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, proceeding in our series on the three musical periods of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, is Beethoven’s string quartet no. 11 in F Minor.
We discussed last week how Beethoven began in his middle period to move away from the classicism of his early years and toward the romanticism of those who would come after him (Brahms, Wagner, etc.). No. 11, the last quartet in his middle period, reveals Beethoven at the cusp of this transition.
You will hear him exploring more lyrical styles in the second and third movements in particular, and there are passages that even sound almost Mendelssohn-esque. You’ll also notice the abrupt, almost violent opening passage of the first movement that is somewhat similar to the thunderous opening of his famous Fifth Symphony, which was also composed during his middle period. By this point in his career, Beethoven was compressing the emotional tension he had learned to create in his early period. As a result, the moments of explosive power and hushed whispering are pushed closer and closer together, until, in his late period (as you will see next week), they are subsumed into one inextricable whole.
We continue our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music by listening to the string quartet No. 7 in F Major today. This is the first of two quartets that we will hear representing the middle period of Beethoven’s work.
Let’s recap the early Beethoven quartets we listened to over the past two weeks. First, they have a typical classical structure (for the most part): presentation, slow, fast, finale. Second, they are stylistically similar to the compositions of early classical period composers like Haydn. And third, they show Beethoven’s genius with recycling phrases and motifs throughout a piece.
Beethoven’s middle period is where he began to mature and come into his own. It was during this time that he wrote most of the massive symphonic works that we have come to know and love, including his famous Fifth Symphony, his powerful Eroica Symphony, and his first two piano concertos. It is for good reason that his middle period is often referred to as his “heroic” period.
During this part of his life, Beethoven broke away from the Haydn-esque classicism and began to move toward the emotional expressivity of future composers like Brahms and Wagner. No longer was he content with simple, upbeat melodies; he now felt a drive to encompass transcendent themes like death, celebration, or grief.
The 7th string quartet (titled “Razumovsky” after the Russian duke it was written for) shows the start of this change. The first movement begins with a confident melody that is reminiscent of his early period quartets, but Beethoven soon takes us into a development section much more complex and introspective than anything we’ve heard from him before. Those of you familiar with the Eroica Symphony will hear traces of it in this development section.
I would also encourage you to listen carefully to the third movement (Adagio). Unlike his early period works, Beethoven freely explores the tragic element here with sensitivity and power. This is perhaps one of the first instances of Beethoven’s amazing capacity for communicating sadness through music.
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 Impromptu by the Russian composer Shostakovich, performed by violist Paul Neubauer and pianist Wu Han.
Shostakovich lived and composed during the mid-1900s. Some of his most famous works include his violin concerto, his pieces for solo piano, and his later symphonies. His music is a mainstay on the programs of orchestras around the world. But no one knew about Impromptu until a few years ago, when it was discovered in a back room of the Moscow State Archives.
The opening page of Shostakovich’s manuscript contains the date 1931 and a dedication to Alexander Mikhailovich, the former violist of the world-famous Glazunov Quartet. It is the second of only two works Shostakovich wrote for viola. Historians who have examined the score believe that it was written in one sitting.
It is interesting to compare this dainty, short piece to the dozens of short pieces that Shostakovich wrote for solo piano. During the few months I devoted to learning the piano in the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to come across several of these short pieces. Like Impromptu, they combine the melodic simplicity of a nursery rhyme with the unique tonal framework that is characteristic of Shostakovich’s work.
Our music for this week the Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is known by the nickname “Jupiter,” which was coined by the British philanthropist Johann Salomon as he advertised performances of the symphony in 19th-century London. Why the name “Jupiter”? No one knows, but it is likely that the sheer size and majestic key of C Major may have inspired Salomon’s grand view of the composition.
Here are a few things to listen for in each movement:
The first movement is all about lyricism. Mozart, you may remember, was a masterful opera composer and often incorporated the romanticism of operatic music into his symphonies. (For you opera buffs out there, listen for the melodic quotation from Don Giovanni).
The second movement is unique among Mozart’s works because the strings play with mutes. Watch the musicians between the first and second movements slide mutes over the bridges of their instruments in order to dull the sound.
The third movement, in true Mozartian fashion, is a dance.
The fourth movement is where you should pay close attention. It is a fugue based entirely on four notes, yet it also follows sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation – for those of you who are just joining us). In a masterful feat of compositional genius, Mozart borrowed from the fugal brilliance of Bach and the sonata format of his contemporaries and created a generational masterpiece.
Our music for this week is the “Konzertmusik for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50” by German composer Paul Hindemith. The Konzertmusik was written in 1930 at the request of legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky. It is the third “Konzertmusik” written by Hindemith in the year 1930, pairing with the “Konzertmusik for Viola and Chamber Orchestra” and the “Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass, and Harp.”
Hindemith, who lived from 1865 to 1963, is a contemporary of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and other mid-twentieth century composers whose music reflects the experience of living through two world wars. (Hindemith, whose wife was Jewish, was particularly shaped by the second world war). His music incorporates atonal strains of Romantic-era lyricism with jarring infusions of post-modern orchestration. Like other composers of this time, Hindemith sought to portray the struggle of rebuilding society in the wake of international conflict. In particular, he embraced the globalization of culture, language, and artistic heritage. His music reflects this viewpoint; one can hear the melodic lines of Italian opera, the full-blooded strength of the late Romantic era, the intrigue of Ravel’s turn-of-the-century Orientalism, and much more.
There are two parts to the Konzertmusik: Massig schnell, mit Kraft – Sehr breit, aber stets fliebend (“moderately fast, with power – very broad, but always flowing) and Lebhaft – Langsam – Im ersten Zeitmab (“Fast – Slow – Tempo primo”). These descriptions are, I believe, helpful when listening to this work. The varying tempi of this composition can make it difficult to pick out its melodic patterns, so having a perspective of “very broad, but always flowing” is instructive for understanding the atmosphere the composer is trying to convey.
Our music for this week is the Rondo in G Minor for Cello by Antonin Dvorak, performed by Michaela Fukacova.
In the early 1890s, Dvorak spent several months traveling Europe with the German violinist Ferdinan Lachner and Bohemian cellist Hanus Wihan. Over the course of those months, he realized that there was a significant repertoire gap between the two instruments. There was simply far more music written for the violin than for the cello. The Rondo in G Minor was one of three pieces Dvorak wrote in order to help the cello gain some ground.
Dvorak represented the cello well. You’ll notice right away that the piece beautifully showcases the lyrical aspect of the cello’s voice. However, the latter portion of the piece also gives the cellist a few technical challenges that provide an opportunity for some impressive virtuosity. This is consistent with Dvorak’s desire to give the cello more public recognition, particularly since it had long been viewed as a solely accompaniment instrument.
If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll know by now that Dvorak was a passionate Czech nationalist. His music is replete with melodies drawn straight from Czech folk tunes, and the Rondo in G Minor is no exception. The opening melody, for instance, has hints of his usual Slavic-style dance structure, and even the more virtuosic sections are tinged with a lilting dance-like texture.
We are at the end of our countdown! And what a journey it’s been! We’ve covered over four centuries of music in these 25 posts, ranging from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Samuel Barber’s Adagio and everything in between. I thought it only fitting that we end with one of the most famous compositions ever written by an American composer – the “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.
Copland composed Rodeo in 1942. He had previously written a western-style ballet called Billy the Kid that had been met with only moderate success, so he was wary of writing another. However, he was convinced when the Hollywood choreographer Agnes de Mille told him that Rodeo would essentially be “the Taming of the Shrew – with cowboys!” “Hoedown” has since become such a core piece of American musical heritage that it was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The ballet consists of five sections. First, there is “Buckaroo Holiday,” which introduces the Wild West context of the ballet and the main character, known as Cowgirl. Second is “Corral Nocturne,” in which a lovesick Cowgirl wanders an empty corral at night. Third, there is “Ranch House Party,” which contrasts a rollicking dance theme with a more pensive clarinet line in order to portray the loneliness felt by Cowgirl despite her many friends. Fourth is “Saturday Night Waltz,” in which Cowgirl falls in love with a cowboy named Roper. Finally, there is the “Hoedown,” which is what we will hear today. This section of the ballet is meant to portray the happiness and exuberance of love as well as the boundless energy of the Wild West legend surrounding the ballet as a whole.
I hope you enjoy this final installment in our Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music series, but more importantly, I hope you’ve benefited from this series. Perhaps it has helped you grasp the unbelievable breadth of music that is included within the small phrase “classical music.” Perhaps it has introduced you to new music that hadn’t heard before, or maybe it was a stroll down the memory lane of “greatest hits” that you hadn’t dug up in a while. Or perhaps it has helped you narrow your tastes a bit and given you a more nuanced understanding of what it is about classical music that appeals to you. Either way, I hope you have benefited from this series and have had some fun along the way.
Our music for this week is the famous “Habanera” melody from Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Carmen is one of the world’s most beloved operas. Its melodies are unforgettable, and its storyline is a classic tragedy that has captivated the hearts of millions around the world. Carmen tells the story of a soldier named Don Jose, who is seduced by a gypsy named Carmen. She convinces Don Jose to abandon his childhood sweetheart and desert his job in the army. However, the torero Escamillo then catches her eye and she leaves Don Jose behind, causing him to be so overwhelmed with jealousy that he kills her.
On a personal note, Carmen has a special place in my heart. When I was fifteen years old, I had the privilege of performing as a soloist with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece I performed was Carmen Fantasy, written by the 19th-century Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Since Carmen Fantasy is a violin showpiece based on the melodic themes of the opera Carmen, I spent hours listening to the opera in preparation for the performance. Hearing Carmen’s melodies still brings back memories of the adrenaline rush of walking out on stage that night.