The Duet #2 – Petite Suite

Hello all,

As we 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.



Kavakos plays Shostakovich

Hello all,

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.



Bernstein #6 – The Age of Anxiety

Hello all,

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.

The 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.

Part II 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.



Bernstein #4 – Serenade

Hello all,

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).]”



Bernstein #3 – Young People’s Concerts

“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 contagious.



Christmas Concerto

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.

The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.

There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.



Brandenburg #5


The fifth Brandenburg Concerto finally features an instrument other than the violin. Here we meet for the first time Bach’s favorite “modern” instrument, the harpsichord. During his time, the harpsichord was so rare that Bach had to special order it from the original manufacturer. The date that the harpsichord arrived aligns very closely with what music historians believe to be a flurry of harpsichord compositions.

This concerto showcases yet again Bach’s amazing ability to blend his native German style with the Italian concerto grosso style that he so admired. We see again the existence of multiple solo instruments (including, for the first time, the harpsichord) and a constant “continuo” from the rest of the orchestra.

However, the fifth concerto shows us a Bach that is taking more liberties than usual. He gives the soloists more to do. He gives the harpsichord the daunting task of maintaining the running line, even when most of the other restaurants are grinding to a halt. He creates miniature ensembles within the orchestra that carry on internal conversations throughout the piece. Most notably, he experiments for the first time in history with an unprecedented freedom of solo function. In other words, no one had ever created a free-flowing solo line the way Bach did with the harpsichord in this concerto. Listen for the remarkable liberty that the harpsichord has (and the other instruments do not have) to stretch the tempo. 

You will hear one theme in particular throughout all of the movements (particularly the first and last movement). Its continual reappearance is Bach’s way of grounding the concerto and providing it with a home base. This repeated theme is called the “ritornello.” See if you can identify how many times it appears in the first movement!



Brandenburg #4


We are over half-way through the Brandenburg concerti!

The fourth concerto continues our journey through the orchestra by featuring flutes as two of the three solo instruments. As you will see in the video, Bach is referring to a Baroque flute rather than the modern flutes that we see in today’s orchestras. This flute was a type of flageolet, or tin-whistle, that was used during that time to teach pet birds how to sing. It has a very shrill and high-pitched sound that is usually at least one octave above the rest of the orchestra. Most ensembles today utilize the recorder as the closest approximation of its sound.

Despite the increased role given to the flutes, this is technically still a violin concerto. You will often hear the flutes echoing the violin solo line, which is the most difficult of all of the Brandenburg concerti. The violin will occasionally respond back, but most of the time it is leading the charge rather than following. The one exception to this is in the slower second movement, where the two flutes carry the melody for most of the movement. It is thought that the prevalence of the violin in these concerti reflects Bach’s perception of it as the closest approximation of the human voice.



Brandenburg #2

Hello all!

Welcome back to our series on the Brandenburg concertos. This week will be hearing the second concerto, which features the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin as solo voices. This strange conglomeration of solo instruments becomes a delightful ensemble in Bach’s masterful hands. He expertly balances their different sonorities by including the most detailed dynamic markings in the entire set of six concerti. He also includes conversational elements with the entire orchestra to ensure that no one instrument overpowers the others (although in the final Allegro movement, it seems that he can’t help but let the trumpet loose at full strength for at least a few bars 🙂 .

You will notice right away that this concerto is much more virtuosic than the first concerto. Bach wastes no time in making sure we experience the power and range of the trumpet, whose part regularly soars above the accompanying orchestra during the first movement. The trumpet backs off, however, in the second movement, which features that same melancholy sighing theme that we heard in the first concerto. We also hear a fragment of the first concerto in the final movement of this concerto, which is structured as a fugue.

I found it interesting that Bach was writing the six Brandenburg Concertos at the same time he was writing his famous six solo sonatas for violin. He also wrote six miniatures for solo piano (much lesser known) and six sonatas for solo cello. This numerical pattern is typical of Bach, who was fascinated with numerology and was constantly experimenting with representations of numbers in his music.





Brandenburg #1


Welcome to a new series! Over the next six weeks, we will be hearing the six Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach. These are some of the most well-known pieces of classical music ever written.

Despite their popularity, these concertos were not very popular during Bach’s lifetime. Even Bach himself did not think that they were worth very much – he intended them merely as his resume for a new job. Apparently, the Duke that he was working for at the time had recently remarried, and his new wife is not a fan of classical music. Faced with an increasingly shrinking role, Bach decided to seek employment elsewhere. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he applied for using these six concertos, leading snarky scholars everywhere to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.”

The first concerto, which we will hear today, is the only one of the six that does not follow the convention of a concerto grosso. This is a format that features two or more solo instruments accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble. It usually includes a fast movement at the beginning and the end and a slow movement in the middle, but this one has four movements. This format was made popular by Antonio Vivaldi, composer of the very famous Four Seasons, and much of the first concerto reflects characteristics of his style. For instance, Bach incorporates a violin piccolo, a tiny instrument played only in Italy and almost never heard in his native Germany. Bach also utilizes wind instruments to create a sound color more often associated with the Italian music of that time than the German music. However, he does not fail to provide his usual sampling of counterpoint genius, as well as the sound of hunting horns throughout the piece. See if you can pick them out! Another thing to listen for it is the sad, almost-weeping voice that occasionally is featured any violin and woodwind parts; this voice is repeated and the subsequent Brandenburg Concertos as well.