Week 10: Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9

Schumann (1810-1856) is probably the most interesting figure of the Romantic generation of composers. Plagued by physical and psychiatric maladies for most of his adult life, his work is consistently idiosyncratic, inspired by the world of ideas and particularly intense emotions.

The move from Classical to Romantic music, generally speaking, was a move from an abstract ideal of elegantly structured but somewhat impersonal music (composed by Haydn, Mozart, and sometimes Beethoven) to music that was actually about external ideas. Classical period works tended to be organized according to somewhat elaborate forms, but in the Romantic period the story was often allowed to govern the shape of the music entirely.

The Romantic period also saw two different trends in terms of scale – on one hand, music for the concert hall became more grandiose and elaborate — the modern orchestra (with its strong brass, woodwind, and percussion sections) was assembled and pieces became more and more elaborate.

However, there was also a trend towards miniatures — brief, bite-size works that could be played and enjoyed at home. Schumann’s Carnaval is a collection of minatures for piano that follow a fanciful theme, the annual European holiday during which masked characters frolic in the streets.

I’m anxious to get to the movements that depict specific characters, but I can’t overlook the grandiose opening that sets the scene. I love these thunderous opening chords (played here by a Croatian pianist named Vladimir Babin…)

(direct link)

In the second movement we get our first stock character for Carnival, the sad clown Pierrot. (This one is played by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who really emphasizes its languid nature. The youtube poster thinks this befits a wild boar, for some reason.)

(direct link.)

And here’s one more portrait of stock characters – Columbine and Pantalone. Columbine is wedded to Pierrot, but she traditionally must fend off the advances of Pantolone. This movement alternates frantic activitity with more tender, possibly flirtatious interludes. (More Michelangeli, this time with ferrets or something.)

(direct link)

Now, the characters in Carnaval aren’t limited to stock Comedia dell’Arte figures. Schumann was a fairly influential music critic, and he liked to write in the voice of two different pseudonyms, Eusebius and Florestan. One was supposed to represent his more dreamy, introspective side, and the other was his passionate side. See if you can tell which is which.

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The final movement (“The March of the Davidsbundler against the Philistines”) was also supposed to represent his musical circle of friends challenging the forces of musical conservatism.

So, obviously this is fun music. The twenty-one brief movements of Carnaval present an entertaining grab bag of moods, with pianistic brilliance that never overstays its welcome. When carefully played it is an utterly charming little world.

One of the most critically acclaimed interpreters of this work is Claudio Arrau’s. His 1966 recording combines a soft touch with an impressive quickness that really brings this material to life. Seems to only be available on CD. Archivmusik Amazon CD

Here’s a Wikipedia article on the piece. And the score can be had for free via IMSLP.

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Week 9: Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9

In our previous installment I highlighted The Rite of Spring as a watershed moment in the birth of musical Modernism. And, to be sure, it was. However, someone (or, rather, three someones) got there first – Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

Schoenberg began as a self-taught practitioner of the Late Romantic style, which is often characterized by a constant sense of “yearning.” (In technical terms, it wanders from key to key using complex and unfamiliar progressions, and phrasing is also broken down into a constant, ambiguous “flow.”) Schoenberg recognized that he could take this aesthetic to a higher level by avoiding keys altogether, entering a completely abstract world of sound that is usually called “atonal.”

Now, this is difficult stuff. I can’t say I recommend much of it to a casual listener. But, if you were to choose one piece that exemplifies the style AND is fun to listen to, I would select Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet. They were composed in 1911, and they explore this new sound world in a brief, restrained, and intriguingly mysterious format.

Here’s a clip, which presents all six movements in a mere 4:23.

(direct link)

If you wanted a recording of this, I would recommend the Juilliard String Quartet’s rendition from the Sony Complete Webern set. You could easily excise these six tracks from the larger collection in the online MP3 format. iTunes Archivmusik Amazon CD Amazon MP3 Ariama eMusic

I also have an old recording by the Artis Quartet, also on Sony, which was outstanding. Sadly, it is out of print. Archivmusic will custom-make a copy for you, and here is its Amazon page for possibly scoring it second-hand.

