No, not the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8, a piecewhich feels strangely complete at two movements. We’ll get to that masterpiece at some point, but today let’s listen to the unfinished C minor string quartet (Quartettsatz,D. 703) Franz Schubert began in December, 1820. Schubert completed the first movement, Allegro assai. Interestingly, its opening bears a slight resemblance to the hushed, shivering string lines in the first movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony, which was started eight months later.
Schubert only completed 41 bars of the exposition of an Andante before permanently abandoning the work. Did he just get too busy with other projects? Or, as musicologist Javier Arrebola has speculated (citing other unfinished Schubert works from the same period), perhaps it “…did not yet represent the great leap forward he was striving for.”
Regardless, the greatest composers seem to innately know when the creative powers are speaking, or not. The C minor Quartet’s second movement remains a beautiful and intriguing fragment. The music simply trails off where Schubert stopped…
Listening to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, it’s easy to get a sense of altered reality. Outwardly, the original six movement suite, written for solo piano, responds to the horrors and devastation of the First World War, a conflict Ravel experienced first hand as a military ambulance driver. Ravel dedicated each movement of the work, written between 1914 and 1917, to the memory of a friend lost on the battlefield.
But, interestingly, we don’t hear the anguish of war in Ravel’s music. There isn’t a hint of the hellish fury of Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies or the dazed shell shock and bleak desolation of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral” Symphony. Instead, Le Tombeau de Couperin escapes into an almost childlike world of color and joyful, elegant ambivalence. Like so much of Ravel’s music, there is a sense of detachment which seems to open the door to ultimate, yet indescribable truth. Some critics complained that the music was not sombre enough for its subject matter, to which Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Through its hazy, impressionistic prism, Le Tombeau de Couperin also evokes voices of the distant past. Its title references the French Baroque composer François Couperin (1668-1733). In the seventeenth century, Tombeau, which translates literally as “tomb,” referred to “a piece written as a memorial.” Ravel intended to pay homage not only to Couperin, but to the style and ambiance of eighteenth century French keyboard suites. The movements are based on popular Baroque dances. Listen to the rhythm and structure of this Forlane by François Couperin and compare it to Ravel’s Forlane below.
Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally written as a six movement solo keyboard suite. (Listen to Louis Lortie’s excellent performance here). Two years after its completion, Ravel orchestrated the suite, eliminating two movements (the Fugue and the Toccata). Listening to the piano score, the jazzy sophistication of Ravel’s harmonies come across with striking brilliance. But it’s in the final, orchestrated version where the music blossoms with new life through a rich array of colors. The instruments, with their distinct personas, engage in musical conversations and the tonal colors mix in magical new ways.
From the bubbly opening of the Prélude, there’s a dreamlike and illusory quality about the music. It doesn’t go where we expect, and just when we think we’ve arrived at a climax, something firm that we can hold onto, the music dissolves, like a mirage. Throughout the piece, there’s a sense of joy in the rhythm. In the Forlane, notice the buoyant, dance-like quality of the music, especially in the passage beginning at 1:10. The closing Rigaudon is full of jokes and surprises. As in the first movement, we’re pulled in new, unexpected directions.
For me, the Menuet evokes serene beauty, but also a touch of sadness. As the oboe makes its opening statement, listen to the changing colors around this solo voice. Notice the velvety bed of strings, which enters at the end of the first phrase and then passes us along to the next phrase (0:05). Listen carefully to the sudden change of color and parallel harmony beginning at 1:47. I love the way this darker, veiled new world dissolves effortlessly back into the opening theme. At the end of the Menuet, the music pauses at a climactic moment of shimmering sensuality and repose (3:52) before being cut off by the innocent, childlike “laugh” of the woodwind voices, which seem to be saying, “Come on, let’s go.” The final chord fades into a jazzy dreamscape.
One of my favorite recordings of this piece is Charles Dutoit’s 1990 CD with the Montreal Symphony:
If you’ve been griping about taxes recently, you may sympathize with the characters in J.S. Bach’s secular Peasant Cantata, BWV212, first performed in 1742. Bach referred to this popular, comic work as “Cantate burlesque.” Listen to the entire work here.
In this excerpt, Ach, Herr Schösser, geht gar nicht zu schlimm, the farmer decries the unfair burden of land taxes. Here is a translation, beginning with the preceding recitative:
The master is good: but the tax collector
comes straight out of hell.
Quick as a lightning flash he can slap a new tax on land-us
harm the very moment we’ve just got out of hot water.
Ah.Mr tax- collector, Do not Be Too Hard
with us poor peasants.
Leave us our skin.
Eat up the cabbage
Like the caterpiilars to the bare stalk.
That Should Be enough!
Here is Christopher Hogwood and the The Academy of Ancient Music with David Thomas (bass) and Emma Kirkby (soprano):
On Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic announced that violinist Frank Huang will become its new concertmaster, succeeding Glenn Dicterow who stepped down last June after 34 seasons.
The 36-year-old Huang is currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. He has held that position since 2010. Before joining the Houston Symphony, he briefly served as first violinist of the Ying Quartet and professor of violin and chamber music at the Eastman School of Music. He was a student of Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Frank Huang was born in China. When he was 7 years old, his family relocated from Beijing to the Houston suburbs.
Frank Huang’s solo career was launched after he won first prize in the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the 2003 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. A 2003 recording released on the Naxos label features this performance of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.
Here is Huang performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 for Houston Public Radio’s The Front Row. He is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.
The key of F major has long associations with nature and calm pastoral scenes. As flowers bloom and the pollen count soars, let’s finish out the week with four pieces in F major which evoke images of a springtime pasture:
Bach’s Pastorale in F Major
Historians believe that bagpipes may have predated ancient Rome. On hillsides in southern Italy and beyond, shepherds played Zampogna (Italian bagpipes). You can hear echoes of the Zampogna in J.S. Bach’s Pastorale in F Major, BWV 590, written for organ around 1720. The first movement features gently rolling triplets in 12/8 time. The melody rises above an extended drone with two-voice imitative counterpoint frequently joining in thirds. Three dance movements follow: an Allemande, Aria, and Gigue.
Helmut Walcha made this recording at the Church of Young Saint Peter Protestant in Strasbourg in 1970:
How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.
-Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s symphonies are a strange study in moderation. The odd numbered symphonies (3, 5, 7, and 9) are heroic and epic in scale. The equally profound, but less well known, even numbered works (No. 4, 6, and 8) are more classical and introspective.
This sense of compositional “yin and yang” played out between 1804 and 1808 as Beethoven simultaneously sketched the powerful and ferocious Fifth Symphony and a radically contrasting work which encapsulated the poetry of nature: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68. The two symphonies were published within weeks of each other in the spring of 1809 and were first performed on the same program. The Sixth Symphony was inscribed with the programmatically descriptive title, “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Live.”
The Pastoral Symphony retreats into a bucolic world of bird calls, bubbling brooks and rustic folk dances. It’s music brimming with joy and gratitude at nature’s life-sustaining bounty. The outer movements are filled with open fifths, suggesting raw, natural elements and infinite possibility. (This is the first sound we hear at the beginning of the first movement). Motives develop over long periods of time with unbridled expansiveness (1:43). Listen to the multiple rhythmic layers in the strings beginning around the 5:35 mark. Also notice the prominence of the oboes with their pastoral connotations.
Here is Paavo Jarvi conducting the Bremen German Chamber Philharmonic:
Pleasant, Cheerful feelings awakened in a person on arriving in the country. Allegro ma non troppo 0:00
Scene by the brook. Andante molto mosso 12:10
Merry gathering of country folk. Allegro 23:48
Thunderstorm. Allegro 28:51
Shepherd’s Song. Happy and thankful feelings to the deity after the storm. Allegretto 32:20
The third movement (Scene in the Country) of Hector Berlioz’s turbulent Symphony fantastique (1830) transports us to the quiet solitude of the pasture. In the opening and closing of the third movement, there’s a haunting sense that time is standing still. There’s also a spacial element: the dialogue between oboe and English horn evokes two distant shepherds. Listen for the idée fixe (the hero’s leitmotif which runs throughout the piece) at 8:17.
Here is an excerpt from Berloz’s program notes:
One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches‘; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own … But what if she betrayed him! … This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder … solitude … silence …
This is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal:
Blaník is one of six symphonic poems that make up Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (“My Homeland”). If you know any music from Má vlast, it’s probably The Moldau.
This music is inspired by a legend involving a huge army of knights asleep inside the mountain, Blaník. In the country’s darkest hour, when four hostile armies attack from all directions, it is believed that St Wenceslaus’ army will awaken and fight.
You can listen to the entire piece here. Here is the pastoral excerpt:
The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today.
I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Eastman Philharmonia was a memorable childhood concert experience. In his youth, the Hungarian-born conductor studied piano with Béla Bartók. Solti served as music director of the Chicago Symphony between 1969 and 1991 and remained the orchestra’s “Music Director Laureate” until his death in 1997. Over the course of his career, he won thirty-one Grammy Awards, more than any other recording artist.
As this clip demonstrates, a strict sense of rhythm and attention to the relationship of tempo to style seem to have been essential ingredients in Solti’s artistry. Solti’s interpretations were never fussy and always allowed the music to develop honestly.
The year was 1842 and Robert Schumann was on a roll. In just over nine months the composer, who up until that point had written mostly piano music and songs, completed the three Op. 41 string quartets, a piano quintet (Op. 44), a piano quartet (Op. 47), and the Fantasiestücke piano trio (Op. 88). It’s no wonder that musicologists refer to 1842 as Schumann’s “chamber music year.”
The monumental Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 brought together a new cast of characters. Schumann paired piano and string quartet, practically inventing a virtuosic new genre. Prior to this, the piano quintet had typically used double bass rather than cello, as in Franz Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. Schumann’s quintet greatly influenced Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, written twenty-two years later.
The first movement opens with a noble, collective statement…a joyful celebration of this powerful, new combination of voices. But quickly a musical conversation begins. Listen to the way each voice contributes to the conversation. The participants in this passionate musical conversation agree, argue, occasionally finish one another’s sentences, and frequently pick up on an idea, taking it in a sudden, new direction. The movement’s coda ends with a playful cadential nod to Felix Mendelssohn (8:33), capped off with an exuberant exclamation point in contrary motion (8:41).
In the second movement we enter a solemn funeral march in C minor. But, as in the first movement, we find ourselves in sudden, unexpected places. Listen for rhapsodic changes from darkness to light. For me, one of the second movement’s most incredible moments comes around the 16:03 mark when the cello joins the violin in a passionate statement of lament. A few moments later, the gloomy funeral march is interrupted by a cry of terror (17:22), which leads to the movement’s sudden conclusion.
Schumann wrote the Op. 44 Piano Quintet for his wife Clara Wieck, one of the most distinguished pianists of her day and a composer in her own right. The Scherzo’s first trio section (19:06) features a descending four note motive that originated in Schumann’s 10 Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck, Op. 5. The same motive pops up in the base line at this moment in the introduction of the first movement of the “Spring” Symphony No. 1.
Near the end of the final movement, we get a hint of the first movement’s opening theme (27:51). Then, at 28:15 the movement’s momentum comes to a crashing halt and the first movement’s opening theme reappears triumphantly, boldly stated in a single piano line, as if to say, “I’m still here!” This theme and the final movement’s main theme are blended into a double fugue and the Op. 44 Piano Quintet finds a heroic conclusion.
Here is a great performance by the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Menahem Pressler:
Spring won’t let me stay in this house any longer! I must get out and breathe the air deeply again.
Spring seems to erupt with a raucous fervor from the first notes of Gustav Mahler’s Der Trunkene Im Früling (“The Drunken Man in Spring”). The song is part of Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), Mahler’s combination symphony and song cycle, completed in 1909. The text comes from Die chinesische Flöte, a collection of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge.
Listen to the way the orchestra comes alive, evoking a sonic cast of characters and personas which converse with the human voice:
I was recently reminded that Mahler inscribed the opening of the First Symphony with the words, “as if spoken by nature.” Here is an interesting excerpt from one of Mahler’s letters:
That Nature embraces everything that is at once awesome, magnificent, and lovable, nobody seems to grasp. It seems so strange to me that most people, when they mention the word Nature in connection with art, imply only flowers, birds, the fragrance of the woods, etc. No one seems to think of the mighty underlying mystery, the god Dionysus, the great Pan; and just that mystery is the burden of my phrase, Wie Ein Naturlaut (“As if spoken by nature”). That, if anything, is my program, or the secret of my composition…My music is always the voice of Nature sounding in tone, an idea in reality synonymous with the concept so aptly described by von Bülow as ‘the symphonic problem.’ The validity of any other sort of ‘program’ I do not recognize, at any rate, not for my work. If I have now and then affixed titles to some movements of my symphonies I intended them only to assist the listener along some general path of fruitful reaction. But if the clarity of the impression I desire to create seems impossible of attainment without the aid of an actual text, I do not hesitate to use the human voice in my symphonies; for music and poetry together are a combination capable of realizing the most mystic conception. Through them the world, Nature as a whole, is released from its profound silence and opens its lips in song.