In a previous post, I suggested that many of the greatest composers experienced a mysterious, heightened sense of musical insight in their final years, leading to some of the most profound and visionary music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who died at the tragically young age of 31, tapped into this sense of revelation at the end of his life. Following a series of charmingly tuneful classical symphonies, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major (“The Great”)rose to the heroic, Romantic heights of Beethoven’s symphonies, although it differed from Beethoven in temperament and was rooted in melody rather than motive.
Equally profound is Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956, completed just two months before his death. In this piece, the addition of a second cello to the traditional string quartet brings a new dimension to the sound, creating an almost symphonic quality. This contrasts Mozart’s addition of a second viola in his quintets.
One interesting aspect of Schubert’s writing is his ability to draw upon the emotional significance of keys and their relationships. Listen for sudden modulations and harmonic surprises, like the turn to E-flat major (1:56). Consider how this new key, a third away, feels completely different.
The second movement features a contrast between the ethereal, almost time altering opening in E major and the turbulent second theme in a distant F minor. Listen to the way Schubert sums up this dichotomy at the end of the movement (34:00-34:37).
Pay attention to the way the the inner voices and cello pizzicati shape the way the music flows.
Here is a 1994 Naxos recording by the Villa Musica Ensemble:
This evening you may want to grab your telescope, head outside, and look into the southeastern night sky. Mars is making its closest approach in six years today, coming within 57.4 million miles of earth. Last month, NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured pictures of the earth as a bright speck in the Martian sky.
From Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, to current discoveries of possible water on Mars, the red planet has long been a source of fascination. In ancient Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war. Astrological associations with Mars were the inspiration for the first movement of The Planets, Op. 32, a suiteby English composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1935). Here is Mars, the Bringer of War performed by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Pay attention to the flow and rhythmic feel. Can you tell how many beats are in each measure? The answer may surprise you.
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Holst wrote this ominous music in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. It drives forward in an unrelenting 5/4 time (1-2-3-4-Five). It’s that last beat which makes the music feel slightly automated and unnatural, reflecting the blind insanity of a society marching towards self destruction. The opening of the piece calls for col legno, a sound effect in which the wood of the bow is hit into the strings. At 2:13 notice Holst’s use of the euphonium horn (tenor tuba). The trumpet fanfares which follow suggest the age-old sounds of battle.
Mars may have reminded you of the Imperial Marchfrom John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Interestingly, both begin in the key of G minor, which has been associated with unease, conflict and tragedy going back to Mozart. The Planets closes with the ethereal Neptune the Mystic . Compare Neptune to this excerpt from Williams’ 2001 film score for A.I. and consider all the other atmospheric Hollywood scores which draw upon these sounds.
[quote]Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.[/quote]
[quote]Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.[/quote]
Can you imagine how shocking the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op.67 must have been for audiences at the first performance in 1808? While the classical style of Mozart and Haydn was rooted in elegance and balance, Beethoven made the orchestra growl. There’s a sense of struggle, as if he’s impatiently pushing the classical orchestra to its limits.
The entire symphony springs from the first ferocious four notes. It’s a study in concentrated energy and relentless forward motion. While the four note motive develops on the smallest level, the piece is also developing on a large level. It’s an unfolding process in which turbulent C minor is transformed into heroic C major.
Here is a performance by Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen:
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Did you notice how the opening motive runs through the entire piece like musical DNA? In the first movement, as we move into the second theme, it’s still there in the basses (0:55). In the second movement we get the same “short, short, short long” (7:55, 8:14 and 12:11). We hear it in the third movement (16:19) and fourth movement (25:06, 25:25). As you listen, you’ll hear many more examples.
Beethoven’s ability to unify the symphony with a common motivic thread was revolutionary in 1808. The end of the third movement would have been equally shocking. Listen to the passage starting around 19:16 one more time. The music gets softer and softer, hinting that something significant is about to happen. Then, as the movement should be ending (20:03), Beethoven creates a musical bridge linking the third and forth movements. He later briefly returns to the third movement’s theme before the recapitulation of the final movement (26:09).
The climax of the symphony (and the goal of the first three movements) comes with the heroic proclamation at the opening of the final movement. Beethoven reserves the special color of the trombones for this moment. While trombones had long been used to double the voices in church music, this was one of the first times they were incorporated into the orchestra. Notice the way the trombone color, with its heroic and supernatural connotations, transforms the sound. Beethoven expands the orchestra further with the piccolo and the contrabassoon.
The key of C minor held special significance for Beethoven. Emotionally intense and stormy, C minor evoked the turbulence of an age of revolution. It embodied a sense of heroic struggle, which would form the bedrock of Romaticism.
In Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, American pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen suggests that Beethoven’s C minor compositions are closely linked to the Romantic idea of the artist as hero:
[quote]Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.[/quote]
Let’s sample the unique, ferocious energy of Beethoven’s music in C minor:
We’ll start with the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, commonly known as the Sonata Pathétique. It was written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27 years old. The first movement’s structure follows traditional Sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation). Many listeners hear the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but Beethoven’s unique voice is apparent. As you listen, consider the drama that a single chord can create.
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The ferocious opening C minor chord tells us everything we need to know about the piece which follows. Throughout the first movement’s introduction, notice the way Beethoven plays with tension and resolution. Just as we’re lulled into complacency, we get hit with another jarring surprise. Romanticism is about the drama of the moment and this introduction draws us into each moment, chord by chord. In the passage at 1:04, notice the musical conversation which is taking place. What do you think each voice is saying?
Beethoven returns to this haunting introduction at the beginning of the development section, but this time we hear it in G minor (5:35). This is a technique Haydn used frequently, but here it seems more ominous and unsettling. Notice how unstable the music feels throughout this section and listen for the return of C minor at the recapitulation (7:13).
At the beginning of the coda (8:35), we’re once again haunted by the opening C minor introduction. Regardless of the movement’s many harmonic adventures (which include E-flat minor and major and F minor), the stern final chord tells us that nothing has changed. C minor remains inevitable and all-powerful.
The second movement demonstrates the unique expressive qualities of individual keys. Here we’re in A-flat major, a world away from the storm and stress of C minor, which returns in the final movement.
Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No.2 was published in 1803. Again, the music is consumed with the stormy turbulence of C minor and maybe even the terror of the French Revolution.
Here is Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis:
Allegro con brio (0:00)
Adagio con cantabile (9:20)
Scherzo: Allegro (18:50)
Finale: Allegro; Presto (22:25)
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Contrast the mood of this music toSonata No. 6 in A majoror Sonata No. 8 in G major. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos suggests there is something almost symphonic about this piece’s emotional power. At times the violin seems to be fighting the piano (the chords at 1:33 for example). The dotted rhythm of the first movement’s second theme (1:46) suggests military music from the French Revolution. As in the Pathétique Sonata, the second movement moves to A-flat major.
Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, written in 1807, was inspired by the tragic play by Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811). Here is a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan:
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In the play, Coriolanus is about to invade Rome, despite his mother’s desperate attempts to convince him to abandon the campaign. Beethoven’s C minor theme represents Coriolanus, while the E-flat major theme evokes the pleading of Coriolanus’s mother (1:22). Coriolanus doesn’t realize his folly until he has led his army to the gates of Rome. His suicide is depicted at the end of the overture (7:32). Listen to the way the Coriolanus motive is stretched into a painful dissonance at the end (8:14).
Another great recording of this piece is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s with the Berlin Philharmonic. It was recorded in the final days of the Third Reich. You can draw your own conclusions regarding the extent to which the tragic events of the times influenced the unique spirit of this performance.
The most famous of Beethoven’s C minor compositions is the Fifth Symphony. Unlike the preceding music, this piece is about transformation…stormy C minor turns into the ultimate heroism of C major. I’ll offer a few thoughts on this piece in my next post on Friday. In the meantime, here is a great 1967 recording by George Szell and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:
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Listening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]
To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?
In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:
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Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.
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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.
[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]
-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770
Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.
Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:
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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]
Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:
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The greatest composers serve as visionaries and prophets, giving us a glimpse at a higher reality. Looking back through music history, many composers seem to have experienced a sharpening of this sense of vision in the final years of life. The Ninth and final symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner are filled with mystery, foreboding and spirituality. The first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth is marked “Feierlich“ (Solemn) and ” misterioso.” Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, “The Great”, is a sublime Romantic statement which, in scale, eclipses all of his previous classical symphonies. In his book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes about late Mozart:
[quote]In creative work we play undisguisedly with the fleetingness of our life, with some awareness of our own death. Listen to Mozart’s later music-you hear all its lightness, energy, transparency, and good humor, yet you also hear the breath of ghosts blowing through it. Death and life came to be that close for him. It was the completeness and intensity with which both primal forces met and fused in him, and his freedom to play with those forces, that mad Mozart the supreme artist he was.[/quote]
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its use of chorus and solo voices, redefined the symphony and set a monumental and intimidating example for composers who followed.
Equally interesting is the music Beethoven wrote after the Ninth Symphony: the Late String Quartets (Op. 127-135) which remain some of the most mysterious and profound music ever conceived. This music is so far out that, at times, you might swear that you’re listening to something from the twentieth century. Let’s listen to the Takacs Quartet performing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132:
1. Assai sostenuto- Allegro:
2. Allegro ma non tanto:
3. Molto Adagio– Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung:
For me, one of the most amazing aspects of this music is the way it seems fully to transcend style and historical period. There are echoes of the Ninth Symphony, especially in the operatic, “wordless” violin recitative which forms the bridge between the fourth and fifth movements (36:10). In the final movement of the Ninth, Beethoven quotes the themes of each preceding movement, musically rejecting each and moving forward with the transcendental “Ode to Joy.” In a similar way, with these quartets, Beethoven moves past all of his earlier works into strange, new musical territory.
Go back and listen to the third movement (17:24) one more time. Having recovered from a serious illness, Beethoven titled this movement “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The music abruptly alternates between slow, chorale like sections in modal F and faster sections (“with renewed strength”) in D. At times there is an almost child-like playfulness. It’s powerful music which goes beyond words.
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Great Fugue, Op. 133[/typography]
[quote]It is an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.- Igor Stravinsky[/quote]
Here is the Takacs Quartet performing the mind-blowing Great Fugue, Op. 133. Beethoven originally intended it to be the final movement of Quartet No. 13. He ended up replacing it with another movement. After you listen, you’ll probably get a sense of why this intense music had to stand alone. Listen to the complex imitative counterpoint. What do you think Beethoven is saying with this music?
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What is it about the greatest music that keeps us coming back? Mozart’s music, written in an era of powdered wigs and aristocracy, speaks to us as powerfully today as when it was written over 250 years ago. It embodies a universal reality which transcends fashion and style. Meanwhile, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), a respected contemporary of Mozart, is now little more than a historical curiosity.
You may remember this scene from the 1984 movie, Amadeus in which Salieri laments his mediocrity when compared to Mozart’s genius. Along the way to the film’s powerful and thought provoking themes, the real Salieri gets a bum rap. In reality Salieri represents most of us. He never poisoned Mozart. He was actually an excellent composer, firmly in control of his craft. Towards the end of his life he taught several young students whose names you might recognize: Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert. But where Salieri’s music ended in good craftsmanship, Mozart’s continued with that extra “something” which is hard to define…perfection and inspiration on a different level. Its source is a mystery. Mozart was able to tap into the highest level of “hearing.”
Consider Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Picasso and Einstein and you find the same level of inspiration at work. “God is in the details.” said the great twentieth century architect, Mies van der Rohe. As an architecture buff, I was fascinated to discover that Mies, who designed New York’s famous Seagram Building, elevated something as mundane and utilitarian as a gas station to high art. Can you identify what sets this gas station apart from millions of others? Is it the materials and sense of proportion?
Gas stations aside, let’s listen to two piano concertos, one by Salieri and the other by Mozart. Here is Salieri’s highly enjoyable Piano Concerto in C Major performed by Heeguin Kim and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. There are three movements: Allegro Maestoso, Larghetto (8:51) and Andatino (15:58).
Now, here is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The performance is by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra.The movements are Allegro, Andante (10:31) and Allegretto (18:50):
Think about what you just heard. What makes Mozart’s concerto so extraordinary? What sets it apart from the Salieri? Share your thoughts in the thread below. Also, what music from our time do you think will endure? Don’t worry too much about the last question because it’s almost impossible to know how music will withstand the test of time. At one time J.S. Bach’s music was considered outdated and only useful as a source of study.
As musicians we’re challenged to open up our ears and imaginations, “hear” the music as clearly as Mozart did and let the musical vision come to life. It’s a nearly impossible task, but one we must strive to fulfill every day.
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A symphony is a dynamic, unfolding process. Within its formal structure small musical motives develop and evolve, constantly searching for an ultimate goal. On the largest level, the drama of a symphony might remind you of a baseball game. Through a series of exciting and unpredictable musical “plays,” it moves away from home and returns.
To get a sense of this drama, listen to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (Molto allegro). Pay attention to the opening motive and how it develops. At the same time, can you perceive a larger formal structure?
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Could you hear the restless opening theme develop and search for a resolution? There are short term goals along the way, but the music never really rests until the final note. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the opening theme pop up in unexpected places. For example, listen to the musical conversation between the clarinets and bassoons at 2:11. This motive is the seed from which the entire first movement grows. One musical cell spins to the next and every note seems inevitable. Motivic development is essential to the symphony, as Leonard Bernstein discusses in What Makes Music Symphonic?
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Circling the Bases with Sonata Form[/typography]
This first movement is a great example of a common musical structure called sonata form. Conductor Robert Spano offers a brief and informal introduction to sonata form here. Also watch Leonard Bernstein’s What is Sonata Form?
Sonata form is made up of three main sections: the exposition, development and recapitulation. In the exposition, motivic material is introduced for the first time. We start out in a “home” key, but then begin to move away. The goal of the rest of the movement is to find a way back home. The development section is the most harmonically unstable. Here, the composer plays around with the motives, embellishing them in many adventurous ways. The recapitulation returns home. It’s the music of the exposition, but this time we must avoid being pulled to a new key.
Now, let’s go back and listen to the first movement again to hear sonata form at work in Mozart’s Symphony. Pay attention to the moment where the music moves aways from the home key of G minor (1:17). You’ll hear a second theme in B-flat major begin at 1:38. How is the mood of this theme different? The entire exposition repeats at 2:42. The development section starts at 4:33. Listen to the sneaky way Mozart slips back into the recapitulation (5:47).
After you listen to the first movement a second time, go on to the other three movements. The classical symphony of Mozart and Haydn typically has a fast first movement, a slow second movement, a Minuet and a fast final movement. This fast-slow-fast structure evolved out of earlier opera overtures. You’ll hear that the second and final movements are built on sonata form. In the opening of the Andante, listen to the way Mozart seems to be searching for the right notes as voices build on top of each other. Here, as in the first movement, there is a sense of the music growing out of a motivic seed. Pay attention to the snappy rhythm that innocently enters in the violins at 9:06. What happens to this motive? Can you hear it begin to “infect” the music and take on a life of it’s own? The final movement is all about the fun of setting up our expectations and then throwing in a jarring surprise. Don’t miss the extraordinary and intense development section at 31:43.
If you would like to learn more about the origins and history of the symphony watch this recent BBC documentary. For a slightly contrasting interpretation of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 you might be interested in hearing this performance by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andreas Delfs. Recordings can also be found through iTunes and Amazon.