Monday, December 31, 2012

Townsend: Suite in A major, Minuets and Gigue by J. S. Bach

Today, to end the year, I'm completing the Suite in A major by putting up the last two movements, the minuets and gigue. The recording engineer, for some reason, did not separate these tracks, though he should have, so I have to put them up together.

The minuet is a graceful, courtly dance of French origin in 3/4 time. It was adopted into the suite in the late 17th century and placed between the sarabande and the gigue. Minuets usually come in pairs and since each is a binary dance, the form is AABB (first minuet) AABB (second minuet) and finally, AB (first minuet again, this time without repeats). So the whole form is ABA with A being the first minuet and B the second. The second minuet, in the music of Lully, who popularized the dance, is often scored for a trio of instruments such as two oboes and a bassoon and so the whole structure was often called "minuet and trio". In this form, it was the only dance of the baroque suite to survive into the classical era where it became a standard part of the symphony. A lively version became the classical scherzo such as was used by Haydn and Beethoven.

The gigue is a lively dance originating in Britain where it survives to this day as the Irish and Scottish jig. In the 17th century it was adopted by composers on the continent and found a place as the last dance in the suite. It is usually in 3/8 or one of the compound meters such as 6/8, 9/8 or 12/8, though there are a couple of exceptions by Bach. I talk about one of them in this post. In Bach's hands the gigue can get rather complex at times with each half becoming semi-fugal and the second half inverting the subject of the first half. The gigue to the Suite in A major is not one of these, but a rather straightforward gigue in 6/8 time.

Time signatures like these, called "compound" are a simplification of the Medieval mensural notation. Mensuration is the relationship between any note value and the next smaller note-value. In modern notation this relationship is always duple: every smaller note is half the value of the larger note. Less abstractly, every half breaks down into two quarter notes, every quarter into two eighths and so on. In mensural notation, there are always two options: duple or triple. The breve could break down into two or three semibreves and this was indicated by the time signature. A circle indicated a triple division and a half-circle, a duple division. This latter time signature survives into modern notation and music teachers who don't know their history tell their students the half circle (equivalent to 4/4 time) is a "C" standing for "common time". Actually, it stands for "tempus imperfectus cum prolatio imperfecta"! Triple was "perfect" and duple "imperfect" to Medieval musicians.

In modern notation we have replaced these complexities with two things: meters where the subdivision is triple, not duple, we call "compound" and we think of the beat as a dotted note (divisible in three). In all other cases, we use the triplet sign of a bracket with a "3" in the middle. Inelegant, but simpler than the Medieval system.

Between 1717 and 1723 Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Cöthen (now spelled Köthen) and this is where he wrote the six cello suites. In the clip I have included a picture of the St. Agnus Church in Köthen, which Bach attended, the first page of the manuscript of the cello suites in the hand of his wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, the opening of the first minuet and some pictures of myself. Accompanying the gigue are photos of the Bach monument in Leipzig, just outside the Thomaskirche, where he is buried, the Bach Museum and archive, also in Leipzig and the first page of my edition of the gigue.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Townsend: Suite in A major, Sarabande by J. S. Bach

The next movement in the Suite in A major (transcribed from the First Cello Suite in G major, BWV 1007) is the Sarabande. As I mentioned earlier, the sarabande, one of the four core dances of the Baroque suite, originated in Mexico and first appears in Europe in guitar tablature. Originally it was a sexy and vigorous dance which led to its being banned in some places. The earliest versions are just strummed chords. Unfortunately, there seem to be no examples of the early sarabande on YouTube. But here is a later example, by Johann-Anton Logy:

As time went on, the sarabande was slowed down and became the heart of the suite with the most expressive depth. There are a few sarabandes where Bach has written out ornamentation. For most he has not. This could mean either that he thought it was unnecessary or just that it was unnecessary for him to write it! Much of the time, I think Bach does not need added ornaments. But I have put in a few in this sarabande. There are only a couple of portraits of Bach from his lifetime, both of which I have already used, so for this clip, I have put in an 18th century etching of the Thomaskirche Square and the first page of the First Violin Sonata, in Bach's original manuscript. Then the opening of my transcription of the sarabande and some photos of me.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Ten Greatest Pieces of Music?

The question mark is because, hey, it's just a guess. An informed guess. But your mileage may vary. I'm also not going to number them because to some extent these pieces are incomparables. I mean that their aesthetic virtues are so different from one another that you can't order them 1 - 10. Well, sure, you can, but the main result would just be a lot of arguments! Mind you, I suspect that a lot of these "Best of" year-end lists are created mainly to start arguments.

My purpose here is just to pull together ten pieces that I think are worth your time. If you haven't listened to them, you probably should. If you have, you should listen some more. I could probably do this every day for a month and pick a different ten pieces each day, but that doesn't make the exercise uninteresting.
  •  The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky (1912/13) This is one of the great revolutionary pieces of the 20th century and one of the few that justifies the sweeping claims made for modernism in music. The sound is fresh, the rhythmic concept is new and the piece stands up even a hundred years later. Here is a clip of the whole piece.

