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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Symbolizing it up

Today we'll be getting into what seems to be the first mention of a French composer on this blog. Claude Debussy is basically known as the founder of the Impressionist movement in music, as much as you can call it a movement - it might have had the least active membership of true impressionists, compared to the Romantic movement or anything earlier. Debussy is really the only truly impressionist composer, because while Ravel was also a follower, his stuff was frequently less atmospheric sounding and could be more impassioned. Lots of 20th century musicians incorporated Impressionism into their work, but it became more synthesized than something that stood alone.
Humorously, impressionism is not really the right word for the movement. Debussy hated being compared to impressionist painters, and was much more inspired by the Symbolists like Stephane Mallarme. However, because the impressionist painters reached wider fame, it seems that the name was easier to have people hang their hat on, so it stuck. Some hallmarks of impressionist music to listen for include the fact that lots of it is supposed to sound ethereal and atmospheric, usually avoiding emotional programmatic works like the Romantics wrote. The movement also was willing to experiment with tonality, using things like a whole note scale and intentional dissonances frequently. Debussy was very inspired by a trip he took to Indonesia, where he was exposed to gamelan players, and he brought some of those unusual rhythms and modes back to Europe in his music.
The pieces I'm featuring today are both some of Debussy's calmest. One is the Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, which basically is a work intended to sound out the atmosphere of Mallarme's poem The Afternoon of a Faun. It sounds like a lazy, hot midday piece of music, and you get to hear things like his use of the flute to evoke pan pipes. Michael Tilsen Thomas, who is currently one of the most recognized young (well, in a relative sense) conductors in America, has a very good recording of the work on a compilation album with La Mer, which is often considered Debussy's masterpiece, Images, and part of his Petite Suite. The other work, Clair De Lune from his Suite Bergamesque for piano, is equally widespread, and is one of Debussy's most recognizable piano pieces. This one is literally in every Claude Debussy collection imaginable, so it should be very simple to find a decent recording. Both pieces I think are very good examples of relaxing atmospheric pieces, exemplifying lots of the motives of Impressionistic music.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Barber piece you've undoubtedly heard

Today's entry is the first American mentioned on the blog. Samuel Barber was a big deal in the middle of the 20th century, although he was interesting in that, unlike many composers of his era, he was never really directly involved in the fights over conflicting schools of writing. His music was melodic, so he was somewhaat aloof from atonal composers, but I have yet to find him making any kind of strong public stand that the only acceptable music is that with tonality, and he was certainly not afraid of dissonances. He wrote a lot of cool stuff though, like Prayers of Kierkegaard, and Medea. However, his most lasting achievement is his Adagio for strings, which was originally written for a quartet but which he rewrote for an orchestra. He even went so far as to produce a different version of it as an Agnus Dei for chorus, which I will also be posting here. It is a very slow work, as its name would imply, and it has a lot of dolorous beauty. It has been used in countless other media, notably as a recurring theme in the film Platoon. The harmonies used are pretty awe inspiring, and I am actually a big fan of his Agnus Dei version as well, because I think it uses the voices to very good effect in the right space. I also have been partial to it because my first year at the Walden School, which is a really awesome composition camp in New England, the older chorus performed the work in our season finale concert, so I got lots of exposure to it and have very fond memories of it. I am including video of both the strings version, performed by Leonard Slatkin, and the choral version, by the chorus of Trinity college in Cambridge, if you want to contrast the two.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Today I'll be continuing on with one of the major romantics, Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was, compared to some of the other figures I've mentioned here, extremely popular and wealthy during his lifetime, probably the most famous composer during his lifetime. He was the grandson of important Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and growing up, converted to Christianity (even having his family adopt the new last name Bartholdy). However, there's a lot of speculation that this was only a technical conversion to get ahead in society and that they really didn't practice. In any case, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy as well, and he had early private concerts for people like Goethe who held tons of clout in German society at the time. When he was 17 he composed his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is still often performed, and he grew up to become the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra (which was a huge deal). In that capacity, he led the revival of J.S. Bach's reputation by performing the St. Matthew Passion for the first time since Bach's lifetime.
Mendelssohn was a huge hit in London as well. It was in Britain where Elijah was first performed. He also used the landscape of his travels there, especially in Scotland, as inspiration for his third symphony, as well as one of the works I'm posting today, the "Hebrides" overture, also called Fingal's Cave. This overture basically depicts a seascape - it's very easy to tell how the opening strings motif would represent the waves, for instance. There is no real plot to the music - instead it is programmatic (or specifically depicting something) only as far as just trying to generally describe the mood of the cave.
The other work I am including are excerpts from the "Songs Without Words," which are a large scale collection of short lyrical piano pieces Mendelssohn wrote to try and depict different moods (things like the Spring, or a Venetian gondolier song). A lot of thi stuff is standard repertoire for a decent pianist, and I feel like throwing those folks a bone since the closest I've gotten so far in this blog is a harpsichord piece. My selections are the first entry in his Opus 19, and the 4th, 5th, and 6th entries in his Opus 62 - the sixth one is that Spring song I mentioned earlier. I guarantee you've heard it in old Looney Toons. I'm not sure who is playing the Opus 19, but it's really serene and beautiful I think, but Daniel Barenboim, who is a very highly regarded conductor and pianist of the late 20th century especially, is performing the Op. 62. The Hebrides Overture is performed by Fritz Lehmann with the berlin Philharmonic. He was apparently a conductor who died before stereo made it possible for him to make more widespread record sales, if these youtube notes are to be believed, but in any case, it is a good performance, and I appreciated how he brought out some of the supporting melodies that I have never heard before in other recordings. All of my recordings of these works are collected on general compilation CDs of a bunch of random composers and performers, so I don't have any particular recommendations. Feel free to comment with some of your own.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Finishing the trio

