This week’s music is the Sonata in C Major for organ by J.S. Bach, performed by organist Ton Koopman on a Danish organ built in 1746.
We could not do a series on organ music without featuring Bach’s music. As kapelmeister (music director) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, Bach wrote weekly organ compositions and performed daily as the court organist. Most historians agree that Bach’s instrumental mastery of the organ was greater than any other instrument. Bach wrote so much organ music that one organist’s attempt to perform all of it took fourteen recitals over five years!
In the late 1720s, Bach wrote six sonatas for organ. (The “six sonatas” thing seems to have been a theme for Bach – he wrote six sonatas for organ, six sonatas for solo cello, and six sonatas for solo violin). The C Major sonata, which you will hear today, is built on a slow-paced theme from one of Bach’s earlier compositions. Bach added fast outer movements to the sonata, effectively sandwiching the recycled theme within two movements of complex and invigorating material.
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 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.
This week’s music, continuing in our series on the music of great American composers, is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!
We are continuing our series on American composers with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.
Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.
This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates. For those of you who are musically trained, you’ll hear a constant tug-of-war between the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the diminished seventh (or really any form of seventh), which, as I’m sure many of you know, is a perfect formula for increasing musical tension.
As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:
A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.
This week’s music is “Hoedown,” one of the four dances from American composer Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo. I was very pleased to find a video of the composer himself conducting this piece.
Aaron Copland, nicknamed “The Dean of American Composers,” is one of America’s most well-known musical minds. He composed, conducted, and taught throughout his 90-year life, which spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century. While he wrote many excellent classical works, such as his Third Symphony and his Sonata for Violin and Piano, it is his other works—works he referred to as his “vernacular” works—that have become iconic in the American soundscape. These include his ballet Appalachian Spring, his legendary symphonic composition Fanfare for the Common Man, and his cowboy ballets (Billy the Kid and Rodeo). If any composer has captured the American spirit in music, it is Copland.
Rodeo was the second of Copland’s cowboy ballets. It was, in his view, a recasting of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—but with cowboys. Rodeo follows a lovesick cowgirl’s attempts to capture the attention of the lead cowboy at Burnt Ranch. Copland wrote four dance episodes for the ballet, and “Hoedown” caps off the set with a wonderfully American “yee haw”-style ending. “Hoedown” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of America’s most significant pieces of music.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
Fanfare – this is where the percussion soloist shows off the range of all the percussion instruments in her arsenal.
Modulation – the orchestra and percussion soloist trade blows.
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.
Recapitulation – the original theme returns as the percussion soloist embarks on a virtuoso vibraphone solo.
Plainsong – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” emerges from the fray and leads the ensemble to an unexpected conclusion.