This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
This week’s music begins a new series on American composers. To kick things off, we will be starting with Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by Andre Watts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (My apologies for the short excerpt video, it’s the only tolerably decent video I could find. Hopefully this piques your interest and inspires you to go listen to the concerto in full :).
MacDowell is one of the most celebrated composers in American history. A Renaissance man, he was also a talented poet, painter, forester, and architect. His compositions quickly gained international acclaim. He was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
His second piano concerto is by far his most well-known work. MacDowell himself played the premiere of the concerto in 1894, and the performance was so successful that he was immediately hired to start the music department at Columbia University. However, university life was not for him, and he resigned soon after starting the program and returned to his farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There is now a world famous artist colony called the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.
The second concerto begins with the dazzling runs and thundering chords you will hear in the video above. I had a chance to play in an orchestra during a performance of this concerto, and the adrenaline rush of these opening bars is like nothing else. Watts does a phenomenal job of creating two voices – one soft and hesitant, the other powerful and aggressive.
Our music this week is the Aria from J.S. Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, performed by tenor Timothy Mead and La Nuova Musica. This cantata was written for the Sixth Sunday after the Trinity and was first performed on July 28, 1726.
Bach is widely regarded as the father of music, but things weren’t always that good. In fact, during his lifetime, Bach often struggled to find work. One of the few long-term employment situations he found was as the headmaster of the “Thomasschule” in in Leipzig, Germany. He was able to delegate most of his teaching responsibilities to other people so that he could focus on composing. And compose he did! Aside from writing dozens of works for choir, keyboard, violin, and organ, he wrote a full cantata every single week for more than a decade.
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust is one of Bach’s most well-known and beautiful cantatas. Today you will be hearing only the opening Aria (the entire cantata is roughly 20 minutes long), which introduces the thematic material that will be featured throughout the cantata. In addition to being drawn from the scriptures assigned for that day’s service in the liturgical calendar, the text of this Aria is also drawn from Georg Lehms’ Gottgefalliges Kirchen-Opfer (1711), which focuses on the human struggle to lead a virtuous life amidst the trials and temptations of life.
Our music for this week is the “Konzertmusik for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50” by German composer Paul Hindemith. The Konzertmusik was written in 1930 at the request of legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky. It is the third “Konzertmusik” written by Hindemith in the year 1930, pairing with the “Konzertmusik for Viola and Chamber Orchestra” and the “Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass, and Harp.”
Hindemith, who lived from 1865 to 1963, is a contemporary of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and other mid-twentieth century composers whose music reflects the experience of living through two world wars. (Hindemith, whose wife was Jewish, was particularly shaped by the second world war). His music incorporates atonal strains of Romantic-era lyricism with jarring infusions of post-modern orchestration. Like other composers of this time, Hindemith sought to portray the struggle of rebuilding society in the wake of international conflict. In particular, he embraced the globalization of culture, language, and artistic heritage. His music reflects this viewpoint; one can hear the melodic lines of Italian opera, the full-blooded strength of the late Romantic era, the intrigue of Ravel’s turn-of-the-century Orientalism, and much more.
There are two parts to the Konzertmusik: Massig schnell, mit Kraft – Sehr breit, aber stets fliebend (“moderately fast, with power – very broad, but always flowing) and Lebhaft – Langsam – Im ersten Zeitmab (“Fast – Slow – Tempo primo”). These descriptions are, I believe, helpful when listening to this work. The varying tempi of this composition can make it difficult to pick out its melodic patterns, so having a perspective of “very broad, but always flowing” is instructive for understanding the atmosphere the composer is trying to convey.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E Minor.
This was a difficult one to choose. There are so many fantastic and worthy Mendelssohn compositions to pick from – his light-hearted Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his delightful Songs Without Words, and his rollicking string octet. But his violin concerto is in a class of its own. I chose it because it is perhaps the closest thing to perfection in the entire violin repertoire. Everything in this concerto is perfectly balanced – texturally, harmonically, technically, emotionally – and I think the violinist Kirill Troussov does a marvelous job of bringing that across while also adding his own unique flavor.
The perfection of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is a result of the seven years Mendelssohn took to write it. He revised and edited relentlessly, striving for the perfectly-proportioned concerto. This approach may be explainable in light of who he wrote it for – his good friend, the violin virtuoso Ferdinand David. As a pianist who held David in very high esteem, Mendelssohn harbored a deep insecurity about his ability to write for the violin and was worried about letting his friend down.
David was known to have a light, airy, almost Mozartian sound that was best utilized in a chamber music setting (as opposed to a solo setting). You will hear the concerto’s chamber-music-like qualities throughout the second movement in particular, where the violinist and orchestra converse with frequent thematic trade-offs. You will also hear – particularly in the third movement – the kind of lightness and youth that is reported to have characterized David’s playing.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto isn’t just about balance. It’s also about trailblazing, new ideas, and bravery. In fact, Mendelssohn took a lot of risks in the way he composed this concerto. For instance, he put the solo cadenza (a fancy word for “the time where the soloist gets to show off without the orchestra slowing him down”) in the middle rather than the end of the concerto. Another risk was the blending of the three movements together with no break in between them. The fact that Mendelssohn was able to incorporate these new ideas into his concerto while maintaining its elegance is yet another testimony to his genius.