This week’s music is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. (Fun fact: I played Brahms’ piano quintet with the first violinist in this ensemble at the Apple Hill Chamber Music Festival in 2009).
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!
This week’s music is Impromptu by the Russian composer Shostakovich, performed by violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Wu Han.
Shostakovich lived and composed during the mid-1900s. Some of his most famous works include his violin concerto, his pieces for solo piano, and his later symphonies. His music is a mainstay on the programs of orchestras around the world. But no one knew about Impromptu until a few years ago, when it was discovered in a back room of the Moscow State Archives.
The opening page of Shostakovich’s manuscript contains the date 1931 and a dedication to Alexander Mikhailovich, the former violist of the world-famous Glazunov Quartet. It is the second of only two works Shostakovich wrote for viola. Historians who have examined the score believe that it was written in one sitting.
It is interesting to compare this dainty, short piece to the dozens of short pieces that Shostakovich wrote for solo piano. During the few months I devoted to learning the piano in the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to come across several of these short pieces. Like Impromptu, they combine the melodic simplicity of a nursery rhyme with the unique tonal framework that is characteristic of Shostakovich’s work.
Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata #8 by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the superstar Russian pianist Daniel Trifonov. We will be listening to the second movement of this sonata.
Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most famous twentieth-century composers. He is most widely known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his second violin concerto, but he was incredibly versatile. Among the number of piano works he composed are what we’ve come to know as the “Three War Sonatas.” These three works – his sixth, seventh, and eighth sonatas for piano – were written during World War II and reflect Prokofiev’s despair, fear, and – sometimes – hope.
The thematic material for this second movement comes from one of Prokofiev’s abandoned movie scores. You’ll notice that he creates a dreamlike quality with the dichotomy between the running right hand and the plodding, entranced left hand. Listen closely at the 3:28 mark; you’ll hear a delightfully Prokofiev-esque melody emerge from the dreamy texture in all of its polyphonic glory. Listen as well for the jolting atonal chords he inserts near the end before resolving the movement in perfect tonality. Pure genius.
Our music for this week is the Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 #1.
This Nocturne is considered one of Chopin’s most emotionally powerful compositions. The full depth and breadth of the piano’s expressive range is explored in less than six minutes of music. The composer somehow blends a melancholy, almost despairing melody with a graceful sense of reverence.
How should one listen to this piece? By understanding its layout. There are three sections to this Nocturne. First, the piano opens with the mezza voce section. Mezza voce means “half voice,” which perfectly captures the hushed, sombre atmosphere of the opening line. The second section switches from C Minor to C major at 2:06. This section, with its more uplifting harmonic texture, is labeled sotto voce, which means “somewhat hushed.” But the music quickly becomes the opposite of hushed when it builds to a massive, tumbling climax around the 3:35 mark. You can hear forecasts of this explosion at 3:23. In a masterful bit of compositional genius, Chopin brings the initial melody from Part 1 back, this time with thunderous and heart-breaking passion. The third section returns to C Minor, resigned and exhausted, at 5:00.
This is the emotional power of music at its finest.
We are continuing our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano with the second Opus 27 Nocturne, performed by Evgeny Kissin.
Chopin grouped his Nocturnes in two or three-piece sets. These sets are categorized by Opus number. The Opus 27 Nocturnes, composed in 1835, are perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the Nocturnes. They have been featured in multiple movies and television series.
The second of the Opus 27 Nocturnes is a perfect example of something we discussed a few weeks ago – Chopin’s obsession with the Italian bel canto style. As we know, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera. The flowery bel canto style captivated him, and he incorporated it into many of his Nocturnes. The songlike melodies of the Opus 27 #2 Nocturne showcase this bel canto style perfectly through passionate harmonic climaxes and an atmosphere of glittering delicacy that gives the piece an almost royal aura.
This Nocturne, aside from being one of Chopin’s most famous compositions, also played a role in shaping the future of music. In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig, Germany to play the Nocturnes for his friend Robert Schumann (another great Romantic-era composer). A young pianist, an acquaintance of Schumann’s, happened to be in attendance. He later told his sister that Chopin’s Opus 27 #2 Nocturne was a central inspiration for his career as a composer. In fact, he had even tried to incorporate its melodies into some of his own compositions.
