Mozart’s 259th Birthday

The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.
The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.

 

Tomorrow marks the 259th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. If you’re looking for an exciting way to celebrate, consider picking up a copy of Rachel Barton Pine’s newly-released Mozart recording. The CD features all five Mozart Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. Barton Pine is accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Her infectious enthusiasm for the music is apparent in this informational clip.

Born in Chicago in 1974, Rachel Barton Pine is known for her adventurous and eclectic approach to the violin, which includes a passion for Heavy Metal and her own variations on Happy BirthdayIn Mozart’s time, performers were expected to play their own cadenzas, adding freedom and spontaneity to concerto performances. Rachel Barton Pine continues this tradition on this recording.

She plays the 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu, a violin named after nineteenth century violinist Marie Soldat-Roeger, a close friend of Brahms.

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Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

As Rachel Barton Pine mentions in her program notes, Leopold Mozart published an influential treatise on violin playing in 1756, the year his son Wolfgang was born. Mozart’s youthful violin concertos, all written during his teenage years, reflect a joyful, fun-loving attitude towards the instrument. Leopold lamented to the young Mozart,

You have no idea how well you play the violin. If only you would do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit and fire, as if you were the greatest violinist in Europe!

Mozart’s twenty seven piano concertos are more mature. Concerto No. 23 in A major was finished on March 2, 1786, around the time The Marriage of Figaro premiered. This work contains a universe of expression. From the opening of the introduction, a musical conversation unfolds, first between the strings and woodwinds and then including the sparkling voice of the piano. The final movement is a spirited romp. Listen for the exuberant bassoon, string, and clarinet lines beginning around 19:18. The second movement takes us to a completely different world. The piano emerges as a solitary, mournful voice. In the middle of the movement (13:52), we hear music which would later turn up in Act II of Don Giovanni in the trio, Ah taci, ingiusto core” (“Ah, be quiet unjust heart”).

Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1980 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro 0:00
  2. Adagio 11:20
  3. Allegro assai 18:51

Passion and Fire: Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata

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In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting…How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows! It is true that the passion subsides into quiet mourning in the Adagio and fades away, reconciled, in the finale. But the beating pulse of the earlier sections still reverberates, and pathos remains the determining psychological characteristic of the whole.

That’s how critic Eduard Hanslick described Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99, following the work’s premier in 1886. Hanslick was nineteenth century Vienna’s most powerful music critic and an ardent champion of Brahms’ music. He presided over a politically charged environment in which Vienna was divided into two passionate musical camps: those who supported Brahms versus those who supported Wagner. Hugo Wolf, a devout Wagnerian wrote his own review of the Second Cello Sonata in the Wiener Salonblatt:

What is music, today, what is harmony, what is melody, what is rhythm, what is form, if this tohuwabohu [total chaos] is seriously accepted as music? If, however, Herr Dr Johannes Brahms is set on mystifying his worshippers with this newest work, if he is out to have some fun with their brainless veneration, then that is something else again, and we admire in Herr Brahms the greatest charlatan of this century and of all centuries to come.

Today, it’s the enduring greatness of the music that matters, not the politics. Brahms wrote the Second Cello Sonata near Lake Thun in Switzerland during the summer of 1886. It was a productive summer which also saw the completion of the Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100 and the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101. The Second Cello Sonata was dedicated to Robert Hausmann, who would later premier Brahms’ Double Concerto with violinist Joseph Joachim.

From the opening of the first movement, Brahms’ trademark asymmetrical phrases and other elements of rhythmic complexity keep us feeling off balance. The music evolves and takes shape through intensely concentrated motivic development. There’s also a heroic sense of struggle between the cello and piano. A less than skilled cellist once played this piece with Brahms and complained that she couldn’t hear herself over the thick piano scoring. “You were lucky.” was Brahms’ sarcastic response.

Here is an electrifying live concert recording of Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata featuring American cellist Daniel Gaisford and the late Brazilian pianist and 1985 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist José Feghali:

  1. Allegro vivace 0:00
  2. Adagio affettuoso 9:59
  3. Allegro passionato 17:48
  4. Allegro molto 25:11

Brahms’ Fourth: A Symphonic Swan Song

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Take a moment and consider the vast number of nineteenth century symphonies which, in one way or another, take an unequivocal journey from darkness to light. The long arc of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its transcendent final movement, is a perfect example. In the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, C minor turns into C major, and the trombones (who wait through the first three movements without playing a note) suddenly add a new, heroically transformative voice to the mix.

By contrast, Johannes Brahms’ final symphonic statement, the Fourth Symphony, takes a starkly different road. Its opening sighs (later echoed in the third of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, Op. 121) suggest melancholy lament. The ferocious concluding bars of the fourth movement tumble towards a resolution punctuated by a stern E minor chord (listen to the way the music loses its balance at 39:22 in the recording below). The dark finality of that last chord rings in our ears after the music is over. “Is that it?” we ask, feeling almost cheated out of the transfiguration we expected.

But the thorny realism of Brahms’ Fourth leaves us with a strangely powerful feeling of catharsis. The music evokes a complex, indescribable range of emotions. For example, in the opening of the first movement, consider the emotional ambiguity of the chord at 0:10. We might expect a simple, straightforward E minor chord at this moment, but listen to the way one added pitch in the woodwinds creates something infinitely more complex, mysterious and ambiguous.

Like Beethoven’s compositional style, Brahms’ music develops through short motivic cells, evolving, sometimes struggling, and working out a way forward. This sense of constant development led composer and Wagner enthusiast Hugo Wolf to accuse Brahms of “composing without ideas.” But in his 1933 essay, Brahms the Progressivetwelve-tone innovator Arnold Schoenberg suggested that Brahms’ compositional style (regarded as “conservative” during his lifetime) anticipated the breakdown of tonality in the twentieth century. Regardless, even some of Brahms’ friends were befuddled by the symphony when it was first performed, encouraging him to discard whole movements and allow others to remain as stand-alone pieces. On October 25, 1885, when Brahms performed a two piano version of the Fourth Symphony for friends (prior to its first official full orchestra premiere), the critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick, who turned pages for the performance, said,

For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.

Listening to the first movement, you may sense mystery and danger lurking somewhere beneath the surface. The sudden, ominous moment at 3:05 ushers in quiet, spirited fanfares which grow into emphatic statements. Notice the way this music returns throughout the movement. In the development section it plunges deeper into mysterious territory (5:19).

You’ll hear moments of incredible contrapuntal complexity. In his book, The Compleat ConductorGunther Schuller describes the music which follows 3:05 as,

a multi-layered structure of such complexity that I dare say there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring; one has to turn to Ives’s Fourth Symphony to find a parallel.

Instead of triumphantly returning to the recapitulation, we tiptoe, holding our breath (7:18). The first movement, which began with a restless sense of melancholy, ends in stern, resolute E minor.

The opening of the second movement is built on the ancient Phrygian mode and also hints at C major, but listen to the way we’re quickly pulled from this “wrong” key back into E minor. As the movement progresses, the theme we heard first in the solitary horn solo grows in intensity and scale. At 20:13 listen to the standoff between the winds and the strings. One of the aspects which makes this moment so amazing (and typical of Brahms) is the way the strings overlap with the winds and respond in asymmetrical phrases.

Brahms’ third movement is not a scherzo, as we would expect, but is instead built on Sonata form. Listen to the conversations taking place between instruments (the inner voices and bass at 24:42). Also, notice the addition of the triangle. What personas are suggested by these sounds?

A marriage of Romanticism and classical form occurs throughout Brahms’ music. The fourth movement looks back to the Baroque era, employing a passacaglia. Thirty variations are built on this repeating bass line, adapted from J.S. Bach’s cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. As you listen, consider the atmosphere of each variation. Do you hear a sense of lament in the music, which was present from the beginning of the first movement?

Here is Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic’s legendary performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98:

  1. Allegro non troppo (0:00)
  2. Andante moderato (12:50)
  3. Allegro giocoso (24:14)
  4. Allegro energico e passionato (30:22)

Notable Recordings and Links

Share your thoughts on Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and your favorite recordings in the thread below.

Music and Humor

images-6Leonard Bernstein masterfully explored the subject of humor in music in one of his Young People’s Concerts. The episode takes listeners on a musical tour from Haydn and Rameau to Brahms, Mahler, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and offers insight into why we find certain music funny.

To this day, no one has done more for music education than Bernstein. Watching these programs, which originally aired on CBS in the late 1950s, you can sense Bernstein’s passion and sincerity. The title of the series seems misleading because the adults in the audience were clearly learning as much as the children.

Bernstein’s episode inspired me to think about other examples of musical humor. Mozart’s A Musical Joke and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s The Comedians quickly come to mind. Here are a few more. In the thread below, add your own favorites.

Haydn’s Jokes

Franz Joseph Haydn’s music is full of humor, from the “Farewell” Symphony’s long, final diminuendo to a jarring fortissimo in the otherwise elegant Andante of the “Surprise” Symphony. Like all comedy, the element of surprise is a key ingredient. Throughout his life, Haydn was employed by aristocracy. He seems to have enjoyed keeping his employers on their toes with occasional, unexpected jokes.

