Monday, 27 August 2012

On Brahms (1)


Brahms, long before the beard

Schumann announced Johannes Brahms to the world, saying he "sprang, like Minerva, fully-armed from the head of the son of Cronus." The composers who formed his youthful armour were primarily Beethoven and Bach (with Haydn and Mozart lurking in the background.) It was on Beethoven's example and forms - sonata, symphony and chamber music - that he built much of his early output.

His Op.1, the Sonata in C major, begins with a figure


that deliberately echoes the opening of Beethoven's most ambitious sonata, the Hammerklavier:


It was a declaration of intent, it seems: I will build my music on Beethoven.

Brahms was a very different composer to Beethoven. The latter was a maker of big, optimistic statements, a dramatic writer, a heroic figure, an experimenter, a radical re-thinker, a dare-devil composer. Brahms, on the other hand, was essentially a lyrical composer, much more pessimistic in nature, a musical conservative, far more cautious in temperament. Beethoven got wilder and more exuberant as he aged while Brahms mellowed from the passionate lion of his youth into a composer of works often characterised as 'autumnal'. When it came to counterpoint Beethoven struggled like Michelangelo chiselling fugues out of granite, while Brahms wrote contrapuntally with a masterly Raphael-like ease. 

This is not to say that Brahms didn't bring something new to the Classical forms he adopted in such a thoroughgoing fashion. He often transformed the work's scherzo into an intermezzo, even when that movement (as it frequently did) still retained the old scherzo label. His first intermezzo in a large-scale work came in the Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25That movement is slower than any traditional scherzo would be and has a different character to the traditional scherzo whilst still retaining its ternary (ABA) structure complete with trio section. These less-driven scherzi recur again and again in his output, as (to pick at random) in the second movement of his Horn Trio, Op.40 or that of his Piano Quartet No.3, Op.60. Sometimes their trio sections are faster-moving than their main sections - another innovation! - as in the third movement of the Second Symphony or the third movement of the Clarinet Quinet, Op.115. Even when the scherzo does move quickly, its character can be far removed from that usually associated with such a movement - as in the quiet, edgy-sounding second movement of the Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, Op.101 Not that Brahms wouldn't write a more traditional, robust and dynamic scherzo if he felt like it - as with the third movement of the Fourth Symphony. To further enrich the form, in some works he would fuse the scherzo with the slow movement as in the central movement of the String Quintet No.1 in F major, Op.88 or the equivalent movement in the Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.100.

Brahms's adored Clara Schumann

Brahms was the supreme contrapuntalist of his age and many of his works are strengthened through counterpoint. If you want to hear a pristine (and hardly ever heard) Brahms fugue, complete with inversion, augmentation and diminution, please try the excellent Fugue in A flat minor for organ - Brahms as the heir of Bach! Even if you know that piece, I suspect you may never had heard the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, or the Chorale Prelude & Fugue on 'O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid' - pieces that again point back to Bach   and his immediate predecessors such as Bruhns and Buxtehude but also forward to Max Reger. These are all early works, but Brahms was to return to organ music at the very end of his life with the magnificent Chorale Preludes, Op.122. No other great Romantic composer wrote such pieces. 

The opening prelude, Mein Jesu, der du mich, displays the Baroque art of treating each line of the chorale melody fugally but, as with all of the set (and unlike the earlier works), Brahms's highly subtle and personal harmonic language sets the piece firmly in Brahms's world rather than Bach's - even when setting 'the Passion chorale' so closely associated with the St. Matthew Passion ('O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden'), as in the strongly chromatic four-part first setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen - a remarkable act of re-imagining. The second take on Herzlich tut mich verlangen presents the chorale melody on the pedals and surrounds it with lovely figuration. I suspect you will also like Brahms's beautiful take on the Christmas chorale Est Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen (the tune in its most familiar form can be heard here and helps show how ingeniously the composer has transformed it). As so often Brahms was at his most touching when thinking about death, and his first setting of Heinrich Isaac's early-Renaissance Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen (the switch from 'Innsbruck' to 'O Welt' ('O World') had been made centuries before Brahms) sounds particularly personal, and so does the later five-part O Welt, Ich Muss Dich Lassen with which the composer ends his collection, especially with its many lingering wistful echoes. I imagine that Bach would have been impressed with these rich tributes to his great spirit.

Brahms, as a young man

Counterpoint also runs through Brahms's choral output. Here the other main influence, Bach, makes its presence felt. The lovely Geistliches Lied, Op.30 is a double canon at the ninth. Listen to the tenors as they follow the sopranos at the distance of a bar and a ninth lower than the ladies. The basses follow the altos in the same fashion. The personal harmonies and the warmness of the accompanying figuration make this anything but an academic exercise. Another lovely and highly original use of canon can be heard in Einförmig is der Liebe Gram, the closing number from the composer's Op.113 - a six-part piece for female voices based on the lump-in-the-throat closing song from Schubert's Winterreise, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man. Brahms has the two altos provide the song's drone - in canon. From the opening of the motet Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, Op.29/2 you will hear (or more likely see in the score) that the second basses sing an augmented canon with the sopranos (singing twice as slowly), and O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf, Op.74/2 ends with a short 'Amen' section that packs in two consecutive canons, both using inversion. Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Op.29/1 opens with a chorale harmonisation, the tune of which is then set against a fugue based on the melody. 

Clara, as Brahms first knew her

Counterpoint can crop up anywhere in Brahms's music. The Schumann Variations, Op.9 are based on a theme from Robert Schumann's Bunte Blätter, but also incorporate a theme by Clara in Variation 10 - the melody of which is tenderly shadowed by the bass line in inversion. The fourteenth variation (another lovely one) sets the melody as a canon at the second two bars behind. 


Another set of piano variations, the towering Handel Variations, Op.24, ends with an exhilarating fugue - a fugue that sounds more like Bach than Handel. There's more inversion, plus augmentation and some double counterpoint too. 

My favourite piece of Brahms, the magical Haydn Variations, Op.56 (based on the St. Antoni Chorale, almost certainly not composed by Haydn), contains passage after passage where counterpoint plays a part, yet the piece is so cunningly crafted that you hardly notice - a classic case of art concealing art. There's double counterpoint in Variation 1 and double counterpoint and inversion in Variation 4. The contrapuntal prowess shown in Variation 8, however, is not concealed but instead put in the composer's shop window for all to see, admire and enjoy.  

Before leaving the influence of Bach on Brahms, the ground (with a slight tweak) of the closing passacaglia from the Fourth Symphony was drawn from a work by Bach - the cantata Nach dir Herr verlanget mich, BWV150, which is a strong candidate for being the composer's earliest cantata. So the opening movement of Bach's first cantata (possibly) provided the inspiration for the finale of Brahms's final symphony. 



For all Brahms's Classical and Baroque inspirations, he was still a Romantic composer. Who can have heard the magical introduction to the finale of the First Symphony without being delighted by the horn call over a shimmering tremolo, the woodbird-like flute response and the near-Brucknerian chorale which answers them both? The pacing and the key-changes of that section point to the influence of Schubert, whose music Brahms did so much to promote, but the ambiance has more of, say, the introduction of the Introduction and Allegro, Op.92, the Konzertstück, Op.86 or Beim Abschied zu singen by Robert Schumann. Brahms writes in this vein more often than you might think. The irresistible and masterly Fünf Gesänge, Op.104 contains a number called Nachtwache II which uses echoing calls across all six parts to evoke the horns of night watchmen and, in a simpler vein, the adorable Der Jäger from the Marienlieder, Op.22 also evokes horn calls (this time hunting horns.) The lovely Four Songs for Women's Choir, two Horns and Harp, Op.17 (Pt.2 here) are even closer to the spirit of that passage.

Schumann was certainly a key influence, leaving young Johannes much more than a friendly young widow. As a passionate devotee of Robert's music and an advocate of his late works, what surprised me most on getting to know them is just how much they seem to anticipate late Brahms. There is a more Classical, mellow quality to much of late Schumann that must have spoken straight to his friend's heart. If you are familiar with late Brahms already but unfamiliar with late Schumann, then please take a listen to the Fantasy Pieces, Op.73, the Three Romances, Op.94 and the Fantasiestücke, Op.111.

Still beardless
Harmony and counterpoint were certainly something Robert was fascinated by, counterpoint becoming of prime importance as he got older. Something of his way with harmony certainly rubbed off on Brahms, though his radically innovative forms and inspired flights of fancy were something Brahms chose not to try to emulate. The main exception came with the Four Ballades, Op.10, superb pieces full of early Schumannesque spirit. The first piece of the set is a very rare piece of Brahms that isn't abstract but instead inspired by a literary tale, namely a Scottish ballad about Edward (a tale of murder and curses). It has a central crescendo that truly merits the term 'exciting'. (Liszt, eat your heart out!) 

That supremely German Romantic interlude in the finale of the First Symphony and memories of the Marienlieder point up another aspect of Brahms's music and another influence - his love for his country's folk music. I don't think many people know about this aspect of his art, or that he arranged and published folk songs himself - the Vierzehn Volkslieder, WoO.34 and Zwölf deutsche Volkslieder, WoO.35 are excellent places to start exploring this very attractive  part of his output. 


Folk-like simplicity is not the first quality that springs to mind when thinking about the music of Brahms. It can, however - as the Marienlieder and Op.17 Songs demonstrate - be both artfully crafted yet direct and simple-sounding - especially when Brahms is wanting a piece to sound as fresh as folk song. The delicious carol-like Ave Maria, Op.12 is a case in point. He can also, however, write in an even more popular vein, pieces that sound as if they could be written for friends to sing at parties - pieces like the six-part-yet-remarkably-uncomplicated Tafellied, Op.93b and those loveable collections of part-songs with piano, the masterly and supremely tasty Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.52 and their sequel, the Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op.65. Yes, Brahms can let his hair (including his beard) down, but without ever letting his standards down. Anyone who knows the Academic Festival Overture will already know that. 

Clara, in middle age

This romantic, lyrical, warm-hearted side of Brahms (which many feel to be his best side) is expressed most openly in the songs - strangely the least well-known area of his music despite including many absolute gems. Some, like Ständchen (from Op.106), Vor dem Fenster (from Op.14), Der Schmied (from Op.19) and Dort in den Weiden (from Op.96), seem to spring melodically from folk song. Others have a Schubert-like sense of drama (and genius for key shifts), such as the splendid Wehe, so willst du mich wieder (from Op.32), or a Schumann-like feel for setting dialogue, such as the no-less-splendid Liebestreu (from Op.3). Great depths of beauty and feeling are reached with songs like Feldeinsamkeit (from Op.86), Waldeseinsamkeit (from Op.85), Sapphische Ode (from Op.84) , the sorrow-filled O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück (from Op.63) and, best of all, the towering Von ewiger Liebe (from Op.43). If you want a warm glow in your stomach then look no further than the 2 Gesänge, Op.91 (featuring viola), so tender, so lovely. The second of these songs is the much-loved Geistliches Wiegenlied - a lullaby with the warmth of a Christmas carol (indeed, does it not remind you of one in particular?) 

Here's the beard!

His greatest songs are his final ones - the Four Serious Songs, Op.121, songs written after the "greatest wealth" of his life, Clara, suffered a stroke and he became haunted at the prospect of her death. (She was to die in the year of their composition, 1896, one year before Johannes himself). Settings of Luther's Bible translations, mostly from Ecclesiastes - a book of the Bible that, like myself, Brahms felt spoke to him most - these songs stand apart from his other songs. Nothing in his previous song output anticipates them. 

Talking of Luther, from the other end of his life comes a setting of a Luther-inspired hymn text, Begräbnisgesang, Op.13 - a gripping piece for mixed choir, brass, woodwinds and timpani that harks back to Germany's Baroque greats, Schütz and Bach, but also looks forward to the German Requiem. The piece is a funeral march whose sombre character is enhanced by the scoring, keeping the brass to just tubas and trombones. Brahms balances this by providing moments of light where the higher voices are foregrounded and where woodwind provide arpeggiated accompaniments. There's a crescendo and a climax at the work's heart of the thrilling kind later found in the German Requiem's second movement where, again, the timpani pound like a giant's heart. Though rarely heard and early, this is one of the composer's most moving works. 


His greatest choral work (and one of his greatest works in toto) is the German Requiem itself. The outlook expressed in the Serious Songs is also found within the Requiem and the words are also Luther's. This was a requiem written to console the living. 'Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted' is the title of the first movement and the purpose of the whole piece.  With calm solemnity this opening section rises from the lowest depths of the strings towards the gentle elation of high woodwinds and harp in a mood that combines Beethoven-like grandeur, Brahmsian Romantisim and Lutheran chorale-like phrases. 

The second movement, 'For all flesh, it is as grass', is part-sarabande, part-funeral march and is both beautiful and thrilling. Its theme is a chorale and its initial entry on strings over muffled drum rhythms is haunting. The men's chorus get to sing its first bars before, magically, women's voices enter join in for the lovely second phrase. The main theme modulates thrillingly, the drums pound and there is a spine-tingling/spine-chilling full choral and orchestral reprise of the chorale theme. The central section is much sweeter, with major-key harmonies, happy woodwind counterpoint and a swaying triple-time rhythm. The dark-sounding funeral march then returns to send more thrills/shivers down the spine before a great flame of choral light brings a confident fugue that eases into chorale-like writing before a dramatic section (with last trumps and all) leads to a sustained climax and, in time, a consolatory close. I prefer all that precedes the fugue.

