Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Feldman: Oboe on a desolate sea



Impressionist art (Sisley) goes well with Impressionist music (Delius), Expressionist Art (Kirchner) with Expressionist music (Schoenberg), Cubism (Picasso) with certain works of Stravinsky. What music does Abstract Expressionism best go with? (I'm sure you've always wondered that!) How about a piece by Morton Feldman (1926-1987) to accompany that particular painting by Mark Rothko?

Unquestionably of Feldman's finest pieces, Oboe and Orchestra is a poetic, hypnotic work that creates a mood of melancholy beauty and brings to mind (well, to my mind at least!) certain images - a scorched desert or the desolate southern oceans over which the oboe floats alone like an ever-migrating bird. Sometimes it floats calmly on gentle air currents of orchestral sound, at others it is buffeted by rougher winds over harsher, louder landscapes of sound. Some such impressions are, probably, inescapable when listening to such music - music that is generally quiet and at times ritualistic (those soft-sounding gongs!), oriental even (Japanese garden music!). The orchestra, though (surprisingly) large, is used precisely, sparely, atmospheric. Often it hums. It does have dramatic, even startling moments - as Feldman presumably doesn't want complacency to replace quietude! The oboe sings a long, sad, angular song, a line containing many memorable, frequently-returning gestures (those falling semitones, that octave-displaced three-note chromatic scale fragment) as well as many unpredictable turns (including piercing, bird-like cries). Structurally, the opening is sustained and quiet (and beautiful). A striking, more turbulent passage follows (like the sound of muffled howling winds). The two moods and types of music then alternate. In passing the harmony is highly dissonant, though you'd often feel it to be consonant. When the piece pauses on the note D - a D that spreads over several octaves - a new peace comes, marked by spellbinding magic, though the melancholy mood remains, deepens even. It's very beautiful, strange and haunting. The piece halts again, as if holding its breath.  From the sound of a low harp to the keening of the oboe and the aggression of the brass we move towards the looming 'crisis' - though, this being Feldman, it's a far from overstated crisis. The brass grow thuggish. The oboe's song grows yet sadder, lonelier, lovelier in response. The final minutes return us, delicately, to quietude. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Four Ages of Aaron Copland



Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of the handful of pieces which first turned me onto classical music in my late teens. (What the others were you will doubtless discover in due course!) I used to listen to it over and over again. I listen to it far less often these days but, even now, I still get a tingle down my spine whenever I hear its quiet opening bars.

Appalachian Spring is a piece I will save for another post. I want to use it, however, as a beacon on the landscape of Copland's output - the highpoint of his 'American' style, where that style appears at its simplest and most accessible. Other scores in his 'American' style cluster around Appalachian Spring and there are foretastes and aftertastes of it among his early and late works. Copland, however, wrote in several styles throughout his composing life and his music was not always so simple or accessible - it could also be tough, dissonant, modernist. He was a composer not only the music of prairies but also the music of the city. He could write in a populist folksong-inspired style but was no less capable of composing in a potentially crowd-displeasing abstract vein - the kind of music that could famously make the likes of Jackie Kennedy exclaim, 'Oh, Mr. Copland!' (after a performance of the late serialist work, Connotations).

To simplify (and how!), Copland began as a composer of the Jazz Age, passed into an Age of Modernist Austerity, embraced the New Deal ideals of American 'music for the people' and then reverted to modernism for a final Cold War Era of serialism. Of course, it's far from being as neat and tidy as that! Still, even if 'The Four Ages of Copland' is a simplistic concept I think it's not entirely unhelpful. I will chose four representative pieces from each 'Age' to give you a flavour of the range of Aaron Copland's wonderful music. The Jazz Age is represented by the Piano Concerto of 1926, the Age of Modernist Austerity by the Piano Variations of 1930, the New Deal 'Americana' period by the Violin Sonata and the Era of Serialism by the orchestral work Inscape.

The Piano Concerto comes from the time of Gershwin and his Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto and is the jazziest piece Copland ever wrote. I've long felt that the sort of symphonic jazz we hear in, say, Bernstein comes much more from this piece than from the more famous Gershwin pieces. The first part is influenced by the blues while the second part takes its inspiration from the livelier side of jazz. The arresting opening fanfares for trumpets and trombones, soon joined by the strings, are typical of Copland throughout his output. They have the confidence of 1920s skyscrapers. They repeatedly sound a three-note figure which is treated in canon, with cross rhythms. A memorable bluesy melody (with much use of the minor third) flows out from them in a blaze of lyricism. The soloist then enters and rhapsodises on this tune attractively. The three-note figure opens that melody too and continues to be influential throughout - and not just in the first movement - as orchestra and piano take turns in singing the blues. The movement moves between gently dreaming on this theme and bursting out in fresh fanfares and/or creating a complex cityscape of sound. With the second movement comes a dramatic switch of mood. There's a cocky-sounding piano solo in the style of a lively jazz improvisation to begin with.The jazzy writing in the piano part is reflected in the orchestra, especially when Copland begins making the orchestra sound like a jazz ensemble. Wild and catchy (it has another memorable main theme), this section should get you tapping your toes - at times. 


From popular music (jazz) and catchy tunes, it's onto something very different with the severely abstract  and unquestionably modernist Piano Variations. Bernstein - a great enthusiast for the piece - is often quoted about this piece saying that he could empty a room at parties just by playing it! Once you get to know it though, it's a piece you can get very enthusiastic about. It may seem like a strikingly dissonant and austere score but I would compare it to Bartok in its fierce energy and it's not all about percussive piano writing and sharply-angled phrases as there are also consoling, inward-looking passages and memorable ideas. The Piano Concerto drew a lot on that three-note figure and here Copland takes a five-note figure and makes that the basis of his piece. Here, though, he treats in a way closely akin to serialism - i.e. as a tone row. He keeps his harmonic language tonal though and the result is very far from dry. I find it a gripping work and love it to bits - as much as I love the Piano Concerto

On though to the Violin Sonata. Here we are recognisably in the world of Appalachian Spring, with simplicity, uncluttered textures, themes that sound like folk songs or hymn tunes and a pastoral atmosphere that is far from the urban jazz of the Piano Concerto and the abstracted cityscape of the Piano Concerto. This is music that aims to speak straight to the American people. What remains constant though is the composer's ability to make a lot from simple starting ideas. As in the Variations a five-note figure (which you will hear the violin play straight away) plays a key role, generating much of the material of the lovely first movement. If the Variations were fierce then the Violin Sonata is serene but the flow of lyrical melody is set alongside exhilarating and joyous passages. The central slow movement is remarkably simple - especially if heard after the Variations! The piano plays its own tune and the violin plays another, though there is no disharmony between the two whatsoever and they often walk hand in hand. The closing Allegro presents a highly puckish first subject and contrasts it with a more lyrical second theme before a jubilant dancing third theme enters. At the end, things slow and the music that began the first movement returns wistfully. 


When we enter the Age of Serialism and come to Inscape (the title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins) we find Copland returning to his own serial technique - that of the Piano Variations - but fusing it with the serial techniques of Schoenberg and his disciples. I chose Inscape rather than Connotations because it is more representative than Connotations in trying to keep tonality in play while simultaneously writing 12-note music - and also because I prefer it! Those twelve notes are all packed into the open chord before two-line writing begins - writing that does sometimes sound like the Copland of the open prairies. It changes places with further assertions of dissonant chords of the kind that recall the abstract urban landscape of the Piano Variations. Though he is wearing someone else's suit to a certain extent, Inscape still sounds like true Copland. Serial music seems to be plummeting out of fashion at a moment - not that Copland's serial works were ever really in fashion! - and part of me regrets that Copland felt he had to pursue the 12-tone path, but Inscape is a grand and often beautiful work and I'm glad he wrote it. 

