Grumiaux’s Cosmic Bach

NASA included a "Golden Record" on the Voyager interstellar mission.
NASA included a “Golden Record” on the Voyager interstellar mission.

When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager spacecraft in 1977, it included a Golden Record featuring a sampling of music from Earth. One of the recording’s excerpts is J.S. Bach’s Gavotte en rondeaux from Partita No. 3 in E Major, performed by legendary Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). Regarding the record, astronomer Carl Sagan said:

[quote]The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.[/quote]

Voyager 1 continues to drift into the vast cosmic expanse. Yesterday it was 127.19 AU (1.903×1010 km) from Earth. In 40,000 years it will be within 1.6 lightyears of Gliese 445, a star in the constellation Camelopardalis, which flickers faintly in our northern sky.

Following up on last Friday’s post, The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiauxlet’s listen to a few of Grumiaux’s exquisite Bach recordings.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Partita No. 3 in E Major[/typography]

We’ll start off with the Preludio and Gavotte en rondeaux from the E Major Partita. A Partita is an instrumental suite of Baroque dances. While some violinists take the Preludio at breakneck speed, Grumiaux’s noble and slightly slower interpretation allows every note to speak.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto in A minor[/typography]

Here is the complete Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. Notice the sense of a heartbeat in the ostinato bass in the second movement. The final movement is a gigue:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Concerto for Two Violins[/typography]

Herman Krebbers plays the second violin part in this 1978 recording with Les Solistes Romands and conductor Arpad Gerecz:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord[/typography]

Here Grumiaux joins Christianne Jaccotte for Bach’s six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord:

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Musical Beginnings

Unknown-30Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:

  1. Ouverture 0:00
  2. Bourree 8:45
  3. Gavotte 11:29
  4. Menuet I/II 13:31
  5. Réjouissance 17:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]

You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?

Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Andante cantabile con moto 8:26
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace 14:50
  4. Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace 16:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Also sprach Zarathustra’s Unresolved Ending[/typography]

Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra. B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?

Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.

Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.

Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What’s Your Favorite Musical Beginning?[/typography]

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “musical beginning?” Tell us about it in the comment thread below.

[quote]Life without music would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche[/quote]

"Spheres" by Daniel Hope

SpheresMusica universalis, or the “music of the spheres” is the ancient philosophical concept that the movements of the sun, moon and planets generate celestial vibrations. Pythagoras accidentally discovered that a musical pitch sounds in direct proportion to the length of the string which produces it. He was interested in the concept of universal harmony rooted in mathematical ratios-a unifying cosmic “music.”

Violinist Daniel Hope’s new CD, Spheres finds inspiration in these big ideas. Spheres puts music of J.S Bach and Johann Paul von Westhoff side by side with works by modern composers including Philip Glass, Lera Aurbach, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt. The result is a collection of short pieces which seem to transcend style and time period:

[quote style=”boxed”]In this album my idea was to bring together music and time, including works by composers from different centuries who might perhaps not always be found in the same “galaxy” but yet are united by the age-old question: is there anything out there? -Daniel Hope[/quote]

The CD opens with Imitazione delle campane by Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), music which may have inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. This music could easily be mistaken for the modern minimalism of Arvo Pärt. Hope has some interesting things to say about this piece and the historical significance of Westhoff as a composer and violinist.

Another excerpt from the CD is Musica Universalis by Alex Baranowski, a piece that was commissioned for the album by Daniel Hope:

Spheres also includes I Giorni (2001) by film composer Ludovico Einaudi:

Hope offers a track by track listener’s guide to the CD. For more information on Spheres watch this interview and this clip with composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev). If you’re interested in hearing etherial and expressive new violin music as well as rediscovering a forgotten gem like the Westhoff, you’ll enjoy this recording.

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Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins

Johann Sebastian Bach

Last month I recommended an exciting new recording of Bach violin concertos, just released by Anne Akiko Meyers.  Now, let’s listen to a much older performance of the Bach Double Concerto featuring two of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh.

This music was written around 1730 when Bach was working in Leipzig.  Bach’s main instrument was the organ, but he was also a fine violinist and he was influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos.*

As you listen, pay attention to the way the two solo violin parts interact with each other and with the orchestra.  You’ll notice that they constantly trade off between taking the spotlight and having a supporting role.

Listen to the beginning of the first movement and see if you can keep track of the main motive as it appears in different voices, first in the second violins, then the first violins (0:15) then the lower strings (0:29) then the second violins again (0:41) and finally returning to the first violins (0:51).  This may remind you of what you heard when we listened to the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

As the second movement unfolds, moving into ever changing musical landscapes, notice the repeating “heart beat” in the orchestra.  Do you get the sense that the music is searching for its ultimate goal?

Compare the second movement’s sense of musical “heart beat” to the feel of the third movement.  Are there moments here where your sense of the downbeat is dangerously and excitingly less predictable?

Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor, BWV 1043…J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Vivace
Largo ma non tanto
Allegro 

Now that you’ve heard the Double Concerto more or less as Bach intended, you might enjoy this comedy sketch that the legendary Jack Benny did with violinist Isaac Stern.  Also, check out this impressive jazz fiddle adaptation performed by the group, Time For Three:

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 110)