Music Fit for an Emperor

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Violinist Mark Sokol passed away last week. He was a founding member of the Concord String Quartet. Between 1971 and its disbanding in 1987, the Concord String Quartet championed music by American composers including Charles Ives, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman and Morton Feldman. Mark Sokol later joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Here is the Concord’s recording of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3. This quartet earned the nickname “The Emperor” because the second movement is made up of variations on the melody, “God Save Emperor Francis.” Today we know this theme as the German national anthem.

Haydn composed the theme after returning from England, where he heard “God Save the Queen.” The theme quickly gained popularity and inspired patriotism at a time when Napoleon was threatening the Austrian Empire.

Composer Samuel Adler offers a technical analysis of the second movement’s progression of variations:

This is a wonderful lesson in orchestration, for too often the extremes in the range are wasted too early in a work, and the final buildup is, as a result, anticlimactic. The other formal factor to notice is that the entire structure is an accumulation of the elements which have slowly entered the harmonic and contrapuntal scheme in the course of the variations and have become a natural part of the statement.

Here are the second, third and fourth movements.

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Dark Waves[/typography]
Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

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Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska