This week’s music is the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, nicknamed the “Scottish” Symphony.
Over the course of his life, Mendelssohn developed a deep attachment to Scotland. He spent the academic year in Leipzig but escaped to Scotland for the summers. Many of his greatest compositions were inspired by his adventures in Scotland, including both the “Fingal’s Cave” Overture and the “Hebrides” Overture. During the summer of 1829, Mendelssohn departed on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. He was inspired by a visit to historic Holyrood Chapel in northern Scotland to write the “Scottish” symphony you’ll enjoy today.
You will hear the fourth and final movement of the symphony. (Those of you who have been with us for a while will remember that symphonies almost always have four movements). Listen for the elements of Scottish folk music – almost bagpipe-like – that Mendelssohn incorporates into this movement. (A good example is at 7:28).
This week’s music is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:
The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.
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.
To finish our series on music for the organ, we will be listening to the second movement of Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. My apologies for the lack of a live performance in today’s video.
Widely considered the greatest American composer of all time, Aaron Copland wrote music that defined the ethos of the United States of America. His famous Third Symphony, his ultra-famous “Appalachian Spring,” and his mega-famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” are featured every July 4th by orchestras around the country. Yet Copland did not write only orchestral music; he was also open to experimenting with unique orchestrations and uncommon instrument selections, as evidenced by his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.
Copland wrote this symphony in 1924 while studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who many consider to be the greatest composition teacher to have ever lived. The legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Sergei Koussevitsky asked Copland to write an organ symphony in which Boulanger herself would solo as the organist. Though not a fan of the organ, Copland agreed to write the symphony.
The second movement, which you will hear today, is a broad, burly Scherzo that seems to have been inspired by Copland’s classmate in Paris, the great Igor Stravinsky. Listen for the irregular note groupings and uneven accents that Copland sprinkles throughout the movement to give it a jolting, punchy style. In his words: “The Scherzo was my idea of what could be done to adapt the raw material of jazz.”
This week’s music is the start of a short series on music for the organ. We will be hearing the Tocatta from Charles-Marie Widow’s Organ Symphony No. 5, performed by Dr. Frederick Hohman.
The organ has fallen from the height it once commanded at the top of the music world to a place of relative obscurity. Now relegated to “old-school” churches, the organ tends to be reserved for holiday services and an occasional romp through The Star-Spangled Banner. Yet some of the greatest music in history has been written for the organ, most notably by the father of music himself, J.S. Bach, who was an organist by trade. I thought it might be worthwhile to listen to some of the greatest organ works for the next few weeks and (re)gain an appreciation for this amazing and complex instrument.
Early twentieth century French composer and organist Charles-Marie Widow wrote a number of works for the organ, but the Symphony No. 5 is by far the most popular. (He also wrote chamber music, piano etudes, four operas, and a ballet. One could say he was an underachiever). The fifth movement of the Symphony No. 5, Toccata, has become a favorite for festive occasions such as weddings and holiday services. It perfectly captures the spine-tingling power and endless breadth of the organ. The Toccata is based on a series of rapid arpeggios (essentially broken chords, one note at a time) that move, over the course of the piece, through all twelve keys. Underneath these arpeggios is a substructure of syncopated (off-beat) chords that create a fantastic jabbing sensation. The ending of the Toccata has been referred to as “glass-shattering,” and I’m sure you’ll see why 🙂
To wrap up our series on the music of ballet, we will be listening to the second suite from Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe.
While he is most popular for his large-scale orchestral works like Bolero, Ravel was an accomplished and versatile composer whose compositions spanned the breadth of the ballet, opera, solo, and chamber music repertoire. Daphnis et Chloe, the story of the romance between goatherd Daphnis and shepherdess Chloe, contains some of the most beautiful music ever written by Ravel. It is unique among the ballet repertoire because it is less than an hour long and contains only one act. Most commentators refer to it has a choreographed symphony rather than a full-scale ballet.
Ravel was a master of tonal harmony and meter, but he was unafraid to stretch their bounds as well. The opening of Daphnis et Chloe is a perfect example of this combination: a tonal center filled with luscious melodies, juxtaposed with a jarring, unpredictable rhythmic structure.
There are three parts to the ballet. Today, we will listen to the second part. It opens with an a capella choir of wordless voices singing a translucent, somewhat sinister line representing the pirates who have kidnapped Chloe. This is followed by the staccato brilliance of the trumpets, who introduce the second main theme of the ballet.
This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.
Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”
Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.
We are continuing our series on American composers with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.
Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.
This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates. For those of you who are musically trained, you’ll hear a constant tug-of-war between the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the diminished seventh (or really any form of seventh), which, as I’m sure many of you know, is a perfect formula for increasing musical tension.
As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:
A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten
And rise above the surface, then rolling on
Gathers and gathers until it reaches land
Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks
With a prodigious roar, and what was deep
Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.
Our music for this week is the Symphony No. 15 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Michael Sanderling and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.
Along with 15 masterful string quartets, Shostakovich also wrote 15 symphonies. Symphony No. 15 was premiered in 1972, which Shostakovich’s son Maxim conducting. Dmitri, nearing the end of his life, was too weak to lead to the orchestra himself.
Shostakovich once said of this symphony that it was a summation of his life in one work. He scatters little hints of this throughout the piece. For instance, the harmonic progression of the opening motif of the first movement, when written out in its German phonetic spelling, is “es-as-c-h-a,” a barely disguised representation of Shostakovich’s own nickname: “Sascha.” The second movement, which is based on a Russian funeral march, represents Shostakovich’s thoughts as he comes to the end of his life.
This symphony also quotes other great musical works quite often. It is probably safe to assume that, if this symphony is indeed Shostakovich’s life in one work, these musical references point us to pieces of music that were important to Shostakovich’s own musical development. Listen for the momentary imitation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in the first movement (some of you may recognize it from the TV series “The Lone Ranger”). The most experienced listeners among you may recognize the quote from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in the fourth movement. Shostakovich specifically references the famous “Ring of Nibelung” motif from the opera.