Old Favorite

Hello all,

Our music this week is an old favorite of ours here at This Week’s Music: String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, performed by the Borodin Quartet, one of the greatest ensembles in history.

The inscription on the front of Shostakovich’s manuscript for this quartet reads: “In memory of victims of war.” He wrote it while visiting Dresden, a city that had been destroyed in WWII. More lives were lost in the bombing of Dresden than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shostakovich was so deeply affected by this experienced that he penned this entire quartet in only three days.

The quartet has a central harmonic motif that you will hear right away at the beginning. It is referred to by the composer as DSCH. Translated from the German tradition of calling B “H” and E-flat “S,” this becomes D-E flat-C-B. This is the same tonal structure Shostakovich uses in several of his other works, including his First and Tenth Symphonies.

The quartet has five movements. One can hear in the first movement the sombre, reflective shock of Shostakovich’s confrontation with death and loss. This gives way to a violent second movement (at 5:18) that depicts the fury and devastation of the Blitzkrieg. The third movement is a spooky, erie dance reflecting Shostakovich’s jarring experience of watching Jewish children dance in the streets of an obliterated Dresden. Shostakovich creates this unsettling atmosphere by constantly juxtaposing a B-natural (in the cello) against a B-flat (in the viola). The fourth movement, which begins at 12:31, expands into a powerful elegy laced with hope. Listen for the harmonic reprieve at 13:09 – this is one of those few moments of hope. After being repeatedly struck with these abrupt sets of foreboding chords, Shostakovich inserts a major chord that lifts the listener out of the pain of war and into the hope of the future. My personal favorite part of the quartet is the elegy, which starts at 15:12. I am hard pressed to think of a more powerful moment in all of music.

Enjoy!

T

Mahler Power

Hello all,

Our music this week is the opening movement of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Mariss Jansons.

This music can only be described by one word: power. Mahler wrote this symphony for full 100-person orchestra, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, bells, steel drums, organ, harp, 2 boys’ choirs, 2 full-sized mixed choirs, 3 soprano soloists, 2 alto soloists, 1 tenor soloist, 1 baritone soloist, and 1 bass soloist. At its first performance, Mahler included 858 singers in the choir, prompting a prominent critic to give the symphony its memorable nickname: “The Symphony of a Thousand.”

As evidenced by the opening bars, the power in such a massive ensemble is staggering. And Mahler knew it:

I have never written anything like it; it is . . . certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision – I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.

Mahler also recognized the novelty and ingenuity of having the entire symphony sung as well as played. Never before had a composer embarked on such an ambitious project.

[I]t is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Here, . . . voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.

The 8th Symphony was constructed from two very different sources: a Latin hymn titled “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a theme from the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic opera Faust. Mahler combined these two seemingly random elements into one of the most beautiful melodies of his career. It soars to unimaginable heights, combining the intimacy of the human voice with the drama of operatic emotion. This is perhaps reflective of Mahler’s goal for the symphony (as stated in his diary): to link the Christian belief in forgiveness through divine grace and Goethe’s depiction of redemption through an unexplainable love.

Enjoy!

T

Reverie

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Reverie et Caprice by Hector Berlioz. It is performed here by the French virtuoso Augustin Dumay.

The name Berlioz doesn’t bring to mind a violin. The great opera composer wrote very few compositions for instruments other than the human voice, but the Reverie et Caprice is one of the few Berlioz works that have retained fame outside of the opera context. Even then, Berlioz couldn’t stray too far from his favorite genre; the melody for the Reverie et Caprice was transposed from one of the discarded arias from his opera Benvenuto Cellini.

Benvenuto Cellini is a comic opera, and that playfulness comes through clearly in the Reverie et Caprice. As the name suggests, it begins with a calm, expansive “reverie” and proceeds to a flashy “caprice.” Berlioz utilizes the musical key to his advantage in creating these two different worlds. For example, he sets the Reverie in the dark, pensive key of F-sharp minor and sets the Caprice in the airy, confident key of A Major. He also uses timing to his advantage when creating an atmosphere of unpredictability in the Caprice. You’ll notice around the 9-minute mark, for instance, his use of fermatas and other time-expanding musical tools to intersperse the violin’s spastic runs with moments of hesitation and suspense.

Enjoy!

T

Bach Keyboard Concerto #4

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is performed by David Fung and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

When Bach wrote this concerto in 1721, the piano (or, in his day, the harpsichord) was a relatively new discovery. It is therefore tempting to think that the concerto was written as a way to showcase the range and versatility of the keyboard. However, Bach originally wrote this concerto for the oboe. When the piano burst onto the musical scene in the early 1700’s, he transposed the oboe concerto into a piano part to try to capitalize on the public frenzy over the instrument.

