Top 25 #3 – Elgar by du Pre

Hello all,

The third installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar, performed by Jacqueline du Pre.

First, the concerto. Elgar’s cello concerto is a tour de force. Its soaring heights and delicately-shaped melodies hardly suggest the fact that while he wrote it, Elgar was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. As he transitioned back to his home in Brinkwell, England, he spent the majority of every day of the summer of 1919 writing this concerto. His work was interrupted only by daily firewood-chopping duties.

Unlike most concerti, Elgar’s cello concerto is not always flashy or powerful. In fact, it can sometimes seem quite timid, almost too private. The opening roar of the cello solo, as spine-tingling as it is, quickly gives way to an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to find. Even the passion of the Adagio in the first movement (the main theme of the concerto) is reserved at points. This is a reflection of Elgar’s waning health, his wife’s impending passing, and the loneliness that he dealt with later in life. It is interesting that he chose to use the cello to convey these very personal emotions – not the more common violin or piano. Perhaps he saw something in the dark, rich colors of the cello that spoke to him.

Second, the cellist. Jacqueline du Pre is one of the most beloved musicians of all time and one of the most talented cellists to ever live. Her performing career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28 (she later passed away at 42 years old), but we are fortunate to have video and audio recordings of her performances of the Elgar concerto. In this video, she is only twenty years old. It is sadly fitting that she is the performer of a concerto that is part expose, part poetic epithet, part elegy.

Enjoy!

T

Top 25 – #2: Alla Turca

Hello all,

Welcome to the second installment to our new series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music of All Time! Today we will be hearing Daniel Barenboim play Mozart’s piano sonata No. 11 in A Major. All three movements of this sonata are beautiful, but the third movement (starting at 18:50), called Rondo Alla Turca, is by far the most popular.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The first movement is an Andante grazioso (which translates roughly to “walking gracefully”) based on a simple 8-measure theme that you will hear at the very opening of the movement. The rest of the movement is a series of variations on that theme. Listen to the various ways that Mozart uses running passages, chords, and rhythmic patterns to create variation!
  • The second movement is a two-for-one deal! Mozart includes a minuet and a trio in this movement. It begins just after minute 13. Listen for the switch between the two sub-movements.
  • The third movement – the famous Alla Turca movement – is one of Mozart’s best-known pieces. It translates roughly to “Turkish March” or “Turkish Rondo.” At the time he composed it, Mozart (along with most of northern Europe) was infatuated with Turkish music. Listen for the march-like section at around 19:30 that imitates the drums of the traveling Turkish Janissary bands that performed throughout Europe’s major cities during Mozart’s time.

Enjoy!

T

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