Berg: Lyric Suite

This twelve-tone string quartet composed by Alban Berg between 1925 and 1926 is in six movements.  The tone row it is based on is an example of an ‘all interval’ series, meaning that it contains one instance of every interval (2nd, 3rd, fourth etc.).

The first movement is fast and chaotic, the second andante amoroso movement slower and more lyrical.  Although atonal, there are colourful harmonies which sound not unlike jazz in places.  It’s mostly extremely emotional music – often desperate and frenzied, but also gentle at times.  The allegro misterioso  starts with a direction to play ‘am steg’ (on the bridge), with fast passages that puts me in mind of bees buzzing.  It creates an interesting sound, but with no identifiable melody or harmony; this movement doesn’t sound like music to me.  The adagio appassionato sends shivers down my spine with its intense sound and chromatic melodies.  The presto delirando creates an interesting, ominous sound with quiet tremolo close to the bridge, but the faster sections are again unmusical to my ears, with often unpleasant dissonances.  Finally, the largo desolato opens with slow, solo pizzicato on the cello and suggests a lonely, desolate landscape, ending with the viola fading out on a quiet, chromatic melody.  There was much in this music that I didn’t enjoy, but I was also surprised at how much I did like and how the music succeeded in drawing me in, particularly the lyrical, expressive sections.

Schoenberg: Suite for Piano

Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, Op. 25, was the composer’s first complete work written using the twelve tone method.  It was composed between 1921 and 1923, and the form is the traditional dance suite (prelude, gavotte, musette, intermezzo, minuet and gigue) with all six movements based on the same tone row.  I listened to a recording by the pianist Glenn Gould.

The pieces certainly don’t sound much like dances, though they are in places quite rhythmical and frequently change time signature.  The tone row was used to create a theme for each movement, some more obviously than others, and this does seem to give the pieces some cohesion.  I found them surprisingly lyrical and expressive with lots of dynamic and tempo changes, although the atonality gives the music a tense and sometimes disturbing quality.  They reminded me of some of Scriabin’s later preludes.  The musette was particularly interesting to me, featuring such strong use of G in the left hand that this did create a centre of sorts (although neither major nor minor).  There are also places where dissonances get resolved into consonances in a similar way to tonal music, for example in the intermezzo which ends unexpectedly with a major third and a sixth added in.

I found the faster pieces in the set the most challenging to listen to, as I have with other atonal music.  In slower pieces I find there is time to absorb the sound and make some sense out of it, but I am unable to do this in faster pieces and the lack of any cohesive harmony makes them sound (to me) like a chaotic mess.

Listening to Serialism

Twelve-tone serialism is a method of composing music developed in the early part of the twentieth century based on a series of notes (a ‘tone row’) played in a predetermined order.  The three pioneer composers in this field were Schoenberg, Webern and Berg – the so called Second Viennese School.

Berg: Kammerkonzert (1923-25)

This chamber piece is scored for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments.  The opening of the first movement introduces three tone rows – one for each of the three composers based on the spelling of their names, played respectively on the piano, violin and horn.  The movement continues with variations on these themes, using modifications such as playing them backwards or inverted (though this is not obvious to me through listening alone).  Interestingly, although the first series sounds like random disconnected notes, when the violin and horn enter and play some of their notes together I feel a definite sense of A minor tonality.  Later on the piano solo parts remind me slightly of Rachmaninov and I think are quite beautiful.  The second, slow movement predominantly features the solo violin accompanied by the winds; the wandering melodies make me feel very tense.  Although it does appear to be atonal, I don’t find this as difficult to listen to as some other music from this era (Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire springs to mind) – the melodies are given shape and direction and the harmonies are often colourful without being too harshly dissonant.  The final faster movement I found to be more chaotic and random sounding.

Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra (1926-28)

The melancholy theme for this work based on a 12 note tone-row is played out briefly by the strings before continuing on into a set of variations.  Each one has a different character – some, like no 8, are very rhythmic and others have a less well defined pulse and are more atmospheric.  Some of it I find very noisy and unpleasant, with instruments appearing to play quite randomly against each other.  The finale starts with tremolo strings and then becomes very harsh, with chords that sound like screaming.  The theme itself however has a feeling of desperation and tension which appeals to me.

The Composer: Aaron Copland

Copland was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York, in the year 1900.  His compositions typify what has come to be known as ‘American 20th century music’, many of them having a wide and popular appeal.

At the age of 20, Copland moved to Paris and studied composition under Nadia Boulanger, as well as conducting.  The musical trend in these circles in the 1920s was a reaction against Romanticism and a return to simpler, more Classical forms.

Copland’s personal life was controversial for the time, being gay and having politically leftist views (at one time supporting the Communist Party USA).  His music influences were broad; in Paris he was exposed to the post impressionist music of Ravel, Satie and ‘Les Six’, and he took much inspiration from jazz, Latin and folk.  The American jazz style of the era can be heard very clearly in his piano concerto written in 1926, and the folk influences are apparent in Appalachian Spring, written for a ballet.  Copland won the Pulitzer prize for this last work which is still very frequently performed in orchestral concerts.  I have written notes on these pieces as well as the Mexican folk inspired El Salon Mexico in my listening log.  Copland also explored twelve-tone methods, but remained largely tonal in his own compositions.

Later on Copland was a successful composer for film, receiving several Academy Award nominations, and also conducted performances of his own music.

I think Copland’s main legacy was in creating a very recognisable style.  He blended elements of jazz and folk into a new, distinctly American kind of music which has remained popular to this day.

Bibliography

Mason, C. (1960) 'Reluctant isolation' In: The Guardian [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/07/from-the-classical-archive-1960-aaron-copland-interview (Accessed on 28.02.17)

Ross, A. (2012) The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 290-293

Schiff, D. (2000) 'Who Was That Masked Composer?' In The Atlantic January 2000 [online] At: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/01/who-was-that-masked-composer/306475/ (Accessed on 28.02.17)

Listening to Aaron Copland

Piano concerto (1926)

The concerto opens with a bold statement in the brass, but the piano enters alone, with a thoughtful, wandering melody.  Influences from jazz are evident in the harmonies, heavily syncopated rhythms and distinctive switches between major and minor.  It starts at a slow tempo with quite a brooding mood, but the second half is more upbeat, featuring percussion, accented syncopation, and a cheeky solo on the soprano saxophone.  In places it’s reminiscent of the music of George Gershwin, a contemporary composer also living in New York whose jazz style became very popular.

El Salon Mexico (1936)

Written in the style of Mexican folk music, this piece has much simpler melodies and rhythms than Copland’s piano concerto.  It is a single movement work for symphony orchestra (including piano), with several distinct sections which call to mind different dances or ‘scenes’ in the dance hall the piece was inspired by.  It retains certain elements of jazz – syncopation and glissandos in the clarinet for example, but has much more of a folk feel.

Appalachian Spring (1944)

Unlike the two previous pieces, this was scored for chamber orchestra, although has since been arranged for full symphony orchestra.  It opens very slowly and gently in A major, with long sustained notes.  Then a sudden increase in pace, and a faster section based on a simple descending scale passage.  The piece contains fairly frequent changes in time signature, but the rhythms are generally uncomplicated and catchy.  Likewise there is a very clear tonal centre throughout, slowly changing harmonies and easily singable melodies.  The final section (before the coda) is probably the most famous, written as variations on a Shaker melody called ‘simple gifts‘.

Music between the Wars

Varèse: Amériques

This single movement piece is scored for symphony orchestra, including two harps and a large percussion section which contains unusual instruments such as a siren and a whip. It’s a dramatic work, with large contrasts in dynamics, intense crescendos and sudden mood changes.  The siren creates a particularly spooky effect and Varèse uses pitch bend and glissandos in some of the more traditional instruments too.  I can hear Eastern sounding melodies in places, and in others the harmony is chromatic and dissonant.

The beginning of the piece is mysterious, with a solo melody on the alto flute.  It soon becomes much more energetic, with the percussion section a noticeable driving force throughout.

