Kodaly’s Fireworks

Hello all,

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.


Wagner’s “Parsifal”

Hello all,

This week’s music is a piece that routinely features in the conversation of “most beautiful music of all time”: the Overture to Act I of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal.”

Parsifal was written in 1882. The storyline is the search for the Holy Grail and the adventures that arise along the way. Parsifal, who doesn’t arrive until later in the story, confronts numerous curses, betrayals, and other challenges on his journey to uncover the Holy Grail. He is eventually crowned king. The story, which has equivalents across the literature of multiple ancient civilizations, is timeless, but I think the music is the best part.

This overture is a trumpet player’s dream. The trumpet is featured as the primary melodic instrument, and it has multiple moments in the spotlight. Listen at 2:15 for the trumpet’s first presentation of the melody – one of the most beautiful and well-known melodies in all of music. You’ll hear another presentation of the melody, this time with more harmonic support from the strings, at 4:30. I appreciate the way this video focuses on the trumpet player and gives you a close-up view of his performance.




Hello all,

This week’s music is the Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, performed by Mischa Maisky.

Bach wrote six suites for solo cello between 1717 and 1723 while living Kothen, Germany. The first suite, a part of which you will hear today, has become the most famous of the six. Each suite consists of six movements that represent common baroque dance forms: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bouree/gavotte, and gigue. An Allemande was a type of German court dance that involved dancers linking arms and making full or partial turns down a line. Visually, the allemande gave the appearance of a large weave or braid. It was performed primarily by German royalty, and there is an air of courtly majesty in the music.

The six cello suites of J.S. Bach are the foundation of the cello repertoire. Every cellist learns them, and every cello competition requires their performance. They vary in complexity, from simple melodies to rumbling chords, and challenge the cellist in nearly every aspect of technical and musical interpretation.



Not Again…

Hello everyone,

I have some troubling news for you. It appears we’ve been beseiged by our long-time nemesis “That Random Guy.”

Those of you who have been around for a while may remember his unfavorable credentials. Critics have compared his musical endeavors to the honking of a shorted horn in a 1971 pink-laminate Model T, the braying of a seizure-prone yearling donkey, the croaking of an aged pond toad, and the intestinal noises supposedly made by hungry Martians. He has been cut from multiple low-ranking orchestral engagements, including the Bottom-Notch Symphony, the Last Resort Philharmonic, and the No-Hope-on-Earth Ensemble. His professional collaborations have been a consistent disaster, as he has only landed one performance – the one you are about to hear – and the audience members were paid (otherwise known as bribed) to attend. In sum, we can expect a rough road ahead. All I can do is wish you luck.

In all seriousness, this week’s music is Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate, performed by yours truly with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Princiotti. This May 2009 performance was the result of my success in a concerto competition the year before, and it was one of the highlights of my musical life.

Sarasate was a 19th century Spanish virtuoso who wrote a number of showpieces for violin and orchestra. Carmen Fantasy is one of his most popular works because it overlaid themes from the opera Carmen with dazzling violin pyrotechnics. You will hear five movements, each of which is built on a theme from the opera, and each of which showcases different virtuosic aspects of the violin – left-hand pizzicato, flying 16th-note passages, complex chords at high speed, fingered harmonics, and more.

Enjoy the ride!


The Lark Ascending

Hello all,

This week’s music is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams, performed by violinist Hilary Hahn.

The Lark Ascending was inspired by an 1880 George Meredith poem about a skylark in flight. The violin line dips and soars, imitating the path of the bird. The orchestra seems to represent the shifting breeze on which the bird floats. It is a visual picture, created in sound. Vaughn Williams referred to it as his “pastoral romance.”

I think perhaps the best thing I can offer you is the words of the poem on which this piece is based. Therefore, without further ado:

He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound,

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,

Tis love of earth that he instills,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup

And he the wine which overflows

to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings

In light, and then the fancy sings.



Mozart #40

Hello all,

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.



Chopin Nocturne Opus 48 #1

Hello all,

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.



Chopin Nocturne Opus 27 #2

Hello all,

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.

His name was Felix Mendelssohn.



Chopin Nocturne Opus 9 #2

Hello all,

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.



New Series: Chopin Noctures

Hello all,

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.