Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Music of the Great Composers – Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899)

We're breaking the near four year hiatus in this project; the truth of the matter being that I wasn't sure at this time in history that the subject this post is about, hasn't slipped from the “greatest” column into the “almost greats,” for you see, except for in Austria and often now only during the New Years' celebrations that happen there, this music is all but forgotten these days. Indeed, of all the classical music there is, perhaps the Viennese waltz is the most “dated” of the forms. But we will include him nonetheless: we now come to a composer whose story requires some recognition of his musical family, and the unique circumstances that produced the “Waltz King.”

First, the Vienna of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that shattered Europe, something the like would happen a century later. Then, the slow but steady advances in availability of music to wider audiences. There was no recording equipment in use then of course, so printed music became the main means of transmission of music from place to place. Inevitably the able and talented banded together to play popular music of the times, much of it dance music and much of it from Vienna.

In an old book about the Hapsburg Monarchy by the Englishman, Henry Steed, who spent some years there near the turn of the 19th century, he wrote just prior to the outbreak of the Great War: “The Austrians, and especially the Viennese, prefer to jog along comfortably and to let the State manage their affairs for them. They grumble and carp, but their grumbling is rarely serious. Earnestness bores them. The artistic temperament of the people and the efforts long and consistently made by the Government to encourage "amusements" and to discourage interest in intellectual pursuits and in questions of public import, have combined to produce a sceptical indifference that still seems to preclude sustained effort or action.”

At the time of this account, Vienna and much of the Hapsburg Empire had gone on like this for fifty years, among some advantaged classes for far longer. Austria-Hungary was much like our own globalist empires; multi-cultural and diverse, held together by a belief that the monarchy, the dynasty really, sheltered them all. But effort and action in Vienna it seems were the peculiar provinces of talented musicians, who were attempting to keep a valued tradition alive.

That great diverse central European empire, with its elegant multilingual capital, a haunt of the high and mighty on diplomatic missions from foreign powers, with all its society, gaiety, music and art, dancing and merry-making, with all its advantages and disadvantages for the people and for music, managed to survive into the 20th century, until the war destroyed them all.

After 1825, on public and private stages alike, the same period marked the beginning of the grand advance of the piano, a product of the industrial revolution then taking place throughout western Europe and its influence spreading eastward into Russia. For the Strauss family, their ability to play the violin attracted entire generations of young people with musical aptitudes and ambitions with the desire to acquire violins and play them everywhere. The guitar was making steady headway as well, but was less popular. The notion of forming small ensembles of string players, string bands, which had been another established tradition as far back as the 17th century throughout central Europe, was given greater impetus by the demand for dance music, the waltz and eventually the polka.

Europe took nearly 50 years to recover from the effects of war, but by the mid 19th century Vienna and its music were at the peak of their power and influence with the various three quarter timed dance forms invented decades before, now flowering and disseminated everywhere. The nineteenth century Vienna waltz really became the very first popular music of any claim to mass international appeal. Franz Liszt had become the first international touring superstar after Niccolò Paganini had inspired him of the possibilities for fame and fortune. But, by the time Johann Strauss Jr. reached his greatest success, everyone would know who he was and what his music sounded like. He would become so famous and so associated with the waltz that even waltzes by his father and others would automatically be mistaken for his.

Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899) the future "waltz king" was the son of a father with the same name who also wrote music, much of which is still available and some of which is still regularly performed. In fact by the standards later set by his son, the father was certainly no slouch. He would have preferred his son to enter the banking profession rather than follow his example, which was that he had started out orphaned at 12, engaged as an apprentice at a bookbinders' while he became first a competent violinist and then the member of various ensembles until he was working with dance orchestras, essentially string bands that played dance music. 

Dance music: this is a kind of European music that has largely faded away, that during the 19th century was played everywhere. Visitors to Vienna at New Year's or along the Danube in summer may sometimes catch some grand waltz strains, but now it is mostly a fading memory.

However, before backing away from it all as merely musical cliché, let's re-examine why the waltz phenomenon, and later the polka craze, became the first most successful mass musical wave in western history to that time. The father had three sons, Johann Jr., Josef and Eduard. They would all take to writing dance music and the style each used is practically indistinguishable form that of their brothers. Together, all of them combined would churn out so much published music that the stack of their published works would tower over those of the comparative mere piles contributed by the greater composers; you could conceivably carry all of Chopin's music under one arm. One doesn't usually go to this much effort and expense if there weren't someone buying the printed music and playing it elsewhere, and they were. By the 1870's the Viennese dance music craze was certainly going international, to North and South America, China and Japan.

This dance craze was happening all over a war weary Europe that wanted more leisure entertainment, was temporarily content to be ruled by mostly aristocrats (who employed tremendous bureaucracies that slowed down everything imaginable), nobles, and others of means, who threw lavish parties and spillover occasions for the general public. In addition it was a time of new opportunities for industry, business and trade which was feeding more, always scarce, money into the general economy.

Considering old European dance music as merely a prop to the pomp of some of the ceremonials of bygone times would be to date it more than it already is, but even as retro fashions sometimes receive a comeback, so too might a few more of these dried roses reveal their haunting scent. Recall also that this was the romantic era, by which we come to understand a time when there were no radios or televisions certainly, but a time where circulating novels (fiction), romances and staged dramas (and operas) served the same purposes, and where the music was often called upon to support the themes in this fictional literature.

Before leaving the father, it is well to remember him for perhaps his best known work, the Radetzky March, Op. 228. The father and son developed quite differently over the years, the son favoured more liberal democratic politics, while the father preferred the nobility and wrote this march, which is still played with Austrian national fervour, as it was again in 2008: 

RADETZKY  MARCH  -2014-Wien, New Year's Concert

The father's waltz output also serves as a basis for the later development of these dance forms by the sons. Here is one of his biggest waltz productions for the coronation of Queen Victoria in April, 1837. Strauss Sr. who was 33 at the time, was as usual touring away from his family and actually did manage to cross over to London and perform the premiere of this waltz there, later at the newly refurbished Buckingham Palace:

Johann Strauss I -Homage to Queen Victoria Waltz Op. 103 
Conductor: Christian Pollack - Orchestra: Slovak Sinfonietta, Zilina

The father, did not want his sons to have to come up the hard way as he had; they were to be anything but musicians. So what was it that attracted them? For one thing they must have been relatively speaking naturally gifted violinists, all of them. They would also have had more than the usual rudiments of music notation as it pertained to writing for strings. Beyond that, it's a matter of practise and play as much as possible and write it down between shows. That's how pop music was produced at the time and everyone in Vienna liked and sponsored music as an ongoing civic tradition, led of course by the aristocratic families. Much the same was going on in other European capitals at the time.

Johann Strauss Jr. entered the world late in 1825 in a town near Vienna. He was the first and his father was just 21. His father was playing dance music in Vienna and certainly continuing to compose. Three years later he would have a larger ensemble to work with so things were looking up. Nineteen years would pass and the son would study on the sly with the aid of his mother who was eventually separated from his father. Johann Jr. would learn to play the violin, to write music and to lead a string band and he would debut with his own string band in a place that had formerly seen many of his father's successes. His father, now forty years old, was so furious with his son for his disobedience, that he had already beaten him once over music, that this time his father vowed never again to play in that place. Of course the father couldn't give up music either and now was beginning to be in competition with his own son!

They didn't just write waltzes as we have already seen. Here's Under Thunder and Lightening (Unter Donner und Blitz) played by the Bavarian State Orchestra on tour, May 19th,1986 at Syowa Women's Univ. HITOMI Memorial Hall, Tokyo, Japan conducted by the redoubtable Carlos Kleiber.

We'll pick up the story here:

From the 1934 movie: Waltzes from Vienna,  directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

From Johann Strauss Jr's operetta Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) which premiered in 1885, let's listen to a vintage 1938 recording of young Jussi Björling and Hjördis Schymberg: Björling and Schymberg- Wer Uns getraut? (in Swedish)

For any more of Johann Strauss Jr's tremendous output, the best thing perhaps to do is listen to a playlist of his waltzes. Many of them you should recognize right away.

Strauss & Brahms

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Scriabin's Op 25 Mazurkas

Let's take a survey of these nine masterpieces. They have long been a fascination to me, as they always sound exotic yet very tonal and structured and there are instances of sheer piano colour, for ten seconds or shorter, that are unmatched anywhere in the piano repertoire, actually succeeding in taking off from where Chopin left off.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), said to be the sui generis composer of all time, composed these nine pieces in Switzerland. They fall into what Scriabinists like to recall as the end of his first period. Some even contend that Scriabin was a decent enough composer in much of this tremendous first period and that many of those pieces are easier to get across to audiences than much of his later works. But they remain unique as to what they ask of the pianist and the tricks they play on audiences. Those fond of finding form in unfamiliar music will be surprised even shocked by the elements Scriabin uses. The wikipedia article on Scriabin gives a good description musically concerning this first period.

A mazurka was a dance form from Poland that was of course used by Chopin. But Scriabin's mazurkas are structurally bigger, though some use amazingly slight resources. One hears elements derived from ethnic traditions beyond Poland too, all delivered as if in reflection. This is music almost for surreal dancing or dream dancing rather than dancing by real warm flesh and blood human beings. So yes, much of this music has been characterized as dark, downcast, disturbing (#1, #3, #5, #9), but then just as easily there are shafts of tremendous light, brilliance, tenderness (#2,#6,#8).

First, let's get familiar with the music by hearing them all payed through. Here's Samuil Feinberg playing them:

Scriabin Mazurkas Op 24 (1-9 complete) 

Now let's consider each one. The first is in f minor and is marked Allegro. It is played here by Elena Doubovitskaya. She plays it almost exactly as I played it when I had this one down. 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #1

The second in C major marked Allegretto evokes some kind of picture in musical terms of a flirtation, perhaps an exchange of flirtations. These emotions saturate the main theme, whereas the incidental theme contains suggestions of a bleak opposite. The recording I've chosen showcases a Knabe 6'2” grand from 1892, possibly rebuilt. Ryan Layne Whitney certainly plays it as I did when I had this one under my fingers. Lovely.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #2 

A lot of people play the gloomy third Mazurka in e minor marked Lento. It's short, can be played to affect a mood of high tension, always a pretty easy to grasp piece. It adequately demonstrates Scriabin's power to set the mood, even if it's not a particularly calming or joyous one.  Here are a few versions: 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 $3 
Played here by Vladimir Sofronitsky this is a classic Scriabin performance.
Played here by Margarita Glebov where she offers us an update on the classic interpretation.
Played here by Dmitry Melnikov for yet another interpretation.

The fourth in E major marked Vivo was the first I was ever aware of. Artur Pizarro plays it as indeed it must be played, slower than it seems marked to be played. This is a real nocturnal dreamlike dance, a dance for the mind or soul as much as ever for any bodies that would take up its gentle rhythms. The contrasting theme is hard and bitter, seconds of it reveal raw passion. When some people who don't know me ask what I think of when playing this one or any of them, I tell them ... something of a frankly adult nature.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #4 

The fifth in c# minor marked Agitato is indeed a kind of nobly agitated theme with contrasted to that a theme that's tenderness itself. As always, this piece is hazardous to interpret but Cameron Wilkins has succeeded.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #5 

The sixth mazurka in F# marked Allegro tells some quaint tale about some folksy gathering perhaps outside during warm sunny weather as spirits rise and dancing gets quite joyous. It's not without the insinuations of that which might be the opposite of all this, but it actually causes what's represented to hold more emotional depth thereby. Michal Direr plays it on some fairly ancient piano which still manages to hold a tune. 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #6 

The seventh mazurka in f# minor reverts to a gloomier atmosphere and a yearning pleading element is added and this is contrasted with something a whole lot more confident and emphatic. Much of it owes structural and harmonic ideas to Chopin, but as it were extended into far more exotic places with deeper emotional intentions always implied. My, does François Chaplin ever get this one! 

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #7
Played by Sergei Dreznin and includes Op 25 #8 as well.

The eighth was the least played in our survey. It's in B marked Moderato. It's another contemplative naturalistic and quaint piece. Again, the subtlest inferences with something always more significant and touching are always implied. The contrasting theme is right out of Chopin.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #8
includes Op 25 #7 as well.

The last one in e flat minor marked Mesto could be played as a kind of contemplative dirge, Sergei Dreznin likes to play it very slow. It kind of melts around when played this slow too.

Scriabin Mazurka Op 25 #9 
Played by Sergei Dreznin

Now to complete our survey, here's a rendering of the last mazurka using what sounds like a kind of electronic orchestra or vast theatre organ.

Opus 25. No. 9, composed by: Alexander Scriabin.
"Steampunk" rendition Arranged, and produced by: Repent In Reprise.

I encourage as many pianists as possible to take up these works, maybe not all of them, because they are subtly rather difficult, but to strive to get some under your hands and into your hearts and minds too.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Busoni Elegies

As we ourselves are part of nature itself and all things have their comings and their goings, so is this magical music of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) a composer more pianists could know more about.  For many reasons, the heart and soul of Busoni's gifts as a composer are his elegies, which first appeared in 1908 making them 20th century music. 

These seven pieces of reflection, may sometimes be associated with the death of someone or something, that's one way of looking at them, but the other is as a means of approaching a virtual transcendence.  We hope and trust that most of our pianist friends out there understand the idea of pianism as a vehicle for virtual transcendence, not just for ourselves, but for our audiences as well.  As you may listen to any of these wonderful pieces, imagine just how you might play them.  More people who can might try.  They are all in the public domain.

I present here a few links: the first one for a complete live performance that took place in 2012 in Bergamo, Italy at the Bergamo International Festival.  Carlo Grante of course is wonderful, as is anyone capable of playing any of these to satisfaction.  They all require sheer passion.  If you have that as a pianist, you might actually get to climb these summits and get your audiences to experience them too.  

Busoni Elegies Complete - Carlo Grante 

Now, for those who want to take the bait and hear more performances of the same music.  Here are links for each, with some comment.

1. After the Turning - This could certainly reference either a death or a sudden change of any possible kind or dimension.

2. To Italy - Yes, we can hear some things in it that are idiomatically Italian, but there is so much more going on in this piece than anything having merely local colour.

3. “My soul trembles and hopes of thee,” a Chorale Prelude – This means that there's some hymn it's based on, but again this is far more than what it seems.

4. Turandot's Intermezzo – This is Greensleaves as it was never imagined before. Many different styles of pianism are exploited here, including one of Busoni's false ends where the piece ends ... in a different harmonic key.

5. Nocturnal Waltz – Your ultimate dance by the light of the Moon with many extra dimensional allusions throughout.

6. Visitation Nocturne – Something happened and or is about to happen.

7. Lullaby - The lulling to sleep, not just personally but universally, the putting to sleep of an entire people, an entire period in time.

Many of you will sense something about Busoni's tonal palate that's similar to Scriabin's. But a transcendental melodic line, even a simple one still seems important to Busoni in ways it never was in Scriabin. Anyway, I have always liked these pieces and as for the rest of Busoni's contributions, well, one would be fortunate to be one who other than playing this sort of music might all the while prefer to be playing Bach.


Oh, and yes of course Busoni is usually considered a "romantic" composer, the end of it anyway, but again as we have reiterated on this blog from the beginning, romanticism is really emotional realism and it's very powerful stuff.  You can drive someone mad with it, cause them to laugh or drive them to break down in tears, or yearn for love.  It had nothing to do with mere "fiction" or any fictional stories.  It was and ever is from the outset about emotional realism and those that approach this music or any other from this vantage point have a better chance of connecting with the essential message of that music.