Debussy’s Études Turn 100

UnknownApart from the question of technique, these Études will be a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands….

This was Claude Debussy’s warning to students who dared attempt to play his twelve fiendishly difficult Études for solo piano. The short pieces were even technically daunting for Debussy, who described them as “music that soars to the summit of execution,” and requires you to occasionally catch your breath, “as after climbing a mountain.” Each étude was designed to showcase a different set of finger gymnastics, from thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves, to chromatic passages, ornaments, and dissonances.

Beyond the thorny technical challenges lie extraordinary music. The first étude, marked sagement (“well-behaved”), opens with a reference to the finger dexterity exercises of Carl Czerny. A five-note scale motive is interrupted by gleefully raucous outbursts which eventually take over the music completely. There are echoes of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. We hear a similar sense of wild humor in the “eight finger” Perptuum mobile of the sixth étude. The mercurial fourth étude (For Sixths) swings erratically from one key area to another and ends up awash in jazzy impressionism. Regarding this music, Debussy wrote to his publisher,

For a very long time, the continuous use of sixths gave me the feeling of pretentious demoisselles seated in a salon sulkily embroider- ing, envying the scandalous laughter of mad ninths…yet I am writing this study where the at- tention to the sixth organizes the harmonies only with aggregates of these intervals, and it’s not ugly! (Mea culpa…).

Tomorrow, Debussy’s Études turn 100. He began working on them on July 23, 1915 at a sea-side chalet in Dieppe in Normandy. Fear of an impending German occupation of Paris had driven him to the countryside. He was beginning to show signs of the cancer that would take his life three years later. The ghosts of past pianists seem to have been looking over Debussy’s shoulder. He considered dedicating the Études to Couperin, but instead chose Chopin. (He had just completed a new addition of Chopin’s works for his publisher, Durand).

You can hear Mitsuko Uchida’s great 1990 recording of the complete set of Études here.

For an excerpt, here is the dreamy Étude 11 (Pour les Arpèges composés). Listen to the way the initial musical “stream” of notes flows and develops, taking us on a series of sudden and short-lived adventures, and culminating with a playful splash of sound:

New Release: Frédéric Bednarz Plays Franck, Lekeu, Boulanger

51Jfdl4g7YL._SS280Canadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka have released an exciting new recording of French violin music. The centerpiece of the recording is César Franck’s famous Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano. This is a beautifully colorful and passionate performance with a seamless and cohesive sense of ensemble between violin and piano.

The seldom heard music of Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) opens the CD. Lekeu’s G major Violin Sonata was commissioned by Eugène Ysaÿe and first performed in 1893. There are echoes of Franck in the music. (César Lekeu studied counterpoint and fugue with Franck). Guillaume Lekeu died tragically at the age of 24 after contracting typhoid fever.

Rounding out the recording is Lili Boulanger’s brief but extraordinary Nocturne for Violin and Piano, written in 1911. Hazy and impressionistic, the music ends with a passing quote of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faune. Lili was the younger sister of the influential composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Listen to the full recording here.

Music Beyond the Holocaust

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

 

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the allied liberation of Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War. Orchestras around the world, including the Richmond Symphony, commemorated the event by playing often neglected music by Jewish composers who were affected by Nazi atrocities.

Music was performed frequently in the concentration camps. At Terezin, near Prague, prisoners defiantly performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times as a veiled condemnation of the Nazis. The conductor Raphael Schächter taught his fellow prisoners the music by rote, using a single score. As prisoners were moved to other camps, Schächter painstakingly began the process again.

In 1936, Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Huberman helped nearly 1,000 Jewish musicians flee the Third Reich. He is often credited with helping to preserve the Jewish musical tradition.

Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes examines the importance of the violin in Jewish culture.

Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (b. 1894-1942) was mentored by Antonín Dvořák and later studied with Claude Debussy. You can hear both Czech folk music and the wispy sounds of Impressionism in his brief but powerful String Quartet No. 1. Schulhoff died of tuberculosis at the Wülzburg concentration camp on August 18, 1942.

This piece contains ghostly and ethereal voices. Listen to the way the final movement fades into eternity.

Here is a performance by the Kocian Quartet:

  1. Presto con fuoco (0:00)
  2. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca (2:15)
  3. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca (5:53)
  4. Andante molto sostenuto (8:50)

Korngold and the “Hollywood Sound”

We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.

-Erich Wolfgang Korngold

In one of the great ironies of music history, Hitler was partly responsible for the lush, colorful sound we associate with the golden age of Hollywood film scores. Jewish composers, including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Miklós Rózsa emigrated to the United States as the film industry was blossoming. Had these composers been free to remain in Europe, many of the greatest film scores would likely have become symphonies.

Korngold created film scores for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Kings Row (1941). The later score seems to have subconsciously (or consciously) influenced the Main Theme of John Williams’ Star Wars as well as Superman. Listen to a suite from the score and then a back-to-back comparison of the two themes here. This music can be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic tradition of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Brendan G. Carroll writes,

Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written in 1945, draws on music from the movies Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn (1937), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and Juarez (1939). The concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, who served as a childhood mentor to Korngold. There are moments where the spirit of late Mahler briefly surfaces (in the first movement at 6:44 in the recording below). Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere with the Saint Louis Symphony in 1947.

Some concertos open with a long orchestra introduction before the solo instrument is heard. By contrast, in this concerto the violin greets us from the start; the expansive, open intervals of the theme suggesting endless possibilities. Waves of colorful sound leap from every corner of the orchestra throughout the outer movements. At moments, the violin becomes a solitary voice, venturing towards the wilderness of atonality before the orchestra pulls us back.

The Romanza enters intimate new territory. Listen carefully to the subtle conflict in the second movement’s opening chord. This is an instance where one note changes everything. The music seems to be searching. We hear high, shimmering voices followed by a dark and icy low chord. Notice the splashes of color which sparkle around the violin’s lamenting melody.

Here is a performance by Hilary Hahn and the Kölner Philharmonie, conducted by Heinrich Schiff. Hahn talks about the music here.

  1. Moderato nobile (0:00)
  2. Romanze (8:36)
  3. Allegro assai vivace (16:44)

Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony: Nature’s Lament

British troops in the trenches near Thiepval, France in 1916.

 

With a title like A Pastoral Symphony, you might expect Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, completed in 1922, to evoke bubbling brooks and the quiet hedgerows of England’s “green and pleasant land.” But listen, and you’ll hear music which, instead, suggests a melancholy alienation from nature. The music feels strangely hazy and shell-shocked. Its pastures are the battlefields of the First World War, not the bucolic scenes of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or a Schubert song.

At the age of 41, Vaughan Williams served in the war as an ambulance driver for the Royal Army Medical Corps. This was the moment when the world caught its first, real glimpse of weapons of mass destruction. New, dehumanizing technology included tanks, poison gas, flame throwers and primitive air power. Soldiers were reduced to “killing machines” as trench warfare and the concept of attrition wiped away any pretense of gallant heroism. Vaughan Williams described the Symphony’s genesis, saying,

It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.

A Pastoral Symphony can be heard as nature’s lament. It seems rooted in the magnificent permanence of nature and simultaneously human separation from nature. In the context of music history, it may represent one of the final attempts to connect with the Romantic pasture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Considering Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential technological growth, think about the ways in which music permanently changed in the second half of the twentieth century, with influences such as the automobile, the atomic bomb and the computer. Even Mahler’s nine symphonies gradually progressed from bird songs (in the First Symphony) towards dissonance (in the Ninth).

In some ways, Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony shakes up our concept of symphonic form. Most symphonies develop through linear motion, leading to a climax. This music, built on modes, parallel harmony, and the pentatonic scale, floats into more static territory. Each of the Pastoral Symphony’s movements ends by trailing off, denying us a clear sense of resolution.

The first movement (Molto moderato) is a restless sonic landscape of constantly shifting Impressionistic color and harmony. As each event unfolds into the next, our sense of key and tonal center seems to continuously slip away. Everything feels elusive, as if we’re chasing shadows.

Consider the musical colors created as woodwind lines move in and out of the thickly layered string sound (2:58, for example). Also, listen for the oboe and English horn, which evoke the traditional sounds of the pasture.

Listen to the chord at 1:36 and notice the way it stops the music in its tracks. You’ll hear this ominous hint of darkness return throughout the movement, remaining inescapable and unresolved.

In the middle of the second movement, a trumpet cadenza suggests a battlefield bugle call. Vaughan Williams intended it to be played on a valveless, “natural” trumpet.

It’s the final movement which ultimately makes A Pastoral Symphony feel so unsettling. The human voice suddenly emerges at the opening of the movement in the form of the soprano’s wordless, pentatonic lament. As the movement progresses, the music seems to be reaching for a moment of transcendent resolution. But at 7:03, the bottom falls out and we’re again confronted with the soprano’s opening line, this time in the strings. At the end of the movement, we hear the Symphony’s first true moment of resolution. Then the tonal center begins to dissolve. The soprano’s lament returns, fading into eternity.

This performance, with the Hallé Orchestra and conductor Sir Mark Elder, is part of the brand new recording I featured last week:

1. Molto Moderato:

2. Lento moderato-Moderato maestoso:

3. Moderato pesante:

4. Lento:

The Fauré Requiem, A Lullaby of Death

Unknown-3Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48, the choral-orchestral setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, offers a uniquely serene and tranquil view of death. Influenced by chant, it floats on a peaceful and sometimes modal sea, The traditional Sequence section, the hellfire of the Day of Wrath, is omitted, while the Pie Jesu and In paradisum are added.