Artis re-recorded another version on the Nimbus label, but you know what? It’s not as good. The Sony version was much better recorded. Here are links for the new version for reference – iTunes Archivmusik Ariama eMusic Amazon CD Amazon MP3 Amazon CD

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Breaking the hiatus…

Well, that didn’t last long. Happily, I had a good reason to discontinue posting – I had a proposal accepted for the West Coast Conference of Music Theory and Analysis (in Santa Barbara, CA) and had to suddenly put all available energy into getting ready.

I think I’ve come up with a viable strategy for continuing the blog, though. I like the weekly format – I think the idea of listening to a single piece per week (and possibly adding it to one’s collection) is a good regimen for a typical music fan. However, dutifully putting out post after post feels an awful lot like work, and I certainly have a lot of other demands on my time that are more pressing.

So, I’m going to continue doing this in spurts. I’ve got four new posts scheduled for the next four Mondays, and we’ll see how long I can continue the series. When I run out of lead time, I’ll take another break and regroup.

Also, I thought it would be funny to dedicate a post to the ridiculous comment spam I’ve been getting. I find this trend supremely annoying — people pretend to be readers of your blog and post generic comments with links to sites they are trying to promote. So, if you are a worthless parasite who isn’t really reading, attach your comment to this post and I will let it through! (I’ll make a few crucial edits to foil your google ranking, though.)

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Week 8: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Of all music history, I probably find the Modern period (which I would date from around 1912-1950) to be the most exciting. And, I’m particularly fascinated with its origins – what was it that suddenly caused everything to change so radically? Or was the transition really so sudden?

Obviously, Modernism didn’t happen instantaneously. You can find little bits and pieces of it throughout the past, details that seem very direct and original and yet conscious of their own artifice. The Rite of Spring has precedent within Stravinsky’s own works – there were several excellent precursors (namely, The Firebird and Petrushka) that suggested the way forward but also remained married to the Romantic aesthetic, with an overall commitment to orchestral lushness, exoticism, and “special effects.”

The Rite is so over the top, though, that it really does seem like the birth of something new. Stravinsky and Dhiagilev (his entreprenurial collaborator) had already been playing with the folk mythology of Russia when they decided to go deeper into the primodial past of pagan ritual. Stravinsky was apparently so inspired by this idea that he produced something completely raw, almost entirely stripped of conventional musical signposts and reveling in dissonance and pure rhythmic energy.

This is not to say that The Rite is unpleasant. It is violent, sure, and occasionally overwhelming, but it is still full of tunes. It has an intuitive tonal logic of its own, and contemporary orchestras are careful to shape Stravinsky’s new chords into something that sounds good. It’s like an R-rated movie for your ears, with carefully constructed thrills that will leave you exhilarated and happy.

You’ve probably heard that the premier actually incited a riot between patrons who were booing the piece and those that wanted to hear it. You can read the wikipedia article for a little more on that. But first and foremost we need to listen!

Here’s a YouTube clip with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

and here’s one where Esa-Pekka Salonen picks it up, a little later in the piece.

There are many options on recording, of course. Stravinsky conducted it himself in 1960, and his protege Robert Craft did it in the 90s. These are rhythmically taut and impeccably accurate versions. But I think you need something massive, a version that will really hit you like a ton of bricks (without getting sloppy.) That version is Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra.

Archivmusik Ariama iTunes Amazon CD

One caveat – I bought this via Amazon MP3 download, and I’m a bit frustrated that I can’t get true gapless playback. This is a flaw in Mp3′s themselves – with the way they were originally designed, one gets a tiny bit of space at the beginning and end. Modern files usually include a bit of data that helps your computer compensate for that — but these tracks lack it, so I’m getting a little hesitation as we transition from section to section. I’ve reluctantly plunked more money down for a CD version, and I’m very irritated with Philips and Amazon.

