Sibelius 5’s Evaporating Tonal Center

A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.
A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.

 

In Monday’s post, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s live concert performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Returning to this music, I was reminded of that chilling moment in the first movement when the tonal center completely evaporates.

Virtually all music from J.S. Bach through Late Romanticism was tonal, built on relationships between a tonic (the key’s home base) and dominant. We naturally sense these relationships and the pull of a dominant (V) chord back home. For example, imagine how unfulfilled you would feel if the final resolution was missing from the end of Gee, Officer Krupke! from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  The music would be left hanging in midair.

As the twentieth century unfolded, this tonal center sometimes began to fray and disappear altogether. We hear tonality slipping away in the last Mahler symphonies (listen to the haunting Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony), and in Debussy’s floating Eastern harmonies (listen to the dreamy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). When tonality completely disappears, it sounds like Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31In this music, all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale are treated equally and all sense of hierarchy is gone.

But let’s return to that frightening moment in the first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, written in 1915, when tonality briefly disappears. As the bassoon wanders through a desolate landscape, we hear wispy, ghostly spinning motives in the strings. It almost sounds like a distant howling wind. Moments later, the tonal center abruptly returns, but the shock of this passage (beginning around 6:43) remains with us for the rest of the piece:

Sibelius at 150

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

 

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. Commemorative events are under way this week, from Sibelius’ native Finland to Minnesota.

Appropriately, the 11th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition just wrapped up in Helsinki. The competition, open to violinists under the age of 30, has been held every five years since 1965. Listen to this year’s first prize winner, American violinist Christel Lee, here.

Recently, here at the Listeners’ Club, we’ve explored Sibelius’ Second Symphony and the tone poem, The OceanidesBoth posts featured conductor Osmo Vänskä’s landmark recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s. In 2012, Vänskä began re-recording the Sibelius symphonies with Minnesota Orchestra. Briefly delayed by that orchestra’s 15-month-long lockout, the project is again in full swing.

Later in the week, we’ll hear Vänskä’s Lahti recording of Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony. In the meantime, here is a great live performance of the Fifth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. I provided some background on the Fifth Symphony in this past Listeners’ Club post.

Do you have a favorite Sibelius recording? Is there one conductor who, in your opinion, really “gets” Sibelius? Please share your recommendations in the thread below. And don’t forget to explore the Listeners’ Club archive for other Sibelius posts.

The Lonely Introspection of Brahms’ Op. 116, No. 4

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

 

Let’s finish the week with Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E major, No. 4 from the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 for piano. Written in 1892 in the final years of Brahms’ life, this is music infused with a deep sense of lonely introspection. It draws us into a dreamlike world where every chord and hesitating pause seem to have something important to say.

There are moments when the rhythmic feel changes in interesting ways, obliterating our sense of “strong” and “weak” beats. We also get a visceral sense of the spacial dimension in this music: lines pull apart and converge in an elaborate musical architecture. We feel the width of the piano’s keyboard. And listen to the aching beauty of this passage, in which a series of voices pour passionately from the piano in imitative, canonic counterpoint.

As Op. 116, No. 4 draws to a close, the pitch “E” in the bass takes on increasing power, as if to foreshadow the inevitability of a final resolution. When that resolution comes, it’s met with peaceful acceptance.

Here is American pianist Richard Goode’s 1987 recording:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • András Schiff plays the entire Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 in this live performance.

The Oceanides: Sibelius’ Ambient Tone Poem

The Oceanides, Op. 73

When you think of ambient concert music that conjures up vast sonic landscapes, the name John Luther Adams may come to mind. Adams, an American composer and longtime resident of Alaska, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, premiered by conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in June, 2013. It’s music which unfolds slowly in rich, colorful waves of sound, evoking the eternal power, depth and cool darkness of the awesome bodies of water which cover seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface.

But Adams wasn’t the first composer to create an ambient sonic portrait of the sea. Listen to Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, Op. 73, and you’ll get a similar sense of murky depths and mythological “Nymphs of the Waves” (the loose translation of the Finnish title, Aallottaret).

The Oceanides emerges from the depths of the orchestra, as rising and falling string lines wander in a daze. Flutes provide a playful splash of color. The dreamy serenity of the flutes’ opening motives would be at home in any hazy New-age composition. And while the motives develop (certainly at a faster clip than in the static Become Ocean), we are left with a feeling of the circular and timeless. In this excerpt, listen to the way the horns resolve, only to quickly move back to unsettled dominant territory and then dissolve into something new.