Written between 1887 and 1890, the Requiem was not motivated by personal tragedy or sombre thoughts of mortality. Fauré said, “My Requiem wasn’t written for anything–for pleasure, if I may call it that!” He added the following description:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its overinclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

The Requiem emerges out of a stern D minor chord. Two contrasting lines (the dark strings and shimmering vocal lines) take tentative steps in opposite directions. We can almost feel the power of the text’s divine light (“et lux perpetual“) with each harmonic change. The passing tone in the bass at 1:11 suggests a sudden moment of terror before resolving to safety. Between 1:35 and 2:19 we hold our breath in anticipation and then arrive at an unexpected, but sublime peace.

At moments, Fauré’s harmonies drift in directions which seem to anticipate the full blown impressionism of Debussy and Ravel (listen to the string lines between 9:00 and 9:28). At 11:00, notice that the “Te / decet / hymnus” motive (first heard at 3:34) returns. We hear this motive again in the Sanctus’s violin solo. The motive is dominated by the interval of a perfect fourth, which also becomes the opening interval of the Pie Jesu.

The serenely transcendent final movement, In Paradisum, drifts away into a childlike simplicity, innocence and joy.

Here is Robert Shaw’s outstanding recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus:

  1. Introït et Kyrie (D minor) 0:00
  2. Offertoire (B minor) 6:24
  3. Sanctus (E-flat major) 14:36
  4. Pie Jesu (B-flat major) 18:07
  5. Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna (F major) 21:48
  6. Libera Me (D minor) 27:55
  7. In Paradisum (D major) 32:16

The Road Not Taken

images-4The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.

The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poemThe Road Not Taken, from a different angle. In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):

But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,

It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.

The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).

Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.

The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:

The Sunken Cathedral

Claude Monet - Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Morning effect)Last week Google celebrated the 151st birthday of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy with one of its clever Google Doodle logo animations. If you’re like me and you happened to see it, you probably clicked on the link expecting to linger for a few seconds and ended up watching all the way through, fascinated with its cinematic beauty. Accompanying the animation’s magical nighttime Parisian river scene is an excerpt of one of Debussy’s most popular pieces for piano, Clair de lune, or “Moonlight.” Google’s tribute received widespread media attention from The Huffington Post to The Washington Post.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clair de lune[/typography]

As a composer, Debussy broke long-established rules. Germanic music from Beethoven to Wagner had been intensely goal oriented, driving towards an ultimate and often heroic resolution. By contrast, the music of Asia, like the philosophies of Buddhism, were more circular. Influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Debussy became drawn to the pentatonic scale (the black keys of the piano), the whole tone scale and Asian sounds. The results were shocking new harmonies and music which had a different relationship with time, often seeming to float in a dream-like haze. You could say that Debussy wrote the first New Age or Ambient music. His music is about color and atmosphere, embracing the soft sensuality of a Monet painting.

With this in mind, let’s start off by listening to Clair de Lune, performed by pianist Claudio Arrau:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

Did you notice how often the music passionately builds, only to avoid resolution and move somewhere completely unexpected at the last moment? Listen to the way the tension at 3:12 dissolves into contentment at 3:34. Then after heightening our expectation, Debussy again avoids the resolution we might be expecting at 4:10. Finally, at 4:33 we quietly slip back into the “A” section. This is music which says, “Enjoy the moment. Enjoy where you are, even if it’s not where you expected to end up. Goals don’t really matter. Just float along…”

Clair de Lune is part of Debussy’s four movement Suite Bergamasque, written between 1890 and 1905. Listen to the entire suite here.

[quote style=”boxed”]In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”[/quote] –Kamien Listening Outline

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La cathédrale engloutie[/typography]

Debussy wrote La cathédrale engloutie, or “The Sunken Cathedral” in 1910 as part of a set of twelve Preludes for piano. Let’s listen to the piece once to get a sense of its harmony and tonal colors. What mood does the music create? What images are painted in your mind? As the music unfolds, can you perceive a large scale structure or musical shape? Here is a performance by François-Joël Thiollier:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

This piece was inspired by an ancient Breton legend about a cathedral submerged off the coast of the mythical island, Ys, near Brittany. On clear mornings the cathedral rises out of the ocean. Bells, chanting and the sound of a mighty organ can be heard. Then, it slowly sinks back into the water and disappears. Only distant bells are faintly audible as a memory. Was it real or only a dream?

Listen to the piece again. Can you hear the bells? Can you identify the moment in the music when the enormous cathedral begins to emerge? Notice the imitative canon between low and high voices as the music crescendos at 3:40. What elements in the music create tension and a sense of anticipation at this moment? Are you surprised by what happens at the climax of the crescendo? (4:02) Is there anything in the music which suggests the feeling of deep, dark, murky, cold ocean water? Consider the significance of the legend as a psychological metaphor.

Here is a quick analysis of La cathédrale engloutie. You can listen to more of Debussy’s Preludes here. I’ve shared a few of my ideas about what makes this music so interesting. Now, leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you hear.