This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Spanish cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in London’s famous Wigmore Hall.
After the composition and discovery of JS Bach’s six cello suites, no great solo works were written for the cello for almost 200 years. Kodály, although not a cellist himself, composed this sonata in 1915 in homage to the genius of Bach. Ironically, the performance of this suite was delayed in a manner similar to the performance of Bach’s suites because of World War I.
Kodály was fascinated by the music of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók, both of home he had encountered while studying composition in Paris many years earlier. He and Bartok eventually became two of the most well-known Hungarian composers in history. In fact, the two of them made several trips around the Hungarian countryside for the sole purpose of collecting folk tunes. You can therefore hear Hungarian folk and influences in this music at many different points.
The link above only contains the first movement of the Sonata, but you’re welcome to listen to the other movements at your leisure. This first movement is the grandiose exposition of the sonata. Kodály uses this movement to explore all of the main themes that he wants to develop throughout the rest of the sonata. The second movement simply takes one of these themes and meanders through it with a melancholy and introspective attitude. The third movement is a rollicking folk tune that Kodály transcribed entirely from a rural village musician.
Kodály was extremely confident that this sonata would become very popular. He even predicted that, within 25 years of its composition, every serious cellist would want to play it. Posterity has been friendly to him; almost every single international cello competition now requires a performance of this sonata if the cellist hopes to advance to the final rounds.
This week’s music, in the spirit of the American Thanksgiving Day holiday, is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is arguably the most well-known and widely-loved piece of music ever written by an American composer.
Two years after the premier of his amazingly popular Rodeo, Appalachian Spring was written in 1944 as a ballet titled “Ballet for Martha.” Dancer Martha Graham had been commissioned to choreograph the ballet, and Copland wasn’t sure what he was going to call it. A year later, after the ballet was met with widespread success (including winning a Pulitzer Prize for the musical score), Copland created the orchestral suite that you will hear.
Appalachian Spring evokes images of rolling Blue Ridge mountains, open prairie-lands, soaring northern peaks, and youthful exploration. It captures much of the adventurousness inherent in the American ideal. Ironically, Copland wasn’t even thinking about the Appalachians when he wrote the piece. As he said, “I gave voice to that region without knowing I was giving voice to it.”
While all of the melodies in Appalachian Spring are memorable and evocative, the highlight is the unmistakable “Simple Gifts” theme that begins at 23:27. Based on the Shaker hymn by the same name, this melody was Copland’s attempt to pay homage to the Shaker influence on American culture. Since they were writing for a ballet, Copland and Graham initially chose “Simple Gifts” because of its references to dancing:
When true simplicity is gained To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d To turn, turn will be our delight ’Till by turning, turning we come round right.
This week’s music is a piece that routinely features in the conversation of “most beautiful music of all time”: the Overture to Act I of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal.”
Parsifal was written in 1882. The storyline is the search for the Holy Grail and the adventures that arise along the way. Parsifal, who doesn’t arrive until later in the story, confronts numerous curses, betrayals, and other challenges on his journey to uncover the Holy Grail. He is eventually crowned king. The story, which has equivalents across the literature of multiple ancient civilizations, is timeless, but I think the music is the best part.
This overture is a trumpet player’s dream. The trumpet is featured as the primary melodic instrument, and it has multiple moments in the spotlight. Listen at 2:15 for the trumpet’s first presentation of the melody – one of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of music. You’ll hear another presentation of the melody, this time with more harmonic support from the strings, at 4:30. I appreciate the way this video focuses on the trumpet player and gives you a close-up view of his performance.
This week’s music is the Souvenir de Florence by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
This string sextet was composed during a time in Tchaikovsky’s life that was devoid of inspiration. Historians have found journal entries from this time in his life that evoke despair and depression. In several of them, Tchaikovsky doubts his ability to compose at all. It is therefore surprising that this cheerful and upbeat composition is the result of such a time in Tchaikovsky’s life.
The composition is structurally very easy to understand. As a rule of thumb, every theme is presented by a single instrument family. In other words, the exposition of a theme will begin in the two violins, progress to the two violas, and end in the two cellos. Although these voices will of course be independent of each other at times, they always resolve in their original pairs.
We are very fortunate to have some of Tchaikovsky’s letters to his colleagues about the piece. We know from these letters that the first movement needs to be played with “great fire and passion.” Similarly, we know that he wanted the slow second movement to reflect a summer thunderstorm with muted lightning in the distance. Tchaikovsky also ventured into relatively uncharted territory by incorporating a fugue format into the third movement. This is a structural and stylistic marker that was much more common 200 years before Tchaikovsky’s time. However, he bravely builds the entire third movement around a fugal system in which the pairs of instruments continuously add and subtract identical thematic material above and beneath each other.
This week’s music is the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Scottish” Symphony.
Over the course of his life, Mendelssohn developed a deep attachment to Scotland. He spent the academic year in Leipzig but escaped to Scotland for the summers. Many of his greatest compositions were inspired by his adventures in Scotland, including both the “Fingal’s Cave” Overture and the “Hebrides” Overture. During the summer of 1829, Mendelssohn departed on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. He was inspired by a visit to historic Holyrood Chapel in northern Scotland to write the “Scottish” symphony you’ll enjoy today.
You will hear the fourth and final movement of the symphony. (Those of you who have been with us for a while will remember that symphonies almost always have four movements). Listen for the elements of Scottish folk music – almost bagpipe-like – that Mendelssohn incorporates into this movement. (A good example is at 7:28).
This week’s music is the “Ruler of the Spirits Overture” by Romantic-era composer Carl Maria von Weber.
Weber is not a composer we hear about very often, but he was an amazing person. He was a true Renaissance man, pursuing composing, conducting, writing, painting, and poetry. He is best known for his opera Der Freischutz, which is seen as one of the most important expressions of German musical heritage.
Weber was born into a musical family that traveled the European countryside as a performing troupe. He was appointed as a lead musician in the court of King Frederick I of Württemberg, but his carefree upbringing had instilled in him a restlessness and resistance to structure that quickly got him banished from that court. He resumed his gypsy lifestyle and rose to fame as a piano virtuoso before being appointed conductor of the opera in Prague in 1813. He seemed to have learned his lesson by this point, for he managed to hold this job for many successful years.
We can thank Weber for the opera genre, since before he came along, the opera was scorned in most European countries (aside from Italy, of course). Weber’s brave introduction of the opera format into German musical circles is one of the primary reasons we enjoy great operas today.
Since the summer is winding to an end and we will soon (for those of us in non-tropical climates, at least) be surrounded by orange and red leaves, I thought it was a good time to bring back a piece we’ve heard before that will get us in the mood for fall. Today you will hear the violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn from Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” on a 15th-century Italian Guarneri violin. She is accompanied by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s a quick refresher on the “Four Seasons.” The “Four Seasons” is a set of four violin concertos (or, in the more appropriate Italian plural form, concerti) in which each concerto represents one of the four seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi, who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling reviews.
As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the (incredibly helpful) subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.
This week’s music is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:
The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.
Our music for this week is the Divertimento for Violin and Piano (or, in this case, orchestra) by Igor Stravinsky. In fact, you’ll only be hearing the fourth movement, as performed by Augustin Hadelich with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
As you might be able to tell from the style of the piece, the Divertimento was originally a movement from a ballet titled “The Fairy’s Kiss” that Stravinsky wrote in 1928. It is said that Stravinsky, who admired his Russian predecessor Tchaikovsky but also hated the fact that Tchaikovsky was more famous than he was, viewed this ballet as the moment he surpassed Tchaikovsky in terms of musical greatness. While I can’t vouch for one or the other, I can positively affirm this piece as being a wonderful example of the transition between Romantic and 20th-century classical music. Stravinsky does an unbelievable job of blending the newness of the 20th-century atmosphere with the rich and historical folk melodies of Russian music that are so often heard in Tchaikovsky’s music.
Augustin Hadelich grew up on a farm in northern Italy, where his parents were both musicians who tended a vineyard on the side. He showed incredible musical promise at a young age and was touring Germany and Austria as a soloist at age 10. In a tractor explosion accident while working on the farm at age 15, Augustin was severely burned on the left side of his body. After a remarkable recovery and years of tireless practice and study, he emerged onto the international stage by winning the Indianapolis International Violin Competition. Since then, he has risen to international acclaim and is widely known as one of the greatest talents of our time.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is the world’s premiere chamber (miniature) orchestra. Created in 1972 by a few NYC musicians who enjoyed chamber music, it quickly separated itself from the crowd by pledging to never rehearse or perform – or even hire – a conductor. In this sense, Orpheus is truly unique – it is almost an enlarged quartet rather than a small orchestra.
This week’s music is the Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, performed by Mischa Maisky.
Bach wrote six suites for solo cello between 1717 and 1723 while living Kothen, Germany. The first suite, a part of which you will hear today, has become the most famous of the six. Each suite consists of six movements that represent common baroque dance forms: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bouree/gavotte, and gigue. An Allemande was a type of German court dance that involved dancers linking arms and making full or partial turns down a line. Visually, the allemande gave the appearance of a large weave or braid. It was performed primarily by German royalty, and there is an air of courtly majesty in the music.
The six cello suites of J.S. Bach are the foundation of the cello repertoire. Every cellist learns them, and every cello competition requires their performance. They vary in complexity, from simple melodies to rumbling chords, and challenge the cellist in nearly every aspect of technical and musical interpretation.