Glenn Gould plays Bach

Hello all,

We’ve listened to the Goldberg Variations here before (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/j-s-bach-goldberg-variations/), but I thought a repeat was necessary in order to introduce you to one of the most intriguing figures in the history of classical music.

Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.

Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.

To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.

Enjoy!

T

Appalachian Spring

Hello all,

Our music for this week 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.

Enjoy!

T

12 Cellos

Hello all,

Our music for this week is a performance of Libertango, composed by Argentine composer Astor Piazolla. The performers are the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Astor Piazolla is one of the most important musical voices of the twentieth century. He was driving force behind the development of the tango as a popular musical form, and many have called him the “Duke Ellington of tango.” Much like his European counterparts Bartok and Kodaly, Piazolla was fascinated by folk music and sought to expose it to a wider audience. To do so, he blended Argentine folk tunes with elements of classical, jazz, and rock-and-roll. This combination of influences is a large part of what made his music appealing to such a wide audience. In fact, Libertango is often referred to as part of the pseudo-genre “nuevo tango,” which combined tango form with other styles of music to create a Latin fusion of sorts.

This week’s music also serves to point out an important but often overlooked fact about orchestras. It is easy to forget the individual musicians in an orchestra because of the collective nature of the performance, but we should remember that each of those musicians is an incredible talent in his or her own right. Most if not all of them could probably get up in front of the orchestra at any moment and perform a full solo concerto. To get their position in the orchestra, each one of them had to go through multiple rounds of ridiculously competitive auditions that included massive amounts of music. As displayed by this performance by the cellists of the Berlin Phil, we should be careful not to overlook the individual talents of orchestral musicians.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #4

Hello all,

For the final installment in our series on Brahms’ symphonies, we will hear his Fourth Symphony (my personal favorite), played by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Bernard Haitink.

The Fourth Symphony is the capstone. It is structurally perfect, emotionally overwhelming, and arrestingly personal. It is Brahms’ worldview in a piece of music, saturated with sadness, joy, hopelessness, and an occasional burst of inspiration.

This was the first full symphony I ever performed. It was in 2008, I was 15, and the conductor of the Chicago Lyric Opera was conducting the NH All-State Orchestra. During the first evening of rehearsals, he mercilessly drilled us on the technical elements of the symphony. On the second day, he stretched our expressive capacity to its limit. In the concert the following day, he found a way to let the orchestra loose. It was magical.

Here’s what to listen for in each movement:

  • The opening melody is timeless. It returns over and over again, each time sweeping into the spotlight with an overwhelming and graceful swell. Listen for the melancholy sighs of the violins that ride on the rolling notes of the cellos.
  • The fanfare at the opening is just a introduction; the real melody starts at 13:18 (with the secondary theme starting at 15:27) and seems to calm the agitated atmosphere of the dark first movement. In my humble opinion, this theme may just be Brahms’ loveliest.
  • In homage to Beethoven, the third movement is a dance. It was so popular at the premiere that the audience ask that it be repeated as the encore. It is the lone moment of cheerfulness in the entire symphony.
  • The fourth movement is a Ciaconna (a form of Baroque dance). The opening theme is built on a simple ascending scale that Brahms then proceeded to write 34 variations for. This movement returns to the darkness of the first movement, then descends to even darker depths.

Enjoy!

T

Mendelssohn Octet

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”).

Enjoy!

T

P.S. Check out the new Archives feature at the bottom of every page! It lists all of the past posts in a condensed and chronological order.

Brahms Symphony #3

Hello all,

In our first two installments of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, we learned about the difficulty he had escaping the shadow of the great Beethoven. We saw how he agonized over his first symphony for more than a decade largely because of his fear of not measuring up to Beethoven’s standard. We then saw how his second symphony was the beginning of his liberation from this shadow. His third symphony, however, convinced even his most vocal critics that he was on par with Beethoven. One of them even wrote that this third Symphony was “Brahms’ Eroica.” (The Eroica Symphony is one of Beethoven’s most monumental compositions). Another hailed it as being “as close to musical perfection” as he had ever heard.

Here are a few things to listen for:

  • You may recall that the second symphony began with a very simple three-note motif: D, C sharp, D. As it turns out, Brahms utilized three-note motifs many times throughout his composing career. For instance, he wrote an entire sonata for the great violinist Joseph Joachim based on the notes F, A, and E (we actually still refer to the sonata as the “F-A-E Sonata”), which he took from Joachim’s life motto: “Free, but lonely” (in German, Frei Aber Einsam). Before writing the third symphony, Brahms declared himself “Free, but happy” (Frei Aber Froh) and subsequently based the entire symphony off of a three-note motif that consists of the notes F, A, and F.
  • Most compositions involving orchestras end in dramatic fashion, with trumpets blasting and timpani clamoring. This symphony is wonderful because it ends the symphony in pianissimo.
  • Brahms must truly have been high on life when he wrote the symphony, for he throws the listener an abundance of musical “curveballs.” For instance, there is no slow movement in the symphony; all of the movements are at roughly the same tempo. In all my years of ensemble performance, I can’t think of another symphony in which that is true.
  • The third movement is the most famous and well-loved part of the symphony. If you listen to anything, listen to that. It starts at minute 22.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #2

Hello all,

We are returning this week to our series on the symphonies of Johannes Brahms. This week we will hear his second symphony, performed by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

Brahms composed this symphony in less than a year, which is astonishing given that the first symphony took fifteen years to complete. It seems that Brahms gained confidence after publishing his first symphony, perhaps because it finally freed him from the shadow of Beethoven.

The symphony begins very simply. The cellos carry the first three notes (D, C sharp, D), and the French horns lay a melody over this foundation. Throughout the course of the symphony, Brahms expands on these three notes in a variety of ways. Listen for the many ways he uses this miniature motif (hint: it gets recycled quite often in the winds and brass). The cellos also open the second movement, but this time the theme is darker and more complex. The third movement, much like many of his violin and cello sonatas, departs completely from the somber tones of the earlier movements and juxtaposes a solo oboe line with cheerful pizzicato in the strings. The fourth movement combines the dark atmosphere of the second movement with the energy of the third.

Enjoy!

T

Christmas Concerto

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.

The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.

There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Symphony #1


 

Hello all, 

We are continuing our series on the symphonic works of Johannes Brahms this week with his first symphony.

Brahms was a perfectionist. He would regularly destroy his compositions and left hundreds of them unpublished because he was not satisfied with them. The first symphony is no exception – it appears that he drafted it no less than ten different times over the course of eight years. Since it was his first symphony, Brahms felt an incredible amount of pressure to live up to the legacies of Haydn and Beethoven, the two composers to which he was most often compared.

It would be difficult to find a more dramatic and emotional theme then the opening of the first movement of the symphony. It is perpetually building, a gradual but never-ending ascent. The timpani and brass provide a sense of overwhelming power unmatched in any of his other symphonies. Listen for the way that Brahms contrasts this awe-inspiring explosion with the delicacy of the woodwinds when they show us the initial melody for the first time at around 2:05. You may also notice the significant tonal change to B major around the 9:57 mark. This is Brahms’ way of throwing the listener a curveball, but he mercifully incorporates elements of the main theme into the transition so that we don’t get too confused 🙂

Enjoy!

T  

Brahms Requiem

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the second movement of the German Requiem by Brahms. This week also marks the beginning of a new series on the music of Johannes Brahms. In particular, I want to focus on his larger works, such as the Requiem and his four symphonies.

The Requiem is based on the following set of verses:

Blessed are they that mourn

Behold, all flesh is as the grass

Lord, let me know mine end

How lovely are thy dwellings

Ye now have sorrow

For we have here no abiding city

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.

The verses above, which Brahms chose himself from both the Old and New Testaments, is clearly focused on themes of death and mourning. However, there is a consistent message of hope throughout the Requiem, and there is a widespread consensus that Brahms intended this piece to be a comfort for the living rather than a memorial for the dead.

It is likely that he wrote this piece in memory of both his mother and his dear friend Robert Schumann, both of whom died shortly before the composition of this piece. In fact, Brahms wrote the following words about the Requiem after its first performance:

“If you were to consider the situation and how it relates particularly to me, you would know how much and how profoundly a piece like the Requiem is altogether Schumann’s and how, in the secret recesses of my mind, it therefore had to seem quite self-evident to me that it would indeed be sung to him.”

The second movement, written in the especially dark key of B-flat minor, is the funeral march portion of the Requiem. While the later movements of the Requiem (which you are more than welcome to listen to at your leisure) depict the acceptance stage, this movement is fully saturated in the despair of loss. The tenor and bass parts are the foundation of the funeral march, and they repeatedly sing the words “Behold, all flesh is as the grass.” There is a persistence emphasis throughout this movement on the inevitability of our fate.

However, Brahms provides the listener with a brief respite during the middle of the movement, when he transitions to a lighter and more uplifting episode focused on the words “But yet the Lord’s word standeth forever.” These words and the brightness of this section are an excellent example of Brahms’ desire to, as noted above, comfort the living rather than mourn the dead.

The ending of this movement is particularly interesting. You will notice that it does not end in the somber darkness in which it begins. In many ways, this ending is the beginning of the transition from grief to acceptance. It is interesting to note that, despite the persistent focus on fate and grieving in the previous verses, the last words of this movement are simply “Eternal Joy.”

Enjoy!

T