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

The Duet #3 – Brahms Double Concerto

Hello all,

Our series on famous duets continues with the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter* on the violin and Maximilian Hornung on the cello.

In my opinion, the most amazing thing about this concerto is that Brahms didn’t play a single stringed instrument. He was a pianist. While this certainly makes Brahms’ compositional ability even more impressive,** it is helpful to know that he was very strongly motivated to compose a piece that included a violin part. Brahms’ friendship with virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (who had premiered Brahms’ monumental violin concerto) had recently become strained after Brahms testified on behalf of Joachim’s wife in a divorce proceeding. Historians believe that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto as a reconciliation gift for his friend.

The Double Concerto is jam-packed with dense and complex melodies. Brahms does a masterful job of balancing the rich colors of the cello with the bright colors of the violin, and the two become, in his hands, a unified voice. There is a certain harmonic glow about this piece that is characteristic of Brahms’ later years. This is particular evident in the lovely second movement, which begins at 18:51 and soars to new heights of color through a unison melody shared by the two solo instruments.

Enjoy!

T

*Those of you who know my unabashed trepidations about the artistry of Anne-Sophie Mutter may be surprised by the choice of this video. However, I must give credit where credit is due. While Mutter may not be my choice for Beethoven or Mozart, her ultra-Romantic style is absolutely perfect for playing Brahms. I think she does an incredible job of capturing the rich core of this powerful violin part.

**Brahms himself was concerned about his lack of experience writing for stringed instruments. He wrote a letter to Clara Schumann expressing doubt about his ability to properly write a double concerto, and it was her encouraging reply that motivated him to continue composing.  

The Duet #2 – Petite Suite

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the great duets in the classical music repertoire, we turn this week to Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite, performed by Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang.

Petite Suite is written for one piano and four hands. Debussy premiered it himself, in collaboration with fellow French musician Jacques Durand. There are four movements (not all of which are present in this performance, unfortunately) that evenly feature both pianists.

You will notice that the piece is quite simple and not technically difficult; Debussy is reported to have intended it for an amateur piano-lesson-type audience. It is particularly interesting to note that he wrote this piece shortly after being told by his Paris Conservatory piano instructor that he should focus on composition because he would never make a good pianist.

One of the things that I find most interesting about this composition is its historically anomalous nature. Debussy was a late Romantic-era composer, closely preceded by colleagues who wrote thundering symphonies (Brahms) and soaring concerti (Tchaikovsky). It is therefore curious to experience the simplicity and – as one critic put it – “delightful plainness” of the Petite Suite.

Enjoy!

T

New Series – The Duet

Hello all,

Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.

Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).

It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.

The lyrics are as follows:

“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
With the roses entwined together
On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning
Let us descend together!

Gently floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.

Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
Ah! calling us
Together!”

Enjoy!

T

Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich, performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.

As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.

The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.

The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.

Enjoy!

T  

Free, but Happy

Hello all,

Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.

“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.

This third movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the definition of Romantic-era lyricism.

Enjoy!

T