This week’s music is the second installment in our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. We will be hearing pianist Valentina Lisitsa play the Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2.
This is one of the most famous Nocturnes. It is beguiling yet simple, usually relying on a single melodic line and avoiding escalation until the very end. For this reason, it is particularly popular among young pianists who are beginning their journey into the music of Chopin.
Listen for the flowing melodic line. As we learned last week, Chopin was “enamored of flowing song” and drew much of his inspiration from opera music. His fellow pianist Wladyslaw Zelenski said that “Italian song was always his ideal.” You can hear the right hand of the pianist drawing out what could almost be a soprano aria line.
Chopin may have made the Nocturne famous, but he didn’t invent it. That honor goes to the Irish composer John Field, who wrote dozens of them for piano and other instruments. The Nocturne you will hear today is quite similar to many of those written by John Field, so it is likely that Chopin studied Field’s work as he developed his own compositions. However, Chopin’s works have, as Polish piano virtuoso Jan Kleczynski has noted, that “certain tinge of earnest sadness” that makes them so uniquely beautiful.
We start a new series today with the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. He wrote 21 of them, but we will be focusing on a select few that I think convey an accurate sense of the Nocturnes as a whole.
We are very fortunate to have Chopin’s notes on these pieces. He wrote that each Nocturne “bears our thoughts . . . toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation.” Chopin is very clear: these works are meant to escort us into worlds of deep personal reflection.
The first Nocturne, which you will hear today, is the perfect example of this. It emerges from silence and leaves us in silence. Rolling gracefully along with the listener’s reflections, it surges to an appassionata middle section before retreating to its pensive starting point. Many commentators have described its ability to put the listener in a trance.
There’s a very surprisingly operatic aspect to this music that I would encourage you to listen for. Chopin studied in Warsaw, Poland, where Italian bel canto opera was wildly popular. It is almost certain that he listened to many operas during his time there, and several of the upper lines in his Nocturnes resemble bel canto soprano lines.
Our music for this week is the Concerto in C Minor for Piano and Trumpet by Dmitri Shostakovich.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you’re probably scratching your head at this one. Shostakovich? Trumpet with piano? When I discovered this piece a few weeks ago, I was shocked as well. It is a very unconventional combination of instruments by a modern composer who we don’t tend to think of as a trumpet fan. As it turns out, though, this piece is a lot of fun!
Shostakovich wrote this concerto in 1933 (at only 27 years of age!) as an experiment in mixing baroque and modern musical elements. The concerto has four movements, with the energetic outer movements encapsulating a meditative waltz. The trumpet features most prominently in the waltz, so listen for it around the 12-minute mark.
The concerto is full of quotations from both the popular music of the time and previous great composers. For instance, you’ll hear the Broadway tune “California, Here I Come” in the fourth movement. You can also hear melodic echoes of Beethoven’s famous Appassionata Sonata in the first movement. Making such musical quotations was very risky for Shostakovich, who was walking a precarious tightrope between creating honest musical expressions and pleasing the Soviet officials who policed his music.
Our music this week is the Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, a French composer from the late 19th/early 20th century.
Ravel wrote this work in the French Basque town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he was raised. He desired that the piano trio be “Basque in coloring,” and – true to his word – he based the initial theme on a folk tune he heard while sitting at his favorite Basque café. He was almost finished with the work when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the French army in August of 1914, where he worked as a medical aide and truck driver for the 13th Artillery Regiment.
The piano trio is a notoriously difficult musical medium to write for. These three instruments – piano, cello, and violin – have such radically different sonorities and sound production capabilities that the composer must work hard to appropriately balance them. The piano’s sound, which is obviously the largest of the three, cannot overwhelm the stringed instruments; the upper registers of the violin cannot overshadow the other two; and both of them are in constant danger of overshadowing the dark, rich tones of the cello. Ravel’s approach to this balancing issue was to use special effects: trills, tremolos, harmonics, glissandos (slides up and down the fingerboard), and arpeggios. He also made sure to keep the violin and cello lines two octaves apart whenever possible (to highlight their different registers) and usually placed the pianist’s left-hand line directly in the middle of that two-octave stretch. This trio therefore showcases both the distinctive French style and compositional genius of Ravel.
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.