We start a new series today with the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. He wrote 21 of them, but we will be focusing on a select few that I think convey an accurate sense of the Nocturnes as a whole.
We are very fortunate to have Chopin’s notes on these pieces. He wrote that each Nocturne “bears our thoughts . . . toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation.” Chopin is very clear: these works are meant to escort us into worlds of deep personal reflection.
The first Nocturne, which you will hear today, is the perfect example of this. It emerges from silence and leaves us in silence. Rolling gracefully along with the listener’s reflections, it surges to an appassionata middle section before retreating to its pensive starting point. Many commentators have described its ability to put the listener in a trance.
There’s a very surprisingly operatic aspect to this music that I would encourage you to listen for. Chopin studied in Warsaw, Poland, where Italian bel canto opera was wildly popular. It is almost certain that he listened to many operas during his time there, and several of the upper lines in his Nocturnes resemble bel canto soprano lines.
Our music this week is the famous Nessun Dorma aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” It is performed by Jonas Kaufmann, the world’s greatest living tenor. Made famous by Pavarotti, it is one of the most well-known pieces in the entire opera repertoire.
The words “nessun dorma” are translated as “none shall sleep.” In the opera, Princess Turandot says to her subjects that “no one shall sleep tonight” until they find out who her lover is. She doesn’t want to know his name because she is interested in him; she wants to know his name so she can have him killed. Apparently Princess Turandot was quite interested in remaining single. At this point, the hero of the story (the tenor) breaks into the aria that you will hear today, saying that while no one will sleep tonight, he will win the Princess’ hand in the morning. Sure enough, after a sleepless and bloodthirsty night, the Princess comes to him and says that she has found love with him.
This opera is more than just a sappy and somewhat morbid love story. It is also a powerful piece of cultural commentary. Puccini wrote it in 1920 after the upheaval of World War I. This was a time in which many people were questioning whether love and beauty still existed. He sought to answer this question through the opera Turandot, which depicts love and hope eventually shining through the darkness and brutality of Princess Turandot’s cruel kingdom. By the end of his life, this paradox had become a theme in nearly every single one of Puccini’s operas.
This week’s music is the Sonata for Solo Violin by Bela Bartok, performed by the Albanian virtuoso Tedi Papavrami.
The mid-20th-century violinist Yehudi Menuhin asked Bartok to write a solo violin sonata for him to perform. Bartok was undergoing treatment for leukemia in Asheville, North Carolina, but he nonetheless agreed to write the sonata. When he showed the score to Menuhin for the first time, Menuhin was stunned. The piece was unplayable, he said. After a few revisions, Menuhin finally agreed to attempt it.
This is arguably the hardest piece ever written for the violin. Four-string chords are littered throughout the score, and the double-finger harmonics and massive harmonic intervals are enough to send most violinists into a panic. Papavrami, who came to fame as a child prodigy, meets the challenge exceptionally well. His technical mastery of the instrument is nothing short of astounding.
Those of you who have been with us for a while here at This Week’s Music may remember the famous sonatas for solo violin written by J.S. Bach. The truly dedicated listeners among us may also remember the sonatas for solo violin written – in homage to Bach – by the Belgian violinist Ysaye. This week’s music also fits in that tradition. It emulates Bach’s violin sonatas, including a complex Fugue, a light-footed Presto, a somber Adagio, and a monumental Ciaconna (Chaconne). This last movement is particularly prescient, for Bach’s most famous work for violin is the Ciaconna from the D-Minor Partita for Solo Violin.
This week’s music is the Reverie et Caprice by Hector Berlioz. It is performed here by the French virtuoso Augustin Dumay.
The name Berlioz doesn’t bring to mind a violin. The great opera composer wrote very few compositions for instruments other than the human voice, but the Reverie et Caprice is one of the few Berlioz works that have retained fame outside of the opera context. Even then, Berlioz couldn’t stray too far from his favorite genre; the melody for the Reverie et Caprice was transposed from one of the discarded arias from his opera Benvenuto Cellini.
Benvenuto Cellini is a comic opera, and that playfulness comes through clearly in the Reverie et Caprice. As the name suggests, it begins with a calm, expansive “reverie” and proceeds to a flashy “caprice.” Berlioz utilizes the musical key to his advantage in creating these two different worlds. For example, he sets the Reverie in the dark, pensive key of F-sharp minor and sets the Caprice in the airy, confident key of A Major. He also uses timing to his advantage when creating an atmosphere of unpredictability in the Caprice. You’ll notice around the 9-minute mark, for instance, his use of fermatas and other time-expanding musical tools to intersperse the violin’s spastic runs with moments of hesitation and suspense.
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.
The twenty-second installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Frederic Chopin, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.
Any list of greatest hits would be incomplete without one of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. They are one of the centerpieces of the piano repertoire. The Nocturne you will hear today is the second of the Opus 9 Nocturnes that were written in 1830 (when Chopin was only twenty years old). It is widely regarded as Chopin’s most famous composition.
The opening melody, which is one of the most famous lines in the piano repertoire, is repeated three times during the Nocturne. Listen for the elaborate decorations that Chopin adds to it each time it returns. You may also notice a somewhat hesitant feel to the music. This is a result of rubato, a stylistic marking that gives the performer the freedom to stretch the tempo in their interpretation of the music. When combined with the captivating sweetness of the melody and the rolling sonority of the bass line, this lilting pace gives the piece a peaceful, almost waltz-like quality.
The sixteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the famous Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Moonlight Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most widely-known pieces, right up there with the Ninth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. He wrote it in 1801 while working as a teacher and court musician for a Hungarian baron. Most people assume that, with a name like “Moonlight Sonata,” this piece was meant to reflect a moon-lit stroll with a lover. However, Beethoven’s journal entries suggest that it was actually a memorial for a dear friend of his who had passed away around that time.
There are three movements in the sonata. Here’s what to listen for:
First is Adagio Sostenuto, which contains the famous Beethoven melody that we all know. Listen for the base line that reverberates throughout the entire movement. It provides a solemn grounding force that carries the melody through its many different permutations.
Second, you’ll hear the Allegretto. This movement could not be more different than the first movement. Think of this part as less of an individual movement and more of an emotional reprieve that Beethoven inserted between the first and third movements.
Third is the Presto Agitato, which starts at 9:14. This movement is the storm that so many Beethoven works are famous for. Listen for two themes – first, a theme composed of flying arpeggios, and second, a more lyrical melody that is reminiscent of the first movement.
The fifteenth installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is “Autumn” from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
No list of greatest hits would be complete without the Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s classic composition is one of the most commonly-performed pieces of music even today, and many of us have heard his “Spring” melodies in television advertisements and waiting room playlists. Today you will hear violinist Frederieke Saeijs perform Autumn with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.
The “Four Seasons” are essentially a set of four violin concertos 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 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.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music. We will hear the Piano Quintet in A Major by Franz Schubert, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. It is performed by the principal string members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (the first chair members of each string section – violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, violist Mate Szucs, cellist Bruno Delepelaire, and double bassist Matthew McDonald) with Yannick Rafalimanana on piano.
Quintet is one of the most widely performed pieces of chamber music in all of classical
music. Along with the Mendelssohn octet and a few other mainstays, it is
featured at nearly every chamber music festival in the world.
wrote the Trout Quintet while on vacation in the Austrian alps. The fact that
he was overwhelmed by the “inconceivable” beauty of the mountains is clearly
evident in the joyous, even rapturous lyricism of the piece. Albert Einstein,
himself an amateur violinist who loved chamber music, wrote that “we cannot
help but love” the Trout Quintet. It is Schubert at his carefree best, with no
hint of the somber colors that he began to explore after contracting syphilis
in his later years.
It is important
to note that this is chamber music. In other words, the Trout Quintet was not
meant to be performed in a concert hall. It was meant to be performed in a
living room or some other intimate setting for friends and family. This has
significant implications not just for how the quintet is to be performed but
also how it is to be heard.
A few comments
on each of the four movements:
The first movement is unforgettable. Listen for the main theme at 1:53.
The second movement has two parts – see if you can tell them apart.
The third movement, a Scherzo, turns the second movement’s two parts on their head, reverses their order, and doubles their speed.
The fourth movement is the most important. It is a set of variations on the tune of Die Forelle, or in German, “The Trout.” Die Forelle was a short song written by Schubert in 1817 for soprano and piano. He created this song by setting to music the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart about a trout being caught by a fisherman.
The Quintet finishes with an Allegro that revisits the Die Forelle theme a few times.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E Minor.
This was a difficult one to choose. There are so many fantastic and worthy Mendelssohn compositions to pick from – his light-hearted Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” his delightful Songs Without Words, and his rollicking string octet. But his violin concerto is in a class of its own. I chose it because it is perhaps the closest thing to perfection in the entire violin repertoire. Everything in this concerto is perfectly balanced – texturally, harmonically, technically, emotionally – and I think the violinist Kirill Troussov does a marvelous job of bringing that across while also adding his own unique flavor.
The perfection of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is a result of the seven years Mendelssohn took to write it. He revised and edited relentlessly, striving for the perfectly-proportioned concerto. This approach may be explainable in light of who he wrote it for – his good friend, the violin virtuoso Ferdinand David. As a pianist who held David in very high esteem, Mendelssohn harbored a deep insecurity about his ability to write for the violin and was worried about letting his friend down.
David was known to have a light, airy, almost Mozartian sound that was best utilized in a chamber music setting (as opposed to a solo setting). You will hear the concerto’s chamber-music-like qualities throughout the second movement in particular, where the violinist and orchestra converse with frequent thematic trade-offs. You will also hear – particularly in the third movement – the kind of lightness and youth that is reported to have characterized David’s playing.
Mendelssohn’s violin concerto isn’t just about balance. It’s also about trailblazing, new ideas, and bravery. In fact, Mendelssohn took a lot of risks in the way he composed this concerto. For instance, he put the solo cadenza (a fancy word for “the time where the soloist gets to show off without the orchestra slowing him down”) in the middle rather than the end of the concerto. Another risk was the blending of the three movements together with no break in between them. The fact that Mendelssohn was able to incorporate these new ideas into his concerto while maintaining its elegance is yet another testimony to his genius.