Clara, again

The third movement, 'Lord, teach me', again moves towards the light, culminating in a vigorous and optimistic fugue. My favourite part of the movement, however, again comes before that fugue. Here a baritone soloist leads off with what sounds like an aria with chorus; indeed, it would make for a great operatic scene where the doubts and fears of the protagonist spread into the attentive crowd. A melody, introduced immediately by the baritone, is thematically worked with much majesty and a second theme is derived from this same melody by inverting a motif from it. The music moves towards that resolutely major-key fugue by masterly means - a horn call, women's voices and a Romantic surge.                        

The fourth movement, 'How lovely are thy dwellings', is a short section of repose. Listen to the inviting woodwind phrase in the opening bars and the way the chorus comes in (high voices foregrounded) over a soft horn call. Then when the strings emerge into prominence (less than a minute in), the lilt and grace of the music instantly captivates. Brief passages of contrapuntal writing aside, all is lightness and loveliness.   


The fifth movement, 'You now have sadness', is a soprano-aria-with chorus and a gorgeous piece of music, more serious in tone than its predecessor. The vocal writing is sublime and the orchestral accompaniment is delicate - no 'mahogany' here. 

The sixth movement, 'For here we have no lasting place', is the dramatic climax of the Requiem, its Dies Irae. It is gripping, beginning quietly (the calm before the storm!) with more delicately-scored writing, before the baritone introduces the dramatic action (with moments of Brucknerian sonorities!) to fascinating scoring and wonderful modulations. The chorus erupts into full Dies Irae- style storminess, their fervour alternating with the baritone's gravely beautiful music. A grand (somewhat disappointing) fugue then begins.

The final movement, 'Blessed are the dead', has always been my least favourite movement. I feel that the first few minutes are are bit too staid and conventional. The chorale-like phrases introduced by the winds (some three minutes in) are a blessing and their reappearance always brings satisfaction (to me). 

No, it's not Karl Marx

It's worth remembering that A German Requiem came at the end of the composer's early maturity . It is a remarkable achievement.

Before moving onto those late works in the next post, I want to end this one by mentioning in passing an aspect of Brahms's music than Charles Rosen has also dwelt on - the composer's extraordinary way with rhythm. Brahms is no knee-jerk four-bar-phrase man. No, he uses all manner of phrase lengths, overlaps his phrases, combines phrases moving at contrasting speeds, employs unusual rhythms (etc). Brahms is the master of cross-rhythms. There are so many examples of this that it's pointless to single many out. The opening of the Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38, setting a beautiful cello melody against a syncopated piano accompaniment provides a simple example. A classic instance of unusual rhythms is the slow movement of the Piano Trio in C minor, Op.101 - a movement with the very unusual feature of a double time signature - 3/4, 2/4. The way it works out it would now be called 7/4 time. This flexibility helps keep Brahms's music interesting. 

The late pieces are full of interest...

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Fantastic Symphonies



I am very fond of the six symphonies of the Czech Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). They comprise the most consistently uplifting cycle of modern symphonies, being full of hope and warmth of feeling. The first five came at yearly intervals beginning in the darkest days of the Second World War (1941), just after the composer had emigrated to America, and all ache with longing for his Czech homeland. 

The whole cycle (which ended in 1953) does feel remarkably homogeneous. The symphonies may take many an unexpected harmonic turn and can, especially in the Third Symphony, venture far into chromaticism, but they remain strongly tonal in orientation and have a delightful habit of breaking into Bohemian/Moravian-style folk melody and/or into radiant lyricism. They tend to grow from small motifs (or cells) which are then evolved into broad symphonic paragraphs. They also share motifs associated with the Czech lands - phrases drawn from the St. Wenceslas Chorale and Dvorak's Requiem (the opening notes) and, most obviously, an 'Amen'-like cadence called the 'Moravian cadence' (a variant of the plagal cadence) which was invented by Janacek in his glorious Taras Bulba (you can hear a sequence of them in the great passage beginning at 5.04 in the linked video) but which Martinu very much made his own. The symphonies are full of the composer's trademark syncopated 'sprung' rhythms. These give the works a real spring in their step. They mix (in their own individual ways) tension and hope and the time-honoured symphonic struggle between darkness and light is fought (in their own individual ways) throughout all of the symphonies. The even-numbered symphonies are generally brighter in mood, with the odd-numbered ones pursuing more troubled paths towards resolution - though the Sixth seems to unite the best of them all. The works are all scored in a way that can only be described as luminous. Only the Sixth Symphony - excludes the use of a solo piano. 

I hope you will enjoy exploring these delightful symphonies.

Symphony No.1
Symphony No.2
Symphony No.3
Symphony No.4
Symphony No.5 (Mts.2,3,4) 
Symphony No.6 (Fantaisies Symphoniques)

X-citing



Of all those big post-war avant-garde names who used to dominate the landscape - Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Cage, Nono, Ligeti - the one whose music I always got the greatest kick out of was the Greek Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). You would often read about the complex mathematics behind his pieces (works based on set theory, statistical mechanics, Brownian motion, etc) and then, when you actually listened to them, almost invariably find this music sounded far more like a force of nature - and was exhilarating to hear.

I have an especial liking for those pieces where Xenakis's modernism fuses with an urge to create something which sounds as if it could have been written in Ancient Greece. A fabulous example of this is Medea, his scary-sounding yet hugely enjoyable 1967 piece for male chorus and five wind instruments (with the addition of natural rocks and maracas) - a work (setting Seneca) that seems to be imagining what an Ancient Greek performance of the play might have sounded like. It sounds to me harshly modern and harshly primitive at the sound time. The sound and the mood of Medea might well be described as Spartan. There are intriguing touches of Stravinsky (Les Noces, Renard (in the central dance), Oedipus Rex) at times but the freshness and ferocity of the music are pure Xenakis.

I'd second that piece with another of his pieces for chorus wind instruments, the delightful A Colone, a setting of Sophocles this time featuring female voices. Like Medea, it is a direct, modally-tinged work and, also like Medea, has the force of a war-cry. Again, it sounds as if it came straight from Ancient Greece.

The energy of Ancient Greece also seems to pulsate throughout some of the composer's solo pieces, such as the thrilling Rebonds B for solo percussionist (1988). And sounding like the sort of music the ancient Spartans might have written if they wrote ballets, another of Xenakis's wonderful solo percussion scores, Psappha (1875), uses a play of colours, short phrases and rhythms to gripping effect. If you like both of those pieces, please also try the four-movement Pléïades of 1978. Métaux uses a metallic instrument of his own devising to create a hallucinatory effect of bells, Claviers uses tuned percussion to create a complex play of folk-like melodies, Peaux uses drums (and the like) to beat out another of the composer's Spartan ballets and Mélanges combines all the instruments in an impression of organised chaos. I love Pléïades. 

The way Xenakis's music spurs the imagination is one of its most winning features. The short 1969 piano concerto Synaphaï seems to project the pianist as an Ancient Greek hero (human and Greek in his occasional zither-like imitations) battling not only against the possibility-defying demands placed on him by the composer but also against harpies, furies and sea-monsters. Again and again great swarms of tangled orchestral writing come to menace the soloist. Midway battle seems to erupt with brass crying out and the hint of a march. The piece has that sort of strange, archaic, epic to its ferocious modernity. It doesn't sound remotely abstract. 


Yes, there's so much more to Iannis Xenakis than the application of abstract mathematics. Even his ground-breaking Metastatis of 1954, applying mathematical concepts and Einsteinian physics to music, in part evokes the sound of machine-gun fire evoking the recent war and civil war in Greece. I'd rather you listen to it first without being laden with further pre-conceptions and see what you think before reading my outline of it - which runs as follows:

The first section is largely the preserve of the strings, all of whom play independent lines. From the opening unison on one note grows a huge glissando composed of these independent lines, flecked by intermittent pecks of percussion, climaxing on one vast cluster. This swarms, massively. Percussion tinkle, the swarming begins again and brass join in, causing a fearsome rumpus. Quieter glissandi slide over each other, from which a single chord crescendos. 
Pause.
A few of the solo strings emerge in Webern-like counterpoint, though quickly newer and lighter swarms come to interact with this counterpoint - two types of counterpoint counterpointed! As a result things become far knottier. Drums start to fire at the base of the still-quiet texture.
Pause.
Huge masses of sound emerge. Brass and percussion play a large part here. They move by each other like giant prehistoric creatures slouching through a barren landscape whose skies teem with insects.
Pause.
A final glissando gathers strength then resolves onto a single buzzing note.
End.

My last piece in this introductory survey of Xenakis's music is one of his greatest works - the astonishing Jonchaies of 1977. When he began to draw on folk-music his art grew very rich and when it was combined with a Rite of Spring-like fury it grew into the fabulous Jonchaies - a ravishing thriller of a piece. What energy it unleashes! It opens with an upwards-surging glissando then, after psychotic stabs from the strings, an amazingly beautiful thing happens - a folk-melody that sounds as ancient as Plato's beard enters and its composite sound-strands diverge into a delectable smear of myriad melodies. Drums rumble behind this archaic-sounding swarm and a line emerges above the crowd, singing. It is swiftly lost again among the other voices. Others emerge though. The drums return loudly, bringing this teeming chorus to a close. Then the pounding begins...Stravinsky's Rite is reborn, but even the youngish Stravinsky might have baulked at the sheer mercilessness of Xenakis's mass bombardment of the listener's senses, the unrelenting rhythms, the strident sonorities, the searing ambiance. The juggernaut does one huge gear-change but is soon back in the old gear again, pounding, pounding...The music begins to shriek and then to slash as it grows ever more nightmarish. Suddenly the pounding stops and brass consort in mid-air. Gongs splatter amid their agony. Things go quiet but slithering brass keep things sinister-sounding, shrieking breaks out again and drums batter their way to the front. Shivers run through the orchestra and a desperate cry seems to stretch out in all directions. It dies away leaving only a tinkle of percussion then piercing piccolos. 

Xenakis was a very prolific composer. There is so much more to discover.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Venezuela 3: Songs of the Llanos



Concluding my journey through Venezuelan classical music reveals (as ever) a great range of styles as we enter the most recent period of its history.

We still composers writing nationalist music and others writing classic guitar music - or, as in the case of Rodrigo Riera (1923–1999), doing both. His music draws on the popular forms of his homeland and is immediately attractive, as you can hear from his Preludio CriolloNostalgiaCanción CaroreñaSerenata Ingenua and (from over the border) Choro.

Modesta Bor (1926-1998), who studied with Khachaturian (among others), strikes a more European tone in her lovely choral piece Aqui te Amo ('Here I love you'), though the melody has aspects of popular music to it. The harmony is so warm and imaginative that the piece will strike a warm response with many listeners. Fans of John Rutter will feel at home. Those sensitive, impressionist-tinged harmonies can also be heard to good effect in some of Modesta's songs, such as Canción de cuna ('Lullaby') and Guitarra. A tantalising glimpse into the composer's large-scale works can be judged from (this extract from) the symphonic poem Genocidio (oh, to hear more!!), which suggests she could summon up a Respighi-like range of dramatic colour from the orchestra, and from her Overture for orchestra (a score that could have been taken from a film). A colourful Christmas carol arrangement, Nino Lindo, shows another string to her bow.

Aldemaro Romero (1928-2007) was a very versatile man, writing lots of popular music, creating a new form - part-joropo/part-Bossa Nova - called Onda Nueva ('New Wave'), performing jazz, as well as conducting and composing classical music, such as the lively Fuga con Pajarillo ('Fugue with Bird') from his Suite for Strings and the seductive, easy-on-the-ear Double-Bass Concerto.

Alberto Grau (1937- ), founder of the well-known Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, has (as you might expect) written a lot of choral music. One of his most widely-performed pieces is Kasar Mie La Gaji ('The earth is tired') from 1990 - an environmentally-concerned work that youth choirs the world over have taken to. His pieces, which are highly approachable, do seem to be ideally suited for choral competitions. Other examples you might like to try include Como TuConfitemini Domino and, from 2007, the exuberant Magnificat-Gloria. On a larger scale, the ballet for mixed choir, narrator and chamber orchestra, La Doncella ('The Maid'), from 1978 is full of catchy popular-style tunes, dance rhythms and bright orchestral colours.


Beatriz Bilbao (1951-) studied with Modesta Bor and has conducted with Alberto Grau, with whom she shares an interest in writing choral music. Her Trilogia Aborigen ('Aboriginal Trilogy') suggests that she shares their soundworld too, though one piece isn't enough to go on. I would like to hear some of her electronic music.

Eduardo Marturet (1953-), a conductor as well as a composer, has a fine sense of creating a sense of the epic - as evinced by his splendid Canto Llano from 1976 (a piece that can be performed by many combinations of voices or instruments), a piece that conjures up the wide spaces of the llanos very effectively.

