Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sibelius - 6 Impromptus For Piano, Opus 5

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is most well known for his music for orchestra. The seven symphonies he composed from 1900-1924 remain in the repertoire of many modern orchestras and have had a profound effect on composers.  But he wrote music in many other genres as well, including music for solo piano.

Most of his solo piano works are in sets, like the six Impromptus of opus 5. Sibelius wrote music for solo piano throughout his composing career, and the fact that it isn't very well known is no reflection of the quality of it. The popularity and grandeur of his symphonies tend to outshine them. Sibelius was a fine piano composer, and while not a virtuoso pianist,( his instrument of choice was the violin) he could play the instrument very well, as commented upon by his contemporaries. His skill at improvising on the instrument was good, as commented on by his pupil and friend Georg von Wendt:
When Sibelius was improvising it was important for him to get a few glasses of, say, a Burgundy, one that he was very fond of, because he was a violinist and his technical shortcomings as a pianist produced a certain performance threshold. When that was overcome, no one could have guessed that this Jean Sibelius who was improvising was not an eminent pianist. These wonderful fantasias kept a hold on you from the first note to the last chord and it was as if the listeners were intoxicated. It is a great pity that they were never written down. Those who heard Sibelius improvise in the 1890s, at the time when he was doing it the most, were able to enjoy the greatest beauty that contemporary music can offer. (Text from the Sibelius website.)
 The opus 5 set was published in 1893, about the time of his set of orchestral tone poems  Kullervo and the Karelia Suite. Sibelius wrote his piano music at a time when a composer could earn extra money by writing salon pieces for piano. sound recording was still in its infancy, so many people learned to play the piano for entertainment. Sibelius' music for piano is well written, and very musical. Some of it looks quite simple, but there are hidden beauties in these miniatures.

1. Moderato, in G Minor -  The first impromptu is but one page long, and consists of 2 sections. The first section is eight bars long and played in slow block chords. The next section is marked Thema and has a simple melody played on top of chords. The atmosphere is funereal, with no let up in the sorrow.
2. Lento - Vivace, in G Minor -  The music starts with a slow introduction, then the music turns into a lively folk dance. There are episodes when the music changes to G major, but for the most part G minor prevails. A good example of how the character of a key can change, as the first two impromptus are in the same key, yet the effect is quite different.

3. Moderato (alla marcia), in A Minor - Sibelius instructions are to play this piece as a march. There is a quiet middle section in F major before the rhythmic march begins again.

4. Andantino, in E Minor - This is a slow piece, with an underlying minor key solemnity.  The music remains in a melancholy mood throughout. Volume increases as the piece comes to an end.
5. Vivace, in B Minor - This impromptu glitters and shimmers with music that sounds almost Debussian as it goes up and down the keyboard with alternating hands. As in the previous pieces, the minor key dominates. The music sparkles, but there is a mood of melancholy to it as well.
 6. Commodo, in E Major -  The longest impromptu of the set as well as he only one written in a major key, but the music does shift to E minor in the second section. The entire piece is to be repeated, a test of a pianists musicianship. If the repeat is played as the first time through, this piece could become boring.  A beautiful miniature, simple in structure, like a jewel that a good pianist can make glow with a soft luster. The piece ends in soft E minor chords.



Friday, July 28, 2017

Mendelssohn - Rondo Capriccioso For Piano, Opus 14

No one is quite sure when Felix Mendelssohn composed the Rondo Capriccioso, with some musicologists offering up as early as 1824 when he was 15 years old. But there is certainty when it was fully composed and revised, for Mendelssohn put the date of June 13, 1830 on the revision.

Perhaps Mendelssohn revised it for a specific pianist, Delphine von Schauroth, who was from Munich. She was close to Mendelssohn's age, and they had met again when Mendelssohn was passing through Munich during his tour of Europe. They had met earlier in Paris in 1825, and Mendelssohn was quite taken with her. He thought about proposing marriage, but never did.

The Rondo Capriccioso is in two sections:

Andante In E Major - Modern research has determined that this section was added to the original etude in E minor during the revision of 1830.  It begins softly, and the melody is a Song Without Words, a type of piano piece that was one of Mendelssohn's specialties.  It lyrically leads to a segue to the next section.

Presto In E Minor - This second section is also one of Mendelssohn's musical specialties; music that is quick, light and sparkling.  The technical demands on the pianist are not excessive, but there are some rapidly repeating thirds in the right hand that are a challenge to play in tempo with the lightness of touch needed. Material from the opening section returns briefly, and the music shifts to E minor for an ending in thundering alternating octaves. The entire piece lasts a little over six minutes, and was popular throughout the 19th century. it is still played in student recitals as well as by professional pianists as an encore.



Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alkan - Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Opus 33

Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote his Grand Sonata 'The Four Ages' after he returned to performing in 1844 after a six-year hiatus. The work was published in 1847. Alkan lived in an apartment in Paris, the Square d'Orléans for about ten years and was a neighbor to Chopin. They became close friends, and he became acquainted with many other artists that lived in Paris at the time, including Franz Liszt. 

The work is in 4 movements, with each one portraying the ages of a man. Alkan wrote a preface to the published work where he expressed his intentions with the titles and structure of the sonata:

Much has been said and written about the limits of musical expression. Without adopting such and such a rule, without seeking to answer any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I shall simply say why I have given such titles to these four parts, and sometimes use quite unusual terms. 
It is not a question here of imitative music, still less music seeking its own justification, the reason for its effect, its value, in an extra musical environment. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and the fourth an andante and a largo, but each of them corresponds, in my case, to a particular moment of existence, to a particular disposition of the imagination. Why should I not point it out? The musical element will always subsist, and the expression can only gain by it, executing it, without renouncing it, it is inspired by the very idea of ​​the composer. Such a name and a thing seem to clash, taken in a material sense, which, in the intellectual domain, combine perfectly. I believe, then, that I ought to be better understood and better interpreted with these indications, however ambitious they appear at first glance.

Let me, moreover, be permitted to invoke Beethoven's authority. It is well known that towards the end of his career this great man was working on a catalog of his principal works, in which he was to be instructed on what plan, what remembrance, what kind of inspiration the work had been conceived.
I. 20 ans (at 20 years) Très vite' (very fast) - The plan of this sonata is quite unique for the time, as each movement is slower than the previous one, and the sonata opens with the movement with the quickest tempo, a scherzo. This musical portrayal of a twenty year old man begins with spirit and brashness as the music begins in D major, and ends up with a chord in B minor:

A more lyrical theme plays out and the opening material makes another appearance. The lyrical theme returns on chords in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left. A short coda in B major brings the movement to a close.

II. 30 ans (at 30 years) Assez vite (quite fast) -  The next movement is not only the longest  of the sonata, but it contains much of the extreme technical and interpretive difficulties of the work. It is a musical representation of the Faust legend, and is complete with musical representations of Faust, The Devil and Margaurite. There has been discussion among musicians and musicologists as to how this sonata movement may have inspired Franz Liszt in his writing of his Piano Sonata In B Minor. Eight years separate the publication of Alkan's sonata (1847) and Liszt's (1854) so it is possible that Liszt saw the music of Alkan's sonata. But there is no evidence that he did, nor a clue that  Alkan's sonata was ever performed in public until the 1970's.  Alkan gives the tempo designation of Satanically to the beginning of the music, which begins in the rare key of D-sharp minor and represents Faust:
The first section of this movement proceeds in dramatic fashion with rumbling, dashing music until the Devil himself shows up. There is no mistaking who it is, for Alkan marks his entrance in the music. The Devil's theme is in B major, pompous, loud and saunters in a slightly off-kilter rhythm:
The music continues in Mephistophelian bombast until the next character of the story is introduced, the symbol of love in the story, Marguerite, a woman who falls in love with Faust but comes to a bad end through the machinations of the Devil. Marguerite's theme begins in G-sharp minor in music of simple tenderness. (The theme begins in the 4th beat of the 4th bar)
This theme changes to G-sharp major (another rare key) and also turns dramatic. This movement is in sonata form, and now that the three character themes have been introduced in the exposition, Alkan proceeds to play them against each other in a development section of highly dramatic and virtuosic music. The music of the development winds down into huge arpeggios in alternating hands that traverse the length of the keyboard:
But the music does not proceed to the recapitulation just yet. Slowly a four-bar theme marked et aussi lié que possible (as connected as possible) plays in the bass. It is the subject of a fugue that is played out before the recapitulation. This fugue grows until it reaches its limit of eight separate voices spread out over 4 staffs of dauntingly complex music:
Themes return and are transformed as the recapitulation builds to a heady climax in F-sharp major representing victory over evil.