Perhaps the most striking section is the last, the Sacrificial Dance, which uses a wide variety of different, irregular time signatures. It is interesting to compare the techniques to the Soviet theory of montage in film, used by Sergei Eisenstein who described it in this way: "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts" wherein "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other". The effect of the metric dislocations in the Rite is a bit similar--though the Rite came first! Here is just the Sacrificial Dance:

  • Das Lied von der Erde, Gustav Mahler (1908/09) This is one of the best pieces from the late-19th and early 20th century German Romantic repertoire. I used to love listening to Mahler, but nowadays the hyper-excited quality of the music tends to make me think he needed his medication adjusted. Still, there is no denying the impact of the piece. There are six songs, the texts of which are German translations by Hans Bethge of Chinese poetry. "Dark is life, dark is death" is a particularly haunting refrain from the first song.
  • Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Ludwig van Beethoven (1824) I have avoided mentioning this symphony much on the blog because it is such an iconic work it is hard to think of something new to say about it. It was the greatest challenge to succeeding composers who despaired of ever writing its equal. But for that very reason, it is a symphony that one should know. Each of the four movements is a masterpiece of the genre, but the last movement truly bursts the bounds of the classical symphony with its introduction of vocal soloists and chorus. Here is the whole symphony, all four movements:
  • String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op 110, Dmitri Shostakovich (1960) Written in only three days in July 1960, this is the most performed of all Shostakovich's quartets and possibly the finest string quartet of the 20th century. Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH or D, E flat, C, B natural, is woven into every movement. There are also quotes from several other pieces of his music. The music is a representation of a deep personal crisis in his life. Like the American poet Theodore Roethke, Shostakovich's nervous breakdown produced some of his finest work. The causes of the breakdown are not entirely clear as he shared contradictory accounts with his closest friends. But it may have had to do with his being coerced into becoming a member of the Communist party after resisting that step for a long time. But whatever the source of the inspiration, the music speaks for itself. There are five interconnected movements.
  1. Largo
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Allegretto
  4. Largo
  5. Largo
The Emerson Quartet do a particularly fine version, but it is not available in one clip. Here is the whole piece in three clips:

  • Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments, usually known as the "Brandenburg Concertos", J. S. Bach (1721) These six concertos are some of the most daring written in the Baroque, as much for their imaginative combinations of instruments as for the mastery of the genre. While Vivaldi wrote countless concertos for violin and string orchestra, Bach chose a different--and unusual--combination of instruments for each of these concerti:
  1. Two natural horns, three oboes, bassoon and "violino piccolo" (little violin) with string orchestra
  2. Natural trumpet in F, recorder and oboe with string orchestra
  3. Three violins, three violas, three cellos plus basso continuo (including harpsichord)
  4. Violin and two recorders with string orchestra
  5. Harpsichord, violin and flute with string orchestra
  6. Two violas, two viola da gamba plus basso continuo--no violins!
Every single one of these combinations is bizarre or fanciful in the extreme! What was Bach up to? There are some interesting theories that, as the orchestra represents society in miniature, Bach is making some kind of statement here. Just what exactly, is disputed. But no matter, it may be enough to simply get to know this music for its unique diversity. There are many Baroque concertos, but none like these. Here is the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with all six:

  • Missa Papae MarcelliGiovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (probably composed in 1562) Perhaps the most famous example of Renaissance polyphony by one of the greatest masters. Written in six voices, but the number of voices sounding at any one time varies considerably. The fundamental principles of the Palestrina style are smoothly flowing counterpoint with dissonances restricted to weak beats and few leaps in the melodic line and when they occur they are answered with a step in the opposite direction. This smooth, flowing and controlled style is one of the great achievements in music history, but one that we in the 21st century are perhaps ill-equipped to appreciate! Here is the Kyrie from the mass:
  • Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, usually known as just Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787) This is not only one of the greatest operas ever written, it has also inspired commentaries by the Danish philosopher Kirkegaard, the English playwright George Bernard Shaw, the French novelist Flaubert and the German romantic writer Hoffmann. Composers as different as Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven have written variations on themes from the opera. Though Mozart classified it as an opera buffa or comic opera, it contains some quite serious themes. The Commendatore scene, towards the end, where the statue of the Commendatore comes to life and takes Don Giovanni to task is one of the most remarkable scenes ever written with its unique use of three low male voices along with trombones in the orchestra. This is at the 2 hour and 42 minute mark in this production:
  • String Quartet in C# minor, op 131, Ludwig van Beethoven (1826) One of the late quartets of Beethoven and as such, one of the greatest monuments to the power of music ever written. There are seven movements:
  1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
  2. Allegro molto vivace
  3. Allegro moderato — Adagio
  4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile — Più mosso — Andante moderato e lusinghiero — Adagio — Allegretto — Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice — Allegretto
  5. Presto
  6. Adagio quasi un poco andante
  7. Allegro

One of the most touching comments ever from a composer comes from a letter Beethoven wrote in which he says about this piece that it is "less lacking in fantasy than my other music." This is like saying Mount Everest is a fairly high mountain. The opening adagio, a very unusual fugue, Wagner referred to as "the saddest thing in all music". The finale has been described as the finest finale movement ever written. And the fourth movement, a set of variations is simply astonishing--perhaps the best set of variations from the composer who was the master of varation form. This is music that, no matter how many times you hear it, you will never get to the bottom of it. The sixth movement was used in the ninth episode of "Band of Brothers". Here is that scene:

"That's not Mozart. (pause) That's Beethoven." Here is the Julliard Quartet playing the whole piece:

  • Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich (1974/76) This is the piece that really established 'minimalism' or 'process music' as an important musical style. It returned music to consonance from the extreme dissonances of modernism. As such, I suspect that it will at some point be regarded as one of the important turning points in music history. Here is a complete live performance of the piece:

  • Messe de Nostre Dame, Guillaume de Machaut (~1365) The first complete setting of the mass by a single composer and one of the greatest masterpieces of Medieval music. It is a compendium of compositional techniques of the time which include isorhythm where a rhythmic pattern repeats. Usually this rhythmic pattern is a different length than the melodic notes it is used with, so the musical result is constantly changing. One of the most interesting sections is the Gloria which is based on a plainchant from the Gloria of Mass IV, but embellished and streamlined. Here is that section:

And here is the complete mass, all the polyphonic sections composed by Machaut, with all the ancillary plainchant sections as well:

Friday, December 28, 2012

Townsend: Suite in A major, Courante by J. S. Bach

This is the third movement of the Suite in A major by J. S. Bach, which is my transcription of the First Cello Suite in G major, BWV 1007. Here is the first movement and here is the second.

There are only two basic forms used in the Baroque suite: the prelude and the binary dance form, though occasionally one runs into a rondeau such as the Gavotte en rondeau from the E major violin partita. The two basic forms could be compared to prose and poetry in literature. The prelude is a very free kind of form without repeated sections. It tends to be one large gesture. Sometimes it is just a series of arpeggiated chords, other times it can resemble an Italian concerto movement. But the form of the prelude always contrasts with the dance movements that follow in its openness and free structure. It is like prose, it just flows.

The rest of the suite is nearly always a series of dances, the four 'core' dances, the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue with galanteries or optional dances often inserted between the sarabande and the gigue. All these dances have the same form: AABB, that is, they are in two halves, the second usually a bit longer, and each half repeats. Performers often leave out the repeat of the second half, but in my recording, I repeat both halves. Harmonically, the first half usually moves to a cadence on the dominant (in a minor key, often on the relative major). So in this suite, in A major, the first half of every dance movement has a cadence on E major. In the second half, the music returns to the tonic and ends with a cadence on A major. Every movement does exactly the same thing! But how the music goes to the dominant and returns to the tonic is different every time! And Bach and every other Baroque composer did this in hundreds and hundreds of dance movements. Bach just did it better.

The clip today is of the third movement, the courante. This courante is in the Italian style, quick and without the hemiolas one finds in the French-style courantes. To accompany the performance I have included a portrait of Bach as a young man (disputed by some), an etching of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach spent most of his career as cantor, the beginning of my edition of the courante and some photos of me.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Townsend: Suite in A major, Allemande by J. S. Bach

I managed to put up the first movement of this suite yesterday without actually mentioning anything about the music! Let me fix that. The instrumental suites of Bach, whether for keyboard, lute, violin or cello, are multi-movement works inspired largely by the French style. German musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries were synthesizers, taking what they liked and admired from both French and Italian models. Bach learned a great deal about harmonic clarity and drive from the model of Vivaldi, but for the suite, the model was J. J. Froberger (1616 - 1667), a 17th century keyboard composer whose Dix suittes de clavessin, published after his death, were the model for the instrumental suite for every German composer afterwards.

The core of the suite was four courtly dances in the French style: the allemande (a sober dance in duple time, as the name tells us, originating in Germany), the courante (a quicker courting dance in triple time that comes in both Italian and French forms, the French being a bit slower and with hemiola effects), the sarabande (originating in Mexico as a sexy sensual dance and first found in Europe in guitar tablature, it was slowed down considerably and made more dignified with the accent on the second beat) and the gigue (imported from England and Ireland, a quick dance in compound time, usually 6/8). This international set of dances became the core of the baroque suite. Added to these four dances was the prelude, often in the style brisé or 'broken' style of the lute, meaning that it was largely chordal with the chords broken up into interesting arpeggios as we heard in the prelude yesterday. Another addition, usually between the sarabande and the gigue, were dances known as galanteries, that could be a pair of minuets, or a single air, bourrée, gavotte or chaconne. Oddly, this feature of the Baroque suite was the only one that survived into the classical period where the standard arrangement of the multi-movement instrumental piece was the sonata with four movements consisting of a quick sonata-form movement, a slow movement, a pair of minuets and a rondo.

Here is the allemande to the Suite in A major. I have included a portrait of Bach that he had done in Leipzig when he was applying for admission to a learnéd society, a photo of the "Bachhaus" in Köthen where he lived from 1717 to 1723 and composed the suites for solo cello, then there is the opening of my edition of the suite and some photos of me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Townsend: Suite in A major, BWV 1007 by J. S. Bach

One of the shortcomings of the classical guitar is that it has not attracted compositions by the great composers. There is no Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Bartok or Shostakovich for guitar. Instead, up until the First World War, what we have are "guitar composers", that is, composers who are guitarists and write primarily for guitar. They include Robert de Visée, Francisco Corbetta, Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado and Francisco Tarrega--none of them renowned composers outside of the guitar world. Then, between the First World War and the Second World War, the remarkable performing career of Andrés Segovia inspired a host of good composers to write for guitar. These included Manuel Ponce of Mexico, Joaquin Turina and Federico Moreno Torroba of Spain, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco of Italy and many others. Unfortunately, none of these were first-rank composers either, though they produced a lot of quite good music. After the Second World War, another guitarist set out to inspire composers to write for his instrument and he succeeded in attracting some quite important names, mostly from his own country, Great Britain. The guitarist was Julian Bream and as a result, there is a lot of excellent repertoire by Benjamin Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, Lennox Berkeley and Hans Werner Henze and others. His partnership with the outstanding tenor Peter Pears also resulted in a lot of excellent music for voice and guitar, by Britten and Berkeley in particular.

