This week’s music is the start of a short series on music for the organ. We will be hearing the Tocatta from Charles-Marie Widow’s Organ Symphony No. 5, performed by Dr. Frederick Hohman.
The organ has fallen from the height it once commanded at the top of the music world to a place of relative obscurity. Now relegated to “old-school” churches, the organ tends to be reserved for holiday services and an occasional romp through The Star-Spangled Banner. Yet some of the greatest music in history has been written for the organ, most notably by the father of music himself, J.S. Bach, who was an organist by trade. I thought it might be worthwhile to listen to some of the greatest organ works for the next few weeks and (re)gain an appreciation for this amazing and complex instrument.
Early twentieth century French composer and organist Charles-Marie Widow wrote a number of works for the organ, but the Symphony No. 5 is by far the most popular. (He also wrote chamber music, piano etudes, four operas, and a ballet. One could say he was an underachiever). The fifth movement of the Symphony No. 5, Toccata, has become a favorite for festive occasions such as weddings and holiday services. It perfectly captures the spine-tingling power and endless breadth of the organ. The Toccata is based on a series of rapid arpeggios (essentially broken chords, one note at a time) that move, over the course of the piece, through all twelve keys. Underneath these arpeggios is a substructure of syncopated (off-beat) chords that create a fantastic jabbing sensation. The ending of the Toccata has been referred to as “glass-shattering,” and I’m sure you’ll see why 🙂
This week’s music is a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor by the superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin. Soon after his graduation from conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff wrote a series of preludes titled Morceaux de fantaisie. Of these preludes, the C-sharp minor prelude has become the most famous.
The prelude is famous primarily because of the ominous three-chord motif – A, G sharp, and C sharp – that opens the piece. This motif repeats throughout, though Rachmaninoff presents in in several different forms and variations as the piece progresses. Listen for the drop-off from forte to pianissimo near the beginning as Rachmaninoff introduces the main theme. After the theme is introduced, you’ll hear the music increase in speed and energy through a series of chromatic (moving by half-steps) triplets. Rachmaninoff builds this chromatic sequence into a recapitulation of the original motif that dies out to finish the piece.
This week’s music, in continuation of our series on the octet, is Felix Mendelssohn’s octet for four violins, two violas, and cellos.
While we commonly think of the Octet as the pinnacle of the chamber music repertoire, Mendelssohn (who composed it at the ripe old age of 16) did not view it as a chamber composition. In fact, he viewed it as a condensed symphony. This is reflected in both the structure of the piece and the inscription that Mendelssohn placed at the beginning of the manuscript: The Octet must be played in the style of a symphony in all parts; the pianos and fortes must be precisely differentiated and be more sharply accentuated than is ordinarily done in pieces of this type. These words clearly place the Octet within a symphonic framework, which is helpful when thinking about how to listen to it.
For instance, the structure of the Octet unfolds like a symphony. You will hear a brilliant first movement allegro leading to a lush andante. The third movement, a scherzo, frolics through chamber-music-like textures before the presto finale explodes into a fully symphonic finale. You’ll also hear Mendelssohn utilizing the full range of expressive qualities available to this combination of instruments, much like a symphony might do. You can also sense Mendelssohn’s movement away from the Classical traditions of his predecessors (Mozart, Haydn, etc.) an into the Romantic style of his contemporaries. This can be heard in the dreamy, enchanted quality in the second movement and the frenetic restlessness of the third movement (of which he wrote that it “is to be played staccato and pianissimo… the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning”).
I had the amazing opportunity of performing Mendelssohn’s Octet at the Lincoln Center in New York City while studying at the Foulger Institute, a summer music performance school, in the summer of 2012. The performance took place in the penthouse of the Lincoln Center, which is encased with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that provide a panoramic view of the entire city. I had the good fortune of having been assigned to play the virtuosic first violin part, and I have magical memories of soaring through the finale of Mendelssohn’s octet while, thousands of feet below us, the city sparkled in the night. It turned out to be one of those performances where the connection with the audience is electric. I’ve never understood why such performances occur; they just do.
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 the Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 #1.
This Nocturne is considered one of Chopin’s most emotionally powerful compositions. The full depth and breadth of the piano’s expressive range is explored in less than six minutes of music. The composer somehow blends a melancholy, almost despairing melody with a graceful sense of reverence.
How should one listen to this piece? By understanding its layout. There are three sections to this Nocturne. First, the piano opens with the mezza voce section. Mezza voce means “half voice,” which perfectly captures the hushed, sombre atmosphere of the opening line. The second section switches from C Minor to C major at 2:06. This section, with its more uplifting harmonic texture, is labeled sotto voce, which means “somewhat hushed.” But the music quickly becomes the opposite of hushed when it builds to a massive, tumbling climax around the 3:35 mark. You can hear forecasts of this explosion at 3:23. In a masterful bit of compositional genius, Chopin brings the initial melody from Part 1 back, this time with thunderous and heart-breaking passion. The third section returns to C Minor, resigned and exhausted, at 5:00.
This is the emotional power of music at its finest.
We are continuing our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano with the second Opus 27 Nocturne, performed by Evgeny Kissin.
Chopin grouped his Nocturnes in two or three-piece sets. These sets are categorized by Opus number. The Opus 27 Nocturnes, composed in 1835, are perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the Nocturnes. They have been featured in multiple movies and television series.
The second of the Opus 27 Nocturnes is a perfect example of something we discussed a few weeks ago – Chopin’s obsession with the Italian bel canto style. As we know, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera. The flowery bel canto style captivated him, and he incorporated it into many of his Nocturnes. The songlike melodies of the Opus 27 #2 Nocturne showcase this bel canto style perfectly through passionate harmonic climaxes and an atmosphere of glittering delicacy that gives the piece an almost royal aura.
This Nocturne, aside from being one of Chopin’s most famous compositions, also played a role in shaping the future of music. In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig, Germany to play the Nocturnes for his friend Robert Schumann (another great Romantic-era composer). A young pianist, an acquaintance of Schumann’s, happened to be in attendance. He later told his sister that Chopin’s Opus 27 #2 Nocturne was a central inspiration for his career as a composer. In fact, he had even tried to incorporate its melodies into some of his own compositions.
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.