At moments, there are hints of that other piece about the ocean, Claude Debussy’s La mer, completed eight years earlier in 1905. But beyond a few passing similarities, Sibelius’ tone poem feels different than La mer. As with Sibelius’ symphonies, the music spins forward and develops, yet we quickly realize that there is no ultimate goal, just another icy, slowly changing landscape over an endless horizon. That’s the feeling we get from the long, endless series of waves in Become Ocean. The Oceanides has one climactic moment of resolution that feels strangely similar to the crest of one of Become Ocean‘s sonic waves. From there, the music falls back and we’re left with the unending expanse of the ocean.

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording of The Oceanides with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • The Oceanides underwent a series of revisions. Hear one of Sibelius’ earlier versions, set a half step lower in the key of D-flat.
  • Find John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Browse the Listeners’ Club archive and find other posts featuring Sibelius’ music.

Mozart’s Last Piano Concerto

250px-Croce-Mozart-DetailLast week we stepped into the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s Late string quartets, music which stylistically leaves behind everything that came before and offers up profound and timeless revelations.

In its own way, Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B flat major, KV 595) makes a similar, if more subtle departure. It still sounds like the Mozart we know, but listen carefully and you may notice something different about this music…perhaps an occasional hint of wistful sadness and even wrenching pain.

Concerto No. 27 was first performed in early 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, at a concert that may have marked Mozart’s final public appearance on the concert stage. By this time, Mozart’s performing career was already winding down. His wife, Constanze was ill and he was deeply in debt. He was treated with contempt by the new Emperor, Leopold II. The publisher, Hoffmeister, refused to continue to publish Mozart’s music unless the composer turned out simpler and more popular works, to which Mozart replied, “Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.” But the sizable amount of music Mozart wrote in 1791 (which included a piece for glass harmonica, a string quartet, the Clarinet ConcertoThe Magic Flute, and the Requiem) transcended all of this.

Concerto No. 27 opens with a wordless conversation between two contrasting opera characters. The strings make a quietly passionate opening statement amid playfully comic interjections by the winds. At the 0:37 mark, the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony (completed three years earlier in 1788) briefly surfaces. (Listen here for a comparison). Similar to Jupiter, Mozart’s final concerto is filled with counterpoint (multiple musical lines happening at the same time). As you listen, notice all of the musical voices surrounding the piano line: the way they weave together, move apart, and converse. From the violins to the flute, oboe, and bassoon, each voice has a distinct persona and something to say. You can hear this in the passage beginning around 4:00, with the entrance of the flute. Or listen a few moments later when the piano and strings fade into a solitary woodwind line. Notice the way the line grows and changes shape, as the oboe, flute, and piano trade places.

Entering the first movement’s development section, we’re suddenly confronted with one of those hints of sadness I mentioned earlier. This once assured music gradually begins to falter and fade into silent pauses. When the piano enters, we’re in a new and different world. And do you remember those playful woodwind interjections from the movement’s opening? Now they are transformed into a shockingly stern interruption in the wrong key. A moment later, the piano picks up the “interruption” motive and the oboe takes the singing piano melody. Listen for all of this here and then notice the way we return safely home at the recapitulation.

The second movement is a quietly introspective aria. Amid the simple perfection of the opening melody, perhaps a lonely, solemn march, there’s a sense of lingering sadness. Again, notice the way the voices interact: the three distinct voices in the strings, joined by the singing woodwind line in this passage, the oboe joining the bassoon in a single, sustained pitch here, the winds interjecting with a repeated chord a few moments into this excerpt.

The opening melody’s final statement occurs as a shadowy whisper, the piano, flute and violins sharing the melody and creating an almost ghostly sonority. In the final moments of the second movement, there’s a sense that the music doesn’t want to let go as it shifts to a series of deceptive cadences to avoid an ultimate resolution. In the final bars, seven distinct contrapuntal voices can be heard.

The frolicking final movement dances with playful, comic interruptions. The cadenzas in the first and final movements (often improvised by the performer) were written by Mozart. At the end of this final cadenza, the solo piano pauses for a moment of brief introspection. In the final bars, the main motive is tossed around the orchestra as the piano erupts in joyful, bubbling arpeggios.

