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.
I have some troubling news for you. It appears we’ve been beseiged by our long-time nemesis “That Random Guy.”
Those of you who have been around for a while may remember his unfavorable credentials. Critics have compared his musical endeavors to the honking of a shorted horn in a 1971 pink-laminate Model T, the braying of a seizure-prone yearling donkey, the croaking of an aged pond toad, and the intestinal noises supposedly made by hungry Martians. He has been cut from multiple low-ranking orchestral engagements, including the Bottom-Notch Symphony, the Last Resort Philharmonic, and the No-Hope-on-Earth Ensemble. His professional collaborations have been a consistent disaster, as he has only landed one performance – the one you are about to hear – and the audience members were paid (otherwise known as bribed) to attend. In sum, we can expect a rough road ahead. All I can do is wish you luck.
In all seriousness, this week’s music is Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate, performed by yours truly with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Princiotti. This May 2009 performance was the result of my success in a concerto competition the year before, and it was one of the highlights of my musical life.
Sarasate was a 19th century Spanish virtuoso who wrote a number of showpieces for violin and orchestra. Carmen Fantasy is one of his most popular works because it overlaid themes from the opera Carmen with dazzling violin pyrotechnics. You will hear five movements, each of which is built on a theme from the opera, and each of which showcases different virtuosic aspects of the violin – left-hand pizzicato, flying 16th-note passages, complex chords at high speed, fingered harmonics, and more.
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 Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Sergei Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and disapproved of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. The clarinet features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.
It’s a few days late, but I thought we could use this week’s music to celebrate American music in honor of July 4th. Today, we will hear Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Aaron Copland, often referred to as the “Dean of American Music,” did more to capture the essence of the American spirit in music than any other composer. His works include the ballet Appalachian Spring (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945), the ballet Billy the Kid, the orchestral work Lincoln Portrait, and the score for the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.
Copland wrote Fanfare for the Common Man in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. “I sort of remember how I got the idea of writing Fanfare for the Common Man,” he wrote. “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Although the work is only three minutes long, Fanfare for the Common Man packs a serious punch. It starts with percussive drums, then features the trumpets, the French horns, trombones, and tuba in a stirring melody resembling a call to arms. You can also hear a version of the Fanfare for the Common Man in the opening bars of Copland’s famous Third Symphony (1946).
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Minor for violin and piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is probably most famous for his Peer Gynt Suite, but he didn’t see it that way. In his view, his three violin sonatas were his best works because they represented the three stages he went through in his development as a composer. “They represent periods in my development,” he wrote, “the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.” Of the three sonatas, the third sonata remains the most widely performed.
As a Romantic-era composer, Grieg wrote music that practically bursts with lyricism and drama. The third sonata is no exception. The first movement, for instance, opens with a dark C-minor theme but eventually gives way to two motifs that seem to outdo each other in their tranquility, tenderness, and beauty. Another lyrical theme opens the second movement (although be sure to listen for the dance section Grieg inserts as a surprise). Again, the third movement features a sweet, songful melody that is juxtaposed with a muscular recapitulation of the first movement’s theme. The finale features many of the Norwegian folk tunes Grieg was known to adore.