This week’s music is the first movement of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Each instrument has a composer that defines it. At some point in history, a composer makes such a difference in the repertoire of the instrument that its musicality is forever changed. For the violin, that person is Niccolo Paganini; for the cello, Pablo Casals; for the flute, James Galway; for the French horn, Hermann Baumann. For today’s featured instrument – the piano – that person was Frederic Chopin (although I will accept arguments for Franz Liszt if you feel so inclined). Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation of his second piano concerto is breathtaking because it captures the romanticism of Chopin while dashing off technical passages with amazing ease.
You will hear only the first of three movements in this concerto. As many of you know, the typical concerto format involves three movements (while the typical sonata has four and symphonies also usually have four). The movement is titled Maestoso, which means (loosely) “in a majestic manner.” This fits with the compositional style that Chopin was experimenting with at the time he wrote this concerto: “stile brilliante.” In the mid-1850s, Chopin and several of his contemporaries began to adopt the bel canto style of Italian composers like Rossini and Bellini. Unlike his predecessors (such as Beethoven), Chopin was not interested in crafting the perfectly balanced concerto. He was instead interested in magnifying the virtuosity of the pianist, and this first movement clearly showcases his quest for soloistic glory.
The fifteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is “Autumn” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
No list of greatest hits would be complete without the Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s classic composition is one of the most commonly-performed pieces of music even today, and many of us have heard his “Spring” melodies in television advertisements and waiting room playlists. Today you will hear violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
The “Four Seasons” are essentially a set of four violin concertos in which each concerto represents one of the four seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi, who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling reviews.
As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach simply must be on any “top hits” list, and there may even be a legitimate argument that the entire list be dedicated to Bach. Such is his importance and position in the world of classical music.
Bach wrote the six Brandenburg concerti around the same time that he wrote his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, showcasing Bach’s preoccupation with numerology and symbolism. They were initially not very popular. Bach had written them as a resume-of-sorts in a kapellmeister job application for a local Duke. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he had applied for using the Brandenburg concerti, leading snarky commentators to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.” They now stand atop the world of music as some of the most foundational pieces ever written. They define the Baroque era of music while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that genre. They incorporate German, French, and Italian stylistic elements, and they feature a wide range of solo instruments.
You will hear the most famous of the Brandenburg concerti today. In this concerto, Bach utilizes the concerto grosso (small multi-movement ensemble featuring a group of soloists) format that gets introduced in the first concerto, but he decides not to feature a soloist. This was actually quite a controversial move, since the concerto grosso format was distinctly Italian (not his native German) and the featuring of soloists was considered a requirement of the genre. Bach, however, wasn’t deterred by the possibility of a negative public reaction. He continued to create controversy by adding something that we don’t often see until the mid-Classical period (18th century) – a cadenza (an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes). Listen for the lead violinist’s cadenza in the middle movement of this concerto.
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.
The third installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar, performed by Jacqueline du Pre.
First, the concerto. Elgar’s cello concerto is a tour de force. Its soaring heights and delicately-shaped melodies hardly suggest the fact that while he wrote it, Elgar was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. As he transitioned back to his home in Brinkwell, England, he spent the majority of every day of the summer of 1919 writing this concerto. His work was interrupted only by daily firewood-chopping duties.
Unlike most concerti, Elgar’s cello concerto is not always flashy or powerful. In fact, it can sometimes seem quite timid, almost too private. The opening roar of the cello solo, as spine-tingling as it is, quickly gives way to an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to find. Even the passion of the Adagio in the first movement (the main theme of the concerto) is reserved at points. This is a reflection of Elgar’s waning health, his wife’s impending passing, and the loneliness that he dealt with later in life. It is interesting that he chose to use the cello to convey these very personal emotions – not the more common violin or piano. Perhaps he saw something in the dark, rich colors of the cello that spoke to him.
Second, the cellist. Jacqueline du Pre is one of the most beloved musicians of all time and one of the most talented cellists to ever live. Her performing career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28 (she later passed away at 42 years old), but we are fortunate to have video and audio recordings of her performances of the Elgar concerto. In this video, she is only twenty years old. It is sadly fitting that she is the performer of a concerto that is part expose, part poetic epithet, part elegy.
continue our series on the great duets in the classical music repertoire, we
turn this week to Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite, performed by Christoph
Eschenbach and Lang Lang.
Petite Suite is written for one piano and four hands. Debussy premiered it himself, in collaboration with fellow French musician Jacques Durand. There are four movements (not all of which are present in this performance, unfortunately) that evenly feature both pianists.
You will notice that the piece is quite simple and not technically difficult; Debussy is reported to have intended it for an amateur piano-lesson-type audience. It is particularly interesting to note that he wrote this piece shortly after being told by his Paris Conservatory piano instructor that he should focus on composition because he would never make a good pianist.
One of the things that I find most interesting about this composition is its historically anomalous nature. Debussy was a late Romantic-era composer, closely preceded by colleagues who wrote thundering symphonies (Brahms) and soaring concerti (Tchaikovsky). It is therefore curious to experience the simplicity and – as one critic put it – “delightful plainness” of the Petite Suite.
Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich,
performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.
As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.
The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.
The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.
We are completing our series on the life and music of Leonard Bernstein with one of his most under-appreciated compositions, the Symphony #2. This symphony is known as the “Age of Anxiety” symphony. The video you will see was made in 1986. The composer himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with Krystian Zimmerman on the piano. In the introductory interview, Bernstein says, “At least one of the characters [in the story of the piece] does find the core of faith, which is what . . . I am after in every work I ever write.”
The symphony was modeled
after W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety.” After reading it, Bernstein
wrote the following:
W.H. Auden’s fascinating and hair-raising poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue began
immediately to affect me lyrically when I first read it in the summer of 1947.
From that moment the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired
an almost compulsive quality . . . . The essential line of the poem (and of the
music) is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith. In
the end, two of the characters enunciate the recognition of this faith—even a
passive submission to it—at the same time revealing an inability to relate to
it personally in their daily lives, except through blind acceptance.
symphony proceeds in two parts, each of which contain three sub-parts. This
echoes the six sections in Auden’s poem. Part 1 includes the following:
Prologue – four lonely people sit alone in a bar, trying to drink themselves away from their problems. Listen for the clarinets here, who use a long descending scale to give an impression of despair and loneliness.
Seven Ages – this movement is a set of variations that look at a man’s lifespan from four different points of view. As you listen, try to figure out how the variations are related. Bernstein intentionally made each one an addition to the previous ones.
Seven Stages – This variation follows the struggle of the man’s attempted journey from pain and insecurity to comfort and security. The four characters in the Prologue dream of this journey together, and when they awake, they are closely united through this shared dream.
contains the following three parts:
Dirge – the four people sing this
mournful song as they take a cab through the city. They mourn the loss of the “colossal Dad,” a figure who has all
the answers and can resolve all of their problems.
Masque – the four people struggle
to find energy to enjoy their evening and eventually disperse. Listen for the sudden
outburst of hectic jazz music in this movement, symbolizing the inability of today’s
weary people to fully enjoy life.
Epilogue – all that is left is
faith. The trumpet solo carries this theme to the end with purity and radiance.
Bernstein wanted to highlight the emptiness and anxiety that were left in the wake of WWII despite all the technological progress of his time. I believe his critique is doubly relevant today. We are more powerful and connected than ever, yet we are also more lonely and unfulfilled than ever. We work our lives away, sucked into screens and devices that alienate and control us, caught in the business of getting here and there. Just as Auden’s poem highlighted the emptiness and the search for faith that darkened the world after WWII, Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” Symphony reminds us of the emptiness that can burden even the most powerful society in history.
We spent the first few weeks of our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein exploring his more popular and public compositions, such as West Side Story and the educational performances he gave to children around the world. For the remaining weeks of the series, we are going to take a look at some of his more obscure compositions, starting with the Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. The violinist in the video is Vadim Gluzman.
Plato wrote Symposium as a dialogue between several speakers on the topic of love. It was originally a play that contained five parts, and Bernstein named the movements of the Serenade after those parts: Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, & Alcibiades. Accordingly, the music introduces a new voice or viewpoint in each movement. You will notice that Bernstein recycles certain themes in each of the movements, building upon his earlier work to create a comprehensive whole. Listen for the repeated re-emergence of the opening solo violin theme throughout the latter movements.
Bernstein must have known that we would be learning about his music via these Music Emails because he wrote a description of each movement for his listeners.
“Pausanias (Lento; Allegro marcato). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin.) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of the lover as compared with the beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato. II. Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime-storyteller, invoking the fairy-tale mythology of love. The atmosphere is one of quiet charm. [Aristophanes sees love as satisfying a basic human need. Much of the musical material derives from the grace-note theme of the first movement. The middle section of this movement incorporates a melody for the lower strings (marked “singing”) played in close canon.] III. Eryximachus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love-patterns. This is an extremely short fugato-scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor. [This section contains music that corresponds thematically to the canon of the previous movement, Aristophanes] IV. Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song. V. Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. Love as a daemon is Socrates’ image for the profundity of love; and his seniority adds to the feeling of didactic soberness in an otherwise pleasant and convivial after-dinner discussion. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the preceding movements, and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interruption by Alcibiades and his band of drunken revelers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek party-music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party. [Speaking through the voice of Diotima, Socrates proposes the notion that the most virtuous form of love is the love for wisdom (philosophy).]”
“Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is. It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question. Let’s do our best to answer it.”
Leonard Bernstein, 1958
While Leonard Bernstein’s legacy was cemented by West Side Story and his other great compositions, his influence extended far beyond Broadway. In many ways, he inspired and educated a generation of youth through his Young People’s Concerts. He performed these concerts all around the country and on television to thousands of young people, inspiring them to learn more about the greatest music in the world.
The video you will watch today was originally aired on
January 18, 1958. It was titled “What Does Music Mean?” Bernstein uses the
various instruments of the orchestra to show the audience what makes the music
of William Tell Overture and other
famous pieces so special. I find it informative and am sure that, despite its
orientation for children, it will be beneficial to you as well. Bernstein is a
talented teacher and a gifted communicator, and his excitement about music is