Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major

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Great composers are never born out of the smug, comfortable bubble of academia. School has its place when it comes to perfecting the essential technical craft of composition (Beethoven studied with Haydn). But in the end, the greatest composers largely have been outcasts. Their bold, exciting and disruptive visions are usually misunderstood and rejected by the ruling establishment of the day. They hear things that others cannot.

The story of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major is a case in point. Written in 1903 when Ravel was 28 years old, the work was rejected by both the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. Ravel dedicated the work to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who called the last movement, “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” After being formally expelled, Ravel continued to audit Fauré’s class. To be fair, Fauré isn’t the only great composer to leave a “foot-in-mouth” statement for the history books. His quote gives us a sense of how shocking and revolutionary Impressionism must have been for older generations. This new music broke established rules of harmony and form, drawing on jazz and Asian Gamelan influences. Single chords evoked magical and surreal new atmospheres. In 1905 Claude Debussy wrote to Ravel saying,  “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.”

From its opening bars, Ravel’s String Quartet unfolds like a dream. It takes sudden turns effortlessly, often ending up where we least expect. As voices are passed around, the two violins, viola and cello seem to be conversing (listen between 0:54 and 1:16 for an example). In the first movement’s haunting second theme (1:54), notice the atmospheric sound of the first violin and viola in octaves and listen for the cello pizzicato.

One of my favorite passages occurs between 2:23 and 2:55, where each harmonic door opens into a room which seems more special than the last. Then this moment evaporates as if it had never occurred and we find ourselves in the more uncertain world of the development section, surrounded by splashes of color.

You’ll hear echoes of the first movement return throughout the rest of the piece. Listen carefully to the way 3/4 and 6/8 time merge together in the twangy pizzicato opening of the second movement. As the movement progresses, it covers a wide range of musical atmospheres, but the persistent opening motive keeps popping up, as if to say, “I’m still here!” (listen around 9:03 and in the mysterious passage at 11:50 in which the motive hints at a gradual transition back to the “A” section). The third movement enters strange, ethereal territory, while the final movement erupts with a blazing, unstoppable energy.

Here is a recording by the Alban Berg Quartet:

  1. Allegro moderato. Très doux
  2. Assez vif. Très rythmé 
  3. Très lent 
  4. Vif et agité 

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven Fifth SymphonyCan 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:

  1. Allegro con brio 0:01
  2. Andante con moto 7:25
  3. Allegro 15:58
  4. Allegro 20:38 

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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. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]George Szell’s Rehearsal[/typography]

Here is a rare clip of legendary conductor George Szell rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra:

Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor

BeethovenThe key of C minor held special significance for Beethoven. Emotionally intense and stormy, C minor evoked the turbulence of an age of revolution. It embodied a sense of heroic struggle, which would form the bedrock of Romaticism.

In Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, American pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen suggests that Beethoven’s C minor compositions are closely linked to the Romantic idea of the artist as hero:

[quote]Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.[/quote]

Let’s sample the unique, ferocious energy of Beethoven’s music in C minor:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonata Pathétique[/typography]

We’ll start with the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as the Sonata Pathétique. It was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27 years old. The first movement’s structure follows traditional Sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation). Many listeners hear the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven’s unique voice is apparent. As you listen, consider the drama that a single chord can create.

This is a performance by Daniel Barenboim:

  1. Grave — Allegro di molto e con brio 0:19
  2. Adagio cantabile 9:46
  3.  Rondo: Allegro 15:11

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The ferocious opening C minor chord tells us everything we need to know about the piece which follows. Throughout the first movement’s introduction, notice the way Beethoven plays with tension and resolution. Just as we’re lulled into complacency, we get hit with another jarring surprise. Romanticism is about the drama of the moment and this introduction draws us into each moment, chord by chord. In the passage at 1:04, notice the musical conversation which is taking place. What do you think each voice is saying?

Beethoven returns to this haunting introduction at the beginning of the development section, but this time we hear it in G minor (5:35). This is a technique Haydn used frequently, but here it seems more ominous and unsettling. Notice how unstable the music feels throughout this section and listen for the return of C minor at the recapitulation (7:13).

At the beginning of the coda (8:35), we’re once again haunted by the opening C minor introduction. Regardless of the movement’s many harmonic adventures (which include E-flat minor and major and F minor), the stern final chord tells us that nothing has changed. C minor remains inevitable and all-powerful.

The second movement demonstrates the unique expressive qualities of individual keys. Here we’re in A-flat major, a world away from the storm and stress of C minor, which returns in the final movement.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Sonata No. 7[/typography]

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No.2 was published in 1803. Again, the music is consumed with the stormy turbulence of C minor and maybe even the terror of the French Revolution.