III. 40 ans (at 40 years) Lentement (slowly) - The incredible demands of the previous movement, both technically and musically, are countered in the third movement by music that is more mellow and lyrical.The movement has the subtitle Un heureux ménage (A happy household). The life of a man surrounded by his family, with sections that depict children and evening prayers are included:

IV. 50 ans (at 50 years) Extrêmement lent (extremely slow) - The year after this sonata was published was 1848, the year that revolutions occurred in many countries in Europe, including France. Paris was in turmoil as the February Revolution in France began to undo the constitutional monarchy in favor of what became the 2nd Republic. In the chaos of change, Alkan was passed over for the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Due to intrigues and politics, a minor musician got the job instead, with Alkan becoming bitter over the loss of the position. The revolution also took its toll on any publicity Alkan's sonata may have gotten, and the work itself was unique in form and technically difficult, which also didn't help it any.

Subtitled Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound), Alkan includes on the title page of the movement some lines from the ancient Greek play about the Titan Prometheus that was condemned to suffer eternally for bringing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. This version of the myth is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. Alkan quotes lines 750-754, 1051 and 1091, words that mirror the Romantic era excesses of personal emotions:
 Ah, you would hardly bear my agonies to whom it is not foredoomed to die; for death would have freed me from my sufferings. Do what he will, me he shall never bring to death. You see the wrongs I suffer!
The myth has Prometheus chained to a rock, and an eagle eats his liver. Every day his liver grows back and he has to suffer the torment of the eagle eating it again.

This myth and the lines from the Greek play set the stage for a man at fifty years of age, a life that consists of waiting for death. The movement begins with ominous rumblings:

 The movement is in the key of G-sharp minor, a key far removed from the key of D major that began the sonata. The mood of somber resignation of death seldom lifts from the music as it restlessly plods on until the closing bars that rise in volume and intensity, only to give out in the final bar that is played pianissimo.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Chopin - Twelve Etudes For Piano Opus 25

Chopin published his second set of 12 etudes for the piano in 1837, four years after his Etudes Opus 10. The second set continues in giving musical worth to technical exercises, and remains popular today. While the opus 10 set was dedicated to Franz Liszt, the opus 25 set was dedicated to Liszt's mistress, Marie d'Agoult. Why Chopin did that is still a mystery.

1. In A-flat Major 'Aeolian Harp' -  As in the first set, there are some etudes in this set that have nicknames. None of them originated with Chopin, as he didn't like to put names on his works, and he didn't like others doing it either.  Robert Schumann supposedly nicknamed this etude. An aeolian harp is essentially a box that has strings stretched across the top of it between two bridges that is put into a window or outside where the breeze goes over the strings and make them sound. This etude has a simple melody played in the top notes of the right hand while an arpeggiated accompaniment is played in the right hand and left hand.
Stretches in both hands as well as musical balance is the problem, as the grace note arpeggios need to be in the background while the melody is accentuated.

2. In F Minor - This piece is in cut time, essentially 2/2, but with eighth note triplets in the right hand and quarter note triplets in the left hand, so a slight rhythmic ambiguity arises. A kind of optical illusion for the ear. The dynamics are mostly subdued, and played legato throughout.
The main technical problem with this piece is playing in the correct time with both hands. 

