Thomas Jefferson: Architect, Musician

Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.
Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.

 

Hierarchy is a powerful concept in architecture. Some buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Sydney Opera House, rising out of the harbor with its bright “sails,” grab our attention and dominate the landscape. The majestic, muscular Art Deco City Hall in Buffalo, New York is another, if less obvious, example. It nobly anchors the city’s main public square, telling us, “this place is important.” The building has a powerful presence when seen from a distance down one of the city’s long, main boulevards. It establishes a sense of procession.

But not every building should scream at us. The quiet, surrounding background buildings are just as important to architectural hierarchy. These are the buildings that make up the nuts and bolts of a city and make the occasional icons especially powerful. Consider the satisfying feeling we get from the handsome, but homogeneous, blocks that make up the majority of central Paris.

Hierarchy is apparent in Thomas Jefferson’s masterful, classical design for the University of Virginia. The Rotunda, influenced by the Pantheon in Rome and Palladian architecture, sits at the head of The Lawn, flanked by the background buildings of the “Academical Village.” The Rotunda, which Jefferson designed to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason,” houses the library. Interestingly, as architect Stanley Tigerman mentions in this 2011 Yale lecture, Jefferson’s original plan did not include the Rotunda. It boldly obliterated hierarchy, leaving The Lawn open-ended, similar to twentieth century architect Louis Kahn’s 1965 design for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. It was only after Jefferson visited Europe that he retreated from the ultimate democratic symbolism of his initial design. Look at the image below and consider The Lawn without the hierarchy of its famous Rotunda.

Architectural critic Paul Goldberger describes Jefferson’s design, in its completed form, this way:

Ultimately the University of Virginia is an essay in balance-balance between the built world and the natural one, between the individual and the community, between past and present, between order and freedom. There is order to the buildings, freedom to the lawn itself-but as the buildings order and define and enclose the great open space, so does the space make the buildings sensual and rich. Neither the buildings nor the lawn would have any meaning without the other, and the dialogue they enter into is a sublime composition. The lawn is terraced, so that it steps down gradually as it moves away from the Rotunda, adding a whole other rhythm to the composition. The lawn is a room, and the sky its ceiling; I know of few other outdoor places anywhere where the sense of architectural space can be so intensely felt.

Jefferson's "Academical Village" at the University of Virginia.
Jefferson’s “Academical Village” flanks The Lawn at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson, the Violinist

In addition to being a visionary architect, naturalist, statesman, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a violinist. During his lifetime he owned three violins, one possibly made by famous Cremona master, Nicolò Amati. His library included the technical treatise, The Art of Playing on the Violin by Francesco Geminiani (1680-1762) as well as sonatas and concertos by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Pugnani, Boccherini, and others.

Andrew Manze’s performance of Corelli’s 12 Violin Sonatas, Op.5 provides a sense of the music Jefferson might have played:

La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

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Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:

Hiro Kurosaki Plays Handel

Hiro Kurosaki's recording of Handel SonatasYou may be familiar with classic recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonatas by Isaac SternNathan MilsteinHenryk Szeryng and Szymon Goldberg. For the most part, they’re all Romantic performances, emphasizing a large, singing tone and lots of vibrato. For a slightly different take, add to the list an excellent 2003 Baroque recording by violinist Hiro Kurosaki and harpsichordist William Christie.

No one knows if Handel actually wrote all seven of the sonatas on this disk. A few are suspected to be the work of other composers, now long forgotten. The D-major sonata (HWV 371), one of Handel’s last works, and youthful G-major sonata (HWV 358) are authentic. Dr. Suzuki included the F major and D major sonatas in Book 6 and the A major sonata in Book 7.

Born in Japan, Hiro Kurosaki now lives in Austria and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He plays a 1690 Giovanni Battista Rogeri violin on this recording, an instrument made during Handel’s lifetime. Kurosaki and Christie claim that their interpretation was influenced by Handel’s opera writing. Listen to this excerpt from the 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare, for a comparison.

Here is Sonata No. 4 in D major:

Also listen to the F major and G major sonatas.

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.

The Art of the Ostinato

An ostinato is a musical motif or phrase that is persistently repeated.  Here are three pieces from the Baroque period that are constructed around a repeating bass line known as a basso ostinato, or ground bass.  In each case, the bass line provides the framework for a set of increasingly complex and thrilling variations.  It’s as if the composer is saying, “Listen to how clever and inventive I can be!”

Canon in D…Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

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The performance below by the San Francisco Early Music Ensemble uses period instruments and attempts to authentically capture Baroque style.  Notice that the bows differ slightly from our modern bows and hardly any vibrato is used.

The cello provides the ground bass.  Listen to the contour of this bass line as it moves stepwise downward and then gets pulled back again.  A Baroque organ and theorbo (a plucked string instrument similar to a lute) fill in the harmony, providing what is known as a continuo.  The solo violins perform a three part canon.  A canon is “a contrapuntal composition that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration.”  In Pachelbel’s canon the voices are two measures apart.  Pay attention to the way the three identical solo parts fit together.

Passacaglia…George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)  Arranged for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen

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Similar to a chacconne, a passacaglia is a Baroque dance form that features a series of variations over an ostinato bass.   Handel wrote this music for a harpsichord suite that was published in 1720.  The Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) made this spectacular arrangement, re-scoring Handel’s variations for violin and viola.  Here, violinist Itzhak Perlman and violist Pinchas Zukerman perform this dazzling virtuoso showpiece as an encore.

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582…Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

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You will hear amazing new details each time you listen to this piece.  Bach was a master of counterpoint, which is “the technique of combining two or more melodic ideas in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.”  Listen to the way Bach weaves new musical lines over the repeating passacaglia theme.  Also, listen to the exciting ways Bach chooses to harmonize these lines.  Like Pachelbel, Bach was an organist and, starting out with a pre-existing melody (often a choral tune, but in this case a passacaglia), he improvised this complex music for church services.  Only later were these improvisations written down.

The second part of the piece is a Fugue (starting at 8:06) which is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (known as the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others.”  Bach uses the first eight notes of the passacaglia theme as his subject.  See if you can pick out the subject each time in enters.  Sometimes it will be higher in register, other times lower, and it will usually be surrounded by other musical lines.  The music becomes increasingly complex, modulating to different keys before triumphantly returning to the home key of C (this time Major replacing minor).

Enjoy the music and if you feel inspired, leave a comment below.  Your insights greatly enrich the conversation!