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.



Glenn Gould plays Bach

Hello all,

We’ve listened to the Goldberg Variations here before (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/j-s-bach-goldberg-variations/), but I thought a repeat was necessary in order to introduce you to one of the most intriguing figures in the history of classical music.

Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.

Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.

To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.



Brahms Symphony #3

Hello all,

In our first two installments of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms, we learned about the difficulty he had escaping the shadow of the great Beethoven. We saw how he agonized over his first symphony for more than a decade largely because of his fear of not measuring up to Beethoven’s standard. We then saw how his second symphony was the beginning of his liberation from this shadow. His third symphony, however, convinced even his most vocal critics that he was on par with Beethoven. One of them even wrote that this third Symphony was “Brahms’ Eroica.” (The Eroica Symphony is one of Beethoven’s most monumental compositions). Another hailed it as being “as close to musical perfection” as he had ever heard.

Here are a few things to listen for:

  • You may recall that the second symphony began with a very simple three-note motif: D, C sharp, D. As it turns out, Brahms utilized three-note motifs many times throughout his composing career. For instance, he wrote an entire sonata for the great violinist Joseph Joachim based on the notes F, A, and E (we actually still refer to the sonata as the “F-A-E Sonata”), which he took from Joachim’s life motto: “Free, but lonely” (in German, Frei Aber Einsam). Before writing the third symphony, Brahms declared himself “Free, but happy” (Frei Aber Froh) and subsequently based the entire symphony off of a three-note motif that consists of the notes F, A, and F.
  • Most compositions involving orchestras end in dramatic fashion, with trumpets blasting and timpani clamoring. This symphony is wonderful because it ends the symphony in pianissimo.
  • Brahms must truly have been high on life when he wrote the symphony, for he throws the listener an abundance of musical “curveballs.” For instance, there is no slow movement in the symphony; all of the movements are at roughly the same tempo. In all my years of ensemble performance, I can’t think of another symphony in which that is true.
  • The third movement is the most famous and well-loved part of the symphony. If you listen to anything, listen to that. It starts at minute 22.



Brahms on the Cello

Hello all,

Our music for this week is the Sonata No. 1 for cello and piano by Johannes Brahms, performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras on the cello and Alexandre Tharaud on the piano.

If you have been with us for a while now, you have probably picked up on the importance of J.S. Bach in the world of classical music. Many consider him to be the father of Western music, and almost every single composer has written at least one composition in homage to him. Brahms is no exception. This cello sonata was written in honor of J.S. Bach, and we can see very tangible evidence of this in the fugue that Brahms includes in the first movement.

Brahms, however, also did his fair share of trailblazing. As an accomplished pianist, he was not a fan of the accompaniment role so often given to the piano in sonatas. He therefore wrote in the front of the manuscript that the piano “should be a partner – often a leading, often a watchful and considerate partner – but it should under no circumstances assume a purely accompanying role.” He also titled the work, “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” which, by listing the piano first, implies that the cello is the accompanying voice. It is also telling that the sonata was written for a man named Joseph Gansbacher, an amateur cellist who reportedly lacked the ability to project an adequately robust sound into a concert hall. During the first rehearsal, with Brahms at the piano and Gansbacher at the cello, Gansbacher had to stop mid-phrase because the piano was so loud he couldn’t even hear himself play. When he complained to Brahms about this predicament, the composer growled, “Lucky for you,” and thundered on.

A few things for you to listen for:

  • The first movement is where you will hear the fugal structure that is reminiscent of Bach’s music. It can be a bit difficult to pick out the cello line at times because of the deep and dark colors that Brahms assigns it.
  • Listen for a Baroque dance in the second movement, another reference to Bach.
  • The fugue returns in the third movement, but this time it is assigned to both instruments. Again, however, Brahms makes sure that the piano is the dominant voice; in fact, it carries three out of the four voices in the fugue.

Zoltan Kodaly – Sonata for solo cello

Our music for this week is the Sonata for solo cello by Zoltan Kodály. It is performed by Janos Starker.

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.