3. In F Major - An etude that challenges the player with different rhythmic patterns in each hand. The opening 8 bars are repeated, and made even more complex with added notes in the right hand. The difficult rhythmic scheme runs throughout the piece.

4. In A Minor - Both hands play staccato chords with a melody line emerging here and there. An atypical piece for a composer known for his love of singing piano tone.


5. In E Minor 'Wrong Note' - Of course Chopin didn't write 'wrong' notes, but this etude is full of minor second intervals, an interval that can give the impression of incorrect notes. The left hand plays large rolled chords while the right hand plays the stumbling, wrong note theme.

The initial theme is played twice before a new theme enters in E major. This new theme is in the left hand and played in chords and octaves while the right hand plays an accompaniment in thirds that goes up and down the keyboard. This new theme is played twice and followed by the opening theme , this time in a more complex form. Chopin was a composer that seldom repeated himself verbatim in music. The ending changes things again, with wrong notes and chords. Chords are held while the inner voices of both hands play a trill. An arpeggio played triple forte leads to the ending note on G-sharp, implying the music has ended in E major.

6. In G-sharp Minor 'Thirds' -  Thirds are played throughout in the right hand, with the difficulty being playing them smoothly and at a relatively soft volume. The left hand compliments the thirds and make the etude more musical while at the same time adds to the difficulty. The phrasing of the left hand groups in the beginning slur over the bar line.

7. In C-sharp Minor -  Next to the piano, the cello may have been Chopin's favorite instrument. He wrote some pieces that have the melody in the bass and remind the listener of the range and character of music for the cello. This etude is one of those pieces, and is sometimes referred to as the 'cello' etude.
It begins with a solo in the bass. Soon it is joined by an accompaniment played in the right hand along with a counter melody at the top of the treble clef, essentially making this an etude in three parts. Towards the middle of the piece, the left hand displays runs as the right hand plays the accompaniment and melody. To bring out the two melody parts as the accompaniment plays in the background makes this difficult musically in itself, while the technical side of the music is no easy matter.

8. In D-flat Major 'Sixths' - As the nickname implies, this etude consists of the interval of a sixth in both hands until the very last bars. It is difficult to play scales and arpeggios in sixths of course, and that is what the music demands of the player.

9. In G-flat Major 'Butterfly' - One of the most recognizable of the etudes because of the nickname. The bouncing nature of the music can give the impression of a butterfly if the listener uses some imagination.
The difficulties of this etude are the jumps in the left hand, the bringing out of the melody in the right. hand, and bringing it all up to tempo. It is the shortest of the 24 etudes, and if played up to tempo lasts just under a minute.

10. In B Minor 'Octaves' - The piece begins with brutal triplet chromatic octaves in each hand. After the opening bars, notes are added between the octaves in both hands and add to the difficulty.
After the first few bars, notes are added between the octaves as a counter melody. This increases the difficulty tremendously as these notes are held down as the octaves are played around them. The middle section has the music shift to B major along with a slower tempo. Octaves continue in the right hand, and this section also has notes in between the octave notes. The right hand plays a two-part accompaniment, then there is a short transition back to a shortened version of the original material.

11. In A Minor 'Winter Wind' -  The etude begins in a quiet mood, but it is deceptive. After the first four bars, the music takes off as the right hand plays a complex pattern that is played throughout the piece while the left hand makes great leaps from playing low bass notes to chords.
The technical demands are considerable, the interpretive demands are no less so. It takes a great deal of endurance to play this etude. The final bars are a 4 - octave run of the A minor scale. There is no etude in this set (or the first set) that is less than difficult, and the 'Winter Wind' is one of the most difficult.

12. In C minor 'Ocean' -  Chopin ends the last etude of this series in the same key as the last in the first series, C minor.  Both hands play in a unique arpeggio pattern, and after the first bars Chopin throws in a melody in the top note of the right hand.

