The Lonely Introspection of Brahms’ Op. 116, No. 4

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

 

Let’s finish the week with Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in E major, No. 4 from the Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 for piano. Written in 1892 in the final years of Brahms’ life, this is music infused with a deep sense of lonely introspection. It draws us into a dreamlike world where every chord and hesitating pause seem to have something important to say.

There are moments when the rhythmic feel changes in interesting ways, obliterating our sense of “strong” and “weak” beats. We also get a visceral sense of the spacial dimension in this music: lines pull apart and converge in an elaborate musical architecture. We feel the width of the piano’s keyboard. And listen to the aching beauty of this passage, in which a series of voices pour passionately from the piano in imitative, canonic counterpoint.

As Op. 116, No. 4 draws to a close, the pitch “E” in the bass takes on increasing power, as if to foreshadow the inevitability of a final resolution. When that resolution comes, it’s met with peaceful acceptance.

Here is American pianist Richard Goode’s 1987 recording:

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • András Schiff plays the entire Seven Fantasies, Op. 116 in this live performance.

Symphonie Fantastique: Berlioz’s Musical Hallucination

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, first heard in 1830, shares some surprising similarities with a teenager’s rock music: It’s shocking, rebellious, and at least partially drug-induced (Berlioz was under the influence of opium). It may have been written to impress a girl (Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress whom Berlioz saw in a production of Hamlet in 1827, leading to an infatuation and ultimately short-lived marriage). It deals with the pain of unrequited love, yet this is clearly an immature vision of love, idealized and illusory. It’s a work of full-blown Romanticism, more concerned with the moment than with traditional formal structure. Foreshadowing Freud, Symphonie fantastique takes us on a deeply psychological journey. What emerges after we enter this hallucinogenic dreamscape is both fascinating and frightening.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique’s form is driven by its drama, like an opera without words. Over the course of five movements, a “young musician” descends into the despair of unrequited love. In the first movement, subtitled Passions, this vague hero “sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her.” This passion is represented by the idée fixe, a musical idea (first heard at this moment in the first movement) which returns and develops throughout the Symphony. We hear the idée fixe pop up in unexpected places. Listen to the way it gradually creeps into the strings in this passage from the end of the first movement. At this moment in the third movement you might miss it, unless you’re tuned into the woodwinds. The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, depicts the Hero’s funeral. Witches and hideous monsters shriek, groan, and cackle amid quotes of the Dies Irae (the ancient chant evoking the Day of Wrath). The idée fixe now degenerates into a vulgar, grotesque parody of itself.

Berlioz’s music evokes dramatic scenes. In the third movement, we find ourselves in a country pasture. The sound of distant thunder echoes from hillsides. A dialogue between two shepherds can be heard in the English horn and offstage oboe. (Here Berlioz introduces a spacial dimension to the music that Mahler would later develop with his own offstage instruments). The end of the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, paints the gruesome scene of the hero’s execution. We hear the decapitated head bounce to the ground in the pizzicatos and then the cheering crowd. But Symphonie fantastique is more than a musical representation of a story. You can throw out Berlioz’s extensive program notes (included below) and the music stands on its own. Listen to Symphonie fantastique as pure music and you’ll hear the distinct personas of the instruments come to live and enter into a drama which transcends the literal story. Throughout the piece, instrumental voices combine and interact in innovative ways which hadn’t been imagined previously.

Amazingly, this music, written three years after Beethoven’s death, often sounds shocking and far-out, even to our modern ears. It’s filled with bizarre, erratic shifts in mood which constantly keep us off balance (for example, listen to this passage from the first movement). In the first movement’s development section, Berlioz veers into new territory with these strange ascending and descending parallel chromatic lines. You’ll hear fragments of this line return throughout the Symphony (here it is in the strange, halting climax of the third movement, and here, and here again in the final movement).

Nowhere is Symphonie fantastique crazier than in the final minutes of the last movement, beginning with this terrifying crescendo. We hear string sound effects like raspy sul ponticello (playing with the bow as close to the bridge as possible) and col legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the strings for a percussive effect that, in this case, sounds like a skeleton’s rattling bones). Listen to the insanity of the woodwinds in this passage, and the way they let out a final tauntingly demonic shriek a few moments later. The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath concludes with a hellish rumble which hangs in the listener’s ear long after the music has finished.

Berlioz’s program notes, written for the 1830 premiere:

Part One: Dreams – Passions

The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears before the mind’s eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his beloved.

This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every movement of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its gestures of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – this is the subject of the first movement.

Part Two: A Ball

The artist finds himself in the most varied situations – in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature; but everywhere, in town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

Part Three: A Scene in the Country

Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found some reason to entertain – all concur in affording his heart an unaccustomed calm and in giving a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. – But what if she were deceiving him! – This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. – Distant sound of thunder – loneliness – silence.

