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, which will complete our series on the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, is the String Quartet No. 12, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet.
You may remember from one of the earliest installments in this series that all of Shostakovich’s string quartets were premiered by the Beethoven String Quartet. Because of this, Shostakovich dedicated each of his last four string quartets to a member of the Beethoven Quartet. The twelfth string quartet is thus dedicated to the first violinist, Dmitri Tsyganov.
Those of you who have been with us for a while are probably used to string quartets having four movements. And most of Shostakovich’s string quartets follow this pattern. The twelfth quartet, however, contains only two movements. The first movement begins with a 12-tone row on the cello, perhaps a nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s popular experiments with twelve-tone music. (Shostakovich, it should be said, was not a believer in Schoenberg’s system). This establishes a searching mood, a sense that the movement is seeking closure and is unable to find it. The second movement, however, offers the answers the first movement sought. Listen here for Shostakovich’s brilliant creativity when it comes to rhythm. He creates multiple shifting rhythmic texture that overlap in fascinating ways. After a long, dark passage for solo cello, Shostakovich brings back the initial melody in an epic, breathtaking switch to a major key, the ultimate answer to the unsettled 12-tone row that began the quartet.
It is worth mentioning that Shostakovich’s later string quartets (those composed after the eighth) are controversial. Some listeners like them, others despise them. I am not personally a fan of his later string quartets, with the possible exception of the twelfth, because they seem to get away from the brilliance of the eighth. With that said, I think there is much to enjoy in the twelfth string quartet, and its harmonic journey from dissonance to resolution is, I believe, a fitting way to end our series.
This week’s music is the most famous of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the eighth, performed by the legendary Emerson Quartet.
Shostakovich was in East Germany to write the score for a film about the bombing of Dresden when the inspiration for the eighth string quartet arrived. Three days later, the composition was completed. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “memory of victims of war.”
The eighth string quartet is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Indeed, it is one of the most emotionally powerful works of art to come out of the twentieth century. It is a work of shattering strength and tremendous depth, the kind of work that can leave a listener stunned in their chair, the kind of work that can raise memories long buried and remind us of the fragility and rapidity of life. It is a work that plumbs the depths of human psychology. Like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, it is a consumate artistic masterpiece.
All five movements of the quartet feature quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier compositions. For instance, first symphony and first cello concerto are reference in the first movement, and the reference to his own initials we saw last week in his fourth string quartet is scattered throughout the second, third, and fifth movements. Shostakovich is reported to have said about the quartet that it was “written in memory of its composer,” which suggests the references to his name were a sort of preemptive requiem.
What should you listen for? If I answered that question completely, this post would turn into a PhD thesis. But here are a few things to keep an ear out for:
Shostakovich’s name. It’s everywhere. As we saw last week, Shostakovich signed his name D-E flat-C-B natural in his tenth symphony, his fourth string quartet, and now his eighth string quartet (a permutation of his initials, DSCH, with the B natural substituting the H in German musical nomenclature). Shostakovich places this little signature all over the place, in every key and instrumentation imaginable.
The second movement. There’s simply nothing like it. This is Russian music at its fire-breathing, hair-raising best.
The symbolism in the fourth movement. The start of the fourth movement features a low drone in the first violin, interrupted by three loud strikes that get repeated several times until they reach a harmonic resolution. These strikes represent the gunfire of warfare, and the droning sound of the first violin represents the sound of distant aircraft. Once the strikes resolve, the droning becomes the first four notes of the dies irae portion of the Catholic requiem mass (which is ironically the same notes as Shostakovich’s signature, DSCH, just in a different order). To call this kind of musical symbolism powerful would be a gross understatement.
The fifth movement’s tribute to Bach. As we saw last week, Shostakovich could not resist paying homage to his hero, J.S. Bach, in almost everything he wrote. And the fifth movement is structured in a classic Bach-style fugue. It’s easy to miss because of the achingly sad, elegiac beauty of the fifth movement, but the fugue is there, hiding just under the surface.
Shostakovich wrote his second string quartet while staying at a retreat center for writers and composers outside of Moscow. It was later premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that Shostakovich ultimately chose to premiere all of his string quartets. I find this choice of ensemble particularly interesting, given that Shostakovich’s compositions, like Beethoven’s, are often divided into three chronological categories: early, middle, and late.
The fourth movement (starting at 24:04) is based on a folk tune that Shostakovich featured in his second piano trio. First, you will hear a sombre (and, in my opinion, extremely Russian-sounding) E-flat minor dialogue between the first violin and the cello. The two instruments trade the folk tune back and forth until the viola ushers the ensemble into a second folk tune in A minor. Shostakovich then puts this new theme through a series of ever-intensifying variations that culminate in a frenzy of punched chords. The movement concludes with a recapitulated variation of each theme and a full-throated and stirring rendition of the original folk tune.
Since the summer is winding to an end and we will soon (for those of us in non-tropical climates, at least) be surrounded by orange and red leaves, I thought it was a good time to bring back a piece we’ve heard before that will get us in the mood for fall. Today you will hear the violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn from Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” on a 15th-century Italian Guarneri violin. She is accompanied by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s a quick refresher on the “Four Seasons.” The “Four Seasons” is a set of four violin concertos (or, in the more appropriate Italian plural form, concerti) in which each concerto represents one of the four seasons of the year. The composer is the great Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi, who penned them around 1716 and later premiered them in Venice to dazzling reviews.
As with the rest of the seasons, Autumn is based on a set of written sonnets. Each movement of the “season” corresponds to one of the sonnets. The first movement’s Allegro, which represents the harvest dance of a drunk farmer (Vivaldi’s subscript says that he has been “inflamed by Bacchus”), is delightfully cheerful. The pensive second movement represents the eventual and peaceful slumber of the tired peasants. The third and final movement depicts a country hunting party setting out a dawn with their horns blaring. If you watch the (incredibly helpful) subtitles that the maker of this video inserted into the video, you’ll be able to see when the hunt begins and what takes place as the hunters journey through the wilderness.
I have some troubling news for you. It appears we’ve been beseiged by our long-time nemesis “That Random Guy.”
Those of you who have been around for a while may remember his unfavorable credentials. Critics have compared his musical endeavors to the honking of a shorted horn in a 1971 pink-laminate Model T, the braying of a seizure-prone yearling donkey, the croaking of an aged pond toad, and the intestinal noises supposedly made by hungry Martians. He has been cut from multiple low-ranking orchestral engagements, including the Bottom-Notch Symphony, the Last Resort Philharmonic, and the No-Hope-on-Earth Ensemble. His professional collaborations have been a consistent disaster, as he has only landed one performance – the one you are about to hear – and the audience members were paid (otherwise known as bribed) to attend. In sum, we can expect a rough road ahead. All I can do is wish you luck.
In all seriousness, this week’s music is Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate, performed by yours truly with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Anthony Princiotti. This May 2009 performance was the result of my success in a concerto competition the year before, and it was one of the highlights of my musical life.
Sarasate was a 19th century Spanish virtuoso who wrote a number of showpieces for violin and orchestra. Carmen Fantasy is one of his most popular works because it overlaid themes from the opera Carmen with dazzling violin pyrotechnics. You will hear five movements, each of which is built on a theme from the opera, and each of which showcases different virtuosic aspects of the violin – left-hand pizzicato, flying 16th-note passages, complex chords at high speed, fingered harmonics, and more.
This week’s music is the Sonata in C Minor for violin and piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is probably most famous for his Peer Gynt Suite, but he didn’t see it that way. In his view, his three violin sonatas were his best works because they represented the three stages he went through in his development as a composer. “They represent periods in my development,” he wrote, “the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.” Of the three sonatas, the third sonata remains the most widely performed.
As a Romantic-era composer, Grieg wrote music that practically bursts with lyricism and drama. The third sonata is no exception. The first movement, for instance, opens with a dark C-minor theme but eventually gives way to two motifs that seem to outdo each other in their tranquility, tenderness, and beauty. Another lyrical theme opens the second movement (although be sure to listen for the dance section Grieg inserts as a surprise). Again, the third movement features a sweet, songful melody that is juxtaposed with a muscular recapitulation of the first movement’s theme. The finale features many of the Norwegian folk tunes Grieg was known to adore.
I had the pleasure of giving a small recital a few weeks before Christmas with some friends of mine. Unfortunately, the audio quality of the recording is not good enough to share with all of you, but I wanted to share the music regardless.
The first piece on the program was the Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major by Johannes Brahms. Brahms wrote this work while spending the summer of 1886 in Thun, Switzerland. Nestled between two lakes with the Alps towering on either side, Thun was the ideal location for an inspiring summer of composition. The second sonata is the shortest of the three Brahms wrote for these two instruments, but it is considered the most difficult because of its challenging blend of delicacy and virtuosity. It is light-hearted and radiant throughout, with moments of intensity that resolve into rhapsodic back-and-forth exchanges between the two instruments.
There are three movements. In the first movement, relish the soft touch of the piano line. Brahms, a pianist himself, gives the piano much of the melodic material in the first movement. The second movement darts between fast and slow, energetic and dreamy. Listen for the way the two instruments imitate each other and trade melodic lines back and forth. In the third movement, Brahms gives the violin a deep, rich melody line that ends with triumphant flourish. Listen for that classic Brahmsian “dark chocolate” sound.
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, continuing in our series on the music of great American composers, is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).
Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.
Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!