Happy Birthday J.S. Bach, redux!

I promised 52 weeks. My little project could not end on any other note but Bach’s. His birthday is this Wednesday, so have a cupcake and listen to his sublime music!

The middle movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins has for me forever ruined his Air on the G String. This latter is a very reputable work, lovely, and excellent. But after the Concerto, it sounds so…lonely, as if something or someone was missing, as if a widow or widower was bravely carrying on in the absence of a beloved spouse.

There is simply no other work than Bach’s Concerto that better exemplifies a true marriage of equals. The two violin lines are so evenly matched and reciprocal, everything fits perfectly, and the beauty of their movements together present to us a seamless interchange in which all other supporting sounds fall away as if inconsequential.

The technique is called counterpoint, and it reached its apotheosis in the baroque era, particularly in the music of Bach. Two or more lines of music travel along, completely independent and completely interdependent: a marvelous miracle and mystery. For how is it possible to be so entirely centered and complete as an individual, and also eagerly, gratefully, dependent upon another for completion?

Counterpoint comes from the Latin for “point against point,” and it speaks to that independence, diversity, even tension of voices. When one line moves slowly, the other moves quickly (0:18-0:25), and then they reverse (0:51-1:02). While one moves down the scale, the other reaches up (1:14). They delightedly echo each other (2:10), and take turns leading, following, initiating, responding, no one voice ever dominating the other.

The piece winds along leisurely and methodic. In this Nigel Kennedy rendition, the two soloists allow a bit of vigorous climax action in two mirror passages (3:44, 4:59), both of which drop off quietly into sweet recapitulation.

It’s difficult to say any more about this work, because it almost defies analysis.
Like love, perhaps.

Here ends the first year of my musical offering. Thank you for your kind indulgence and good company. The blog will be on hiatus, but look for another 52 weeks beginning March 2013 – Prometto!

Here is Bach’s Double Concerto, at Amazon and iTunes.

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A true song without words

I mentioned something last post (carelessly, I suppose) about the French: the Mysterious Barricades is a “typically French work which relies more upon effect than melody.”

May I elaborate?

There is something I’ve noticed about the French sensibility – it cares less about “content” than about “effect.” I say about, because it would be an obnoxious generalization to imply that the French don’t care at all for content. They certainly do. But whereas the Germans (brace yourself for another stereotype, please) prefer substance, even to the point of ponderous, the French prefer delivery. Since extremish traps are so easy to fall into, this often amounts to a polarized scenario in which one group cares only that there be something to say, regardless of how it’s said, while the other cares less about what there is to say, only that it be said properly.

In French art, so much is made of mood – the appropriate lighting, texture, hue, rhythm, feel. The individual is meant to be carried up into the spirit of the work, transported and transformed. For this reason, French art tends to avoid obvious boundaries, fine details, hard edges, and conventional frameworks – these are limitations.

Perhaps the Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré is not the best example. He wrote it when he was 19. It is a conventional song, three verses, predictable and tonal progressions, discernible melody, unobtrusive technique. But it is, in my opinion, one of the most exquisite pieces of music you will ever hear in your entire life.

And through it all, you appreciate that distinctive French touch, the beginnings of which Fauré would continue to hone and develop in his magnificent career.

The lyrics (by Jean Racine) are sacred, and they are beautiful. But to be honest, I don’t know how important they are. I grew up with this piece, and up until a couple of years ago I had no idea that the lyrics were sacred. This makes me laugh to admit, but brought up under strong Lutheran and also Anglican liturgical influences, I never thought this piece had an appropriately enough “sacred” spirit for the church. When one has a Germanic sensibility, one is entranced and mesmerized by the French as if by a siren’s song – exotic, lovely, dangerous and vaguely improper.

Gentle strings (and in John Rutter’s tremendous arrangement, a brilliant harp) set the mood for Cantique de Jean Racine. The melody is there, simple and repetitive. But what is more interesting, innovative, and memorable is what is not melody: that undulating harp accompaniment with quietly walking bass (0:01-0:53).
This is effect.

Whatever else may be said for the poignant harmonies and towering choral strength (3:41-4:14), the real star of this song is the gorgeous effect of subtle accompaniment, which supports and comforts and assuages and carries us forward, unperturbed by any and all of life’s vicissitudes. Words don’t matter, and perhaps in some sense we humans don’t matter. Beauty and grace matter. This Cantique is reminiscent of what would later be Fauré’s Requiem, and someday I would be pleased to have it played at my funeral.

Vive le français for always carefully considering how to strike the best balance and set the correct tone! When words cease and music remains, will it be French?

