I love the way this overture grows out of a single trumpet call. The music slowly awakens, searching for a direction forward. Then, suddenly it opens up into one of Wagner’s most noble and majestic melodies (1:19).
Premiering in Dresden in 1842, Rienzi was Wagner’s first big hit as an opera composer. Seeds of his more mature works can be heard here, as well as the influence of Carl Maria von Weber (Overture to Euryanthe). In 1859 Franz Liszt wrote a Fantasy on Motifs of Rienzifor solo piano.
Learn more about Rienzi and read the synopsis here.
Forget Elvis. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the world’s first rock star. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt toured Europe performing flashy and dazzling compositions such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Following in the footsteps of Niccolò Paganini, Liszt helped to usher in the age of the romantic superstar concert artist. An atmosphere of almost supernatural ecstasy surrounded Liszt’s concerts. The hysteria of his fans, which included reports of women fainting and collecting locks of his hair, was known as Lisztomania. In 2008 the Alternative rock band Phoenix released this song and music video with references to Liszt’s rock star magnetism.
Even more significant and enduring was Franz Liszt’s contribution as one of the most innovative composers of the nineteenth century. His influence can be heard in Wagner, Mahler and beyond. He stretched tonality, creating atmospheric music which still sounds shocking and new.
Inspired by Goethe’s Faust drama, Franz Liszt wrote A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches in 1854. Hector Berlioz had just composed La Damnation de Faust which he dedicated to Liszt. Liszt returned the favor by dedicating his symphony to Berlioz. While Berlioz offered an operatic re-telling of the drama, Liszt’s music is a psychological exploration of the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Liszt developed a compositional technique known as thematic transformation in which a musical idea develops throughout the composition by undergoing various changes. Wagner used this technique in his operas, assigning each character a leitmotif. Thematic transformation also occurs throughout John Williams’s Star Wars film scores.
Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Faust Symphony. Consider how the music evokes the character of Faust, from his gloomy daydreams, to his insatiable thirst for knowledge, to his immense appetite for the pleasures of life. At times, the music may seem schizophrenic, alternating between intense excitement and quiet melancholy. Pay attention to the haunting opening motive which uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. What atmosphere does this opening music create? Notice how this motive returns in various guises throughout the movement (6:13, 10:40, 15:59 and 25:58 for example).
Here is a really exciting 1960 studio recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:
Did the opening motive make you feel lost, as if you were wandering through a slightly unsettling dream? The symphony is in C minor, but this motive’s chromaticism makes it impossible to get a sense of any key. It anticipates the twentieth century twelve tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and others. Maybe you also heard echoes of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (0:30-0:37) or Mahler’s symphonies (the stopped horns at 13:22), or a Bernard Herrmann film score (17:06).
In the first analysis of the Faust Symphony (from 1862), Richard Pohl suggests that the motives of first movement relate to “Passion, Pride, Longing, Triumph and Love.” (See the Introduction to the Dover score).
For me there are many aspects of this seldom heard piece which I find exciting: the ferocious string passages, the sudden and transformative modulation to C major at 20:13, Liszt’s use of relatively new additions to the orchestra such as harp, trombones and tuba. There are soaring, heroic moments like 11:44 (and 24:38 in the recapitulation) where trombones add a completely new dimension to the sound. At 25:06 the prominent use of trombones also evokes the instrument’s supernatural connotations. In the final bars of the movement there is something ominous about the descending and ascending chromatic line (25:58).
The second movement, in A-flat major, captures the innocence of Gretchen. Gradually Faust’s themes from the first movement creep in (beginning at 36:07) and eventually merge into a love duet. In the introduction of the Dover edition of the score, Dr. Alan Walker writes:
[quote]The gentle simplicity of both Gretchen themes belies the fact that they will later become transformed into the “Redemption” motifs in the choral setting of the “Chorus Mysticus” [the final movement].[/quote]
Mephistopheles, or Satan, represents “the spirit of negation”, destruction rather than creation. In the third movement Liszt does not give Mephistopheles his own motives. Instead we hear Faust’s motives from the first movement mocked, caricatured and ultimately torn apart. Only the innocent Gretchen can withstand Mephistopheles’s power. Her themes remain intact (56:38), as we heard them in the second movement.
At the end of the third movement, notice the stunning falling chromatic harmonic sequence (beginning after 1:02:07). In the final measures Liszt again uses the solemn supernatural color of the trombones (1:03:25).
Three years after completing the first three movements, Liszt added the climactic Final Chorus for male chorus. In the final measures, the entrance of the organ creates a new, expanded and transcendent sound world. This anticipates Mahler’s use of organ in the Second and Eighth Symphonies. The text is taken from Goethe’s Faust:
[quote]Everything transitory is only an allegory; what could not be achieved here comes to pass; what no one could describe, is here accomplished; the Eternal Feminine draws us aloft.[/quote]
Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]
You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?
Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:
Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra.B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?
Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:
Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.
Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.
Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.
In my last post we explored a fun, eight minute piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer, Michael Torke. I asked you to pay attention to the rich orchestral colors in the music.
Now go back and listen a few more times to pick up some new details. Do you hear bright, shimmering colors? Do you feel swept along by the music’s motion? Maybe the leaps and falls of the woodwind and string lines suggest flowing, rippling water or crashing waves? In the comment thread, one listener heard “a fast moving movie,” constant surprises, and allusions to the music of John Williams (who also wrote music for the Olympics).
In this piece (and other music of Torke) fleeting, momentary cartoon-like references to John Williams, Beethoven, Ravel and other music pop up and then disappear back into a great musical melting pot. These moments function as musical signifiers.
In his program notes, here is what Michael Torke wrote about the piece:
“I had three goals in mind when I began this piece for the Atlanta Symphony’s anniversary: I wanted to use the orchestra as a virtuosic instrument, I wanted to use triads (three-note tonal chords), and I wanted the music to be thematic. I knew I would welcome swifter changes of mood than what is found in my earlier music. What came out (somewhat unexpectantly) was a sense of valor among short flashes and sweeps that remined me of something in flight: a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition. When the word javelin suddenly suggested itself, I couldn’t help but recall the 1970s model of sports car my Dad owned, identified by that name, but I concluded, why not? Even that association isn’t so far off from the general feeling of the piece. Its fast tempo calls for 591 measures to evoke the generally uplifting, sometimes courageous, yet playful spirit.”
Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin…Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
This music opens Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. One of the most influential composers of the Romantic period, Wagner was innovative in the way he used (and enlarged) the orchestra.
The Prelude grows out of (and at the end returns to) a single A Major chord. Listen to the way the chord changes in color as sections of the orchestra (strings, woodwinds, and brass) merge in and out, like a musical kaleidoscope. In these moments, it is the pure sound you want to enjoy.
As the music unfolds, what kind of motion do you sense? How is it similar or different to Torke’s Javelin? Pay attention to the instruments in the opening of the piece. Do you hear mostly high or low pitches? As the music progresses, do you notice any gradual change? Is there a large-scale shape unfolding in the music? If there is, how is Wagner achieving this?