Sunday, September 11, 2016

Boccherini - Guitar Quintet No. 4 In D Major G 448 'Fandango'

Luigi Boccherini was not only one of the most prolific Italian composers of the 18th century, he was a virtuoso cellist as well. His father was a cellist and double bass player that sent Luigi to Rome for study. Father and son traveled to Vienna in 1757 where they were employed in the court orchestra. Boccherini became so proficient on his instrument that he could play much of the repertoire of the violin on the cello at pitch, a skill he learned when he substituted for an ailing or absent violinist in the orchestra.  In 1770 he traveled to Madrid, Spain and was in the employ of a brother of the King of Spain. He stayed in Spain for the rest of his life, and died there in 1805.

He composed mostly chamber music; about 100 string quartets, string trios and solo sonatas, and over 100 string quintets. Boccherini's string quintets didn't follow the usual instrumentation of the time; 2 violins, 2 violas and one cello. He did away with the second viola and replaced it with a second cello. In the 1790's he got a commission from a guitar playing Spanish nobleman to arrange some of the string quintets for guitar. Boccherini replaced the second cello with a guitar, revamped and arranged about a dozen string quintets.

Boccherini was influenced by the music he heard in Spain, and this influence shows in some of his compositions, especially the final movement of the Guitar Quintet No. 4. This guitar quintet is arranged from two previous string quintets. It is in 3 movements:

I. Pastorale -  With muted strings and a gentle guitar accompaniment, the first movement is a good example of the type of music Boccherini was known for. With gentleness, charm, and the slightest touch of melancholy, the music unfolds and leads to the quiet ending.

II. Allegro maestoso - The second movement opens with the cello, which is spotlighted throughout the movement. Boccherini gives a glimpse at what his virtuosity on the instrument must have been as the cello plays solo passages that include extended passages in harmonics. The guitar's role in this movement is as an ensemble instrument that adds to the texture, seldom being heard on its own.

III. Grave assai - Fandango - The finale starts with a short, slow introduction. The guitar is heard more as the music slowly transitions into the fandango. A Spanish dance that developed early in the 18th century, the fandango is a passionate and lively dance for two people. There are fandangos that can be sung as well. It is a dance that is most often played on guitars and is accompanied by castanets, and Boccherini includes parts for castanets as well as the sistrum. These percussion instruments aren't always included in performance. The guitarist in the video at the bottom of the page taps out castanet rhythms on the body of his instrument. The fandango builds in intensity until it ends.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov - String Sextet In A Major

In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered the position of professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music.  He accepted the position although he was still an officer in the Russian Navy and had to teach his classes in uniform. Of more immediate concern was Rimsky-Korsakov's lack of formal musical education. He had already composed works for orchestra that had received glowing reviews, but he composed them by his natural talent and keen ear. He consulted his friend and mentor Pyotr Tchaikovsky who suggested he best get busy studying. Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of these years of study:
I practiced a lot and studied Bach’s oeuvre in particular, appreciating his genius, whereas before when I didn’t know his works well, I was inclined to follow the opinion of Balakirev, who called him a “composition machine”
Rimsky-Korsakov threw himself into a rigid program of self-education and came out of it a master. While he was studying he concentrated on technical exercises and did next to no original composition. After his crash course in theory and counterpoint, he began to compose works for smaller chamber ensembles and in 1876 entered a competition for compositions for chamber ensemble in two categories; works for strings alone and works for piano and one or more instruments. He entered a work in each category; the String Sextet In A Major and the Quintet in B-major for Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon.

Neither one of his compositions won a prize, although the String Sextet got an honorable mention. The composer set aside the sextet and it was almost forgotten. It was finally published in 1912 after Rimsky-Korsakov's death, but that addition was lost after the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The sextet was reprinted during the soviet era, but went out of print. The work has since been reprinted and is heard on occasion.

The String Sextet is in 5 movements:

I. Allegro vivace - The first movement begins with a theme theme that is solidly in the home key of A major. This theme is passed along the instruments until the next theme begins. This second theme resembles the first in mood, and the exposition gives a feeling of charm and grace.The development section is short and maintains the mood. Rimsky-Korsakov's study of counterpoint is in evidence periodically as themes are played off against each other. A slight repetitive climax leads to the recapitulation as the main theme returns with a more elaborate accompaniment. The movement ends with a short coda.

II. Rondo fugato. Allegretto grazioso - The composer was rather proud of this movement, a six-voiced fugue, along with other contrapuntal sections.

III. Scherzo. Vivace alla saltarello - A saltarello is a fast Italian dance. This one is just that, fast and somewhat furious. The middle section is in contrast as it is slower and has a theme that is treated contrapuntally.

IV. Andante espressivo - The only slow movement in the sextet begins with a mellow theme for the cello. The music proceeds slowly and the tune is highlighted with complex counter melodies and a rich accompaniment as it moves from the cello to violin.

V. Finale. Allegro molto - The instruments bounce a rondo theme back and forth and in unison. Slight slower episodes give way to the rondo theme, and the movement ends with a short coda.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Tchaikovsky - String Quartet No. 3 In E-flat Minor, Opus 30

Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote very little chamber music, only eight pieces in all. An early string quartet and quintet for harp and string quartet went without opus numbers. Of the six numbered compositions there are three string quartets, a work for violin and piano, the In Memory Of A Great Artist piano trio and the Souvenir of Florence string sextet.

All three numbered sring quartets were written between 1871-1876, with the 3rd quartet being written in Paris and Moscow early in 1876. The work was dedicated to Tchaikovsky's friend Ferdinand Laub, who played first violin in the premieres of the first two string quartets. Laub had died suddenly in 1875 at 43 years of age.

The quartet was first played a few weeks after its composition at the home of Nikolai Rubinstein's house (who died in 1881 and was the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's piano trio in 1882). It has 4 movements:

Ferdinand Laub
I. Andante Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - The work begins in a solemn mood with a long introduction that consists of two themes. The initial theme is carried by the first violin with interjections of harmony by the other strings. The next theme also begins on the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment. The theme is then taken up by the cello. The proper beginning of the movement is marked by the playing of a quietly agitated theme. The next theme is more lyrical but remains laced with underlying tension. A short section leads to the development section where the two themes struggle back and forth. The themes change guises as they return for the recapitulation. Material from the introduction returns and the movement quietly ends.

II.  Allegretto vivo e scherzando - After the long and uneasy first movement, the scherzo brings a welcome contrast. The scherzo itself is restless as it bounces notes from instrument to instrument. The middle section highlights a mellow theme played by the viola. The scherzo returns and after a short coda the movement ends quietly.

III. Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto -  Contrast is provided by a third movement that is not only considerably longer than the previous one, but of a lugubrious character as well. Tchaikovsky creates a sullen mood immediately by the playing of a funeral march.
Muted strings played at a relatively loud volume create an other-worldly sound and add to the sadness. This movement is the heart of the quartet, and conveys Tchaikovsky's loss of  friend and colleague Ferdinand Laub. A mellow theme plays after the march and is traded off between violin and cello. The funeral march returns as the first violin plays a lament over it. The mellow theme returns and segues back into the funeral march. As the march plays, the cello intones a repeated B-flat as the march and other materials reappear. The movement ends with all four instruments playing a high pianissimo E-flat minor chord.

IV. Finale: Allegro non troppo e risoluto - A vigorous rondo movement ends the quartet. Themes are reminiscent of Russian folksong, along with a continuation of the overall uneasiness of the previous movements. There is a manic quality to this movement that is halted by the recollection of a fragment of the 1st movement. The manic music picks up where it left off and ends the movement.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dvořák - String Quintet No. 3 In E-flat Major, Opus 97

Dvořák's String Quintet In E-flat Major was a product of his stay in the United States as the director
of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. During the summer of 1893 he stayed in Spillville, Iowa where there was a community of Czech immigrants.  Dvořák was a man with deep roots in his homeland, and the few months he spent in Spillville helped to aleve some of his homesickness. He wrote a letter to a Czech friend and described Spillvile:
Spillville is a purely Czech settlement, founded by a certain "Bavarian", "German", "Spielmann", who christened the place Spillville. He died four years ago, and in the morning when I went to church, my way took me past his grave and strange thoughts always fill my mind at the sight of it as of the graves of many other Czech countrymen who sleep their last sleep here. These people came to this place about 40 years ago, mostly from the neighbourhood of Pisek, Tabor and Budejovice. All the poorest of the poor, and after great hardships and struggle they are very well off here. I liked to go among the people and they, too, were all fond of me, and especially the grandmas and gran dads were pleased when I played to them in church "God before Thy Majesty" and "A Thousand Times we greet Thee".
It is very strange here. Few people and a great deal of empty space. A farmer's nearest neighbour is often 4 miles off, especially in the farms (I call them the Sahara) there are only endless acres of field and meadow and that is all you see. You don't meet a soul (here they only ride on horseback) and you are glad to see in the woods and meadows the huge herds of cattle which, summer and winter, are out at pasture in the broad fields. Men go to the woods and meadows where the cows graze to milk them. And so it is very "wild" here and sometimes very sad, sad to despair .
He wrote the String Quartet No. 12 In F Major (American) as well as his 3rd String Quintet and other chamber music during his stay in Spillville.  The quintet was first performed in New York City in January of 1894, and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non tanto -  Dvořák's quintet is a viola quintet, that is to say it has an extra viola added to a standard string quartet. The viola was Dvořák's instrument, and the first movement opens with a short theme for solo viola. This theme is picked up by the cello and played in the minor mode. This is all by way of introduction to the actual beginning of the movement with the playing of the first theme by the violin. While  Dvořák was in Spillville, he saw a troupe of Native American Indians that were passing through. He heard their songs and dances and was inspired to use some of the rhythms as in the second 'drum' theme of this movement. The exposition is repeated. The drum rhythm is used in the development section along with the other themes. The recapitulation leads to a coda that has a reference to the material heard in the introduction before the movement ends quietly.

II. Allegro vivo - A solo viola begins the second movement which is in B major. More rhythms reminiscent of drum beats punctuate this scherzo as the themes are played. The trio section is in B minor and is a long, rather sad melody played by the viola.

III. Larghetto - The third movement is a set of variations on two themes, the first in A-flat minor and the second in A-flat major. This double variation movement has 5 variations for each theme with the themes ending the movement in their original form.

IV. Finale. Allegro giusto - The last movement is a rondo filled with attractive melodies and more examples of how American music influenced Dvořák, and no doubt reminded him of his own beloved native music with the common factor in each being the pentatonic scale.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elgar - Piano Quintet In A Minor, Opus 84

Edward Elgar's father was a piano tuner, organist and professional grade violinist. His mother instilled in her son a love of nature and the arts. All of the Elgar children had musical training from local teachers, with Edgar excelling in violin and organ playing.  But in the social class structure of 19th century Victorian era England, the common social standing of Elgar's family didn't help with his desire to become a composer. This combined with the fact that he received very little formal training outside of lessons from local teachers (and none at all in composition) made him feel like an outsider.

After a short time as a clerk in a law office, Elgar resigned and made a living by giving organ and violin lessons as well as being an accompanist and composing. He also took the job as conductor of an attendant's band at a local insane asylum where he gained practical knowledge about other instruments. He became proficient in other instruments as well, and continued to learn his craft as a practicing musician in many venues and performing groups.

Elgar's reputation as a composer began with works for chorus, a favorite music genre in England. He is most well known for his works for orchestra that include two symphonies, a violin concerto, Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Pomp And Circumstance Marches (including the ubiquitous trio from March No. 1 that is played at high school commencement ceremonies) and many other works. He was highly regarded in his lifetime by the public as well as other composers. In 1931 Richard Strauss called him the "first progressivist in English music".

He composed chamber works from his earliest years until his old age, and while staying in the country over the summer of 1918 he worked on three of his last works for chamber ensemble; The Violin Sonata in E Minor Opus 82, String Quartet in E Minor Opus 83, and the Piano Quintet in A Minor Opus 84. Elgar dedicated the Quintet to the prominent English music critic and writer Ernest Newman, and after completion of the first movement wrote to the dedicatee:
Your Quintet remains to be completed, the first movement is ready and I want you to hear it, it is strange music. I think I like it-but-it’s ghostly stuff.
The Piano Quintet was premiered in May of 1919. It is the longest chamber work that Elgar composed and is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - Allegro - The first movement is in cyclic/sonata form that begins with a strange introduction. There is an often told story of a possible inspiration for this movement that was brought about by a group of twisted and gnarly trees in a park that was near the cottage that Elgar stayed in on his summer vacation of 1918. These trees were said to give off ghostly shadows at night, and one of Elgar's friends related a tale that the trees actually contained the remains of Spanish monks that held unholy ceremonies in the area years before. A far-fetched tale with no basis of truth, for there is no record whatsoever of any Spanish monks ever being in the area. The introduction leads to a quickening of tempo and the first theme, which is derived from the opening introduction. A fragment of the introduction appears and leads to the second theme that is more introspective and quiet. After this plays through, a third theme comes forth that sounds like Victorian salon music, quite a contrast to what has preceded it.  A short repeat of the introduction leads to the development section, a vigorous fugato on the first theme leads to the recapitulation. Themes are reheard, along with the enigmatic introduction at the end of the movement, and as it quietly ends the careful listener discovers that the themes within the movement all grew from the introduction.

II. Adagio - The middle movement has been called the heart of the quintet, and begins with a mellow theme played by the viola. The entire movement is music of nostalgic late Romanticism, but a sense of tragedy and mystery is heard through the sections of slow piano wanderings that are punctuated by tremolo strings. The climax of the movement arrives close to the midway point, after which the music returns to the viola theme as well as the piano and tremolo strings sections. Fragments of themes from the first movement are heard as the adagio slowly draws to a quiet close.

III. Andante - Allegro -  The first movement introduction returns at the beginning of the finale, and leads to a less serious theme that is still attractive to the ear. The piano then introduces another theme, one that is syncopated. The music builds in intensity until the opening movement introduction and other themes are repeated. The main theme of the finale returns and leads to a coda before the music ends in a rousing finish.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Smetana - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 15

The death of his oldest daughter in 1855 affected the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana profoundly. She had shown great aptitude for music despite being only 4 years old. He had lost a younger daughter in 1854,  and yet another daughter only eight months old in 1856. Smetana  dedicated his only piano trio to his oldest daughter Bedřiška  in 1855. Some twenty years later Smetana wrote about the trio to a friend:
The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose a chamber work in 1855, my Trio in G minor. This was performed the same year, in December, in Prague. The audience was unresponsive and the critics hated it.
The work was revised and played about a year later with Liszt in attendance. He was so impressed with the work that he helped to get it performed in other countries of Europe.

The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato assai -  The trio was a way for the emotionally devastated Smetana to deal with his grief, and the first movement begins with an anguished cry from the violin played on the G string of the instrument:
The first theme is drenched in G minor and grows from the violin solo into a passionate outpouring. The second theme is more lyrical and is thought to be one of the favorite tunes of his oldest daughter. The first theme is expounded upon in the development, and when the second theme is taken up, a rather ominous pizzicato accompaniment from the strings plays along until there is a section for solo piano before the recapitulation begins.  The tragedy continues until the end of the movement.

II. Allegro, ma non agitato - A scherzo in G minor that has two trios, or as Smetana called them alternativo. The scherzo skitters along until the first alternativo, which is a more mellow tune played by the violin and cello with a simple piano accompaniment. The scherzo plays through again until the second alternivo, a somewhat ponderous march that alternates heaviness with lightness. The scherzo makes one last appearance before the movement quietly.

III. Finale: Presto - The frantic opening theme that pits two notes versus three in the accompaniment. The second theme of the first movement makes another appearance among the alternating sections separated between the frantic opening. The first theme gets wilder until the music grows more introspective. The introspection turns to total sorrow as the music morphs into a short funeral march in G minor, complete with the tolling bell of death in the bass of the piano:
 But Smetana doesn't dwell on the march very long. The music turns frantic again and dashes towards the ending in G major.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Röntgen - Piano Trio In C Minor, Opus 50

 Julius Röntgen was born in Leipzig, but in 1877 when he was 21 years old he chose to go to Amsterdam instead of Vienna. He became active in the musical life of the city and helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Royal Concertgebouw concert hall.

Röntgen was a friend of Grieg, Brahms, and many other composers and musicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1919 he became a Dutch citizen, and in 1924 he retired from public life and devoted the last 10 years of his life to composing.  He wrote in all of the genres of traditional classical music except opera, and wrote his first compositions when he was 9 years old. Röntgen's compositional output was considerable; over 600 compositions of all types.  Röntgen had a multi-faceted career of teacher, piano soloist, chamber music performer, conductor and composer.

He is most well known for his works for chamber ensembles. He wrote his opus 50 piano trio in 1904 and dedicated it to his friend the Dutch composer Carl Nielsen. The trio won a prize in a competition held in Paris, and Nielsen wrote about it in a letter to the composer:
The new trio is the most characteristic of the works of yours I learned when you were in Denmark. It is carried along by an extremely individual and compelling musical current, which despite its modern content seems to have its roots in the vicinity of Schubert.
The trio is in 3 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo e serioso -  The trio begins with a short introduction, followed by the first theme played by violin and then cello. The second theme is more lyrical as well as being longer. A third theme begins rather abruptly and plays until fragments of previous themes are heard at the end of the exposition. There is no repeat of the exposition as the short development section takes up material from the introduction.  The recapitulation is followed by a coda that brings back the introductory material again as well as shortened versions of the themes.

II. Andante - The middle movement begins with the violin and cello playing a duet of a folksong-like melody as the piano plays a simple accompaniment:
Röntgen made a study of Dutch folksong, and this tune reflects that. Röntgen shows his skill and imagination in a set of variations on the tune for the remainder of the movement. The influence of Brahms shows in some of them, as well as Röntgen's own late Romantic style.

III. Allegro non troppo - The finale begins with an agitated section before it blooms into more drama with a theme that swells until the music becomes more subdued with a second theme. These two themes repeat in Röntgen's version of sonata form until the music goes into a coda that wraps up a well crafted piano trio.

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