Part Four: March to the Scaffold

Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned and led to the scaffold and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is now somber and fierce, now brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled noise of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end of the march the first four measures of the idée fixe reappear, like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.

Part Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, come together for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial, and grotesque: it is she, coming to join the sabbath. – A roar of joy at her arrival. – She takes part in the devilish orgy. – Funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae [a hymn sung in the funeral rites of the Catholic Church], sabbath round-dance. The sabbath round and the Dies irae are combined.

Recommended Recordings

An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber.

Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the time). Berlioz referred to Weber in his influential Treatise on Instrumentation and Debussy remarked that the sound of Weber’s orchestra was “obtained through the scrutiny of the soul of each instrument.” Weber’s opera Euryanthe anticipated Wagner’s Leitmotif technique, in which a short, recurring musical phrase is used to represent a character or idea. Even twentieth century composers returned to Weber’s music. (Listen to Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is based on themes by Weber).

The Oberon Overture begins with a distant horn call and slowly awakening strings. Listen to the harmony at 1:15 and you’ll be reminded of yet-to-be-written Wagner. A few moments later at 1:33, we hear the playful laughter of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And then, after this sleepy and introspective opening, the music suddenly explodes into a fireball of virtuosity. A cast of characters comes alive through the instruments of the orchestra. The overture, which began so quietly, ends in a high-flying flourish of euphoria.

Oberon was first performed at London’s Covent Garden on April 12, 1826. The three act Romantic opera’s plot dates back to a medieval French story, Huon of Bordeaux. You can hear Maria Callas sing an excerpt from the opera here.

  • Find Carl Maria von Weber’s overtures at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the complete opera here.

The Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

MI0000979737Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).

Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.

Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:

…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.

Listen to the second and third movements.

  • Find the Mischa Maisky/Martha Argerich recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Martin Fröst/Jonathan Biss recording at Amazon.

Stravinsky Goes Back to the Future

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.

Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.

Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.

Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.

By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.

This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:

  1. Sinfonia (0:00)
  2. Serenata (1:48)
  3. a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
  4. Tarantella (8:56)
  5. Toccata (10:49)
  6. Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
  7. Vivo (15:27)
  8. a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)

At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale. 

Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.

Violin Concerto

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up  a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”

Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:

  1. Tocatta (0:00)
  2. Aria I (5:58)
  3. Aria II (10:18)
  4. Capriccio (15:43)

Dumbarton Oaks

Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.

Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:

  1. Tempo giusto (0:00)
  2. Allegretto 
  3. Con moto (8:01)

Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major

Franz SchubertIn 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:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo 00:00
  2. Adagio 19:54
  3. Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto 34:54 
  4. Allegretto 45:42

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If you feel inspired, share your thoughts about the music, along with favorite recordings, in the thread below.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven Fifth SymphonyCan 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:

  1. Allegro con brio 0:01
  2. Andante con moto 7:25
  3. Allegro 15:58
  4. Allegro 20:38 

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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. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]George Szell’s Rehearsal[/typography]

Here is a rare clip of legendary conductor George Szell rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra:

Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

The manuscript of Chopin's Fourth Ballade
The manuscript of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4

Frederic Chopin didn’t need to write monumental symphonies. His Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 reveals a universe of musical expression in just over ten minutes. Written between 1835 and 1842, Chopin’s four harmonically adventurous Ballades for solo piano inspired both Liszt and Brahms. Robert Schumann said that Chopin’s inspiration for the Fourth Ballade was Adam Mickiewicz’s poem, The Three Budrys.

Let’s listen to a spectacular performance of Ballade No. 4 by pianist Krystian Zimerman. The piece evolves from a distinctive five note motive. Does the music go where you expect or does it deliver surprises? Notice the drama Chopin achieves from a single chord or a sudden key change. As full blown Romanticism, this music is all about savoring the expression of the moment. Each harmony and key has emotional meaning, although we would have a hard time describing it in words. Although there is a formal structure at work, it’s easy to hear one episode spinning from another in a musical stream of consciousness.

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[quote][it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.[/quote]

-composer and pianist John Ogdon

Did you notice the way the opening seems to come out of nowhere, as if finishing some imaginary, unheard preceding phrase? Here, and throughout the piece, Chopin subtly changes the inner voices in interesting ways. For a moment the music seems to be searching for a way forward (0:30) before finding its five note motive. At times this motive is hidden in inner voices (around 6:04 and in the coda from 10:22 to the end).

Another interesting aspect of the music is the way simplicity leads to increased complexity. At 1:29 we already begin to get ornamental embellishments. At 3:25 there is a competing contrapuntal voice which grows increasingly insistent. By 8:04 embellishment has taken over completely.

In September of 1939, as the Germans marched into Poland, radio stations continuously played Chopin’s music in defiance. Eventually radio was silenced in Poland, replaced with loudspeakers blaring Nazi propaganda, but the story is a reminder of the transcendent spiritual power of music.