Snatches of melody interlace between the hands and are to be accented and brought out from the maelstrom of sound of the arpeggiations. The two sets of etudes have a sea of technical and interpretive difficulties that are summed up with this last one.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chausson - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 3

Ernest Chausson had a range of talents besides music. Through the urgings of his father, he completed his law degree and was appointed as a barrister to the court of appeals, but he was more interested in drawing, writing, and music. While he contemplated which way his life would go, he wrote a novel and spent time with his artist friends. He composed music as well, and played the piano as soloist and duet partner, and finally took private music lessons with Jules Massenet, an expense his wealthy family could easily afford. After these private lessons he enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1879.  His attempt to enter the Prix de Rome competition in 1881 met with failure, which led to him ending his studies at the Conservatoire and with Massenet at the end of the term.

After he left the Conservatoire he composed the piano trio which shows the influence Cesar Franck had on him even before he studied with him. The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Pas trop lent - Animé -  The first movement begins with an introduction that introduces dark themes that reappear in other movements. The remainder of the first movement itself contains fragments of the themes heard in the introduction. Chausson modulates his material widely throughout the exposition section. The end of the movement has dramatic restatements of an opening rhythmic motive of two eighth notes and a quarter note that alternate with more lyrical material. The rhythmic motive ends the movement.

II. Vite - The piano maintains its role as provocateur in this short scherzo as it scampers about while the two stringed instruments try to resist its influence. The structure is not in usual scherzo form, but is more of a set of sparkling themes that contrast with other more lyrical themes. It hardly has time for great profundity as it makes its way to its end.

III. Assez lent - This movement begins with a theme heard in the introduction of the first movement. The tempo is slower, and after the theme is stated it is changed and developed until another theme that is more lyrical is heard. The movement unwinds at a leisurely pace and is both sad and passionate in turn. There is much modulation in music that seems to slow down the sense of time as it continues. Traces of Wagner's influence on Chausson can be heard as well as Frank's, and the music ends in quiet repose.

IV. Animé - The final movement begins with a waltz that is far removed from the minor key music that has preceded it. Motives previously heard work their way back into the texture and by the end of the movement the mood has returned to the bleak minor key mood of the opening. With a grand piano run, the work ends fortissimo in G minor.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Liszt - Grandes Études de Paganini

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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



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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Debussy - Préludes For Piano Book Two

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zarębski - Piano Quintet In G Minor, Opus 34

The musical world has had its share of composers who have died young. A short list of the most famous and influential: Franz Schubert at 31, Wolfgang Mozart at 35, Georges Bizet at 37, George Gershwin at 38, and Frederic Chopin at 39. There are many others who are less well known, and the Polish pianist and composer Juliusz Zarębski falls into this category as he died in 1885 at the age of 31.

Zarębski was a child prodigy with his mother being his first piano teacher. When he was sixteen he went to Vienna to study. After a few years he then moved to St. Petersburg to continue his studies and ended up in Rome as a student (and friend) of Franz Liszt.  He began his career as a virtuoso performer in 1874 and performed in many major cities in Europe. In 1883 he retired from performing due to tuberculosis, and devoted the remaining two years of his life to teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and to composition.

Most of his compositions are for the piano, but in 1885 he composed the piano quintet, the musical masterpiece of his young life. It is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Although written in 1885 and dedicated to Liszt, the quintet was not published until 1931 in Poland. The first movement begins with the solo piano playing softly as the strings enter slowly. Although Zarębski was a piano virtuoso of the highest order, his writing for the instrument in the quintet is as a partnership between all five instruments  There are two main themes in the movement, with other secondary fragments of melody that Zarębski blends together into a flowing, passionate opening movement. The development section takes them to far afield keys distant from the home key of G minor. The recapitulation ends with a powerful coda.

II. Adagio - The second movement opens quietly with muted strings and quiet piano in an impressionistic tonal ambiguity. The first theme in B-flat major emerges in the low register of the first violin as the rest of the strings slowly join the piano accompaniment. This theme is expanded upon by the strings. The tonality shift to G major as the piano ushers in the second theme in the strings. This second theme is an offshoot of material in the first movement. The themes return in a development section of passion mixed with delicacy. The recapitulation of the main theme grows ever more passionate until the tonal vagueness of the introduction to the movement returns. The main theme is gently heard one more time, and the movement ends quietly.

