This week’s music, the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, is part of a new series on ballet music. Over the next few weeks, we will be listening to (and watching 🙂 some of the greatest ballet music ever composed.
Ballet music is an interesting and unique sub-genre of classical music, primarily because it was not written to be performed on stage. Unlike most classical music, ballet music was meant to be heard and not seen. The musicians in a ballet sit in what is called “the pit,” a lowered enclosure that sits below the front of the stage. The conductor stands at the head of the orchestra on an elevated platform, where he can watch the ballet while also conducting the orchestra.
Ballet music is also unique because it involves physical movement in a way other classical music does not (with the rare exception of extremely athletic performers like Joshua Bell and Yuja Wang). It requires coordination between a choreographer and an orchestra, as well as constant vigilance on the part of the conductor to ensure the music and dance are fitting together properly.
Swan Lake is the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and the swan Princess Odette, whose love must face sorcery, magic spells, evil magicians, betrayal, and more. Despite its fame, the ballet was not originally well received when it was premiered in 1877. It was not until the world-renowned Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg decided to showcase the ballet that it gained the kind of fame it enjoys today. Since then, it has been choreographed by ballet maestros like Lev Ivanov and performed by legendary dancers including Rudolf Nureyev.
This week’s music is the String Quartet, Opus 11, by the early 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber.
Barber, who ranks alongside Aaron Copland and Charles Ives as one of the greatest American composers of all time, wrote a number of famous works throughout the course of his tragically short life. None are more famous, however, than the Adagio for Strings, arguably one of the most moving pieces of music in the world today. (We listened to it a while ago – check it out here: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/08/top-25-17-barber-adagio/). As it turns out, the Adagio for Strings was not a stand-alone composition. It was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s string quartet, the piece we will hear today.
The structure of this piece is rather strange. Most string quartets – in fact, most multi-movement compositions in general – feature distinct movements that showcase their own unique thematic material. In addition, most string quartets have four movements. This quartet, however, includes only three movements, the first and third of which utilize the same thematic material. The third movement is essentially a reprise of the first. It is almost as if Barber wrote an extended first movement, then cut it in half and inserted the second movement. Luckily for us, that second movement turned out to be the basis for the Adagio for Strings.
Strange structure aside, this piece reveals a musical genius at his best. There is not a wasted note in the entire quartet. For me, this piece has the feel of a Hemingway novel – concise, punchy, edited to the bone, and so alive you feel it might singe your eyebrows if you got too close.
This week’s music is a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor by the superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin. Soon after his graduation from conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff wrote a series of preludes titled Morceaux de fantaisie. Of these preludes, the C-sharp minor prelude has become the most famous.
The prelude is famous primarily because of the ominous three-chord motif – A, G sharp, and C sharp – that opens the piece. This motif repeats throughout, though Rachmaninoff presents in in several different forms and variations as the piece progresses. Listen for the drop-off from forte to pianissimo near the beginning as Rachmaninoff introduces the main theme. After the theme is introduced, you’ll hear the music increase in speed and energy through a series of chromatic (moving by half-steps) triplets. Rachmaninoff builds this chromatic sequence into a recapitulation of the original motif that dies out to finish the piece.
This week’s music is “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin.
George Gershwin is one of the household names of American classical music, but not in the same way as Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. Instead, Gershwin is famous for blending jazz and classical into a unique style that, in many ways, came to define the roaring twenties.
“An American in Paris” was inspired by Gershwin’s 1926 trip to Paris and, in particular, the sound of taxi horns on the Paris boulevards. Gershwin called the piece a “rhapsodic ballet,” though it was not adapted for the ballet stage until Gene Kelly’s Academy Award-winning ballet arrangement in 1951. Gershwin offers the listener a kaleidoscope of musical impressions, starting with a light-hearted strolling melody that gets interrupted by a honking taxi horn. There is a busy street shopping escapade featuring the violins, then a bluesy melody in the woodwinds, followed by a sassy trumpet fanfare that overlays the original “taxi horn” motif. Listen for the violin and tuba solos near the end of the piece (a bizarre pairing only Gershwin could pull off) and the return of the original strolling melody (with a twist!) at the end.
This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.
Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”
Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.
I had the pleasure of giving a small recital a few weeks before Christmas with some friends of mine. Unfortunately, the audio quality of the recording is not good enough to share with all of you, but I wanted to share the music regardless.
The first piece on the program was the Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major by Johannes Brahms. Brahms wrote this work while spending the summer of 1886 in Thun, Switzerland. Nestled between two lakes with the Alps towering on either side, Thun was the ideal location for an inspiring summer of composition. The second sonata is the shortest of the three Brahms wrote for these two instruments, but it is considered the most difficult because of its challenging blend of delicacy and virtuosity. It is light-hearted and radiant throughout, with moments of intensity that resolve into rhapsodic back-and-forth exchanges between the two instruments.
There are three movements. In the first movement, relish the soft touch of the piano line. Brahms, a pianist himself, gives the piano much of the melodic material in the first movement. The second movement darts between fast and slow, energetic and dreamy. Listen for the way the two instruments imitate each other and trade melodic lines back and forth. In the third movement, Brahms gives the violin a deep, rich melody line that ends with triumphant flourish. Listen for that classic Brahmsian “dark chocolate” sound.
Our music for this week is the Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1, 2020 under the direction of Maestro Andris Nelsons.
Every year, the Vienna Philharmonic gives a New Year’s Day concert that ends with the famous Blue Danube waltz. The concert has been taking place since 1939 and has featured some of the greatest conductors of all time: Ricardo Mutti, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and more. It will take place tomorrow (January 1, 2022) at 11:15 am Eastern Time. Unfortunately it will not be live-streamed, but most classical music radio stations around the world broadcast the program live. The program will also include a number of other waltzes, selections from a ballet, and more, all under the baton of the legendary Daniel Barenboim.
The Blue Danube waltz hardly needs any introduction, other than to say that it is easily the most famous waltz of all time. You will hear the famous theme in the cellos and the horns.
Our music for Christmas Eve is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.
The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.
There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.