Spring Sonata

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.

As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas, however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).

A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms). Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but certainly not subtle (as in Bach).

The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.

Enjoy!

T

Mendelssohn Piano Trio #2

Hello all,

We return this week to our mini-series on the piano trios of Felix Mendelssohn to hear his Piano Trio #2 in C Minor.

You will hear four movements in this piece. They follow the usual Romantic-era format: allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale. Mendelssohn wrote this trio only two years before his untimely death in 1847 at the age of 38.

This trio counteracts the lyricism and sublime beauty of the first piano trio with a sombre, foreboding tonal scheme. Storms seem imminent as the cello and piano trade their dark colors underneath violin’s tumultuous worrying. The harmonic structure is never satisfied and shifts from one tonality to another with unrelenting pace. Even the delicate second movement contains these deep, dark sound colors.

However, the tumultuousness of the first three movements is dissipated in the upbeat finale (4th movement), which features as its main melody a tune that many know as the “Doxology,” a hymn often sung in churches around the world. Mendelssohn’s musical hero, J.S. Bach, apparently used this melody in one of his cantatas, and the young composer desired to use this melody as a form of homage to the father of classical music.

Enjoy!

T

New Series – Mendelssohn Piano Trios

Hello all,

Our music for this week marks the start of a new (and very brief) series on Mendelssohn’s two piano trios. Today we will hear the Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, performed by Andreas Rohn on the violin, Sebastian Klinger on the cello, and international superstar Lang Lang on the piano.

The first piano trio is regarded as one of Mendelssohn’s two or three greatest works, alongside his violin concerto and his string Octet (which, you may remember, we listened to a few weeks ago: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2019/01/19/mendelssohn-octet/).

The first movement, Molto allegro ed agitato, opens with an unforgettable cello line. This is one of those rare lines of music that feel as though you’ve always known them. The instruments pass this theme around until the introduction of the second theme, which is in A Major (as opposed to the opening key of D Minor). As you can imagine, this is a much brighter melody that the violin is largely responsible for. Mendelssohn does a fantastic job of using the natural strengths of the instruments to his advantage, and these two themes are a perfect example of that: for the somber D Minor line, he uses the dark, deep tones of the cello, and for the bright A Major line, he uses the light, airy tones of the violin.

The second movement is, in my opinion, the most beautiful melody Mendelssohn wrote. The opening piano solo is simply sublime.

The third movement is a fast, light scherzo written in sonata form. Like the second movement, the piano begins with the theme. However, the violin and cello soon take over and turn it into a more lyrical middle section before the piano rushes it to end the movement.

The fourth and final movement is the closest Mendelssohn could get (being a pianist himself) to a piano concerto. Watch Lang Lang’s hands closely – his performance is astounding. At the very end of the piece, listen for the harmonic shift to the bright key of D Major that resolves the tension of D Minor that has been holding the listener captive for all four movements.

Enjoy!

T

P.S.A. – I will be out of the country on vacation through July 28, so we will miss at least one, maybe two weeks of music. I’ll be back the first week of August with the second piano trio!

Consolation

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Consolation in D-flat Major by Franz Liszt, performed by virtuoso pianist Valentia Lisitsa.

1849 was a wild year for Franz Liszt. During that year, he completed two European tours with the violinist Joseph Joachim, wrote both of his monumental piano concertos, composed two symphonic poems, made a number of piano transcriptions, and engaged in scandalous romantic affairs with at least two German princesses. On top of all that, he managed to find time to compose six Consolations for solo piano. The third Consolation, which you will hear today, is the most well-known of the group.

All six of the Consolations were composed in one of two keys – E Major or D-flat Major. It is interesting to note that, throughout his career, Liszt always wrote in E Major or D-flat Major when seeking to express a religious message. However, we have no indication from historical records exactly what that message was in the context of the third Consolation.

The D-flat Major Consolation was an echo of Liszt’s colleague Chopin, who also wrote a D-flat Major solo piano composition (although Chopin called it a Nocturne, not a Consolation). It is very apparent that Liszt was imitating Chopin’s style in writing the third Consolation. For instance, both pieces begin with a long and almost breathless bel canto opening line in which the pianist’s right hand weaves a soprano melody over the rolling bass-line of the left hand.

There was also a bit of technological experimentation involved in the composition of the third Consolation. Three years after composing it, Liszt received from Steinway & Company a brand-new grand piano with a newly invented feature – the sostenuto pedal. This pedal sustains only the notes that are being pressed down, essentially allowing the pianist to hold certain notes while playing other notes that are unaffected by the pedal. Liszt reportedly sent a re-drafted version of the D-flat Major Consolation to the managers of Steinway & Company to show them that he had adapted his compositional ability to their invention.

Enjoy!

T

Twinkle Twinkle

Hello all,

Our music for today is the famous “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” variations for solo piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart wrote these variations somewhere around the year 1780 as an exercise for young pianists. The melody that we now know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” first appeared in 1761, when Mozart was in his late teens. There are twelve variations on the initial C Major theme. Here is a brief summary of each of them:

  • Variation 1: The right hand performs the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 2: The two hands switch jobs.
  • Variation 3: The right hand performs the melody in a triplet figure.
  • Variation 4: They switch again.
  • Variation 5: The right hand presents the melody in an off-beat pattern.
  • Variation 6: The right hand plays a chord-heavy version of the melody while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
  • Variation 7: The melody is heard in running scale patterns in the right hand.
  • Variation 8: The melody is presented in C minor (parallel minor of C major) and there is imitation between the left and right hands.
  • Variation 9: The melody is performed staccato (short, sharp notes).
  • Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody with the right hand embellishing with sixteenth notes (just like variation #2).
  • Variation 11: The tempo slows and the right hand performs the melody in a singing style.
  • Variation 12: Both hands compete in a race to the finish.

Enjoy!

T

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.

Enjoy!

T

100!

Hello all,

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.

Enjoy! 

T

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio

Hello all,

Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life. 

Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.

The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.

The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.

The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.

Enjoy!

T

 

 

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.

Enjoy!

T

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.

Enjoy!

T