With Adina Izarra (1959-) we find a composer writing in an approachable contemporary style that seems to draw on several strands - as you will here if you listen to these three very different pieces: Two Medieval Miniatures for clarinet and piano, Silencios for guitar and El amolador ('The grinder') for solo flute. Much the same can (and will) be said for Diana Arismendi (1962-), c.f. Solar (1992) for percussion and Epigramas (2004) for voice, guitar and percussion.

This skim through Venezuelan contemporary music ends with composer and conductor Cristian Grases (1973-), a pupil of Alberto Grau. Again, choral music is to the fore. His Amanecer provides a luminous, traditional example while Oblivion shows - at times - the influence of the international avant-garde (albeit put to crowd-pleasing effect).  

As yet I've not found the level of avant-garde involvement that was seen in Chile and Mexico. Presumably there are other younger voices emerging. If there are I shall try and seek them out. Till then, this third survey of Venezuelan classical music again reveals the country's rich continuing heritage.

Hebrew Melodies



The Russian-Jewish composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943), born in Lithuania, died in Hollywood, sounds like another fascinating neglected figure. 

The summary of his career seems to run as follows: A pupil of Liadov, he became keen on writing "Jewish music" initially through applying his studies of folk music. After falling under the spell of Scriabin for a while, he left Russia after the Revolution and passed through Mandatory Palestine before emigrating to America in the mid 1920s. The short stay in Palestine resulted in a renewed determination to write in a new Jewish idiom, this time based on traditional Biblical cantillation. Late on, perhaps influenced by his friendship with Schoenberg, he began writing atonal music. 

I wish I knew some of his Scriabinesque music and I would love to hear some of his late radical music too; in fact, so neglected is Achron that I can only bring you three of his works.

His best-known piece is the Hebrew Melody of 1911 - a piece for violin and orchestra (more commonly heard arranged for violin and piano) which freely arranges a number of Jewish folk-tunes in a warmly Romantic fashion. It's a very easy piece to like.

The other two pieces both date from just after Achron's post-Middle Eastern arrival in America. They are both wonderful works and ought to be in the mainstream repertoire. 

The first movement of the two-movement First Violin Concerto (Pt2,Pt3) show Achron's attempts to write in a new Jewish idiom most clearly. The themes of the movement are all closely based on ritual chants used to recite Biblical passages in synagogues, where musical motifs are associated with specific signs. The result is rhapsodic and passionate music of a very attractive melodic character. The second movement reverts to folksong inspiration and is subtitled Improvisations on 2 themes Yemeniques. The two Yemenite Jewish folksongs are alternated and occasionally woven together polyphonically. Anyone who enjoys the concertos of Szymanowski should respond with enthusiasm to this beautiful piece - as will many others besides. 

The Children's Suite for clarinet, piano and string quartet is also inspired by Jewish melody but, in its twenty short movements, has a good-humoured character that is far removed from the serious mood of the First Violin Concerto. It is full of wonderful tunes and has a Prokofiev-like sense of colour and mischief allied to an un-Prokofiev-like warmth. Audiences would just love it - and hopefully you will too. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Rebikov: What a composer!



“Rebikov was already a forgotten figure by the time of his death at age 54. He was bitter and disillusioned, convinced wrongly that composers such as Debussy, Scriabin, and Stravinsky had made their way into public prominence through stealing his ideas. Ironically Rebikov is best known by way of his insubstantial music in salon genres. Rebikov's role as an important early instigator of twentieth-century techniques deserves to be more widely recognized.” (Uncle Dave Lewis, Allmusic)

That's an intriguing portrait of a forgotten figure of Russian music, Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920). True to Uncle Dave's words, quite a bit of his "insubstantial music in salon genres" is available for listening but I've also been able to hear some of his experimental works where Wikipedia tells us he used "seventh and ninth chords, unresolved cadences, polytonality, and harmony based upon open fourths and fifths," many of which are beautifully-crafted and highly pleasurable to listen to. They also back up Dave's claims for his significance. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real discovery on our hands here!

One of the wonders of YouTube is the dedication of many of its channel owners. One such is the pianist Phillip Sear whose channel is a treasure-trove for lovers of forgotten composers, including Rebikov. Phillip's dedicated performances will feature a lot in this post.

The best place to begin is with his Tondichtungen (Tone poems), Op.13 (Pt2, Pt3) of 1897, where titles like 'Fate', 'Wish', 'Troubled Atmosphere' and 'Daydreams' show the collection's roots in Schumann and Tchaikovsky, with a touch of Russian Nationalism in 'In the Caucasus'. I have to say I think lovers of Romantic piano music will find the Tone Poems highly attractive. There are, however, increasing signs as the set progresses of the more experimental composer to come. I will pick out a few numbers. The first piece, Fatalité ('Fate') has a winning melody of the kind you find in the piano works of Tchaikovsky and builds to a powerful climax, aided by bell-like notes and chords. It sounds thoroughly Russian. Au Caucase ('In the  Caucasus'), the second piece, juxtaposes a melancholy tune over alternating chords with a faster Caucasian-style folk theme (full of triplet figures) over a bagpipe-like drone. It is as charming as a Grieg Lyric Piece. The fifth piece, Au berceau ('At the cradle'), makes charming use of parallel fourths in its melody and uses sevenths in its accompaniment - creating a gently dissonant chiming effect. The seventh piece Reveries ('Daydreams') - or Träumerei in German - gives its rather conventional melody more little touches of freshening dissonance, beginning with the clash of a major second in the right hand followed by a clash of a major seventh in the left and ends, after a charming chiming effect, on an unresolved cadence. You might even hear momentary glimpses of Scriabin-like harmony in the (recurring) opening chord of the main melody of the eight piece, Appel ('Appeal') (not a favourite of mine though) and the opening theme of  the following Morceau Lyrique ('Lyric Piece') opens with a sequence of rising fourths and uses fourths in its harmony too, ending on another unresolved cadence. The closing tone poem Doute ('Doubt') pushes Rebikov's harmony to its furthest limits, though the chromaticism clearly has Wagnerian roots, and also ends on an unresolved cadence. 


