Chopin Nocturne Opus 37 #2

Hello all,

We are continuing our series on the Nocturnes for solo piano by Chopin with the Nocturne Opus 37 #2, performed by pianist Szymon Nehring.

The Opus 37 Nocturnes are considered the high point of Chopin’s compositional career. Robert Schumann, another famous pianist and composer, declared these Nocturnes to be “of that nobler kind under which poetic ideality gleams more transparently.” They tend to be less energetic than the earlier Nocturnes, and you’ll notice a pensiveness and hesitant quality in them that is absent from the Nocturnes we’ve heard thus far.

As we’ve discussed, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera and inserted bel canto style into his Nocturnes. This Nocturne is no exception. It is written in the form of a barcarolle, which was a song traditionally sung by Venetian gondoliers as they paddled through the canals of Venice. Just like the other Nocturnes, the Opus 37 #2 Nocturne has a rolling sense of momentum at the beginning and a relaxed development section in the middle. I’ve always felt that the beautiful middle section is almost hymn-like.

Enjoy!

T

Chopin Nocturne Opus 27 #2

Hello all,

We are continuing our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano with the second Opus 27 Nocturne, performed by Evgeny Kissin.

Chopin grouped his Nocturnes in two or three-piece sets. These sets are categorized by Opus number. The Opus 27 Nocturnes, composed in 1835, are perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the Nocturnes. They have been featured in multiple movies and television series.

The second of the Opus 27 Nocturnes is a perfect example of something we discussed a few weeks ago – Chopin’s obsession with the Italian bel canto style. As we know, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera. The flowery bel canto style captivated him, and he incorporated it into many of his Nocturnes. The songlike melodies of the Opus 27 #2 Nocturne showcase this bel canto style perfectly through passionate harmonic climaxes and an atmosphere of glittering delicacy that gives the piece an almost royal aura.

This Nocturne, aside from being one of Chopin’s most famous compositions, also played a role in shaping the future of music. In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig, Germany to play the Nocturnes for his friend Robert Schumann (another great Romantic-era composer). A young pianist, an acquaintance of Schumann’s, happened to be in attendance. He later told his sister that Chopin’s Opus 27 #2 Nocturne was a central inspiration for his career as a composer. In fact, he had even tried to incorporate its melodies into some of his own compositions.

His name was Felix Mendelssohn.

Enjoy!

T

Chopin Nocturne Opus 9 #2

Hello all,

This week’s music is the second installment in our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. We will be hearing pianist Valentina Lisitsa play the Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2.

This is one of the most famous Nocturnes. It is beguiling yet simple, usually relying on a single melodic line and avoiding escalation until the very end. For this reason, it is particularly popular among young pianists who are beginning their journey into the music of Chopin.

Listen for the flowing melodic line. As we learned last week, Chopin was “enamored of flowing song” and drew much of his inspiration from opera music. His fellow pianist Wladyslaw Zelenski said that “Italian song was always his ideal.” You can hear the right hand of the pianist drawing out what could almost be a soprano aria line.

Chopin may have made the Nocturne famous, but he didn’t invent it. That honor goes to the Irish composer John Field, who wrote dozens of them for piano and other instruments. The Nocturne you will hear today is quite similar to many of those written by John Field, so it is likely that Chopin studied Field’s work as he developed his own compositions. However, Chopin’s works have, as Polish piano virtuoso Jan Kleczynski has noted, that “certain tinge of earnest sadness” that makes them so uniquely beautiful.

Enjoy!

T

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 five 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. The intellectual firepower – and sometimes pure genius – necessary to write a Franz Liszt piano sonata is simply beyond comprehension for most of us mere mortals. 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 and experience.

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, 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.

Fifth and finally, classical music is rare. Given the intellectual and musical brilliance needed to compose, for instance, a 60-instrument symphony, composers who can speak to us through classical music are relatively few and far between. For every Beethoven, there are a hundred or even a thousand Britney Spears.

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