Nine days after completing Concerto No. 27, Mozart incorporated the final movement’s theme into the song, Sehnsucht nach den Frühlinge:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

Now that we’ve touched on a few details, let’s listen to the entire piece without interruption. Here is an exceptional performance with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Find Maria João Pires’ recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart at iTunes, Amazon.

Christmas at Wanamaker’s

macys-holiday-show-1200vp

In celebration of the official start of the holiday season, let’s swing by the grand old former Wanamaker’s department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of Philadelphia. The store is home to the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world, with 28,604 pipes, 463 ranks, and six manuals. Originally built for the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, the instrument found a home in Wanamaker’s seven-story Grand Court in 1909. It took thirteen railroad cars to transport the organ to Philadelphia.

You can hear this spectacular organ in action in this clip of a transcription of the Funeral March from Gotterdammerung, the fourth opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s a piece which gradually unfolds in long waves of sound, amid a series of far-reaching modulations. At times, you might be reminded of John Williams’ Star Wars film scores.

In 2010, midday shoppers suddenly found themselves in the middle of a flashmob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The over 650 singers were from the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The event was part of the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture.”

To learn more about the history of Wanamaker’s department store, read Wanamaker’s: Meet me at the Eagle by Michael Lisicky. A nationally recognized expert on the history of America’s department stores, Michael is a former colleague of mine who is currently an oboist in the Baltimore Symphony.

Beethoven’s Hymn of Thanksgiving

Beethoven_2089781b

Beethoven inscribed the transcendent third movement of his Op. 132 String Quartet with the descriptive title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode). The words reflected Beethoven’s gratitude for a burst of renewed health, following a near-fatal stomach ailment during the winter of 1824-25. They are the words of a composer who, earlier in life, grappled with the devastating realities of hearing loss, and ultimately triumphed.

Written in the final two years of Beethoven’s life, following the completion of the Ninth Symphony, the String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 enters the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s “late string quartets.” These works were so groundbreaking and radical that they left audiences baffled when they were first performed. The violinist and composer Louis Spohr called these quartets “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors.” Another musician said, “we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.” After hearing the Op. 131 Quartet, Franz Schubert remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” In the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky called the Große Fuge, Op. 133 “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” Even Beethoven seems to have understood the power of these musical revelations. Writing in English to a friend in 1810 regarding the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor (“Serioso”), Op. 95 he said, “The quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” It would be easy to call Beethoven’s late string quartets “ahead of their time.” In fact, they seem eternally timeless. Listening to this music, you don’t get any sense of style or historical period. They become music in its purest form.

The “Holy song of thanksgiving” is the longest movement in the Op. 132 Quartet and comes at the heart of the five-movement work. The overlapping voices in the opening can be heard as a reference to the ghostly opening of the Quartet’s first movement. Throughout the third movement, the music alternates between the opening chorale (in modal F) and a slightly faster section in D major, which Beethoven marks, “with renewed strength.” Each time the D major section returns, it becomes more embellished, joyful and frolicking (listen to the sense of breathlessness in this passage). By contrast, the opening chorale becomes increasingly introverted. Toward the end of the movement, the music fades into open fifths (a sound which emerges out of silence in the opening of the Ninth Symphony). The final moments of the third movement reach for an ultimate climax and then fall back into tender acceptance. As the chorale returns one last time, giving each voice of the quartet a final statement, we sense that the music is trying to hang on, as if afraid to let go. When we reach the end, the final chord in F feels strangely unresolved, overpowered by the preceding passage’s convincing pull to C major. Beethoven’s “Holy song of Thanksgiving” moves beyond conventional key relationships, making us focus on the moment, rather than a far-off goal, and leaving us with a sense of the circular and eternal.

Simone Porter, A Star on the Rise

violinist Simone Porter
violinist Simone Porter

 

To finish the week, here are two pieces of violinistic ear candy, performed by Simone Porter, a 19-year-old rising star. Porter began taking violin lessons through the Suzuki method at the age of 3 and a half, eventually studying with Margaret Pressley in Seattle. She is currently a student of Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Porter, who plays a 1745 J.B. Guadagnini violin on loan, has appeared on NPR’s From the Top with Christopher O’Riley.

Simone Porter has appeared with many of the world’s finest orchestras. This week she is playing the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Here is her performance of Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice viennois, a piece which Kreisler seems to have written as a nostalgic look back at elegant pre-war Vienna. Porter’s playing emphasizes fire and sparkle over sentimentality:

Here is a 2012 Salt Lake City performance of nineteenth century Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado: