Thursday, September 22, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Here is a previous posting concerning Mozart.

He was not unique for being a child prodigy, though probably more than anyone else in history, Mozart established a kind of tradition among musicians which has its merits and its dangers. In Mozart's case, he was paraded around Europe as a child basically for the fruits of whatever gold ducats might be proffered and no doubt these tours were financially successful, so much so that the Mozarts, Wolfie, his sister and their father, were a kind of business model that quite a few musicians tried to emulate.

But could they? This is a child who picked up the violin after watching others play it for a while and instantly played it, likewise the keyboard. This was a child who from before the age of five understood music notation perfectly well and was able to write it down, in most cases that have come down to us without any mistakes, as if he was just taking dictation.

In his early twenties Mozart was witnessed doing such amazing things as writing a letter to his dad with his right hand while working on a score for an opera with his left, pausing once in a while for a gulp of white wine, working both arms independently, stunning and frightening many onlookers. He is known to have known Italian and French as well as his native German. He was very fond of traditional billiards and had a table in his house.

But in spite of his obvious talents, Mozart could not manage practical matters; in particular his living expenses during his brief life, which he lived lavishly enough for a few years, certainly got out of hand. And Mozart was not alone in living above his means, as around 1789 and 1790 events in Europe were beginning to topple the old order, Then of course there was a worldwide economic downturn, some failed harvests, inflation, a pandemic, an economic collapse, the death of the Emperor and of Mozart himself at the age of 35. He might even deservedly be considered a prototypical case of a rapid rise and fall of a great musician, many cases of which are strewn through modern history. But atypically, we usually don't ascribe any negative influences affecting Mozart's early death, mostly because during those days the average life expectancy was less than 35.

However there are persistent rumours that someone had it in for him, because let's face it folks, this Mozart fellow was very good at what he did. He made lots of aspiring musicians very jealous. Mozart knew that much of what he was writing would be immortal because as far as he was concerned it came directly from an immortal place. That's the unmistakeable message one gets from seeing any of his scores too, beautifully laid out right from the start, everything written quickly but accurately as if he was just taking it down from the beyond. In order to do what he did he would have had to have seen the construction of the score as a totality in his mind's eye before even setting a stroke to paper. There will really never be another Mozart.

Just as the Symphony was the predominant occupation of Haydn, so the Piano Concerto might be said to have been Mozart's concentration. There were piano concertos, a few, written before Mozart, but all that followed surely owe much to the 27 of them Mozart wrote, a record. And of course, as an outstanding Opera composer, Mozart was for far longer than most others engaged in it, and his greatest operas are all in the repertoire.

But besides all this, and Mozart was certainly prolific, he was writing music constantly, every day of the last ten years of his life, he wrote at least 41 symphonies (second only to Haydn) and one of his last is featured, the Symphony #40 in G minor, K. 550 written in July of 1788 when he was 32 years old. Together with the Symphonies #39 and #41, these are Mozart's last words on what a Symphony would be. Evidence exists that this particular symphony was performed during Mozart's lifetime, greatly substantiated by the existence of a second authentic manuscript including the clarinet parts which Mozart would never have bothered adding unless the work was being performed and he sought reasons to improve it. The proportions aren't much different from a Haydn Symphony. But listen particularly for the uses of chromaticism and a greater range of emotions, in places writing as if for an Opera with the various instruments as singers, and all accomplished with surprisingly limited resources; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings, no more than 35 people in all. The movements are as follows:

I have known this symphony a long time, and have many associations with all these movements. The finale is what one of my teachers described as, “the influences of too many bad Hungarian violinists.” Oh well. The first was always my favourite because it represented a very tight sonata allegro form with an impassioned development section. The second movement has some odd discontinuous pulsed phrases in it unlike anything anywhere else that I know of. The third movement is a minuet all right but in a minor key taking full advantage of all the possible harmonies. The florid canonical writing near the end of the first theme is contrasted with the restrained more open flavour of the trio.

