Mendelssohn’s Octet: Youth Meets Maturity

The original manuscript of Mendelssohn's Octet
The original manuscript of Mendelssohn’s Octet

If you’re beyond your teenage years, take a moment and try to remember what you were doing when you were 16 years old. Then listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 and consider that this is the music of a 16-year-old. It brims with youthful joy, virtuosity, vitality and a playful sense of delight in showing off. At the same time, there isn’t a hint of immaturity in this music. Amazingly, as a teenager, Mendelssohn was tapping into the deepest source of musical creativity.

The Octet’s final movement, built on an eight part fugue, quotes “And He Shall Reign” from the “Hallelujah” Chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Mendelssohn boldly interrupts Handel’s original motive with his own ending. There’s no way of knowing if the quote was intentional or subconscious. Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was drawn to the music of Handel and J.S. Bach. At age 20 he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, which inspired a renewal of interest in Bach’s music. You might hear a momentary hint of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in the development section of the Scherzo (in the passage following 23:39).

Completed in October of 1825, the Octet is scored for four violins, two violas and two cellos. In the score Mendelssohn writes:

This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.

Whether I’m performing or listening to the Octet, I’m always amazed by the dramatic action going on in the inner voices. For example, listen to the explosive scale lines around 3:04 in the first movement. Throughout the piece, the eight distinct voices may suggest unique personas. Listen to the way they interact and converse with one another. Amid the final movement’s dense counterpoint, listen for the moment toward the end of the movement when Mendelssohn brings back fragments of the Scherzo (29:52).

Here is a recording of the Amati String Orchestra:

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  1. 00:00 – Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
  2. 14:08 – Andante
  3. 21:22- Scherzo
  4. 25:52- Presto


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Nicola Benedetti’s Scottish Homecoming

Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming, A Scottish FantasyScottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti’s recordingHomecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, released on July 4, has made it to number 19 on the UK pop charts. The CD features traditional Scottish folk music like The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, as well as German composer Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46. 

If you’re looking for authentic Scottish fiddle playing, you may be disappointed, but all in all this seems like a fun and eclectic recording. Benedetti talks about the recording herehere and here. Listen to samples here.

Here is an excerpt of the Scottish Fantasy:

The Ladies Who Lunch

Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Company
Elaine Stritch recording the Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970.

Legendary Broadway performer Elaine Stritch passed away last week at the age of 89. She may be best remembered for her performance of the song, The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, Company. 

Company offers a psychological look at the nature of relationships and marriage. It eviscerates the musical theater’s traditional escapism, replacing it with a healthy dose of realism. The song Sorry-Grateful contains the searing line, “You’ll always be what you always were.” That’s not exactly the stuff of fantasy and cheery, unending optimism. At the same time Company is funny. Sondheim once said that he wanted the audience to laugh hilariously during the show and then to go home, unable to sleep.

The Ladies Who Lunch is a bitter, mocking soliloquy in which the character, Joanne, comments on what she perceives as the meaningless lives of stereotypical wealthy middle-aged women. Sung to the audience towards the end of Act 2, the song takes on a Brechtian quality. Martin Gottfried describes it as:

…a sardonic toast to the New York women who have money and intelligence but no purpose, time to do everything of no consequence. In its ironies it admires these overqualified idlers, these glib and sardonic survivors.

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In The Ladies Who Lunch, Joanne’s unhappiness is contrasted with the song’s cool, “zoned out” bossa nova rhythm. There’s also the icy quality of the muted trumpets and horns and the flute’s quote of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in reference to the lyric. The song is filled with Sondheim’s sophisticated internal rhyme (“much”, “clutching”, “touch).

In the final verse Joanne includes herself as an object of ridicule (“Here’s to the girls who just watch”). Her final screams are reminiscent of Rose’s emotional breakdown at the end of Gypsy (Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Jule Styne’s music in that 1959 show).

This documentary shows the all night recording session for Company’s original Broadway cast recording. Rodgers and Hart’s You Took Advantage of Me from a 1954 revival of On Your Toes is from earlier in Elaine Stritch’s career.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Reverent and Terrifying

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major enters strangely mystical territory. The hushed intensity of its opening string tremolo seems to emerge out of silence. The first movement gradually begins to unfold from an expansive theme which, according to some accounts, came to Bruckner in a dream. It’s simultaneously serene and ghostly, reverent and terrifying. It hints at majestic, awe-inspiring, mysterious, and even frightening aspects of the sacred. In Bruckner’s music we sense the cosmic power of sound, as well as silence.

