New Series: Chopin Noctures

Hello all,

We start a new series today with the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. He wrote 21 of them, but we will be focusing on a select few that I think convey an accurate sense of the Nocturnes as a whole.

We are very fortunate to have Chopin’s notes on these pieces. He wrote that each Nocturne “bears our thoughts . . . toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation.” Chopin is very clear: these works are meant to escort us into worlds of deep personal reflection.  

The first Nocturne, which you will hear today, is the perfect example of this. It emerges from silence and leaves us in silence. Rolling gracefully along with the listener’s reflections, it surges to an appassionata middle section before retreating to its pensive starting point. Many commentators have described its ability to put the listener in a trance.

There’s a very surprisingly operatic aspect to this music that I would encourage you to listen for. Chopin studied in Warsaw, Poland, where Italian bel canto opera was wildly popular. It is almost certain that he listened to many operas during his time there, and several of the upper lines in his Nocturnes resemble bel canto soprano lines.

Enjoy!

T

Why?

I began writing This Week’s Music in May 2015 at the suggestion of my college roommate.

Now, over five years later, This Week’s Music has subscribers from all over the world. My roommate’s curiosity has become a weekly tradition for a global community.

We’ve covered a lot of ground since 2015. We’ve explored every nook and cranny of the musical repertoire, revisited timeless classics, and challenged ourselves with new ideas. We’ve learned about the different eras of music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern), the tendency of sonatas to recapitulate their original themes, and the fact that Handel’s Messiah isn’t actually a Christmas piece. We’ve worked through a wide variety of series: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Chopin’s Ballades, and even a Top 25 Greatest Hits list.

So after all this, it may seem strange to finally ask the question we probably should have started with: why listen to this stuff?

It’s no secret that classical music isn’t exactly in vogue. Most members of modern culture view it as outdated, boring, and irrelevant. The project of This Week’s Music – to make classical accessible – is therefore an uphill climb, to say the least.

I would argue, however, that there are many excellent reasons to listen to classical music. I believe it holds value for the development of the mind, the cultivation of the tastes, and the expression of intellectual curiosity.

So without further ado, here are top four reasons you should listen to classical music.

First, classical music sharpens the mind. It is an intellectual endeavor. Try mastering Bach’s counterpoint. Or figuring out the harmonic roller coaster in a Shostakovich string quartet. Even the most devoted PhDs haven’t been able to fully grasp those things. Listening to it therefore requires intellectual engagement and effort.

This intellectual aspect is notably absent from modern music, which is harmonically, melodically, and organizationally simple. It commonly revolves around a grand total of three or four chords, repeated in the same cycle with no variation. As in intellectual endeavor, modern music stands no chance next to a 100-musician Mahler symphony, a literal tour-de-force of human emotion.

Second, classical music expands the tastes. The variety in classical music is unduplicated by any other genre of music. There is almost no similarity between Thomas Ades (currently alive) and Archangelo Corelli (A.D. 1660), yet both composers are within the realm of classical music. This incredible breadth challenges the listener to expand their mind and explore different aspects of musicality.

Modern music, on the other hand, has almost no variety. As mentioned above, most modern music involves only a few simple chords rotated over and over again in the same pattern. The voice of the singer changes, but not much else. Don’t get me wrong – modern music can be great. We love The Beatles for a reason. My point is simply that modern music cannot hope to offer us the level of intellectual and aesthetic engagement that classical music can.

Third, classical music makes us attuned to beauty. There is nothing like the heart-breaking opening of Tchaikovsky’s piano trio (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/04/27/tchaikovsky-piano-trio/) or the delicacy of a Chopin Nocturne (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/03/21/top-25-22-nocturne/). Classical music can transport you to other worlds, as in the case of the magical Moonlight Sonata (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/01/top-25-16-moonlight-sonata/) or the world-famous Nutcracker ballet. It can move us to tears, as is often the case with Brahms’ Requiem (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/12/01/brahms-requiem/). This is the kind of music that shows you what beauty is. And I’m not alone in saying so – luminaries from Galileo to Albert Einstein have said the same.  