In order to beef up the repertoire, guitarists have long looked to music written for other instruments. An early example is Luys de Narvaez' transcription of a chanson by Josquin des Prez for vihuela, a predecessor to the guitar. Robert de Visée transcribed an overture by Jean-Baptiste Lully for both baroque guitar and lute. Here is a performance:

Tarrega transcribed music by Chopin for guitar. In the 20th century the practice of transcription took off in a big way and guitarists looted the repertoire for lute, harpsichord and piano to adapt to their instrument. They were so successful that some pieces originally for piano, like "Asturias" by Albéniz, are now better-known on guitar. Segovia was a particularly successful transcriber and it is his version of "Asturias" that is most often played today. Another very successful transcription was his adaptation of the famous Chaconne from the D minor violin partita. He transcribed a lot of other music by Bach as well. The most promising source of repertoire suitable for the guitar turned out to be the music for solo violin and cello. Bach also wrote music for lute (though it was likely composed not for an actual lute, but rather for the keyboard instrument that sounded rather like a lute called the "lautenwerk"), though the textures are sometimes too thick to be comfortable on guitar.

One of the most successful transcriptions, made by John Duarte rather than Segovia, was of the first cello suite, originally in G major, but transcribed in D major. I started out to work on this with José Tomas when I studied with him in Spain. He had some misgivings about the Duarte transcription. The problem is that when you put the whole suite up a perfect fifth, from G to D, it sounds rather thin and in need of a bass line. So Duarte supplied one. The only problem with that is that neither Duarte nor anyone else is really capable of writing a bass line that would do justice to a piece by Bach. Tomas, who played an eight-string guitar going down to a low C, played through part of the suite in the original key and convinced me that it had much more sonority down low. When I got time, I sat down and figured out that on a six-string guitar the best option was to go as low as possible. With the sixth string tuned to D, that meant A major. So I transcribed the whole suite in that key. Apart from a couple of notes suggested by Oscar Ghiglia in the gigue, I didn't feel the need to add anything!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Pepe Romero followed exactly the same procedure in his transcription of the Third Cello Suite which he plays in D major, up a tone from the original C major--and with virtually no added notes.

It is an interesting question why transcribing Bach is often successful, but we avoid transcribing Beethoven, Mozart and all those other great composers. I think it is because Bach's music is not so tied to whatever instrument he originally wrote for. If you can play the notes, then the piece is going to come across. But we shudder to think how playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on any other instrument would distort the effect.

I will put up the whole suite, which is in six movements, but for today, here is the prelude:

This suite is included in my book of Bach transcriptions, now out of print. I am thinking about re-issuing it as an e-book through Amazon. Here is the link to the original edition.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Gift of Civilization

Civilization is a remarkable thing. We see so many manifestations of barbarism and evil that it can be dispiriting. But then we witness a moment of civilization and it is so powerful, so filled with light and beauty, that it restores us. Here is one of those moments that demonstrates the power of people working together to create beauty.

It all started with a Catalan bank's publicity campaign...
On the 130th anniversary of the founding of Banco Sabadell we wanted to pay homage to our city by means of the campaign "Som Sabadell" (We are Sabadell) . This is the flashmob that we arranged as a final culmination with the participation of 100 people from the Vallès Symphony Orchestra, the Lieder, Amics de l'Òpera and Coral Belles Arts choirs.

Merry Christmas!

Seasons greetings to all my readers all over the world and best wishes to you all. I've mentioned before how impressed I am that this blog is read in so many different countries--and so many of them non-English-speaking. Music may not be a language, exactly, but it is pretty universal. Thanks to you all for reading the blog and especially for commenting. There will be lots of things to explore and discuss in the new year. For today, here is some appropriate music. The first performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (put together with new text from a number of previous compositions) was Christmas 1734. The second performance was not until Christmas 1857, one hundred and twenty-three years later! Wikipedia has quite a good article on the piece here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Debussy Danced (Sort of...)

This being the end of the year the media feel they have to do some summing up. Here are three prominent music critics discussing their choices for best and worst classical music of the year. Interesting to read and it drew my attention to this performance, which Anne Midgette highly praised:

Yes, they really are performing the piece from memory which you almost never see orchestras do. There are good reasons why they don't. But I suspect that this was an experiment that everyone, including the audience, enjoyed. A university orchestra can do things that a professional orchestra cannot. They have certain freedoms that professional orchestras don't have. For example, student orchestras are not paid and do not have the demands of a heavily-scheduled concert season to meet. They can decide to spend a whole month, or a whole term focusing on one piece, memorizing it, learning a choreography and so on. A professional orchestra typically has to learn two hours of music every week. For them, the option of memorizing is simply not available, let alone learning choreography!

Here is a thought: could they do this with a more demanding piece, such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring? I suspect not. First of all, musicians and dancers tend to think about and feel and express rhythms quite differently. Typically musicians are not good dancers and vice versa. The students in the video above are not professional dancers and the choreography was designed with this in mind. Apart from moving about, walking in stylized ways, lying down and doing a tiny bit of jumping, they really don't execute any difficult dance movements. The Rite of Spring would demand much more and much more aggressive dancing and the shortcomings of those who are primarily musicians would be obvious. Also, I doubt if the ensemble would hold together--the Rite is difficult enough when you have the score in front of you and a conductor beating time. Also, it is one thing to memorize twelve minutes of not very difficult music as opposed to forty minutes of very difficult music.

The reason that orchestras do not typically wander about on stage, playing from memory is that it is all too easy to err. With your part in front of you, sitting beside your fellow violinists or flutists, if you do err, it is easy to get back in sync with your colleagues. In a performance such as the one above, there is no room for error! This is, therefore, something of a tour de force--something you can bring off with a short piece of modest difficulty and unlimited rehearsal time. Imagine trying to do this with three rehearsals!

In a lot of pieces, precision of rhythm and tuning would be greatly hampered by, for example, the horns  wandering around far away from one another. There is a reason the horns sit together!

So I suspect that, while interesting and entertaining, this is not the kind of thing that has any chance of catching on with orchestras. There is also an aesthetic problem: the creators of this describe the movement as bringing out the "meaning" of the piece (this is in another video clip of a rehearsal, also available on YouTube). Now of course, this just means that they have tried to find movements that are analogues to the musical ideas. You could do it in a thousand different ways. Music doesn't have 'meaning' in this sense. If we look at the example of pop music over the last twenty years, I think we can see that the more the visual aspect is highlighted, the less interesting the music becomes.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, op. 122

Shostakovich (second from left) with members of the Beethoven Quartet

The Beethoven Quartet premiered every one of Shostakovich's quartets except for the first and the last. Two of the pieces are dedicated to the quartet as a whole and four quartets, nos. 11 to 14, are dedicated to individual members of the group. The Quartet No. 11 was finished in January 1966 and is dedicated to the memory of Vasili Pyotrovich Shirinsky, the second violinist in the ensemble who had passed away the previous summer, aged 65.

There are two, one might say, arenas of understanding concerning works of music. Most discussion takes place in the more public one. Here is a good example of this kind of discussion of the Quartet No. 11. Lots of good useful information there. But I would like to take us into the composer's studio itself and look at the work as it might have come together in the composer's mind. I'm not going to engage in speculation, just look at the piece from a different perspective. In the Wikipedia article there is this sentence: "In this quartet, Shostakovich portrays his fears with dark and grim moods." That is exactly the kind of thing that I am going to avoid!

In my discussion of the Quartet No. 10, I made this comment:
There are always two contradictory urges present when composing: one is the urge for variety and contrast and the other is the urge for consistency and unity. The contradiction becomes particularly interesting when you are composing a multi-movement piece. Each one of Shostakovich's quartets is unique, but he developed a formula for making them unique!
For a composer like Shostakovich, as soon as he senses that he might be falling into a particular formula, he will try and break away from that. And so we see in the 11th Quartet. Instead of the typical four movements (one moderate, one slow, two fast) that he has often used, instead this quartet has seven movements, all played without a break and many of them quite short. Three movements are about a minute long, two are between two and three minutes and two are around four minutes long. Just to show how he tried to explore different possibilities in each quartet, note that the very next one, No. 12, is much longer and in only two movements and No. 13 is in one movement!

Perhaps Shostakovich felt that he had achieved too much predictable unity in the Quartets Nos 9 and 10 so in this one he strove for much more contrast. The seven movements are the following:
  1. Introduction – Andantino, attacca
  2. Scherzo – Allegretto, attacca
  3. Recitative – Adagio, attacca
  4. Étude – Allegro, attacca
  5. Humoresque – Allegro, attacca
  6. Elegy – Adagio, attacca
  7. Finale – Moderato
Let's have a look at the beginning. It opens with a long phrase in the first violin:

Shostakovich has a number of ways of handling traditional forms to make them his own. One is to stay away from the standard four and eight measure phrase lengths. This phrase is nine measures long. Another is to use tonality in his own distinctive way. For example, we begin, as we have seen before, with the tonic note, but the next harmony is the supertonic. Then back to the tonic, then to the lowered seventh, E flat. This creates a symmetry: up a second, down a second. If you recall he was doing something similar in the 10th Quartet, but with the diminished fourth/major third. Back to this example, he then gives us a longer tonic chord, this time with the minor third, but follows with a couple of major seventh chords on the supertonic and tonic. The last two measures of the phrase are tonic, supertonic and tonic again. Even though he is using familiar harmonies, he is putting them together in a way that no classical (or romantic for that matter) composer would recognize.

Before we listen to the first movement, I want to cite one more example. The first thing we hear in the cello is this theme, that will act as a link for the whole quartet:
And there is that anapest again, that we saw as a linking element in the 10th Quartet! Incidentally, this seems to me to be a bit akin to the way the rhythm of a fugue subject works in Bach. As soon as we hear the characteristic rhythm, it brings back the subject in our mind. Similarly, these anapests and dactyls in Shostakovich act as linking tissue in his quartets. The whole first movement is a kind of free fantasy on that opening violin theme, with the accompaniment largely in those anapests. Now, let's listen to that first movement:

The next movement, a brief scherzo, merely takes that cello theme and runs with it. Added elements are a glissando from a stopped note to a harmonic and a choppy theme loosely related to the violin theme from the first movement. What is interesting in this movement is how it ends. Instead of the typical building to a climax, this movement seems to evaporate, with more and more being eliminated until all that is left is a low C note in the viola. Here is that second movement:

The third movement is cryptic indeed, from the listener's point of view. Compositionally, it is quite logical, though. Called a "recitative" it consists very simply of a crunchy chromatic scale on three instruments ending up on a tone cluster with a major and minor seventh. If you will recall, major seventh chords were a part of the first theme? This is answered by dyads with a major 6th, adding a major ninth or later, a minor third and a minor ninth. The only departure from this is a brief section that is an augmented, slow-motion, version of the cello theme from the first movement.

