Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Arvo Pärt

It's been some while, but in the spirit of new beginnings (it's the first day of the semester for me) I feel it's a good time to post something here.

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who defected from the Soviet Union to live in Vienna. His most successful music is often defined by using tintinnabulati (a word stolen from Poe's "The Bells") which describes how he will often have one voice repeatedly play the notes from a triad while a second voice will move around with the melody. He is a minimalist composer, and much of his work after emigrating has been dedicated to composing holy music. His Te Deum in particular I find remarkable, albeit rather long. Today though I will post his Magnificat, which I think is a very good introduction to the kinds of music he writes.

In the Magnificat, you can hear from the very get go how he uses tintinnabuli - it opens with one voice singing a melody, while another voice sings a single note repeatedly in the same rhythm as the melody. As the work progresses, you can hear him adding on the notes of a triad to that background note. It is not an exceptionally long work, only about 7 minutes, and is only written for chorus and soloists. The Magnificat is a prayer that in the bible was first spoken by Mary upon finding out she was Jesus's mother-to-be. There is a long tradition of extremely well written Magnificats out there, especially because they are part of the larger Catholic Vespers service. Pärt's work is a very intimate sounding version that is much more introspective sounding than most settings which uses a lot of dissonance as part of a very gradual way for the work to unfold. I think it is a work that show's a lot of mastery of the idea of breath in music, and which takes all the time it needs to get across its ideas, making sure not to rush anything, which can be a very beautiful thing.

The video I found is accompanied by clips of scenes in 1950s Americana that have a very gloomy look to them from the quality of the film (at least to my mind). At first I was skeptical of the point of the video, but I did find the images hypnotic as I watched, so I felt that was a quality it shared with the music and made it seem to make more sense. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky wrote a really fantastic Serenade for Strings that doesn't get a whole lot of love but is really cool. Tchaikovsky wrote it at about the same time he wrote the 1812 Overture, and he was very much more enamored of his serenade than he was of the overture, claiming in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck that "The overture will be very showy and noisy, but will have no artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and without love. But the Serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart." It was composed as an homage to Mozart, who Tchaikovsky claims as one of his major inspirations (although Mozart's music is nowhere near as inherently grand - a Mozart serenade is often played by a very small string orchestra, whereas Tchaikovsky's work requires a very large one). I also have a special affinity for the work because when I was actually decent at music, I got into an honors orchestra that played the finale of this work.
The opening movement is what I'll be posting today. I really adore it, and my recording recommendation is Leonard Slatkin directing the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The album comes with other works that I think are really cool (Fantasia on Greensleeves in particular, but I like the string orchestra version of Borodin's 2nd string quartet too) as well as one I could do without (Pachelbel's Canon) but this is the version of the serenade that I grew up on. I am unsure which recording the video I found is, but it is pretty high quality, so take a listen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rediscovering a work I used to dig

There's not a whole lot to tell about today's choice, but I am instead including it because it was a work I listened to a lot when I was much younger, but was unable to find a copy of for whatever reason until today when I randomly decided to google it. It's the Passacaglia finale from Handel's Harpsichord Suite in G minor. I will post the regular version of it, along with a contrasting arrangement that might be more widely performed for violin and viola by the Norwegian Johan Halverson. The duo is an old recording of Jasha Heifetz, who is one of those old timey legends of Jewish violin playing in the middle of the 20th century. he was actually notable also for locking his wife out of his house, precipitating a divorce. I don't really have much to say for recording recommendations of either since it's just one movement of a work, and I only today rediscovered it, which I'm personally really excited about.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Music to play for your kids if you hate them

Today's entry is about the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. He was not a particularly prolific composer, with his only works that are routinely performed being his 9 symphonies, along with The Song of the Earth and two song cycles that he frequently recycled music from in his symphonies. It is a testament to him then that someone who wrote so little (compared to figures like Beethoven or Schubert) has exerted such a profound influence on the course of music. He was a neurotic conductor who was doing his part to push the bounds of tonality as well as create larger and larger sounds in his works. His 8th Symphony is called symphony of a thousand not as hyperbole, but because it literally requires about 1,000 performers, which I'm pretty sure was the largest orchestration ever performed up to that point. Arnold Schoenberg was a big fan of his, but Mahler actually fell out of favor in concert halls until Leonard Bernstein and Bruno Walter led a revival of his music in the 1950s, and now his symphonies are fair game for any symphony that can hire enough performers for them.
Mahler probably didn't write so much because he was obsessed with revising his works, which would take up lots of his time. He even made it clear that he wanted future conductors to continue revising his music after he was gone to improve it, although this plan hasn't panned out for him. He also died rather young, because he had pretty terrible health both physically and mentally, and there's no telling how his crappy homelife affected him. He was married to Alma Mahler, who regularly would cheat on him (there's a good story about how she was cheating on him daily while he would rehearse for the premiere of the symphony of a thousand), and their daughter Maria Anna died at age four. He also had tons of pressure because of the anti-semitism in Vienna, where he was employed as the Opera conductor. He converted to Christianity (probably only nominally) but according to one biography of him that I read, he viewed his Jewishness as almost a physical problem, which I think shows how screwy he was. He was so superstitious that he didn't call his Song of the Earth a symphony because he wanted to cheat death, believing that he would be cursed to die after writing his ninth symphony. It sort of worked in that he wrote 9 symphonies plus a work that was like a symphony, but he still ended up dying after writing 9 symphonies, so death was really out to get him or something.
As a man he was a small weak kook, but as a composer he wrote some of the most amazing, loud, brash music you'll hear, as a sort of concluding fireworks display to the tradition of Romantic symphonies. My choice today is not quite as representative of this as some of his other works (check out the finale of his sixth symphony), but I have always found it to be particularly intriguing. It is the third movement of his first symphony, called the "Titan," and it opens as a funeral march that twists the song Frere Jacques into something demented. I get a big kick out of it, along with him throwing in some semi-klezmer music and an unrelated central part that is extremely melodic, so I hope you enjoy it too. My recording is of Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and I think it does a fine job since Bruno Walter of all conductors was the closest friend of Mahlers who made it into the era of recording. The video however is of the National Symphony of Ukraine in concert.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Gabriel Faure's Pavane

Today's post is about Gabriel Faure. He was a French composer of the late 19th century, and a lot of his music that is continued to be performed is relatively slow paced, for smaller orchestras that occasionally didn't include some important instruments - his Requiem has no violins other than a soloist in one movement. He was active before impressionism really got going, but I think in his music you can definitely tell that by his lighter orchestrations he was a transitional figure towards it. The work in particular that I am linking to is his Pavane. It is for orchestra and an optional chorus - I actually have never found a copy of the choral version before, and am very interested in tracking one down. If you know where to get your hands on this, please let me know. Anyway, the most commonly recorded version is just for orchestra. A pavane was a dance from the Renaissance that you would occasionally see used as a slow movement in 4/4 time. I don't have a particular recording recommendation since it is on tons of Faure "best of" types of CDs. Enjoy, this is a pretty good song to relax to.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm out to steal your woman, crazy man!

Johannes Brahms is a pretty cool guy. His story started out in Hamburg, where he would play music in whorehouses as a youth to earn his family some money. He eventually moved near Robert Schumann, who he studied under and was basically the most important protege of. In the process he of course fell in love with Robert's wife, the concert pianist Clara, although there is a lot of question as to whether they ever actually had an affair, even in the many years after they outlived Robert. Brahms eventually moved to Vienna, which was at that point still the center of the musical world, and late in life ended up writing four symphonies - he didn't finish his first one until he was in his 40s.
The work today is the finale of his fourth symphony in E minor. It is a rather impressive work, because it is actually a large scale passacaglia, meaning it has a formalized presentation of the melody the whole way through. A passacaglia is a work that is built around a repeating bass melody. A much more easily identifiable passacaglia would be Pachelbel's Canon in D, because you can hear the bass line repeated throughout the entire work (making its name inaccurate). I lack recordings of Brahms's symphonies, so I don't have an extremely educated guess about which recording to pick. The recording I'm linking to is of Carlos Kleiber conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra. Youtube calls it "The best performance" so who am I to argue?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi is a fun character in music history. He became a priest in Venice, but got out of saying mass regularly. He was able to use that status to basically coast off of while he spent most of his life writing concertos and opera. He directed an orchestra of orphan girls at the Pieta hospital, and would have them perform at church regularly. It was these girls that he wrote his concerti for, mostly. In a little historical background, apparently many of the girls were not actually orphans, but were basically the bastard children of the nobles who were abandoned. Vivaldi was also a major opera composer at the time, although his forays into that genre are not as well remembered today. Somehow, despite being decently popular in his lifetime, he ended up dying in Vienna too poor for anything but a pauper's grave.
Vivaldi was very influential in the form of the concerto, creating a style that Bach emulated soon after. His concertos, unlike those later on, were written mostly for strings, including the orchestra, although he would occasionally use bassoons or flutes and the like as soloists too. His concerti use the ritornello form that was so prominent in that time period, which basically meant that there were contrasting sections of a work where the orchestra would play a theme, and then the soloist would play a section, and then the orchestra would come in again, repeated until the end of the movement. Vivaldi's two most notable collections of concertos are his opus 3, L'estro Armonico, and his Opus 8, The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. Opus 8's first four entries are called The Four Seasons, because they are accompanied by sonnets that we think Vivaldi wrote detailing the program of the music. If you read the text, you'll actually find a lot of stuff that is very obviously corresponding to the sonnets. The concerto form at this time solidified into the standard setting of a fast movement, then a slow movement, then another fast movement. The selections today will be Spring, Fall, and Winter. My recording recommendation is of Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Orchestra, which is in my opinion the best made recording of the work, because it keeps it's baroque feel intact but is kept from every being stuffy. Also on there is a recording of Fritz Kreisler's Concerto in C, that is supposed to emulate Vivaldi. Kreisler is the most important violin player from the early 20th century, and for some unknown reason, he would frequently write music then try to perform it as if it were written by some other, long dead composer. He is still played, mostly because of his arrangements for violin and piano of things like the Devil's Trill sonata.
Here are the videos. To wit, I'm not as enamored of the performance in them as I am of the Gil Shaham recording, but they will work for now, and if you're into sand painting, I guess they'll be up your alley.