The String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 2 is nicknamed, “The Joke.” Listen to the final movement, played here by the Buchberger Quartet and you’ll hear why:

Comic Voices in Early Beethoven

Last month, I pointed out some of the humor in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The final movement of Piano Concerto No. 1, a giddy, wild romp, contains similar comic elements. Unlike the elegant rondos of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s humor comes with a ferocious, gruff growl, especially in the thunderous orchestral tutti sections. There are also jarring accents on the “wrong” beats.

Listen to the clownish conversation between low and high voices (starting around 26:18 and continuing through 26:42). You’ll hear this back and forth dialogue throughout the movement (in the orchestra at 28:42 and 29:01).

Beethoven’s sudden modulations to remote keys keep our ears reeling. Following the cadenza at the end of the movement (31:06), think about where you expect the music to resolve and listen to the surprise we get instead. Beethoven has one more practical joke up his sleeve in the final bars of the concerto, so turn up your volume and listen closely…

In the first movement, listen to the way the opening “long, short, short, short” motive develops. This musical DNA pops up in subtle ways (the pizzicato in the development section beginning around 7:50). One of my favorite moments comes at the end of the development section as we anticipate the recap (9:26). Our expectation grows as the resolution we expect is delayed. Then, suddenly, the recapitulation hits us over the head.

Here is Evgeny Kissin’s recording with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Allegro con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo (14:33)
  3. Rondo. Allegro scherzando (25:11)

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, Op. 32, was written between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements depicts the astrological qualities of a planet in the solar system. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity evokes characters as well as jokes and fun-loving games. You can hear this between 0:58 and 1:20, in the big, low voice of the strings and horns, followed by the light, dancing woodwinds.

Here is a recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony:

Burlesque Copland

Let’s finish up with Burlesque, the fourth movement of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre. Entrances in the wrong keys and constantly changing rhythmic meters are part of the humor of this piece. We can almost imagine the clownish characters and their routine. In this case, it’s probably relatively low humor. The piece ends with one last practical joke…

Politics and Music: Ferguson Protest at the Saint Louis Symphony

Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during recent protest.
Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during the recent protest.

This past Saturday’s Saint Louis Symphony concert at Powell Hall became the stage for a peaceful protest of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. A performance of Brahms’ German Requiem was delayed briefly as a flash mob throughout the hall began singing,

Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for us All,
Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?

The well-sung protest lasted about a minute before the group left the hall on their own. Some members of the audience and orchestra applauded in support of the protesters, who had purchased tickets for the performance. A banner, unfurled from the balcony, urged concertgoers to “Join the Movement.” There seems to be a general consensus that both the protesters and the Saint Louis Symphony handled the situation with dignity and respect.

But the protest also revealed some unfortunate stereotypes (and realities) about symphonic concerts and perceived class and ethnic divisions. In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuels wrote that protesters “put on sports coats and fancy dresses and sat in on the St. Louis Symphony.” Quotes from one of the organizers of the flash mob suggested that the protest was an attempt to force wealthy members of the community out of their comfort zones towards an acknowledgment of the reality of racism. Both views seem to be built on the assumption that orchestra concerts are little more than social gatherings for wealthy elites. Nothing should be further from the truth. The Brahms Requiem and other masterworks have the power to speak to everyone and should be available to the entire community. At its core, listening to live music is a powerful individual experience, not a superficial social outing.

So what connections exist between politics, emotion and music? Often we assume that composers and performers are expressing their innermost feelings through music. However, music transcends politics, morality and individual expression to reach a reality which can be felt but cannot be put into words. Gustav Mahler described the experience of looking down at the page with the sensation that the music had not come from his intellect, but from somewhere else. In the most transcendent concerts, many musicians have experienced the rare and mysterious sensation of the music playing “through” them. At its essence, music isn’t about individual expression or the emotions of composers. It doesn’t tell stories. It goes beyond all of that, and in attuned moments, we find ourselves connected to a profound reality.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

-W.H. Auden

 Deep River

Here is legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) singing the spiritual, Deep River:

Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

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The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12

Brahms Recordings, Old and New

Brahms recordingLast year, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto. On March 31, Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang followed up with a new recording of the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms. Here is an excerpt of Kavakos playing the stormy Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108.

This CD is another exciting addition to an already vast collection of classic and recent recordings of this music, including performances by Stefan Jackiw, Anne-Sophie MutterJosef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux. I also highly recommend a lesser- known gem: the 1996 recording of Oleh Krysa and Tatiana Tchekina.