Moving on in time to 1900 and Dans leur pays (In their Land), Op.27 (Pt2) we find Rebikov's style has advanced quite some way, with a charming opening number called Les géants dansent ('The giants dance') that has touches of what might be called Debussyan harmony. The harmonies and some of the textures of its  attractive successor Il chante (He sings') are also somewhat Debussyan, though its lyricism is rather Lisztian.  These opening numbers give promise of a fine set of piano pieces, and that promise is delivered. The third piece Les enfants dansent ('The children dance') is as irresistible as a Schumann Scene from Childhood, as is Elle danse ('She dances') - a number that bursts in with élan and whole-tone harmony. The fifth number, Ils passent ('They pass by'), builds up a quite remarkable amount of tension in the lead-up to the return of the dancing main theme. For a piano miniature this is one exciting piece! Ronde ('Round dance') returns us to he world of the whole-tone scale for a dance over ostinato figures, while the seventh piece, Les vielles femmes dansent ('The old women dance'), has a little of the harshness of sonority found in late Scriabin (before its time) and the closing Les vielliards dansent ('The old men dance') brings Dans leur pays to a bracing close with the biting interval of the tritone ('the devil in music') playing a major part in the number. What wonderful, imaginative pieces these are!! 

The tie-ins between this music and the advanced soundworld of Debussy (and Ravel for that matter) are intriguing to say the least. I suspect all Debussy-lovers out there will find the piano reduction of Dance of the Chinese Puppets from the composer's 1903 opera Yolka ('The Christmas Tree') a source of surprise and delight. (The Waltz from the opera is, however, far closer to Tchaikovsky in style). 

Moving forward to 1907 and the set of miniature miniatures Une Fête (A festival), Op.38, we find Rebikov consolidating his genial, colourful style in music that sounds remarkably advanced for the time. Try the opening Vivo and see if it doesn't make you think of Béla Bartók - a composer who was just then embarking on his evolution into modernity. These seven numbers are vibrant, tuneful and full of dissonant harmony - and the jaw-dropping parallels with Bartók keep on coming (the fifth piece especially). Fabulous music!  


There's even an anticipation of the 'white-on-white' Stravinsky in the Chansons blanches, Op.48 of 1913 - four pieces played entirely on the white notes of the piano. The closing sequence of chords in the final piece is highly Stravinskyan. (Did Stravinsky know these pieces?) They are again soaked in fourths, though you might not notice their presence as much as they are concentrated in the harmonies and the accompanying figuration more than in the melodies of the pieces (with the strong exception of the third piece). My favourite is the second, with a tune that could have been written by Ned Rorem.

Where has Vladimir Rebikov been all my life?

Further listening:
Rêves de bonheur (1890)
Tristesse
Valse Mélancolique  
Conseil Inutile ('Useless Advice')
3 Ballades (1901)
Feuilles d'automne (1904)
Fleurs d'Automne (1910)
Les Feux du Soir (1910) (Pt2)

Friday, 17 August 2012

4'33'' and counting...



For a composer some people don't consider to be a true composer, John Cage composed some of the most beguiling pieces of the Twentieth Century. Just take a listen to the Six Melodies for violin and keyboard instrument from 1950. Ignore the technical details of how the piece was constructed and simply marvel at the freshness of Cage's melodies, harmonies and sonorities. This tranquil piece sounds like the sort of music an American folk-fiddler might improvise dreamily on a hot summer's afternoon somewhere deep in the country.

The Six Melodies and the somewhat similar String Quartet in Four Parts (with its beautifully still third movement) came at the end of the phase of Cage's music-making that produced many of his most accessible and popular pieces. The gentle, near-Debussyan In a Landscape for piano from 1948 has won itself many friends in recent years. Hints of the Indonesian gamelan in that hypnotic piece can be heard more clearly in Daughters of the Lonesome Isle from 1945 - a captivating piece written for prepared piano (a piano that has had screws, bolts, pins, wedges and the like inserted between its strings) where the solo instrument is made to sound like an entire Balinese orchestra. (You might also like to try Bacchanale from 1940). The music of this time is often modal or Eastern flavoured, touched by the influence of Satie as much as by the likes of Webern and - dare I say- quite conventional (relatively-speaking). This naturally makes it easier for audiences to fall in love with - as many do. 

Who could fail to be delighted by the Suite for Toy Piano of 1948 - a piece that makes the most of an instrument of highly limited resources and contains yet more tunes? Or the folk-like whimsy of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano from 1942 and the lovely melody of the unaccompanied song (setting e.e.cummings) Experiences No.2 from 1948? Or the delicate music he wrote for the film Works by Calder in 1950?

The CD I fell in love with the music of John Cage to was of the complete Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (Pts. 2,3,4,5) from 1946-48), dance-like, melodically-appealing pieces of entrancing directness (whatever the compositional techniques involved). Here the modality and the far-Eastern flavour of Cage's music of this period reaches its height. The sonatas are so called because they follow the binary structure of the sonatas of Scarlatti, with each half receiving a repeat. My favourite sonata is XII - a piece of fantasy and good humour with delightful rhythms, bell-like harmonies, ritualistic dancing, attractive melodies, lulling ostinati and, in the second, half Balinese gongs, neo-Mozartian writing and sonorous descent beneath a repeating pattern. I love it. Listen out also for the paired sonatas XIV/XV (Gemini) which are in many ways gentle precursors of Minimalism.  If you don't already know them I urge you to explore them. 

The ballet The Seasons (1947) is another delightful masterpiece from this period. If you ever get to hear it in its orchestral version I suspect you will be even more delighted. 


John Cage is generally known, however, for writing pieces of a more experimental nature. Before this period of approachable pieces he had made some of the earliest forays into electroacoustic music. 1939 saw the birth of his Imaginary Landscape No.1 for muted piano, cymbal and two variable-speed phonographs with amplifiers. This period also saw him writing landmark pieces for percussion, such as the vibrant Second Construction for four percussionists of 1940 and Imaginary Landscape No.2 from 1942 (using tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion's roar and amplified coil of wire). Uniting these two trends and anticipating the 'chance' and 'happening' style pieces to come is the entertaining Credo in Us from 1942 - a piece that pioneers what nowadays would be called 'sampling'. 

As Cage entered the 1950s, the Zen Buddhist influence became paramount and he began his attempt to rid his music of his own personality and wishes. The first steps in this direction were made in the Concerto for Prepared Piano of 1950-51. His music began (for a short period of time) to sound surprisingly like that being written by the ultra-serialist radicals of European music - the Boulezes and Stockhausens. Famously, Cage turned to the Taoist I Ching, or Book of Changes, and wrote his remarkable Music of Changes of 1951 as a result. Applying chance procedures to sounds, durations, dynamics, tempi and density he produced a substantial piece that sounded for all the world like Boulez's 'total serialist' Structures Book 1a - a work whose soundworld was rigorously determined down to the finest detail. This remarkable coincidence of soundworlds - one achieved by chance, the other achieved by the strictest possible application of rules - rather took the sails out of the European Total Serialist project. Why bother meticulously plotting every detail of a piece when something that most listeners would take to be achieved by similar means (Cage's Music of Changes) was, in fact, produced by meticulously applying the results of what (to all intents and purposes) amounts to myriad tosses of a coin?

