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.
Our music for this week is Libera Me from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.
Gabriel Faure was a popular French composer in the late 19th century who composed many small-scale works for solo piano and gained international renown as a piano pedagogue. His most famous pupil is a composer that we hear from quite regularly here at TWM: Maurice Ravel.
As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Faure’s musical style was substantially influenced by the French music of his time. For instance, if you listen to the earlier portions of this Requiem, you will hear harmonic textures that sound like they could have been written by Debussy.
Unlike the other monumental choral works of his time, Faure’s Requiem is relatively soft-spoken. Where Brahms’ Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem raise the roof with their staggering volume, Faure’s Requiem is more likely to inspire reflection through its subtlety. He wrote of the work, “Everything . . . is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest.”
The Libera Me is a perfect example of this meditative aspect of Faure’s music. It opens with a mournful solo that introduces the primary theme. The rhythmic foundation of the pizzicato strings provides momentum and tension. The choir then merges into a layered exploration of the thematic material provided by the opening solo, rising to a dramatic peak complete with winds and brass. The initial melody returns at the end of the piece, accompanied again by the pizzicato strings. However, this time it is sung by the whole choir rather than a solo voice, which creates a spine-tingling atmosphere of power and intensity. Then, just as soon as it appeared, the choir fades into the background and we are left with the same solo voice that we started with, a reminder of the introspective beauty of Faure’s “eternal rest.”
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.
Our music for this week is the Sibelius violin concerto, performed by the Russian virtuoso Victor Tretyakov.
Since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966, Tretyakov has performed with nearly every single major orchestra in the world. His flawless technique and powerful sound have captivated audiences around the globe. He is now a professor of violin at Eastman Conservatory in Rochester, NY, and the Moscow State Conservatory, where his students have included legendary violinists such as Evgeny Bushkov and Ilya Kaler.
Tretyakov’s talent serves the Sibelius concerto well. As one of the premier concerti in the violin repertoire, the Sibelius concerto is regularly performed by violinists everywhere. The opening line of the concerto, where a haunting violin solo emerges from an ethereal orchestral texture, is among the best-known moments in all of music. Those of you familiar with the violin repertoire will note that the cadenza (the interlude in which the soloist embellishes the themes of the piece with extra virtuosity) is in the middle of the first movement, as it is in the Mendelssohn concerto, rather than at the end, as it is in most other concerti. The third movement is full of fireworks, but the second movement is the high point of the concerto. The violin soars over the orchestra with deep, soulful lines that Sibelius drew from one of his favorite Finnish folk songs. It is unforgettable.
Our music for this week is “Variations on the theme of Frank Bridge” by Benjamin Britten.
British composer Frank Bridge was Britten’s childhood teacher and lifelong musical mentor. Britten wrote that he would often spend entire days in composition lessons with Bridge, who was an unrelenting perfectionist. Yet he also credited Bridge as the most formative influence on his musical development. Britten wrote the variations you will hear today as a musical tribute to his teacher.
This composition is written for string orchestra and contains one introductory theme followed by nine variations on the theme. Each movement depicts a different aspect of Bridge’s character. Britten even wrote in the score which personality trait he wanted each variation to reflect: “his integrity…his energy…his charm…his wit.” The original theme, as the title suggests, is taken from one of Bridge’s string quartets, titled Three Idylls for String Quartet.
Listen for the different musical influences in this music. If you listen closely, you can hear a bit of Schoenberg’s experimentation, a bit of Elgar’s grandeur, a bit of a Rossini opera, a bit of a Viennese waltz, and a bit of Ravel’s harmonic genius. Perhaps Britten had taken to heart T.S. Eliot’s notion that true art is the result of an arduous, lifelong process of synthesizing the art that has come before you. It is in this sense that a truly great work of art may be, as Eliot says, one in which “the dead poets . . . assert their immortality most vigorously.”
Our music for this week continues our series on the music of contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan. We will be listening to “A Child’s Prayer,” sung by the Laurens Collegium Rotterdam and conducted by Wiecher Mandemaker.
This is a powerful, deeply moving piece of music. MacMillan dedicated it to the memory of the children who were killed in a 1996 attack on a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. MacMillan personalizes the youthful aspect of the music through the lyrics, which are taken from a prayer he used to say during his childhood in northern Scotland. He also orchestrates the piece, which is written for four-voice choir, so that two solo treble parts overlay the ponderous, lamenting chords sung by the rest of the ensemble. The high-pitched treble parts, which weave in and out of each other throughout the entire piece, represent the children who were lost in the tragedy.
