Archive for August, 2015

Strauss, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks(1895)

By the turn of the 20th century, Richard Strauss was considered to be the cutting edge of musical modernism. Through the innovations of Wagner and Liszt, the “absolute” formal music of the symphony gave way to multi-dimensional music drama and then the symphonic tone poem as the leading Romantics sought to express the extra-musical world in program music. Strauss took up the cause pursing this “music of the future” following his own dictum that “new ideas must seek new forms” and elevated the art of the single-movement tone poem to a new pinnacle. His brilliant orchestrations nearly shocked with their vivid realism boldly depicting subject matter previously considered beyond the realm of instrumental music alone: Don Juan, Nietzsche’s Superman, Don Quixote, and the crude practical jokes of a medieval prankster.

Till Eulenspiegel is a colorful figure of Northern European folklore, a vagabond trickster that exposes the vice, hypocrisy and folly throughout society by pranking his fellow man. (more…)

Scriabin, Etudes, Op. 2, No. 2 and selections from Op. 8

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)

Etudes, Op. 2, No. 2 and selections from Op. 8 (1894)

Alexander Scriabin is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of classical music. He once lamented that he might be remembered merely as a composer whereas his artistic and philosophical visions found expression in poetry, fantastic multi-media spectacles and a burning mission to literally transform the world through mystical experiences of spiritual ecstasy. Far more than just a composer, Scriabin fancied himself an aesthetic avatar leading the way to a higher universal incarnation. Historically, the Russian Scriabin comes after Tchaikovsky and before Stravinsky and stylistically his music arises from the context of late Romanticism progressing in a unique fashion towards the modernism of the 20th century. Scriabin’s music changed rather dramatically moving into impressionism and, in his late works, towards a kind of atonality, diffuse, free ranging, as if rising above and beyond all conventions of 19th century in a manner that was literally transcendent. (more…)

Gershwin, An American in Paris

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

An American in Paris (1928)

George Gershwin is an American icon. His humble beginnings, raw talent, non-conventional path into the annals of classical music and his enormous success and fame make Gershwin a fair embodiment of the great American spirit. The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he started in his late teens as a pianist and “plugger” of songs for the burgeoning popular song industry known as “Tin Pan Alley.” With his brother Ira as lyricist, the Gershwins penned hundreds of successful songs for stage and screen, many of which became the great standards for brilliant Jazz improvisations in the Swing and Bop eras. With sophisticated harmonies, rhythms and song forms saturated with the distinctly American Blues and Jazz idioms, Gershwin’s music swiftly came to be recognized as a kind of art music verging on classical with a truly American voice. His crucial rapprochement of Classical and popular genres occurred when the famous bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a piano concerto for his 1924 “Experiment in Modern Music” which Gershwin eventually named “Rhapsody in Blue”: (more…)

Bridge, Phantasie (Trio) in C minor, H.79

Monday, August 3rd, 2015
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Phantasie (Trio) in C minor, H.79 (1907)

The British composer Frank Bridge is apt to be unknown to most, his greatest claim to fame being the mention of his name in the work title “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” written by Benjamin Britten, Bridge’s star pupil. Bridge was part of a generation that included more well-known British composers such as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax and Ireland who, for the first time since the early Baroque, helped create noteworthy music in a national English style. Bridge’s own music underwent significant stylistic change during his lifetime: he began writing in an accessible late Romantic style but, following the end of WWI, shifted towards a more dissonant expressionistic style eventually skirting the boundaries of atonality and twelve-tone music. His later music tended to alienate the more conservative British audiences, and, eclipsed by his contemporaries of greater fame, Bridge fell into relative obscurity. Nonetheless, Bridge left a well-crafted body of work featuring all of his stylistic periods. Perhaps owning to his career as a violinist and violist who performed with a number of professional quartets, Bridge was a particularly fine composer of chamber music including two piano trios and four string quartets among numerous other works for small ensemble. (more…)

Bernstein, Piano Trio

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Piano Trio (1937)

Leonard Bernstein was a multi-dimensional force of nature in the world of American music as a conductor, composer, educator, pianist and media figure straddling the worlds of popular and classical music from Broadway to Carnegie Hall. He was one of the first American conductors to achieve international fame as well as the first non-European to become director of the New York Philharmonic. One important legacy of Bernstein’s conducting career was his promotion of Mahler with two complete recorded symphony cycles largely responsible for establishing Mahler’s contemporary reputation. Bernstein’s legendary televised “Young People’s Concerts” introduced an entire generation to music appreciation. Bernstein as a composer will most likely be remembered for his dramatic theatrical works such as On the Town, Candide and West Side Story, but his “serious” classical compositions include incidental and ballet music, three symphonies, a concertante serenade and chamber music. (more…)

Dvořák, Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87 (1889)

