Top 25 – #1: Archduke

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the famous “Archduke” trio by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed in this 1970 recording by the superstar ensemble of Eugene Istomin on the piano, Isaac Stern on the violin, and Leonard Rose on the cello.

As stated in our tagline, the goal of This Week’s Music is to “make classical accessible.” So often, classical music can seem like a distant or un-relatable genre of music. The hope is that through these weekly messages, classical music will become more tangible and understandable.

One of the components of this learning process is the eventual knowledge of what pieces of music are central to the repertoire. Although there are thousands of hours of amazing classical music, some compositions stand out as the greatest of all time. That is why our next series, which begins today, is titled “The 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.” The goal is to share with you the pieces that I believe are foundation of the genre. At best, you’ll fall in love with some of the greatest music of all time; at worst, you’ll be able to sound cultured at a cocktail party.

I’m sure I will miss a few. With any “Top 10”-type list, personal opinion is bound to play a significant role. However, I welcome suggestions as we go through this series! Let me know if there is a piece that you feel should be included in the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music.

This week’s selection, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, definitely belongs in this list. Even Beethoven himself, when looking back over his compositions, said that it was his best work. As you can probably tell, it was dedicated to Beethoven’s employer at the time, Archduke Rudolph.

The Archduke Trio is all about balance. It is perhaps the only trio in which all three voices are perfectly balanced. In many piano trios, the piano plays a more solo role, with the stringed instruments along for the ride. Beethoven, however, was able to achieve a near-perfect balance of the three. This balance is also evident the compositional ability itself – the harmonic and dynamic contours of the Archduke Trio are likewise perfectly balanced. Even the structure of the four movements contain a lovely balance of emotions, spanning from cheerful to moody and everything in between. Beethoven left no stone unturned.

The Archduke Trio also holds a significant place in the history of music. Until Beethoven composed this trio in 1810, composers had not utilized the form very often. Beethoven’s success with the trio format encouraged other composers to try it. You may remember that we listened to Mendelssohn’s piano trios recently, both of which were inspired by Beethoven’s pioneering of the trio format (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/07/12/new-series-mendelssohn-piano-trios/).

Enjoy!

T

Queen of Sheba

Hello all,

Our music for this week is “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from George Frederic Handel’s 1748 oratorio Solomon. The entire oratorio is almost never performed, but “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” which was the opening interlude of Act III, is played quite often. It is a popular wedding recessional and is regularly featured as the background music for luxury car advertisements. It was even played as part of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

As its name belies, Solomon was written about the life and times of the biblical character King Solomon. During this time in history, King George II of England (Handel’s employer) wanted to hold dramatic presentations of biblical stories at his palace, but the Bishop of London disapproved of a public drama based on a biblical subject. Handel was therefore commissioned to write oratorios like Solomon as musical substitutes for the dramatic wishes of the King. They eventually became so popular that Handel stopped writing operas and focused entirely on oratorios.

Listening Tip: It can be helpful to sometimes take a step back and think about where a piece of music fits in the larger historical picture of the development of music. There are generally five periods of music that we will listen to: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and Modern. This music is a perfect example of the Baroque period of classical music, which spans from approximately 1600 to 1750. Some of the primary characteristics of this era include (among others) (1) small ensembles, (2) minimal brass and timpani, (3) period instruments like harpsichords, (4) biblical or mythological themes, and (5) an overall light, airy sound. Other composers who lived and wrote their music during the Baroque era include Bach and Telemann. If you listen to their compositions and keep in mind the characteristics above, you’ll quickly see a multitude of similarities.

Enjoy!

T

Fall is around the corner…

Hello all!

Since the summer is winding to an end and we will soon (for those of us in non-tropical climates, at least) be surrounded by orange and red leaves, I thought it was a good time to bring back a piece that we’ve heard before that will get us in the mood for fall. Today you will hear the fantastic violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn from Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” on a 15th-century Italian Guarneri violin. She is accompanied by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.

First off, here’s a quick refresher on the “Four Seasons” (or, for those of you who are just joining us, an overview of what it is about). The “Four Seasons” are essentially a set of four violin concertos (or, in the more appropriate Italian plural form, concerti) in which each concerto represents one of the four seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi, who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling reviews.

As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the (incredibly helpful) subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.

Enjoy!

T

Spring Sonata

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.

As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas, however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).

A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms). Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but certainly not subtle (as in Bach).

The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.

Enjoy!

T

Mendelssohn Piano Trio #2

Hello all,

We return this week to our mini-series on the piano trios of Felix Mendelssohn to hear his Piano Trio #2 in C Minor.

You will hear four movements in this piece. They follow the usual Romantic-era format: allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale. Mendelssohn wrote this trio only two years before his untimely death in 1847 at the age of 38.

This trio counteracts the lyricism and sublime beauty of the first piano trio with a sombre, foreboding tonal scheme. Storms seem imminent as the cello and piano trade their dark colors underneath violin’s tumultuous worrying. The harmonic structure is never satisfied and shifts from one tonality to another with unrelenting pace. Even the delicate second movement contains these deep, dark sound colors.

However, the tumultuousness of the first three movements is dissipated in the upbeat finale (4th movement), which features as its main melody a tune that many know as the “Doxology,” a hymn often sung in churches around the world. Mendelssohn’s musical hero, J.S. Bach, apparently used this melody in one of his cantatas, and the young composer desired to use this melody as a form of homage to the father of classical music.

Enjoy!

T

New Series – Mendelssohn Piano Trios

Hello all,

Our music for this week marks the start of a new (and very brief) series on Mendelssohn’s two piano trios. Today we will hear the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, performed by Andreas Rohn on the violin, Sebastian Klinger on the cello, and international superstar Lang Lang on the piano.

The first piano trio is regarded as one of Mendelssohn’s two or three greatest works, alongside his violin concerto and his string Octet (which, you may remember, we listened to a few weeks ago: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/01/19/mendelssohn-octet/).

The first movement, Molto allegro ed agitato, opens with an unforgettable cello line. This is one of those rare lines of music that feel as though you’ve always known them. The instruments pass this theme around until the introduction of the second theme, which is in A Major (as opposed to the opening key of D Minor). As you can imagine, this is a much brighter melody that the violin is largely responsible for. Mendelssohn does a fantastic job of using the natural strengths of the instruments to his advantage, and these two themes are a perfect example of that: for the somber D Minor line, he uses the dark, deep tones of the cello, and for the bright A Major line, he uses the light, airy tones of the violin.

The second movement is, in my opinion, the most beautiful melody Mendelssohn wrote. The opening piano solo is simply sublime.

The third movement is a fast, light scherzo written in sonata form. Like the second movement, the piano begins with the theme. However, the violin and cello soon take over and turn it into a more lyrical middle section before the piano rushes it to end the movement.

The fourth and final movement is the closest Mendelssohn could get (being a pianist himself) to a piano concerto. Watch Lang Lang’s hands closely – his performance is astounding. At the very end of the piece, listen for the harmonic shift to the bright key of D Major that resolves the tension of D Minor that has been holding the listener captive for all four movements.

Enjoy!

T

P.S.A. – I will be out of the country on vacation through July 28, so we will miss at least one, maybe two weeks of music. I’ll be back the first week of August with the second piano trio!

Consolation

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Consolation in D-flat Major by Franz Liszt, performed by virtuoso pianist Valentia Lisitsa.

1849 was a wild year for Franz Liszt. During that year, he completed two European tours with the violinist Joseph Joachim, wrote both of his monumental piano concertos, composed two symphonic poems, made a number of piano transcriptions, and engaged in scandalous romantic affairs with at least two German princesses. On top of all that, he managed to find time to compose six Consolations for solo piano. The third Consolation, which you will hear today, is the most well-known of the group.

All six of the Consolations were composed in one of two keys – E Major or D-flat Major. It is interesting to note that, throughout his career, Liszt always wrote in E Major or D-flat Major when seeking to express a religious message. However, we have no indication from historical records exactly what that message was in the context of the third Consolation.

The D-flat Major Consolation was an echo of Liszt’s colleague Chopin, who also wrote a D-flat Major solo piano composition (although Chopin called it a Nocturne, not a Consolation). It is very apparent that Liszt was imitating Chopin’s style in writing the third Consolation. For instance, both pieces begin with a long and almost breathless bel canto opening line in which the pianist’s right hand weaves a soprano melody over the rolling bass-line of the left hand.

There was also a bit of technological experimentation involved in the composition of the third Consolation. Three years after composing it, Liszt received from Steinway & Company a brand-new grand piano with a newly invented feature – the sostenuto pedal. This pedal sustains only the notes that are being pressed down, essentially allowing the pianist to hold certain notes while playing other notes that are unaffected by the pedal. Liszt reportedly sent a re-drafted version of the D-flat Major Consolation to the managers of Steinway & Company to show them that he had adapted his compositional ability to their invention.

Enjoy!

T

Twinkle Twinkle

Hello all,

Our music for today is the famous “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” variations for solo piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart wrote these variations somewhere around the year 1780 as an exercise for young pianists. The melody that we now know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” first appeared in 1761, when Mozart was in his late teens. There are twelve variations on the initial C Major theme. Here is a brief summary of each of them:

  • Variation 1: The right hand performs the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 2: The two hands switch jobs.
  • Variation 3: The right hand performs the melody in a triplet figure.
  • Variation 4: They switch again.
  • Variation 5: The right hand presents the melody in an off-beat pattern.
  • Variation 6: The right hand plays a chord-heavy version of the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 7: The melody is heard in running scale patterns in the right hand.
  • Variation 8: The melody is presented in C minor (parallel minor of C major) and there is imitation between the left and right hands.
  • Variation 9: The melody is performed staccato (short, sharp notes).
  • Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody with the right hand embellishing with sixteenth notes (just like variation #2).
  • Variation 11: The tempo slows and the right hand performs the melody in a singing style.
  • Variation 12: Both hands compete in a race to the finish.

Enjoy!

T

The Paradox of Artistic Interpretation: A Commentary on T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent

Art serves society in a rather barometrical function. It embraces, albeit subconsciously, its role as the expression of the collective undercurrents of public culture. It knows that the masses see it as largely incomprehensible and it is comfortable with that impression. It watches as we hurry through galleries, reading placards and gazing with blank stares at something we seem to think will culture us if only our eyes pass over enough of it. It smiles pitifully as we file into gold-encrusted halls to hear symphonies that we would quickly scroll by if they emerged on the radio (or, as modernity would have it, our playlists). Art is a cloud of externalities that we instinctually feel should probably be more important to us than it is.

The irony in all of this is that we are most easily drawn to art forms that share this sense of externality. When the violinist throws himself about the stage in a dripping frenzy of emotionality, we approvingly assume that he must truly be a master of interpretation. When the poet befuddles us with extravagant arrangements of verbiage that even three readings cannot make clear, we shrug in complacent acceptance of what must be a magnificent literary talent indeed. My argument is that none of this displays true artistic interpretation, and that to achieve that pinnacle is something radically un-emotional and impersonal.

T.S. Eliot’s words strike us as alarming. How can art be impersonal? Isn’t art an expression of the artist’s deepest and most profound thoughts? The consensus surrounding artistic interpretation is that it springs from the artist’s creative genius in a spontaneous, almost sensual way. We view or listen or read with the intent of discovering what the artist is trying to communicate to us. And this is precisely where we have gone wrong, for artistic interpretation is in fact not a pouring-out of the artist’s “self,” however that notoriously amorphous concept may be defined. It is a hard-fought battle against the impulses of the self, combined with an unflagging examination of the art form, that creates a mind capable of channeling ideas into art.

How does an artist or musician or poet achieve this? The process begins with what Eliot calls “tradition,” a word that we more often associate with the snobbish, feigned expressions of historical empathy emitted by modern critics attempting to downplay the application of the past to today’s reality. Tradition makes them uncomfortable because it evokes all of the standards that they wish were not in place but nonetheless are the foundation for their very existence. However, tradition is not just a sense of the past, and it is much more important than academia would have us believe. It is a progression that continues even now, marching through history with a broad, sweeping reach that incorporates the nuances of every era into a comprehensive now. Tradition is what “is already living,” not just what has already lived. It is in this sense that a truly great work of art may be, as Eliot says, one in which “the dead poets . . . assert their immortality most vigorously.” Tradition is not merely an evaluation of things gone by. It is the revelation and experience of the presence of the past as manifested in the present. Eliot puts it best: “[T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

We therefore see that true artistic interpretation begins with a knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and love of the artistic tradition. This involves the entire breadth of artistic history; the writings of Shakespeare, the paintings of Sesshu Toyo, the string quartets of Shostakovich, the poems of Yeats, the sculptures of Michelangelo, and so and so forth. When the artist truly realizes the magnitude of this task – namely that of absorbing as many of these influences as possible – he is staggered, stunned, and humbled. Eliot writes that the artist’s mind “is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” The artist’s goal should therefore not be to produce as much art as possible, but rather to receive and accumulate as many “particles” as he can. Only then will he be able to combine and create from the richness of those mental impressions.

Once this gathering process has begun to mature, is the artist then ready to let loose with the passionate creative fury that he allegedly possesses? No. In fact, there are very few moments in which such release is warranted. True artistic interpretation has nothing to do with such overdone self-aggrandization (for that is what it truly is) but is rather the result of a cerebral ability to synthesize the elements of the tradition that one has gathered – an ability that can only come from the arduous process of deep learning. In other words, artistic interpretation is not about showiness on stage or fake, ethereal emotionalism. It is about intense, long-suffering, detailed, unflaggingly dedicated study of every minute detail so that the artist eventually has complete freedom to create anything he wants from those details when the time comes to communicate a message. Eliot perfectly encapsulates this idea when he says that “it is not the ‘greatness,’ the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

Artistic interpretation is not about emotional capabilities; it is about intellectual possibilities. It requires the same thing, regardless of the particular form it takes: a conscious and deliberate control of the mind, which is the hardest thing anyone will ever do, even if it is just for five minutes. Unconscious emotionalism has no place in true artistic expression because such expression is only possible after the application of our highest analytical consciousness to the task of gaining the deepest understanding of every nook and cranny of the art itself. (At the risk of stepping beyond the topical boundaries of this discussion, I might also add that this process requires a level of personal and spiritual maturity – as well as good old-fashioned focus – that today’s media-bound youth possess in increasingly and concerningly minimal doses).  

This is why Eliot is so profoundly correct when he says that “[t]he progress of an artist is continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The rigorous daily study and humility in the face of the great artistic tradition that are necessary for true artistic progress are impossible with an egoistic interpretive posture that focuses on creating art out of one’s emotional “self.” The artist does not create emotions, nor does he magnify them. He uses, as Eliot says, the “ordinary ones,” and he does so through the lens of his continual self-sacrifice to the greater beauty of the music he performs, the brush he plies, or the pen he wields.

And herein lies the paradox; for one cannot release something that one does not have. In other words, letting go of self-focused emotionalism and learning to absorb as much of the world’s artistic heritage as one can is only possible if one has already experienced the depth and breadth of such emotion. Artistic expression is “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.”

Duet #4

Hello all,

To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.

Enjoy!

T