Here are the incomparable Cambridge Singers, at Amazon and iTunes.

Posted in Choral, Composer, Fauré, Genre, Period, Romantic, Sacred | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mysterious barricades.

When Roger Ebert reviewed this year’s Tree of Life, he confessed that there was something about this 1950’s era film which eerily coincided with all his own childhood experiences, as if he was watching his own life play out.

I felt a bit the same way, although being much younger, the era is more my father’s than mine. Still, the music – predominantly classical – is the music of my own childhood; I smiled and even cried my way through these memories.

I could only have been about nine or ten years old when my father first played us Smetana’s Moldau. I was about the same age when he presented us Francois Couperin’s Mysterious Barricades. He would smile mischievously as he said the title. I had only the vaguest notion of what barricades were, and could never understand how this pleasant little French piece had any connection at all to “mysterious barricades.” But I now find that virtually all musicologists share my youthful bewilderment – no one knows what Couperin was referring to.

No matter.

This is a glorious piece, a memorable and satisfying one, but it is also modest and unassuming. Couperin wrote it for the keyboard (harpsichord, specifically) – one little song within a much larger set.

There’s something comforting and assuring about the opening theme. One clear note in the bass plods up and down, up and down, while the higher pitched notes churn a quiet, syncopated motor above it (0:01-0:13). I suppose that this sounds industrial and impersonal, but there’s a lovely homespun quality to Couperin’s labor here. The sound is rhythmic and predictable, but not frantic or robotic.

He gently shifts the action into the friendly “dominant” key, providing some contrast without much altering his theme (0:26-0:45). And then back home again (0:46-0:59). Another excursion (1:00-1:10), and again back home (1:11-1:23).

There is one last development (the most involved one of the piece) in which Couperin loops his theme into the upper registers and then methodically cycles down (1:24-1:59). These chord patterns are deconstructed “suspensions”: the key is shifting but one note is kind of dragging its feet, stuck between both keys. You would think that this sounds annoying, but get a musician to show you some day – it’s actually a very nice effect.

Couperin returns home (2:00), and this last little jog is so sweet. Our pianist here, Angela Hewitt, has done such a wonderful job signaling with her hushed dynamics and subtle ritardando that this is the end. This piece is not some perpetual motion exercise which monotonously whirls its way through its traces with nary a nuance. It is a French masterpiece on contentment, on the simple pleasures of prosaic existence, on the humble security of hearth and home and the quiet joy which accompanies all good things.

There is no discernible tune in this piece that you catch yourself humming at odd moments in the day. It is a typically French work which relies more upon effect than melody. But how effective.

Play this for your children! They will love it forever. On either Amazon or iTunes.

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In love (Part 2)…

I let John Dowland take Valentine’s Day, which was a literal homage to pre-modern love. But in truth, I could not let the romantic occasion pass without Rachmaninov. He is love for me, in the modern era.

Early-mid 20th century Americans thought so too. They were crazy about Rachmaninov, and expressed their well-meaning enthusiasm by cutting up his pieces, and setting the most romantic sections off with pop lyrics and lush big-band orchestrations.

There’s this great scene in Gene Kelly’s Anchors Aweigh, where renowned pianist José Iturbi is backstage some MGM performing facility, banging away at Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Frank Sinatra walks over to tell him that he “knows that song.” Iturbi smiles, “You like Tchaikovsky?” “Who?” “Tchaikovsky, the composer of this.” Sinatra frowns, “Oh buddy, you’re mistaken. That’s Freddy Martin. I’ve heard it on the radio a thousand times.”

The same “popularizations” happened to Rachmaninov, and it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault that Frank Sinatra recorded a sentimental song made up of one of his themes. It wasn’t his fault that Americans preferred to experience bits and pieces of his works – always the more passionate sections. It is still not his fault that these decontextualized motifs often form the soundtrack to saccharine and otherwise forgettable romantic films.

And it is not his fault that the 18th variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is included on every single classical-hits disc ever compiled. It does not deserve this fate. There are fully (you guessed it) seventeen variations which precede this 18th variation, and another six which follow it – mostly stormy, dark, modern, angular, and aggressively masculine. The 18th variation is all the more glorious because of this, and it is a crime against the poignant, overwhelming relief of its sweetness to cut it away from its context.

Ok. Sorry, I’m done. No more soapbox.

This second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto destroys me – it’s about love, in an appropriately minor key. It is melancholy, as if in gentle pain, and the piano methodically massages until there is catharsis. The main theme is carried by the woodwinds; the piano simply undulates quietly under them (0:31-2:17).

