Hilary Hahn released an excellent new recording on March 31. The album pairs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 with the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 by Belgian virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). In the recording’s official trailer, Hahn mentions that she first learned both pieces around the age of 10 as she was entering the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There’s also some interesting violin lineage at work: Hahn’s teacher Jascha Brodsky was a student of Eugène Ysaÿe who studied with Vieuxtemps.
Mozart’s Fifth, written when he was 19 years old, has earned the nickname, “The Turkish Concerto” because of the wild “Turkish” dance in the middle of the final movement. We get hints of this moment of joyful spontaneity in the first movement (1:11 below). These moments stand out on this CD, partly because of the stylish playing of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Paavo Järvi. On older recordings it is common to hear the orchestra in the background and the solo violin prominently front and center. Here, the orchestra is an equal partner, and the balance is similar to what you would hear in a live concert. There’s a great sense of motion and flow in the Adagio.
You may notice the influence of Hector Berlioz’ music in the Vieuxtemps. (Amazingly, if you listen closely, you can hear what sounds like birds tweeting on the recording before the music begins). Berlioz said, “Vieuxtemps is as remarkable a composer as he is an incomparable virtuoso.” While this statement may seem exaggerated now, it shows how popular Vieuxtemps’ concertos were in their day. This music still occupies an important place in the violin repertoire. In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz says,
Vieuxtemps’ achievement was to rejuvenate the grand concept of the French violin concerto by using the orchestra in a more symphonic manner and by letting the solo violin speak with a more eloquent and impassioned voice. In his Fourth concerto (1849-50) he abandoned the traditional form by inserting a Scherzo and shaping the opening movement freely, almost like an improvisation of the solo violin; there is also a cyclic connection with the Finale.
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:
Can you imagine how shocking the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 must have been for audiences at the first performance in 1808? While the classical style of Mozart and Haydn was rooted in elegance and balance, Beethoven made the orchestra growl. There’s a sense of struggle, as if he’s impatiently pushing the classical orchestra to its limits.
The entire symphony springs from the first ferocious four notes. It’s a study in concentrated energy and relentless forward motion. While the four note motive develops on the smallest level, the piece is also developing on a large level. It’s an unfolding process in which turbulent C minor is transformed into heroic C major.
Here is a performance by Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen:
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Did you notice how the opening motive runs through the entire piece like musical DNA? In the first movement, as we move into the second theme, it’s still there in the basses (0:55). In the second movement we get the same “short, short, short long” (7:55, 8:14 and 12:11). We hear it in the third movement (16:19) and fourth movement (25:06, 25:25). As you listen, you’ll hear many more examples.
Beethoven’s ability to unify the symphony with a common motivic thread was revolutionary in 1808. The end of the third movement would have been equally shocking. Listen to the passage starting around 19:16 one more time. The music gets softer and softer, hinting that something significant is about to happen. Then, as the movement should be ending (20:03), Beethoven creates a musical bridge linking the third and forth movements. He later briefly returns to the third movement’s theme before the recapitulation of the final movement (26:09).
The climax of the symphony (and the goal of the first three movements) comes with the heroic proclamation at the opening of the final movement. Beethoven reserves the special color of the trombones for this moment. While trombones had long been used to double the voices in church music, this was one of the first times they were incorporated into the orchestra. Notice the way the trombone color, with its heroic and supernatural connotations, transforms the sound. Beethoven expands the orchestra further with the piccolo and the contrabassoon.