Fabio Biondi Plays Veracini

Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768)
Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768)

 

Italian Baroque composers such as Corelli, Tartini, and Vivaldi have long been associated with the early development of the violin as a virtuoso instrument. Less well known, now, is Francesco Maria Veracini. Born in Florence in 1690, Veracini traveled throughout Europe, dazzling audiences with his violin sonatas and concertos. The English composer and music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) described Veracini’s playing in 1745:

He led the band…in such a bold and masterly manner as I had never heard before…The peculiarities in his performance were his bow and, his shake [trill], his learned arpeggios, and a tone so loud and clear, that it could be distinctly heard through the most numerous band of a church or theatre.

Suzuki violin students will recognize this Gigue from Veracini’s Sonata No. 7 in D minor. Suzuki included it towards the end of Book 5. Here is a thrilling period performance by violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi. Notice Biondi’s spirited ornamentation:

Listen to the first, second, and third movements of Sonata No. 7.

Additional Listening

La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

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Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:

Recomposing Vivaldi’s “Winter”

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As we await today’s meteorological prediction from the groundhog, let’s enjoy the icy sonic chill of “Winter” from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s collection of violin concertos composed around 1720. This piece can sound radically different from one performance to another, depending on choices of tempi and style. The concerto’s programatic elements remain: the orchestra’s frigid opening ponticello (a raspy sound created by playing as close to the bridge as possible), flying spiccato bowing suggesting pellets of frozen precipitation hitting a hard surface. The final movement drifts off into the solitude of a bleak, desolate winter landscape.

Here is Gidon Kremer’s 1981 performance with the English Chamber Orchestra:

Vivaldi Remixed

In Baroque performances, ornamentation added an element of spontaneity. The notes on the page sometimes became a blueprint for improvisation, similar to chord progressions for a jazz musician. German-born British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) has pushed this tradition even further with his Recomposed Four Seasons (2012). Vivaldi’s music becomes the raw material for a new piece rooted in the looping repetition of minimalism and electronic dance music. Fragments of the original composition emerge and find new lives of their own. It’s a musical conversation spanning three hundred years. Listen to the complete work here. Pay attention to the way the music slowly and gradually develops. If you feel inspired, share your thoughts about the music in the thread below.

Here is Daniel Hope with the Orchestra L’arte del Mondo in 2013:

As a bonus, here is Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” and Written on the Sky from Blue Notebooks (2004). Also listen to Luminous from the soundtrack of the 2011 film Perfect Sense (The Last Word) and Rainlightcomposed for Random International’s Rain Room, a 2012 art instillation at London’s Barbican Centre.

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York (now Sony Building)
Philip Johnson’s 647-foot-tall AT&T Building in New York (now the Sony Tower)

In 1984, a bold, new skyscraper emerged on the Manhattan skyline, which captured everyone’s attention and became the subject of intense controversy. The Chippendale-inspired broken pediment crown of architect Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building shocked the architectural establishment because it so profoundly violated the ruling aesthetic of the day. This bizarre new icon seemed to be cheerfully thumbing its nose at the solemn, modernist glass boxes which surrounded it. Postmodernism was born.

Modernism, with its mantras of “less is more” and “form follows function,” was about pure, abstract geometric form. Its clean lines were stripped of ornamentation, historical reference or symbolism. It offered a standardized, mechanized, futuristic, utopian vision. The serene beauty of the modernist, glass curtain wall-clad office building was best exemplified by post-war structures such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House.

By contrast, postmodern architecture embraced symbolism and drew upon historical references. Postmodern buildings became signifiers. At their best, the whimsical new icons enlivened skylines and engaged the imagination. At their worst, they became monolithic corporate billboards.

In the early days of the skyscraper, there were plenty of buildings which invoked history. For example, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building suggested a Gothic cathedral. But these buildings often drew upon past styles as a way of avoiding what were, at that time, unresolved aesthetic challenges of building on such a huge scale. The postmodernism of the 1980s and 90s, championed by architects such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Johnson, played with historical reference, scale and symbolism to create signifiers. Philip Johnson’s turreted PPG Place says “I’m the Houses of Parliament” and Republic Bank Center in Houston says, “I’m a Dutch canal house.” As glossy symbols, these buildings start to seem even better than the real thing, in the same way an advertisement romanticizes a product.

Interestingly, as postmodernism was sweeping architecture in the late twentieth century, similar trends were surfacing in music. Can you hear the postmodern aesthetic in the examples below?

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

At times, Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977) by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) becomes “more Vivaldi than Vivaldi” (listen to the Toccata and the Rondo movements). In this piece, the Baroque Concerto Grosso functions as a signifier in a dark and terrifying drama. Vivaldi-like sequences descend slightly too far and imitation between voices grows into an out of control caricature. Mozart, Beethoven, Tango music and a quote of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (15:57) surface and disappear amid musical breakdown. Hints of Shostakovich emerge in the opening of the Recitativo.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 is filled with voices of lament. Slowly awakening in the first movement, they sometimes shriek out in pain and other times sink into resignation. In the last movement, we hear distant echoes of the Toccata (27:22).

Here is violinist Gidon Kremer’s 1988 recording:

  1. Preludio. Andante (0:00)
  2. Toccata. Allegro (5:01)
  3. Recitativo. Lento (9:27)
  4. Cadenza. [without tempo indication] (16:22)
  5. Rondo. Agitato (18:54)
  6. Postludio. Andante – Allegro – Andante (26:00)

John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music

Grand Pianola Music (1982) started with a dream. John Adams writes:

As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.

The majority of Grand Pianola Music is firmly rooted in minimalism. Its opening pulse suddenly emerges, as if the volume has been turned up on something which has always been present. There’s a sense of time moving through the music as it slowly develops, forcing us to become one with the moment. The circular nature of minimalism flows from the isolation and repetition of single chords or progressions. In Four Organs (1970), Steve Reich sustains and elongates a dominant eleventh chord for fifteen minutes. As voices join and drop out we get a changing, kaleidoscopic view of the chord. We anticipate a resolution, but the chord remains suspended in air.

But listen to what happens with the similar, prolonged dominant harmony in the opening of the final movement of Grand Pianola Music (23:01). In a sudden and unexpected move, the chord resolves. The abstract purity of minimalism is shattered and the music takes on postmodern meaning. A melody emerges which suggests Lisztian bravado, Beethoven, and gospel music all blended together. This is the moment where Adams finds the musical equivalent of the AT&T Building’s outrageous Chippendale top. It’s a theme which seems brash and out of place, like the fanciful, arbitrary historical references of a Johnson office tower. It comes out of nowhere, but it’s a voice which demands to be heard.

Grand Pianola Music was so shocking in 1982 that the first performance was met with boos. Adams writes,

True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came at the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia Princeton school….Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking.

  1. Part 1A (fast) (0:00)
  2. Part 1B (slow)
  3. “On the Dominant Divide” (fast) (23:01)

Michael Torke’s Ash

In the late 1980s, Michael Torke wrote a series of pieces with titles relating to color. Torke experiences a neurological blurring of the senses, known as synesthesia, in which musical keys and sounds evoke involuntary associations with color.

If you’ve ever heard music in a dream, Ash (1988) may remind you of that experience. This piece is made up of fleeting moments where you might swear you’re listening to the classical orchestration and counterpoint of Beethoven. This is not real Beethoven but a glossy representation of Beethoven. Even “better” than the real thing.

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)

Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor

Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, Op. 3, No. 6 is well known to all Suzuki violin students. Vivaldi (1678-1741) contributed to the development of the violin as a solo instrument, dazzling audiences throughout Europe with shocking new sounds. He wrote over 500 concertos. For many years Vivaldi also directed the female music ensemble at Ospedale della Pietàa school for orphaned girls in Venice.

Let’s compare two excellent but contrasting performances. The first is a modern performance by legendary Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng (1918-1988). The three short movements are Allegro, Largo and Presto (fast, slow, fast):

Now let’s hear a performance which attempts to capture the instruments and style of Vivaldi’s time. Baroque soloists often added ornamentation and improvisatory elements similar to the approach of a jazz musician today. This performance is by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra:

Do you prefer one of these recordings over another? It’s amazing that we can approach the same piece in so many different ways.

Julia Fischer Plays "Autumn"

Unknown-18The vibrant Fall colors outside my window are a great excuse to listen to Vivaldi’s third concerto, “Autumn” from “The Four Seasons. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was writing and playing this music at a time when the violin was developing as a virtuosic instrument. There’s a youthful joy in this music, as if he’s saying, “Look what the violin can do!” The key to playing this music well is to make the technical passages sound effortless and fun.

The piece is in three contrasting movements (fast, slow, fast). Here is a video by Julia Fischer and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields:

To get an idea of how many ways this music can be played, listen to this performance which uses instruments similar to those in Vivaldi’s time. Notice the difference between the Baroque and modern bow. Can you hear a difference in the sound which is created? Also notice the sparing use of vibrato. Here, violinist Giuliano Carmignola performs with the Venice Baroque Orchestra:

Listen to Vivaldi’s Winter and Spring concertos here. Leave a comment below with your thoughts on these performances.

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La Folia

Suzuki violin students learn Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia in Book 6. La Folia was a popular chord progression which many Renaissance and Baroque composers used as the foundation for variations and improvisation. It originated in the dance music of Portugal. Corelli’s ability to develop new music from this existing harmony might remind you of the way jazz musicians freely borrow today. It’s easy to see why composers found La Folia an endless source of musical inspiration. Listen to the drama of these eight chords as they move from minor to major (flat iii chord) and back.

Here is Henryk Szeryng performing La Folia by Corelli (1653-1713):

For another excellent performance, listen to this recording by Nathan Milstein.

Now, let’s compare what we just heard to this exhilarating and virtuosic version with authentic Baroque instruments. As you listen, consider the unique mood of each variation. Listen to the musical conversation between voices and the intricate way the parts fit together. Notice that the instruments are tuned slightly lower than what we’re used to in modern performances. Corelli expanded the technical possibilities of the violin and his music often revels in flashiness akin to a daredevil circus act. Audiences must have been awestruck by the first performances of this music:

If you’re interested in hearing how other composers approached La Folia, listen to these excerpts by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Handel. Also enjoy Oscar Shumsky’s golden toned recording of Fritz Kreisler’s La Folia (part 1 and part 2). In contrast to the other versions, Kreisler’s harmonies are unabashedly Romantic. Sergei Rachmaninov wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli for piano. Finally, check out this rock video by the Dueling Fiddlers.

La Folia is an example of an ostinato, or repeated bass line. To learn more about this type of music, visit my previous posts, The Art of the Ostinato and The Chaconne Across 300 YearsShare your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you heard in the music. Do you have a personal favorite among all the versions we heard?