Octet #2 – Mendelssohn

Hello all,

This week’s music, in continuation of our series on the octet, is Felix Mendelssohn’s octet for four violins, two violas, and cellos.

While we commonly think of the Octet as the pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire, Mendelssohn (who composed it at the ripe old age of 16) did not view it as a chamber composition. In fact, he viewed it as a condensed symphony. This is reflected in both the structure of the piece and the inscription that Mendelssohn placed at the beginning of the manuscript: The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type. These words clearly place the Octet within a symphonic framework, which is helpful when thinking about how to listen to it.

For instance, the structure of the Octet unfolds like a symphony. You will hear a brilliant first movement allegro leading to a lush andante. The third movement, a scherzo, frolics through chamber-music-like textures before the presto finale explodes into a fully symphonic finale. You’ll also hear Mendelssohn utilizing the full range of expressive qualities available to this combination of instruments, much like a symphony might do. You can also sense Mendelssohn’s movement away from the Classical traditions of his predecessors (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) an into the Romantic style of his contemporaries. This can be heard in the dreamy, enchanted quality in the second movement and the frenetic restlessness of the third movement (of which he wrote that it “is to be played staccato and pianissimo… the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning”).

I had the amazing opportunity of performing Mendelssohn’s Octet at the Lincoln Center in New York City while studying at the Foulger Institute, a summer music performance school, in the summer of 2012. The performance took place in the penthouse of the Lincoln Center, which is encased with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that provide a panoramic view of the entire city. I had the good fortune of having been assigned to play the virtuosic first violin part, and I have magical memories of soaring through the finale of Mendelssohn’s octet while, thousands of feet below us, the city sparkled in the night. It turned out to be one of those performances where the connection with the audience is electric. I’ve never understood why such performances occur; they just do.

Enjoy!

T

Octet #1 – Schubert

Hello all,

This week’s music, the Octet in F Major by Franz Schubert, begins a four-week series that will explore music written for the octet (8-person) ensemble. We will begin with Schubert, but our series will include works by the Romanian composer George Enescu and, of course, the famous Mendelssohn octet.

The octet is an ensemble of 8 musicians that toes the line between chamber music and string orchestra. Most octets feature two first violins, two second violins, two violas, and two cellos, but Schubert’s octet isn’t like most. It includes two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a clarinet, a french horn, and a bassoon. This unconventional scoring was because the commissioner of the work, Count Ferdinand von Troyer, happened to be a highly skilled clarinetist. Schubert therefore wrote the octet to include (and, indeed, prominently feature) a clarinet.

At the time he wrote the octet, Schubert was in immense physical pain. As it turns out, he was only a few years from his death (he died at the young age of 31 in 1828). He wrote, “I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this makes things worse and worse instead of better.” He begins the final movement of the octet with a quote from a song he had previously written called “The Gods of Greece”:

Fair world, where are you? Return again,

sweet springtime of nature!

Alas, only in the magic land of song

does your fabled memory live on.

The octet has six movements. The first and last movements both begin with a slow introduction, followed by a high-paced exploration of multiple overlapping themes. Listen for the extended horn solos throughout the first movement. The middle movements feature a minuet and a scherzo, both of which were popular dance rhythms in Schubert’s time. You may notice the original melody returning at the very end of the last movement.

Enjoy!

T

Prokofiev Duo

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Sonata for Two Violins by Sergei Prokofiev.

“Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas… After once hearing an unsuccessful piece [unspecified] for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes….” Sergei Prokofiev, 1941

Thus the idea for this sonata was born. It was written in 1932 on commission for a private recital, but it soon became well-known in public concert halls. There are four movements in this sonata; you will be hearing the second, performed by violinists Alexi Kenny and Brian Hong. This movement is all about rhythm, virtuosity, and aggression. Listen to how the violins trade flying eighth note jabs in percussive waterfalls up and down the harmonic register.

I would also encourage you to watch the performers themselves in this video. Notice how they use eye contact and body motion to communicate and stay in touch with each other during these challenging sections. As a musician myself, I can attest to the paramount importance of eye contact and expressive motion (to an extent) during performance. These physical cues can help the musicians connect through and across musical shapes and can also ensure rhythmic stability.

Enjoy!

T

Parsifal

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy!

T

Libera Me

Hello all,

Our music for this week is Libera Me from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.

Gabriel Faure was a popular French composer in the late 19th century who composed many small-scale works for solo piano and gained international renown as a piano pedagogue. His most famous pupil is a composer that we hear from quite regularly here at TWM: Maurice Ravel.