III. Scherzo - The scherzo crackles with energy and continues Zarębski's wide modulations to far-off keys. The movement begins in C minor with rhythmic figures in the strings. The piano enters in octaves and adds to the rhythmic energy. The first of two trios shifts to G-flat major as the piano repeats a G-flat major figure throughout as the strings play a folk - like melody. The scherzo returns and leads to the second trio, which shifts to G major as the trio theme is repeated in the piano to string accompaniment. String harmonics add to the charm of the trio. As the trio seems to be winding down, the theme undergoes a short fugal treatment. The music becomes expressive in a section just before the return of the trio theme and the scherzo.

IV. Finale - Zarębski introduces the final movement with a repeat of the scherzo theme in the piano, which is a surprise to the ear. Zarębski was a late Romantic musician that knew his Liszt and Franck well, for the quintet is a cyclical work with this introduction being the most obvious example of that. After a section of trying to find its way, the music settles into another folk-like melody. This theme grows more impressive until it yields to material from the first movement. Emotions and moods change throughout the rest of the movement as snippets of new and old material are blended together. The first theme of the first movement returns in the coda and Zarębski's treatment of it results in an exuberant ending.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Saint-Saëns - Violin Sonata No. 1 In D Minor, Opus 75

In 1884 Saint-Saëns went on a concert tour with the violinist Martin Marsick, and perhaps that was the inspiration for the composition of his first violin sonata.  Saint-Saëns had written sonatas for the instrument in his youth, but this is the first one of his maturity.  The sonata was dedicated to Marsick.

The work is in 4 movements, but Saint-Saëns pairs them up in 2 sections as he was later to do with the movements of his 3rd Symphony so that there is only one pause between the second and third movements.

I. Allegro agitato - The first movement is in sonata form, with the first theme being a restless of shifting meters between 6/8 and 9/8 time:
The second theme is more lyrical for contrast. The development puts the first theme through some added tension before the piano and violin have a dialogue in counterpoint. The second theme is also expanded upon by key changes but basically retains its form. The recapitulation adds even more restlessness and tension to the first theme.  The second theme returns with a light, effervescent accompaniment. The second movement begins without pause.

II. Adagio -  The second movement is a tender conversation between the two instruments. The violin has the melody in the beginning, but the roles are reversed a little later in the movement. Towards the end of the movement, the music becomes more decorated. The movement is all style and grace the moves with a sweet gentleness until it ends in the key it began in, E-flat major.

III. Allegro moderato -  This movement is a gentle scherzo in G minor. There is a feeling of the music being a little off balance due to the many subtle 5-bar phrases Saint-Saëns uses. In its own way, this movement is as gentle as the preceding adagio, and is a good contrast for the finale, which begins without pause.

IV. Allegro molto - Saint-Saëns had run-throughs of the sonata with two different violinists. The first had much trouble with the final movement, as did Marsick himself. But Marsick handled the difficulties as he and Saint-Saëns gave the premiere of the work after its publication. The metronome marking for the movement is quarter note = 168 beats per minute, with a flurry of sixteenth notes that makes the tempo even more difficult. Below are the first three lines of the violin part that in performance are over in a matter of a few seconds:
Saint-Saëns himself remarked to his publisher that it would be called “the hippogriffsonata”, because only a mythical creature would be able to master the final movement. Towards the end of the movement there is a brief return of the second theme of the first movement. It's not only the rapid sixteenth notes that are the difficulty of this movement. There are double and quadruple stops for the soloist as well as notes written in the extreme upper range of the violin. And the piano part is no easy task either. Saint-Saëns himself called this a 'concert sonata', and it became a popular work with violinists and pianists. The movement ends with a flourish in the key of D major.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mozart - String Quintet No. 4 In G Minor K.516

A string quintet ensemble is usually made up of a string quartet; two violins, viola and cello, with the addition of another cello or viola.  On occasion a double bass may be one of the extra instruments. The two string quintets Mozart wrote in 1787 have an additional viola added, because reportedly Mozart's favorite stringed instrument to play was the viola.