None of these scores gets played very often in the United Kingdom, which is a shame. Radio producers and concerto programmes here should look beyond El Salon Mexico and the three great ballets (Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring)!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

41 Reasons to like Haydn



If I were to nominate one great composer for the title of 'Most Underestimated Composer' of all time it would be Haydn. As a small piece of proof for such a bold statement I offer a symphony with no special number and no helpful nickname. It's a work that few music lovers know despite being a loveable masterpiece. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Haydn's Symphony No.41 in C major

This sort of Haydn symphony - being in C and featuring trumpets and drums - is often called 'festive'. That word certainly captures its spirit!

The opening Allegro con spirito begins with a firm chord that strongly asserts the home key of C major. This chord provides the first note of the main theme. The horns continue to assert the home key (like a drone) as the gentle phrases of the genial main theme are presented - phrase by phrase - by the strings, dipping into the dominant and back again. More assertive chords then engage in dialogue with the oboes as the horns continue to play long, sustaining notes below - both chords and oboes taking their part in the unfolding of the theme. Trumpets and drums then blaze in to back the strings and expand the theme with (arpeggio-based) fanfares and (short scale-based) flourishes ending on the dominant. A short pause ensues and then we begin again in the home key, but this time with fresh colours in the assertive chords and the oboes joining with the horns in sustaining the gentler phrases of the theme. The passage where the theme was expanded first time round is re-imagined with the strings taking the lead and playing in an agitated tremolando manner (relegating the trumpets to providing a supporting role) as they begin to make a determined bid to change the key to G major (the dominant key), which they bolster by running up and down scales over two alternating harmonies before settling on and emphasising G major. A chattering, lightly-textured new theme (based falling scale fragments on strings, with punctuating harmonies from the trumpets and horns) further consolidates this key before the lyrical, lilting but rhythmically flexible second subject (strings only) enters. The trumpets and drums then return for the short, brilliant (and loud) exposition closing theme, jubilantly in G major...and this is all just the first one and half minutes of the symphony! I hope that description captures the unerring, exciting way Haydn handles tonality, plus the way he uses orchestral colour not only for pleasing textural variety but also to help clarity his themes and his musical argument. What I haven't yet mentioned is Haydn's ingenuity when it comes to rhythm. This movement begins in 3/4 time, but try counting in that rhythm and see how soon the 3/4 time beat becomes separated from the theme - hence, a 'flexible' theme. All these subtleties  are captured by the listener only half-consciously. The development section is full of drama and surprises - none of which I will spoil by describing before you discover them for yourself. There's a further dramatic surprise in the recapitulation - one that is sure to jolt you out of your expectations - which I also won't spoil for you. Note though how the oboes join the strings in playing the subject subject here. Even at this late stage in the movement new things are refreshing the parts others symphonists cannot reach. Originality, thy name is Haydn!

There's a newcomer to the symphony in the second movement Andante. The strings set out with the tune in a two-part texture with other strings. Then the newcomer - a flute - enters and the textures grow warmer and richer. This is the only movement of the symphony the flute appears in. Here it largely plays an accompanying role, but an accompanying role that stands out delightfully. The oboe sings an expressive melody before the flute completes it charmingly, innocently, to a light string accompaniment.  The strings alone then gently slither along before the flute returns to bring the exposition to a warm close. There is a short development section where the slithering figure runs through a fascinating harmonic excursion based on the main theme. The strings have this section largely to themselves. This is such a melodically attractive movement which, with all those delightful touches of orchestral colour, makes it such a pleasure to hear. Isn't it wonderful?

The Minuet brings back the trumpet and drums and is one of Haydn's tuneful aristocratic dances. The trio section is especially charming though, with its use of solo violin and horns to sing the folk dance-like tune. Such inspirations are what make Haydn minuets such irresistible creations. 

The Finale is a presto electrically charged by repeating notes and rapid scale figures. Trumpets and drums add their festive energy to the tremendous surge of momentum that this short but exciting movement generates. The movement is in sonata form and the development section continues the processes found at play in the exposition, spinning them through new keys, until the recapitulation begins. The final build-up to the close is pure joy. This is a fabulous movement to end one of Haydn's many, many great symphonies. 

My God, I hope you like it as much as I do after all that!

Scherzo triste - The Music of Pavel Haas



Though also born in Brno and Jewish, Pavel Haas's life followed a tragically different trajectory from that of Erich Korngold's. It's distressing to tell of it, but Haas (b1899) was one of those composers imprisoned by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp before being sent in 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was murdered. Haas was a well-known Czech composer living his life and writing his music before the Nazis invaded his life. He composed in Terezin and some of the scores written there survived or were reconstructed. It raises a gulp in the throat when you begin listening to these pieces, but listen you should - partly to preserve his memory, but even more so because his works are absolutely superb and will enrich your life. We are not talking about a minor composer here, as I'm sure you'll soon agree if you take a listen to the following survey of the works of the great Pavel Haas. His works must enter the mainstream.

Pavel Haas was a pupil of Leoš Janáček and something of his influence stayed with Haas throughout his life. You can certainly hear the Janáček of Taras Bulba - and even the still-being-composed Cunning Little Vixen - in the several sections of the Scherzo triste, Op.5 of 1921. If you love Janáček's music (and I certainly do) then you will treasure this delightful, skilfully-scored orchestral piece. There's no reason why a work of such colour, melodic attractiveness and (ultimately) deep beauty shouldn't become a much-loved classic.

If you were impressed by that then wait until you try Haas's String Quartet No. 2, 'From the Monkey Mountains', Op.7 of 1925, where the undoubted traces of Janáček's two great string quartets (The Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters) don't in any way detract from a remarkable achievement. There are four movements, of which the first, Landscape, is closest throughout to the teacher's idiom. The second, Coach, Coachman And Horse, however, has a remarkably original main section that will surely get you pricking up your ears! The slow movement, The Moon And I..., is certainly mysterious - and very beautiful. As for the final movement, Wild Night, well that holds a surprise which I won't divulge. (It's a musical first too, historically-speaking). I'll just say that if you were in any doubt about the Chinese inspiration behind the piece, you won't be after hearing this part of it! Yes, Haas certainly had a sense of humour. (There's more evidence for that in the rather inebriated-sounding second movement of the Wind Quintet, Op.10 of 1929). This superb work should be in the repertory of most quartets, though I suspect I can guess why it probably won't be (as I'm sure you can too).

By the time of the delightfully quirky Radio Overture, Op.11 (1931, written in praise of radio and Marconi!), Haas's musical language had  clearly fully taken on board the neo-Classical spirit of the age. Anyone familiar with Stravinsky's works of the late 1920s and early 1930s will recognise a kinship here (especially when the voices enter) and the use of Stravinskyan motor rhythms, a small orchestra with piano and jazz elements also reminds me of Haas's countryman, Bohuslav Martinů. However, the folk-elements derived from Janáček can still be heard and so can elements of Jewish traditional music - especially as the piece proceeds. All these influences cohere into a single, individual style that is highly winning. The piece is good-natured, elegant and full of memorable ideas. (For a further taste of Pavel Haas writing in this neo-Classical style, there's also his Suite for Piano, 0p.13 (1935)).

In the years just prior to Nazi Germany's invasion of his country, Haas hit the big time with his 1936 tragicomic opera, The Charlatan, Op.14. The appeal of this music can be heard from the six-movement orchestral suite devised in advance to draw in the punters. The music again integrates Janáček-style repetition and re-orientation of short folk-like phrases with Stravinsky-style neo-Classical cool - a winning combination that is unique to the music of Pavel Haas. The score abounds in sharply-defined, clearly-scored ideas. My favourite movements of the suite are the Con moto third movement and the Gaiamente fourth movement, where folk-melodies are repeated against a changing background (continuing the line of descent from our old friend, Glinka!), and the mysterious nocturne that is the Andante con moto fifth movement. The Gaiamente movement is also wonderful for conjuring up all the fun of the fair. I can see no reason why this suite shouldn't become popular with enough exposure.

In the year the Nazis completed their takeover of Czechoslovakia, Pavel Haas completed his masterly Suite for oboe and piano, Op.17. The high jinx of of the finale of the Second String Quartet, the Radio Overture and the opera suite have vanished, understandably. The three movements are marked Furioso, Con fuoco and Moderato. The first two markings might suggest a protesting spirit though the Furioso, in particular, is not what you would expect from such a marking, instead striking a dignified tone of sadness. The melodic material seems to draw strongly on the composer's Czech Jewish roots. The elegance, beauty and deep feeling of such writing is moving. The Con fuoco movement is just as exceptional, with its sudden and dramatic shifts of mood, its fine melodies for the oboe and its richly imagined piano writing. The closing Moderato sounds deeply sad for all the grace of its expression. It is very beautiful. Though direct in its emotional effect, this is subtle music that repays close listening. It's hard though not to associate the anguish and sorrow with how the composer must have felt at the turn of events at the time. This work should be a regular item in chamber recitals.

In 1940 Haas began writing a symphony. He didn't, however, manage to complete it as he was seized by the Nazis in 1941. The Czech musicologist Zdeněk Zouhar made a realisation of the Symphony  in the 1970s from what seems to have been a largely complete first movement, a sketch of the second movement and a fragment of the third. Had he lived, this supreme craftsman would have made added what only a true composer can add, but Zouhar's realisation is a fine attempt and reveals what a powerful piece the Symphony was about to be. It is hardly surprising that the gripping first movement - a sombre meditation on the fate of his nation - makes considerable use of Czech chorales and synagogue chants. The second movement is a dark scherzo which draws on that side of Haas's music that was formerly humorous and parodic and turns it into bitter satire. The Nazi Horst Wessel Song and (for mysterious reasons) Chopin's Funeral March are distorted sarcastically. The third movement begins heavy with foreboding and sadness as a chant-like melody unfolds against a mysterious, twinkling background before building towards a cry of agony...at which point it breaks off...


Haas was taken to the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin. When the Nazis made their notorious propaganda film to try and fool the world about conditions in the camp, one of the scenes showed prisoners performing a piece that Pavel Haas had composed there. He wrote several pieces in Terezin, some of which have been lost, others rescued. The man's ability to continue to write great music whilst living in one of the circles of Hell is remarkable - and the two pieces I'm about to introduce are certainly great pieces. One of them is that very piece from the propaganda film: Study for String Orchestra (1943). This piece begins full of the dancing rhythms of Czech symphonic music and shows a fresh command of the art of counterpoint. Suddenly though the vigour stops...a painful moment...and music full of poignant harmonies wanders in, as if lost in grief. It is a deeply haunting passage and Haas builds on it impressively as he cleverly begins the dance again, initially still troubled by the experiences of the preceding passage. The dance gradually regains the life-affirming energy of its former self but refuses to end on a major-key chord. Haas must have still had hope in is heart, which makes his ultimate fate all the more painful. Still, this Study lives on and if is life-affirming and it is Pavel Haas.

The other piece is the Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, composed in 1944 - the year of Haas's death in the gas chamber. The songs are I Heard the Wild Geese, In the Bamboo Grove, The Moon Is Far from Home and A Sleepless Night. Here the composer goes back to his roots in Janáček - with the style of vocal writing (for baritone) and the use of ostinatos in the piano part strongly recalling his teacher. These are among the greatest of Czech songs, very inward-looking and full of poignant yearning for home. You may spot the discreet use of ones of the Czech chorales also used in the Symphony.

The growth of interest in the music of Pavel Haas is sure to continue as more and more people grasp the power of his work.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Solid Korngold



Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was one of the great prodigies of music, producing works by the tender age of twelve that equal those of better-known prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn. Great composers from Mahler to Strauss acclaimed a genius in the making. The Brno-born Viennese boy grew into a composer who achieved worldwide fame with his operas and concert works. In the 1930s he moved between Austria and Hollywood and became one of the founders and greatest exponents of film music. Following the Nazi occupation of Austria, Korngold - being Jewish - stayed in America and became a U.S. citizen in 1943. Great film scores poured from him until, soon after the war ended, his efforts shifted firmly back to concert works. Alas, by this time his lush romantic style was becoming unpopular with the critics and his star waned. This period of neglect continued after his death until a couple of decades ago when a revival of interest in his music got into full swing. His star has risen again.

As a sample of what the 12-year old Erich was capable of please try the section from his Characteristic Pieces entitled Don Quixote's Conversion and Death, music of considerable sophistication - especially in its harmonies (which remind me at times of the celesta chords in the Presentation of the Silver Rose from Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier). That piano piece would deserve a 'Wow!' even if it wasn't written by a pre-teenage composer. Composed slightly later, and just as advanced harmonically, please also try the The Fairy Tale's Epilogue from his Seven Fairy Tale Pictures Op.3. Its opening bars have shades of Debussy and Schoenberg but the true-romantic melodist in Korngold soon takes wing - and how! Other pre-teen pieces include the ballet-pantomime Der Schneemann ('The Snowman'), the overture from which is performed here by an amateur orchestral, and - from his eleventh year - the Piano Sonata No.1, whose first movement espouses an adult-sounding dramatic rhetoric and whose finale takes the tricky form of a passacaglia on a theme by his teacher, Zemlinsky.

Reaching his thirteenth year, he finished his Piano Trio in D, Op.1. You can hear the lovely, ardent first movement here. He also wrote his grand Piano Sonata No.2 (a better work than the first) in which the surging Romanticism of the Largo third movement displays fully mature-sounding chromatic harmony and where the fiery, almost diabolical Scherzo holds a trio of rich Viennese charm at its centre.

By the age of 14 his mastery of the orchestra had yielded such a dashing score as the Schauspiel Overture, Op.4, music sure to appeal to any lover of the music of Richard Strauss...and talking of Strauss, around this time Korngold also wrote a set of songs known as his Einfache Lieder, Op.9 ('Simple Songs'). Please treat yourself to Sommer ('Summer') from that set in its lush (1917) orchestral guise, where the German's influence is felt most attractively. In another gorgeous song, Liebesbriefchen ('Love Letters'), the world of Marietta's famous lied from Die tote Stadt can be heard not so much in embryo but in full ripeness. Extraordinary songs.