My own personal definition of music at the beginning of this course was that it needed to include at least one of the three building blocks – rhythm, melody and harmony.  While this piece is in some ways challenging the definition, it does actually use all three constructs (albeit not necessarily at the same time!).  In places the rhythm plays a central role to the character of the piece, and it has frequent tempo and time signature changes.

Ravel: Bolero

This is a very familiar piece and I have heard it played in a live concert several times – I always find it mesmerising.  The ostinato rhythm on the snare drum creates an almost hypnotic effect, and drives the piece continually forward.  The piece gradually builds up very simply but effectively in both texture and dynamics as other instruments join in with the accompaniment.  The solo line is passed between different instruments, with each one given a slightly different interpretation – for example the saxophone plays it with a characteristic slide up to the top note.  Starting from a quiet, modest beginning, it ends with a rich, majestic sound, with the accented, syncopated rhythms emphasised to full effect.

 

 

Writing Programme Notes

Research notes – Sibelius and Nielsen

Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 to Swedish parents in the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire.  He started studying law, but soon moved to the Helsinki Music Institute which has since been renamed after the composer.  He was an aspiring violinist, but did not succeed to become a concert level performer and turned instead to composition.  He is most known for his symphonies, tone poems and violin concerto, although he also wrote a lot of chamber music and songs.  He became very well known in Finland during his lifetime; the government even gave him an annual grant to give him the freedom to focus on his composition, and he became a kind of symbol of Finnish nationalism (independence from Russia was finally achieved in 1917).  Finlandia was written as a depiction of Finland’s history, and had to be performed under different names to avoid Russian censorship.  Musically, Sibelius belongs with the Romantic era, but although tonally his compositions were more traditional than some of his contemporaries, he was innovative in his treatment of the symphonic form – for example in his seventh symphony which has only one movement.

Carl Nielsen was born one year earlier than Sibelius, in Denmark.  Unlike the Finnish composer, he remained relatively unknown during his lifetime, and earned his living as an orchestral violinist, teacher and conductor as well as composer.  He wrote six symphonies, three concertos and two operas, amongst other smaller works.  He was particularly interested in Danish folk music, although there is debate over how much this influenced his own music.  His use of tonality was innovative – he often finished a piece in a different key to the one it started in, using ‘progressive harmony’ to move through different keys throughout, and also incorporating chromatic and modal harmony.  Nielsen’s orchestration was rich, often making significant use of brass and percussion, and a portrayal of battle can be heard in symphonies 4 and 5 which were written during and shortly after World War I.  These works didn’t reach international fame until after World War II however.

Bibliography

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017) 'Symphony' [online] At: https://www.britannica.com/art/symphony-music/The-20th-century (Accessed on 18.02.17)

Pickard, J. (2017) Carl Nielsen Biography [online] At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/1be1367d-119f-4b08-bdfe-50b95043e544 (Accessed on 18.02.17)

Ross, A. (2012) The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 171-193

Service T. (2007) The Silence of Sibelius. At: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/sep/20/classicalmusicandopera1 (Accessed on 18.02.17)

 

Programme Notes for Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 5

Written just a few years after the end of the First World War, the Danish composer’s fifth symphony is one of contrasts, described in his own words as “the division of dark and light, the battle between evil and good”.  It was first performed in Copenhagen in 1922 under the direction of Nielsen himself who was known in Denmark as a conductor and violinist as well as composer.  Despite his relative popularity in his own country however, Nielsen did not gain international recognition until decades later.

The work opens with a soft minor third based motif on the violas – suspenseful and ambiguous in tonality as it accompanies the modal sounding woodwind and string melodies reminiscent of folk tunes.  As the movement progresses it takes on a darker tone, the snare drum evoking a battle scene.  The second half of the movement brings with it sweeping, joyous melodies in the strings, though the tension soon returns with a clashing motif in the woodwind.  Nielsen’s innovative use of tonality to achieve the jarring effect is a recurring theme in this, as well as his other works.

Nielsen’s modernisation of the twentieth century symphony is also evident in the unusual structure of this work, which comprises only two movements.  The second movement features a fugue, starting softly in the strings and building up the drama as the woodwind and brass join in.  The symphony ends with a frantic ascent to the climax, which finally resolves with a resounding, triumphant chord.