Mendelssohn’s Orchestra Plays Melusine

an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.
an architectural detail featuring Melusine, half woman, half mermaid.

Felix Mendelssohn’s overture, The Beautiful Melusine, was inspired by a legend which Max Derrickson describes:

The legend of the half-mermaid, Melusine, appears to date back over nearly twelve centuries.  The arrestingly beautiful Melusine, born of a mortal father and water sprite mother, is cursed to take the form of a serpent from her waist down (a mermaid) one day each week.  This was done by her mother, furious with Melusine for entombing her father in a mountain for his mistreatment of her mother.  Some years later Melusine is proposed to by a man of nobility.  As did her mother years before, she agrees to marriage but with the one condition that she maintain absolute privacy on her “serpent day” of secrecy.  Great happiness envelopes the two lovers, until the inevitable day arrives when the condition is broken.  Upon being discovered she is doomed to remain in her mermaid form for eternity.

For Mendelssohn, the legend seems to have been a jumping off point. You won’t hear a depiction of the story, although there is a feeling of flowing water throughout the music. At moments, there is a hint of the clear, yet complex imitative counterpoint of J.S. Bach, whose music Mendelssohn was dedicated to reviving.

Here is a great recording of The Beautiful Melusine by Kurt Masur and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn was principal conductor at the Gewandhaus between 1835 and 1847. The concert hall he would have known, constructed in 1781, was replaced in 1884. That hall was destroyed during the fire-bombing of the Second World War. Conductor Kurt Masur laid the first stone of the foundation for the current Gewandhaus, completed in 1981.

Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

Schumann’s Piano Quintet, Op. 44

MI0000968595

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 minorwritten 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:

  1. Allegro Brillante 0:00
  2. In modo d’una marcia. Un poco largamente 8:56
  3. Scherzo. Molto vivace 17:51
  4. Allegro ma non troppo 22:40

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube

Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment thread below.

Music Inspired by Scotland

Unknown-2Tomorrow all eyes will be on Scotland. A referendum will determine whether the ancient and mysterious land of rugged mountains, long, picturesque Lochs and remote castles will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. Throughout its tumultuous history (which included the arrival of the Romans around 71 AD, and later, Catholic-Protestant religious wars in which the Scots sometimes fought alongside the French), Scotland has maintained a separate identity. The Treaty of Union brought Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1706. Today, independence could have significant and possibly devastating implications for Scotland’s orchestras.

The landscapes and legends of Scotland have served as an inspiration for many composers. Here is a sample:

Mendelssohn Travels to Scotland

Felix Mendelssohn toured Scotland in 1829 when he was twenty years old. During a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a miraculous sea cavern on the desolate, rocky coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 was finished a year later on December 16, the one day of the year that the cave is fully illuminated by sunlight.

Mendelssohn’s letters suggest that he was deeply affected by his experience at Fingal’s Cave. It was here that the opening motive of the overture came into his mind.

Listen to the way the music evokes an atmosphere of mystery, even suggesting the supernatural. You can almost feel the motion of the waves in the opening, but also listen to the long, sustained tones which emerge in the brass and woodwinds (0:21). At 3:52 we hear a “surround sound” effect as the distinct voices of a variety of instruments add their statements. Mendelssohn’s music covers wide emotional territory, but at the end we’re left with the same sense of wonder and mystery we felt in the opening.

This recording features Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra:

Mendelssohn’s visit to the the ruined abby at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired the opening seed for the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. He wrote:

In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.

You might hear a faint echo of Scottish folk music in the theme of the second movement. Beyond that, the symphony qualifies as “pure music,” with no overt references to Scotland. The movements flow into one another with little break, creating a sense of continuity. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the surprising way it ends. The majestic, joyous theme of the coda seems to leave behind everything which has come before

This is Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert in 2008:

  1.  Introduction. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come I (0:00)
  2. Scherzo. Vivace non troppo (15:06)
  3. Adagio cantabile (19:21)
  4. Finale guerriero. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai (27:59)

Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy

Completed in 1880 and dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 offers another German view of Scotland. The four movements are based on Scottish folk songs“Auld Rob Morris”, “The Dusty Miller”, I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie” and “Hey Tuttie Tatie.” Fragments of “Auld Rob Morris” return throughout the piece. Listen for its quiet final statement at the end. 

Here is Jascha Heifetz’s legendary recording with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony of London:

  1. Introduction; Grave, Adagio cantabile (0:00)
  2. Scherzo; Allegro (7:44)
  3. Andante sostenuto (12:14)
  4. Finale; Allegro guerriero (18:54)

An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise

The Orkney Islands are at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In 1985 English composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a piece which captures the raucous atmosphere of a traditional wedding celebration on the islands. Listen for the entrance of a bagpiper at the end.

Here is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies:

Sunrise in the Orkney Islands
Sunrise in the Orkney Islands

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:

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