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:

The Dead City: Korngold’s Psychological Thriller

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 three-act opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City) opens in the rational world, but quickly dissolves into a dark dreamscape of hallucination.

Paul, the central character, is haunted by the recent death of his wife, Marie. Unable to move on, Paul is obsessed with a “Temple of Memories,” which includes paintings, photographs and a lock of his deceased wife’s hair. On the streets of Bruges he sees Marietta, a young dancer who resembles Marie. Paul believes that Marietta is Marie and invites her to his house. Marietta seduces Paul, singing Glück das mir verblieb. Mirroring Paul’s sense of loss, the aria’s words are tinged with sadness and loss…a sense of the fleeting nature of life and love. Bored and put off by Paul’s strange behavior, Marietta leaves.

Events of the second and third acts take place in Paul’s imagination. At the end of Act III, Paul dreams that he strangles Marietta with a lock of Marie’s hair, declaring, “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Suddenly, Paul awakens from his dream. Brigitta, the maid tells him that Marietta has returned to retrieve an umbrella she left behind. Shaken by the ghostly visions, Paul says that he will try to let go of the “Temple of Memories”, singing a reprise of “Glück, das mir verblieb.” Read the entire synopsis here.

Korngold was 23 years old when Die tote Stadt premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne (conducted by Otto Klemperer) on December 4, 1920. The opera remained popular with audiences until it was banned by the Nazis as part of the Third Reich’s efforts to purge music by Jewish composers. In the post war years it was neglected, fitting neither into the witty neoclassical style of Stravinsky nor the twelve tone world of Arnold Schoenberg. It remained almost forgotten until the mid-to-late twentieth century. In recent years it has seen a revival. Die tote Stadt may be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic harmonic language of Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Below is the powerful final scene, performed by Torsten Kerl. Throughout the opera, Korngold draws on key relationships, representing the living Marietta with five sharps and the dead Marie with five flats. Beginning around the 2:12 mark, we hear the descending chromatic “death” motive which occurs throughout the work. Notice the significant and jarring moments where Korngold chooses to lapse into spoken words. Listen to the way the music changes as the maid, Brigitta enters (5:12) and Paul awakens from his hallucination, singing, “Brigitta, you my old and faithful friend.” On the word “friend,” we’re suddenly transported to a new world as the harmony and tonal color shift.

Korngold’s Die tote Stadt confronts us with questions about holding on versus letting go, and the nature of memory. Are memories real or illusory? Despite this production’s bold “No Exit” sign, the final chord suggests a release of energy akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde…an ultimate, irreversible musical resolution which represents the end of tonal striving. It’s a final chord which simultaneously encompasses darkness and light: the widest possible range of the orchestra, from the depths of the woodwind section to the high, shimmering strings.

From Russia With Love

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

From Russia With Love is a collection of violin and piano miniatures, recorded by violinist Oleh Krysa and pianist Tatiana Tchekina. The CD focuses on Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Here are a few spectacular excerpts from the CD:

A transcription of Masks from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet:

The haunting waltz from Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, arranged by Mikhail Fichtenholtz:

Russian Song, transcribed from Igor Stravinsky’s opera, Mavra, by Samuel Dushkin. Listen to the almost hypnotic piano line:

Samuel Dushkin’s transcription of the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka:

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.

Stravinsky Goes Back to the Future

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.

Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.

Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.

Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.

By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.

This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:

  1. Sinfonia (0:00)
  2. Serenata (1:48)
  3. a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
  4. Tarantella (8:56)
  5. Toccata (10:49)
  6. Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
  7. Vivo (15:27)
  8. a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)

At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale. 

Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.

Violin Concerto

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up  a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”

Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:

  1. Tocatta (0:00)
  2. Aria I (5:58)
  3. Aria II (10:18)
  4. Capriccio (15:43)

Dumbarton Oaks

Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.

Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:

  1. Tempo giusto (0:00)
  2. Allegretto 
  3. Con moto (8:01)

Appalachian Spring at UMD

Unknown-41A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”

In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.

In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:

What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).

But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.

The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.

Here is the complete performance:

Ballet for Martha

Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!

From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.

In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.

If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.