Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A classical music love triangle (Part 1)

Someone wanting to create a movie with all sorts of plot twists, psychological drama, and great music, would do well to tell the story of Johannes Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann. And such a movie would not need dramatic embellishment; the real story is wild enough.

The story begins with Robert in Leipzig in 1828. He began taking piano lessons from Friedrich Wieck (pronounce "Veek"). Wieck had developed a method of piano instruction which involved countless hours of practice, including special fingering exercises. Robert was eighteen at the time.

Wieck's proof of his piano method was given by his daughter Clara, who was nine years old when Robert began taking lessons with her father. It was Wieck's plan to transform his daughter into the world's greatest pianist.

In four years, one of Robert's fingers became numb and mostly unusable, owing to the eight-hour practice sessions and the use of a finger-strengthening machine. He consulted a Professor Kuhl, who instructed Robert to soak his hand in an "animal bath,", essentially the entrails of a freshly slaughtered animal. The cure, of course, didn't work, and Robert's career as a pianist was nearing an end.

Wieck was appalled at Robert's injury. He was afraid that his piano method would be damaged by a reputation for injury, and began to estrange himself from Robert. This had caused pain for Robert, who was not only seeing his pianist career ending, but was also becoming a problem for a man he had begun to think of as a second father.

But this was not the end of Robert Schumann's connection with the Wiecks.

Wieck's daughter Clara began piano lessons at the age of five. At the age of seven, she was pulled from school and received private tutoring in languages, music theory, composition, and violin. She made her first public appearance at the age of nine as a pianist. By the age of ten, Wieck was parading his daughter before aristocrats and the wealthy. She played her first solo concert at the age of eleven.

Wieck and his daughter went on a concert tour across Germany, where she received great reviews for her playing. The money earned by Clara at these concerts was invested by Wieck in his own business. Wieck's scheme seemed to be working well.

By the time Clara was fifteen, her interest in music had waned, replaced by an interest in young men. By this time, according to Clara later in life, she had fallen in love with Robert. Robert, for his part, began to return the affections when she was sixteen.

At first, Wieck was unaware of the growing relationship between his daughter and his student. When he began to suspect what was going on, he removed Clara from Leipzig and sent her to Dresden. Robert thought that Wieck would welcome Robert into the family; for Wieck's part, Clara was his source of income, and was to be the world's greatest pianist, not a wounded student's housewife.

What was to ensue over the next few years was a love affair that was carried out mostly in secret (Wieck even claimed he would shoot Robert if he came near his daughter). During this time Robert had bouts of depression and drinking problems. Still, the relationship continued, with Wieck doing all he could to end it.

Finally, in 1839, Wieck began proceedings to disinherit his daughter, keeping the money made from her concerts. Robert countered with a suit against Wieck, after obtaining an affidavit from Clara, that would allow him to marry Clara (who could not consent to be married without her father's approval until she was twenty-one). The lawsuits went back and forth, finally ending in favor of Clara and Robert in August of 1840.

As a final thumbing of the nose to Wieck, Robert and Clara were married on September 12 of 1840, the day before her twenty-first birthday. It was the last day Wieck could be legally and finally beaten.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Many of the old jazz songs from the 1920s and '30s make references to syncopation such as in Cake Walkin' Babies where they sing about the "struttin' syncopators."

I had no clue what the term meant the first time I heard it. As it turns out it is one of the key musical devices that defines jazz music. Basically, syncopation occurs when a musician plays notes off of the beat.

This web site gives a basic introduction to the term complete with examples. For a more detailed explanation, go here.

Jazz is not easy to define as we shall soon see. Determining who is and who is not a jazz musician is not something everyone can agree on. In exploring my own musical tastes I will be looking at some musicians and singers who may not normally be identified with jazz, but who nevertheless have made significant contributions to the art form.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies

You are sitting in a music hall in Vienna. The date is December 22, 1808. It's 6:30 in the evening, and you are about to sit through a concert that premiers Ludwig van Beethoven's two new symphonies, his No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, and his No. 6 in F major, Op. 68. You're about to have a great experience, right?


The concert hall was poorly heated, and the concert itself lasted four hours. Some of the pieces played that night were poorly rehearsed, and the orchestra was cross with Herr Beethoven. The concert opened with his Sixth symphony, but, fearing that the audience would be too fatigued to properly appreciate his Fifth at the end of the evening, Beethoven added hastily written works to the end of the concert, rather than shorten the program. One choral piece was stopped in mid-performance due to mistakes (which were Beethoven's fault) and started over, extending the concert even further.

The Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music, starting, as it does, with the famous "Fate" theme (da-da-da-dum!). Curiously, it was started before his Fourth Symphony, and would have been his fourth had he not been given a commission to write a symphony from a Count Oppersdorff. Beethoven started the Fifth in 1804, but interrupted its composition in 1806 to fill the commission (the Fourth was premiered in March of 1807). The Fifth was completed in early 1808.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony transforms from the dark themes in C minor in the first movement (with simple motives) to the triumphant themes in C major in the fourth and final movement.

The Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the "Pastoral," consists of five movements, rather than the typical four. This symphony was written just after Beethoven finished the Fifth, in 1808. The work is an expression of the composer's love of nature. It is unusual in that there is no break between the third and fourth movements, as well as between the fourth and fifth movements. For the first movement, Beethoven inscribed as, "The cheerful impressions excited by arriving in the country." Birds can be heard through the flutes that play during the first theme of the movement.

The second movements is annotated, "By the stream." Here, too, bird song is heard, this time in the trilling of the 1st violins. The water can be heard in the familiar use of triplet notes, a common device in music for depicting water.

Movement three is described as, "A happy get-together of peasants." There are three "dances" played, which serve as themes for the movement. The second dance was inspired by the wind band at Beethoven's favorite tavern, "The Three Ravens." The music of this dance reflects the limited ability of the band, from the best player being the clarinet and thus having the most difficult part, to the bassoonist, who has the easiest, a comical recurring counterpoint that plays over and over, and consists of only three or four notes. The movement ends with the dance being interrupted by the approach of bad weather, which will be depicted in the fourth movement.

There is no break after the third movement. "Storm" is the title given to the fourth movement, where raindrops cause one to look up at the beginning. Soon, there are lightning flashes and thunderclaps, and the deluge begins. At the end of this movement, the storm has finally passed, and the thunder can be heard in the distance.

Without a break, the symphony continues non-stop into the fifth and final movement. Beethoven describes this movement as, "The shepherd's hymn, gratitude and thanksgiving after the storm." The introduction, a shepherd's call, is played by solo clarinet and horn. This is followed by the shepherd's hymn.

It is interesting that these two symphonies were written back-to-back. They are very different in mood. By 1808 Beethoven's hearing had deteriorated to the point where he could not hear the softly-played sections of music by an orchestra. Though difficult to sit through at their premier, these symphonies have become very popular.