In the context of history, Bruckner, the slightly eccentric Austrian symphonist and organist (at the monastic church of Sankt Florian near Linz), links the worlds of Schubert and Mahler. Each of his nine mature symphonies represents a persistent attempt to pick up where Beethoven’s monumental and enigmatic Ninth Symphony left off, a daunting task avoided by earlier composers. At the same time, Bruckner’s symphonies, largely misunderstood by audiences when they were first performed, were a radical departure from anything which had come before. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Deryck Cooke writes:

Despite its general debt to Beethoven and Wagner, the “Bruckner Symphony” is a unique conception, not only because of the individuality of its spirit and its materials, but even more because of the absolute originality of its formal processes. At first, these processes seemed so strange and unprecedented that they were taken as evidence of sheer incompetence…. Now it is recognized that Bruckner’s unorthodox structural methods were inevitable…. Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical…his extraordinary attitude to the world, and the nature of his materials which arose from this attitude, dictated an entirely unorthodox handling of the traditional formal procedures. Sonata form is a dynamic, humanistic process, always going somewhere, constantly trying to arrive; but with Bruckner firm in his religious faith, the music has no need to go anywhere, no need to find a point of arrival, because it is already there…Experiencing Bruckner’s symphonic music is more like walking around a  cathedral, and taking in each aspect of it, than like setting out on a journey to some hoped-for goal. 

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. Try closing your eyes the first time through. Listen attentively, staying in the moment as the music gradually unfolds. At times, Bruckner seems to turn the orchestra into a giant pipe organ. He often isolates strings, woodwinds or brass rather than mixing these colors together. Pay attention to the way musical lines fit together, forming interesting contrapuntal shapes. The Seventh Symphony’s musical architecture includes an almost obsessive fascination with inverted counterpoint (voices which mirror each other).

This performance features Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic during a 1990 tour of Japan:

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  1. Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (25:45)
  3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell – Trio. Etwas langsamer (53:47)
  4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell (1:05:55)


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The opening of the Seventh Symphony is rooted firmly in the home key of E major, but did you notice how quickly the first theme pulls us away from E towards B major? Even if you didn’t know what was happening specifically, you might have sensed a drama unfolding involving keys and their relationships. In the opening we get a hint of E major, the symphony’s true center of gravity, but amazingly it’s never fully reestablished until the end of the coda (23:42). That’s one reason why the moment when the music “finds E major” is so powerful. On a subconscious level we feel like we’re going home. In The Essence of Bruckner Robert Simpson describes the first movement’s harmonic structure as:

the slow evolution of B minor and B major out of a start that is not so much in as delicately poised on E major [and] the subtle resurgence of the true tonic, not without opposition from the pretender…outward resemblances such as the change from tonic (E) to dominant (B) must not deafen us to the fact that such behavior as we find in this opening section is totally uncharacteristic of sonata [form]. The slow emergence of one key, by persuasion, from a region dominated by another is a new phenomenon in the field of symphony, and the rest of this movement will be heard to reinstate E major in a similar but longer process.

For me, one of the first movement’s most strange and frightening moments is the gradual, ominous crescendo and diminuendo in the coda (21:44). Bruckner marks this passage Sehr feierlich (very solemnly) in the score. The tympani roll on an E pedal tone anticipates the movement’s ultimate resolution to E major (23:42). Listen to the incredible sonic intensity of the final bars. For a moment, focus on each individual voice…the rumble of the tympani’s E pedal, the vibrant energy of the string tremolo, the heroic statement of the opening motive in the horns and trombones, the trumpet fanfares, and the repetitive contrapuntal figure in the violins.

These are just a few highlights from the first movement. Go back and listen again, and then go on to the other three movements. If you feel inspired, share your own thoughts in the thread below.

Hiro Kurosaki Plays Handel

Hiro Kurosaki's recording of Handel SonatasYou may be familiar with classic recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonatas by Isaac SternNathan MilsteinHenryk Szeryng and Szymon Goldberg. For the most part, they’re all Romantic performances, emphasizing a large, singing tone and lots of vibrato. For a slightly different take, add to the list an excellent 2003 Baroque recording by violinist Hiro Kurosaki and harpsichordist William Christie.

No one knows if Handel actually wrote all seven of the sonatas on this disk. A few are suspected to be the work of other composers, now long forgotten. The D-major sonata (HWV 371), one of Handel’s last works, and youthful G-major sonata (HWV 358) are authentic. Dr. Suzuki included the F major and D major sonatas in Book 6 and the A major sonata in Book 7.

Born in Japan, Hiro Kurosaki now lives in Austria and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He plays a 1690 Giovanni Battista Rogeri violin on this recording, an instrument made during Handel’s lifetime. Kurosaki and Christie claim that their interpretation was influenced by Handel’s opera writing. Listen to this excerpt from the 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare, for a comparison.

Here is Sonata No. 4 in D major:

Also listen to the F major and G major sonatas.

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The Eighteenth Variation

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Last week we heard a sample of music inspired by Niccolò Paganini’s solo violin Caprice No. 24, which included Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Let’s return to the Rachmaninov and “drop the needle” at one of its most memorable moments, the Eighteenth Variation.

This stunningly beautiful melody seems far removed from Paganini’s original bouncy theme in A minor, but it actually develops from the motivic seed of Paganini’s first five notes (the top line in the example below). Rachmaninov begins by inverting the motive, or turning it upside down (the bottom line). Next, it’s transformed from A minor to D-flat major…a completely different emotional world. Pianist Stephen Hough demonstrates this evolution here.

The restless and expansive melody moves away from home, continuing to reach higher, until it arrives at a surprise climactic chord which forces a resolution. Listen to the harmonic tension and occasional dissonance in the lines under the melody. A lot of the Eighteenth Variation’s drama is created by these voices.

This performance is from Valentina Lisitsa’s 2012 recording with the London Symphony and conductor Michael Francis. Also listen to a classic recording of Arthur Rubinstein accompanied by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Variation 18)


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Charlie Haden, Embracing the Moment

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)
Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Charlie Haden, the legendary and influential jazz double bass player, passed away last Friday in Los Angeles at the age of 76. Haden enjoyed long associations with fellow jazz greats such as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. His death comes a month after passing of another important figure in American jazz, pianist Horace Silver (listen here).

This interview offers a glimpse at Charlie Haden’s extraordinary life and political activism. He believed that jazz is “music of rebellion” and he wasn’t afraid to use it as a powerful tool for protest. At the same time, his approach to music was deeply spiritual:

I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you’re in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow — there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance.

I want [students] to come away with discovering the music inside them. And not thinking about themselves as jazz musicians, but thinking about themselves as good human beings, striving to be a great person and maybe they’ll become a great musician.

I always dreamed of a world without cruelty and greed, of a humanity with the same creative brilliance of our solar system, of an America worthy of the dreams of Martin Luther King, and the majesty of the Statue of Liberty…This music is dedicated to those who still dream of a society with compassion, deep creative intelligence, and a respect for the preciousness of life — for our children, and for our future.

Silence, from the 1987 album by the same title, features Haden with Chet Baker (trumpet), Enrico Pieranunzi (piano), and Billy Higgins (drums):

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Remembering Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

Conductor Lorin Maazel passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He will be remembered for his long, distinguished career and dramatic and idiosyncratic interpretations.

Maazel debuted as a conductor at the age of 9, after starting violin lessons at 5. As an 11-year-old, he received an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony. His music director posts included the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-1982), Vienna State Opera (1982-1984), Pittsburgh Symphony (1988-1996), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1993-2002) and the New York Philharmonic (2002-2009). In 2008 he served as a cultural ambassador, leading the New York Philharmonic on a tour of North Korea. In 2009 Maazel and his wife founded the Castleton Festival, a summer program for young musicians at his Virginia estate.

Learn more about Lorin Maazel’s life in this obituary at The Guardian and this PBS Newshour interview.

These memorable quotes reflect Maazel’s views on the essential role of the arts in society:

Art rises above and beyond the issues of the day. It reunites what has been rent asunder, not along national or religious lines, but along individual, human ones. It heals, redefines goals, and strengthens the resolve to move on, to rebuild, to reconstruct. However obtuse human behavior is in other arenas, art, if not suborned, can clarify, put into perspective and re-inspire.

Our Orchestra must also continue to play its leadership role in the community and in our nation. The young look to us to provide substance in place of dross, emotional depth in place of shallow titillation.

In these confused times, the role of classical music is at the very core of the struggle to reassert cultural and ethical values that have always characterized our country and for which we have traditionally been honored and respected outside our shores.

Here is the final movement of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic: