To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.
Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.
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.
Today marks the start of a new series! We will be working through some of the most famous duets in the history of music, starting with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca singing the Duo des Fleurs (Flower Duet) by Leo Delibes.
Delibes is best known for this duet, which is part of his 1883 opera Lakme. It is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and is from the part of the opera in which the main character Lakme and her servant Mallika are picking flowers together by a river. (There is another famous opera in which two female characters sing a duet while picking flowers together – Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – but Delibes never confirmed the possibility of a connection).
It is worth noting the caliber of the singers in the video, both of whom are world-class. In particular, Anna Netrebko is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She performs regularly at the Met, Vienna Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, and Royal Opera House.
are as follows:
“Under the thick dome where the white jasmine With the roses entwined together On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning Let us descend together!
floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine Ah! calling us Together!”
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.
Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.
“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.
movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and
freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful
and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike
most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very
start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which
help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the
definition of Romantic-era lyricism.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.
Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.
The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.
This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.
Our music for this week is the Suite No. 1 from Mikail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s
Caucasion Sketches. I’m willing to
bet that none of you – even the most veteran musicians – have heard of this
piece. However, one of the many goals of This Week’s Music is to popularize
music that no one knows about!
Ippolitov-Ivanov was a Russian composer in the early 20th century who studied with the famous Rimsky-Korsakov. One of his first jobs was as a conductor in the region of Russia that is now Georgia. During his eleven years there, he fell in love with the soaring mountain peaks and rich folk heritage of the region. The Caucasion Sketches are his musical depiction of the rural Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, which, as a result of their position along a major trade route from the Black Sea to Moscow, were filled with an incredible amount of cultural diversity.
There are four movements in the Caucasion
In a Mountain Pass
In a Village – listen for the English horn’s solo in this movement. It is supposedly a representation of an instrument native to the Caucasus Mountains region called the zurna.
In a Mosque
Procession of the Sardar – the Sardar was the leader or regional commander, and this movement depicts the pomp and circumstance that surround his arrival in the village.
We are all probably familiar with Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, but I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t heard of this Seasons composition. It was written for the Russian Imperial Ballet troupe in 1900 by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. However, unlike most ballets, Glazunov’s Seasons does not contain a singular storyline. Instead, it contains four distinct sections (perhaps a nod to Vivaldi?) that are named after the four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
First, you’ll hear the Winter movement. Listen for the frantic way that Glazunov portrays ice, snow, and hail with the clarinets and strings. The falling snow is depicted as an almost Strauss-ian waltz.
Second, you’ll hear the Spring movement. In the ballet, this movement is introduced by two gnomes who light a warm fire amidst the snow and frost. The harp depicts the arrival of flowers and songbirds.
you’ll hear the Summer movement. The clarinet
returns with the “Dance of the Corn,” representing the growing of crops in the summer
heat. Listen for the strings’ representation of a bubbling brook, which
provides relief for the summer flowers.
you’ll hear the Autumn movement. The dancers
focus here on the harvesting of crops and the making of wine. Listen for the wild
dance to Bacchus, the historical god of wine. The movement ends with the arrival
of a warm autumn night and the emergence of stars in the sky.
P.S. I couldn’t find a suitable video of a live performance, but I think the video above is actually quite helpful because it notates the changing of the seasons with text and images.
Today we will be listening to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, who
conducts the NY Philharmonic in a 1976 live performance of his own composition.
West Side Story is arguably the most notable landmark in all of American theater. It took Broadway by storm in 1957, then conquered the silver screen with ease. West Side Story fused the American musical tradition in all of its variety with European theater forms and a Shakespearean love-story theme. It was original, relatable, and lovable.
In 1960, Bernstein decided to capitalize on the popularity
of West Side Story and wrote the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
As conductor of world-famous NY Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernstein was in the perfect
position to further publicize his famous musical.
The set of dances is essentially a condensed version of the full musical. The Prologue describes the rivalry between the Jet gang and the Shark gang. It is followed by Somewhere, which describes a dream in which the two gangs develop a friendship. Third is a Scherzo in which the dream continues and takes the gangs out of the city and into a sunlit field. The Mambo showcases the dancing competition between the gangs. Cha-cha is when Tony and Maria – the Romeo and Juliet of the story – see each other for the first time. In Meeting Scene, the lovers speak their first words to one another. The Cool Fugue is an elaborate dance sequence in which the Jets show off their moves. In Rumble, the two gang leaders are killed. The work finishes with a Finale love song sung by Maria.