By 15 years of age, Korngold had upped his game even further and written such a glorious piece as the Sinfonietta. Handling a large orchestra with the skill of a Strauss or Mahler, he used that fine beast to pour fourth a stream of glowing invention in this masterly score. Don't be fooled by the title as this is a 45-minute long work of symphonic proportions. It's a remarkable thing that, however wonderful his later works, Erich never surpassed this work of childhood. His mature voice is already found here - as anyone who knows his film scores will appreciate. The sumptuous, swashbuckling first movement is followed by a fiery scherzo (with a lustrous trio tune), then a dreamy, enchantingly-scored slow movement and a sweeping finale to round things off. The work opens with something that was to become the composer's signature in music - a figure make from two interlocking rising fourths and a rising fifth called 'The Motif of the Cheerful Heart'. This appears again and again in later Korngold works and in the Sinfonietta acts throughout as the springboard for much of his thematic material.

Other works from that time include the Violin Sonata, Op.6. You can sample its post-Wagnerian lyricism and emotional warmth here in the Adagio. Even rarer is this Heine-setting for chorus and orchestra, Der Sturm ('The Tempest'), where the youngster anticipates the style of some of his own middle-aged film music quite strikingly. (This is no idle fancy on my part. He re-used it in his score for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.)

So what was Erich Korngold writing in his late teens? Mainly operas. 1916 saw the birth of two of them - Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta. From Der Ring des Polykrates, please try the beautiful 'Diary Scene'. You must also try the glorious finale from Violanta (shades of Strauss's Elektra abounding) here, and orchestral excerpts from the score here and here. As well as these stage works, he also had time to write the String Sextet in D major, Op.10. The Brahms sextets and that other famous late-Romantic sextet, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, seem to be its closest antecedents - plus the usual dash of Richard Strauss - but it speaks in its own voice, even if that voice isn't quite the same voice as the more familiar Korngold of the orchestral music. There are four movements: a Moderato-Allegro, a nostalgic Adagio, a lyrical Intermezzo with a Viennese waltz for its trio and a presto Finale with plenty of panache. Throughout, the flow of melody is sure to win it friends. Korngold did briefly serve in the Austrian army during the First World War and from that period comes this brilliant Military March. Korngold composing light music!

By the time Korngold enters his early twenties he is ready to produce many of his best-known works, beginning with some incidental music to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. There's an orchestral suite which begins with a fizzing Overture followed by a nostalgia-suffused movement called The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber...at which point we'll cross to the popular version for violin and piano to hear this same beautiful section in a new guise and follow it with the mock-Mahlerian march Dogberry and Verges, the blissful Scene in the Garden and, finally, the lively and virtuosic Masquerade (Hornpipe). The orchestral version from the incidental music itself of this last movement is well worth hearing too. (Stravinsky's Pulcinella was just about to be written!)


Korngold entered the 1920s with his most famous opera, Die tote Stadt ('The Dead City'). We often hear its most famous highlight (originally a tenor-soprano duet) as a separate concert aria for soprano and orchestra, namely Marietta's Lied. I've always had a soft spot for it. The aria has a superb span of rapturous melody worthy of Puccini and those shifting harmonies at the end are pure magic. The orchestration is as enchanting as you'd expect from Korngold. The composer wisely reprised this tune at the close of the finale of his opera, giving it to the tenor. The other well-known number from Die tote Stadt is the beautiful lyrical baritone aria known as Pierrots Tanzlied. Puccini loved this opera - and so did Berg!

Following on from Die tote Stadt came the four melancholy Lieder des Abschieds ('Songs of Farewell'), glorious songs where the influence of Mahler is most keenly felt and where Korngold's gift for writing long melodic lines is again heard to its best advantage. You can hear a couple of them, Mond, so gehst du wieder auf ('Moon, You Rise Again') and  Sterbelied ('Requiem'), in their original versions for voice and piano at the links provided and Mond, so gehst du wieder auf can be heard along with Gefasster Abschied ('Serene Farewell') in their orchestral versions here. The orchestrations (made in 1923) really do carry the music into the soundworld of Strauss's widely-adored Four Last Songs of the late 1940s. Mond, so gehst du wieder auf, in particular, is particularly special and its haunting melody provides the theme for the variations of the slow movement of the Piano Quintet, Op.15. This centrepiece of the Quintet is a very fine movement, covering a surprising range of moods, keys and textures. The first movement is almost as good, having a fine sweep, plenty of lyricism and some lovely key changes. Unfortunately the Finale really isn't up to the same standard as its companions, for all its energy and cheerfulness.

Around the same time Erich wrote the first of his three string quartets. The String Quartet No.1, Op.26 is one of a few works from this time that show the composer writing in a somewhat more abrasive manner (foreshadowed by passages in Die tote Stadt), though such wild or anxious-sounding passages are assuaged by sweeter, more lyrical sections. The second movement Adagio shows Korngold pushing his chromatic harmony quite far, though without ever threatening to abandon tonality. The stylish Intermezzo isn't free from tension either but it's followed by a Finale where anxieties are replaced by a broad smile - and 'the Motif of the Cheerful Heart'. The First String Quartet is a fascinating work and ought to be played more often.

You may be familiar with the name Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist brother of Ludwig who lost an arm in the First World War for whom Ravel wrote his famous Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Korngold also wrote a Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for him - a heroic affair for the pianist with a lovely second subject. (The whole concerto can be purchased here.) That work from 1923 was followed seven years later by a chamber work for Wittgenstein - the Suite for 2 violins, cello and piano left-hand, Op.23. The titles of the suite's movement are in the same neo-Classical vein as found in Stravinsky and in Schoenberg's contemporary suites. Of course, the music sounds like neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg, though - as in the First String Quartet - there is a toughness at times in the Suite that is not usually associated with this composer and suggests that he was keeping up with the zeitgeist (a little bit). The opening Präludium und Fuge is quite powerful, the second movement Walzer is warmly nostalgic (and my favourite movement), the Groteske central movement is rather wild and interesting (with a sharply contrasted trio section), the following Lied is sweetly lyrical and the closing Rondo - Finale (Variationen) is a charmer.


Now that was a leap from 1923 to 1930, so what was Korngold up to in between the Piano Concerto and the Suite? Some songs (such as Was du mir bist? ('What are you to me?') from his Gesänge, Op.18), some piano pieces and the Baby-Serenade, Op.24. The major work of these years, though, was another opera - Das Wunder der Heliane. Many critics consider this, rather than Die tote Stadt, to be his operatic masterpiece, full of near-Expressionist experimentation whilst remaining quintessentially Korngold in its mix of passionate post-Wagnerian Romanticism and operetta-style lyricism. Some describe Heliane's gorgeous Act Two aria Ich ging zu ihm as an update of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, though it seems more Richard Strauss than Richard Wagner to me. The opera opens most beautifully and ends rapturously. The prelude to the Third Act is wonderfully like film music. 

Film music was soon to become very important in Korngold's life and career but before we reach 1934 and the composer's first visit to Hollywood, there's one of my favourite works to consider - the String Quartet No.2, Op.26 of that fateful year, 1933. This is such a Viennese-sounding work, full of imagination, fine craftsmanship, great tunes and charm - plus plenty of harmonic daring. I can't account for why it is so neglected. A part-dramatic, part-easy-going opening Allegro is followed by a lightly-sighing Intermezzo, a soulful and imaginatively-scored Larghetto/Lento and a delightful Finale in waltz-time (which rivals the waltzes of Strauss's Rosenkavalier) to finish.

