Clara Schumann (German, 1819-1896): Piano Concerto in A minor, mvt. 3
Anniversary of her death on May 20
Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck, was one of the most influential and sought after pianists of the nineteenth century. Like Fanny (and Felix) Mendelssohn, she showed incredible talent as a pianist and composer beginning at an early age, nurtured by specialized tutors and a practice routine set by her father. But when it came to her musical career, she had the advantage over Fanny of being LESS wealthy. Touring Europe, performing in public, teaching, writing works for large ensembles, etc.--these activities were not quite as controversial for a middle class woman as they were for women from very wealthy families like Fanny's. As a result, she made quite a lasting contribution to piano performance and pedagogy, and not just because she happened to be married to Robert Schumann, whose music we heard in week 2.
Clara began writing her Concerto in A minor at age 13, completing it at 14. Though it is already on a larger scale than anything Fanny ever was able to write, remarks Clara made later in her life showed that even she still felt the limitations of being a female musician. Happily, things are VERY different for female composers today.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata 66 "Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen" mvt. 1
Bach spent the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig, Germany, as director of the St. Thomas church choir and boys' school. In the first few years of his tenure there, he wrote a full "cantata" every week. A "cantata" is a multi-movement work with a religious text for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, so it is an amazing feat to do this so quickly...not to mention that he had to leave time for the parts to be copied for the performers--no xerox machines!--and the ensemble to rehearse.
This joyful cantata was written for Bach's first Easter in Leipzig, and the opening chorus features virtuosic and incredibly exciting violin writing (perhaps that's why this is one of my favorite Bach cantatas): the violins go up to an A two octaves above the A string, which is the highest note written for violin in any of his orchestral writing.
You will hear the alto sing (in German), "All hearts rejoice!" followed by the tenor's response, "All sorrows depart!" and the whole choir singing "The savior lives and reigns within you!" The middle section tells us, "Dispel grief, fear, and anxiety, for He revives the realm of the spirit," and the music paints the "grief, fear, and anxiety" which then is "dispelled" by the return of the first section.
Thrilling live performance by Choir and Orchestra of the J. S. Bach Foundation and
Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata Fragment in D
You knew I'd plug my CD at some point, right? ;) Actually, I'm sharing this sonata fragment by the 16-year-old Mendelssohn because I find it to be an extraordinarily beautiful work (especially the first minute and a half), but one that is practically never heard. It is both unfinished and unpublished, and has only been recorded two or three times, ever. And ours is the ONLY recording which uses a real 19th century Viennese piano--possibly the best specimen that exists in the world today. You might notice the difference in sound between this piano and a "modern" piano.
Because it's unpublished, we had to play it off the handwritten manuscript, which looks like this:
Or listen here:
Giuseppe Tartini (Venetian, 1692-1770): Sonata in G Minor "Devil's Trill" mvt. 3
Tartini was a prominent 18th century violinist and pedagogue, with a VERY interesting life story--it includes a stint in the church, a forbidden marriage, law school, fencing, violin... He composed prolifically, and also wrote books on music theory and violin technique. But he will always be best known for this work, the "Devil's Trill" sonata because of its delicious backstory. According to Tartini's account, he had a dream in which he had made a proverbial "deal with the devil" to make the devil his servant. He handed Satan a violin, whereupon he began to play the most beautiful, haunting, and brilliant music Tartini had ever heard. After waking up, Tartini scrambled to write down what Satan had just played in his dream. Though he claimed it was only a shadow of the magnificence of his dream music, the "Devil's Trill" sonata is still Tartini's best work, and one of the all-time classics of the violin repertoire.
Not surprisingly, this story has inspired a lot of artwork over the centuries...
Béla Bartók (Hungarian, 1881-1945): Concerto for Orchestra, mvt. 2
The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók composed a set of 44 violin duos based on folk tunes he "discovered" by traveling around to peasant communities in Hungary, Romania, and other countries, and recording the music he heard on one of the first recording devices. (He is considered the first "ethnomusicologist.") Today's selection, though VERY different, also features a series of short duets by Bartok, played by wind instruments and accompanied by the rest of the orchestra. It is called "Presentando le coppie" ("Presentation of the Couples") or "Giuoco delle coppie" ("Game of the couples"). Each "couple" plays a tune at a fixed "interval," or space between the notes, apart. It is a fun, light, movement in one of his last works with an overall whimsical feeling; the sudden dynamic changes and abrupt stops and starts, show his sense of humor. You can also hear some of the folk influence.
For those interested, the movement goes like this:
Bassoons, in 6ths
Oboes, in 3rds
Clarinets, in 7ths
Flutes, in 5ths
Trumpets, in 2nds (or whole steps)
Then the brass instruments play a beautiful chorale, and then the whole series repeats, but this time with more elaboration.
Here is a great performance by the accomplished young musicians of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. They look like they are enjoying themselves--I know I did when I got to play this in youth orchestra!