The “Rain” Sonata

Let’s listen to Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78, played by Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Brahms wrote this sonata for a friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who also received the Violin Concerto dedication. It was composed in the southern Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summers of 1878 and 1879. The last movement grew out of Brahms’s earlier song, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) from 8 Lieder and Songs, Op. 59. Take a moment and listen to the song and read the text. Do the repeated notes in the piano suggest gently falling raindrops?

In an earlier post we heard how skillfully Brahms develops small and seemingly insignificant musical cells. There is a similar sense of development as this sonata unfolds. Listen for common motives and themes which run throughout the three movements, unifying the piece. The first movement is in 6/4 time. Pay attention to the way the music is flowing. Does Brahms occasionally play rhythmic games which make you lose track of the downbeat?

  1. 00:00 Vivace ma non troppo
  2. 10:45 Adagio
  3. 18:47 Allegro molto moderato

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The second theme of the Adagio is a solemn funeral march (12:44). Consider how this theme contrasts with what came before. One of my favorite moments is when the theme suddenly slips into major when it returns at 16:44.

In the opening of the final movement, notice the dotted rhythm motive from the first movement, first repeated in the bass and then in the higher voices of the piano. Following the quiet agitation of the final movement, were you expecting such a peaceful conclusion in the coda (25:23)?

Now it’s your turn…

In the Listeners’ Club, your voice is important. In the thread below, tell us what you heard in the music. Which recording of the Brahms sonatas is your favorite and why?

Love Songs Through Time

love songRomantic love, with its often irrational sea of complex emotions, has long been a rich source of inspiration in music. With Valentines Day just around the corner, let’s listen to a selection of love songs from the Renaissance to the present day. Most of these songs would have been considered popular music when they were first written. Sampling this list, I was struck by how many great love songs are tinged with melancholy. These songs serve as a reminder of the ability of music to communicate powerful and contradictory emotions which cannot be expressed in words.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]”Come Again” by John Dowland [/typography]

John Dowland (1563-1626) was an English Renaissance composer, singer and lutenist. Sting’s 2006 recording of Dowland songs (Songs from the Labyrinth) demonstrates the timelessness of this music. Listen to the way the melody expresses the text, especially in the breathlessly euphoric “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die…” You can read the entire text here.

Here is tenor Paul Agnew and lutenist Christopher Wilson:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933[/typography]

Now let’s listen to Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933 (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Listen carefully to the harmony and consider the feelings evoked by certain chords. Notice how the music alternates restlessly between minor and major. The first turn to major comes with the first reference to the “beloved.” Here is the text by Karl Gottfried von Leitner.

This recording features tenor Christoph Genz accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Liebeslieder Walzer[/typography]

Next let’s hear Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52. Musicologists speculate that Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Schumann’s daughter was the inspiration behind these waltzes.

The singers on this 1968 recording are Heather Harper, Soprano, Janet Baker, Mezzo-soprano, Peter Pears, Tenor and Thomas Hensley, Baritone. Benjamin Britten & Claudio Arrau play the piano part, which requires four hands.

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[quote]My soul trembles with love, desire and grief, when it thinks of you.[/quote]

-conclusion of Liebeslieder Walzer text

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Songs of a Wayfarer[/typography]

Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) deals directly with the pain of love lost. It’s an autobiographical work, springing from Mahler’s unsuccessful relationship with the soprano, Johanna Richter. The text, based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn was written by Mahler. In a letter he explained:

[quote]I have written a cycle of songs which are all dedicated to her. She has not seen them. What could they tell her that she does not know already?[/quote]

-“Mahler” by Kurt Blaukopf

In Songs of a Wayfarer, the orchestra is not merely accompaniment but an equal dramatic partner to the singer. What moods and colors are evoked by the orchestration? Consider the emotional impact of the dream-like conclusion of the fourth song, a funeral march. Notice the way the music alternates between melancholy despair and transcendent moments of joy. Mahler’s first song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer provided the seeds for his Symphony No. 1. Get more historical background here.

This recording is by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic:

  1.  “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When My Sweetheart is Married”) (0:00)
  2. “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”) (4:20)
  3. “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” (“I Have a Gleaming Knife”) (8:27)
  4. “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”) (11:47)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Boy and A Girl[/typography]

American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b. 1970) A Boy and a Girl is a choral setting of a poem by Octavio Paz1914-1998. The poem paints three scenes, ultimately drifting into infinity:

https://soundcloud.com/ericwhitacre/a-boy-and-a-girl

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