The pair of quintets are a study in contrast, as the one in C major is of a decidedly more sunny disposition than the one on G minor, a key that seems to be Mozart's key of passion and deep feeling. He wrote the pair of quintets around the time of the composition of his opera Don Giovanni, as well as the final illness of his father.

I. Allegro - The movement begins straight away with a hushed, agitated theme played in the first violin to an accompaniment from the second violin and first viola:
This theme is traded between violin and viola, and is transformed into the second theme, which begins in G minor but shifts to B-flat major. Lesser motives are heard, but the minor mode lurks throughout the exposition. The development section begins with the first theme. It moves from instrument to instrument as the section remains for the most part in the minor mode. The recapitulation has both themes repeated in G minor, The conventions of the time more often as not would have called for the movement to end in the major mode, but Mozart keeps the music solidly in G minor all the way to the end.

II. Menuetto: Allegretto -  The second movement minuet is far removed from the original courtly dance. It is in G minor, and is punctuated by two loud chords heard on the 3rd beat of the 4th and 6th bar:
The trio is in G major, but still has a shade of melancholy over it.

III. Adagio ma non troppo - Played with mutes on all five instruments throughout its length, the third movement is in E-flat major. Mozart's chromatic transition to the second theme in B-flat minor is taken up again as this minor key theme transforms into B-flat major and is repeated. The music delves back into despair once more before the sweetness of E-flat major brings the movement to a close.

IV.  Adagio - Allegro - Mozart begins the final movement in the darkness of G minor once again. But after the music shifts tempo, key to G major in 6/8 time,  The preceding dark movements are balanced out by this rondo, as is in full keeping with the music aesthetic of the Classical era.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Verdi - String Quartet In E Minor

Giuseppe Verdi is most well remembered as a composer of operas. His first opera, Oberto had its premiere  in 1839, and his last, Falstaff was premiered in 1893.  Some of his operas are the most popular ever written and are still performed by opera companies around the world.

He was born in 1813 and showed great musical talent early on. By the age of 8 he was the official paid organist of the church of Busseto which was near the village where he was born. At twelve years of age he became a student of a maestro da capella at St. Bartolomeo church in Busseto and also became acquainted with the Philharmonic Society there. He played in local concerts to great success and began composing.

He traveled to Milan to enroll in the conservatory there, but was turned down possibly due to his age. He studied with a local teacher, and after that began a life of teaching and composing. His first opera was a success in 1839, and he went on to compose 28 operas in his long life.

Verdi was in Naples in 1873 to supervise a production of his latest opera Aida when the only string quartet of his career was composed. The lead soprano of the production became ill, so rehearsals were suspended awaiting her return to health. Verdi wrote the string quartet as something to keep busy with during the delay. After the delay had ended and the opera had been performed, the quartet was premiered in Verdi's house in Naples.  The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - Verdi's first movement shows that he well understood sonata form. He puts his own art and craftsmanship in the general outline of the form proves his mastery of it. The first theme reflects his gift for melody as it plays out in an undercurrent of chamber-music appropriate drama and urgency. The second theme contrasts with its more calm nature. The development focuses on parts of the main theme for the most part. The recapitulation gives equal time to the second theme to the exclusion of the first theme. The coda brings back the first theme and closes the movement in the tonic E minor.

