This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, performed by the Spanish cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in London’s famous Wigmore Hall.
After the composition and discovery of JS Bach’s six cello suites, no great solo works were written for the cello for almost 200 years. Kodály, although not a cellist himself, composed this sonata in 1915 in homage to the genius of Bach. Ironically, the performance of this suite was delayed in a manner similar to the performance of Bach’s suites because of World War I.
Kodály was fascinated by the music of Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók, both of home he had encountered while studying composition in Paris many years earlier. He and Bartok eventually became two of the most well-known Hungarian composers in history. In fact, the two of them made several trips around the Hungarian countryside for the sole purpose of collecting folk tunes. You can therefore hear Hungarian folk and influences in this music at many different points.
The link above only contains the first movement of the Sonata, but you’re welcome to listen to the other movements at your leisure. This first movement is the grandiose exposition of the sonata. Kodály uses this movement to explore all of the main themes that he wants to develop throughout the rest of the sonata. The second movement simply takes one of these themes and meanders through it with a melancholy and introspective attitude. The third movement is a rollicking folk tune that Kodály transcribed entirely from a rural village musician.
Kodály was extremely confident that this sonata would become very popular. He even predicted that, within 25 years of its composition, every serious cellist would want to play it. Posterity has been friendly to him; almost every single international cello competition now requires a performance of this sonata if the cellist hopes to advance to the final rounds.
This week’s music is The Lamb by English composer John Tavener. Tavener wrote the following about the piece, which is based on William Blake’s poem by the same name, in 2004:
“The Lamb was written . . . for my then 3-year old nephew, Simon. It was composed from seven notes in an afternoon. Blake’s child-like vision perhaps explains The Lamb’s great popularity in a world that is starved of this precious and sacred dimension in almost every aspect of life.”
If his goal was to create a brief moment of transcendence, Tavener succeeded. The Lamb is a haunting work for a capella choir, written in 1982, that harkens back to the era of Gregorian chant. Listen for the way the choir begins the piece with unison moving lines that shift up and down together. This chant-like atmosphere then gives way to a series of individual lines that weave in and out of each other (somewhat evocative of Stravinsky, who was one of Tavener’s most significant musical influences) before coming back together at the end.
This week’s music is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, performed by the London Mozart Players.
Mozart wrote his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788. His untimely death was drawing near, and he had already begun reducing the number of performances he gave. This symphony, in addition to being one of his final musical statements, forecasts the stylistic changes that would soon arrive on the world stage with the birth of Romantic-era music. It hints at a lyricism that is often absent in earlier Classical-era works and begins to expand the orchestral role of previously-ignored instruments like the clarinet, bassoon, and timpani.
The first movement’s hushed, urgent melody and its luscious accompaniment texture are a favorite of listeners around the world. Listen for the ways that Mozart brings this opening theme back throughout the first movement. For instance, in the development (middle) section of the first movement, he suddenly drops into the seemingly random key of F-sharp minor while toying with variations on the original melody.
The third movement is also of interest. At the time of this piece’s composition, the oboe and clarinet were rarely featured in orchestral music. Mozart, however, gives both instruments a prominent role in this part of the symphony. Listen for the oboe solo that recurs throughout the third movement.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The “Rite of Spring” was a complete scandal when it was first performed. Stravinsky wrote it as the score for a French ballet in 1929, and the audience was horrified by Stravinsky’s disregard for conventional harmonic structures. When combined with Russian Ballet director Serge Diaghilev’s jolting choreography, the dissonant sounds of Stravinsky’s music were anything but “spring”-like. However, this notoriety ended up serving “The Rite of Spring” well. It is now performed just as often in orchestral settings as it is in ballet settings. The music has come to define an era of music.
“The Rite of Spring” is based on a representation of Russian rituals and culture that Stravinsky had been wanting to compose for many years. The themes are simple and dark, depicting furious storms and violent struggles. Stravinsky described it as “a musical-choreographic work . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” There is no specific storyline that unifies “The Rite of Spring,” just a serious of separately choreographed scenes that represent moments in time.
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.