Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).
Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.
Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:
…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.
Earlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.
We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.
Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.
Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto
Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.
Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,
I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.
He went on to offer the following description:
The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.
Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:
Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songs, written in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung(“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.
Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.
Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.
Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:
Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variationsand Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.
In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:
Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:
Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.
The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.
The music of Beethoven is opening orchestra seasons on both coasts this month.
Next week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will offer an all-Beethoven concert gala. It’s the first in a series of concerts called Immortal Beethoven, in which all nine Beethoven symphonies will be performed between September 29 and October 11, along with chamber music and children’s programs. The LA Phil has even launched this virtual reality tour experience, cleverly called “Van Beethoven,” which takes the music into the community. A downloadable app makes it available to music lovers everywhere.
But first, on Thursday the New York Philharmonic’s season kicks off with the Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Lang Lang and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The concert will be broadcast on PBS at 9:00 on September 24.
Written between 1811 and 1812 while Beethoven recovered in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, the Seventh Symphony is a simultaneously ferocious and benevolent animal. It snarls and growls with revolutionary, Romantic fervor. It’s buoyant and fun-loving, with a hint of something slightly terrifying lurking under the surface. The first movement opens with mighty chords- the musical equivalent of massive architectural columns. In between these opening chords, voices gradually emerge and join together. As the movement progresses, it’s easy to sense the music evolving and developing like a quickly growing vine.
The second movement is built on a solemn rhythmic ostinato. It begins as a quiet drumbeat. As we move into a second theme, sliding into major, the drumbeat is still there in the pizzicato, insistent and unrelenting. By the end of the movement, it has grown into a terrifying, all-consuming giant.
The third movement gives us a hint of bubbly Rossini, interspersed with a noble trio section. The fourth movement explodes with ferocious energy (one of the few times Beethoven uses the loudest possible dynamic marking, fff). It moves suddenly from one unexpected key to another. There’s a sense of upward lift, and by the conclusion of the movement we have a strange feeling of transcendence.
British composer, pianist, conductor and commentator Antony Hopkins described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony this way:
The Seventh Symphony perhaps more than any of the others gives us a feeling of true spontaneity; the notes seem to fly off the page as we are borne along on a floodtide of inspired invention. Beethoven himself spoke of it fondly as “one of my best works”. Who are we to dispute his judgment?
As the New York Philharmonic prepares to play Beethoven’s Seventh this week, let’s explore five landmark performances from the Philharmonic’s past. These clips, spanning forty years, will give you a sense of how the piece can change depending on the conductor, as well as how the orchestra’s playing has evolved:
Arturo Toscanini, 1936
Here is the first movement from Arturo Toscanini’s 78rpm/Victor recording, made on April 9 and 10, 1936. (This scratchy, at times barely audible, 1933 live concert recording of the first and last movements is also worth hearing. In 1931, under Toscanini’s leadership, the New York Philharmonic became the first orchestra in the country to offer regular live radio broadcasts). Toscanini, who debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, served as music director between 1928 and 1936. He was noted for the laser beam precision of his baton technique.
According to the New York Philharmonic’s website,
In 1930, Toscanini led the Philharmonic on a highly successful tour of Europe. The following year, he was attacked and beaten while in Italy for his refusal to play the Fascist anthem, and he later made public his opposition to Nazi persecution of the Jews. Many saw in Toscanini’s Beethoven cycle with the New York Philharmonic during the 1932-33 season a musical repudiation of tyranny that matched his public opposition to Hitler.
Artur Rodzinski, 1946
Artur Rodzinski was the Philharmonic’s music director 1943 to 1947, succeeding English conductor Sir John Barbirolli. Rodzinski was considered to be an “orchestra builder,” shaping a clean, modern sound:
Bruno Walter, 1951
German-born conductor Bruno Walter turned down an offer to become the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 1942. In 1947, following the resignation of Artur Rodzinski, Walter briefly accepted the position until 1949, but changed his title to “Music Advisor.” In this clip you can hear him rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, emphasizing the buoyant dance-like rhythm.
