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Mahler Symphony No. 6

THURSDAY, June 25, 2020

Mahler Symphony No. 6

I have mentioned this before. It’s almost an unwritten musical commandment: Thou shalt not only play or listen to only one movement of a symphony. With rare exceptions we are discouraged from listening to just a favorite movement.

Of course I think this is colossally stupid, but anyone who knows me also knows I think that the worst thing we can do is listen to critics and pundits. Sooner or later they will destroy any love we have for anything, if we take them seriously. So at the end of this missive I’m going to present just one movement, and one I think is absolutely amazing as a stand-alone composition.

Now, of course I am not discouraging anyone from listening to this whole symphony…

In fact, I got to know the whole symphony in high school. I had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and at the time just about the best recordings you could buy were released on tapes. The recording I had at the time was of Leonard  Bernstein, who was one of the first famous conductors to make a name for himself recording Mahler. This symphony was so long, I had to flip the tape over to get to the second half.

Mahler is tough to listen to…

For most of us, his music is just too long. Their are Mahler lovers who accept everything he did as pure genius, but I’m not one of them. To me his music is flawed by being padded, over-extended and sort of musically bloviated. There is no denying the genius of his orchestrations, and he certainly paints sound pictures that are immense. But sometimes his music goes on, and on, and on.

For many this symphony is one of the most difficult to listen to, or understand…

After listening to this on and off for decades, I come back to the same conclusions. There are brilliant places, wonderful ideas, but as a whole it does not work for me, not in its four movement form. There is a also a huge controversy about which movement should come second. The slow movement is sometimes placed second, and sometimes third. Mahler himself never fully made up his mind, so conductors and Mahler lovers argue about it.

I frankly don’t care. The whole symphony is too long for me, period.

BUT:

The slow movement, this one movement alone, I think may be one of the most amazing pieces of music ever written, and I’ve been trying to get people to listen to it, alone, for decades. This absolute gem is buried in a four movement monster, and to this day I believe that if people approached only this slow movement, alone, this one masterpiece, it might eventually become one of the most played musical compositions in the history of music.

So try this one movement…

I’ve certainly listened to the whole symphony, and I’m sure I will again, but this is what I come back to again and again. This one movement, by the way, is about 18 minutes long, longer than some entire symphonies by Mozart.

 

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Tchaikovsky: Romance In F Minor

THURSDAY, June 25, 2020

Tchaikovsky: Romance In F Minor Op.5

I started writing about this two months ago, but I was in the middle of the huge project of going through all of Tchaikovksy’s symphonic music.

An early work…

Tchaikovsky wrote his Romance in F minor, Op. 5, for solo piano in October or November 1868 in Moscow.

First performance…

Nikolay Rubinstein gave the first performance at a charity concert in Moscow University on 8/20 December 1868. The same pianist premiered the Romance in Saint Petersburg, at the fourth Free Music School concert on 30 November/12 December 1869.

This is Richter playing, one of the most famous Russian pianists of the 20th century.

And here is a transcription…

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Mozart String Quintet No. 4

TUESDAY, June 23, 2020

I’m obviously not a string player…

I started on this on Saturday, February 29, 2020. My ignorance of stringed instruments is somewhere between huge and infinite. I spent years playing and teaching brass, and I’ve also spent a lot of time working with woodwinds. I know something about how the work because there are big similarities. But strings? They are these alien instruments, and I don’t understand anything about them.

For me string players have to be incredibly good or I can’t listen…

When listening I always gravitate towards symphonic music because of the immense tone color, variation in sound, huge dramatic range, and so on. Strings are just not my thing. That means that I am horribly critical of string players. It they are not really great, and not playing music that interests me hugely, I just tune out.

Not everything Mozart wrote is great…

I also have a love-hate relationship with Mozart. I acknowledge him as one of a couple composers with such immense talents that just thinking about what he could already do as a young teenager is frightening. But along with his immense talent he also had the ability to write music that often feels to me empty, as if he could do anything and yet at times just “phoned it in”. Not everything he wrote was profound or incredibly original. Not by a long shot.

But when he was good, he was really good!

This does not change the fact that on his best days, when he was fully engaged and inspired, he was able to write music of such originality that it is mind-blowing. Apparently he reserved minor keys for serious moods, and the key of G minor had a special significance for him.

String quartets…

By the time of Mozart string quartets achieved a popularity that made their playing incredibly common. It gave professional musicians and amateur musicians an opportunity to play together in a way that was both artistic and social, so great music was written for four strings players. The form was for cello, viola and two violins.

A 5th wheel?

Deviating from this form was not too common. I don’t know enough to speak knowledgeably about how of this happened, but I believe string quintets were always a bit unusual. In fact, exactly what the 5th instrument is in any quintet does not seem to have been set in stone., and it is not always a stringed instrument. It can be a 2nd viola, a 2nd cello or even a double bass. There are cello quintets, and viola quintets. The extra instrument gives the name.

Mozart viola quintet…

Here is an example of a “viola quintet”, and it’s one of those compositions by Mozart that was very obviously among his best and most serious efforts. He used his very personal and tragic key, G minor, and for me this is an absolute home run. He eventually gets to major in the last, final movement, but he stays in minor for so long that it is highly unusual, and obviously a personal statement.

A favorite of Tchaikovsky..

K. 516 indicates that it was written quite late in his tragically short life, so in my mind this work is in all ways a standout and well worth listening to. When a genius composer cherishes something by another, earlier genius composer, you know it is very special.

I think this piece is a very good introduction to string music. It caught my attention nearly four months ago and was in my queue of “things to listen to over and over again”.

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Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 2 in F major

TUESDAY, June 23, 2020

Here is my usual disclaimer: I know nothing about string instruments. So anything I have to say about compositions for strings is just the impression of someone very ignorant of how they are played. For that reason I can’t stand listening to music for strings unless I like the music, and unless the players are very good. So when I recommend anything written only for strings, that music seems to me to be important and unusual. At the time I listened to this quartet I was absolutely buried in a huge project, going through all of Tchaikovsky’s important symphonic music. I simply saved this link with the idea to come back to it, but it continues to impress me.

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 22

This was composed and scored in late December 1873 and January 1874 in Moscow and so appeared very close to “Winter Dreaming”, his 1st symphony.

There are four movements…

  • Adagio – Moderato assai – F major
  • Scherzo – Allegro giusto – Db major
  • Andante ma non tanto – F minor
  • Finale. Allegro con moto – F major

Another public failure…

You have to figure Tchaikovsky had just about the worst support in musical history, or at least one of the worst. Schubert also was almost ignored during his lifetime, so perhaps his story is even worse, but again and again Tchaikovsky reported public indifference to music he was proud of:

“I consider it one of my best compositions; none has flowed out of me so easily and simply. I wrote it almost in one sitting and I was very surprised that the public did not take to it, for I find that compositions written so spontaneously normally find favour,”

 Later he told Anatoly Tchaikovsky:

“If I’ve written anything in my life that flowed spontaneously from the very depths of my soul, then it was the first movement of this quartet” .

And again Rubinstein commented with his usual stupidity that:

…the style was not that of chamber music and that he could not understand it”…

What a colossal jerk he was! I may write more about this in the future, but there is one astonishingly unusual feature in the 2nd movement, which is a scherzo. The rhythm alternates between twos and threes, in something called “mixed meter”, and at that time this was quite unusual.

Now, the music…

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Beethoven Symphony No. 2

MONDAY, June 8, 2020

(It seems impossible, but I wrote all this at the end of February, before Covid 19 closed down the US and much of the world. Originally I linked to Gardiner, but I put in Bernstein too today. I was looking for a modern recording with the kind of energy Gardiner played with. Original instruments had a very clean sound and a ton of energy, so I may prefer that sound in the fast movements, or at least it is competitive. But in the 2nd movement, the slow movement, that older “period” sound seems to me to be “scratchy”, and always hurried  The original instruments to my ear can’t sustain as well, and the almost total lack of vibrato sounds at times almost clinical. This  Bernstein recording is from a time when the New York Philharmonic was on fire, and to me it sounds just a vital and fresh as any more recent recording, including those with “period” instruments. I would suggest listening to each movement twice to hear the contrast between the old and the new.)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1800 and 1802) – age 29-31

(The above link is brilliantly written and worth reading from beginning to end.)

This symphony is in four movements and was dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky. Beethoven wrote the Second Symphony without a standard minuet; instead, a scherzo took its place The scherzo and the finale are filled with musical jokes, which shocked many critics of his time.

One Viennese critic for the Zeitung fuer die elegante Welt (Newspaper for the Elegant World) famously wrote of the Symphony that it was:

“a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death.”

I will never lose an opportunity to point out what idiots critics are, nor to point out that such critics are just as common now as then. This is, of course, a great symphony, and it may be the most pure fun of all of them. It is full of jokes and pranks that even a child would get, and the best musicians on the planet love them all. So of course this Viennese critic thought it was awful. How typical! I have much more respect for buzzards and vultures than for most critics.

However, there are exceptions, and here is just a bit of what Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) wrote, although it is fair to point out that he was not born at the time this symphony was first heard.

In this Symphony everything is noble, energetic, proud. The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner.er you can see that he was right. And this was only about the first movement.

If you read his whole review, you will see that Berlioz nailed it.

Going deaf, and he knew it…

Beethoven’s mostly wrote this symphony in 1802, but he started it as much as two years earlier, and it was then that he realized he was in serious trouble. There have been countless guesses about why he started to lose his hearing, but for the greatest composer of his time – and some think the greatest composer who ever lived – this was just devastating.

Here is what he wrote about this time:

“…that jealous demon, my wretched health, has put a nasty spoke in my wheel; and it amounts to this, that for the past three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker.”

There is more, and a lot of this I’m getting from the above link, which you really should read. This is about his social life:

“I have ceased to attend any social functions just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.”

Then his professional worries:

“… if my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, were to hear about it, what would they say?”

He wrote to his brother, contemplating suicide:

“I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me.”

I don’t know about you, but reading that is like a hard punch to the gut. If he had killed himself then, he would have died at the same age as Schubert and four years younger than Mozart.

Berlioz wrote:

“This Symphony is smiling throughout…”

Yet at the same time Beethoven was writing it, he wrestled with incredible depression and almost gave up his life. Out of total despair came this amazing symphony that just explodes with energy and has so much humor you can’t help but smiling with him as you listen.

Instrumentation:

The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in D, E and A, 2 trumpets in D (first, third and fourth movements only), timpani (first, third and fourth movements only) and strings.

I. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio – D major…

It is about 12 minutes long. Adagio molto means very slow, and allegro con brio means fast and with brilliance. It starts in D major. Starting with a slow introduction was a very new idea. I’ve read a number of commentaries about this, but again here is Berlioz, whom I quoted earlier. This is what happens when a critic happens to also be one of the greatest composers who has ever lived:

“The Introduction [Adagio molto] is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow one another without confusion and always in an unexpected manner. The song is of a touching solemnity, and it at once commands respect and puts the hearer in an emotional mood. The rhythm is already bolder, the instrumentation is richer, more sonorous, more varied. An Allegro con brio of enchanting dash is joined to this admirable introduction. The fast motive which begins the theme, given at first to the violas and cellos in unison, is taken up again in an isolated form, to establish either progressions in a crescendo or imitative passages between wind instruments and the strings. All these forms have a new and animated physiognomy. A melody enters, the first section of which is played by the clarinets, horns, and bassoons. It is completed by the full orchestra, and the manly energy is enhanced by the happy choice of accompanying chords.”

II. Larghetto – A major…

This movement is about ten and a half minutes long when played quickly and a good deal longer when it is played more thoughtfully.I moves to what is called the sub-dominant key. Here is Berlioz again:

“[The second-movement Larghetto] is not treated after the manner of that of the First Symphony: it is not composed of a theme worked out in canonic imitations, but it is a pure and simple song, which is first stated sweetly by the strings, and then embroidered with a rare elegance by means of light and fluent figures whose character is never far removed from the sentiment of tenderness which forms the distinctive character of the principal idea. It is a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure which is scarcely shadowed by a few melancholy accents.”

III. Scherzo Allegro – Trio -D major…

The third movement moves back to D major and is about four and a half minutes long. I planned to write about each movement, but I would be competing with Berlioz, and his words are just too good:

“The Scherzo is as frankly gay in its fantastic capriciousness as the previous movement has been wholly and serenely happy; for this symphony is smiling throughout; the warlike bursts of the first Allegro are entirely free from violence; there is only the youthful ardor of the noble heart in which the most beautiful illusions of life are preserved untainted. The composer still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion. What abandon in his gaiety! What wit! What sallies! Hearing these various instruments disputing over fragments of a theme which no one of them plays in its entirety, hearing each fragment thus colored with a thousand nuances as it passes from one to the other, it is as though you were watching the fairy sports of Oberon’s graceful spirits.”

IV. Allegro molto – D major…

The last movement is about ten and a half minutes long.

Once again Berlioz:

“The finale [Allegro molto] is of like genius. It is a second scherzo in duple meter, and its playfulness has perhaps something still more delicate, more piquant.”

But this time there is more to the story. Musicologist Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music describes the highly unusual opening motif as a hiccup, belch or flatulence followed by a groan of pain. I think his idea is mostly his imagination, but it’s a amusing idea because this last movement is just plain funny. According to Greenberg:

“Beethoven’s gastric problems, particularly in times of great stress – like the fall of 1802 – were legendary. … It has been understood almost since the day of its premiere that that is what this music is all about. Beethoven never refuted it; in fact, he must have encouraged it. Otherwise, how could such an interpretation become common coin? And common coin it is.”

Now, maybe you buy that, and maybe you don’t, but something funny is going on for sure, and it’s part of why people at the time thought this symphony was bizarre. Think of how repressed Europeans were at the beginning of the 1800s. It’s likely that all this exaggerated fun was just too much for those people.

 

 

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Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 3

SUNDAY, June 7, 2020

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 3

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(Wiki is an additional place to read about this symphony.)

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, was written in 1875. All his other symphonies are officially in minor keys, although much too much is made of that. Tchaikovsky’s music switches back and forth so often from major to minor that what key a symphony starts in is not very important. It is the only symphony to contain five movements. There is a waltz movement between the 1st and 2nd movements.

Tchaikovsky may have had in mind the Schumann Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) – also with five movements – because that symphony by Schumann impressed Tchaikovsky during his student days at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

The name…

The name “Polish Symphony” supposedly comes from the many Polish dance rhythms prominent in the symphony’s final movement. It was not Tchaikovksy’s name.

There is controversy over why Tchaikovksy used a polonaise, or what that meant. For Chopin the polonaise was a symbol of Polish independence, but in Tchaikovsky’s time in Tsarist Russia it is said to have been linked to Russian imperialism. Historians may be over-analyzing Tchaikovsky’s musical intentions. I can’t personally identify anything in the music as Polish.

Instrumentation:

piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.

I picked Markevitch because his recording of the revised Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2 is my favorite, and he think his interpretations of Tchaikovsky are full of deep passion.

I. Introduzione e Allegro: Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) (D minor) – Allegro briliante (D major)

This movement is complicated, as you can see from the tempo markings. It shows everything from “tempo of a funeral march” to a brilliant, lively tempo. Supposedly the symphony is in D major, but it starts on a diminished chord and immediately moves to Dm. The funeral march is the introduction. Then the rest of the movement follows. This should be an immediate sign that this is not a typical symphony with obvious sonata form.

II. Alla tedesca: Allegro moderato e semplice (B♭ major – G minor)

This is essentially a waltz. Alla tedesca is a term I don’t know, but apparently it just means in the style of a German dance.

III. Andante elegiaco (D minor – B♭ major – D major)

Also in 3/4 time, this movement opens with all winds, notably a flute solo. This movement is the most romantic in nature of the five, and it is roughly a variation of slow sonata ternary form without a development, although the traditional dominant-tonic recapitulation is abandoned for more distant keys, the first being in B♭ major (the subdominant to F) and the recapitulation in D major (the parallel major to D minor). This movement is atypically more lyrical than the second. Between the two is a contrasting middle section, consisting of material closely resembling the repeated eighth note triplet figures in the trio of the second movement. The movement closes with a brief coda with string tremolos, and a repeat of the wind solos accompanied by string pizzicatos from the opening of the movement.

IV. Scherzo: Allegro vivo (B minor)

The scherzo is in 2/4 time. Scherzos are typically in 3/4 time, but the tempo is so fast that it sounds like 4/4 time, where each beat is a triplet. More than anyone else Beethoven was responsible for establishing the norms, but many other composers keep the light feeling and fast tempo but change the meter, as Tchaikovsky does here.

V. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di polacca) (D major)

This movement is characterized by rhythms typical of a polonaise, a Polish dance, from which the symphony draws its name, but as I mentioned before, there is great confusion about Tchaikovsky’s intent.

 

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Sleeping Beauty

SATURDAY, June 6, 2020

Sleeping Beauty

Tchaikovksy’s ballet was immensely successful, and for a change he was enthusiastic about writing it and then did not change his mind about his work. He had in mind to write a suite, but this suite we have today is, as far as I can tell, something that was put together by someone else. I’ll research this later, but the whole ballet is well over two hours long, while this suite is around 23 minutes long. So when you research this, you will find:

Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66, which is the whole ballet, and Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a, which is what I’m starting with here. It was written in 1888.

This recording by Karajan seems to be quite good, so I’ll start with it until I find something else equally good.

I had a set of little 45 records when I was barely more than toddler, and it told the whole story along with this music.

 

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Swan Lake

SATURDAY, June 6, 2020

Swan Lake

There is probably nothing to say about this except ballet music generally comes in two forms, the complete ballet music, which can be hours long, and some kind of ballet suite which present the highlights of a ballet. Swan Lake was written in 1875 and is the first of his very popular ballets.

Here is the suite with Karajan conducting.

 

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Francesca da Rimini

SATURDAY, June 6, 2020

Francesca da Rimini

Charles Munch was another of the great 20th century conductors who lived long enough to be extremely well recorded. This is yet again a miraculous recording from 1956 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32, was composed in less than three weeks during his visit to Bayreuth in the autumn of 1876. It is dedicated to his friend and former pupil Sergei Taneyev.

In this fantasia, Tchaikovsky presents a symphonic interpretation of the tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini, a beauty who was immortalized in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the fifth canto of Inferno, Dante the narrator meets the shade of Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman who fell in love with the brother of her ugly husband. After the lovers were discovered and killed in revenge by the husband, they were condemned to Hell for their adulterous passions. In their damnation, the lovers are trapped together in a violent storm, whirled through the air around the second circle of Hell, never to touch the ground again. They are tormented most of all by the ineradicable memory of the joys and pleasures of the embraces they shared in life.

 

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