As for the performance standards for this symphony, they have varied over the years from the over-massed performances of the big symphony orchestras of the 30's, 40's and 50's through the reversion to “original instruments” and practices and thence to an accepted light texture for all this period music. For one thing, the fewer players on string parts, the more one hears the internal voices. So here we have a “traditional” performance of this “classic” piece, by the Vienna Philharmonic under the late great Karl Böhm (1894-1981), The scale of the orchestra is still small, Böhm concentrates on getting all the notes out as it were rather than phrase succeeding a phrase. You will encounter many more youthful versions of this music as it is a widely performed work.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Haydn by the English portrait painter Thomas Hardy, not to be confused with the English author of the same name

A few years back, for a time I took almost exclusive refuge in the musical world of Joseph Haydn. Here was music that even when it was troubled was never irrational. The composer was a humble, simple, generally good humoured, thoroughly sane individual with a sense of proportion learned the hard way over an extensive musical career. He was adaptable and eclectic and as well contributed some basic architectural ideas which influenced the music of those who followed him. As a practical matter he certainly seems to have known how to manage people, often difficult people, amazingly well.

It's difficult for most to grasp the enormity of the contributions Haydn made to music, to that which we understand and call “classical” music was given much of its form and proportion due to the almost scientific rationale underlying Haydn's compositional forms, in particular the Symphony, a form he did not invent, but one he perfected in writing a record 106 of them. Some have actually achieved being able to own a copy of a recording of every single one, as they are all known and widely circulated. It is also widely taught that Haydn was “papa Haydn” to the younger generations of composers who flocked to Vienna at the end of the 18th century, including Mozart and Beethoven. Well, Haydn was just getting off the ground at the age in his life when it was fated that Mozart should leave this world. Mozart was the real genius and Haydn knew it. As for Beethoven, the two got along better than most believe and Haydn might even have been put upon by the younger composer and pianist to take him along with him on another trip to London. But Haydn supposedly thought, probably correctly, that Beethoven would steal away all the attention of the admiring women they would encounter there, many who may have been on more than familiar terms with the amiable old man. Ben Franklin wasn't the only one: It is a complicated world enough, but especially among musicians, who likely as not would have become rivals on such a shared tour. The world was big enough for a Mozart and a Haydn to co-exist in because Haydn had his secure position out of town and those in town were trying to ignore Mozart, despite his quite exceptional international reputation, and then of course there was an economic collapse and Mozart died. Haydn was in London at the time and was shocked. It is said by some that Haydn expected there was more to it than just natural causes too. Haydn wished he had been able to be there to help, being actually a very learned man having had a lot of opportunity to spend time among his master's books despite his hectic work schedule.

As for his master, Haydn's Prince was a Hungarian plutocrat / ruler of his day and what this imperious fellow wanted morning, noon and night, was original music. He hired Haydn and as time passed he succeeded the former musical director and spent nearly thirty years in the service of this Prince and then of his brother when he in turn became Prince. It gave Haydn a lot of time to develop himself and his art. He was tremendously prolific and because he stayed in one place most of the time, most of it is still with us.

In 1790 his Prince died and Haydn was offered the opportunity to go to England and there he wrote some of his crowning musical achievements, the London symphonies. Oh yes, before he'd been offered the London gig, he'd dashed off six symphonies for Paris too, to be presented there by a fashionable orchestra. But London picked him up instead and he flourished there, went back a second time and in the process cemented a position among the English who perhaps to this day regard Haydn as very much one of their own composers. Think of that when you hear this Symphony #94 in G Major (The Surprise, a name it acquired later). Yes, that's right, this was Haydn's ninety-fourth Symphony. Beethoven only wrote nine, Mozart, who comes in second, wrote 43 or so.

The Haydn symphony, even in mature form, is a light thing, and notice especially how much is achieved with so little. Haydn greatly admired Mozart for this as well. Beethoven would build upon Haydn's sturdy foundation and many others would follow in a procession leading right into the present time. The version I found had some elements of both old and new performance practice, but this performance strikes a nice balance. They are Camerata Romana conducted by Alberto Lizzio. I know nothing about them. The Symphony is in four movements:

1. Adagio - Vivace assai
2. Andante
3. Menuetto: Allegro molto
4. Finale: Allegro molto

There is music for every kind of occasion, imagine this as music for an occasion to entertain people who took to attending a daytime concert in a large room rather than a concert hall where outside drinks and sandwiches might be served and there might have been less than silence even during the performance itself. This symphony has a gag in it, the surprise in the second movement, and perhaps it is in there to signify the composer's wit to his audience for having better things to do than to be nice enough to listen quietly to his music. Haydn was very fond of jokes and there are plenty of them throughout his music, so why not?


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Forgotten Masterpieces - S. Prokofiev: Concerto for piano no. 2 op. 16 in G minor

Every composition has a context, and this one is no different. It belongs in the category of extremely late Czarist Russian empire music and shares with Scriabin's late works and the early compositions of the followers of Rimsky-Korsikov, a certain transcendent / descendent duality in expression and feeling. The specific context for this work relates to the suicide of a friend of the composer.

This music was written in 1912 when the composer was 21. The Great War had yet to begin and the Czar was still on his throne. The orchestration was later revised in the early 1920's. We can easily mistake what we are hearing for half a dozen film scores which pilfered material from this and other works. I'd rather ask you to look at this music in another way, as brand new a hundred years ago, with all that implies concerning what the music presented to the world for the first time; the logical end of Romanticism in realism, nihilism and dissolution. and ask yourself what in its energy is this music trying to depict? What about this world as depicted drives the young composer's friend to take his own life?

No, this music is not pretty. It can scarcely be considered beautiful in any of the usual senses. I ask, is this music not in fact rather about crushed aspirations, deprived conditions, misery and want, coldness and cruelty, realistically depicted human emotions, complete with the tremendous searing pain and harsh rebukes of natural and human causalities depicted in at times frightful cynicism and stark certitude?

The concerto is scored in four movements, has classical proportions too. The first movement is elegiac, majestic and capped by perhaps the longest (and one of the best written) cadenzas in piano concerto literature. The pianistic techniques required to do everything the movement demands are daunting but never presented as “in your face” technical wizardry, but rather as part of the atmosphere and scenery of the story being told which is surely quite personal. Where the personal in a piece of music can become shared by its listeners, it becomes universal. The second movement, kind of a perpetual motion piece, is intended to tire the pianist (and perhaps the audience) with in this case the perfect depiction of the modern rat race.

What better to follow the foregoing than a pompous procession of comical apparitions, bristling with sarcasm. He calls it an intermezzo. The stomp is broken by melancholy, weird and haunted sequences that could have scarcely made any sense to anyone who first heard them. The pianistic technique required is still formidable. In the land of dreams never to awaken, his deceased friend might be, most likely, if not in hell, at least in a pageant of disjointed causality.

The complex finale defies easy description, except that it summarizes all that went before.

Prokofiev Piano Concerto #2 Op. 16

This live performance in the famous (it should be famous) concert hall of the Moscow Conservatory - Aleksander Toradze, piano with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting. 


Friday, September 16, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759)

Well certainly Handel is best known for composing the oratorio Messiah in 1741. As some might say, this one piece might have been enough to guarantee him a measure of immortality, … except that there's so much more that's just as good if not a whole lot better. Handel is I suppose somewhat underrated these days, after all his harmonies are square, his mannerisms antique, his style totally dated. Nevertheless there are in Handel tremendous contributions formulated in orchestral music, if not for the first time, at least by a competent enough master composer, out of which the formation of orchestras that in decades to come would trace their traditions back to him, especially in England where he made his notable success.

Here then is the first of the three suites Handel composed in 1717 for King George I, the so called Water Music. They were performed by a band of 50 musicians on the king's barge stationed out in the middle of the Thames and those who wished could observe and hear the music might do so from the shores. Similar suites were written by Handel for the king's fireworks. Each suite consists of dance movements, beginning with the pompous Overture intended to announce that the king was present, getting seated, paying attention, etc. The rest of the movements could feature dances, presentations, exchanges of gifts of various kinds. Handel was the composer in the mode of service to patronage and he accomplished his tasks well enough for his masters that by the usual standards, he did materially rather better than most.

The music itself though stylized to a higher degree than the music that followed it, baroque after all, reveals some striking instances of looking forward to the power of the extension of even the most quaint and strict harmonies in orchestral writing, the balances and exchanges between groups of instruments foreshadow future development.

I've chosen this version because I trust Pierre Boulez tastes here and the Hague Philharmonic plays it well.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

Another series attempting to depict a survey of highlights from the Canon of Western Music, we begin with Bach. There are people who are devoted to particular composers, and among them Bach usually enjoys quite a following. Among the earliest orchestral works by Bach, of which I was to get to know, turned out to be the First Brandendurg Concerto [F Major BWV 1046] written sometime before 1721 by the fairly well situated 36 year old composer.

There are six of these concerti, among them the fifth which is a great keyboard concerto. They were never performed during Bach's lifetime and he never got paid a dime for them as far as anyone knows. In fact they might have faded into history or perhaps been irretrievably lost had they not been re-discovered in a dusty library in 1849 and circulated and performed widely thereafter.

From my earliest acquaintance with this first concerto, the performance standards have changed considerably. During the 20th century and before that, it seemed customary to try to adapt earlier music to fit a more modern (usually larger) ensemble of players usually producing a bigger thicker sound, which maybe did nothing to preserve the best aspects of an earlier musical style involving much interplay among voices in the musical texture.. More modern performances seem intent to try and incorporate some authentic or “period” aspects; limiting players per part, using period instruments or allowing extensive musical filigree (sometimes called ornaments or mannerisms), which are supposed to indicate something of the freedom allowed talented musicians of the time. These would perhaps interest younger players and audiences who might be hearing this music for the first time.

So here is the Brandenburg Concerto #1 in F Major BWV 1046, played by Mozart-Orchester under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

4. Menuet - Trio I - Menuet da capo - Polacca - Menuet da capo - Trio II - Menuet da capo

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It Couldn't Be Any Simpler Than This

One of my current objectives is attainment of proficiency to play these pieces; the first set of Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte ) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), his Op 19, written in the years 1829-30 by the then 20 year old composer. There are some remarkable things going on in this music. Just to give you an idea, I'm posting links to Daniel Barenboim's capable performances:

No. 3 Molto allegro e vivace in A major ("Hunting Song")
Schirmer's Standard Edition
There are eight books of six songs each of these Songs Without Words. It is usual to try and give some of them to pupils to strengthen certain perceptual and motor skills as they attain greater physical ability to play the piano, but from a performance standpoint each of the books offers a condensed set of fascinating music to challenge pianist and audience alike.

Of the six in this first book, I'm particularly partial to the fifth. This is really a condensed sonata allegro and it is stunning in design and intricate but not impossible to play. Everything in Mendelssohn seems to follow some predictable and logical basis or puzzle, once one attains it, for example the left hand stretches in the “development” section of this movement, while not impossible are not as immediately determinable on the keyboard as one might suppose. Mendelssohn might have had a naturally wider spread in his left hand than in his right as also seems evident from some of his writing.

In style, there are a few things he shares with Schumann, but I see a basis for Mendelssohn's style in Beethoven and Bach with a hint from Mozart to try and stay within bounds. The "bounds of exuberance" one encounters in the second half of the first, the entire third, the “hymn in the village in the deep Alpine valley” of the fourth, the compact use of so much subtlety in the famous sixth, are all the unique personal touches of this composer. These are piano vignettes that together may take a year or so to learn and play comfortably and a lifetime to learn to interpret.

I certainly like Barenboim's preferences as inspiration for a starting place, although what I have in mind is more a combination of ardour and conviction as in this music we are in that critical cusp of styles that included Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. I also have Perri Knize  to thank for the inspiration to investigate these pieces. I certainly wish her all the best as she may be studying these pieces herself or has already done so. May I in turn recommend to her and of course others, the work of that “Chopin of the North,” Edvard Grieg. His Lyric Pieces are in many respects the direct outgrowth of what Mendelssohn so ably planted; the idea of incorporating groups of piano pieces in books issued periodically throughout a composer's career, notebooks of pianistic achievement during a time in which naturalistic and realistic portrayal of human emotion was a paramount consideration, a preference and an understanding of which seem so foreign to most these days.  

Henle's Urtext Edition
I usually set at least three of these pieces to go through at least once and sometimes twice in one half hour practice session at the piano.  I'm still learning them but am in process of committing them to memory now, so I will work with and without the music.  But what is critical is to avoid over-kill.  When that happens, I get up form the piano and do something else, because I do not want any impressions made on my subconscious mind that would distract me from learning how best to perform these often deceptively easy pieces  (they aren't easy).  The editions pictured are the most often encountered edition (Schirmer's) and the best printed one (Henle) to my knowledge.