Bruckner’s Organ

Bruckner's organ at Abby of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.
The organ Anton Bruckner played at Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.

 

Imagine that you could travel back in time to observe key moments in music history. Maybe you would drop in on Handel as he was preparing the Music for the Royal Fireworks, hear a handful of lost works by J.S. Bach, or attend the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro. 

Anton Bruckner’s legendary organ improvisations would rate high on my personal “musical time machine” top ten list. Bruckner spent many years as organist at the monastic Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria. Additionally, he performed virtuoso and mostly improvisatory organ recitals throughout Europe. Subjects of Bruckner’s expansive improvisations often included the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the Austrian National Anthem, music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, themes from Wagner’s operas, and themes from Bruckner’s own symphonies. This February 1937 Musical Times article describes these memorable musical events.

A Viennese review described a Bruckner organ recital this way:

Has no church been built for him and is there no chair vacant for him? We have experienced many times how he mastered the organ. Yesterday, again he sat down at the organ and freely developed a theme. Oh for the vigor and the abundance that flowed through the chapel! There‘s scarcely one around to challenge Mr. Bruckner in his virtuoso treatment of the pedal; he has really gained some dexterity with the feet. And this corresponds admirably with his agility on the manuals, an agility which is hardly ever confined by difficulties.

It’s ironic that Bruckner, a composer who endlessly revised the music he wrote down and occasionally fell victim to paralyzing self-doubt, simultaneously embraced the ultimate “in the moment” music making. We’ll never know exactly how Bruckner’s organ improvisations sounded. But here is his short Prelude in C Major, written in 1884. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter is performing on the organ Bruckner played at Saint Florian. The composer is buried in the Abbey’s crypt, just below the organ.

The Prelude is technically in C major, but its dizzying chromatic harmony is constantly pulling us away from the home key to unexpected places:

Bruckner’s symphonies often turn the orchestra into a virtual pipe organ. There’s a sense of effortless modulation and orchestration that often doesn’t mix the woodwinds, strings, and brass, but instead celebrates the purity of their unique voices. Organist Erwin Horn writes,

He was accustomed in his improvisations to using themes drawn from the symphonies on which he was working. […] As soon as he would realise the same idea both on the organ and in the orchestra, there would be an interaction between the improvised fantasies and the symphonies with their systematic layout. The sounds of Bruckner‘s symphonies, structurally, were foreshadowed by those of the organ.

The Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is built on a chorale which becomes interwoven with a complex double fugue, the sort of contrapuntal fireworks we would expect in organ improvisation. In the movement’s coda, the chorale theme soars to exhilarating new heights as the first movement’s first theme returns.

Here is the the final coda of Bruckner’s Fifth from a live 1986 performance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by the noted Bruckner interpreter Eugen Jochum. Jochum, who was in ill health and passed away the following year, reportedly conducted the symphony seated, but stood for this final coda, a climax which suggests the majestic power of a large pipe organ:

Here is the complete Fifth Symphony.

  • Find Erwin Horn’s recording of Bruckner organ music at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear five recorded versions of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony Finale’s coda here.

Mozart’s 259th Birthday

The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.
The house in Salzburg where Mozart was born on January 27, 1756.

 

Tomorrow marks the 259th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. If you’re looking for an exciting way to celebrate, consider picking up a copy of Rachel Barton Pine’s newly-released Mozart recording. The CD features all five Mozart Violin Concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. Barton Pine is accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Her infectious enthusiasm for the music is apparent in this informational clip.

Born in Chicago in 1974, Rachel Barton Pine is known for her adventurous and eclectic approach to the violin, which includes a passion for Heavy Metal and her own variations on Happy BirthdayIn Mozart’s time, performers were expected to play their own cadenzas, adding freedom and spontaneity to concerto performances. Rachel Barton Pine continues this tradition on this recording.

She plays the 1742 “ex-Soldat” Guarneri del Gesu, a violin named after nineteenth century violinist Marie Soldat-Roeger, a close friend of Brahms.

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Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

As Rachel Barton Pine mentions in her program notes, Leopold Mozart published an influential treatise on violin playing in 1756, the year his son Wolfgang was born. Mozart’s youthful violin concertos, all written during his teenage years, reflect a joyful, fun-loving attitude towards the instrument. Leopold lamented to the young Mozart,

You have no idea how well you play the violin. If only you would do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit and fire, as if you were the greatest violinist in Europe!

Mozart’s twenty seven piano concertos are more mature. Concerto No. 23 in A major was finished on March 2, 1786, around the time The Marriage of Figaro premiered. This work contains a universe of expression. From the opening of the introduction, a musical conversation unfolds, first between the strings and woodwinds and then including the sparkling voice of the piano. The final movement is a spirited romp. Listen for the exuberant bassoon, string, and clarinet lines beginning around 19:18. The second movement takes us to a completely different world. The piano emerges as a solitary, mournful voice. In the middle of the movement (13:52), we hear music which would later turn up in Act II of Don Giovanni in the trio, Ah taci, ingiusto core” (“Ah, be quiet unjust heart”).

Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1980 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro 0:00
  2. Adagio 11:20
  3. Allegro assai 18:51

Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening 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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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

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.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[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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