II. Andantino - Verdi himself gave his quartet short shrift when he said:
I've written a Quartet in my leisure moments in Naples. I had it performed one evening in my house, without attaching the least importance to it and without inviting anyone in particular. Only the seven or eight persons who usually come to visit me were present. I don't know whether the Quartet is beautiful or ugly, but I do know that it's a Quartet!
The above quote may give the impression that he thought little of his only string quartet. That he refused to have it published for three years after its composition may also add to that illusion. But his mastery of the form as shown in the first movement shows that he gave the work his best effort. Perhaps he spoke disparagingly of it so as to not invite any suggestion that he write more quartets. He was a composer for the stage first and foremost. That was where his talent and desire lay. Whatever his motivation, this second movement consists of a simple melody that is given an artistically subdued treatment. A little over halfway through the movement, a more aggressive theme brings the movement to a climax before the main theme returns for another section of development.

III. Prestissimo - The key of E minor returns in this rhythmically biting scherzo, the shortest movement of the quartet. The trio in A major is a song for the cello with pizzicato accompaniment.

IV. Scherzo Fuga: Allegro assai mosso - Verdi calls this a scherzo fugue, which means despite the use of the form, a certain amount of good humor is in the mix. Verdi shifts the tonal center chromatically often, and the music is constantly moving forward until the key of E major brings the work to a close.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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

There is much discussion in classical music circles whether to play the Well Tempered Clavier on the modern piano or on the instruments of Bach's time. There is no evidence that Bach had any particular keyboard instrument in mind when he wrote the WTC. Harpsichord, clavichord, organ, even a little-known keyboard instrument called the lautenwerk (lute harpsichord) that had gut strings and sounded like a lute, all could have been used to play the pieces.

The piano was still in its infancy in Bach's time, but he did play the improved pianos of the organ builder Silbermann and liked them. The important thing to remember is that whichever instrument is used, it is the music that needs to be brought to life by the musical taste, intelligence, and technique of the performer. 

Prelude and Fugue No. 13 In F-sharp Major BWV 858 - 
This prelude is in the key of F-sharp major, one of the most complex key signatures that was made available for keyboardists with the tempered keyboard tunings in vogue. It is short, and written in the uncommon time signature of 12/16 to facilitate the ease of reading and to remove the necessity of including triplet notation.is similar in style to Bach's two-part inventions:
The subject of the corresponding fugue for 3 voices is two bars long. This subject is heard eight times throughout the fugue, and there are two counter subjects. 


Prelude and Fugue No. 14 In F-sharp Minor BWV 859 - 
Some of the preludes of the WTC are fugues in their own right. Such is the case with this one. It is a strictly written fugue for 2 voices.


The subject of this fugue for 4 voices is four bars long. The mood seems to be one of calmness.

Prelude and Fugue No. 15 In G Major BWV 860 - 
The 24/16 time signature and arpeggiated chords in triplets gives no doubt that this prelude is to be played at a lively tempo.




The fugue is for 3 voices and is a perfect partner to the virtuosic prelude. The subject of the fugue is 4 bars long and is heard many times during the course of the work. Some of these recurrences are incomplete repetitions, and there are numerous episodes. All of this makes for one of the longest and most complex of all the fugues of the WTC.

Prelude and Fugue No. 16 In G Minor BWV 861 - 
The overall calm nature of this prelude is given spice by the opening trill in the right hand.
The 4-voiced fugue that follows is slow in tempo and tension builds up by the many repeats of the subject. This tension is relaxed at the end by the ubiquitous Picardy third.

Prelude and Fugue No. 17 In A-flat Major BWV 862 - 
The opening motive heard in the right hand dominates the prelude and is heard in different harmonic guises almost throughout. An example of how Bach could write music by using the most elemental and short musical motives.


The subject of the 4-voiced fugue is short, and like the motive of the prelude is heard numerous times throughout.


Prelude and Fugue No. 18 In G-sharp Minor BWV 863 - 
Another key that was once thought of as theoretical on account of its many sharps, it is an enharmonic equivalent for A-flat minor, a key with 7 flats. It is essentially in 3 parts, with a feeling that it should not be played too slowly.
The fugue is for 4 voices, with a subject that is two bars long. Outside of harmonic changes, this subject is heard with none of the usual alterations heard in many fugues. It is a fugue that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and there is little tension created because of the verbatim repetitions of the subject. Nonetheless, the appeal of the subject maintains interest.


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