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.
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.