Friday, July 28, 2017

Mendelssohn - Rondo Capriccioso For Piano, Opus 14

No one is quite sure when Felix Mendelssohn composed the Rondo Capriccioso, with some musicologists offering up as early as 1824 when he was 15 years old. But there is certainty when it was fully composed and revised, for Mendelssohn put the date of June 13, 1830 on the revision.

Perhaps Mendelssohn revised it for a specific pianist, Delphine von Schauroth, who was from Munich. She was close to Mendelssohn's age, and they had met again when Mendelssohn was passing through Munich during his tour of Europe. They had met earlier in Paris in 1825, and Mendelssohn was quite taken with her. He thought about proposing marriage, but never did.

The Rondo Capriccioso is in two sections:

Andante In E Major - Modern research has determined that this section was added to the original etude in E minor during the revision of 1830.  It begins softly, and the melody is a Song Without Words, a type of piano piece that was one of Mendelssohn's specialties.  It lyrically leads to a segue to the next section.

Presto In E Minor - This second section is also one of Mendelssohn's musical specialties; music that is quick, light and sparkling.  The technical demands on the pianist are not excessive, but there are some rapidly repeating thirds in the right hand that are a challenge to play in tempo with the lightness of touch needed. Material from the opening section returns briefly, and the music shifts to E minor for an ending in thundering alternating octaves. The entire piece lasts a little over six minutes, and was popular throughout the 19th century. it is still played in student recitals as well as by professional pianists as an encore.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alkan - Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Opus 33

Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote his Grand Sonata 'The Four Ages' after he returned to performing in 1844 after a six-year hiatus. The work was published in 1847. Alkan lived in an apartment in Paris, the Square d'Orléans for about ten years and was a neighbor to Chopin. They became close friends, and he became acquainted with many other artists that lived in Paris at the time, including Franz Liszt. 

The work is in 4 movements, with each one portraying the ages of a man. Alkan wrote a preface to the published work where he expressed his intentions with the titles and structure of the sonata:

Much has been said and written about the limits of musical expression. Without adopting such and such a rule, without seeking to answer any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I shall simply say why I have given such titles to these four parts, and sometimes use quite unusual terms. 
It is not a question here of imitative music, still less music seeking its own justification, the reason for its effect, its value, in an extra musical environment. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and the fourth an andante and a largo, but each of them corresponds, in my case, to a particular moment of existence, to a particular disposition of the imagination. Why should I not point it out? The musical element will always subsist, and the expression can only gain by it, executing it, without renouncing it, it is inspired by the very idea of ​​the composer. Such a name and a thing seem to clash, taken in a material sense, which, in the intellectual domain, combine perfectly. I believe, then, that I ought to be better understood and better interpreted with these indications, however ambitious they appear at first glance.

Let me, moreover, be permitted to invoke Beethoven's authority. It is well known that towards the end of his career this great man was working on a catalog of his principal works, in which he was to be instructed on what plan, what remembrance, what kind of inspiration the work had been conceived.
I. 20 ans (at 20 years) Très vite' (very fast) - The plan of this sonata is quite unique for the time, as each movement is slower than the previous one, and the sonata opens with the movement with the quickest tempo, a scherzo. This musical portrayal of a twenty year old man begins with spirit and brashness as the music begins in D major, and ends up with a chord in B minor:

A more lyrical theme plays out and the opening material makes another appearance. The lyrical theme returns on chords in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left. A short coda in B major brings the movement to a close.

II. 30 ans (at 30 years) Assez vite (quite fast) -  The next movement is not only the longest  of the sonata, but it contains much of the extreme technical and interpretive difficulties of the work. It is a musical representation of the Faust legend, and is complete with musical representations of Faust, The Devil and Margaurite. There has been discussion among musicians and musicologists as to how this sonata movement may have inspired Franz Liszt in his writing of his Piano Sonata In B Minor. Eight years separate the publication of Alkan's sonata (1847) and Liszt's (1854) so it is possible that Liszt saw the music of Alkan's sonata. But there is no evidence that he did, nor a clue that  Alkan's sonata was ever performed in public until the 1970's.  Alkan gives the tempo designation of Satanically to the beginning of the music, which begins in the rare key of D-sharp minor and represents Faust:
The first section of this movement proceeds in dramatic fashion with rumbling, dashing music until the Devil himself shows up. There is no mistaking who it is, for Alkan marks his entrance in the music. The Devil's theme is in B major, pompous, loud and saunters in a slightly off-kilter rhythm:
The music continues in Mephistophelian bombast until the next character of the story is introduced, the symbol of love in the story, Marguerite, a woman who falls in love with Faust but comes to a bad end through the machinations of the Devil. Marguerite's theme begins in G-sharp minor in music of simple tenderness. (The theme begins in the 4th beat of the 4th bar)
This theme changes to G-sharp major (another rare key) and also turns dramatic. This movement is in sonata form, and now that the three character themes have been introduced in the exposition, Alkan proceeds to play them against each other in a development section of highly dramatic and virtuosic music. The music of the development winds down into huge arpeggios in alternating hands that traverse the length of the keyboard:
But the music does not proceed to the recapitulation just yet. Slowly a four-bar theme marked et aussi lié que possible (as connected as possible) plays in the bass. It is the subject of a fugue that is played out before the recapitulation. This fugue grows until it reaches its limit of eight separate voices spread out over 4 staffs of dauntingly complex music:
Themes return and are transformed as the recapitulation builds to a heady climax in F-sharp major representing victory over evil.

III. 40 ans (at 40 years) Lentement (slowly) - The incredible demands of the previous movement, both technically and musically, are countered in the third movement by music that is more mellow and lyrical.The movement has the subtitle Un heureux ménage (A happy household). The life of a man surrounded by his family, with sections that depict children and evening prayers are included:

IV. 50 ans (at 50 years) Extrêmement lent (extremely slow) - The year after this sonata was published was 1848, the year that revolutions occurred in many countries in Europe, including France. Paris was in turmoil as the February Revolution in France began to undo the constitutional monarchy in favor of what became the 2nd Republic. In the chaos of change, Alkan was passed over for the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Due to intrigues and politics, a minor musician got the job instead, with Alkan becoming bitter over the loss of the position. The revolution also took its toll on any publicity Alkan's sonata may have gotten, and the work itself was unique in form and technically difficult, which also didn't help it any.

Subtitled Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound), Alkan includes on the title page of the movement some lines from the ancient Greek play about the Titan Prometheus that was condemned to suffer eternally for bringing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. This version of the myth is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. Alkan quotes lines 750-754, 1051 and 1091, words that mirror the Romantic era excesses of personal emotions:
 Ah, you would hardly bear my agonies to whom it is not foredoomed to die; for death would have freed me from my sufferings. Do what he will, me he shall never bring to death. You see the wrongs I suffer!
The myth has Prometheus chained to a rock, and an eagle eats his liver. Every day his liver grows back and he has to suffer the torment of the eagle eating it again.

This myth and the lines from the Greek play set the stage for a man at fifty years of age, a life that consists of waiting for death. The movement begins with ominous rumblings:

 The movement is in the key of G-sharp minor, a key far removed from the key of D major that began the sonata. The mood of somber resignation of death seldom lifts from the music as it restlessly plods on until the closing bars that rise in volume and intensity, only to give out in the final bar that is played pianissimo.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Chopin - Twelve Etudes For Piano Opus 25

Chopin published his second set of 12 etudes for the piano in 1837, four years after his Etudes Opus 10. The second set continues in giving musical worth to technical exercises, and remains popular today. While the opus 10 set was dedicated to Franz Liszt, the opus 25 set was dedicated to Liszt's mistress, Marie d'Agoult. Why Chopin did that is still a mystery.

1. In A-flat Major 'Aeolian Harp' -  As in the first set, there are some etudes in this set that have nicknames. None of them originated with Chopin, as he didn't like to put names on his works, and he didn't like others doing it either.  Robert Schumann supposedly nicknamed this etude. An aeolian harp is essentially a box that has strings stretched across the top of it between two bridges that is put into a window or outside where the breeze goes over the strings and make them sound. This etude has a simple melody played in the top notes of the right hand while an arpeggiated accompaniment is played in the right hand and left hand.
Stretches in both hands as well as musical balance is the problem, as the grace note arpeggios need to be in the background while the melody is accentuated.

2. In F Minor - This piece is in cut time, essentially 2/2, but with eighth note triplets in the right hand and quarter note triplets in the left hand, so a slight rhythmic ambiguity arises. A kind of optical illusion for the ear. The dynamics are mostly subdued, and played legato throughout.
The main technical problem with this piece is playing in the correct time with both hands. 

3. In F Major - An etude that challenges the player with different rhythmic patterns in each hand. The opening 8 bars are repeated, and made even more complex with added notes in the right hand. The difficult rhythmic scheme runs throughout the piece.

4. In A Minor - Both hands play staccato chords with a melody line emerging here and there. An atypical piece for a composer known for his love of singing piano tone.

5. In E Minor 'Wrong Note' - Of course Chopin didn't write 'wrong' notes, but this etude is full of minor second intervals, an interval that can give the impression of incorrect notes. The left hand plays large rolled chords while the right hand plays the stumbling, wrong note theme.

The initial theme is played twice before a new theme enters in E major. This new theme is in the left hand and played in chords and octaves while the right hand plays an accompaniment in thirds that goes up and down the keyboard. This new theme is played twice and followed by the opening theme , this time in a more complex form. Chopin was a composer that seldom repeated himself verbatim in music. The ending changes things again, with wrong notes and chords. Chords are held while the inner voices of both hands play a trill. An arpeggio played triple forte leads to the ending note on G-sharp, implying the music has ended in E major.

6. In G-sharp Minor 'Thirds' -  Thirds are played throughout in the right hand, with the difficulty being playing them smoothly and at a relatively soft volume. The left hand compliments the thirds and make the etude more musical while at the same time adds to the difficulty. The phrasing of the left hand groups in the beginning slur over the bar line.

7. In C-sharp Minor -  Next to the piano, the cello may have been Chopin's favorite instrument. He wrote some pieces that have the melody in the bass and remind the listener of the range and character of music for the cello. This etude is one of those pieces, and is sometimes referred to as the 'cello' etude.
It begins with a solo in the bass. Soon it is joined by an accompaniment played in the right hand along with a counter melody at the top of the treble clef, essentially making this an etude in three parts. Towards the middle of the piece, the left hand displays runs as the right hand plays the accompaniment and melody. To bring out the two melody parts as the accompaniment plays in the background makes this difficult musically in itself, while the technical side of the music is no easy matter.

8. In D-flat Major 'Sixths' - As the nickname implies, this etude consists of the interval of a sixth in both hands until the very last bars. It is difficult to play scales and arpeggios in sixths of course, and that is what the music demands of the player.

9. In G-flat Major 'Butterfly' - One of the most recognizable of the etudes because of the nickname. The bouncing nature of the music can give the impression of a butterfly if the listener uses some imagination.
The difficulties of this etude are the jumps in the left hand, the bringing out of the melody in the right. hand, and bringing it all up to tempo. It is the shortest of the 24 etudes, and if played up to tempo lasts just under a minute.

10. In B Minor 'Octaves' - The piece begins with brutal triplet chromatic octaves in each hand. After the opening bars, notes are added between the octaves in both hands and add to the difficulty.
After the first few bars, notes are added between the octaves as a counter melody. This increases the difficulty tremendously as these notes are held down as the octaves are played around them. The middle section has the music shift to B major along with a slower tempo. Octaves continue in the right hand, and this section also has notes in between the octave notes. The right hand plays a two-part accompaniment, then there is a short transition back to a shortened version of the original material.

11. In A Minor 'Winter Wind' -  The etude begins in a quiet mood, but it is deceptive. After the first four bars, the music takes off as the right hand plays a complex pattern that is played throughout the piece while the left hand makes great leaps from playing low bass notes to chords.
The technical demands are considerable, the interpretive demands are no less so. It takes a great deal of endurance to play this etude. The final bars are a 4 - octave run of the A minor scale. There is no etude in this set (or the first set) that is less than difficult, and the 'Winter Wind' is one of the most difficult.

12. In C minor 'Ocean' -  Chopin ends the last etude of this series in the same key as the last in the first series, C minor.  Both hands play in a unique arpeggio pattern, and after the first bars Chopin throws in a melody in the top note of the right hand.

Snatches of melody interlace between the hands and are to be accented and brought out from the maelstrom of sound of the arpeggiations. The two sets of etudes have a sea of technical and interpretive difficulties that are summed up with this last one.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chausson - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 3

Ernest Chausson had a range of talents besides music. Through the urgings of his father, he completed his law degree and was appointed as a barrister to the court of appeals, but he was more interested in drawing, writing, and music. While he contemplated which way his life would go, he wrote a novel and spent time with his artist friends. He composed music as well, and played the piano as soloist and duet partner, and finally took private music lessons with Jules Massenet, an expense his wealthy family could easily afford. After these private lessons he enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1879.  His attempt to enter the Prix de Rome competition in 1881 met with failure, which led to him ending his studies at the Conservatoire and with Massenet at the end of the term.

After he left the Conservatoire he composed the piano trio which shows the influence Cesar Franck had on him even before he studied with him. The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Pas trop lent - Animé -  The first movement begins with an introduction that introduces dark themes that reappear in other movements. The remainder of the first movement itself contains fragments of the themes heard in the introduction. Chausson modulates his material widely throughout the exposition section. The end of the movement has dramatic restatements of an opening rhythmic motive of two eighth notes and a quarter note that alternate with more lyrical material. The rhythmic motive ends the movement.

II. Vite - The piano maintains its role as provocateur in this short scherzo as it scampers about while the two stringed instruments try to resist its influence. The structure is not in usual scherzo form, but is more of a set of sparkling themes that contrast with other more lyrical themes. It hardly has time for great profundity as it makes its way to its end.

III. Assez lent - This movement begins with a theme heard in the introduction of the first movement. The tempo is slower, and after the theme is stated it is changed and developed until another theme that is more lyrical is heard. The movement unwinds at a leisurely pace and is both sad and passionate in turn. There is much modulation in music that seems to slow down the sense of time as it continues. Traces of Wagner's influence on Chausson can be heard as well as Frank's, and the music ends in quiet repose.

IV. Animé - The final movement begins with a waltz that is far removed from the minor key music that has preceded it. Motives previously heard work their way back into the texture and by the end of the movement the mood has returned to the bleak minor key mood of the opening. With a grand piano run, the work ends fortissimo in G minor.


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