The last entry in my (and undoubtedly most music critics') list of the top 3 composers is Beethoven. He is probably the most easily recognized figure in music, for both his works like the 5th and 9th symphonies, as well his own deafness and legendarily cranky behavior. The deafness is something that has been extensively speculated on, with theories that he had syphillis, or a tuberculosis-like disease that crusted his ears, and onward. As for the behavior, it was undoubtedly rooted in his childhood. Beethoven's father was a mediocre court musician and became obsessed with producing the next Mozart in his son. To top it off, he was repotedly an unbearable alcoholic, who would get drunk then go home and wake up his son in the middle of the night and force him to practice, handing out beatings whenever there was a mistake. Beethoven started taking lessons from Christian Neefe, who was somewhat more qualified than his father, and eventually became both an excellent pianist and the most revolutionary composer of all time. He moved from Bonn to Vienna, where he studied with Joseph Haydn.
I mentioned before that Mozart was a trailblazer when it came to being a freelance composer. Beethoven became the Brigham Young to Mozart's Joseph Smith, if you will. Where Mozart's attempt at living freelance was an abject failure, leaving him unable to pay for much and dying in his 30s, Beethoven was able to become a highly recognized figure in Viennese culture and make enough money to get by. Keep in mind, he was no millionaire, but he was able to at least have a place to live, occasionally visit spas, and get extensive medical treatment for his crappy health. He was even famous enough to be arrested as a madman by a policeman who came upon him wandering around saying he was Beethoven, thinking such a slovenly man couldn't possibly be the composer himself. Of course, his personal life was extremely depressing: Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802 chronicling his suicidal feelings, and later in life after he was unable to find a wife and start a family, he went through a nasty court battle with his dead brother's wife over custody of her son Karl, which was more devastating to him when Karl tried to kill himself. Of course, to cap off his personal failures, he went deaf young, which was a disaster for a musician.
The reason Beethoven was so important in his time was that, while he started out as a composer in the "classical" style that Mozart and Haydn exemplified, he started to intentionally break those traditions and make music into something much more raw and elemental.
Undoubtedly his mess of a personal life is part of why he was so inspired to write such emotional music that broke the classical mold of being something delightful and turned it into a heroic drama. While his music was never quite like that of the later romantics Schumann and Mendelssohn, is was also never quite like normal classical music - even his early first symphony opens with a tritone, which was considered a big problem at the time because it was "too dissonant." His middle phase, when he wrote most of his orchestral music, is when his music became much more epic sounding, and it is during this period that he composed his Seventh Symphony.
The Seventh Symphony is not exactly as widely known as his 3rd, 5th, 9th, and probably 6th. However, there are many in the music world that consider it to be the best written of his symphonies (I'm in that group). Richard Wagner notably called it "The Apotheosis of Dance." It was written in 1812 and premiered at a benefit for the soldiers at Hanau. Remember, Napoleon spent four years in the not too distant past besieging Vienna, so all the residents were extremely worn out. This symphony, with its extremely joyous opening, scherzo, and finale, as well as the breathtaking "Allegretto" in the 2nd movement that elicited an encore performance at the career, was one of the biggest hits of Beethoven's career, undoubtedly because it mixed his increasingly effortless technique with an almost Bacchanalian energy that has to uplift pretty much anyone. Some of the aspects of it that I actually appreciate the most are how in the first movement, Beethoven will occasionally start with a sort of musical sequence, and then when you expect it to be resolved loudly, he suddenly drops off the volume and goes with a completely different path, not giving you all the resolution that you expect. I may just be nutty, but I get a kick out of composers subverting expectations on what you think you will hear.
The performance here is directed by Herbert von Karajan, who is considered by many to be the ultimate conductor. He and Leonard Bernstein are possibly the two most towering figures in that field for the 20th century. von Karajan is somewhat notorious as well for having been a Nazi party member early on in his career - this led to lots of Jewish musicians refusing to perform with him. However, his supreme musicality seems to have overridden that, and wikipedia claims that he is now the highest selling classical artist of all time.
I would recommend anyone who wants this symphony to just pony out the cash and get a Herbert von Karajan box set of all 9 Beethoven symphonies with his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic.
And now, your video - it is all one big video, so I apologize if you wanted it broken up into movements.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, but there was a book I found rather interesting when I read it in middle school called Beethoven's Hair by Russell Martin. It ostensibly is about a lock of Beethoven's hair that has been traveling around from a fellow musician's family, but it synthesized the story of the modern auction of the hair and then its scientific analysis, the story of the family that kept the hair (which included fleeing Denmark during the Holocaust), and a biography of Beethoven. If you are interested in learning more about his life, that might be the most interesting biography to start with.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

