Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mendelssohn: Symphony #3

Over the next two posts, we will finish off the remaining two Felix Mendelssohn's symphonies on my 3-CD collection of his Five Symphonies. Today, we'll cover his Third, the "Scottish" Symphony.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies

Deutsche Grammophon, 1973
In my view, Mendelssohn's Third Symphony is the best one I've listened to yet, after having listened to his First, his marathon Second, and his Fifth.

And my boy Felix himself backs me up on this one: according to the unusually well-written liner notes accompanying this CD (written by Ivan March), Mendelssohn "valued the 'Scottish' Symphony above the others."

Mendelssohn was inspired to compose this work after a visit to Scotland in 1829, and the introductory theme of this symphony burst into his mind upon seeing the famous Holyrood Abbey ruins.

It's interesting, however, that my primary classical music reference source, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, barely mentions the Third. Only Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony warrant any discussion. That's a significant oversight in my view.

I'll see for myself how well Mendelssohn's Fourth stacks up against his Third in my next post. I can tell you right now, however, that it's going to be a challenge to beat out this wonderful symphony.

Listener notes for Mendelssohn's Third Symphony:
1) Most of the drama in this symphony happens in the surprisingly long first movement, and there are some really intriguing harmonies and unusual melodies here. Right away, this symphony sounds more intriguing, and has a lot more drama and torment, than Symphonies 1, 2 and 5 combined.

2) Listen to the unusual chord the orchestra plays at the 0:21 mark, and in particular, listen to the note that the french horn plays in that chord. I can't remember enough music theory to tell you what that chord is exactly, but it is a chord that doesn't belong in the year 1842, especially from someone seen as a conservative among the Romantic-era composers. I'm beginning to develop more and more appreciation for Mendelssohn's compositional risk-taking.

3) Also, listen at 5:54-6:10 in the first movement--there's an almost modern-sounding violin part. This guy sounds more like he's ahead of his time, not behind it.

4) A comment on the structure of the first movement: it appears to have an extremely long, Haydn-style introduction, with the true theme not starting until almost four minutes into the movement.

5) After that long and tense first movement, the second movement practically seems like an amuse-bouche.

6) When I listen to the third and fourth movements of this symphony, I can't help but appreciate how Mendelssohn can drive quite a bit of power out of just a smallish orchestra--it makes you think that composers like Mahler cheat a little bit by scoring their music for supersized symphonies.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tchaikovsky and Discipline

"Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy."
--Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The more I learn about Tchaikovsky, the more I see him as one of the most inspiring composers in all of classical music.

Here was a man who suffered throughout his life. His mother died when he was an adolescent. He was mentally unstable during much of his adulthood, suffering from depression at best and derangement at worst. And he was a gay man living in a society that considered homosexuality to be criminal.

As if these enormous hardships weren't enough, he had just as many barriers blocking him from his dreams to become a composer: he had almost no background in the subject, having chosen a more "respectable" career in law. He had little musical training and less compositional training. He knew nothing of harmony, counterpoint or music theory. Worst of all, his first attempts at composition have been charitably described as "feeble."

In short, he had a long, long list of potential excuses to quit. He could have easily given up and settled for being just another frustrated and depressed lawyer, rather than rising up to become one of history's best known classical music composers.

Moreover, Tchaikovsky chose to build some exceptional habits that drove his outstanding creative output and productivity. He studied zealously, stayed humble and remained "skeptical of his own aptitude." And he composed in every spare moment. Tchaikovsky didn't sit around and wait for inspiration to come to him:

"I sit down to the piano regularly at nine-o'clock in the morning and Mesdames les Muses have learned to be on time for that rendezvous."

And, in a trait so rarely found in our relentlessly results-based society which seems to be increasingly focused on immediate success (or worse, success just for the sake of success): he placed process before product in his art. In a letter to his sister dating from in the early days of his musical education, he wrote:

"Do not imagine I dream of being a great artist. I only feel I must do the work for which I have a vocation. Whether I become a celebrated composer or only a struggling teacher--'tis all the same."

I've spend years confusing process with product in many areas of my life, particularly in my musical life years ago, when I was a young, perfectionist musician held back by the fear of making mistakes and looking foolish as a result. Only in the past few years, since I've begun writing, have I been able to (at times) get out from under my own perfectionism and concentrate on enjoying the creative process.

Once again, I thank this blog for introducing me to a new source of inspiration.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6

Today we'll cover Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, from a live CD recording by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Valery Gergiev.
Valery Gergiev and the Wiener Philharmoniker
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6
Philips, 2004
The Sixth was Tchaikovsky's last symphony, and many music historians consider it his requiem, as he died just nine days after the work's premier. Also, the circumstances surrounding his death were unclear--did he die of cholera, or did he commit suicide?--adding to the controversy surrounding this composer's already highly controversial life.

We'll discuss more about Tchaikovsky's life, and in particular his, uh, eccentric personal life, in future posts.

Listener notes for Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony:
1) It's strange, but after really enjoying this symphony earlier this year (on another CD), I seem to have gone a bit limp on Tchaikovsky's Sixth. This is kind of a new experience for me: typically once I decide I like a classical music work, I keep on liking it. For some reason, however, this symphony just doesn't enthrall me quite like it did back in June. Why?

2) However, I still fell in love, all over again, with the second movement. Only a Russian could write such beautiful music about death and suffering.

3) Back to the first movement for a second: one feature I do like very much comes at the very end. Listen underneath the melody to the descending notes plucked by the basses and cellos during the last minute or so of the first movement.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dvorak: Symphony #7

It's ironic that Dvorak's Seventh Symphony and his Eighth Symphony are commonly found on the same CD, because they are a study in contrasts. The Seventh Symphony is as dark and stormy as the Eighth is joyful. The Eighth is suffused with Slavic folk tunes, while the Slavic themes in the Seventh, if they show themselves at all, appear late in the work in camouflaged form.
Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphonies 7 and 8
EMI, 1990
But there is one thing Dvorak's Seventh and Eighth Symphonies inevitably share: both are unjustifiably overshadowed by his more commonly performed Ninth.

I'm grateful that this blog has caused to listen closely to these two symphonies. Until I started this blog I had never heard Dvorak's Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Symphonies, despite the fact that for years they've been sitting over on my CD rack collecting dust.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Seventh Symphony:

1) It's dramatic how the first movement fades away into nothing, isn't it?

2) Once again, AGGGH! on the clarinetist in the Philly Orchestra! He's reliably off-key (usually flat) throughout the symphony. The solo early on in the second symphony is particularly bad, as is the particularly awful off-key and poorly phrased solo at the 3:50 mark in the second movement. I can't help but reflexively cringe every time the clarinet comes in, since I'm waiting for a mistake or an off-key note. I know I need to let this go, but it is horrifying to me that an otherwise world-class symphony could have an important musician this subpar. How does this guy keep his job?

3) Listen for a barely perceptible mistake in the string section, during the final two chords of the second movement. Some of the second violins hold that chord longer than they are supposed to and break off abruptly right before the final, soft chord. Oops.

4) It's not until the third movement scherzo that we finally get a little Bohemian action--but as I mentioned above, these folk music-inspired themes seem restrained and camouflaged somehow.

5) Interesting transition to the major key at the very end of the fourth movement. One one hand it makes the music sound triumphant, but on the other hand, it sounds like the symphonic equivalent of a Hollywood ending.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dvorak: Symphony #8

In the eyes of the average casual classical music listener, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is generally overshadowed by his much more widely known Ninth Symphony.

But in the eyes of true Dvorak lovers, however, the Eighth is more popular by far. Real Dvorak fans cherish the raucous and exuberant folk music of Dvorak's native Bohemia--and that's exactly what suffuses this symphony. It makes listening to this symphony an experience of pure joy. And at an all-too-brief 35 minutes or so in length, this thrilling symphony is over before it begins.
Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)
Symphonies 7 and 8
EMI, 1990
Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is proof that not all great symphonies are conceived in suffering. Occasionally a symphony--like this one, or Brahms' Second--bursts out of a composer during a period of contentment and happiness. And Dvorak composed this entire work in just two and a half months.

Of course it only takes a cursory survey of the landscape of classical music composers to see that this "happiness exception" is just that--an exception.

Listener notes for Dvorak's Eighth Sympony:
1) I'm sorry to complain about bad intonation right off the bat, but is there something about the Philadelphia Orchestra and their principal clarinetist? Listen to the first movement of this CD at the 8:05 mark. Why is this guy so often out of tune?

2) In the second movement, you can hear conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch let out a big grunt after the violin duet and right before the full orchestra enters. It's at about the 4:00 mark. Feel it, Wolfie!

3) How great are the flourishes and ornamentations of the Slavic folk themes throughout the third movement? Grace notes and glissandos abound. What a blast it is to listen to this movement.

4) Also, listen very closely at the 0:52 mark of the third movement for a beautiful, hard to play, and almost throwaway run by the violas (it comes right after the violins finish their own beautiful folk melody; also you'll hear it again at the 4:12 mark). This is sort of emblematic of the "ornaments" in Dvorak's symphonies. If you weren't listening closely, you'd miss the part; but once you know it's there, it's thrilling to hear such a difficult subordinate musical line rise up and then disappear in an instant.

5) The trumpet parts, for lack of a better word, suck in this symphony. They aren't quite as bad as Mozart's oom-pah parts, but they're close (Dvorak has a thing for giving the trumpets "bup bup bup bahhh" parts). It's not until the start of the fourth movement that the principal trumpet gets to shake himself out of rest-counting somnolence and play a real (if brief) part.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beethoven: Symphony #9

"Whosoever has built a new Heaven has found the strength for it in his own Hell."

"The mightiest of Beethoven's symphonies."
--David Dubal, from The Essential Canon of Classical Music

With today's post, I've now finished listening to and writing about the entire cycle of Beethoven's symphonic works. And I have to thank this blog for helping me accomplish a task I've wanted to do all my life: listen closely and carefully to every single one of Beethoven's nine symphonies. It's been a profound and deeply moving experience for me.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonie No. 9

Deutsche Grammophon, 1984

Classical music fans with at least a passing knowledge of Beethoven's life and biographical details will know the story of the premiere of the Ninth: Beethoven was actually on the stage with the musicians, assisting the conductor with setting the tempos. Completely deaf, he heard absolutely nothing of the performance.

Anecdotes abound about what exactly happened when the performance ended, but let's let the well-known music biographer George Grove tell us the story in his engrossing description of the event:

The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience (and beating the time), till Fräulein Ungher, who had sung the contralto part, turned him, or induced him to turn around and face the people, who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning around, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before (because he could not hear what was going on) acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.
--From Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies by George Grove

I know of no more compelling story in all of classical music.

Before we get to the listener notes for this symphony, let me share two resources that should be extremely useful if you are interested in learning more about Beethoven:

1) If you would like to listen to and learn all of Beethoven's nine symphonies, I strongly recommend this highly regarded box set, performed by the Chicago Symphony. You'll be able to acquire an excellent quality collection of all of his symphonies with one purchase.

2) Also, an extremely interesting (and free) online resource on Beethoven's Ninth is the lecture series Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: Then and Now by Harvard professor Thomas Kelly at the Harvard@Home site.

Listener notes for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:
1) Doesn't the opening few moments of the symphony, right after the initial "falling fourths" notes, sound like an orchestra tuning up? It raises the suspense in the listener.

2) Dut dah! dut dah! Once again, Beethoven brings us a simple and yet utterly compelling musical motif.

3) Perhaps the opening of the second movement is as memorable as any opening in any movement of Beethoven's other symphonies. As is common in his symphonies, this opening motif is a variation of the motif from the beginning of the first movement.

4) By far, the most important musician in the third movement is the principal clarinetist. The clarinetist in the 1984 Berlin Phil/Karajan recording is unfortunately a bit shrill and a bit flat. It detracts from the performance.

5) At 8:33 in the third movement, the french horn has an interesting part--a simple eight-tone ascending major scale. When I hear a major scale, I think of all-county music auditions or boring musical drills, thus it's a bit shocking to hear this scale perfectly incorporated into this symphony.

6) Even though you know that there's going to be singing in this symphony, it's still seems slightly unreal when the male singer enters early on in the choral movement (in this recording, it is baritone singer Jose van Dam). In Beethoven's era, the use of choral singers in a symphony may not have been exactly revolutionary (after all, there already existed a tradition of combining chorus and orchestra in cantatas and oratorios), but I think you could reasonably call it progressive. And the way Beethoven combines the singing, the musical power, and the spiritual nature of this work makes the entire symphony overwhelming. It's almost too much to take in.