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.

The Triumph of Inner Voices

Conductor Sergiu Celibidache wants "More viola!"
Sergiu Celibidache wants more viola.

No, this post isn’t about following your intuition…today we’re talking about musical inner voices, those sometimes inconspicuous lines between the melody and the bass, which are often the essence of a piece’s drama. If you have any doubts about the importance of these lines, often played by violas and second violins in orchestral and string quartet repertoire, watch this short but funny clip of conductor Sergiu Celibidache rehearsing the Adagio from Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. 

Ensemble playing is about teamwork and every part is essential to the whole. Let’s listen to a few orchestra excerpts, which are great examples of the power of inner voices.

Nimrod

Take a moment and think about all of your Facebook friends or cell phone contacts. Could you imagine music which would fit each personality? English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a series of variations on this original theme, each depicting one of his friends. He assigned each variation a cryptic title, leaving audiences to guess who was being represented. The piece has commonly come to be known as the Enigma Variations. The variations run the gamut from lighthearted to fiery. One of the most famous and memorable parts of the piece is Variation IX, a moving chorale dedicated to Elgar’s publisher and close friend, August Jaeger. Listen carefully to the inner voices. Pay attention to the contour of the lines and the way they fit together. Listen for moments of harmonic tension:

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 

Tchaikovsky’s final work, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”, features a triumphantly rousing third movement, followed by a Finale which sinks into the deepest despair (Adagio lamentoso – Andante). What’s interesting is the way Tchaikovsky chooses to write the opening theme of the final movement. As a listener, you might make the logical assumption that the first violins play the prominent descending scale line (F-sharp, E, D, C-sharp, B, C-sharp). But the actual opening line for the first violins is B, E, G-sharp, C-sharp, E-sharp, C-sharp. It sounds pretty strange when played by itself. The second violin part has similar jumps. So who has the famous melody? It turns out that the melody and inner voices alternate back and forth between the first and second violins. Today the second violins in an orchestra typically sit next to the firsts, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, the seconds faced the firsts on the other side of the stage (where the cellos usually are now). Tchaikovsky achieved the nineteenth century equivalent of surround sound.

In this performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, the second violins are seated across from the firsts:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

In the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a seemingly insignificant inner voice becomes the star of the show. Listen to the supporting voice at 1:11, which mirrors the top voice in contrary motion. As the development section begins, we hear it again (4:28), then more prominently in the trombones. Listen as this inner voice is transformed into a powerful, heroic proclamation played by the whole orchestra (5:28).

What are your favorite inner voices? Share your own listening suggestions in the thread below.

Remembering David Nadien

David Nadien
David Nadien

American violinist David Nadien passed away last week at the age of 88. A student of Ivan Galamian, Adolfo Betti and Adolf Busch, Nadien first soloed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 14. Between 1966 and 1970 he served as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. You can hear him play the “Pas de deux” violin solo from Tchaikovsky`s Swan Lake here

For years Nadien taught at the Mannes College of Music and performed as a top freelance studio musician in New York. His immaculately clean, Romantic style of playing, suggestive of violinists from Elman to Milstein, was an inspiration to a younger generation of musicians. The Suzuki violin repertoire, books 1-10, are among his diverse recording credits. Notable recordings include the Franck Sonata and Tchaikovsky Concerto as well as showpieces such as Sarasate’s Habañera, Weiniawski’s Scherzo Tarentelle and Massenet’s Meditation from Thais

Here is his recording of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella:

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Music Inspired by Shakespeare

ShakespeareHistorians believe that today marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Throughout history, Shakespeare’s plays have been a rich source of inspiration for composers. A few months ago we heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet tone poem. Now let’s celebrate with some more music inspired by the Bard of Avon:

Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.

-As You Like It

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

-The Merchant of Venice

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Felix Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture in 1826. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the play, which included the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March

Mendelssohn’s overture captures vividly the atmosphere of the play. We hear the magic of the forest and the scurrying fairies who interfere hilariously in the lives of the other characters. Listen for all the subtle tricks and surprises in the fairy music, such as unexpected, “wrong” chords and out of place voices. Also notice the musical depiction of a braying donkey (3:07):

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To hear other musical adaptations, listen to Henry Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera in five acts, The Fairy-Queen, and Benjamin Britten’s twentieth century opera.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

King Lear

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. Hector Berlioz was in the audience when an English repertory company came to Paris in 1827. Berlioz’s exhilarating King Lear Overture was written in 1831:

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Could you hear the stubborn, proud character of King Lear in Berlioz’s music? Maybe you also sensed the pure Cordelia in the oboe solo in the introduction (2:47). In his memoirs, Berlioz outlined the program he followed while writing this overture, from the introduction (representing the entrance of the king) to the fast allegro section (the storm). We hear Lear’s increasing insanity as his theme merges with the storm music (10:49). You might have noticed the influence of the recitative music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the opening.

Throughout his innovative career, Berlioz was interested in expanding the orchestra and combining instruments in shocking new ways. I love the noisiness of this piece and its slightly deranged quality. The dissonances following the 9:00 mark would have sounded even more jarring in the 1830s. King Lear Overture has all of the romantic, schizophrenic drama of Symphony fantastique. 

I have no way and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
our means secure us, and our mere defects
prove our commodities.

Othello

In Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, just before she is strangled by the jealous Othello, Desdemona sings a quiet prayer for all who suffer (Ave Maria). Read the translated text here. Here the aria is sung by Renee Fleming:

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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

The Tempest

Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Tempest begins and ends with the musical depiction of a calmly undulating sea. Listen for the sudden ferocity of the storm (5:37). Notice the way Tchaikovsky introduces the love theme of Miranda and Ferdinand, following 8:18, suggesting their initial shyness:

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Also listen to incidental music for The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. English composer Thomas Adès’s recent opera, which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, offers a uniquely twenty-first century take on the play. Here Audrey Luna sings a haunting and vocally demanding excerpt.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

Henry V

We’ll finish up with a film score by English composer William Walton. This music was written for the 1944 film version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. Memorable excerpts include Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and the triumphant Agincourt Song.

“Touch her soft lips and part” underscores the scene in which Pistol bids farewell to his new wife Mistress Quickly, before leaving for battle in France:

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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now it’s your turn…

It isn’t The Listeners’ Club without you. Leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you heard in the music. What pieces would you add to this list of Shakespeare-inspired music?

Borodin’s Nocturne

Philadelphia stringsThe music of Russian romantic composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies. One example can be heard in the third movement (Nocturne) of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Let’s listen to a recording by the Emerson String Quartet. Consider the unique personality of each voice of the string quartet and notice the way the voices interact, creating a musical conversation. Pay attention to harmony and inner voices. Each time the melody returns, Borodin puts it in a slightly different harmonic package:

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Did you hear the canon between the violin and cello, and later the two violins, in the passage starting at 4:54?

Repeating a melody (often a folk song) in slightly different harmonic and contrapuntal “packages” was a common technique for Russian composers. You can hear this in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in 1881, the same year as the Second String Quartet, and in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony. 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Ormandy and the Philadelphia Sound[/typography]

Now, let’s hear Borodin’s Nocturne played by the full string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. For many years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive string sound…unusually dark, rich and lush. Some have attributed the origin of the sound to Ormandy’s predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, who conducted without a baton. This 2000 New York Times piece by James Oestreich offers more on the history of the “Philadelphia sound,” and raises questions about the extent to which an orchestra should hold onto a unique style versus adapting to the style of the composer. Listening to the lush, shimmering perfection of this classic recording, it’s easy to forget that debate entirely:

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Remembering Abram Shtern

Abram Shtern (1919-2014)
Abram Shtern (1919-2014)

Legendary Ukrainian violinist and teacher Abram Shtern passed away last week at the age of 96. Shtern was concertmaster and professor in Kiev before emigrating to the United States in 1990 and settling in Los Angeles. He represented one of the last direct links to the tradition of Leopold Auer, the teacher of Heifetz, Milstein and others.

For much of his career, Shtern stayed out of the spotlight, but he was deeply respected within the violin world. Isaac Stern said:

[quote]Oh, how he played! This man never leaves behind what the music means and such enthusiasm – he not only loves music but also he lives FOR music! He is an incredible master-musician.[/quote]

Here is a 1971 recording of Abram Shtern playing the solo from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake:

These informal clips give a sense of Shtern’s rich, singing tone and extraordinary technique. Notice his masterful, seamless bow control. This video, from Shtern’s 75th birthday, highlights his roots in Klezmer fiddling. Here is a profile featuring more background on Abram Shtern’s life.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietShakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired composers from Berlioz to Prokofiev to David Diamond. One of this timeless tragedy’s most popular musical depictions was composed by the 28-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky called the work an Overture-Fantasy, but it can also be considered a tone poem.

Let’s listen to a live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Consider how Tchaikovsky’s music captures the deep emotions at the heart of the story. We hear the character of noble Friar Laurence in the stately Russian Orthodox chorale in the opening. Do you hear anything foreboding in this opening music? In the ferocious fast passages which follow, listen to the way Tchaikovsky pits the woodwinds against the strings in back and forth exchanges. Also notice the cymbal crashes depicting a sword fight (6:30).

One powerful element of the piece is Tchaikovsky’s ability to build and sustain great anticipation. In the passage following 7:01 the resolution we expect is delayed. When the music slips into the familiar “love theme”, we find ourselves in D-flat major, a world away from the previous tumult.

At 11:17 notice the opening chorale theme in the horns (and later the trumpets) as the development section begins. At 14:21 listen to the unrelenting, sustained pedal tone in the base instruments and the increasing tension which results. Pay attention to how this tension resolves. Consider how the final passage from 18:33 to the end captures the essence of the drama. What feelings do the final B major chords evoke?

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet a few times and come back tomorrow for more music relating to Valentine’s Day.

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[quote]My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep; the more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite.[/quote]

[quote]“See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. O, that I were a glove upon that hand That I might touch that cheek!” [/quote]

[quote]O teach me how I should forget to think…[/quote]

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Oistrakh Plays Tchaikovsky

Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (image taken from olehkrysa.com
Oleh Krysa and David Oistrakh (from olehkrysa.com)

What better way to end the year than with a few rare old recordings by the legendary Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974)? Listening to these clips, which range from solo to chamber repertoire, it’s easy to hear why Oistrakh is regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time. There is a deep musical sincerity and a powerful sense of humanity in his playing which transcends the ordinary. In the fastest and most demanding technical passages every note sings with the most round, noble tone. Even now, his playing sounds strangely “modern,” uninfected with stylish mannerisms of any historical period. It’s just pure music.

My former teacher, Oleh Krysa, was a student of Oistrakh for seven years. In Book 14 of The Way They Play, Krysa sheds some light on the qualities which set Oistrakh apart as a performer and teacher:

[quote]In the first place, it was about developing musical sincerity, which is probably of utmost importance. He was absolutely intolerant of certain things: it refers primarily to ethics and taste and as a consequence to such aspects as style of playing, choice of repertory, attitude not only to music, but to art in general…Harmony was really striking in him-I mean both his human charm and performance. Oistrakh’s creative work, at least for me, associates with Raphael’s paintings. In his playing there had never been any pointedness of expression or sugary sentimentalism, there had never been a trace of affectation aimed at winning over the public. And his pedagogical activities were also aimed first and foremost at guarding his pupils against such “extremes” and at teaching them to express themselves naturally and sincerely on the instrument.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto[/typography]

Here is Oistrakh’s 1962 recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The warm, rich Philadelphia string sound is on full display in this recording. Oistrakh chose to perform his own edition which is closer to Tchaikovsky’s original text than the edition by Leopold Auer. Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Auer but withdrew the dedication after Auer’s criticism. The first performance was given by Adolf Brodsky in Vienna in 1881.

  1. Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Canzonetta. Andante 18:54
  3. Finale. Allegro vivacissimo 25:35

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Piano Trio, Op. 50[/typography]

Now let’s hear a 1948 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Oistrakh is joined by pianist Lev Oborin and cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Written around 1881, the piece is in two large movements. In the second movement a series of contrasting and far reaching variations (including a fugue) spring from a simple melody. Tchaikovsky worried that it was too symphonic, writing to a friend:

[quote]The Trio is finished … now I can say with some conviction that my work is not all bad. But I am afraid, having written all my life for orchestra, and only taken late in life to chamber music, I may have failed to adapt the instrumental combinations to my musical thoughts. In short, I fear I may have arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for the instruments. I have tried to avoid this, but I am not sure whether I have been successful.[/quote]

Symphonic or not, the music embodies a sense of raw emotion unique to Tchaikovsky. In the heroic major section between 2:55 and 3:41 it’s hard not to hear a hint of Russian nationalism.

  1. Pezzo elegiaco (Moderato assai – Allegro giusto) 0:00
  2. (A) Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto – (B) Variazione Finale e coda 18:00

Despite its many spirited adventures, the music seems to give up at the end with the same tragic acceptance we hear at the end of the “Pathetique” Symphony. Tchaikovsky builds our anticipation around 44:35 by prolonging the dominant (V chord), but listen to way he avoids a clear, satisfying resolution at 45:08. The remaining music melts away into the gloomy hopelessness of a funeral dirge.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26[/typography]

Here is a 1948 recording of the hauntingly beautiful Sérénade mélancolique. Notice all the little Tchaikovsky-isms: the structure of the melody and the way it restlessly develops, the off-kilter rhythmic complexity in the low strings around 3:45, the counter melody scale line (beginning at 6:28) which begins in the low woodwinds and rises dramatically, passing from one instrument to another. Around 8:05 this passage comes again with the violin and woodwinds reversing roles. Listen to the bass pizzicatos providing a rhythmic foundation under the melody. Tchaikovsky is never far from the world of ballet.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Andante Cantabile[/typography]

Here is the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 11. The melody is based on a Russian folk song which Tchaikovsky apparently heard whistled by a house painter. Oistrakh performs with Pyotr Bondarenko, Mikhail Terian and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Yehudi Menuhin on David Oistrakh (Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwartz):

[quote]I loved him immediately. Not only was he the gentlest, staunchest, most warm-hearted of men, but he was also simple and ingenuous. He never felt the need to appear other than he was…but presented himself candidly, without second thoughts or self-consciousness or doubts about his reception, a complete human being.[/quote]