Certain types of modern music, on the other hand, often display vulgarity and baseness that are memorable primarily because of their lack of beauty. There are sadly a great many examples to choose from.

Fourth and finally, classical music ties us back to the great minds and great traditions of the past, on whose shoulders we stand. In this way it provides us with timeless wisdom. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances paint a picture of his beloved Czech countryside; Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake sweeps us into the legendary world of Russian folklore; and Smetana’s Ma Vlast helps us understand the pride that many earlier civilizations had in their national heritage. By listening to music from all of these great composers, we gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty that has come before us. And appreciating the beauty that has come before us gives us a solid foundation on which to create beauty in the present.

Classical music is worth our time and investment. It sharpens our minds, expands our tastes, attunes our minds to beauty, and connects us with the great minds of the past. Beethoven was correct to say that it can change the world, but I think it’s more important work is within each one of us. Little by little, it can bring us closer to an understanding of beauty that can, in turn, help us create beauty in the world around us.

See you in three weeks (I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks) for a new series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano!

Attaboy

Hello all,

This week’s music takes us off the beaten path a little bit. We will be listening to Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Edgar Meyer (double bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Chris Thile (mandolin) play “Attaboy,” from their 2011 album The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

Classical music follows may be surprised to see Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer in this collaboration. They are both known more for their renditions of classical concertos than fiddle tunes. However, they decided to branch out and partnered with renowned bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan and Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile to produce what ended up becoming a Grammy-award-winning album.

“Attaboy” perfectly exemplifies the free-form style of this album. It blends classical, fiddle, funk, and Celtic influences into a bluegrass-type melody. Notice the incorporation of the jazz-like solos for each instrument. In more ways than one, The Goat Rodeo Sessions brings together elements from a wide range of musical genres.  

By the way, what is a goat rodeo? Yo-Yo Ma explains it this way: “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.”

Whatever you say, Yo-Yo.

Enjoy!

T

Skittles

Hello all,

Our music this week is the “Kegelstatt” trio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It features three instruments that are not commonly associated with one another: piano, clarinet, and viola.

Mozart apparently loved to play “skittles,” which is his era’s name for what we now call bowling. The contestants threw or rolled a wooden ball or disk in an attempt to knock down a row of nine pins. The manuscript for the Trio contains the inscription: “Wien den 27.t Julius 1786 untern Kegelscheiben” (which translates as “Vienna, 27th July 1786 while playing skittles”). “Kegelstatt” literally means “The Skittles Trio.”

Like most trios of Mozart’s time period, this trio has three movements. The first is Andante (a gently flowing tempo) that begins with an iconic five-note ornamental figure. Listen for the repetition of that five-note figure throughout the entire sonata. The second movement is a Menuet that is predominantly a conversation between the clarinet and the viola. Mozart experiments with chromaticism here (the playing of successive half-steps to create an erie, unsettling atmosphere). The third movement, Rondo, is structured with a returning theme: A-B-A-C-A-D-A. Between the B, C, and D developments, the A theme returns. Listen for the fascinating ways in which Mozart recycles the A theme with a different flourish each time.

Enjoy!

T  

Nessun Dorma

Our music this week is the famous Nessun Dorma aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” It is performed by Jonas Kaufmann, the world’s greatest living tenor. Made famous by Pavarotti, it is one of the most well-known pieces in the entire opera repertoire.

The words “nessun dorma” are translated as “none shall sleep.” In the opera, Princess Turandot says to her subjects that “no one shall sleep tonight” until they find out who her lover is. She doesn’t want to know his name because she is interested in him; she wants to know his name so she can have him killed. Apparently Princess Turandot was quite interested in remaining single. At this point, the hero of the story (the tenor) breaks into the aria that you will hear today, saying that while no one will sleep tonight, he will win the Princess’ hand in the morning. Sure enough, after a sleepless and bloodthirsty night, the Princess comes to him and says that she has found love with him.

This opera is more than just a sappy and somewhat morbid love story. It is also a powerful piece of cultural commentary. Puccini wrote it in 1920 after the upheaval of World War I. This was a time in which many people were questioning whether love and beauty still existed. He sought to answer this question through the opera Turandot, which depicts love and hope eventually shining through the darkness and brutality of Princess Turandot’s cruel kingdom. By the end of his life, this paradox had become a theme in nearly every single one of Puccini’s operas.

Enjoy!

T

Bartok By Myself

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Violin by Bela Bartok, performed by the Albanian virtuoso Tedi Papavrami.

The mid-20th-century violinist Yehudi Menuhin asked Bartok to write a solo violin sonata for him to perform. Bartok was undergoing treatment for leukemia in Asheville, North Carolina, but he nonetheless agreed to write the sonata. When he showed the score to Menuhin for the first time, Menuhin was stunned. The piece was unplayable, he said. After a few revisions, Menuhin finally agreed to attempt it.

This is arguably the hardest piece ever written for the violin. Four-string chords are littered throughout the score, and the double-finger harmonics and massive harmonic intervals are enough to send most violinists into a panic. Papavrami, who came to fame as a child prodigy, meets the challenge exceptionally well. His technical mastery of the instrument is nothing short of astounding.

Those of you who have been with us for a while here at This Week’s Music may remember the famous sonatas for solo violin written by J.S. Bach. The truly dedicated listeners among us may also remember the sonatas for solo violin written – in homage to Bach – by the Belgian violinist Ysaye. This week’s music also fits in that tradition. It emulates Bach’s violin sonatas, including a complex Fugue, a light-footed Presto, a somber Adagio, and a monumental Ciaconna (Chaconne). This last movement is particularly prescient, for Bach’s most famous work for violin is the Ciaconna from the D-Minor Partita for Solo Violin.

Enjoy!

T

Shostakovich Concerto for Piano and Trumpet

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Concerto in C Minor for Piano and Trumpet by Dmitri Shostakovich.

If you’ve been with us for a while, you’re probably scratching your head at this one. Shostakovich? Trumpet with piano? When I discovered this piece a few weeks ago, I was shocked as well. It is a very unconventional combination of instruments by a modern composer who we don’t tend to think of as a trumpet fan. As it turns out, though, this piece is a lot of fun!

Shostakovich wrote this concerto in 1933 (at only 27 years of age!) as an experiment in mixing baroque and modern musical elements. The concerto has four movements, with the energetic outer movements encapsulating a meditative waltz. The trumpet features most prominently in the waltz, so listen for it around the 12-minute mark.

The concerto is full of quotations from both the popular music of the time and previous great composers. For instance, you’ll hear the Broadway tune “California, Here I Come” in the fourth movement. You can also hear melodic echoes of Beethoven’s famous Appassionata Sonata in the first movement. Making such musical quotations was very risky for Shostakovich, who was walking a precarious tightrope between creating honest musical expressions and pleasing the Soviet officials who policed his music.

Enjoy!

T

Quarantine Mozart

Hello all,

Our music for this week comes to you courtesy of COVID-19.

My sister Ellie and I recorded Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Violin & Piano during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine. Today you’ll hear our interpretation of the second movement of this sonata.

Since Ellie and I were over 800 miles away from each other during quarantine, we had to get creative in making this recording. Ellie recorded first, listening to a metronome through headphones in order to stay at one tempo throughout the piece. She emailed me the recording of her part, and I listened to it in headphones while recording my part on a separate device. We then combined our two parts through a nifty iMovie feature that allows you to put two videos side-by-side while overlaying the two audio tracks.

This sonata is pure Mozart. Elegant, refined, and playful all at once. Balanced but never static. Simultaneously stately and childish. Listen to how the violin often imitates or repeats the melodies presented by the piano. This is typical of Mozart – making the piano (his instrument) the focal point and relegating the violin (or whatever instrument he is dealing with that is not the piano) to the imitation role.

Listen as well to the way that Mozart re-uses melodies in order to create for the listener a sense of familiarity. For instance, the primary melody is presented at 0:42 with a steady, plodding piano base underneath an expansive violin line. That melody comes back at the end of the movement (4:26), but this time it is goosebumps material. The piano rolls powerfully through deliciously rich triads that give the music a sense of forward movement and power that the initial melody lacks. It is a genius bit of recycling.

Enjoy!

T

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