The middle section is turbulent and climactic. This is the place where the piano really takes over and contributes just the right edge and bite to offset the subdued. There are two powerful pianistic moments – the first one which takes your breath away, like lightening sun reflected on a shimmering sea (7:14), and the second one which violently pronounces on love, as if it were a futile, faithless thing (8:00).

But that attitude is not sustainable. Love conquers all.

The piano humbly surrenders (8:57), and can’t help but proclaim its satisfaction in confident waves of pleasure (10:31-11:20), which gently recede into calm.

I know this is a long movement, but Rachmaninov should be savored in one piece. That “culminating point,” which he was, as a master composer, so fond of, he was also respectful of. It cannot be chased or isolated. It is the reward, the sweet payoff due a rigorous (and also fruitful) development.

Own Rach 2, from either Amazon or iTunes.

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In love…

John Dowland lived in England at the time of Shakespeare. He was a singer, lutenist, and composer, and quite good ones at that. Queen Elizabeth had four lutenists around her at court, and when one of those positions opened up, Dowland applied for it. He was turned down without explanation.

Dowland always claimed it was because he was Catholic, although no one really knows what was going on in Elizabeth’s head. Considering the quality of his work, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the rejection was personal rather than business.

This little song is possibly Dowland’s most famous, and rocker Sting made it even more so when he stirred up the stodgy classical world with his celebrated cross-over album in 2006. Come again documents the trials and travails of a man in love with a heartless, cruel, aloof, arrogant, unattainable woman:

Come again!
Sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces, that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.

The lover in question is begging the object of his affection for another chance. Dismayed and desperate, he claims that Cupid is on his side, inviting her to pay him the “due delight” he craves. These lines bend with more or less rigid modesty to a conventional, predictable meter – nothing special.

But then, how remarkable: Dowland responds to the tactile demands of the next line, the way it breaks up the routine entreaty and breathlessly pleads with every fiber of human emotion. “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die.” The action (and desire) progresses from the most involuntary and basic sense, “to see,” up to and including the most intimate, passionate, and ultimately cataclysmic experience, “to die.” Dowland’s soloist delivers the text in punctuated movements from the lower registers up into a glorious resolution, full of relief – “to die!”

Of all romantic themes, “death” is not exactly a Hallmark favorite. Superficial love cannot relate to the immediacy, urgency, and violence implicit in the term. But this is a favorite pre-modern fascination – why, John Donne was practically obsessed by death, love, and God, all of which (in his mind) were related.

The “death” which Dowland interprets has sexual overtones – to ravish, destroy, annihilate. But he also uses it in the second stanza in a less loaded manner:

Come again,
That I may cease to mourn
Through thy unkind disdain,
For now left and forlorn,
I sit, I sigh, I weep, I faint, I die,
In deadly pain and endless misery.

For all that excruciating turmoil, it is quite a lovely song – one without an obviously happy ending, but then that’s the way most romantic tales end.

This Valentine’s Day, listen to Dowland and think about love. Or if you’d rather not (no questions asked), think about God. Or if you can do neither, think about death…Something for everyone here.

Check it out, on either Amazon or iTunes.

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Happy Birthday Felix Mendelssohn!

Friday was Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday. I make no secret of the fact that he is my favorite composer, and when I was a teenager I would torment my siblings all day, demanding that they celebrate the occasion with as much enthusiasm as I. They liked me (I think), but they also thought I was a freak.
To which I always say – hey if you get free cake and ice-cream, go with it!

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was born into privilege, so at about the time that he was reaching older teenage maturity, his family sent him on a trip all over Europe. From time immemorial, the wealthy elite who have the means to simply dispatch themselves to exotic places for fun, tend to provide these excursions for their progeny as a capstone to their education, an opportunity for self-realization, responsibility, or perhaps just to get them out of the house.

Whether these jet set youths ever properly appreciated the fantastic gift, or squandered it in entitled indolence, dissipation, and/or boredom was then (and continues to be) beyond parental control. Felix appears to have been a rare and refreshing example of the former tendency.

He set off from his native Berlin at about 20 years old, bound for the south, for Switzerland, Italy, and also for the UK. It was this year+ trek which fired young Felix’s imagination and inspired the beginnings of several works which would forever be considered his finest: “ItalianSymphony #4, The Hebrides Overture, and the “ScottishSymphony #3.

Because I am Italian, and also because the first movement of Italian Symphony is so spectacularly written, I thought to have presented it. But in all fairness, it is a ten minute piece – I wanted something short and sweet.

Felix’s Scottish Symphony was begun in his 20-year-old mind in 1829 as he visited the ruins of the Scotch castle chapel in which Mary was crowned Queen of Scotts. He worked on it for much of his life, and only published it in 1843, dedicated to one of his most unabashed admirers Queen Victoria.

In spite of the obviously labored process, Scottish Symphony, like many of his pieces, belies the care by exuding instead a fresh, spontaneous, easy air – particularly this joyous second movement. The work has been criticized for not containing any recognizably Scottish folk tunes, and Mendelssohn’s symphony is probably about as authentically Scottish as Gene Kelly’s Brigadoon, but such a literal homage was neither his strong suit nor his creative intention.

Still, to non-native ears, his lilting reed melody sounds like maybe it could be some Highland tune (0:07-0:45). And when the boisterous brass muscle their way into the fun (0:46), Mendelssohn employs just enough rough hardiness (a rare feature in his typical sound) to invoke an appropriately rustic scene – at least in the minds of the inexperienced and urban bourgeois.

The strings behave throughout with quintessential Mendelssohn lightness, speed, precision, and whimsy. The woodwinds chirp along, providing a special texture and contrast. The brass, a bit more clumsy and burdened, generally stays out from underfoot, but good-naturedly supports the ensemble by echoing its simpler movements and sometimes by simply offering a well-targeted comical blast (2:14-2:16). All parties leap into full dance toward the end (2:56-3:41), and then the merriment fades into the distance, its last notes muffled and blown away by the breeze.

Well done, so have a piece of cake for Mendelssohn this week – Happy Birthday, dear!

Here is his musical Scotland postcard, at either Amazon or iTunes.

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Brahms’ one and only violin concerto is brilliant. Many might even say it is the very best – no small praise considering the number of other equally excellent contenders.

Violinist Joseph Joachim compared Brahms’ concerto to Beethoven’s, and there are many similarities. Both have lengthy, majestic, muscular first movements, but sunny and warm as well. Both have second movements in which the lyrical pathos has been handed over to the orchestra, and the violin plays against it, lovely, wistful, yearning, and pierced through by the beauty.

But Beethoven made sure that his adagio melody was sparse, halting, austere, and subdued so as to allow the violin to shine forth all the brighter in the foreground. Brahms, on the other hand, committed an unforgivable sin against all violinists.

Gentle woodwinds set the stage (0:01-0:08), and then a star lifts up into the heavens – only it is not the solo violin. It is a solo oboe, flanked, served, and worshipped by her gracious woodwind and horn attendants. Nor is this some pedestrian, restrained, unassuming melody begging for amplification or embellishment. It is, simply, perfect. It is profound, ravishing, hopeful, and complete (0:09-2:07).

The unintended insult was not lost on violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), who refused to perform the work and explained with an injured sniff, “I don’t deny that it’s fairly good music, but does anyone imagine that I’m going to stand on the rostrum, violin in hand, and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the Adagio?”

The oboe solo is a tough act to follow – what more even needs to be said? And yet, mild chagrin aside, the strings pick up their instruments and bravely answer the challenge. Another star rises to fill the spot where its predecessor has modestly set. The solo violinist transforms the melody, making sure to clearly and faithfully render the letter of its demands (2:15) before breathing, swelling, sighing, its spirit (2:24).

The violin’s voice leisurely lilts along, cascading over the simple melody, and even seems to get slightly carried away and lost in rhapsodic anguish during a brief minor-mood episode (3:38-4:29). As if bewildered by forest darkness, she carefully retraces her steps and persistently pushes through the wood in search of light, with increasing swiftness and urgency (4:30-5:16).

In one note, the violin voice finds her way back (5:17), and hovers triumphantly over Brahms’ beautiful adagio melody repeated by the original oboe (5:33). In musical terms, this is called the “recapitulation” – the first melody of the piece returning at the end, often having gained greater strength and complexity in the interim.

As if to completely silence all competition, the violin star surges into one last climactic embellishment, giving us all an expression so entirely violinistic – warm, powerful, romantic, passionate, quavering in almost human emotion (7:35-7:54) – that the memory of that oboe fades into the background…where Sarasate would no doubt have all other instruments except his own remain.

But for those virtuoso violinists so moved, inspired, and transfixed by Brahms’ unparalleled prelude that they almost forget to come in on time, for them, the master’s sweet transgression against them is more than forgiven.

I have always been quite fond of Sarah Chang.
Here is her Brahms, on Amazon and iTunes.

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