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.
This week’s music is the 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.
Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.
The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.
Our music for this week is the Rondo in G Minor for Cello by Antonin Dvorak, performed by Michaela Fukacova.
In the early 1890s, Dvorak spent several months traveling Europe with the German violinist Ferdinan Lachner and Bohemian cellist Hanus Wihan. Over the course of those months, he realized that there was a significant repertoire gap between the two instruments. There was simply far more music written for the violin than for the cello. The Rondo in G Minor was one of three pieces Dvorak wrote in order to help the cello gain some ground.
Dvorak represented the cello well. You’ll notice right away that the piece beautifully showcases the lyrical aspect of the cello’s voice. However, the latter portion of the piece also gives the cellist a few technical challenges that provide an opportunity for some impressive virtuosity. This is consistent with Dvorak’s desire to give the cello more public recognition, particularly since it had long been viewed as a solely accompaniment instrument.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know by now that Dvorak was a passionate Czech nationalist. His music is replete with melodies drawn straight from Czech folk tunes, and the Rondo in G Minor is no exception. The opening melody, for instance, has hints of his usual Slavic-style dance structure, and even the more virtuosic sections are tinged with a lilting dance-like texture.
This week we will hear Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“a little night music”). No list of the greatest hits would be complete without it.
We may know Mozart best for his piano compositions (or even this piece), but at the peak of his popularity he was primarily an opera composer. In fact, at the time he wrote the Nachtmusik, he was simultaneously composing his famous opera Don Giovanni (which, to be honest, also could have been featured on this list). He considered the Nachtmusik as an insignificant side project that was not worth publishing. In fact, the Nachtmusik was never performed in Mozart’s lifetime. It was discovered after his death by a German researcher who convinced Mozart’s widow to sell it for publication. It is therefore ironic that it has become one of his most well-known compositions.
Everything about the Nachtmusik is quintessentially Mozartian: the lightness of the bow strokes, the sense of barely-contained excitement, the operatic solo lines, etc. Notice the similarities between this piece and the format of an opera. For instance, each movement uses the 1st violin line to introduce a solo theme (essentially an aria) that returns at the end to wrap everything together.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music. We will hear the Piano Quintet in A Major by Franz Schubert, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. It is performed by the principal string members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (the first chair members of each string section – violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, violist Mate Szucs, cellist Bruno Delepelaire, and double bassist Matthew McDonald) with Yannick Rafalimanana on piano.
Quintet is one of the most widely performed pieces of chamber music in all of classical
music. Along with the Mendelssohn octet and a few other mainstays, it is
featured at nearly every chamber music festival in the world.
wrote the Trout Quintet while on vacation in the Austrian alps. The fact that
he was overwhelmed by the “inconceivable” beauty of the mountains is clearly
evident in the joyous, even rapturous lyricism of the piece. Albert Einstein,
himself an amateur violinist who loved chamber music, wrote that “we cannot
help but love” the Trout Quintet. It is Schubert at his carefree best, with no
hint of the somber colors that he began to explore after contracting syphilis
in his later years.
It is important
to note that this is chamber music. In other words, the Trout Quintet was not
meant to be performed in a concert hall. It was meant to be performed in a
living room or some other intimate setting for friends and family. This has
significant implications not just for how the quintet is to be performed but
also how it is to be heard.
A few comments
on each of the four movements:
The first movement is unforgettable. Listen for the main theme at 1:53.
The second movement has two parts – see if you can tell them apart.
The third movement, a Scherzo, turns the second movement’s two parts on their head, reverses their order, and doubles their speed.
The fourth movement is the most important. It is a set of variations on the tune of Die Forelle, or in German, “The Trout.” Die Forelle was a short song written by Schubert in 1817 for soprano and piano. He created this song by setting to music the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart about a trout being caught by a fisherman.
The Quintet finishes with an Allegro that revisits the Die Forelle theme a few times.
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
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/).
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.