As is typical of most concerti from the Baroque era, this concerto contains three movements. The first and third movements are faster, while the second movement is more restrained. Those of you who have been with us for a while may notice that the piano solo part is not as prominent as the solo parts from Classical or Romantic-era concerti. In the Baroque era, composers sought to emphasize the ways in which the soloist wove in and out of the accompaniment parts, but later eras sought to feature the soloist in a more virtuosic setting. It is interesting to see that modern concerti (composed after the year 2000) are trending back toward a more Bach-like blended concerto style.

Enjoy!

T  

Borodin by Borodin

Hello all,

This week’s music is the 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.

Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.

The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.

Enjoy!

T

Basque Trio

Hello all,

Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.

Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.

The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.

Enjoy!

T

Rubinstein plays Chopin

Hello all,

This week’s music is the first movement of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Each instrument has a composer that defines it. At some point in history, a composer makes such a difference in the repertoire of the instrument that its musicality is forever changed. For the violin, that person is Niccolo Paganini; for the cello, Pablo Casals; for the flute, James Galway; for the French horn, Hermann Baumann. For today’s featured instrument – the piano – that person was Frederic Chopin (although I will accept arguments for Franz Liszt if you feel so inclined). Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation of his second piano concerto is breathtaking because it captures the romanticism of Chopin while dashing off technical passages with amazing ease.

You will hear only the first of three movements in this concerto. As many of you know, the typical concerto format involves three movements (while the typical sonata has four and symphonies also usually have four). The movement is titled Maestoso, which means (loosely) “in a majestic manner.” This fits with the compositional style that Chopin was experimenting with at the time he wrote this concerto: “stile brilliante.” In the mid-1850s, Chopin and several of his contemporaries began to adopt the bel canto style of Italian composers like Rossini and Bellini. Unlike his predecessors (such as Beethoven), Chopin was not interested in crafting the perfectly balanced concerto. He was instead interested in magnifying the virtuosity of the pianist, and this first movement clearly showcases his quest for soloistic glory.

Enjoy!

T

Scottish Symphony

Hello all,

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 would spend the academic year in Leipzig then escape to Scotland for the summers. Many of his greatest compositions were inspired by his adventures 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 what we now know as the Scottish Symphony.

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).

On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain the layout of the orchestra for those of you who may be joining us for the first time. When you see the orchestra from afar (for instance, at 7:30), you’ll see the violins on the left and the cellos on the right (with the double basses standing up behind them). That’s the easy part. The harder part is what’s behind the violins and cellos. Here’s how to think about it. There are two overall pieces to the orchestra’s structure – front and back. The front – which consists of the strings – is laid out in a half-moon shape. The back – which consists of the winds, brass, timpani, and percussion – is laid out in a rectangular shape. The half-moon includes the violins on the left, the violas in the middle, and the cellos and basses on the right. Notice how many more violins there are than cellos and violas – that’s because the violins tend to play more of the melody line. The rectangle includes the winds in front (flute, oboe, clarinet, piccolo, etc.), brass in the back (trumpets, trombones, etc.), and the timpani and percussion in the back left. If the composition calls for a chorus, the singers go behind the timpani. If a piano or harp is required, they are usually placed behind the violins. Hope that helps!

Enjoy!

T

Brahms Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the third movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, performed by the superstar trio of Leonidas Kavakos, Yo Yo Ma, and Emmanuel Ax.

You won’t find a better ensemble than this one. Each of these three musicians is at the top of their respective instrumental fields. Yo Yo Ma rose to fame as a child prodigy and continues to amaze crowds around the world with his bravado and energy. Emmanuel Ax has dominated the world of the piano since winning the Rubenstein International Piano Competition in 1974. Leonidas Kavakos, one of the most versatile musicians and conductors alive today, has been atop the violin world since his victory at the Sibelius and Paganini competitions in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The three of them have been touring the world for several years now, playing the best of the piano trio repertoire to packed audiences around the globe.

The second piano trio of Brahms was composed at the height of his compositional maturity. By this point in his career, he had overcome the massive shadow that Beethoven cast on all who followed him. He was now writing music with the comfort of a well-established reputation behind him, and this confidence comes through in his music. The third movement of the C Major trio exudes confidence while also combining elements of Romanticism and Classicism into a cohesive whole. There are strands of Mendelssohn in the dark emotionality of the movement, but there are also playful sections that remind the listener of Beethoven’s lighter moods.

Enjoy!

T

Danzón

Hello all,

This week’s music will be Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. It is based on the “danzon” dance form, which originated in Cuba but is also prevalent in many areas of Mexico. You will hear the lilting tango-like themes throughout the piece, but you’ll also hear elements of Marquez’ other passion – jazz. This dance was Marquez’ expression of the melodies and memories of his childhood, but it was also his way of expressing his love for Mexico.

Marquez was born in Sonora, Mexico in 1950 to a family of musicians. He wrote this piece during January 1994 during a period of time known as the Zapatista Uprising. This uprising was essentially the indigenous peoples’ rebellion against the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Enjoy!

T