To conclude our series on great duets in classical music history, we will be listening to Passacaglia by Halvorsen, based on a theme by George Frederic Handel. The musicians are Julia Fischer and Daniel Muller-Schott.
Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist and conductor who was widely known through Europe in the early 20th century. He wrote the duet initially for violin and viola, and it has since been transcribed for violin and cello. The theme that Halvorsen used to create this duet was taken from George Frederic Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G Minor. (For those of you who are new to this whole classical music business, Handel is the composer who wrote the Messiah that we so often hear at Christmas-time). A passacaglia is a French dance form that starts with a simple melody and builds on it with a series of increasingly complex variations. This particular piece contains 12 variations in which the violin and the cello take turns carrying the dominant voice. You’ll see the performers plucking the strings (musicians call this pizzicato), playing complex sets of chords, bouncing the bow on the strings (musicians called this ricochet) and flying up and down the fingerboard with amazing dexterity. By the end of the piece, we will have experienced the full breadth of virtuosic capability in both instruments.
Our series on famous duets continues with the Double Concerto by Johannes Brahms, performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter* on the violin and Maximilian Hornung on the cello.
In my opinion, the most amazing thing about this concerto is that Brahms didn’t play a single stringed instrument. He was a pianist. While this certainly makes Brahms’ compositional ability even more impressive,** it is helpful to know that he was very strongly motivated to compose a piece that included a violin part. Brahms’ friendship with virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim (who had premiered Brahms’ monumental violin concerto) had recently become strained after Brahms testified on behalf of Joachim’s wife in a divorce proceeding. Historians believe that Brahms wrote the Double Concerto as a reconciliation gift for his friend.
The Double Concerto is jam-packed with dense and complex melodies. Brahms does a masterful job of balancing the rich colors of the cello with the bright colors of the violin, and the two become, in his hands, a unified voice. There is a certain harmonic glow about this piece that is characteristic of Brahms’ later years. This is particular evident in the lovely second movement, which begins at 18:51 and soars to new heights of color through a unison melody shared by the two solo instruments.
*Those of you who know my unabashed trepidations about the artistry of Anne-Sophie Mutter may be surprised by the choice of this video. However, I must give credit where credit is due. While Mutter may not be my choice for Beethoven or Mozart, her ultra-Romantic style is absolutely perfect for playing Brahms. I think she does an incredible job of capturing the rich core of this powerful violin part.
**Brahms himself was concerned about his lack of experience writing for stringed instruments. He wrote a letter to Clara Schumann expressing doubt about his ability to properly write a double concerto, and it was her encouraging reply that motivated him to continue composing.
Our music for this week is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich,
performed by the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos.
As we learned a few weeks ago when we listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, Shostakovich was periodically in hot water with the Soviet leadership under which he labored. It was this pressure that caused him to tuck his First Violin Concerto away in his desk upon its completion. He feared a strong negative reaction from the government and chose to wait for a more favorable time for publication. This time arrived with the death of Stalin in 1953. David Oistrakh, the legendary father of Russian violin playing, premiered the work in Leningrad and received endless ovations. A few months later, American audiences followed suit.
The concerto is monumental. Watching Kavakos play this piece is amazing simply because he is still able to invest himself in it by the end. Shostakovich himself referred to it as his “iron man” concerto. Legend has it that Oistrakh, after the first rehearsal, begged Shostakovich to give more of the thematic material to the orchestra so that he could find time to wipe the sweat off of his brow.
The savagery of the second movement, emotional overload of the third movement, and mockery of the fourth movement are impressive. However, I find the first movement to be the most moving. It is not as impressive or flashy as the others, yet it is twice as powerful. It taps into orchestral depths that other composers are afraid to go to, and the violin line takes the listener into an eerie, other-worldly, trance-like place.
Our music for today is the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #3, performed by the Orchestra of the Liszt Conservatory.
“Free, but happy.” These are the words in which Brahms characterized his mood in 1883. At the time, he was a fifty-year-old bachelor who had taken a five-year sabbatical from writing symphonies. In his native German, “free, but happy” is written Frei aber froh, and Brahms decided to use F-A-F (the first letters of each of these three words) as the foundational harmonic line for his third symphony.
movement is so beautiful because it captures the mixture of loneliness and
freedom that Brahms was experiencing at this time. It is simultaneously mournful
and joyous; restrained and unleashed; reflective and expository. Unlike
most symphonic melodies, the primary theme of the movement begins from the very
start of the movement. The cellos carry this line toward the violins, which
help it soar to the winds and onward. I think of this movement as the
definition of Romantic-era lyricism.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.
Our music for today is the Piano Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky, performed by three of the greatest Russian musicians of all time: Oleg Kagan (violin), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), and Natalia Gutman (cello). This performance was shortly after Kagan was diagnosed with cancer that would lead to his untimely death at only 44 years of age in 1990. I am one of the many who believe that he would have become “the next Oistrakh” or “the next Heifetz” had he lived a full life.
Tchaikovsky wrote this trio as one long transition from A Major to A Minor. His hope was that the listener would be able to grasp the long (90 pages!) journey from one world to another.
The first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a soulful melody in the cello that is passed around the trio throughout the rest of the movement. Listen for the many different permutations of this theme that Tchaikovsky creates.
The second movement is a set of ten variations on a theme that is introduced by the piano in the opening bars. First, the violin takes the theme. Second, the cello tries its hand at the melody. Third, the strings play pizzicato while the piano accelerates into a Scherzo variation. Fourth, the three combine again for a rich, soulful variation. Fifth, the piano seems to imitate bells with its ringing version of the main theme. Sixth, the cello leads the trio in a waltz. Seventh, the piano brings us back to a nearly identical version of the original theme. Eighth, the three instruments power their way through a busy Fugue. Ninth, the cello carries the trio through a slow and pensive meditation. Finally, the three instruments race to the finish in a light-hearted Mazurka.
The final movement is actually another variation on the theme that begins the second movement, but this time it is more developed. Listen for the way that Tchaikovsky finishes the trio with a combination of the second movement’s main theme and the theme from the opening of the first movement.
Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.
The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.
This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.
Our music for this week is the Suite No. 1 from Mikail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s
Caucasion Sketches. I’m willing to
bet that none of you – even the most veteran musicians – have heard of this
piece. However, one of the many goals of This Week’s Music is to popularize
music that no one knows about!
Ippolitov-Ivanov was a Russian composer in the early 20th century who studied with the famous Rimsky-Korsakov. One of his first jobs was as a conductor in the region of Russia that is now Georgia. During his eleven years there, he fell in love with the soaring mountain peaks and rich folk heritage of the region. The Caucasion Sketches are his musical depiction of the rural Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, which, as a result of their position along a major trade route from the Black Sea to Moscow, were filled with an incredible amount of cultural diversity.
There are four movements in the Caucasion
In a Mountain Pass
In a Village – listen for the English horn’s solo in this movement. It is supposedly a representation of an instrument native to the Caucasus Mountains region called the zurna.
In a Mosque
Procession of the Sardar – the Sardar was the leader or regional commander, and this movement depicts the pomp and circumstance that surround his arrival in the village.
We are all probably familiar with Antonio Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, but I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t heard of this Seasons composition. It was written for the Russian Imperial Ballet troupe in 1900 by the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. However, unlike most ballets, Glazunov’s Seasons does not contain a singular storyline. Instead, it contains four distinct sections (perhaps a nod to Vivaldi?) that are named after the four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
First, you’ll hear the Winter movement. Listen for the frantic way that Glazunov portrays ice, snow, and hail with the clarinets and strings. The falling snow is depicted as an almost Strauss-ian waltz.
Second, you’ll hear the Spring movement. In the ballet, this movement is introduced by two gnomes who light a warm fire amidst the snow and frost. The harp depicts the arrival of flowers and songbirds.
you’ll hear the Summer movement. The clarinet
returns with the “Dance of the Corn,” representing the growing of crops in the summer
heat. Listen for the strings’ representation of a bubbling brook, which
provides relief for the summer flowers.
you’ll hear the Autumn movement. The dancers
focus here on the harvesting of crops and the making of wine. Listen for the wild
dance to Bacchus, the historical god of wine. The movement ends with the arrival
of a warm autumn night and the emergence of stars in the sky.
P.S. I couldn’t find a suitable video of a live performance, but I think the video above is actually quite helpful because it notates the changing of the seasons with text and images.
As we continue our series on the music of Leonard Bernstein, our music for this week is the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. The composer conducts the Boys and Men’s Choir of the Poznan Philharmonic.
Chichester Psalms was written in 1965 for boy soprano, solo quartet, choir, and orchestra. It is essentially a musical setting of Psalms 2, 23, 100, 108, 131, and 133 that was commissioned by the Revered Walter Hussey of the Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England.
many of his other compsitions, Bernstein wrote extensively about his motivation
for composing the Psalms.
“For hours on end I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with the forearms, the fists and the palms —
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
… My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.”
most of Bernstein’s compositions during this time period, the Psalms are not atonal. In his own words,
the piece is “the
most accessible, B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Bernstein was also
adamant that the Psalms be sung in
the original Hebrew and with the rhythmic style of the Hebrew musical
tradition. Some have observed that by writing a Christian mass for a Christian
church in the Hebrew language and Hebrew style, Bernstein was implicitly advocating
for a peaceful reconciliation between the two faiths.
Here’s a quick rundown of
things to listen for:
First movement: This movement is based on
Psalm 108 and opens with a victorious “Awake, psaltery and harp!” Interestingly,
this movement is 7/4 meter, which, if you are a musician, you will know is an
almost unheard-of meter.
Second movement: listen for the boy soprano
solo that is based on Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) and is accompanied
by the harp (perhaps symbolic of the shepherd-psalmist King David?) Later in
the movement, you’ll hear a quick snippet of a West Side Story melody that Bernstein threw in just for fun.
Third movement: notice how Bernstein ends the
piece with less and less orchestral involvement, eventually giving way to a subdued
chorus without instrumentation.