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:

Louis Lortie Plays Ravel

pianist Louis Lortie
French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie

 

Last week we listened to Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a piece which originated as a solo piano suite and culminated as a breathtakingly colorful orchestral work. Many of Ravel’s works followed this evolution. His glistening, Impressionistic orchestration even extended to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitiona work also originally for solo piano.

Let’s return to Ravel the pianist with a few excerpts from French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s 2003 recording (on the Chandos label), Ravel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano. We’ll start with Lortie’s beautifully intimate performance of the Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin:

Une barque sur l’océan

Une barque sur l’océan, the third movement of Ravel’s piano suite, Miroirs, evokes the feeling of a boat tossing in waves, at the mercy of powerful ocean currents. Each movement of Miroirs, written between 1904 and 1905, was dedicated to a member of the Les Apaches, a group of French avant-garde writers, musicians and artists which included Ravel. This movement was dedicated to the painter Paul Sordes.

Une barque sur l’océan goes beyond musical image painting or literal representations of the ocean. Hazy and dreamlike, this is music that makes us forget about goals. Instead, we get lost in the vast, timeless ocean of the present. Each harmonic shift is enjoyable for what it is, rather than where it’s going. You might get a particularly powerful sense of this at the end of the movement:

Jeux d’eau

Jeux d’eau evokes feelings of the play of water, this time in smaller splashes. Written in 1901, this piece was dedicated to Ravel’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré. The manuscript included a quote from Henri de Régnier’s Cité des eaux: “Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille…” (“River god laughing as the water tickles him…”).

A couple of listening points: At 3:44 we return to the opening idea, but suddenly, because of the note in the bass, it has a completely different feeling (darker and more ominous). From 5:01 listen to the way the music revels in splashes of color:

Pavane pour une infante defunte

Pavane pour une infante defunte was written in 1899 when Ravel was a student at the Conservatoire de Paris. It’s easy to hear the influence of Fauré in this serene melody, but we also hear Ravel pushing the boundaries. Listen to the jazzy parallel harmony around 0:54. I love the way minor turns to major for the final statement of the theme at 5:05:

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.