Beethoven, Over Time

Ludwig van Beethoven is, of course, a mainstay of classical music. We’ve all heard of him, and chances are we would recognize at least one piece of music he wrote. And for good reason. He wrote enough music that we could probably listen to only Beethoven and be occupied for over a year. Scholars spend decades on a single Beethoven symphony. His music is simultaneously complex and simple, powerful and delicate.

For these reasons (and many more), Beethoven is worth a closer look. There are dozens of ways to study Beethoven’s music, but perhaps the best way is chronologically. Beethoven’s music can be divided into three periods: early, middle, and late. Each period reveals a different aspect of Beethoven’s maturation as a composer and shows just how much he accelerated the development of music in his relatively short lifetime. I thought it might be beneficial, then, for us to learn a little bit about each of these periods in Beethoven’s music through a series on the Beethoven string quartets. He wrote 16 of them, but we will examine 6 of the best. We will spend two weeks on each period, with a different quartet each week. My hope is that, by the end of this series, you will have a deeper appreciation for one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.

This week we will be looking at the very first of Beethoven’s string quartets, the F Major. As with most quartets, this composition has four movements that can be characterized with the one-word descriptors “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” “finale.” This quartet fits with the style that was popular at the time, a style that imitated the compositions of Franz Joseph Haydn. Haydn was a renowned composer who served as a mentor to Beethoven and several other composers, and he is often credited with “inventing” the string quartet. His style was light and airy, with dainty flourishes in the violins and simple cello accompaniment lines. Beethoven’s early string quartets adopted this style, and the F Major is a perfect example. You will hear the opening motif with all four voices, after which the first violin launches into the melodic role and stays there for nearly the entire work.

Enjoy!

T

Rhapsody on Moldovan Themes

Hello all,

This week’s music is Meiczyslaw Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldovan Themes.

Weinberg was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1919 and escaped to the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded Poland. His mother and sister perished in the Nazi concentration camps, and his father (an outspoken Polish nationalist) was killed by the Soviet police. Upon moving to Russia, Weinberg soon faced another threat—state-sanctioned persecution of artists and musicians who did not tow the Soviet ideological line. Weinberg was therefore unable to publish any of his music and was forced to make a living writing music for theatres and circuses. However, these struggles did not stop him from writing seven operas, 26 symphonies, and 17 string quartets. The discovery of these other compositions has led to a resurgence in his popularity, and Weinberg is now taking his rightful place alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich as one of the greatest composers of the Soviet era.  

The Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes is a medley of Russian folk tunes. It is part of Weinberg’s Symphony No. 6, which was written in 1949 as a conciliatory gesture to the Soviet authorities, who were requiring artists to highlight Russian themes in their art. Weinberg supposedly snuck a few Polish and Jewish folk tunes into the rhapsody as well. For example, the fiery finale of the rhapsody is a Jewish klezmer dance. There is no indication that the Soviet authorities caught this subtle insertion.

Enjoy!

T

Sublime Schubert

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the string quintet in C Major by Franz Schubert.

Schubert completed this quintet two weeks before his death in 1828. Rather than write a string quartet, however, he added a cello part and produced a quintet that sounds almost symphonic in its proportions. Listen for the interactions between the two cello parts; Schubert sometimes treats them as a pair of soloists, with violin and viola playing the part of “orchestra accompaniment.”

In writing for this unique mixture of instruments (almost every chamber music composition of his time was for a string quartet, with only one cello), Schubert broke open a new realm of possibilities for composers to experiment with. Before too long, Mendelssohn (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/04/30/octet-2-mendelssohn/) and Enescu (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2021/05/08/octet-3-enescu/) had written string octets, and later American composers (like Samuel Barber and Amy Beach) would combine strings, winds, brass, and vocals into even more unconventional ensembles. In short, Schubert’s cello quintet-his last composition before he died-was the start of an era.

Enjoy!

Spiegel Im Spiegel

Hello all,

This week’s music is Spiegel Im Spiegel by the Estonian composer Arvo Part.

Spiegel im Spiegel is, like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, one of the most powerful pieces of music written in the 20th century. It consists of a single solo line (in this performance, violin) over a piano accompaniment. The title of the 1978 piece means “Mirror in the Mirror,” and it describes how the pieces progresses. The melody, which starts with only two notes, is a repeated set of ascending melodic phrases that are mirrored by a descending mirror phrase. The ascents are broken by periodic returns to the central pitch of A. The piano, mirroring these changes with ascents and descents of its own, plays what are called tintinnabula notes, which are bell-like tones that sound above and below the melodic line following a fixed formula.

Arvo Part’s view of musical performance is relevant to the simple style of this piece: “Everything redundant must be left aside. Just like the composer has to reduce his ego when writing the music, the musician too must put his ego aside when performing the piece.” In a way, the musical atmosphere of Spiegel im Spiegel is a reflection of Part’s own view of music.

Enjoy!

T

Octet #4 – Schoenberg

Hello all,

We are wrapping up our series on the octet with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, performed by two of the world’s best string quartets.

Schoenberg is one of the most pivotal and polarizing characters in the story of music. His early career include works like Verklarte Nacht, which reveal his unbelievable talent and his complete mastery of tonal harmony. However, later in his career, he came under the influence of the Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt School. Soon afterward, Schoenberg began advocating for the “liberation of dissonance,” and his music devolved into unplayable 12-tone serialism. Today, the only Schoenberg compositions that are performed are those from his early years; audiences have made it clear to musicians that the unintelligibility of Schoenberg’s later works do not interest them.

Schoenberg’s early works are in a league of their own, and Verklarte Nacht may be at the top of that league. It bridges the gap between Romantic and 20th-century music like nothing else. You will hear lush, almost Mendelssohn-esque passages, but you will also hear forecasts to the modernism of Prokofiev and Ives. A critic from the Los Angeles Philharmonic said it best: “Lush, dense, highly chromatic yet still just within the bounds of tonality, [Verklarte Nacht] can be regarded as a very late example of 19th century German Romanticism, a natural product of the trajectory from Beethoven and Schubert to Brahms, Wagner, and Strauss.”

Enjoy!

T

Octet #3 – Enescu

Hello all,

This week’s music, continuing our series on music written for the octet, is the Octet for Strings in C Major by the Romanian composer George Enescu.

It is unfortunate that Enescu is not more well-known than he is, for he is arguably the greatest musical genius since Mozart. He began composing at the age of 5 and graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at age 13. The international premiere of his compositions began when he was only 16. In addition to being a masterful composer, Enescu was also one a generational talent on the violin (Heifetz himself called Enescu one of the greatest violinists of all time) and a world-class pianist. As a composer, Enescu is unmistakably original, yet accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of listeners.

The Octet was written in 1890. After writing for individual instruments for most of his life, Enescu found the orchestration of the eight-person ensemble to be a challenge. “An engineer launching his first suspension bridge over a river[] could not feel more anxiety than I felt when I set out to darken my paper,” he wrote. Yet the music he created is among the most complex and sophisticated works of chamber music in the repertoire. Much like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/an-amazing-discovery/) (which, as some of you know, I believe to be the greatest work of chamber music ever composed), Enescu’s Octet is a tour-de-force of musical texture. It is nuanced, invigorating, and unbelievably dense; lush, but also powerful and relentless; chromatic, yet intensely tonal.

Take a minute to compare this octet to what we’ve heard thus far in this series. Schubert’s Octet, for instance, could not be more different than this one. Where Schubert’s horn and clarinet lines weave delicate melodies through a soft accompaniment texture, Enescu flies without hesitation to the peak of emotional intensity. Where Mendelssohn’s violin solos soar gloriously over the cellos and violas, Enescu forces each instrument to fight for its time in the spotlight.

Enjoy!

T

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