Johann Sebastian Bach (German, 1685-1750): Sonata in C Major for unaccompanied violin, mvt. 2 (Fuga)
We're at the halfway point, so let's look at one of the most epic, intense works in the violin repertoire!
"Fugue" is a kind of composition in which a short musical idea called a "subject" is passed around in at least three different voices--low, medium, high--as it is accompanied by the voices NOT playing the subject. (This means that sometimes a higher voice will "accompany" a lower one.) Fugue is common in keyboard music, where each hand can play one line, or two simple lines, and it is also common in ensemble music. But, amazingly, you can also play a fugue on the violin, though it is very difficult. It is also difficult to compose fugue for the violin, but Bach's longest fugue for any instrument--and he wrote a LOT--is written for solo violin!
Listen carefully to the first few measures of the piece, which introduces the subject, and then follow that subject in the low, medium, and high registers on the violin.
YouTube (Fugue at 4:42)
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (German, 1805-1847): Das Jahr, "September" and others
Anniversary of her death on May 14th
We have heard the music of Felix Mendelssohn, whose musical talent was apparent from an early age. But Felix was actually the second prodigy in the family--his older sister Fanny had shown similar gifts, and was his first and closest musical confidante. In fact, it is said he showed her every piece of music he wrote before sharing it with anyone else, and valued her opinion above all others.
Sadly, as an upper class "lady of leisure," Fanny did not have nearly the opportunities her brother did, and we'll never know what she was really capable of. Most of her music is in more "intimate" genres that could be performed in a parlor, such as solo piano pieces and songs for voice and piano. I find it most disappointing that Felix himself discouraged her from publishing her music and expanding her oeuvre, though towards the end of her life she began to do both. The music we are fortunate enough to have shows a unique musical voice, and a particular feel for writing melodies which sing no matter what instrument they are written for (such as solo piano pieces like this one).
John Williams (American, 1932- ): "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter
(This week's not-strictly-classical selection)
Who doesn't love the music of John Williams? And it's every bit as fun to play as it is to listen to--though of all the orchestral music I've played, Williams's is some of the HARDEST!! If you watch the violins here you'll see what I mean.
A friend of mind said this video made her want to play EVERY instrument in the orchestra! (But I still think you made a good choice with violin. )
Antonio Vivaldi (Venetian, 1678-1741) Concerto in G minor, opus 8 no. 8, mvt. 3
Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" are among the most widely known and recognized classical works today. But those are only the first four of a set of twelve concerti, published as his Opus 8, and known collectively as "Il cimento del'armonio e dell'inventione" ("The Test of Harmony and Invention"). One could interpret "harmony" as the rules of proper composition, and "invention" as fantasy and imagination, always coexisting in the best music. The set also includes "La caccia" ("The Hunt"), "La tempesta di mare" ("The Storm at Sea"), and "Il piacere ("The Pleasure").
Opus 8 No. 8 has no special title, but the third movement uses my all-time favorite musical device: pedal tones! This is when one note is held for a long time in the low register (on an organ, the notes played by foot pedals, and here the bass instruments), while lots of activity happens in the higher register (in this case the violin solo). Excitement builds and builds until it can no longer be contained and the pedal tone ends.
(Fun fact for anyone who has watched "The West Wing"--the first segment of every episode ends with an almost undetectable pedal tone which leads into the theme music.)
(In this recording, the pedal tones happen from about :55-1:32 and 2:37-3:13.)
Sergei Prokofiev (Russian, 1891-1953): Five Melodies
Prokofiev's music is well known to kids and adults everywhere largely because of his charming classic "Peter and the Wolf." He had a distinctive and incredibly expressive musical "language"--conveying everything from great joy to agonizing sadness. This piece shows his intimate, lyrical side, and has long been one of my favorites. (Somewhere, there's a VHS tape lying around of a much younger me performing this as a student...)
Prokofiev also wrote two magnificent violin concertos and two equally remarkable sonatas, so definitely check those out if you are interested!
Here is some great video of the iconic Russian violinist David Oistrakh performing movements 4 and 5 (mislabeled on YouTube). I love watching him play--he makes everything seem so effortless. But the whole piece is only about 12 minutes total, and listening to all of it is not a bad idea, as there is a great deal of contrast, especially in the last three movements.
Live performance of the last two movements:
4. Andantino, un poco scherzando
5. Andante non troppo
Lovely recording with pianist Frida Bauer:
2. Lento, ma non troppo
3. Animato, ma non allegro
4. Andantino, un poco scherzando
5. Andante non troppo
In May 2017 I challenged my students to practice every day for 30 days in a row. In addition, I asked them to listen to 30 bite-sized musical selections I emailed daily. I collected my picks in this blog for posterity. So these are works I find particularly fun, interesting, or important, including a handful by composers who were born or who died in May. Please enjoy!