Leonard Bernstein, 1958
Leonard Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, and served as Laureate Conductor until his death in 1990. As a young assistant conductor, he rose to prominence after stepping in as a substitute for Bruno Walter with only a few hours’ notice. Bernstein made two recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonic. This is the first:
Pierre Boulez, 1975
Pierre Boulez succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director, serving form 1971 to 1977. This clip from a live concert doesn’t have the best audio quality, but Boulez’ interpretation is worth hearing:
…and here’s a taste of what you’ll hear on Thursday: the current New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert:
British choral conductor, organist and composer Sir David Willcocks passed away yesterday. He was 95. Between 1957 and 1974, Willcocks directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. His numerous recordings with that ensemble showcase its distinct sound, which relies on the lightness and purity of boy sopranos. Between 1974 and 1984, Willcocks served as administrative director of the Royal College of Music in London. As a young man, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the Battle of Normandy during the Second World War.
Here is Sir David Willcocks’ 1963 recording of Handel’s Coronation Anthems with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Based on texts from the King James Bible, these anthems were first performed for the coronation of George II at Westminster Abbey on October 11, 1727. It’s hard to imagine any music more celebratory, regal, or majestic.
It began with a stunningly lucrative commission. In 1785, Franz Joseph Haydn, who had spent 25 years employed by the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in an isolated backwater of the Austrian Empire, was asked to write six symphonies for the orchestra of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris. The patron was the Olympic Lodge, one of the wealthiest Masonic lodges in Paris. Haydn was promised an orchestra of 67 musicians (three times the size of his Esterházy court orchestra) and a salary that exceeded what he earned in a year.
Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, was in attendance when Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies (No. 82-87) were performed. She became especially fond of Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major, resulting in its nickname, “La Reine” (The Queen). During her imprisonment, less than ten years later, the score of Haydn’s 85th lay near the harpsichord in her cell. “Times have changed,” she is said to have noted with sadness.
When Haydn was writing the “Paris” Symphonies, Beethoven, his student, was sixteen years away from publishing his own First Symphony. But amazingly, there are fleeting, momentary glimpses of Beethoven-to-come throughout Symphony No. 85. This passage in the finale movement may remind you of the jarring, off-balance rhythmic energy of Beethoven’s Eroica. It’s a moment where the forward motion is shockingly halted by emphasis on the “wrong” beats. (We get a hint of these accents in the first movement of Haydn’s 85th around 2:23). Throughout the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, this kind of conflict plays out on a larger, more ferocious scale. A minute or so earlier in the last movement we hear this string passage, which might remind you vaguely of a similar passage in Beethoven’s First (and most Haydnesque) Symphony. In Haydn’s second movement, listen to the drumbeat-like repetition of the bass line in this passage and compare it with similar moments in Beethoven. Listen to the way the answering “drumbeats” are out of sync with the bass, causing us to lose sense of where the downbeat lies.
The opening bars of the first movement seem to be a musical “announcement” or proclamation, preparing us for the symphony which follows. It’s as if Haydn felt it necessary to grab the attention of his audience before moving forward around the 0:10 mark. In the second movement, we hear a series of variations on the romantic French folk song, La gentille et jeune Lisette. For the third movement, we might expect a fun-loving peasant minuet. Instead, Haydn gives us something more courtly and refined…an elegant galant minute. At the end of the movement’s middle section, there’s an interesting moment (beginning around 16:25), where the musical idea is suddenly extended in a way we could never have predicted. Suspended on the harmonic dominant, a series of woodwind voices enters in succession.
This recording features the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen:
The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.
For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467.Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Cornerfrom the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.
The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:
Haydn: The Creation
Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:
The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…
Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.
We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Summer
Let’s begin with violinist Janine Jansen’s exciting approach to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance features an unusual edge-of-your seat passion and fire. The dramatic effects of Vivaldi’s music come to life in a way that makes the music feel fresh, as if it was just written:
Next, let’s listen to an excerpt from Alexander Glazunov’s lushly romantic 1899 ballet score, The Seasons. At the beginning of the clip, we hear the triumphant moment when spring turns to summer. It’s soaring music that deserves to be heard more often. This recording features the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy: