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.
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.
Our music for this week is Libera Me from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.
Gabriel Faure was a popular French composer in the late 19th century who composed many small-scale works for solo piano and gained international renown as a piano pedagogue. His most famous pupil is a composer that we hear from quite regularly here at TWM: Maurice Ravel.
As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Faure’s musical style was substantially influenced by the French music of his time. For instance, if you listen to the earlier portions of this Requiem, you will hear harmonic textures that sound like they could have been written by Debussy.
Unlike the other monumental choral works of his time, Faure’s Requiem is relatively soft-spoken. Where Brahms’ Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem raise the roof with their staggering volume, Faure’s Requiem is more likely to inspire reflection through its subtlety. He wrote of the work, “Everything . . . is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
The Libera Me is a perfect example of this meditative aspect of Faure’s music. It opens with a mournful solo that introduces the primary theme. The rhythmic foundation of the pizzicato strings provides momentum and tension. The choir then merges into a layered exploration of the thematic material provided by the opening solo, rising to a dramatic peak complete with winds and brass. The initial melody returns at the end of the piece, accompanied again by the pizzicato strings. However, this time it is sung by the whole choir rather than a solo voice, which creates a spine-tingling atmosphere of power and intensity. Then, just as soon as it appeared, the choir fades into the background and we are left with the same solo voice that we started with, a reminder of the introspective beauty of Faure’s “eternal rest.”
Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.
Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.
Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.
This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.
This week’s music is Nuages, the first of three Nocturnes for orchestra written by Claude Debussy.
Art can often influence the way other art forms development. For instance, Wagner’s famous Parsifal Overture was inspired by a 13th-century epic poem about King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Symphony for a Thousand), was inspired by Goethe’s Faust. The music you will hear today was also inspired by an art form. Debussy was moved by a set of three paintings by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. The paintings, collectively titled Nocturnes, depicted simple landscapes in various modes of light and shadow. Debussy was inspired to create music that would achieve a similar effect, revealing moments of melodic light through shifting shadows of harmonic texture. He immediately began sketching the idea for Three Nocturnes for Orchestra, the first (titled Nuages) of which you will hear today.
Nuages is a representation of the sky and the slow, somber movement of the clouds. Listen for the fascinating harmonies that accompany the oboe solo at around 1:51. Debussy layers a sixth interval on top of a fifth interval, creating (in effect) a fifth, a sixth, and a second interval all at the same time. When he orchestrates them so that they all move parallel to each other, the effect is a smooth, slightly eerie texture that creates a fantastic layer underneath the dry tones of the oboe.
This week’s music is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, performed by the London Mozart Players.
Mozart wrote his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788. His untimely death was drawing near, and he had already begun reducing the number of performances he gave. This symphony, in addition to being one of his final musical statements, forecasts the stylistic changes that would soon arrive on the world stage with the birth of Romantic-era music. It hints at a lyricism that is often absent in earlier Classical-era works and begins to expand the orchestral role of previously-ignored instruments like the clarinet, bassoon, and timpani.
The first movement’s hushed, urgent melody and its luscious accompaniment texture are a favorite of listeners around the world. Listen for the ways that Mozart brings this opening theme back throughout the first movement. For instance, in the development (middle) section of the first movement, he suddenly drops into the seemingly random key of F-sharp minor while toying with variations on the original melody.
The third movement is also of interest. At the time of this piece’s composition, the oboe and clarinet were rarely featured in orchestral music. Mozart, however, gives both instruments a prominent role in this part of the symphony. Listen for the oboe solo that recurs throughout the third movement.
Our music for this week is the Sibelius violin concerto, performed by the Russian virtuoso Victor Tretyakov.
Since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966, Tretyakov has performed with nearly every single major orchestra in the world. His flawless technique and powerful sound have captivated audiences around the globe. He is now a professor of violin at Eastman Conservatory in Rochester, NY, and the Moscow State Conservatory, where his students have included legendary violinists such as Evgeny Bushkov and Ilya Kaler.
Tretyakov’s talent serves the Sibelius concerto well. As one of the premier concerti in the violin repertoire, the Sibelius concerto is regularly performed by violinists everywhere. The opening line of the concerto, where a haunting violin solo emerges from an ethereal orchestral texture, is among the best-known moments in all of music. Those of you familiar with the violin repertoire will note that the cadenza (the interlude in which the soloist embellishes the themes of the piece with extra virtuosity) is in the middle of the first movement, as it is in the Mendelssohn concerto, rather than at the end, as it is in most other concerti. The third movement is full of fireworks, but the second movement is the high point of the concerto. The violin soars over the orchestra with deep, soulful lines that Sibelius drew from one of his favorite Finnish folk songs. It is unforgettable.
Our music for this week is “Variations on the theme of Frank Bridge” by Benjamin Britten.
British composer Frank Bridge was Britten’s childhood teacher and lifelong musical mentor. Britten wrote that he would often spend entire days in composition lessons with Bridge, who was an unrelenting perfectionist. Yet he also credited Bridge as the most formative influence on his musical development. Britten wrote the variations you will hear today as a musical tribute to his teacher.
This composition is written for string orchestra and contains one introductory theme followed by nine variations on the theme. Each movement depicts a different aspect of Bridge’s character. Britten even wrote in the score which personality trait he wanted each variation to reflect: “his integrity…his energy…his charm…his wit.” The original theme, as the title suggests, is taken from one of Bridge’s string quartets, titled Three Idylls for String Quartet.
Listen for the different musical influences in this music. If you listen closely, you can hear a bit of Schoenberg’s experimentation, a bit of Elgar’s grandeur, a bit of a Rossini opera, a bit of a Viennese waltz, and a bit of Ravel’s harmonic genius. Perhaps Britten had taken to heart T.S. Eliot’s notion that true art is the result of an arduous, lifelong process of synthesizing the art that has come before you. 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.”