In 1934 actor and director Max Reinhardt invited Erich to Hollywood to turn Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream into film music, which he duly did. Here's our man's transformation of the perfect Mendelssohn Overture into  pure Hollywoodelssohn. He stayed four years, writing some of the earliest classic film scores, beginning with the swashbuckling Captain Blood (1935) with its magnificent main theme and love scene, and continuing with - among others - The Green PasturesAnthony AdverseThe Prince and the Pauper and Another DawnWhat a feast of uplifting, romantic, tuneful, brilliantly-written, wonderfully orchestrated music lies on the end of those links! 

Korngold then went back to Vienna, but only very briefly because Hollywood beckoned again, asking for music for Errol Flynn's latest film of daring-do, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Korngold headed straight back to America and wrote this masterly score. Shortly after, Hitler sent his army into Austria and, obviously and very wisely, Korngold stayed put in the Land of the Free. More glorious film scores poured out of him in the following years - just to name most of them is to know their quality: JuarezThe Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a favourite of mine The Sea HawkThe Sea WolfKings RowThe Constant NymphOf Human BondageDeception and Escape Me Never

One of the consequences of all this film music was that when Korngold stopped composing film music in 1946 and returned to concert music he had a ready store of themes to plunder. For the Cello Concerto, Op.37 , however, he simply expanded a cello concerto that was integral to the plot of Deception and created a short but effective single-movement piece. Even better though is the now popular Violin Concerto, Op.35. This drew on themes from Anthony Adverse, Juarez, Another Dawn and The Prince and the Pauper. Only the worst kind of critic would now sniff at its tunefulness and populism, given the incredible quality of the music and the genius for craftsmanship displayed by its creator. Both the first and second movements are deeply lyrical - the first ardent, the second nostalgic in character - while the third combines lyricism with energy and fizzing virtuosity and has a climax where the orchestra rides in like the rescuing hero in a Hollywood blockbuster - a moment that always carries me away! 


Now, Korngold hadn't just been writing film music during the years leading up to the fall of Hitler. He also composed some of his finest songs - songs from Shakespeare. There are the glorious Songs of the Clown, op.29, of which I find Come Away, Death and For the Rain It Raineth Every Day particularly attractive. The Four Shakespeare Songs, Op.31 are also masterly, with a touching Desdemona's Song standing out.

1939 saw the birth of Korngold's latest opera, Die Kathrin - a more tender and far simpler work than his earlier operas. Typical lush scoring, catchy popular tunes, soaring romantic melodies, beautiful love-duets, a dash of Strauss, a splash of Puccini - it's got 'em all! (Critics seem much less enamoured with the plot, which they say is over-sentimental). Please try the Act One love duet, the Wanderer's Song, the Soldier's March and Prayer, the Letter Aria, the Nightclub Scene and the Serenade. That's a representative selection.

1941, the year America entered the Second World War and Nazi Germany decided on the 'Final Solution', saw Erich Korngold compose his only two religious works: His Passover Psalm, Op.30 for soprano, chorus and orchestra and his Prayer, Op.32 for tenor, female chorus, harp and organ. The Passover Psalm is the better piece and sounds remarkably like a thoroughly post-Romantic update of Schubert's lyrical choral music with added touches of Jewish melody. It's a splendidly stirring piece.

Besides the concertos, what did Korngold get up to in the twelve remaining years of his life after the end of the war? This final decade was the period when the tide of critical opinion shifted so painfully away from a composer whose success in the looked-down-upon medium of film music and 'outdated' Romantic style was not what was looked for in serious modern composers by those looking for tougher, harsher music to 'reflect the age'. He flopped when he attempted a comeback in Vienna and when back in America fared little better. Poor Korngold's sell-by-date had expired - at least according to the critics, some of whom were deeply unkind in their criticism of him (as is the way of the breed - sometimes!) Such things don't matter for us now, thankfully. We can judge those late pieces on  their own terms. 

Korngold began his return to concert music with the String Quartet No.3, Op.34. As with the concertos, he drew on themes from several of his films (Between Two World, The Sea Wolf and Deception), which gives the work its strong melodic appeal. However, here the result does unquestionably (to my ears) sound like 'proper' chamber music. The first movement and Scherzo, in particular, sounds surprisingly (and effectively) 'modern' - though the trio of the Scherzo is pure lyrical lushness. The slow movement is marked 'like a folk tune' and begins with a tender lyricism that should go straight to your heart, though there are nervous stirrings at the movement's heart and the music deepens interestingly. The Finale is tuneful feel-good music and it makes me feel good.


His final set of songs, the Fünf Lieder, op. 38, begins with Glückwunsch ('I wish you bliss') which has something of Marietta's Lied about it and is as lovely as that comparison might lead you to expect. The rest of the set maintains a high level. There's Der Kranke ('The sick one'), Alt-spanisch ('Old Spanish Song') - unusually Ravel-like -, Old English Song and, back to Shakespeare, My Mistress' Eyes

There are two more significant orchestral scores to go. The first is the Symphonic Serenade, Op.39. This seems to me to be an unqualified masterpiece, worthy to stand in the grand tradition (occupied by the likes of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, etc) of works for string orchestra. The opening Allegro is excellent, with an opening theme that is unquestionably (as we critical types say) inspired. The Intermezzo is somewhat in the vein of the Scherzo from the Third Quartet and, in its pizzicato writing, shows Korngold to be a master of orchestration to the very end. The third movement Lento religioso is very beautiful and seems to partake of the spirit of another of Austria's finest composers, Anton Bruckner, as much as of Gustav Mahler. (Who suspected that of Erich Korngold?) Typically, the Finale is fun but also a worthy conclusion to an impressive piece of 'symphonic' writing. 

The other major orchestral work from this period is the Symphony in F sharp, Op.40 - the work that seemed to sink Korngold in America. It's a fascinating work, but I must admit that it doesn't seem quite so impressive as either the contemporary Symphonic Serenade or the childhood Sinfonietta. I came to it late in my Korngold journey and was rather taken aback by the Mahlerian anger of the opening movement. There are familiar Korngold passages of consoling lyricism and heroic uplift but quite a bit of this gripping if disconcerting movement sounds startlingly bitter. It's tempting to try and tease out personal motives for its mood but probably fruitless. The Scherzo is fierce too, though it too has the consolation of brilliant orchestration and some stirring writing for the horns (Errol Flynn to the rescue!). The Adagio seems heavy with disconsolate feeling. It is a clear attempt to speak from the heart through music. The Finale is swashbuckling stuff and characteristically displays a 'Cheerful Heart'. 

There's also a delicious tribute to one of the musical love's of Erich's life - Johann Strauss II - in Straussiana: Part of a polka and a waltz. Minor Korngold? Most definitely, but Korngold loved his other Strauss even more than Richard and this work pays tribute to someone whose ideals clearly meant a lot to our man.

And, yes, there was a final stage work. The man whose operas had featured so many operetta-like melodies ending his (short) life as a composer for the stage by composing an operetta, Die stumme Serenade ('The Silent Serenade'). YouTube has some intriguing stuff on this, including a magical glimpse of Korngold himself, humming along as he plays a waltz from the score on the piano and there are several very pleasing extracts from a staging of the piece which can be accessed (hopefully) here.

I've enjoyed writing this survey of Erich Korngold's music and I hope you will be further tempted to explore his output at your leisure. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Wagner's baby steps



Did you know that Wagner wrote a symphony? If you did, have you ever heard it? I had heard of it but, no, I'd never heard it either. Then again, we hardly ever hear any orchestral works by Wagner that aren't taken from his operas - except for the Siegfried Idyll, of course. Why? Well, they are often described in critical accounts as being nothing more than "empty pot-boilers".

The Symphony in C major is a very early work, written when the composer was just 19. It's not a great piece but it's considerably more interesting than its almost total neglect suggests. Part of the problem (for Wagnerians) is that it doesn't sound in the least bit 'Wagnerian'. Yes, it is expansive (lasting nearly forty minutes) and full of dramatic writing but, overall, it sounds very much of its time - a post-Beethoven symphony consciously displaying a large amount Beethoven's influence. 

In the opening movement it's the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica that seems to be the model in the young composer's mind and there are even some audible echoes of that work. There's a long brooding introduction ('Sostenuto e maestoso') followed by an Allegro brio that slogs away at its two main themes with a skill that I wasn't really expecting, even if the invention is hardly white-hot. The second movement Andante is the finest stretch of the symphony and the section which sounds most original, with some brass writing that looks forward to the glowering passages of the late operas. If that movement transmuted Beethoven's influence into something fresh and pleasing, then the following Scherzo fall back into merely aping Beethoven - without coming close to matching the master at his own game. Here's it's the scherzo of Beethoven's Seventh that seems the likeliest model. Still, it's quite a fun movement. (It gives me the mental image of a giant toddler hitting me over the head with a huge but harmless rattle. Dr Freud to reception, please!) The energetic Finale is also entertaining, putting some light-sounding scherzo-like material on the symphonic rack and pulling on it with all its strength. Again, the equivalent movement of Beethoven's Seventh seems to be the model (though the melodic material sounds a lot like Weber). Neither of these later movements approaches the quality of the Andante though. For lovers of YouTube comments, one sage-sounding commenter (on the linked video) suggests the influence of Schubert's Grand Duo on the final two movements. This is unlikely as the Schubert work was only published (posthumously) in 1837, five years after Wagner wrote this symphony. 

For all its weakness, it's an impressive début for an ambitious lad of nineteen. 

It's a shame he didn't live long enough to fulfil his intention late in life to write another symphony. Instead, we have to make do with 'symphonic' paraphrases of his operas by other hands, such as these 'symphonic excerpts' and this 'symphonic synthesis' from Parsifal or this 'symphonic suite' from the Ring. Alas!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hail Star of the Sea



I heard one of my favourite pieces today, a lovely unaccompanied choral miniature by Edvard Grieg called Ave Maris Stella. In it we hear two verses followed by a short 'Amen'. Grieg hymns the Virgin Mary with all the harmonic freshness for which he's known. Each verse begins with a memorable two-bar melodic phrase over a deep drone in the basses. The phrase is then repeated but with new harmonies - harmonies that sound like those favoured by our own Frederick Delius. Each verse ends with just the high voices left floating like angels. 

Grieg was not the only composer to set the words of this old plainchant vesper hymn, whose title in English means "Hail Star of the Sea". The old plainchant melody that originally accompanied those words is itself a beautiful one. You can here the Gregorian chant here.

You can also here the plainchant melody unadorned in this piece by Guillaume Dufay. The plainchant, however, alternates with Dufay's own take on the melody. Simply put, Dufay writes his own variation on the the Ave Maris Stella chant which he gives to the uppermost voices of his three-part texture. Using a popular technique of the time known as fauxbourdon, the middle voices then sing this same melody a perfect fourth below the upper voices - the same melody proceeding in parallel with the upper voices. The lowest voices, however, sing a more elaborate variant of the tune in the uppermost voices but regularly shadow the others by moving in parallel at the distance of a sixth with the upper voices. Simple but magical in effect, don't you think?

Moving on a century and a half to the Ave Maris Stella of Hans Leo Hassler, who died 400 years ago this year. Hassler is a very significant figure in German music, being the man who essentially brought the new Venetian style of the Gabrielis to Germany, leading to the start of the Baroque in that country. His 4-part setting of Ave Maris Stella shows off his style charmingly, though it is still strongly redolent of the late Renaissance. Again you will here the Gregorian plainchant melody alternating with the composer's own take on the melody. Hassler embellishes its opening phrase, sending it out like with the sopranos like a chorale before going off at a melodic tangent of his own devising. Isn't there an intriguing foretaste of Bach in Hassler's handling of those opening phrases?

Back in Venice Claudio Monteverdi was to compose one of the earliest and greatest masterpieces of the Baroque, the glorious Vespers of 1610. In the Vespers there is, for me, what is indisputably the finest of all these settings of Ave Maris Stella. Monteverdi's take is fascinating in that it juxtaposes passages of pure late Renaissance writing with others in the new Baroque style. You'll hear the Gregorian chant threading its dignified way through the opening Renaissance-style section before being transformed into a memorable and lively melody set against a typical Baroque triple-time lilt. A magical instrumental ritornello from the same Baroque family tree links the various repetitions of this passage. Textures, both choral and instrumental, change delightfully as the two Baroque sections step before us again and again before all the forces join in splendour for the final section. The result is very charismatic, is it not? 

Grieg's little gem didn't use the old plainchant however. He wrote his own tune. Moving back to Grieg's time, his contemporary Franz Liszt did pretty much the same in his Ave Maris Stella, S34 for mixed choir and organ, though you are unlikely to miss the fact that he begins with a short, ironed-out, non modal quotation of the second phrase from the chant - and re-uses this phrase several times later before making an explicit reference to the first phrase of the chant in his closing bars. His setting is quite simple and surprisingly homely in its harmonies (compared with Grieg); however, it is thoroughly charming. 

Composers are still setting the words of Ave Maris Stella. One popular (and masterly) setting is by Grieg's fellow countryman, Trond Kverno (b1945). It's composed in that vein of open-hearted tonality spiced with bitter-sweet dissonances which modern audiences appreciate so much, with a gentle tunefulness at its heart that Grieg himself might well have enjoyed.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Where Hindemith led...?



What is it with Hindemith? His Fourth String Quartet, Op.22 is a first-rate piece, at times beautiful, moving, bracing, brilliant, scary and fun. Though composed in 1921, it sometimes sounds strikingly like the Shostakovich of the fifteen quartets. As Shostakovich has been the New Mahler for the last decade or so, perhaps Hindemith could soon become the New Shostakovich and sweep the airwaves and concert halls of the world? Probably not (though fingers crossed).

The first violin opens the quartet with a satisfying melodic line, melancholic in character. This is the opening gambit in an anxious, lyrical fugato into which Hindemith's early Expressionism soon intrudes, forcing the fugato aside. It returns, however, over a treading bass before singing to itself in a sad duet. This is bleak but beautiful music, not wholly remote from the elegiac side of his contemporary, Bartok - or of Shostakovich.

Assertive chords signal a shift to fast stamping music - a savage scherzo, scurrying and slashing, with a whirling sense of melody. For the trio section, the texture thinks to a violin's nervous melody dancing neurotically over a quickly-rocking accompaniment. Others join in. This splendid music grows ever more compelling. Eventually things slow down and melt into shadows, but the whirling melody awaits, cranks itself up and spins off again. A brief elegiac pause for thought leads to a final frenzy. 

The central movement is a muted affair - literally! - with whispered melody sounding over a muffled pizzicato accompaniment. The music is vaguely march-like in character. The melody (which winds its way through the voices) is winning, with a captivating and wholly individual lyricism. A very fine movement.

The fourth movement storms in. The mutes are off! It's another savage, whirling scherzo - exhilarating and brilliant. This is paprika-rich stuff. We then pass briefly through a contrapuntal passage, entering the world of the neo-Classical Hindemith to come, taking us straight through into the thoroughly enjoyable rondo finale - a lively, folk-flavoured movement whose anticipation of the later Shostakovich is truly uncanny.


Moving forwards some 25 years and we arrive at Shostakovich himself and his Third String Quartet in F minor. Composed in the immediate aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, this dark quartet follows in several of Hindemith's footprints.

The first movement Allegretto opens with a jaunty air - its theme a typically wayward Shostakovich tune over a very simple accompaniment. The neo-Classical style comes with a whiff of satire but with the secondary material darker thoughts arrive and in the development section's dour (but exciting) counterpoint nerves might be set jangling - they certainly should be by the scream of dissonance at its climax from which the recapitulation springs. The coda is a hurtle to the end, with a cock-snooking conclusion.

The second movement Moderato deepens the darkness with one of Shostakovich's machine-like accompaniments underlying a flighty fiddle tune, making it into a dead-eyed waltz. This danse macabre continues with new tunes and new accompaniments but the tone is maintained. Listen out for the strange pizzicato passage (which thirds clenching their teeth above them). Weirdly compelling, it finally yields way to tragic utterance.

With the third movement Allegro we are in the familiar world of the savage scherzo. Shostakovich's opening chords bark like prison guard-dogs and their rhythms underpin the first of the movement's Russian-sounding tunes (along with faster ones). Its trio section doesn't depart from the pattern - or the mood, with teeters between menace and hysteria.

The Adagio is (of course! - as this is Shostakovich!) elegiac and (also of course!) bleakly beautiful. Unison passages of grim intent begin by alternating with individual lamenting voices. The melodies of each penetrate each other and a funeral march begins, using them poignantly. Shostakovich's melodic writing is especially strong here.

The long Finale begins veiled in mystery but soon engages us with an enigmatically smiling violin melody. A second follows. Again the accompaniments are kept fresh. The next such tune belongs to the cello and has something of the circus about it (a clown's painted-on smile?). It becomes a duet and is disquietingly charming. After all this melody-driven writing comes some development and a tensing of the nerve-strings. A scary climax arrives and is prolonged, with the opening theme from the Adagio returning at the point of greatest stress, its companion following. The movement ebbs into the lament of a single voice and then silence. Quietly the Finale's own themes return in a muted recapitulation before themselves ebbing onto a single voice's enigmatic, ethereal last song. 

Though the magnificent Shostakovich quartet is more Romantically expressive than the no-less-magnificent Hindemith quartet, it seems to me to be in a clear line of descent from it. Does it to you?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Flutes flying magically across the years



Part piano solo, part piano concerto, part choral work, part fantasy, part set of variations - yes Beethoven's Choral Fantasia in C, Op.80 is an odd hybrid. Some critics have tried hard not to like this piece but I've long had a soft spot for it. 

The piano's introduction has fantasy in spades, turning generally sombre patterns into an arresting swirl. The orchestra eventually sneaks in and builds up to the announcement of the main theme - on piano. This simple tune is one of my main reasons for having a minor crush on the Choral Fantasia. Does it remind you of anything? It reminds many people of the 'Ode to Joy' theme from the Ninth Symphony. The first variation is led by the flute and has something of Mozart's Magic Flute about it; indeed, several features of this work have a Magic Flute-like quality to them. I feel that kinship even more strongly when the chorus enters towards the end. Is this connection often made? The other early variations are quite simple and charming; however, three later variations are far longer and much less simple. The first of these, a C minor allegro, spreads its wings and glides over often exciting landscapes. The second is a gentle A major adagio which dreams in broad daylight before the third, an F major military march, stirs the music back into action. This is a highpoint in the piece and leads to another passage where the piano fantasizes again, dramatically. After a brief hold-up, the delightful choral variations begin, strong and simple, and grow to a rousing climax that would be surely to meet Sarastro's approval. 

Another favourite work of mine that has passages which seem to be channelling the spirit of The Magic Flute is Schumann's endearing choral cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Requiem für Mignon. This is a Goethe setting and portrays Mignon's funeral where four boys (sung by pairs of sopranos and altos) are consoled by a choir of angels. It opens in C minor with march rhythms. The soloists continue in the minor but their discussion is regularly interrupted by the chorus in the major, singing their solacing song in a manner which shows just how effectively Robert could write in this medium. Charming tunes come and go, including 'Ach! Wie ungern brachten wir ihn her!' for the soloists and also the chorus 'Seht die machtigen Flugel doch an!' (with its rousing horn entries). The most treasurable section, 'Kinder! Kehret ins Leben zuruck', begins with a brief woodwind-accompanied baritone solo and proceeds to a joyous march-like passage for the soloists which wouldn't sound out of place in The Magic Flute itself and is one of Schumann's most magical moments. The cantata ends with a superb chorus, wherein jubilation sings out with a symphonic-style accompaniment. 

Maybe after all this talk of The Magic Flute, a link to a fine passage from that very opera might be in order. Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerden is the remarkable scene for the Two Armed Men (a tenor and a bass) where Mozart himself looks back to a great predecessor, one J.S. Bach, composing a chorale prelude on the theme of a hymn by Martin Luther. Later in the extract, the two lovers (Tamino and Pamina) then greet each other in phrases of great beauty before, at the end of the clip, undergoing the trials to march-like music and the accompaniment of the magic flute - enchanting music.  

And finally, bouncing forwards again in time (1870) to Liszt's transcription for two pianos of Der, welcher wandert, where I think it's fair to say that the Bachian impulses behind Mozart's masterly section are brought out to the full!

Voices of desire



It wasn't by design but, looking back, both of my last two posts on contemporary music have been focused on Scottish composers - James MacMillan and James Dillon. So, for luck, here's a third - though this time it's not a James!

Judith Weir is a wonderful composer, writing works that hit the spot more often with me that those by most other contemporary composers. Her fresh ear for harmony and bright, clear instrumental writing are winning features, owing something to Ravel, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Britten but sounding only like herself. She writes in a tonal language that, despite using lots of familiar melodic turns and harmonic gestures, keeps taking listeners by surprise. The word 'quirky' is inescapable. She is among the best British classical songwriters since Britten. There are many works I'd like to recommend, though my favourite is the song-cycle Natural History, which you can purchase and savour here.

As there's no YouTube link for you for that, another excellent song-cycle of Judith Weir's is The Voice of Desire. This sets a series of poems about human conversations with birds (in which the birds are wiser!) and abounds in strong melodies and shiny piano writing. As ever with this composer, an air of ironic detachment can sometimes be heard.

In the first song The Voice of Desire (setting Nightingales by Robert Bridges) I was reminded of Ravel's magical late opera L'enfant et les sortilèges, especially in the soprano part - despite the odd Brittenish melisma. The cleanness of the piano textures are a joy in themselves and her rhythms are fascinating. You will hear the nightingales sing in the piano part. This is a fantastic song, with a particularly attractive ending.  

The second song White Eggs in the Bush (setting Blue Cuckoo, a Yoruba hunting song translated by Ulli Beier) has a compelling hopping rhythm and another somewhat Ravel-like melody. It's also a fine song with a fierce climax.

The third song Written on Terrestrial Things (setting Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush) glints like bright light on a bird's wings amongst the gloom. Each verse has a newly-imagined texture.

Finally comes Sweet Little Red Feet (setting I had a dove, and the sweet dove died by Keats), which is simple and likeable and yet has subtle, tricky rhythms to intrigue the listener.

Falling shorter and sweeter on the ear, you might also like Illuminare, Jerusalem - a beautiful setting of a medieval carol for unaccompanied chorus and - briefly, very quietly but tellingly at each setting of the word 'Illuminare' - organ. As in The Darkling Thrush, each of the three verses is given a different treatment - here by being distributed to contrasting sections of the choir.  

Arensky: Undiluted pleasure?



I'm going to follow in tradition here and preface a piece about Russian Romantic composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906) with this quote from Rimsky-Korsakov: "He'll quickly be forgotten". Almost every time his music gets played on the radio or a CD of his works is reviewed in a classical music magazine that quote gets trotted out. Given that, over a hundred years after his death, Arensky's music is still being played on the radio and CDs of his works are still being bought on Amazon, it might be time to say that Rimsky-Korsakov was not in fact correct!!

The point though behind this never-ending quoting of Rimsky's damning verdict is that a lot of critics share his view that Arensky isn't a great composer, or even a particularly good one. Tchaikovsky, however, disagreed and found him "remarkably gifted". I've listened to as much Arensky as possible and would say that I'm fond of a lot of his music, some of which is undeniably the product of a gifted composer - though not much of it could be said to be that of a great composer. 

The nearest he gets to greatness, as far as I'm concerned, is in his chamber works. For me his finest piece is the String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.35. The first thing to say is that this is a string quartet with a difference, in that it's scored for violin, viola and two cellos. This gives it a somewhat darker sound. The spur for the work was the death of Tchaikovsky and the central movement is a set of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, that of his touching choral Legend. The movement was then orchestrated and has become the nearest thing Arensky has to a worldwide hit piece. 

The Quartet's opening Moderato begins, as befits a work written in memoriam, with a lamenting introduction in the style of Russian Orthodox chant. The lead theme of the first movement's main section is also elegiac and has a winning lyricism which soon finds itself singing in the midst of passionate grief and then yields to an artfully-wrought second subject which sets a gentle, Tchaikovsky-like melody (in the major) that seems to partake of Russia's romance tradition against a chanting theme on cello. The pace quickens as this gratifying exposition comes to a close. In his development section, Arensky broods on the opening four notes of the main theme - setting them against tremolos, re-lyricising them and then agitating them into a climax. The introductory chant returns and the recapitulation (where the composer keeps things fresh) follows on closely. The coda continues to mingle brooding on the main theme with the lamenting chant of the introduction. I'd certainly say that this movement is an excellent piece of chamber music and one that shows that even composers generally considered 'minor' ones can still come up with first-rate pieces. 

As for those central variations on Tchaikovsky's melancholy tune, Variation I adds consoling imitations to the theme, while Variation II encases it in a frisky scherzo. Variation III, rightly marked 'Tranquillo', changes the theme into the major and warms it with romantic figuration. Variation IV is full of playful pizzicati and has a chromatic flavouring. Variation V is lovely, graceful and romantic. Variation VI is lively ('con spirito') and 'neo-Classical' in the manner of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The theme then returns in its original form, riding on this deliciously springy figuration. Variation VII varies the theme most, reshaping it into a sweet and delicately-winning thing over a charming, sighing accompaniment. The coda begins with magical harmonics and, atmospherically, brings this piece back to the melancholy mood of its opening (quoting the lamenting chant of the first movement). Again, first-rate music, isn't it?

What of the Finale? After a short chant-based Andante introduction and its concluding elegiac phrases comes a vigorous fugue on a melody (the 'Slava' theme) used famously to acclaim the coronation of Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky's opera. Arensky puts it through its paces enjoyably, presumably as an acclamation of Tchaikovsky. When this ends, the melancholy of the introduction is recalled but the 'Slava' theme rides back in brilliantly to bring the whole quartet to a satisfying and triumphant close. Another excellent movement.


If you liked that you are also likely to enjoy the Arensky Piano Trio No.1 in D minor. which should appeal to anyone who appreciates either Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or Schumann. 

The opening Allegro moderato has an especially lovely main subject - a lyrical melody first sung by the violin over a rippling accompaniment. It makes for a captivating opening. Though a lyrical tune it has parts that are easy to cut off and paste into passages of development. The second subject is cut from similarly lyrical cloth though its ardour is of a gentler and more wistful kind. The development section begins by making patterns from the principle 'motif', then starts overlapping it with itself, modulating it through various sequences (and Arensky was fond of sequences) and recasting it in major-key stardust (Arensky was also one for pianistic stardust) before building it to a stormy climax. It's not overly deep but it's persuasive nonetheless. The recapitulation is fairly straightforward while the coda revisits earlier ground in a spirit of agreeable nostalgia. 

Arensky opts for a Scherzo next. Fast repeated notes, trills, scales and pizzicato writing add extra sparkle to its giddy main section while its Trio section takes the form of a sweet and cheerful duet for the violin and cello over a lilting-in-heavy-boots accompaniment from the piano. This is the sort of good-natured, glittering music that gets composers a reputation for superficiality among certain more serious-minded critics - the sort of critics who don't appreciate Saint-Saëns either. They should lighten up!

A lovely slow movement follows. As its title Elegy would lead you to expect, this is full of sweet sigh and sobs, and has a beautiful main theme. For the sake of contrast comes a central section where a single theme or 'motif' (rather than a melody) is mined through sequential repetition and modulation. Here Arensky casts his middle section in the major-key and scores it gorgeously. When the main section returns the beautiful tune is set against a warm new counter-melody before the initial mood returns and the movement ends as it began.

The Finale doesn't strike me as being as distinguished as its companions. Although the main theme has plenty of fire, Arensky occasionally loses his way in the linking passages and his material (especially the second subject) is less melodically attractive. The movement is one of those Romantic pieces where themes from earlier movements are brought back to wrap things up tidily. Here the Elegy's cheery contrasting idea and the Trio's opening theme return before the Finale's own fiery theme dashes us to the end.


If you want to get a sense of the side of Arensky that Rimsky-Korsakov probably had in mind, then please try one of his four suites for two pianos - music where the elegant charm of the salon is heard. 

The Suite No. 1 in F major, Op. 15 is a characteristic example of his consummately-crafted light music. The opening Romance flutters around a four-note motif (a 'wobble' on a major second), throwing off a couple of pleasant if not particularly memorable melodies in the process. The central Valse has the best tune of the suite - and Arensky plugs away at it throughout the movement. The closing Polonaise has a certain flair and a tune that is also memorable (if straight from central casting). I must say, pleasant though it is, that the Suite isn't the sort of piece that leaves a great impression on me and, yes, the old insult that Arensky sounds like Tchaikovsky-plus-water certainly seems to hold water here. It sounds to me like Tchaikovsky ballet music on an off day, transcribed for pianos and sprinkled in glitter.

Still, as you hopefully heard when listening to the Piano Trio and the String Quartet, Arensky is well worth remembering for some things. Yes, he's no Tchaikovsky - but then who (besides the great man himself) is?