Cage's music had certainly changed with Music of Changes. Little of what came in the years following it has much chance of achieving popularity - with one very famous exception: 4'33''. Written in 1952 (and re-written in 1960, this study in silence is meant to get the listener to savour the sounds being heard around them, relish the noises, relish the silence, be at one with the world. Many people think its a gimmick, a joke. I don't doubt that Cage was unaware that he might get a lot of publicity from the piece (and, boy, has that happened!!) but I believe his motivation was genuine. It is a pleasant experience to sit and listen to sounds going on around you and allow them to form themselves into a sort of music. I'm not so sure it works in a concert hall, however - as all you get is shuffling, breathing, the odd cough, maybe a stray mobile phone going off. There is so much more to John Cage, though, than 4'33". Once taken on board as an interesting concept, there is no need to every listen to for a second time! Performers should play it far less often and play other pieces by John Cage instead.

Perhaps we could hear more pieces from this period like Music for Carillon I, which continues to demonstrate the composer's love for percussion instruments, or more chance-procedures generated piano works - like the Music For Piano for any number of pianos.


Cage's electronic music also grew far more radical in this period, as you can here from the remarkable Williams Mix of 1952. I always associate this kind of piece with the mid 1950s, where a lot of works can sound rather like it. It's very intriguing that Cage was at the forefront of the style so early. (A later example, Fontana Mix, from 1958 shows this style developing even further).

These pieces show that in the 1950s the music of John Cage sounded close to the European avant-garde. Just listen to the astonishing Piano Concerto of 1957 and compare it with the delights of the piano music of the 1940s to see how far he had moved. His Aria of 1958, which calls for ten vocal styles from the singer (ranging from baby-talk to Sprechgesang to Marlene Dietrich), might remind you of similar pieces by the likes of Berio and Ligeti (and many imitators). 

His application of chance methods and his urge to purge his music of intention grew ever more intense and he gave up writing music in conventional ways in 1958, putting unusual notations and graphs before performers instead and allowing them to interpret them as they chose. The results (as with the Piano Concerto) have an experimental quality that can make them sound rather like electronic music - as with Variations II from 1961. This is the sort of music that is meant to sound like noise - and is noise. Whether you can, as a listener, enjoy it as music is a matter of personal taste. Collage was also becoming a significant interest of the composer's - as can be heard in Rozart Mix for tape loops (which I would urge you, if you can, to listen to through headphones to get the full effect) and which Cage could adapt to the spirit of the time, as in  HPSCHD - a piece that definitely sounds as if it sounds from around 1969! A multi-media event, with slides, films, light effects (etc), HPSCHD is a chaotic-sounding mix of live harpsichords and taped performances of pieces for harpsichord by the old Classical masters.  

As the 1970s arrived Cage returned to writing down his music. The harbinger of this was Cheap Imitation from 1969, a gentle and simple-sounding solo piano piece based on Satie's Socrate. (For those of you who are hating his avant-garde pieces this might come as a relief!) 

Not everything that followed marked a return to relative simplicity and approachability, nor was chance thrown out of the window. A huge set of piano pieces called Etudes australes was written in 1974-75 deriving its individual notes and chords from star charts of the Australian skies. As might be expected, the resulting music is generally pointillistic and harks back to the sort of piano writing of the early 1950s - both Cage's own and that of his European contemporaries in the Avant-Garde. (For an earlier orchestral take on the same inspiration, please try Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2)). Other etudes of similar difficulty (for performer and listener alike) followed - Freeman Etudes for solo violin and Etudes Boreales for cello or piano, both from the late 1970s.


The elements of tape-looping (as found in Rozart Mix) and minimalism (in Cheap Imitation) suggest points of connection between Cage and the newly-born Minimalist movement in America and, as we arrive at the late pieces, we find this minimalist strand growing in importance in Cage's output. Perhaps the work to start with here is Litany for the Whale from 1980 - a meditative 25-minute piece for two voices, each singing chant-like melodies based on just five notes (echoing the five letters of the word 'whale' apparently). It sounds decidedly monkish. This simple-sounding, rather beautiful and hypnotic piece of 'Holy Minimalism' might have come as a surprise to those who grew up on the avant-garde Cage of the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes this side of his late style could take on a surprisingly conventional sound, as in the clearly-structured Souvenirs for organ from 1984 - another work based on a recurring theme suggestive of plainchant which might very well appeal to those listeners who like Arvo Pärt (though there are one or two disruptive surprises along the way). For an attractive example of tape-looping - or the inspiration of tape-looping as the piece can be played by several live pianists - combined with his old technique of creating a collage from snatches of existing melodies, I suspect you'll be intrigued to hear The Beatles 1962-1970 from 1990. 

Another strand in late Cage is the return of obvious oriental elements, as in Ryoanji from 1985 - a piece evoking a Zen garden in a temple in Kyoto which bends its melodic lines microtonally in ways strongly suggestive of Japanese music - and the easier-on-the-ear Haikai for flute and a metal instrument called a zoomoozophone of 1984.

Towards the end of his life this minimalism manifested itself again in his 'Number Pieces' - a long line of pieces named after the number of players performing the pieces - as very slow-moving meditations on sustained sounds. You can hear this at its most beguiling in Four2, a piece from 1990 written for four-part choir (SATB) and the sort of thing that might make you think of the music of the spheres. You are hearing single notes evolving over long durations, interacting (very slowly) with other single notes. A nearly-as-harmonious piece for instruments is Thirteen from 1992 and, expanding the forces to orchestral proportion, Seventy Four  from 1992 provides another example of just how easy-to-listen-to late Cage can be. (More music of the spheres.) You can hear the style developing if you hear one of the earlier 'Number Pieces', Twenty-Three from 1988. I can easily imagine that many of these late pieces could become immensely popular which New Age types. Though not a New Age type myself, I am fond of several of them. (I can imagine some of you will find them tedious).

There is a lot of Cage to explore and I hope this post inspires you to give him a try. I suspect you will dislike some of it but hopefully find some very pleasant discoveries too. In general terms (as you may have guessed) I like a lot of early and quite a bit of late Cage. It's the highly avant-garde stuff in the middle that I find hardest to warm to. Each to their own of course.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Magical Tones?



The Jewish-Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark (1830-1915, b. Károly Goldmark) is one of those figures whose names are half-forgotten now, despite once being regarded as among their country's greatest composers. His music may not be as great as it once seemed but it is certainly worth remembering and has more angles to it than familiarity with just his most famous works might suggest.

One of his best-known works is the irresistibly easy-going Rustic Wedding (Ländliche Hochzeit) Symphony of 1875 - a piece in the picturesque tradition of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, though a far lighter and more suite-piece piece than either of those open-air masterpieces. The first of its five movements is a Wedding March with ten artfully-contrasted variations. This is the movement where Goldmark sounds (at times) closest to his friend Brahms, though there are foretastes of early Mahler in it too. It is followed by a rather Grieg-like Bridal Song, a pleasing Serenade (both movements featuring lovely writing for the woodwinds), a dreamy movement with a passionate heart called In the Garden and, finally, a Wedding Dance that mixes peasant revelry with a fugue. Critics have argued ever since the work's première about whether a piece as light as this (despite its 45-minute length) should really be called a symphony. I can't say the issue bothers me in the slightest. 


If you like the Rustic Wedding Symphony then you are bound to like the charming Im Frühling (In the Spring) Overture (1889), a tuneful and delightfully scored piece. It opens with an exuberant tune for the first violins, announced to a tremolo accompaniment - a tune with folksong-style pentatonic touches - and has a second subject of delicious sweetness. There are bird-call imitations to enjoy too, plus an idyllic coda! The overture is as light and genial as Spring itself. 

Goldmark wasn't just a composer of relaxed 'rustic' treats though - as we are now about to discover. 

The Sakuntala Overture (1865) sets a story from the Indian Mahabharata. (The tale is outlined here). The scoring of this highly likeable piece (which is more of a Lisztian symphonic poem than an overture) is highly skilful, as can be heard immediately when cellos, violas and bassoons play the the mysterious hymn-like opening bars (with their 'woodland murmur' trills) - a gorgeous piece of orchestration. Over open fifths on bassoons create a vaguely oriental drone effect while clarinets and cellos quietly introduce a flowing, lyrical melody. This dreamy theme is then repeated with oboe and first violins playing a warm counter-melody.  Masculine brass, with their forceful rhythms, enter this gentle scene and the pace quickens with a theme that has more than a touch of Schumann about it (though the way Goldmark scores it could hardly be less like Schumann). Another attractive lyrical melody appears (at 4.05 in the linked video) played by oboes and cor anglais and accompanied by harps and containing a couple of those little turning grace-notes that betoken the central parts of Asia for so many European composers of the time (most famously Borodin), nodding to the story's Indian setting. This supple melody is then repeated with fuller, warmer scoring before the section climaxes and winds down. (At 5.44 in the linked video) an Allegro section begins - another masculine Schumann-like theme scored with considerable charm. A fierier passage leads to a pause and then the return of the mysterious music of the opening and a full recapitulation. The dreamy theme carries us wistfully into the coda on various solo woodwinds as the strings play 'forest murmurs' in the background - a lovely passage - before things build up for a big finish. 


By the time of the Der gefesselte Prometheus (Prometheus Bound) Overture of 1889 you can hear that Goldmark's enthusiasm for the music of Wagner and the symphonic Brahms has given his music a new flavour. The piece is, however, less appealing than Sakuntala. I think that can partly be put down to its high-serious tone (which the tale of Prometheus always seems to bring out in Romantic composers), along with its occasional streaks of melodrama and the rather routine development section. The composer's skill as an orchestrator, however, remain much in evidence. The scoring of opening bars might well remind you of the start of Sakuntala were it not for their gloomier mood. Forcefully rhythmic, sharply accented themes (rich with dramatic brass chords) evoke the character (and situation) of Prometheus throughout. The overture portrays the opening soliloquy of Aeschylus's play and the Titan's unfortunate fate. Quite what the lyrical passages evoke I am unable to say. They are, however, the piece's most attractive sections, using flute, oboe and strings to charming effect.  

The other (fairly) well-known work by Karl Goldmark is his Violin Concerto No.1 of 1877, a work whose antecedents in Mendelssohn are clear, though its relaxed, intimate character is entirely its own. The work does contain quite a bit of conventionally difficult passage work and doesn't have the most memorable themes but it still has much to recommend it. A strong orchestral start leads to an attractive lyrical main melody from the soloist. There's a wistful tinge to the second subject, which is another lyrical theme. Listen out for the fugal writing in the development section, where the music of one J.S. Bach is evoked (in a scherzo-like fashion). The tender central Andante has a simple melody that grows ever lovelier as the movement passes. The finale is a light, lively dance movement of much charm, even though it is less engaging that its two companions.


I didn't know that Goldmark wrote a Second Symphony. It dates from 1887 and yet sounds as if it could have been written some decades earlier for, despite Brahmsian touches, it has more of Mendelssohn about than any other composer. It's a winning piece that I've enjoyed getting to know, with another of the composer's lovely, relaxed melodies as the main theme of its first movement - though there's plenty of energy at times in this movement too. The second subject is more purposeful but also lyrical and especially close in spirit to Brahms. The development section (less attractive) is full of gently swaying counterpoint (on an inversion of his theme), though it also grows energetic at its climax. The Andante has more of the composer's characteristic tender lyricism, though it combines it with dramatic writing that seems too sharply contrasted for its context. There are strong echoes of Mendelssohn's fairy scherzos in the endearing third movement (though Goldmark's fairies have clearly aged and put a few pounds on too) and a charming hymn-like trumpet melody in the trio section that seems to quote 'God Save the Queen'. (You'll like that!) The finale has less of the lyricism that Goldmark does best and, after a gloomy slow introduction, leaps into busy activity that passes the time pleasantly enough. It has occasional touches of interesting scoring, grants us  moments of lyricism and grows contrapuntal in the development section. For all its occasional faults, it's a symphony that's well worth listening to. 


Goldmark also wrote an opera, Die Königin von Saba ('The Queen of Sheba') - an opera about a love-triangle involving the lady in question (and a character called Assad - oh, how topical!! - and his betrothed). The exotic opening section of the overture (linked to above) gives yet more proof of the composer's gift for delightful scoring - a passage that sounds as if it has Beethoven's Lydian thanksgiving from the String Quartet Op.132 in mind. There are shades of Wagner's Tannhauser in the Nachtstück und Festmusik which opens the second act (again ingeniously scored), though the comparison cannot be carried too far, and if you want to hear some Goldmark ballet music then please that the Ballet from Act III. The opera's most popular aria is the rapt tenor aria Magische Töne. (For more Goldmark opera, both  the overture to Merlin and its Funeral March shows the composer digging into his Wagnerian impulses, though the Dance of the Ghosts is a long way from being Wagnerian.)

And for a piece of uncomplicated choral Romanticism please try Goldmark's Frühlingsnetz. It belongs firmly in the tradition of German part-songs and is scored for men's chorus, four horns and piano. Lovely.

Further listening: