Dwelling on the past: Piano Concerto No. 2

The challenge for composers when writing the final movement of a concerto is to wrap up the piece by bringing back themes from previous movements, introducing something new, showing off the soloist’s technical ability, and by leaving the listener with a distinct message. It could be one of disillusionment, satisfaction, joy, even excitement. Often, I imagine the composer thinking, Ok, I’ve said all I want to say. Now for a bit of fun.

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The final movement of a symphony or concerto is often the most difficult for listeners when it comes to finding meaning. There is no easy answer to the question: “what is the composer saying here?” Final movements are often the least cohesive and can jump around between different sentiments. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3 begins with an almost comic interlude. This, after ending an incredibly delicate, emotional second movement, seems to snap us out of a trance and bring us back down to earth where time is ticking again. In the first half of the clip below the feeling is light and comical, but it quickly morphs into anxiety. And time seems to be ticking faster.

While listening to this movement, I imagine that I have just awaken from the most sweet dream (movement 2) and now I must act quickly to make that dream a reality, or it will be lost forever. Much of this movement feels frantic. Of course, Rachmaninov takes this opportunity to write an insane run in the left hand that is mind-blowing to me still, after dozens of hearings. It is hard to believe that just ten fingers are producing that many notes.

1zhY8The new theme that is introduced is reminiscent of the slower, sweeter theme of the second movement. There is something about the way this melody sounds that reminds me of a romanticized Middle East, like in the movies. Like a bright, wide-open landscape with golden sand shimmering in the sun. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?

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The remaining clips I’ll share convey the sense of longing that Rachmaninov comes back to again and again. It is the near obsession, the intense longing for something or someone who may only exist in dreaming. It is the longing for a happier, better reality than the one we currently find ourselves in. It grows more intense as the movement progresses. First we find it in the piano, then with greater intensity and dissonance with the full orchestra.

Sometimes I think Rachmaninov never really gets past the second movement in this concerto. It seems to be the climax of the concerto, and because it is such a masterpiece, it seems that anything he could have written after would exist in the shadow of it. Though this is my least favorite of the three movements, it is still worth a listen because of the raw virtuosity of the pianist and the closure that finally does come at the end.

Up next: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’ll be a wild ride.

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Clarinet recital videos: Ibert

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IU5R9dR43E]

Trois Pièces Brèves by Jacques Ibert

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) was a French composer who wrote in a modern, yet Romantic style. Romanticism appeals to wider audiences because of its tangible, often extreme emotions, lyricism, and memorable melodies. It is often programmic, meaning that it characterizes a specific story. As Allan McMurray (now retired from CU-Boulder after 35 years as Director of Bands) would say, “All music is doing one of two things. It’s either singing or it’s dancing.” Trois Pièces Brèves (Three Short Pieces) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn by Jacques Ibert has examples of both.

Movement one is a fun, carefree country dance. While there is an oboe solo in the middle that seems to call into question the carefree atmosphere, the dance resumes and works itself into a frenzy by the end of the movement. Though the form is not technically the same, the melody of this dance sounds like an Irish Gigue to which Ibert would have had some exposure. A gigue is characterized by a strong backbeat which can inspire toe-tapping, even knee-slapping. Please keep the knee-slapping to a dull roar during the performance.

Movement two is a ballad (love song) featuring the flute and clarinet. It is a conversation between the two, sometimes in close harmony, sometimes fairly independent of one another. It contains some rubato which is defined as the pushing forward and pulling back of tempo (speed), where the performer is allowed to be more expressive and free than in other music. It is the performer’s objective to imitate the human voice in these passages. The horn player in this movement is made to count dozens of measures of rest and then play one long, low, muted note. Brass players often find themselves doing this in orchestral music, but it is rare to rest that long in a woodwind quintet setting.

Movement three opens tentatively with solos in horn and bassoon that are reminiscent of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The two dances in this movement are a quick dance in 4 and a waltz in 3. The exuberant clarinet and flute solos pass to oboe who again represents the more serious voice. In general, this movement could be characterized as “episodic” meaning that it passes from one event to the next quickly, with little transitional material, similar to a TV series episode.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0Xn5IoXpeY]

Clarinet recital videos: Aubin

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3DFU9Uisuw]

The title of this piece, Le Calme de la Mer, is French for “The Calm of the Sea.” It is a work of French Impressionism, though its composer, Tony Aubin (1907-1981) lived and composed much later than other Impressionist composers. This piece was published in 1965 while most impressionist works were published before 1920. Aubin was influenced by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Paul Dukas, who was one of Aubin’s teachers.

aa_22To the right is a photograph of Tony Aubin coaching a trio with the same instrumentation as this piece: flute, clarinet, and piano. This is a rare instrumentation because all of the instruments sound in a generally higher pitch than other groups who have low-sounding instruments as well as high. A trio with just three performers has the advantage of being small enough for each instrument to get a chance to perform the melody, accompany it, and play in close harmony.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rh14nwc0xto]

Clarinet recital videos: Hommage a M. De Falla

manuel-de-fallaHommage à M. De Falla is an exciting, visceral piece that was composed in the style of a traditional Spanish dance known as flamenco. Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) was arguably the most famous composer in Spanish history and lived in Madrid, Paris, and finally Argentina after the Spanish civil war in 1939. This work is especially well-written for unaccompanied clarinet because Kovács made the clarinet sound like several different instruments, often at the same time. For example, in the beginning, the clarinet sounds like trumpets playing a fanfare or horns at the start of a hunt. During the fast section, the clarinet sounds much like Spanish guitar strumming major and minor chords and finger picking between two strings.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W98NprBB2vs] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r61SrjHG4J0]

Clarinet recital videos: Hommage a C. Debussy

An hommage is a piece of music written to pay tribute to something or someone. In this case, the tribute is being paid by Hungarian clarinet professor Béla Kovács to French composer Claude Debussy. Béla Kovács (b. 1937) is Professor of Clarinet at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and performs in orchestras in Budapest, Hungary. Here is what Professor Kovacs had to say about these pieces:

My pedagogical activities inspired me to compose the Hommages. The pieces were Bela-Kovacs intended to be etudes or studies which students may use as supplementary material to the usual dry and mechanical – although indispensable – exercises. They contain various challenges. If performed with impressive dexterity, proper tone production and sufficient knowledge of styles, coupled with a sense of humor and a certain amount of fantasy, they could, hopefully, find success even on the concert stage. I recommend the Hommages to all my former, present, and future students, and also to those, who, recognizing their value, may wish to devote more concentrated attention to them.

Béla Kovács is an excellent replicator of various composers’ styles, such as that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The bulk of Debussy’s works fall under the category of French Impressionism, which was a movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that departed from the more obvious, overt style of Romanticism. Impressionist music is much like impressionist art: it depicts the figurative meaning of a person, object, or scene rather than the literal portrait. The emotions are more subtle and covert. Also, the melodies are more difficult to identify because they weave together an atmosphere rather than a song or dance. Kovács directly quotes at least two of Debussy’s works in this piece for unaccompanied clarinet including his Premiere Rhapsody and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is perhaps Debussy’s most famous work.

Clarinet recital videos: Rossini

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t written in a couple months, here’s why! I gave a solo clarinet recital and played introduction videos to each piece I performed. I’ll explain more about my vision behind this kind of performance later. Enjoy!

 

Here are the program notes I wrote for this piece:

Introduction, Theme & Variations by Gioachino Rossini 

Composer_Rossini_G_1865_by_CarjatHave you heard the theme from the 1960s television series Bonanza? What about the famous tenor, Pavarotti, singing “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro?” Those famous tunes come from Gioachino Rossini’s (1792- 1868) operas, William Tell and The Barber of Seville. When most people think of Italian Classical music, they think of Rossini. His style is graceful yet dramatic, comical yet powerful. It is generally believed that Rossini composed Introduction, Theme & Variations as a student project at the Bologna Conservatory of Music when he was very young. Indeed, theme and variations is a great form to practice for composers because it helps them think creatively about a melody and how it can morph to take on different shapes, characters and emotions. In this piece you will hear a broad, sweet-sounding introduction, a playful theme, five variations on the original theme that become more and more exciting, showing off the full range and velocity of the clarinet, including a slow, semi-serious variation in a minor key, and a dramatic cadenza.

Life and Death: Symphonic Dances

0What do journalists and Classical composers have in common? They both love a good conflict. On news programs, especially the 24-hour cable networks, the stories are often about violence, terrorism, or war, and when they don’t report on that, they bring in two people with opposite views to debate current events. On the other hand, composers write about conflict in more abstract ways, depicting battle, or a struggle between two extremes, such as good versus evil, love versus hate, or life versus death.

In the case of the final movement from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the struggle depicted is life versus death. As you can hear from the clip above, the introduction of this movement is very tense, like the flurry of activity of soldiers before battle.

It is common for Romantic era composers to choose a melody or motif to represent a specific character or idea. German composer Richard Wagner was famous for this, and musicologists eventually named this technique leitmotif. In Rachmaninov’s case, there are two leitmotifs in this movement – one for death and one for life. The theme that depicts life was taken from Rachmaninov’s earlier choral work, Vespers, in which it characterized the resurrection of Christ. It would seem that it was modified from its original form to take on a more suspenseful, dance-like character for Symphonic Dances:

The theme Rachmaninov used to portray the idea of death is quoted from a 13th-century Roman Catholic hymn called Dies Irae. It means day of wrath.

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The clip below plays it in two versions: the fast version played by the strings and a slower, more pure version played by the brass. The fast version modifies the rhythm and plays it twice as fast. The musical term for that rhythmic modification is known as diminution. Both of these represent death throughout the movement.

There comes a time in every conflict where the outcome must be decided, and such is the case during the climax of this movement. Rachmaninov employs the use of power chords in this section to drive home the level of intensity in the conflict between life and death. I have always loved the way this composer writes a very appealing passage and then takes is a step further. He writes 5 seconds of power chords and then modulates the key up a full step to add excitement. You may have to listen closely to the first half of this clip again to catch it.

Similar to movies where the hero gets beat up at first when fighting mano a mano with the villain, the same seems to be true here as the dies irae theme takes over in the second half of this clip played by French horns. This time the rhythm is played at half the speed of normal. Instead of diminution, where it is played twice as fast, playing at half speed is known as augmentation.

In the end, though, Rachmaninov picks life over death. He wrote on the subject of death in many of his works to stir up the tension and intrigue of conflict, and in so doing, the listener’s interest. Listen to how he modified the resurrection theme to sound more heroic and triumphant:

RachmaninovAre you enjoying the series on Rachmaninov so far? There is so much to listen for, I find myself listening to his music over and over and hearing something new each time. I have at least three more pieces in mind that I’d like to discuss, so stay tuned.

Sadness: Chopin

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Frederic_Chopin_photoTo wrap up the sadness and sorrow in my series on Emotion in Classical music, I thought I’d share with you Piano Prelude No. 4 in E Minor by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). By the way, his last name is pronounced “show-pan.” Just at little pet-peeve of mine.

Other than the guitar, the piano is my favorite solo instrument. It is amazing that the action of pushing down a key that operates a lever that pushes a hammer against two strings can sound so expressive. I have heard performances of music by Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann that make the piano sound like a full orchestra, or pieces by Claude Debussy that make it sound like a soft flute or a human voice. Or water trickling down a stream, or a thunderstorm, or beating heart. In Prelude No. 4, the piano sounds like sighing, or rain drops streaming down a nearby window.

There is pain in this piece but it is not as intense. It is more reflective. It feels like regretting a missed opportunity, remembering how great things used to be compared to now (the “good old days”), going to work when it’s your birthday, or perhaps remembering a loved one who is long gone. The melody and harmony give the listener a feeling of sinking, as they have a downward contour, going from the note A to E. There is a moment where our feelings are becoming more intense and less responsive to reason, as in the middle section with the fast, high notes, but that quickly returns to the dreary atmosphere in which it began. Just when the listener expects a resolution, Chopin surprises him with a false, or deceptive chord. To me, this represents the way one can not find a fitting resolution to feelings or regret or sorrow. In the end, it becomes tiring to dwell on it, which is where I believe the end of this prelude leaves us. What does this piece represent for you?

Deep space nebulaeChange in program: next week’s emotion will not be Loneliness/Isolation, it will be Awe/Wonder. I thought this would be fitting given the Christmas season. There are some great pieces I had planned to discuss in Loneliness and Isolation such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin, but that’ll have to come at another time. Merry Christmas!

Sadness: Whitacre

WhitacreEric Whitacre (b. 1970) is one of the most popular composers, conductors, and clinicians today. He is very charismatic, tech-savvy, and has just received his first Grammy award. Be sure to check out his website where there are many amazing projects, such as his virtual choirs which are explained in his Ted Talk. While principally a composer of choral works, my favorite piece of his was written for band, or wind symphony as those in the profession call it.

October by Eric Whitacre is today’s piece of Classical music that expresses sadness. Here is what the composer has to say about the piece:

October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt that same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season.

I share Whitacre’s sentiments, but I would add that to me, the piece expresses a sad, emptiness. Listen to the couple of clarinets accompanying the oboe soloist.

It seems as though the oboe is calling out for comfort, a kind word, love or acceptance. As I hear this part, I do imagine a pastoral scene where I am in the middle of a field of wheat, completely alone without a soul in sight. The scene has a chilling beauty to it, as though it would make me happy if only I had someone to share it with.

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Soloists often express human emotion the most tangibly. There are two oboe solos in this piece and a rare euphonium solo as well. If you are not familiar, a euphonium is a low brass instrument with roughly the same range as a trombone. However, it has valves like a tuba and has a bell that faces up instead of forward. It tends to have a sweeter, more muted sound than the trombone. The University of North Texas, where I received my masters degree, has the only full-time euphonium professor, Brian Bowman. I gained a new appreciation for the instrument during my time there, being surrounded by so many great euphonium players.

I confess that it is difficult to listen to this piece without shedding tears. Even when I heard it for the first time in high school, I cried. And high school-age boys are not supposed to cry. I suppose I couldn’t help it, as there are some sections that express the heaving kind of crying, weeping, or sobbing. It seems that waves of emotion come over the listener during some sections, such as this one:

While the piece does end on a strong major chord, it is only after a long emotional journey. The feeling the listener is left with by Whitacre is one of a greater appreciation and greater affection for that which is important in life. This is perhaps the chief utility of negative emotions like sadness and sorrow: to give us a better perspective on the good. Thanks, Eric.

Longing for encouragement: Elgar

Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is a theme with a set of variations written about various people Elgar knew throughout his life. These people ranged from his wife, (variation 1) to his friend’s dog (variation 11) to a great friend and mentor (variation 9). It is variation number nine, entitled “Nimrod,” that expresses a great sense of longing. You may have heard this piece during the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer 2012 Olympic Games.

The names of these variations are meant to mask the person’s real identity, but in this case we know the real name is Augustus Jaeger, an older friend, critic, and a source of great encouragement for Elgar. It is said that when Elgar had many setbacks in his career, or felt depressed and thought about giving up composing, Jaeger was always there to encourage him to take heart and continue writing. Elgar reportedly stated that this movement is not so much of a portrait of Jaeger, but “a story of something that happened.”

I admire Elgar for writing a piece about people who have inspired and encouraged him. It sounds like a good exercise to sit down and write about those who have encouraged me over the years. This variation about the encouragement Edward Elgar received is in itself an encouragement to me. It helps me remember that I would not be the person I am today without the encouragement of my parents, my wife, my friends, clarinet teachers, and various other mentors in my life.

And that’s why I want to tell you about my friend, Jesus Christ.

Just kidding! You thought I was about to get preachy. But seriously, this work does remind me of Jesus. I was at a conference in college when I first heard Variation IX. It was the soundtrack to some powerful scenes from blockbuster movies. A word would appear on the screen, like “courage” and then it would show a scene from Saving Private Ryan, or it would say “true love” and would show the final scene from Sense and Sensibility. Finally, it said “sacrifice” and showed a scene from The Jesus Film with Jesus dying on the cross. I don’t remember the last slides, but the message was about the story of creation and how we have a God that loves us through it all. He has been a source of encouragement since I was very little and heard my first bits of Classical music. When I think about the way Jesus lived his life, the way he encourages me in dark places, and how he is so present in this moment the way this music is, I long for his goodness.

Instead of going into the musical reasons why this piece is so powerful, I have some homework: listen this piece in its entirety, with no distractions, and meditate on someone who has inspired you. Did anyone specific come to mind? Be encouraged and thankful for him or her, and let the longing you feel motivate you to continue doing all of the good things you do.