Fauré, and the two became life-long friends. Saint-Saëns and some of his other friends took Fauré along with them on a trip to Brittany in the north of France in 1866. While traveling to an ancient chapel in the area,  Saint-Saëns heard some folksongs of the region and used them as material in his Opus 7 work 3 Rhapsodies sur des cantiques bretons, Pélérinage au pardon de Sainte Anne-la-Palud.

The third rhapsody of the set is in three sections. The first section begins with a sad tune in A minor. The second section is a short musette tune first played on the reed stops of the organ. The next section begins with a more robust tune first heard in the pedals of the organ. This grows in intensity as it is repeated with more stops of the organ. The beginning tune then reappears, followed by a repeat of the musette tune.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Beethoven - Rondo a Capriccio, Opus 129 'Rage Over A Lost Penny'

Late in 1827 there was an auction held in the city of Vienna, Austria. Beethoven had died in the spring of that year, and his belongings were being sold. The partner of Anton Diabelli, a music publisher in Vienna, attended the auction and purchased an unfinished manuscript of a piece for piano. Diabelli said that the manuscript had an inscription on it that read in German: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice that translates to English as Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice.

The trouble is that the writing is not Beethoven's. Scholars believe it is the handwriting of Anton Schindler, Beethoven's friend and part-time secretary in his last years. Schindler was footloose and fancy free with his memories of Beethoven, and was not above forging documents and changing things to make himself look more important in Beethoven's life. He was the first to write a biography of Beethoven, and it has proven to be somewhat unreliable.

The opus number 129 was issued posthumously to the piece as it was published by Diabelli in 1828, but 1795 is the year written on the manuscript, so it is a piece from early in Beethoven's career when he was still taking Vienna by storm as a virtuoso performer on the piano. Beethoven himself put a title on the piece in Italian: Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio which translates to Rondo in the Hungarian style, almost a caprice. Hungarian music was synonymous with Gypsy music at the time, and remained so until musicologists and musicians like Béla Bartók studied the folk music of the area.

But Diabelli knew a good story would help sell the music, and the work became one of Beethoven's most well-known. And the work is still known for the title written on the manuscript in a different hand as it suits the music very well.

This rondo is not a standard type of rondo where a set theme alternates between other episodes, as the rondo theme itself is varied with each repetition. And the tempo has very little respite from the Allegro vivace tempo designation at the beginning of the piece. Each episode and return of the rondo theme is at a frantic pace.

 

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