UPDATE: Sorry, I had the 3rd movement of another quartet up! This is the correct movement.

The fourth movement, titled "Etude" is indeed technically challenging, first for the first violin and then for the cello. The material, quick sixteenth notes, is vaguely related to both the themes from the first movement, but not directly, but rather via the kinds of things we heard in the second movement. The other instruments play slower versions of the cello theme from the first movement--vague echoes of it, at least!

The fifth movement, entitled "Humoresque", is a bit of a joke on the second violin. You may recall Dvorak's Humoresque as being a jaunty, tuneful, whimsical piece. Shostakovich here indulges his somewhat acerbic sense of humor. There is a piece, I believe it is by Haydn, written for a not-very-accomplished nobleman, where the part consists of the same note throughout! Shostakovich does something similar. Recall that this quartet is dedicated to the second violinist who passed away. But the premiere will be given by the quartet with the new second violinist. So as a kind of joke on him, the new and less-experienced member, Shostakovich gives him just two notes to play all the way through. G and E. Over and over and over again... The other instruments play an assortment of different things: the anapest rhythm again, major seventh dyads and variations on the cello theme.

The sixth movement, Elegy, is the longest and most developed movement. It takes us the furthest from the themes of the first movement. Here is where our use of the terms from prosody breaks down. In prosody, there are only two elements: long vs short syllables or stressed vs unstressed. In music, we have far more rhythmic possibilities. Instead of two short notes and a long, for example, we can have a dotted note figure and a long, which is what Shostakovich does here. A dotted-note rhythm, very frequently used in certain kinds of music--Baroque overtures or funeral marches, for example--lends a certain kind of tension, even in a slow movement as here. But it is most certainly related to the anapest. Shostakovich, instead of using two short notes of equal value, followed by a long note, as in the first movement, here has two short notes, but the first one is longer and the second one shorter, followed by a long note. This rhythmic figure we hear in the viola and cello at the beginning and throughout. Over top of this is a kind of free fantasy on the first theme from the first movement, but highly varied.

The last movement begins with yet another version of that cello theme from the first movement, this time all in eighth notes with a simple arpeggio accompaniment. Then Shostakovich starts tossing in other elements: the cello has a solo based on the first violin theme, then we hear the chopped off theme from the scherzo and a bit of the glissando idea. Then the cello has another solo varying the first violin theme (from the first movement). Then the first violin has a whole new variation on the cello theme from the first movement. And so it goes. The movement ends as did the scherzo, by seeming to evaporate into nothingness. The violin holds a very high C while the other instruments give fragmentary versions of the cello theme.

What is extraordinary about this quartet is how it seems to be seven free fantasies, but each one is closely based on the material we hear at the very beginning: two themes, one that wanders whimsically and the other with repeated notes in an anapest rhythm. Pretty much everything we hear from then on is based closely or loosely on those two elements.

So there's a look at Shostakovich's 11th Quartet, from the inside! Nothing about dark moods, or bitterness or anything political or from his biography.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 10, op 118 (1964)

After all these symphonies, I feel the urge to go back and look at some more string quartets. Like many creative people, after a success in one direction, Shostakovich seems to have felt the urge to go in a completely different direction. The String Quartet No. 8 was a deeply disturbing piece for him to write and after it he did not write a quartet for some years. Then he broke the silence by writing two in the summer of 1964: numbers 9 and 10. Way back in October of 2011 I posted on Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9. Both the 9th and 10th quartets are light-hearted works and both were premiered in Moscow by the Beethoven quartet in November of 1964.

There are always two contradictory urges present when composing: one is the urge for variety and contrast and the other is the urge for consistency and unity. The contradiction becomes particularly interesting when you are composing a multi-movement piece. Each one of Shostakovich's quartets is unique, but he developed a formula for making them unique! It is a bit like building a house: every house needs the same things: kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms, living areas. But how you deliver these elements can vary enormously. In a string quartet, the basic materials are chosen carefully. For example, there is often a basic rhythmic cell that tends to permeate the whole work--every movement. We see this in the Quartet No. 7 that I talked about here. That quartet used the anapest 'foot' which is two short syllables followed by one long (this comes from English and classical prosody). The Quartet No. 10 also uses the anapest, but to quite different effect. Here is the first theme:

No anapest there. It comes with the second phrase when each of the other three instruments enters with an anapest on repeated notes. But here is an interesting thing about this theme. The key is A flat, but the theme makes the A flat sound, not like a tonic, but like a diminished fourth (one of Shostakovich's favorite intervals). The held A flat is answered with an E minor chord! The E natural is a diminished fourth below the tonic. A diminished fourth is the enharmonic equivalent to a major third. Interestingly enough, both the middle movements of the quartet are in C major, a major third above the tonic. This is just one subtle detail that adds to the structural unity of the quartet.

Later on in the first movement we see a lot of this rhythm: long, short, short--the opposite of the anapest known as the dactyl. Shostakovich gets to this by trimming that first theme from a half note (tied to an eighth) followed by three eighths, to a quarter followed by two eighths. Simple, but ingenious. Trimming it even further, he gets to simple repeated eighth notes. Let's listen to that first movement and hear how he does it. Here is the Borodin Quartet:

The second movement, marked Allegretto furioso begins with this theme:

A couple of things to notice here: the rhythm is another dactyl; and the contour is very similar to the first movement theme I quoted above. Here the descent also leads to a note outside the key--in this case, a B flat. As in the first movement, the accompaniment to this theme is in anapests, repeated notes. Some call this movement a scherzo, but it is really one of those wild, swirling Russian dances Shostakovich does so well. Here are the Borodin Quartet again:

The third movement, an Adagio, is based on a nine-measure passacaglia theme heard in the cello first:

The most distinctive thing about this theme is the eighth note group moving to the upper neighbor and back--and this is another anapest, of course! Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet:

The finale begins with this theme:

This begins with another dactyl and then continues with a contour roughly similar to the theme of the first movement, though much compressed. The point of me mentioning that the themes of this quartet so often feature either anapests or dactyls is that this is a unifying factor. If you look at other music, you will see that there are many other options available. As in so many other quartets by Shostakovich, he weaves the themes from the other movements into the last movement, which becomes a kind of synthesis. In a particularly strong version of this method, the cello quotes the theme from the first movement at the very end. Following this, the first violin has a few fragments from the passacaglia theme and ends with the beginning theme from this last movement that I have above. A summary of a summary if you like. Now let's hear that last movement:

So this quartet is a beautiful example of how to deal with the contradictions of variety and unity. Unlike any other of his quartets, but using the same basic techniques to articulate different basic materials.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Music for the End of the World

Today's the day! The day, according to the Mayan prophecy, that the world comes to an end. Or, perhaps, just the beginning of a new era as it wasn't actually a prophecy, but just the end of a 5125 year long calendar cycle. I remain unconcerned because I have been hearing predictions of the end of the world since the 1960s and none of them have come to pass. But still, if the world were to come to an end today, what music would you want to hear last? A guitarist friend of mine said once that he would like to die while (or just after) playing this piece:

Lovely as that is, I think I would probably prefer to die while (or just after) playing some Bach. Perhaps this:

That limits it to whatever music is available for your instrument, but since everything (almost) has been recorded, we can all listen to our favorite music while (or just before) the world comes to an end. Now I'm pretty sure that you don't want to spend your last moments listening to Ke$ha or Psy doing Gangnam style. Perhaps something a bit more profound and consoling? There are some pieces that are very appropriate, I think. Logically, the correct choice would be the Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen:

But I think most people would prefer something by Mozart like the last movement of his last symphony, No. 41:

There are lots of possibilities by Bach. The St. Matthew Passion:

Or the Mass in B minor:

There are some good possibilities by Beethoven such as the Quartet in C# minor, op 131:

Or, more apocalyptically, the Great Fuge:

But perhaps we could go in a different direction entirely and listen to something like this, looking to end in calm rather than in storm:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

That Was a Long Break!

I think that is the longest hiatus since I started this blog! Six days without a post. There were several reasons for it, the main being that I moved houses and that always takes a lot of energy and leaves you in chaos for a few days because you can't find anything. I think that creative work--and this blog really is creative work because I am always seeking to find something new to say--demands tranquility and isolation. Just look at those places composers find to compose in that I talked about a bit in this post.

A couple of other reasons were that I didn't see anything that inspired a post. I could have written about Ravi Shankar, who just passed away. I saw him and Alla Rakha in a concert in 1967 or 68 in Vancouver. Lovely music, but I don't have much to say about it! Here is a clip where Ravi Shankar talks about the rhythmic talas of Indian music.

And here is another one where they are playing together.

Actually, there are a couple of things I could say about this music. It is unquestionably subtle and interesting. Musical categories always tend to inspire a lot of debate, but I would call this music 'classical' in that it deserves close listening attention and has stood the test of time. It is not 'folk' music, however we define that, in that it demands a great deal of musical training and ability to perform--and probably to understand. The complexities lie in the areas of melody and rhythm. Imagine trying to keep a 108 beat rhythmic cycle clear in your mind! While improvising! I would love to see how that is grouped. There was an article the other day about Dave Brubeck's (another musician who passed away this week) famous piece "Take 5" which is in the irregular time signature of 5/4. That is grouped 3 + 2 and is not so hard to get used to.

Melodically, classical Indian music is very complex because it uses scales with microtones and a lot of 'bent' notes, meaning notes you bend upwards or slide down into. The complexities in these two areas lead to an interesting consequence: this music has no harmony! Notice the 'third man' in the above clip, the tamboura player. He plays the same few open strings over and over again throughout the whole piece. This is the "tonic harmony" and it never varies. The drones underlie the whole of the music. Therefore no 'harmony' in the Western sense, because harmony for us is about changing from one chord to another. When Western composers got really interested in harmony, in the 17th and 18th centuries, they simplified both the melodic and rhythmic aspects of music. Time signatures became mostly either duple or triple and melodies were often closely related to harmonic triads. This enabled the exploration of harmonic complexity. Of course, in the 20th century, composers maximized every aspect of music with the ironic consequence that from the listener's point of view, it started sounding like an unchanging carpet of sound! In the Symphony of Three Orchestras, long sections sound as if there is an unchanging harmony throughout:

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that the Symphony of Three Orchestras is by Elliot Carter, who also recently passed away and was one of the most 'maximal' of the maximalist composers.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"Music Was Always My Language"

I've talked many times about how music, technically, is not a language at all. As the famous comment goes, "if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary I can look them up in?" But to musicians, music has a special role or place that might be even more important than language. Music is a world unto itself, a special mode of communication. While you can't order a hamburger with music (instrumental music, that is), or make a date to have coffee, as music doesn't deal in those kinds of specifics, you can certainly set a mood, take a journey, experience a kind of ecstasy. The quote "music was always my language" is from Gabriela Montero, the Venezuelan-American pianist and composer in an interview with Norman Lebrecht you can see here. She is talking about how she started playing a toy piano when she was just seven months old.

It is wonderful to watch her improvise, which she does twice in the brief interview. It is also wonderful to watch her take the opening theme of the Mahler 5th Symphony and improvise on it. But did you notice that in both improvisations she does the same thing? She starts in minor and ends with a shorter section in major? On a different day, she would do something entirely different, but this day, that is the way her thought went.

What do you do when you improvise? Have I got anything to say about it? I have spent countless hours improvising, most of it when I was young and playing in a band. I was forced to it because I didn't read music back then, and was barely able to pick up my part by ear, so I had to just make it up! In the early years I played mostly electric bass. Later on, on electric six-string, I improvised just as much, because we spent a lot of time jamming on blues and other progressions. 99% of it was just made up on the spot. I can still improvise a bit as I prove to myself occasionally when I am searching for an idea for a composition or working with a student. But here is the thing: improvising is not terribly interesting, at least to me. When you improvise, you mostly rely on things you know how to do: certain progressions, certain textures (like the arpeggios Gabriela Montero is using in the left hand in her first improvisation), certain melodic tricks or gestures. You have a foundation that holds it all together and on top of this you create a decorative filigree that is partly or largely improvised. But all things that your hands have done a thousand times before. A lot of improvisation, therefore, is rehashed stuff that is musically very ordinary. The extraordinary thing is how some musicians can spontaneously produce it.

But as I say, it is rarely interesting, unless you really let yourself go, as I do when I am improvising for a composition. I don't care if I hit some clangers, or go astray or whatever--I just want to see what I turn up that might be interesting. But this kind of improvisation you don't do for others, just yourself. If someone is there, you automatically turn to smooth phrases that come naturally from your hands.

Improvisation is interesting, sure, but not nearly as interesting as it seems! If you want a really good piece of music, with original construction and substance, then you probably should plan it out and write it down. That's what Beethoven and Bach did, Bach most famously in his Musical Offering.

On a visit to Potsdam to see his son, C. P. E. Bach, Bach improvised a fugue on each of six pianos Frederick the Great had just purchased for different rooms in his palace, Sans Souci. The theme, given by Frederick, was awkward and chromatic. However one can easily imagine Bach turning out different fugues in two, three, perhaps even four voices on the theme. Bach was perhaps the greatest improviser of all time as witnessed by the fact that other famous musicians such as Handel, would flee town rather than chance an improvisation duel with the Leipzig master! In any case, after he returned home, Bach prepared a collection of pieces for Frederick which he called A Musical Offering. Crowning the collection was a six-part ricercare on the theme, that not even Bach could have improvised. Here it is, with the score:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

The two most popular symphonies of Shostakovich are the 5th, which we looked at here, and the 10th. Both were written after serious denunciations by the regime. The 5th was written to recover his career after his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was criticized in 1936. The second denunciation came in 1948 and one of the works banned as a result was his 8th Symphony. Shostakovich avoided the symphony for some years after. In 1953, not long after the death of Stalin, Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 10, though when he began its composition is not clear.

There are a number of unique things about the 10th Symphony. It is the first occasion of the use of the 'motto' of his name in a composition. Another example of gematria (the use of musical notes as symbols) is the encoding of the name of Elmira Nazirova, a composition student of Shostakovich with whom he fell in love. Here are those two mottos:
This motto depends on using the German names for the notes. E flat is said as "Es" and B natural as "H". This enables Shostakovich to insert his name (D. Sch) into a composition. Here is the Elmira motto:
This takes a bit more explanation. This motto is always heard on French horn written as above. But the horn is a transposing instrument and the notes actually sound as E, A, E, D, A. If you say them in a combination of the French and German ways of saying the notes you get this: E, La, Mi, Re, A or "Elmira".  Both of these mottos are heard in the second half of the third movement.

There are four movements in the symphony which take between 50 and 60 minutes to perform:
  1. Moderato
  2. Allegro
  3. Allegretto
  4. Andante - Allegro
The first movement is a brooding moderato in sonata form that bears a bit of resemblance to Sibelius. Here is the first theme:
Here is the second theme:
The second movement is one of Shostakovich's dynamic scherzos with lots of syncopation. The third movement, often described as a nocturne, features the two mottos of Shostakovich and Elmira. The last movement, after a slow introduction, is a furious dance in which the DSCH motif again appears towards the end.

A lot of the commentary on this symphony, such as the notes by Mark Wigglesworth, focus on the political aspects of the time. While this can be interesting, I hardly think it is the best way to approach the music. Just listening to it, with the score if you have it handy, is better because it allows you to find your own reactions. For example, there is a lot of description of this symphony as being full of despair, but I really don't hear that. I hear a lot of moodiness, certainly, but also a lot of joy and delight. Here, have a listen and see what you think: