Theme and Variations

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

Friday, November 28, 2008

Beethoven Symphony No. 1

Along with using Robert Greenberg's course Symphonies of Beethoven, I will be using a boxed set of Beethoven's symphonies conducted by Leonard Bernstein (unless other wise noted).

In Beethoven's first symphony, No. 1 in C major Op. 21, you have to look under the surface elements of the work to detect original, new-to-the-classical-style motives and construction of themes. If you didn't have a guide to show you these hidden elements (as Greenberg does) you would think of the symphony as imitative of Haydn and Mozart. Certainly these two great symphonists cast a long shadow, under which Beethoven had to work in 1800, when he wrote his first.

Greenberg points this out in his two lectures on the first symphony. He makes comparisons between the introduction of Beethoven's First with Haydn's 88th, pointing out that these are example of French Overture, a style from the Baroque. The second movements of the First and of Mozart's 40th in G minor, K.550 are also compared.

On the other hand, Beethoven shows his talents for making big thematic statements with little motives of just a few notes. While this is heard blatantly in Beethoven's Fifth, it is an aspect of Beethoven's compositional style that it returns in other works, as well. In addition, he will also bring back, to some extent, motives and themes from earlier movements and transform them to new material in later movements. An example would be the way the second theme of movement one is built from motives heard in theme one.

I confess that I've paid little attention to Beethoven's First and Second symphonies, as from the Third onward his symphonies have more of a Romantic flavor, which is more to my own tastes. But I have enjoyed spending time listening to the First, as well as the Second, which I have just begun and will blog on next time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) is the only woman composer in my collection. For some reason, women have not been considered composers of classical music. Even today, when symphonic music is written for movies, the composers seem to be predominately men. I ran across one of her recordings at a big box book/CD/DVD store, part of the American Classics series from recording label Naxos.

Reading from the DK Eyewitness Companions book entitled Classical Music, I find that she was quite the pianist. Having been listening to her Piano Concerto Op. 45, I'm remind of her contemporary pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninov. In some ways the virtuosic playing distracts from the more lyrical themes, as in Rachmaninov's third piano concerto. According to the DK book, she could have made a living as a concert pianist, but her husband preferred that she stay home and compose. Her composition skills were self taught, reading Berlioz and copying out fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

DK also states that her key works were as follows: Gaelic Symphony, Op. 32; Piano Concerto, Op. 45; and Three Browning Songs, Op. 44. The Naxos recording I have includes the first two of these.

The first work, a piano concerto in C sharp minor, has some exciting passages, not the least of which when the piano first bursts from the first movement. There follows a series of rapid up-and-down-the-keyboard playing while the orchestra accompanies. The third movement, Largo, is where the listener will find the more lyric, beautiful music.

The second work, the so-called Gaelic Symphony in E minor (Op. 32), takes themes from Celtic folk music to weave a wonderful orchestral masterpiece. Written between 1894 and 1896, it premiered with the Boston Orchestra in 1896. The symphony, with its Celtic themes (and original themes that sound Irish), established Beach as the first woman composer of major orchestral works in the United States. It was with this symphony as well that she turned the attention of European to American music in general, and her work in particular.

A search for Beach's music on returns 111 entries, including solo piano, songs, sacred music, and chamber music.

Though not well known, she was a prolific composer. Many of her works can be found on modern recordings.

(Next comes Beethoven, and I will be starting with his symphonies. Along with concentrated listening, I will also be following Robert Greenberg's course Symphonies of Beethoven. I also have the course Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, also by Greenberg, which covers all 32 of those compositions. When I get to those, I will be following Greenberg as well.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baroque Guitar

Record (or, more accurately CD) companies make recordings featuring artists and composers in a collection using performances that were made years, even decades ago. The Universal Music Group consists of the the labels Phillips, Decca, and Deutsche Grammophon. The Universal Classics pick and choose from among many recordings, and put them together with a unifying theme. Such a CD is the next in my collection, entitled Baroque Guitar.

With recordings going back as far as 1958, this collection includes works by Bach, Albinoni, Gaspar Sanz, Scarlatti, Handel, Ludovico Roncalli, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and Vivaldi. It features a star-studded lineup of performers, including Andres Segovia, Pepe Romero, Narciso Yepes, John Williams, and more.

Segovia also arranged many of these works for guitar; he is particularly known for his arrangements of Bach. All but the last two works are for guitar solo or duet. These last two, a Guitar Concerto in D and a Mandolin Concerto in C - both composed by Vivaldi - are paired with the English Chamber Orchestra (for the guitar concerto) and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.

As I was listening to this CD, I found track 8 to sound vaguely familiar. This work was composed by Gaspar Sanz, entitled Canarios from Suite Espanola. Doing a little digging, I discovered that the themes were used by JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo when he composed his Fantasia para un Gentihombre, in the fourth movement entitled, appropriately, Canario. Sanz created an guitar instruction book, from which Rodrigo apparently took inspiration on a number of Rodrigo's works.

One of the nice things about Universal Classics is that they are inexpensive. With low overhead in the use of previously recorded material, Universal is able to bring the works of famous performers to the market. They also provide a nice bundle for the occasional classical music listener. As shown in this CD, a person who just wants a recording of classical guitar music finds just the right thing at a very reasonable price.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bela Bartok

I'm skipping ahead slightly to cover two recordings in my collection of composer Bela Bartok. This will be a short entry, so I thought I'd write them up now while the music is still fresh in my ears.

The first CD features the Concerto for Orchestra along with Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Though I like the idea of a concerto for the entire orchestra, I can't say that Bartok's composition is to my taste. Atonal, dissonant music is really beyond my comprehension, despite Robert Greenberg's attempts at explaining it in his Teaching Company course How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. I can't distinguish between the themes and the bridges and the cadence material.

The second Bartok CD in my collection has piano concerti nos. 2 and 3, as well as Romanian Folkdances for Piano. There are some lyric passages in the adagio of the third concerto I like, and the folkdances are somewhat enjoyable. But overall, as in the first CD, the music leaves me cold and bewildered.

My wife would ask me, "Well, if you don't like the CD's, why do you keep them?" I remember a time when I hated (as well as failed to understand) opera, which is now among one of my favorite musical pastimes. I keep hoping that someone or something will explain music such as Bartok's in a way that I will appreciate it. So far, however, it's beyond my musical comprehension.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov Piano Concerti

Taking a break from the Bach recordings, my next study has been of the piano concerti of Mili Balakirev and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The recording is part of a series entitled The Romantic Piano Concerto produced by Hyperion Records.

Balakirev was the leader of a group of self-taught composers known, in translation, as The Five or The Mighty Handful. Their purpose was to develop a distinctly Russian sounding music, apart from the German-based style which had dominated the 19th century.

Since Balakirev's name comes before Rimsky-Korsakov's, I filed this CD under "B" in my collection.

The recording, however, begins with Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto in C Sharp Minor, op. 30. This is a relative short concerto in three parts, taking just less than 14 1/2 minutes in length. This concerto takes its primary theme from a folksong collection published by Balakirev in 1866. The concerto itself was written in the 1882 to 1883 time frame. There is no separation between movements in this work; the next movement begins immediately at the end of the preceding movement. You can hear the change in the music, but I found I had to look at the CD player to determine where I was in my listening. This is a very lyrical work, with the piano and orchestra working together. The folksong theme is varied throughout the piece.

According to the liner notes, this concerto was influential to Rachmaninov when he wrote his first piano concerto less than ten years later.

There are actually two concerti by Balakirev on the CD. The first one is his first published, Op. 1, in F Sharp Minor. Coming in a 13 and 1/2 minutes, it consists of a single movement. It premiered in 1856, just one year after he was brought to St. Petersburg (where The Five resided) by a patron. Balakirev was influenced by Chopin, naming the latter's E minor concerto as a favorite. He never got around to add a second and third movement, as his attention was turned elsewhere. It wasn't until 1861 that he began work on another concerto, his number 2 in E Flat Major. This work also started out as a single movement; it wasn't until the 20th century that a second movement was added, beginning in 1906. Upon his death, only the first two movements were complete; a close associate, Sergei Liapunov, completed the concerto with a finale that was written along the lines of the composers wishes.

I would not say that this is among my favorite recordings. Though by and large I like the works of The Five (Borodin being my favorite), there aren't any great themes that reach out of the stereo and grab me. I would recommend the CD to anyone who collects the music of The Five, but, for myself, this is music in which I need to be in the mood.