Saturday, February 28, 2009

Schubert: Symphony #9 "The Great"

I am composing like a god, as if it simply had to be done as it has been done.
--Franz Schubert

Today we will cover the last of my Schubert CDs, his Ninth Symphony in C major.
Leonard Bernstein and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "The Great" in C Major

Deutsche Grammophon, 1989
As we mentioned before, Schubert contracted syphilis at age 26, and five years later his life was cut short at age 31. His early death was a horrible loss for classical music.

But something amazing happened to Schubert in his last years: in 1827, Beethoven, nearing his own death, had read some sixty of Schubert's songs. Impressed, he asked to see many of Schubert's other compositions. And, in the words of music historian David Dubal:

One week before Beethoven's death, Schubert was brought to his bedside. For a brief moment, two of the greatest musical geniuses met. At Beethoven's funeral procession, Schubert was one of the thirty-six torchbearers.

But Schubert himself had only twenty months to live. They were months of awesome productivity. Only his death stopped the heavenly flow of music. One masterwork after another poured from him as from a magic fountain.
--from The Essential Canon of Classical Music

During those final months of his life, Schubert composed some 30 piano works, several choral works, his famous song cycle Die Winterreise, an entire mass, and three chamber music works. Much of this work was done from his sickbed, while the man was in great physical pain. It was truly a period of godlike productivity. We were lucky to have this man among us for as long as we did.

And so, knowing what you now know about Schubert, go back and re-read the quote at the very beginning of this post. It suddenly seems less like a boast and more like an understatement, doesn't it? And it certainly puts my plans for the next two years in a whole new perspective.

One brief comment on the Schubert's Ninth Symphony before we get into the listener notes: It was originally thought that Schubert also composed this work during his final months. It turns out, however, that even though the score bears the date of March 1828 (Schubert died in November 1828), the bulk of the symphony was actually written in 1825. Schubert biographer John Reed, in his book Schubert: The Final Years, was the first to make the case that Schubert merely revised the work, rather than composing it, in his final year.

Listener notes for Schubert's Ninth Symphony:
1) Recall the leap in compositional style Schubert made from his Third Symphony to his Eighth, and how he leapfrogged from the Classical Era to the Romantic era? Well, the Ninth Symphony sounds like yet another leapfrog, to the era of Bruckner or even Mahler. The opening french horn theme is a particularly Brucknerian touch.

2) For another example of a compositional leap Schubert makes, listen to the descending chords played by the string section at 7:30 in the first movement. There are some dissonances in there that sound almost shocking. You would never hear anything like that in Schubert's early works.

3) This symphony provides further proof that unless you want your orchestra to sound naked, you must pay up for a good oboe player. A mediocre oboist would hinder the first movement and would utterly destroy the second movement of this symphony. Fortunately, the oboist from the Concertgeboworkest Amsterdam is exceptional and an absolute pleasure to listen to.

4) At 5:16 in the second movement the trombone section plays three descending chords. One of them is way off key. Ouch. And it happens again later in the movement at about the 11:54 mark.

5) The third movement is structured in sort of a weird way. We hear a light and lively, but relatively typical, scherzo in the first four minutes. But then there's a second scherzo theme that follows, also in 3/4 time, but slower and more sedate. Then, we return to a restatement of the first, faster scherzo. And then, that theme modulates up one tone (on this CD, it occurs at 8:04). After that, it's one more restatement of the original theme, and then the movement ends. I don't mean to bore you by reciting the various parts of the movement, it's just that this is an unusual structure, and the "second theme" seems out of place with the rest of the movement. It's as if Schubert just stuck it in there.

6) Have you ever thought to try to hum a few bars of the fourth movement? Uh-huh, exactly. One of the problems 19th century audiences had with the finale was its lack of any real tune or melody. In fact, there is a story from a rehearsal of this symphony (likely it's apocryphal, but it always seems that apocryphal stories make the best stories, so I'll tell it anyway) in which several orchestra members laughed aloud during the fourth movement, one of them asking another if he'd managed to hear a tune at all. Of course, we're still listening to this work more than a century after those laughing musicians came and went. I guess it just goes to show how badly contemporary audiences can misjudge great works of art.

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Schubert: Symphony #8, The Unfinished Symphony

After listening to this symphony, it's hard not to recognize the great leap in style Schubert makes from his very Classical-sounding Third in just seven years. He was barely 18 when he wrote his Third Symphony. By the time he had turned 25, he had composed (okay, partly composed) one of the quintessential Romantic-era symphonies.
Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmoniker
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert: Symphony #3, Symphony #8
Deutsche Grammophon, 1979
If Schubert's Third sounds like Haydn, then his Eighth sounds like Brahms. Only Brahms wrote his symphonies some 30 to 50 years later.

It took Schubert seven years to go from writing a derivative and backward looking symphony to writing a work that was 50 years ahead of its time. Imagine what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven.

It makes me think that the greatest tragedy in the history of 19th century classical music was the early and untimely death of Franz Schubert.

Finally, I have to quote one of the all-too-few episodes of The Simpsons that involves classical music:

Principal Skinner: Tonight, Sherbert's, oops... heh heh... Schubert's Unfinished symphony.
Oh good, unfinished. This shouldn't take long.

Of course, the joke's on him. Even though the Eighth is only two movements "long," this work is actually longer than his four-movement Third Symphony. Later in the episode:

Homer: D'oh! How much longer was Sherbert planning on making this piece of junk?

Listener notes for Sherbert's Unfinished Symphony:
1) I didn't understand at first why Deutsche Grammophon would put Schubert's Third and Eighth Symphonies on the same CD. But it's the contrast that makes these two symphonies so enjoyable. After finishing the Third, a beautiful and pleasant symphony, it only takes the first five seconds of the Eighth to make you feel like you've been plucked from the Classical era and dropped into the late decades of the Romantic era. From Kansas to Oz in 16 bars.

2) Notice the simple and memorable six-note motif, the modulation and the inversion of that theme throughout the work, the use of an extensive dynamic range, and the overall gravitas of the music. Classic markers of Romantic era symphonies. Oh, and the brass parts are more fun to play.

3) The stress and tension at the halfway mark in the first movement is nearly unbearable. See passages at 7:30, 7:43, 7:55 and especially the entire passage from 8:07 until the music resolves back to the major key at around the 9:00 mark. What compelling music!

4) Listen for the clarinet solo, beginning at 2:14 in the second movement. That is how a clarinet should be played. In tune, mournful and not shrill. Maybe I should mail this CD to the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Come back in five days for our final Schubert post!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Schubert: Symphony #3

I have a confession to make. Today's CD is not only further proof of my need to start this blog, but it is perhaps the most embarrassing example of how mindless and uncontemplative my life had become over the past several years.

This CD sat on my shelf with more than a hundred other CDs for years, unlistened to, unnoticed, and collecting dust. It was just like all the rest of my CDs, except, uh, in one key respect: It was still in its cellophane wrapper.

I had been so out of touch with myself that I bought CDs that I forgot I bought. I must have wanted to listen to this CD at some point, but apparently in the time between buying the CD and putting it on the shelf, I got distracted. For ten years.

That is a prime, and admittedly foolish-sounding, example of why I'm taking a break from my career, and why I started this blog. I guess I didn't want to wake up in another ten years and hear myself making excuses for myself like "I work too hard and make too much money to pay any attention to all the stuff I buy."
Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmoniker
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert: Symphony #3, Symphony #8
Deutsche Grammophon, 1979
Enough about me: A few words about Schubert before we begin the listener notes. You'll find Schubert, especially his early works like his Third Symphony, written just months after his 18th birthday, sounds very much like Mozart or Haydn. Despite living in the Romantic era, Schubert sounds much more like a Classical-era composer:

[Schubert] stands between the worlds of classical and romantic music. He is, however, chiefly to be considered as the last of the classical composers.
--Maurice J.E. Brown, in his biography of Franz Schubert

And he was yet another brilliant composer who died too young. Schubert contracted syphilis in 1823 at age 26 and died just five years later of complications from the disease (the CD liner notes accompanying this CD bluntly describe him as a "stricken philanderer"). One wonders what music he would have written had he lived longer. Would he have evolved as Beethoven did and taken his music into and beyond the Romantic era?

Today's recording is excellent, and I highly recommend it. You can buy the exact recording featured in this post from Amazon by clicking on the text link above, or by clicking on the graphic link at the bottom of this post.

And for those of you interested in an excellent recording of all nine (or perhaps more accurately put, eight and a half) of Schubert's symphonies, let me suggest one of the best and most affordable collections out there: Schubert: Complete Symphonies, by Richardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Again, just click the link to be taken to the product page at

We'll return to Schubert and his "Unfinished" Symphony in our next post.

Listener notes for Schubert's Third Symphony:
1) There's an opening introduction to the first movement, a la Haydn. It's not quite as catchy as a typical Haydn hook, but it's an obvious example of how "Classical" this symphony sounds.

2) I particularly like the two-note call and response parts from the woodwinds early in the first movement.

3) After you've listened to the second and third movements, both captivating and both as cute as buttons, convince me that you could tell this apart from any of the middle movements of Haydn's symphonies!

4) Only one minor criticism of an otherwise flawless work: the brass parts, and most notably the trumpet parts, are entirely oom-pah parts. Thus this is the sort of piece I'd like to listen to, not the kind of piece I'd like to perform.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Schumann: Fantasie in C Major: Arabeske; Humoreske; Novelette No. 9

Today we'll pick up where we left off with Schumann's piano works, and we'll tackle disc 3 of my four-CD collection of this brilliant composer's piano works, which contains his Fantasie in C major (opus 17), Arabeske (opus 18) and Humoreske (opus 20).
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975

It's interesting to read that Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, despite the fact that they lived in the 1800s, experienced one particular problem that any modern two-career couple might find familiar:

In 1844, Clara persuaded her husband to accompany her on a lucrative four-month Russian tour. At a reception, he was asked if he too was a musician. A part of him resented her career and her fame.
--from David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music

Instead of feeling blessed (uh, and enriched?) by his wife's professional success, Schumann felt jealous. A shame, especially considering that over the next ten years his accelerating decline into insanity would sorely test--yet never break--Clara's loyalty and dedication.

Let's get into the listener notes. First, note that the three primary works on this CD are quite a bit longer than the three- or four-minute scenelets on disc 1 and disc 2 of this collection.

Listener notes for Fantasie in C major:
1) Right from the beginning, this work sounds very much like Chopin. Remember: the two composers were almost exact contemporaries--both born in 1810 and both dying young (Schumann at 46 and Chopin at 39).

2) There's a melody that appears a couple of times in the first movement (first at about the 2:45 mark, then again at 9:50) that sounds very much like the "recitative" passage of the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata #17, (Der Sturm/The Tempest). Hopefully I'll get to writing about some more of Beethoven's piano sonatas in the coming weeks!

3) Wilhelm Kempff seems to be playing this piece quite a bit more cleanly than some of the other works on this 4-CD collection. Ironically he was 76 years old when he recorded "Fantasy", some four or five years older than he was when he recorded the first two works on disc one, which I claimed had so many mistakes. There goes that theory.

4) Is it just me, or do I hear another passage in the third movement that sounds like an homage to the middle movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Piano Sonata? It starts at the 2:09 mark, then repeats at different points in the movement, most distinctly at 6:25.

Listener notes for Arabeske:
1) This all-too-brief piece (just six and a half minutes) may be the most hypnotically beautiful work on this entire four-CD collection. A perfect piece to help you de-stress on the commute home from work.

Listener notes for Humoreske:
1) Notice how the first movement of this four-movement composition has multiple discrete sections, each of which could be considered a mini-movement, or a standalone piece. Much like many of the works in Schumann's Papillons or his Carnaval.

2) I hear a few mistakes creeping into Kempff's playing in the second movement.

3) The third movement contains segments entitled "Sehr Lebhaft" and "Mit einegem Pomp" which roughly translates to "Very lively" and "With some pomp." I guess that's sort of humor-esque.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to "Learn" a Piece of Classical Music

Classical music isn't meant to be listened to once and then forgotten. It is complex and many-layered music that is meant to be learned.

But what does it even mean to "learn" a work of classical music?

If you were in a music appreciation class, you might be subjected to a "needle drop" test, where the teacher plays a brief section of a symphony for the class. If you can name the symphony and the composer (and likely some other trivia like the year it was written or the year the composer was born or died), congratulations! You've "learned" that piece.

A professional musician would say he "learned" a classical music work once he can play--and play well, hopefully--all of the relevant parts in that symphony assigned to his instrument.

But for those of us who are not in class or working as pro musicians, those of us with busy lives and a limited amount of time to dedicate to classical music, I'll submit a more entry-level definition of what it means to "learn" a classical music work: can you recognize it?

For a person with an average ear and an average memory for music, it should take four or five attentive, careful listens to a symphony to satisfy this definition of classical music familiarity.

If that seems like a lot of work, just know that there's a reward waiting for you at the end of this journey: After those four or five listens, you'll really start to know the key themes, motifs and melodies of the work. You'll know how each movement starts and ends, and you'll build your own mental list of your personal favorite parts of each movement. You'll truly understand the "arc" of the symphony.

Many classical music works are simply too complex for the listener to ingest and fully understand right away, and thus most symphonies sound better and better upon repeated listens. To use an analogy, think of them as films like Citizen Kane where many of the most interesting cinematic techniques and other subtleties don't become apparent until you've seen the film a few times.

Other symphonies, perhaps Mozart's or Haydn's, might have witticisms and "in jokes" that you may only discover after repeated listens. And to stretch the film analogy still further (and give you an unexpected window into my amazing cultural sophistication), these works are akin to films like Talladega Nights, where you catch some of the best lines and jokes only after a few viewings. And hey, comedies are always funnier once you've memorized a few of the best quotes.

In fact, I'd argue that the real pleasures of listening to any classical music work begin to manifest after the second or third close listen. It's ironic, but it's more fun to listen to a symphony once you know what's coming.

Try this with the next symphony you choose to listen to. If you're not sure where to begin, I've compiled a list of key works that you can use to start your own classical music collection. Pick a out a few these CDs and let me know how it goes!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mendelssohn: Symphony #4

Mendelssohn began the initial sketches of his Fourth Symphony after a visit to Italy. His visit there was part of a tour he took across Europe in his early twenties, something any newly-minted college kid might appreciate.

Of course Mendelssohn didn't exactly stay at youth hostels. Having been born into an extremely wealthy family, and already famous for his musical skills, he spent his tour dazzling the highest echelons of European society.
Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Five Symphonies
Deutsche Grammophon, 1973

Unfortunately, this symphony never really satisfied Mendelssohn. He made repeated and wholesale revisions to the work, and it was never published during his lifetime. And yet this work was loved when it first premiered, and it remains one of Mendelssohn's most popular works to this day.
Once again, a brilliant composer judges his own music far too harshly.

A quick musical recommendation for any readers interested in buying Mendelssohn's symphonies. The Five Symphonies CD from Deutsche Grammophon featured in today's post is definitely worth owning, but since his Third and Fourth Symphonies stand out above the others, there's an even better option: this highly regarded CD, also recorded by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, which contains the Third and Fourth Symphonies by themselves. You can get the best of Mendelssohn while saving yourself an extra thirty bucks.

Listener notes for Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony:
1) Right away we have quite a contrast to the Third Symphony, as this symphony lacks a lengthy dramatic intro and instead starts right in on the main theme.

2) Nice to hear a clarinet play a few parts and only be slightly off-key at times, unlike the clarinet playing on the last few discs I've listened to. I'm still reflexively cringing whenever I hear a clarinet, and I wonder how long it's going to take me to break that habit.

The second movement starts out like a kind of a fugue, adding layer upon layer as it goes. The movement builds tension as the key shifts from minor to major several times. And then the music just fades away, softly and mysteriously. It's beautiful.

4) The trumpets don't get to do much during this symphony. And when they do come in, with some obligatory "bup bup-bup buhhhh" parts at the 5:54 in the third movement, it's clear
that their instruments have gone cold and out of tune. Sigh.

5) Did I like this work more or less than Mendelssohn's Third? Only slightly less. I really enjoyed both symphonies, but the twists and turns and extra drama and excitement of the Third makes it my favorite of this composer's symphonies. What a privilege it has been to have the opportunity to listen carefully to each of these works!