Happy Birthday, Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo Yo Ma
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

The Listeners’ Club wishes Yo-Yo Ma, who turns 60 today, a happy birthday.

Ma is one of a handful of front-rank musicians who can be described as a cultural ambassador. Over the years, he has been at home, not only at Carnegie Hall but also on Sesame Street (watch “The Jam Session,” “The Honker Quartet,” and “Elmo’s Fiddle Lesson”), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and at a presidential inauguration. At the age of seven he performed for President John F. Kennedy. On Monday he appeared with dancer Misty Copeland on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, setting Twitter abuzz. 

Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

Here is Yo-Yo Ma’s recording, with pianist Emanuel Ax, of Beethoven’s complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, first released in 1987. At times shrouded in mystery and fire, this is music which captures the soul of the cello. Beethoven was the first major composer to write sonatas in which the cello and piano are equals. The early sonatas were written in 1796. The “Late Sonatas” were written in 1815.

Listen to Volume 2 and 3 to hear the complete set of sonatas.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

Here is Dmitri Shostakovich’s ferocious First Cello Concerto (written in 1959 and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich) from a 1983 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy.

From the taunting opening, the music is imprinted with the “DSCH” motive, Shostakovich’s initials translated into their corresponding pitches in German musical notation: D, E-flat, C, B natural. (In German notation Es is E-flat and is B.), The four note “DSCH” motive defiantly appears throughout other Shostakovich scores. (See this earlier Listeners’ Club post). There are echoes of Shostakovich’s 1948 score for the film, The Young Guard, which depicts the execution of Soviet soldiers by the Nazis. The Concerto also directly quotes a dark lullaby, sung to a sick child by Death (disguised as a caretaker), in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.

The first movement is propelled forward by an unrelenting, and almost inhuman, bass line. Amid sardonic statements from the woodwinds, the music feels simultaneously comic and terrifying. The sombre second movement, given the simple marking, Moderato, opens as a lament, gradually building into a prolonged scream of anguish.  Here, in the Concerto’s interior, away from the sarcasm of the outer movements, we’re able to glimpse the music’s most profound and terrifying essence. The movement concludes with haunting stillness (beginning at 14:52). After descending into a lonely, prolonged cadenza (the third movement), we’re plunged into a fiery dance (the fourth movement).

The Swan

We’ll conclude with the serene beauty of The Swan from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals:

Beethoven’s Seventh: Five Historic New York Phil Recordings

The music of Beethoven is opening orchestra seasons on both coasts this month.

Next week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will offer an all-Beethoven concert gala. It’s the first in a series of concerts called Immortal Beethoven, in which all nine Beethoven symphonies will be performed between September 29 and October 11, along with chamber music and children’s programs. The LA Phil has even launched this virtual reality tour experience, cleverly called “Van Beethoven,” which takes the music into the community. A downloadable app makes it available to music lovers everywhere.

But first, on Thursday the New York Philharmonic’s season kicks off with the Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Lang Lang and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The concert will be broadcast on PBS at 9:00 on September 24.Toscanini Beethove

Written between 1811 and 1812 while Beethoven recovered in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice, the Seventh Symphony is a simultaneously ferocious and benevolent animal. It snarls and growls with revolutionary, Romantic fervor. It’s buoyant and fun-loving, with a hint of something slightly terrifying lurking under the surface. The first movement opens with mighty chords- the musical equivalent of massive architectural columns. In between these opening chords, voices gradually emerge and join together. As the movement progresses, it’s easy to sense the music evolving and developing like a quickly growing vine.

The second movement is built on a solemn rhythmic ostinato. It begins as a quiet drumbeat. As we move into a second theme, sliding into major, the drumbeat is still there in the pizzicato, insistent and unrelenting. By the end of the movement, it has grown into a terrifying, all-consuming giant.

The third movement gives us a hint of bubbly Rossini, interspersed with a noble trio section. The fourth movement explodes with ferocious energy (one of the few times Beethoven uses the loudest possible dynamic marking, fff). It moves suddenly from one unexpected key to another. There’s a sense of upward lift, and by the conclusion of the movement we have a strange feeling of transcendence.

British composer, pianist, conductor and commentator Antony Hopkins described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony this way:

The Seventh Symphony perhaps more than any of the others gives us a feeling of true spontaneity; the notes seem to fly off the page as we are borne along on a floodtide of inspired invention. Beethoven himself spoke of it fondly as “one of my best works”. Who are we to dispute his judgment?

As the New York Philharmonic prepares to play Beethoven’s Seventh this week, let’s explore five landmark performances from the Philharmonic’s past. These clips, spanning forty years, will give you a sense of how the piece can change depending on the conductor, as well as how the orchestra’s playing has evolved:

Arturo Toscanini, 1936

Here is the first movement from Arturo Toscanini’s 78rpm/Victor recording, made on April 9 and 10, 1936. (This scratchy, at times barely audible, 1933 live concert recording of the first and last movements is also worth hearing. In 1931, under Toscanini’s leadership, the New York Philharmonic became the first orchestra in the country to offer regular live radio broadcasts). Toscanini, who debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1926, served as music director between 1928 and 1936. He was noted for the laser beam precision of his baton technique.

According to the New York Philharmonic’s website,

 In 1930, Toscanini led the Philharmonic on a highly successful tour of Europe. The following year, he was attacked and beaten while in Italy for his refusal to play the Fascist anthem, and he later made public his opposition to Nazi persecution of the Jews. Many saw in Toscanini’s Beethoven cycle with the New York Philharmonic during the 1932-33 season a musical repudiation of tyranny that matched his public opposition to Hitler.

Artur Rodzinski, 1946

Artur Rodzinski was the Philharmonic’s music director 1943 to 1947, succeeding English conductor Sir John Barbirolli. Rodzinski was considered to be an “orchestra builder,” shaping a clean, modern sound:

Bruno Walter, 1951

German-born conductor Bruno Walter turned down an offer to become the New York Philharmonic’s music director in 1942. In 1947, following the resignation of Artur Rodzinski, Walter briefly accepted the position until 1949, but changed his title to “Music Advisor.” In this clip you can hear him rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, emphasizing the buoyant dance-like rhythm.

Leonard Bernstein, 1958

Leonard Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, and served as Laureate Conductor until his death in 1990. As a young assistant conductor, he rose to prominence after stepping in as a substitute for Bruno Walter with only a few hours’ notice. Bernstein made two recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonic. This is the first:

Pierre Boulez, 1975

Pierre Boulez succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director, serving form 1971 to 1977. This clip from a live concert doesn’t have the best audio quality, but Boulez’ interpretation is worth hearing:

…and here’s a taste of what you’ll hear on Thursday: the current New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert:

  • Find Toscanini’s recording at Amazon.
  • Find Walter’s recording at Amazon.
  • Find Bernstein’s 1968 recording at iTunes, Amazon.

Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment 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…