Here is Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Adagio con cantabile (9:20)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (18:50)
  4. Finale: Allegro; Presto (22:25)

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Contrast the mood of this music to Sonata No. 6 in A major or  Sonata No. 8 in G major. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos suggests there is something almost symphonic about this piece’s emotional power. At times the violin seems to be fighting the piano (the chords at 1:33 for example). The dotted rhythm of the first movement’s second theme (1:46) suggests military music from the French Revolution. As in the Pathétique Sonata, the second movement moves to A-flat major.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Coriolan Overture[/typography]

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, written in 1807, was inspired by the tragic play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811). Here is a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan:

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In the play, Coriolanus is about to invade Rome, despite his mother’s desperate attempts to convince him to abandon the campaign. Beethoven’s C minor theme represents Coriolanus, while the E-flat major theme evokes the pleading of Coriolanus’s mother (1:22). Coriolanus doesn’t realize his folly until he has led his army to the gates of Rome. His suicide is depicted at the end of the overture (7:32). Listen to the way the Coriolanus motive is stretched into a painful dissonance at the end (8:14).

Another great recording of this piece is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was recorded in the final days of the Third Reich. You can draw your own conclusions regarding the extent to which the tragic events of the times influenced the unique spirit of this performance.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Symphony No. 5[/typography]

The most famous of Beethoven’s C minor compositions is the Fifth Symphony. Unlike the preceding music, this piece is about transformation…stormy C minor turns into the ultimate heroism of C major. I’ll offer a few thoughts on this piece in my next post on Friday. In the meantime, here is a great 1967 recording by George Szell and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

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Five Musical Sunrises

images-35Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events?

Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography]

Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.76, No.4 was not originally intended to evoke a sunrise. For Haydn this quartet, written in 1797 in the final years of his life, was pure music. The ascending opening passage later earned it the nickname, “Sunrise”. This expansive musical line has been called “one of the greatest openings in chamber music.” Listen to the way Haydn draws us into the piece and heightens our expectation. The second theme (1:09) reverses the opening motive with a descending line in the cello. In the development section, beginning at 4:24, notice how Haydn transforms the opening motive, suddenly shifting into minor. Can you hear when Haydn returns “home” at the recapitulation?

The last movement’s “Allegro ma non troppo” marking implies a tempo which isn’t too fast. But Haydn, the master of musical humor and surprise, does something interesting and unexpected with the tempo at the end.

This performance is by the Takács Quartet:

  1. Allegro con spirito (0:00)
  2. Adagio (8:15)
  3. Menuetto. Allegro (14:17)
  4. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo (18:29)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude to Khovanshchina[/typography]

Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanshchina, tells the story of a violent and bloody episode in Russian history-the unsuccessful rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky against Peter the Great and the subsequent mass suicide of Khovansky’s followers. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of “The Russian Five,” a group of nationalistic Russian composers who aimed to promote their country’s unique musical identity.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina depicts dawn on the Moscow River. The music was orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay attention to the mix of orchestral colors and to the way the piece unfolds. How do these elements suggest a sunrise over calm, glistening water? Listen for the sound of church bells. Also, notice the quick ornamental notes in the melody (1:06), which give the music its distinctly Russian flavor.

Here is a 1997 recording of the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Solti:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Nielsen’s Helios Overture[/typography]

Helios was the living sun in Greek mythology. In his Helios Overture, Op. 17, Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) depicts sunrise as a gradual, unfolding process. The moment when night gives way to the first light of dawn is marked by a sliver of light on the edge of the eastern horizon. At the end of the day, the sun sinks back into the western horizon.

In the score Nielsen wrote:

[quote]Silence and darkness, The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, It wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.[/quote]

This is the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Morning Mood from Peer Gynt[/typography]

Now let’s hear the famous first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite, which also depicts a sunrise. This performance is by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The flute solo is played by James Galaway, who was principal flute in Berlin at the time of the recording. Listen to the dialogue between instruments. Each voice from the woodwinds to the horns has a distinct persona.

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As a professional orchestral musician, I consider myself lucky to be able to sit in the middle of the orchestra every day, surrounded by a rich collective sound. When I play this piece, I always listen for the magical moment at the end of this movement when the horn chords resolve into the final statement of the flute (3:20). The warm low strings and the shimmering flute create a unique musical mood.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Grand Canyon Suite[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to a distinctly American musical depiction of a sunrise. The scene is Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. This is the first movement of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Here is some background on the piece, completed in 1931. This is a recording featuring the Detroit Symphony, led by conductor Antal Doráti:

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