While Dvořák is not typically mentioned along with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms as the chief dominating masters of classical and romantic chamber music, he belongs in this group. He composed prodigiously and masterfully in the genre turning out dozens of string quartets, piano trios, the magnificent piano quintet and two fine piano quartets. Dvořák’s music is grounded in the classic forms and the finest procedures while projecting a unique personality throughout. Dvořák is often compared with Brahms as the latter was a mentor and champion of the former and their proximity of time and place inclines their music towards a similar style. Yet Dvořák is in many ways is closer to Schubert who was one of Dvořák’s idols. Together, they possessed a profound gift for lyricism, romantic sweep, and an exquisite artistry for tone, color and texture that makes their music sound positively enchanted. A final comparison with Schumann shows that both composers produced a brilliant piano quintet followed swiftly by a piano quartet of equal magnificence yet destined to remain somewhat in the shadows of its older, bigger sibling. (more…)

Beethoven, Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.16

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.16(1796, 1801)

In 1797, a 27-year-old Beethoven had yet to try his hand at the “serious” big-ticket genres: string quartet, symphony or opera. Indeed, at the time, he was noteworthy not so much as a composer, but a brilliant pianist, particularly for his stunning improvisations. So far, Beethoven had composed piano sonatas, trios, serenades and various other “miscellaneous” genres and typically with a live performance in mind: to showcase the master at the keyboard. Having written for winds, Beethoven took special inspiration from Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds (K. 452) written thirteen years earlier and decided to write his own. Beethoven’s quintet shares much in common with Mozart’s: the same instrumentation (piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn), the same key (E-flat major), the same three-movement layout and even the same approximate forms for each movement (including the dramatic slow introduction). This is in fact Beethoven at his most Mozartian. (more…)

Brahms, String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1860)

There are few string sextets in the traditional repertory beginning with Brahms and followed by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg and Strauss. A few more obscure composers wrote for the ensemble before Brahms (Boccherini and Spohr) but it was this splendid youthful work that placed the string sextet in the limelight. The sextet features three pairs of instruments: two violins, two violas and two cellos, or, a string quartet plus an extra viola and cello. The additional members in the lower range are free to pursue featured melodic roles enriching the deeper voices of the ensemble, adding new contrapuntal lines and reinforcing the composite ensemble. The young Brahms struggled with string quartets (which he destroyed) and likely sought the novelty of the string sextet to explore a green field away from any daunting comparisons with Beethoven. A second sextet followed four years later preceding his eventual string quartets by nearly a decade. Both are early but masterful works highlighting the bright, warm and noble side of Brahms in the manner of a serenade. (more…)

Glazunov, 5 Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

5 Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15 (1886)

The Russian Alexander Glazunov is an example of a gifted composer who pursued a highly successful career and garnered great renown but who nonetheless has faded from view as a somewhat conservative composer overshadowed by more provocative figures who came just before and after his time. He was younger than the “The Might Handful”, the fierce nationalists including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky who were the first to forge a distinctly Russian style. He was also decades younger than Tchaikovsky, the brilliant cosmopolitan with a penchant for the grand European style. As Glazunov found his own style in a pleasing blend of both trends, he was soon usurped by a series of brilliant Russian modernists including Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev whom Glazunov found distasteful as they found him reactionary. Nonetheless, Glazunov was proclaimed a prodigy in his youth, studied with Rimsky-Korsakov who regarded him as a brilliant colleague more than a student, was a respected conductor and become the director of the St. Petersburg conservatory for over two decades. Glazunov the composer produced a substantial body of work including eight symphonies, several concertos, ballets and seven string quartets among numerous other compositions. Today, he is most famous for his ballets “Raymonda”, “The Seasons” and his Violin Concerto made famous by Heifetz. (more…)

Dvořák, Cypresses (Echo of Songs) for string quartet

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Cypresses (Echo of Songs), for string quartet, 1865/1888/1927

The true provenance of Dvořák’s charming 12 instrumentals for string quartet conventionally titled “Cypresses” is somewhat complicated. In 1865, a young 24-year-old Dvořák fell in love with a 16-year-old piano student (whose younger sister would eventually become his wife). In an ardent swoon of unrequited love, he composed a cycle of 18 love songs for voice and piano setting texts by a Moravian poet from a volume titled Cypresses: A Collection of Lyric and Epic Poems by Gustav Pfleger-Moravský. Dvořák spent years fiddling with the songs in various arrangements and repurposing some of their materials in other compositions. 23 years after that first flush, in 1888, Dvořák, now 47, finally sent the songs to his publisher Simrock to be published with the title “Love Songs”. Around the same time, Dvořák selected 12 of the songs and transcribed them for string quartet. In the process, he changed the order resulting in the following sequence based on the original numbers: 6, 3, 2, 8, 12, 7, 9, 14, 4, 16, 17 and 18. He also provided a new title: “Echo of Songs.” (more…)