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Week 7: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

This is going to sound a little silly, but I think Mozart’s piano concertos are actually underrated. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things nothing that the man ever touched lacks recognition. But in the popular, mainstream imagination the concertos don’t seem to rate as high as, say, the “Jupiter” Symphony, the Requiem, or Le Nozze di Figaro.

That’s a shame, because the piano concerto was a major vehicle for Mozart’s career as a public performer – he played many of them himself, showing off his technical proficiency and ability to improvise. The typical work dives deeply into several essential Mozartean moods – either the sunny side of wit, joy, and tenderness, or his darker conception of drama and tragedy. But it is also a conversation between soloist and orchestra – this give-and-take keeps it grounded at a very pragmatic, human level.

I am picking the C minor concerto, number 24, as our introduction to this world. It seems to have the right balance of light and dark to represent the whole, and each movement is really quite memorable.

The first movement begins with a curiously twisty theme in bare, unharmonized octaves. Sure, it’s in C minor, which seems automatically “dark” and dire, but there is also something very elegant and witty about this. Mozart has selected the dance-like meter of 3/4, and the chaotically sprawling chromaticism seems to say “where do you think this is going?”

Throughout the movement you hear the basic idea set in a variety of ways. Sometimes it explodes in a furious blast of winds and strings, and other times it is quiet and pensive.

Here’s a YouTube of the first movment, performed by Daniel Gortler and the Israel Camerata.

The second movement presents a comforting, tender melody for contrast. I’ll switch over to Malcolm Bilson’s recording on the historically accurate fortepiano. I’m not sure his approach would be my first choice for this grandiose work, but for some of the more sprightly concertos it hits the spot.

Finally, we end with a march-like tune that is repeated over and over as the basis of a Theme and Variations movement. I switch performances once again, with Andre Previn leading a small orchestra from the piano (just as the composer would have done.)

I have this somewhat hoary old recording on Sony.

Archivmusik eMusic iTunes Ariama Amazon MP3 Amazon CD MusicBrainz

It’s not usually what I would go for, since it doesn’t quite have the vivid sound of a more contemporary recording, but I enjoy it quite a bit and I love the pairing with No. 21, which would be my next pick for a perfectly representative Mozart concerto.

For a more recent version, some sources recommend Alfred Brendel and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I am not liking the samples, though – the orchestra sounds too loud and brassy!

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Week 6: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is your perfect starter opera. It is in English, it’s not very long, and it is drop-dead gorgeous. What more could you want?

Composed for performance at a girls’ school at the end of the 17th Century, Dido is a miracle of simplicity and intensity. The plot is, of course, fairly nonsensical to modern sensibilities: Dido, Queen of Carthage opens her heart to the visiting hero Aeneas. However, a band of witches is plotting against her and they cause Aeneas to be called away prematurely. In despair she commits suicide. The end.

Most of the numbers are composed in a simple, repetitive style that is easy to understand. I particularly like the call of the First Sailor to disembark — there is a nice concert version of that on YouTube (but embedding is disabled.)

The climax is Dido’s famous Lament, which is unsurpassed in its morose expressivity. I’ll embed Mark Morris’s choreography for this – the audio isn’t perfect but it’s worth it for the cleverness of the dance. (Morris himself is playing Dido, here.)

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It seems like this somewhat old video is still in print, or recently lapsed? There are still copies out there, anyway. Amazon NetFlix

For a recording, I am quite attached to my old version with Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. That one’s out of print, though. Amazon

Sampling the more contemporary renditions, I like this one with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, co-directed by Elizabeth Kenny and Stephen Devine. The instrumental passages sound great (with appropriate “period” sound) and the singing is not too heavily operatic.

iTunes Archivmusik eMusic Amazon CD Amazon MP3

If you end up with a download version of the opera you can always use a free online libretto to keep track of the action.

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Week 5: Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28

Last week we talked about Bach’s monumental set of Preludes and Fugues, and this week we’ll consider Chopin’s answer, a set of Preludes that also covers every possible key.

Hopefully you remember that in The Well-Tempered Clavier the Preludes served to establish the key and create a mood for the Fugue that followed. They were somewhat loose in format and varied widely in content. By liberating the Prelude from dependence on any following work Chopin created a space that could be filled with just about any fantastical idea. Many of them are quite modest, like No. 7 in A major, which fits on one page and lasts about a minute.

Some are a little more ambitious. None, however, wear out their welcome.

In particular I want to focus on the the most popular in the series, No. 15 in D-flat major. This work is nicknamed the “Raindrop” Prelude, and comes with a bit of biographical lore: A sickly Chopin is working in a monastery on Majorca, composing during a torrential rainstorm. He is said to have had a vision of drowning in a lake. (This might account for the dark and mysterious middle section, which is indeed very dramatic.) The repeated A-flats that start at the outset and never stop are often thought to represent the drip drip drip of a leaky roof. However, when this last bit was pointed out to Chopin he reportedly found the suggestion to be offensive, as such a direct imitation would be beneath his artistry. (You can read George Sands’ original account of this conversation in a wikipedia entry.)

Here’s a youtube of Maurizio Pollini playing the “Raindrop” Prelude.

I have this recording and highly recommend it. Of course, as with The Well-Tempered Clavier I think you owe it to yourself to acquire the entire cycle – it’s all fantastic.

Ariama eMusic DG Downloads iTunes Amazon MP3 Amazon CD

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Week 4: J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of those landmark works of art that every educated person should know about, up there with King Lear or Monet’s Water Lilies. Each book contains a pairing of Prelude and Fugue in every possible key, for a total of 24 per volume. With these seemingly effortless and profound compositions Bach created an entire musical universe for future generations to explore.

The “Well-Tempered” title refers to a surprising fact in the history of keyboard instruments — it was not until Bach’s day (in the Late Baroque period) that instrument makers were able to produce harpsichords, organs, and clavichords that sounded good in all keys. The problem is in the tonal system itself. By following the basic rules of acoustics we know the most “pure” way to tune the important intervals of tonal music, the fifths and thirds that make up basic chords. However, if we tune one key (say, C major) to make the most perfect chords possible, this will damage the sound of other keys (like E major or A-flat major.) The keys do not mesh together perfectly, and the art of finding the proper “temperament” lies in finding an equal compromise between all keys so that they all sound good. Bach’s collections of Preludes and Fugues celebrated this technical advance in keyboard making as well as his prowess as a composer.

In this installment we’ll focus on Book I, and, in particular, I’ll select a Prelude and Fugue that I think exemplifies what The Well-Tempered Clavier is all about. Make no mistake, though – you need it all!

Let us listen to the pairing in C-sharp minor. In general, the Prelude sets the stage for the Fugue that follows – it doesn’t really have a fixed style or form. Some are fast and showy (what you’d call a toccata-style prelude), but this one is more contemplative in nature. Here’s a YouTube with Vladimir Ashkenazy playing. The Prelude takes up the first 3:20 of the clip.

After the Prelude we are on the the Fugue, and this is a nice and weighty one. The lowest part introduces our subject in the first five notes.

This simple idea is then passed from part to part in a contrapuntal tapestry. First there are two parts, then three, then four. Other ideas creep into the fabric as it goes on – sometimes these are derived from the original idea. This piece features one new subject that emerges at 5:18 in the Ashkenazy YouTube:

It evolves somewhat quietly from the preceding material, but once it achieves its final form it dominates the fugue as a countersubject to our more stately opening motto.

The fugue builds intensity nicely as it accumulates rhythmic energy and travels from key to key. Even as it comes back into the homestretch it seems to lurch from dissonance to dissonance, finally landing on a beautifully wounded “deceptive cadence” (7:39 in the above video). So good!

So, by now I’ve hopefully convinced you that you need The Well-Tempered Clavier in your life. Which recording are you going to get?

Glenn Gould

For many, Gould is the ultimate interpreter of Bach. And I don’t dispute that he was a genius who is indeed worth listening to. However, I don’t recommend his WTC as your first set. Simply put, I don’t think his performances are that well recorded – they are often played on junky-sounding pianos, and Gould’s singing intrudes on the experience. Judge for yourself in the clip I’ve embedded above. It’s a lively reading but I think the sound lacks the depth and polish that Bach deserves.

iTunes eMusic Amazon MP3 Amazon CD Archivmusik

Angela Hewitt

In recent decades Angela Hewitt has emerged as a particularly successful Bach specialist. In my opinion, she offers the sonic depth and technical perfection that I miss in the Gould recordings without becoming bland – she still plays with incisiveness and personality. The only caveat I might have about Hewitt’s recordings is that they are a bit pricey and difficult to find used – but if you are ready to invest, this might be the way to go. You could buy Hewitt’s original recording of Book I (iTunes Ariama Amazon CD Archivmusik ) or try her newer edition which includes the entire WTC (iTunes Ariama Amazon CD Archivmusik ).

Vladimir Ashkenazy

I’d suggest Ashkenazy’s recording as yet another alternative. We heard his prelude and fugue above, and some reviewers suggest that his version is actually their favorite. (Ariama iTunes eMusic Amazon MP3 Amazon CD Archivmusik)

WTC on Harpsichord

Of course, the modern piano didn’t even exist in Bach’s day. These pieces would have been played on harpsichord or clavichord. So if you want to keep it authentic, you could try Wanda Landowska’s highly prized recording on harpsichord.

iTunes Amazon CD eMusic Amazon MP3 Archivmusik

Free Resources

You can find free scores at IMSLP. And there are many free amateur and semi-pro recordings available at pianosociety.org.

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Week 3: Kaija Saariaho’s Lichtbogen

We are in Finland this week for the Musica nova festival, so it seems like the right time to feature the music of Kaija Saariaho, one of the most exciting composers working today (and a Finn. wikipedia bio.)

The most interesting aspect of Saariaho’s work involves capturing particularly delicate, fleeting sounds and really exploring them. This often involves live musicians on familiar instruments interacting with digital technology. Here very subtle reverb and pitch-shifting effects modify the output of a small ensemble of players to create a very organic and visceral cloud of sonority. I particularly like the scraping sounds that occasionally emerge and obliterate everything, like a kind of sonic eraser.

Here’s a youtube:

I have the following recording which I would recommend. It’s a little more refined than the one in the youtube clip – in particular the electronics are a bit stronger, arriving at what in my opinion is the perfect blend. In general the collection of pieces here is worth exploring, though the other two are a bit more challenging.

Ariama iTunes Archivmusik Amazon CD Amazon MP3 eMusic.

Looks like Amazon Mp3 is the current best bargain.

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Week 2: Beethoven’s Sonata in A major for Piano and Cello, Op. 69

The Opus 69 sonata was composed in 1808, during what is often called Beethoven’s “Heroic” period. This is after he realized he was losing his hearing and became somewhat obsessed with ideas of heroism and, in particular, the figure of Napoleon. He composed a handful of hard-charging pieces that seem to be explicitly concerned with journeys, challenges, and victory.

This Sonata for Piano and Cello, however, shows the tender side of Beethoven’s Romantic ideals. It opens meditatively, with a simple scale-like figure in the cello part — we reach up with an open fifth and then float back down. Much has been made of the way Beethoven titled the piece “Sonata for Piano and Cello” as opposed to “Cello and Piano” — this is not a showy piece for a soloist but a thoroughly integrated and unified musical statement.

The other movements are substantial as well. I particularly like the Scherzo, an invention of Beethoven’s that takes the normally staid, waltz-like Minuet and transforms it into a witty and chaotic game. (The term means “joke” in Italian.)

I’ve got the fairly popular recording with Yo-yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, on Sony. There is a youtube of it up (but for some reason embedding is disabled.)

It is available in a one-disc edition (iTunes Ariama Amazon CD Amazon MP3 eMusic) and also in a 2-disc edition with all five cello sonatas and a few nice theme & variations (Ariama iTunes Amazon MP3 Amazon CD eMusic).

For your perusal, here’s a link to public domain scores at IMSLP, and the fairly dull wikipedia entry.

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