This is what you can write if you have 7 kids with your cousin!

Now that I've given you some Mozart, it's time for another member of the big 3, Johann Sebastian Bach. He is the most famous of the baroque composers, which is the major musical movement that occured before the classical period. The baroque era under Bach in many ways is the height of contrapuntal music, with him perfecting the fugue. His biography is not anywhere near as romantic or interesting as Mozart's - he wasn't really a child prodigy, but he gradually turned into a highly skilled performer, but he never really made it big, and lived the life of a standard fare court composer who was less well known than people like Handel and Telemann, but who made enough money to support his (insanely large) family. He first married his 2nd cousin, who he had the 7 kids with that I mentioned above, then after she died, he married Anna Magdalena (a woman who he wrote a somewhat well known "notebook" of clavier music for, and who was also knowledgeable enough about music to have been responsible for transcribing some of his scores) and had 13 more kids with her (although a bunch of them died). Some of them, most notably Johann Christian and Carl went on to be successful composers on their own, but none have endured as long as their father's legacy.
The Bach piece I've chosen is entitled The Italian Concerto, although it is not like a standard concerto because it is written for solo harpsichord without orchestral accompaniment. It was an experiment in the idea of a "solo concerto," where the performer plays both the role of accompaniment and the accompanied, which is why Bach had it written for a 2 keyboarded harpsichord. It is not necessarily the grandest achievement of Bach's keyboard writing - that probably would go with some of his organ fugues - but it is entertaining enough. It has the standard concerto tempo scheme, with the two outer movements being fast and the central movement slow.
The recording I'm using here is the same one that I have on my iPod, it was made by Wanda Landowska on a traditional harpsichord in 1936 (unfortunately, many performers now use piano to play Bach, but I appreciate the sound of a harpsichord to go along with his writing style). Landowska is an important Polish keyboard player from that era, who still has lots of surviving recordings that are great. My album reccomendation is also Landowska, on a CD that also has her playing the Goldberg Variations and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue
. Here are the actual recordings:
Movement 1: (Allegro)

Movement 2: Andante

Movement 3: Presto

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My first post about Mozart

So I like to think that this blog will give pretty good representation to different styles of music and stuff, but there is a good chance I will be paying special attention to a few particular composers as things move along. One of them is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is undoubtedly the world's most famous child prodigy. He had a legendary career that was engineered by his dominating father Leopold (who was a musician in his own right, composing the Toy Symphony as well as writing a treatise on playing the violin). Mozart toured Europe until his twenties, doing some hilarious things on the way such as proposing to Marie Antoinette when they were both something like 7 years old. If anyone has ever seen the movie Amadeus, it's plot is mainly nonsense - Salieri never poisoned Mozart - but in an unusual twist for a semi-autobiographical film, it actually got the characterizations of the main characters down perfectly. Mozart really was a man child who never really emotionally grew up, and as part of that, he paved the way for future composers to live freelance because he didn't like working under a boss, instead of being court employees, but he was not really responsible enough to do it successfully, dying young and being dumped in a pauper's grave. His letters to the family were full of scat humor, which is why it is extremely mind boggling that he could create such amazing music in contrast.
The piece I'm including here is the opening to his "Great" Symphony #40 in G minor. It, along with his 41st and final Symphony, Jupiter, are basically considered to be the best examples of Mozart's orchestral writing at the height of his powers. This work is in a very rare minor key, which was not what people usually wanted to hear during the time period because of it's more somber qualities. This work is notable for not including any timpanis or trumpets in the scoring. In general, the orchestras in Mozart's time were much smaller than what you would see a century later, so instruments like the trombone, some more percussion besides timpani, and some woodwinds like the English horn were not really used at all during this timeframe. It is to Mozart's writing credit that he is able to get so much emotion out of the relatively tiny orchestra, but this work does a good job of balancing strength with the time period's lilting melodies and need for refined entertainment that was later abandoned in favor of raw emotion.
The recording I've found is by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. My personal recording is of James Levine and the Chicago Philharmonic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Day #2

I am pleased that so many people seem to have listened to my reccomendations over the last day. I will probably have more posts than usual this first week, then get in a rhythm of about 3 posts per week in the future, so I guess enjoy the honeymoon. Also, if you have any of your own comments, recording reccomendations, or whatever that you want to post, feel free to reply to my posts, I appreciate it.
Today's work is Giovanni Palestrina's Missa Brevis. I have always been a big fan of Palestrina, ever since I got my first recording of his most well known work, Missa Papae Marcelli. I even wrote some liturgical music when I was a lot younger that was pretty heavily inspired by listening to his stuff. He was a composer who worked in Rome in the 1500s, during the counter-reformation. He is the focus of a story that says during the council of Trent, the church was discussing banning polyphony* in church music because it made it much harder for the congregation to follow what was being said, and it was profance and whatnot. If not for Palestrina writing the Pope Marcellus Mass in a way to show how sublime that kind of music is, perhaps the church would have stunted the growth of music forever.
At least, that's what a lot of stories say. The reality is that Palestrina did not save music or anything that dramatic, but he did write what is arguably the most beautiful vocal music ever. This particular work is not quite as famous, but it is very well written. It was originally written to be sung during a Catholic mass, presumably at the Vatican, and the way a Catholic mass is set up, there are a few particular statements that are present in every regular ceremony, and these are the Kyrie (actually in Greek), the Gloria (essentially a poem praising God's glory), the Credo (the Nicene Creed), the Sanctus and benedictus (another poem praising god), and the Agnus Dei (a work discussing the lamb of God). These are the five sections that will be set to music in a work entitled a mass, and they were not intended to be performed without break like they are now in concert. Instead, they were broken up by things like the sermon, the readings, and the like. Often, those sections would be set to music too, although they would be in the form of individual motets. Later on historically, they would also use instrumental music to fill up some time, although right now, the world was dominated by strictly vocal music.
The Missa Brevis, unlike some of Palestrina's other works, was not based on a cantus firmus, which was a common technique whereby a composer would pick an external melody and then base all of their music off of it (usually something like taking the notes of a chant, and then setting them to a really dragged out rhythm in the bass voice). This means that there is not really any consistent musical theme between the movements. Something worth noting though, is that the opening statements of the Gloria and Credo use a traditional chant fragment, although they are not used further. This was a common practice when writing the mass until probably a century later.
Anyway, I really like this piece, I know it's maybe a little long when taken together, about 20 minutes total, but I definitely recommend it as background music if you need to relax or something like that, it's really amazingly beautiful.

My recommendation for a CD is The Tallis Scholars Sing Palestrina, that being the group in the above recordings. The CD has a lot of other cool stuff, like the Pope Marcellus Mass, and I have always been impressed with the vocal quality of that group when it comes to emulating Renaissance style. If you like this kind of music too, check out other things by Palestrina, as well as Josquin Desprez. I will probably return to some other composers from that time frame later on.

* Polyphony is another word for counterpoint. In a nutshell, it means music that has 2 or more distinct melodies being played at once. Gregorian chant was monophonic, because it is a bunch of people all singing one melody in unison. Homophony became prominent later on, and is basically where there is one main melody and a series of chords to support it, instead of multiple distinct melodies.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Just because I had an interesting walk where I discovered that I live mere blocks away from a cornfield, I have been inspired to give you another post to show off a little diversity on this blog's first day of existence. This post will be dedicated to Franz Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor. It was originally written to be the first movement of a full string quartet - however, that planned work was abandoned partway through him writing the next movement, so instead we are left with this very agitated sounding work that shows a lot of the energy that a good composer can get out of such a small ensemble. It's name, to the best of my understanding of German, simply means "quartet movement."
While Schubert is much more famous for another unfinished work, his Eighth symphony, this was written earlier, and was not written with the emotional burden that his later works had - namely, his protracted death from syphilis. However, like a lot of his other works, this one was left unperformed in his lifetime, only being published in 1870 (he died in 1828). While I don't know who discovered it, chances are it was in the same huge pile of manuscripts at his brother's house that Robert Schumann stumbled onto years later, that led to Schubert's all but nonexistant reputation being revived to that of one of the greatest masters.
In an interesting link to the previous generation, Schubert was actually a longtime student of Antonio Salieri (the dude who killed Mozart in Amadeus, although that story is made up). The romantic notion of Schubert's life has always been that he was an uneducated peasant who just kind of luck into being able to write some amazing music, really that was not true at all, he maybe was not as extensively trained as some, but he spent time learning from a respected authority, and even had a lot of his works published during his lifetime, so while he did die poor, he wasn't quite as unrecognized as, say, Van Gogh.
The video recording I have found was by the Amadeus Quartet at the Aldeburgh festival (founded by Benjamin Britten) in 1977, and while in some places the audio quality suffers from increased dynamics, on the whole it is a decent recording. My personal collection has this work recorded by the Belcea Quartet (it is D. 703, the Deutsch Catalog being the Schubert equivalent to the Kochel number).
I hope you enjoy!

What it is

So, this is a brand new blog I'm making, and it's all going to be about cool things in classical music that I like. The focus is going to particularly be on things that I think are important in the development of music, especially things that are monumental pinnacles. However, no matter what some people who know my opinions on music think, I'm not so completely square that those are the only things I like, so I'll occasionally mix it up with modern music, or else some really old stuff like chant and organum to trace the trajectory of music a little better. I will also be posting an album recommendation or two, and maybe some anecdotes and whatnot to keep things a little interesting, so I hope you all enjoy.

My first piece is in honor of the blog's namesake, Nadezdha von Meck. She was a Russian patron of the arts most well known for financing Peter Tchaikovsky, but who also in an interesting twist of fate, hired a young Claude Debussy to tutor her daughter in music. Debussy was then fired because he wanted to marry said daughter. The first post is also in honor of my violin teacher Tiberius Klausner, who told me once that one of his proudest accomplishments was learning to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. It really is a beautiful piece of music, not to mention extremely impressive to perform, so I hope you enjoy. Anyone who has heard some of Tchaikovsky's other lyrical works will know that this is a prime example of his melodic genius, because some of the passages here are almost saccharine-like. Here is a video of David Oistrakh, who is an iconic Russian performer and part of the generation of Jewish violinists that completely dominated violin performance in the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, I do not know who the orchestra is, and due to youtube size constraints, the movement is broken into two videos, but the performance is marvelous. So without further ado, part 1

and part 2

A recording recommendation I would make for this work is Isaac Stern with Eugene Ormandy. This album also features them performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, which I may spend some time in a future post discussing, but is a marvelous work that you probably have heard even if you don't know it. Isaac Stern also was the subject of a documentary about his trip to perform in communist China, entitled "From Mao To Mozart" that some of you might enjoy.
Anyway, I hope this is enough for a first post, and look forward to coming back to mine the depths of music history for you soon.