A Hymn to the Viola

Hello all,

This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.

It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.

We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.

The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.

I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.

Enjoy!

T

Early Beethoven, Part 2

Hello all,

This week’s music, continuing in our new series on the chronological development of Beethoven’s music, is the String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, performed by the Ying Quartet.

No. 4 is the only one of the six string quartets in Beethoven’s early period to be set in a minor key. It is also unique because it is not structured as most of his string quartets were. As we noted last week, the majority of Beethoven’s string quartets (indeed, the majority of all string quartets ever composed) proceed with four movements that follow the “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” and “finale” progression. However, No. 4 dispenses with the “fast” movement and replaces it with a C Major minuet that Beethoven referred to as “a joke.”

The first movement is the most well-known part of this quartet. In many ways, it is structured like Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony (also in C Minor). It oscillates between jagged unison chords and lyrical viola and cello solos. These solos get repeated throughout the movement, but each time they are in a different tonality. Beethoven showcases his mastery of harmony in the modulations between each of these tonalities. Listen for sharp dynamic changes as well; Beethoven was beginning to increase his use of contrasting volume levels at this point in his career.

Enjoy!

T

Frank Bridge

Hello all,

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.” 

Enjoy!

T

MacMillan #2 – Veni Veni Emmanuel

Hello all,

As we continue our series on the music of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we will be listening to his concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra. It is titled Veni Veni Emmanuel.

We’ve been doing this for nearly six years now here at TWM, but this is the first time we’ve listened to a percussion concerto. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve even come across a percussion concerto. MacMillan definitely broke new ground with this composition, which was written for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

This concerto is based on a medieval Gregorian Chant that was written for the Christmas season (listen for the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” theme at 23:29). MacMillan has written that he meant this piece as an Advent reflection on the human presence of Christ. He was particularly inspired by Luke 21, which says that “[t]here will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

If you’ve been with us for a while, you may remember that a concerto almost always has multiple movements (usually three). But MacMillan has written his percussion concerto in a single 26-minute movement. You may also remember that a concerto usually features a single instrument (the soloist), with the orchestra in an accompaniment role. However, the relatively limited tonal range of the percussion instruments means that MacMillan has created a much more balanced work in which the orchestra and soloist share the melodic responsibility.

You can think of this concerto in five parts:

  1. Fanfare – this is where the percussion soloist shows off the range of all the percussion instruments in her arsenal.
  2. Modulation – the orchestra and percussion soloist trade blows.
  3. Cadenza – the woodwinds and percussion soloist explore a more tranquil melody. This is, in MacMillan’s design, a representation of prayer during the Advent season.
  4. Recapitulation – the original theme returns as the percussion soloist embarks on a virtuoso vibraphone solo.
  5. Plainsong – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” emerges from the fray and leads the ensemble to an unexpected conclusion.

Enjoy!

T

New Year, New Series, New Music

Hello all,

As we move into a new year, we will be starting a new series on the music of a composer who (unlike most of the other composers we listen to here at TWM) is currently alive!

Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful composers. Originally from Kilwinning, Scotland, he writes music for almost every instrument imaginable and regularly conducts the best orchestras in the world. You’ll hear Scottish folk music influences in his music, as well as representations of his Catholic faith.

Today we will be listening to his choral composition “O Radiant Dawn,” sung by the fantastic choral ensemble Apollo5. MacMillan wrote this piece for the annual Epiphany celebration in early January, which celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in the Christian calendar. He does a masterful job of balancing the four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) despite their inherently differing colors. Notice how MacMillan has built the piece from only a few simple phrases, repeated and layered over one another in consistently progressing tonalities.

This is one of MacMillan’s tamer compositions. In the following weeks, we will dive into his intense choral works (such as the “Seven Last Words”), his acrobatic works for violin and orchestra, and his jarring percussion concerto.

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

Mahler Power

Hello all,

Our music this week is the opening movement of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Mariss Jansons.

This music can only be described by one word: power. Mahler wrote this symphony for full 100-person orchestra, piano, harmonium, glockenspiel, bells, steel drums, organ, harp, 2 boys’ choirs, 2 full-sized mixed choirs, 3 soprano soloists, 2 alto soloists, 1 tenor soloist, 1 baritone soloist, and 1 bass soloist. At its first performance, Mahler included 858 singers in the choir, prompting a prominent critic to give the symphony its memorable nickname: “The Symphony of a Thousand.”

As evidenced by the opening bars, the power in such a massive ensemble is staggering. And Mahler knew it:

I have never written anything like it; it is . . . certainly the biggest thing that I have ever done. Nor do I think that I have ever worked under such a feeling of compulsion; it was like a lightning vision – I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me.

Mahler also recognized the novelty and ingenuity of having the entire symphony sung as well as played. Never before had a composer embarked on such an ambitious project.

[I]t is something quite novel – can you imagine a symphony that is, from beginning to end, sung? Here, . . . voices are also used as instruments: the first movement is strictly symphonic in form but all of it is sung. Strange, in fact, that this has never occurred to any other composer – it really is Columbus’ egg, a ‘pure’ symphony in which the most beautiful instrument in the world is given its true place – and not simply as one sonority among others, for in my symphony the human voice is after all the bearer of the whole poetic idea.

The 8th Symphony was constructed from two very different sources: a Latin hymn titled “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a theme from the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic opera Faust. Mahler combined these two seemingly random elements into one of the most beautiful melodies of his career. It soars to unimaginable heights, combining the intimacy of the human voice with the drama of operatic emotion. This is perhaps reflective of Mahler’s goal for the symphony (as stated in his diary): to link the Christian belief in forgiveness through divine grace and Goethe’s depiction of redemption through an unexplainable love.

Enjoy!

T

Four Hands

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Fantasia in F Minor for four hands by Franz Schubert, performed by Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen.

The Jussen brothers provide a fantastic rendition of this well-known work. They achieved international stardom at a very young age and have since toured the world together, performing piano duos like this one to packed audiences. Legendary British conductor Sir Neville Marriner commented after conducting one of their performances: “It’s like driving a pair of BMW’s. This is not just two good pianists playing together. They sense each other’s most small, individual little bit of interpretation.”   

Fantasia in F Minor for four hands was written only a few months before Schubert died. It is one of his most complete and beautiful works. Unlike most other piano duos, which were originally composed for a larger ensemble and then adapted to the four-handed context, this duo was written specifically for two pianists.

You will hear four distinct movements. The first movement is all about lyricism. Delightfully light and airy Schubert-ian melodies grace the top line, and dense but rolling figures are featured in the bottom line. The second movement, which was inspired by Paganini’s second violin concerto (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLOciQwraZg), contains an atmosphere of virtuosic turbulence. The third movement contrasts the agitation of the second movement with a brightness and liveliness that is more of what one might expect of Schubert. The fourth movement, which has been called “the most remarkable cadence in the whole of Schubert’s work,” harkens back to Bach and uses a fugue format to recapitulate all three of the previous themes.

Enjoy!

T

Ravel’s La Valse

Hello all,

Our music for this week is La Valse by Maurice Ravel, performed by the Orchestre Nationale de France with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Ravel initially composed La Valse as a piano duet for his friend Arnold Schoenberg (whose music we’ve heard a couple times before here at TWM). He had often thought of turning it into an orchestral work, but World War I interrupted those efforts. After serving as a driver in the French motor transport corps in the war, Ravel returned to composing in the 1920s. In 1928, he collaborated with ballet choreographer Ida Rubenstein to transpose it for orchestra and create a ballet set in “an imperial court, about 1855.”

One can hear the nostalgic grandeur of the mid-19th century Viennese waltz era combined with the “movie music” modernity of Ravel’s contemporary context. However, the ending of the piece is particularly un-Viennese. Ominous timpani, Brahms-like slides in the strings and brass, and frenetic trumpet lines combine to form an intense and shocking finale. One wonders if this is a result of Ravel’s experiences in World War I and his misgivings about the upper-class “waltz culture” that had contributed to World War I.

Enjoy!

T

Jupiter

Hello all,

Our music for this week the Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is known by the nickname “Jupiter,” which was coined by the British philanthropist Johann Salomon as he advertised performances of the symphony in 19th-century London. Why the name “Jupiter”? No one knows, but it is likely that the sheer size and majestic key of C Major may have inspired Salomon’s grand view of the composition.

Here are a few things to listen for in each movement:

The first movement is all about lyricism. Mozart, you may remember, was a masterful opera composer and often incorporated the romanticism of operatic music into his symphonies. (For you opera buffs out there, listen for the melodic quotation from Don Giovanni).

The second movement is unique among Mozart’s works because the strings play with mutes. Watch the musicians between the first and second movements slide mutes over the bridges of their instruments in order to dull the sound.

The third movement, in true Mozartian fashion, is a dance.

The fourth movement is where you should pay close attention. It is a fugue based entirely on four notes, yet it also follows sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation – for those of you who are just joining us). In a masterful feat of compositional genius, Mozart borrowed from the fugal brilliance of Bach and the sonata format of his contemporaries and created a generational masterpiece.

Enjoy!

T