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.
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Major for organ by J.S. Bach, performed by organist Ton Koopman on a Danish organ built in 1746.
We could not do a series on organ music without featuring Bach’s music. As kapelmeister (music director) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, Bach wrote weekly organ compositions and performed daily as the court organist. Most historians agree that Bach’s instrumental mastery of the organ was greater than any other instrument. Bach wrote so much organ music that one organist’s attempt to perform all of it took fourteen recitals over five years!
In the late 1720s, Bach wrote six sonatas for organ. (The “six sonatas” thing seems to have been a theme for Bach – he wrote six sonatas for organ, six sonatas for solo cello, and six sonatas for solo violin). The C Major sonata, which you will hear today, is built on a slow-paced theme from one of Bach’s earlier compositions. Bach added fast outer movements to the sonata, effectively sandwiching the recycled theme within two movements of complex and invigorating material.
Our music for Christmas Eve is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.
The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.
There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.
This week’s music is The Lamb by English composer John Tavener. Tavener wrote the following about the piece, which is based on William Blake’s poem by the same name, in 2004:
“The Lamb was written . . . for my then 3-year old nephew, Simon. It was composed from seven notes in an afternoon. Blake’s child-like vision perhaps explains The Lamb’s great popularity in a world that is starved of this precious and sacred dimension in almost every aspect of life.”
If his goal was to create a brief moment of transcendence, Tavener succeeded. The Lamb is a haunting work for a capella choir, written in 1982, that harkens back to the era of Gregorian chant. Listen for the way the choir begins the piece with unison moving lines that shift up and down together. This chant-like atmosphere then gives way to a series of individual lines that weave in and out of each other (somewhat evocative of Stravinsky, who was one of Tavener’s most significant musical influences) before coming back together at the end.
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.
This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.
It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.
We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.
The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.
I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.
This week’s music, continuing in our new series on the chronological development of Beethoven’s music, is the String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, performed by the Ying Quartet.
No. 4 is the only one of the six string quartets in Beethoven’s early period to be set in a minor key. It is also unique because it is not structured as most of his string quartets were. As we noted last week, the majority of Beethoven’s string quartets (indeed, the majority of all string quartets ever composed) proceed with four movements that follow the “presentation,” “slow,” “fast,” and “finale” progression. However, No. 4 dispenses with the “fast” movement and replaces it with a C Major minuet that Beethoven referred to as “a joke.”
The first movement is the most well-known part of this quartet. In many ways, it is structured like Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony (also in C Minor). It oscillates between jagged unison chords and lyrical viola and cello solos. These solos get repeated throughout the movement, but each time they are in a different tonality. Beethoven showcases his mastery of harmony in the modulations between each of these tonalities. Listen for sharp dynamic changes as well; Beethoven was beginning to increase his use of contrasting volume levels at this point in his career.
This week’s music is Spiegel Im Spiegel by the Estonian composer Arvo Part.
Spiegel im Spiegel is, like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, one of the most powerful pieces of music written in the 20th century. It consists of a single solo line (in this performance, violin) over a piano accompaniment. The title of the 1978 piece means “Mirror in the Mirror,” and it describes how the pieces progresses. The melody, which starts with only two notes, is a repeated set of ascending melodic phrases that are mirrored by a descending mirror phrase. The ascents are broken by periodic returns to the central pitch of A. The piano, mirroring these changes with ascents and descents of its own, plays what are called tintinnabula notes, which are bell-like tones that sound above and below the melodic line following a fixed formula.
Arvo Part’s view of musical performance is relevant to the simple style of this piece: “Everything redundant must be left aside. Just like the composer has to reduce his ego when writing the music, the musician too must put his ego aside when performing the piece.” In a way, the musical atmosphere of Spiegel im Spiegel is a reflection of Part’s own view of music.
This week’s music, continuing our series on music written for the octet, is the Octet for Strings in C Major by the Romanian composer George Enescu.
It is unfortunate that Enescu is not more well-known than he is, for he is arguably the greatest musical genius since Mozart. He began composing at the age of 5 and graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at age 13. The international premiere of his compositions began when he was only 16. In addition to being a masterful composer, Enescu was also one a generational talent on the violin (Heifetz himself called Enescu one of the greatest violinists of all time) and a world-class pianist. As a composer, Enescu is unmistakably original, yet accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of listeners.
The Octet was written in 1890. After writing for individual instruments for most of his life, Enescu found the orchestration of the eight-person ensemble to be a challenge. “An engineer launching his first suspension bridge over a river could not feel more anxiety than I felt when I set out to darken my paper,” he wrote. Yet the music he created is among the most complex and sophisticated works of chamber music in the repertoire. Much like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (https://thisweeksmusic.com/2018/07/31/an-amazing-discovery/) (which, as some of you know, I believe to be the greatest work of chamber music ever composed), Enescu’s Octet is a tour-de-force of musical texture. It is nuanced, invigorating, and unbelievably dense; lush, but also powerful and relentless; chromatic, yet intensely tonal.
Take a minute to compare this octet to what we’ve heard thus far in this series. Schubert’s Octet, for instance, could not be more different than this one. Where Schubert’s horn and clarinet lines weave delicate melodies through a soft accompaniment texture, Enescu flies without hesitation to the peak of emotional intensity. Where Mendelssohn’s violin solos soar gloriously over the cellos and violas, Enescu forces each instrument to fight for its time in the spotlight.
Our music for this week is the Sonata for Two Violins by Sergei Prokofiev.
“Listening to bad music sometimes inspires good ideas… After once hearing an unsuccessful piece [unspecified] for two violins without piano accompaniment, it struck me that in spite of the apparent limitations of such a duet one could make it interesting enough to listen to for ten or fifteen minutes….” Sergei Prokofiev, 1941
Thus the idea for this sonata was born. It was written in 1932 on commission for a private recital, but it soon became well-known in public concert halls. There are four movements in this sonata; you will be hearing the second, performed by violinists Alexi Kenny and Brian Hong. This movement is all about rhythm, virtuosity, and aggression. Listen to how the violins trade flying eighth note jabs in percussive waterfalls up and down the harmonic register.
I would also encourage you to watch the performers themselves in this video. Notice how they use eye contact and body motion to communicate and stay in touch with each other during these challenging sections. As a musician myself, I can attest to the paramount importance of eye contact and expressive motion (to an extent) during performance. These physical cues can help the musicians connect through and across musical shapes and can also ensure rhythmic stability.