Notice the simplicity of the lyrics. The chords in the choir focus almost exclusively on one word: “Welcome.” This word, pulsing over and over in the lower voices, creates a rocking, relaxed atmosphere. Near the end of the piece, the entire ensemble rises to a climax based on the word “Joy,” which quickly resolves into a duet between the two treble voices. I find it interesting and moving that MacMillan chose to finish this piece, which commemorates such a terrible tragedy, with the word “Joy.” Perhaps he means to point the audience toward a redemption of sorts, or maybe he is evoking joyful childhood memories. Regardless of his aim, MacMillan has done a masterful job of creating a beautiful musical picture of grief, comfort, and hope. And he’s done it in only four minutes of music.
As we continue our series on the music of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we will be listening to his concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra. It is titled Veni Veni Emmanuel.
We’ve been doing this for nearly six years now here at TWM, but this is the first time we’ve listened to a percussion concerto. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve even come across a percussion concerto. MacMillan definitely broke new ground with this composition, which was written for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
This concerto is based on a medieval Gregorian Chant that was written for the Christmas season (listen for the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” theme at 23:29). MacMillan has written that he meant this piece as an Advent reflection on the human presence of Christ. He was particularly inspired by Luke 21, which says that “[t]here will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
If you’ve been with us for a while, you may remember that a concerto almost always has multiple movements (usually three). But MacMillan has written his percussion concerto in a single 26-minute movement. You may also remember that a concerto usually features a single instrument (the soloist), with the orchestra in an accompaniment role. However, the relatively limited tonal range of the percussion instruments means that MacMillan has created a much more balanced work in which the orchestra and soloist share the melodic responsibility.
You can think of this concerto in five parts:
Fanfare – this is where the percussion soloist shows off the range of all the percussion instruments in her arsenal.
Modulation – the orchestra and percussion soloist trade blows.
Cadenza – the woodwinds and percussion soloist explore a more tranquil melody. This is, in MacMillan’s design, a representation of prayer during the Advent season.
Recapitulation – the original theme returns as the percussion soloist embarks on a virtuoso vibraphone solo.
Plainsong – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” emerges from the fray and leads the ensemble to an unexpected conclusion.
As we move into a new year, we will be starting a new series on the music of a composer who (unlike most of the other composers we listen to here at TWM) is currently alive!
Sir James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful composers. Originally from Kilwinning, Scotland, he writes music for almost every instrument imaginable and regularly conducts the best orchestras in the world. You’ll hear Scottish folk music influences in his music, as well as representations of his Catholic faith.
Today we will be listening to his choral composition “O Radiant Dawn,” sung by the fantastic choral ensemble Apollo5. MacMillan wrote this piece for the annual Epiphany celebration in early January, which celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in the Christian calendar. He does a masterful job of balancing the four voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) despite their inherently differing colors. Notice how MacMillan has built the piece from only a few simple phrases, repeated and layered over one another in consistently progressing tonalities.
This is one of MacMillan’s tamer compositions. In the following weeks, we will dive into his intense choral works (such as the “Seven Last Words”), his acrobatic works for violin and orchestra, and his jarring percussion concerto.
Our music for this week is the Piano Sonata #8 by Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the superstar Russian pianist Daniel Trifonov. We will be listening to the second movement of this sonata.
Prokofiev is one of Russia’s most famous twentieth-century composers. He is most widely known for his ballet Romeo and Juliet and his second violin concerto, but he was incredibly versatile. Among the number of piano works he composed are what we’ve come to know as the “Three War Sonatas.” These three works – his sixth, seventh, and eighth sonatas for piano – were written during World War II and reflect Prokofiev’s despair, fear, and – sometimes – hope.
The thematic material for this second movement comes from one of Prokofiev’s abandoned movie scores. You’ll notice that he creates a dreamlike quality with the dichotomy between the running right hand and the plodding, entranced left hand. Listen closely at the 3:28 mark; you’ll hear a delightfully Prokofiev-esque melody emerge from the dreamy texture in all of its polyphonic glory. Listen as well for the jolting atonal chords he inserts near the end before resolving the movement in perfect tonality. Pure genius.
This week’s music is the Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner’s famous opera Lohengrin. It is performed by the Gurzenich Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon.
Lohengrin is one of the most (over?) dramatic storylines in the opera repertoire. Elsa (no, not the Elsa from Disney’s Frozen) falls in love with a mysterious knight who will not reveal his identity to her. After repeated tries to discover his name, Elsa succeeds in getting the knight to admit – on their wedding night – that he is Lohengrin, a mythical divinity sent to protect Elsa from harm. But there’s a catch: part of Lohengrin’s divinity involves a curse, and the curse means that he must disappear if his identity is ever revealed. He suddenly vanishes, leaving Elsa so stricken with grief that she dies on the spot.
The Prelude to Act III that you will hear today comes right before the wedding, when things are still going well for Elsa. It isn’t long before everything does downhill in a hurry. But at this point, life is still good. Wagner therefore opens the Prelude with a shimmering wave of brass and percussion that create a sense of excitement and forward movement. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a tambourine near the beginning.