As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Faure’s musical style was substantially influenced by the French music of his time. For instance, if you listen to the earlier portions of this Requiem, you will hear harmonic textures that sound like they could have been written by Debussy.

Unlike the other monumental choral works of his time, Faure’s Requiem is relatively soft-spoken. Where Brahms’ Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem raise the roof with their staggering volume, Faure’s Requiem is more likely to inspire reflection through its subtlety. He wrote of the work, “Everything . . . is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”

The Libera Me is a perfect example of this meditative aspect of Faure’s music. It opens with a mournful solo that introduces the primary theme. The rhythmic foundation of the pizzicato strings provides momentum and tension. The choir then merges into a layered exploration of the thematic material provided by the opening solo, rising to a dramatic peak complete with winds and brass. The initial melody returns at the end of the piece, accompanied again by the pizzicato strings. However, this time it is sung by the whole choir rather than a solo voice, which creates a spine-tingling atmosphere of power and intensity. Then, just as soon as it appeared, the choir fades into the background and we are left with the same solo voice that we started with, a reminder of the introspective beauty of Faure’s “eternal rest.”

Enjoy!

T

Khachaturian



Hello all,
 
Our music for this week is the violin concerto of Aram Khatchaturian, an Armenian composer from the mid-twentieth century. It is performed by violinist Amaury Coeytaux, who is now the first violinist of the internationally-acclaimed Modigliani String Quartet.
 
Khachaturian studied cello at the Moscow Conservatory, but his compositional gifts extended beyond his chosen instrument. He wrote a piano concerto, a cello concerto, and the violin concerto you will hear today, all of which are based on folk tunes from his native Armenia. An astute listener will note that the thematic and harmonic characteristics of this piece are distinctly Eastern European. The pianists among you may even hear shades of Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev in the third movement.
 
This concerto is one of the happiest, most lively pieces of music in the repertoire. Khachaturian wrote that he was in a jubilant mood at the time he wrote this concerto because he was awaiting the birth of his first child, a son, and had just experienced the successful premiere of his ballet Happiness in Moscow. The music reflects this joyful energy, with its high-flying virtuosity, dazzling cadenza near the end of the first movement, and breakneck-speed ending.
 
Enjoy!
 
T

Sascha

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.

Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.

Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.

This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.

Enjoy!

T

Nuages

Hello all,

This week’s music is Nuages, the first of three Nocturnes for orchestra written by Claude Debussy.

Art can often influence the way other art forms development. For instance, Wagner’s famous Parsifal Overture was inspired by a 13th-century epic poem about King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Symphony for a Thousand), was inspired by Goethe’s Faust. The music you will hear today was also inspired by an art form. Debussy was moved by a set of three paintings by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. The paintings, collectively titled Nocturnes, depicted simple landscapes in various modes of light and shadow. Debussy was inspired to create music that would achieve a similar effect, revealing moments of melodic light through shifting shadows of harmonic texture. He immediately began sketching the idea for Three Nocturnes for Orchestra, the first (titled Nuages) of which you will hear today.

Nuages is a representation of the sky and the slow, somber movement of the clouds. Listen for the fascinating harmonies that accompany the oboe solo at around 1:51. Debussy layers a sixth interval on top of a fifth interval, creating (in effect) a fifth, a sixth, and a second interval all at the same time. When he orchestrates them so that they all move parallel to each other, the effect is a smooth, slightly eerie texture that creates a fantastic layer underneath the dry tones of the oboe.

Enjoy!

T

Mozart #40

Hello all,

This week’s music is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, performed by the London Mozart Players.

Mozart wrote his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788. His untimely death was drawing near, and he had already begun reducing the number of performances he gave. This symphony, in addition to being one of his final musical statements, forecasts the stylistic changes that would soon arrive on the world stage with the birth of Romantic-era music. It hints at a lyricism that is often absent in earlier Classical-era works and begins to expand the orchestral role of previously-ignored instruments like the clarinet, bassoon, and timpani.  

The first movement’s hushed, urgent melody and its luscious accompaniment texture are a favorite of listeners around the world. Listen for the ways that Mozart brings this opening theme back throughout the first movement. For instance, in the development (middle) section of the first movement, he suddenly drops into the seemingly random key of F-sharp minor while toying with variations on the original melody.  

The third movement is also of interest. At the time of this piece’s composition, the oboe and clarinet were rarely featured in orchestral music. Mozart, however, gives both instruments a prominent role in this part of the symphony. Listen for the oboe solo that recurs throughout the third movement.

Enjoy!

T