National Identity

Albéniz: Chants d’Espagne

D’ombre et de lumière | Magda Tagliaferro | BNF Collection 1960

This album includes numbers 4 and 5 of Albéniz’s suite of piano pieces published in the 1890s.  Number 5, Seguidillas, is a very upbeat piece with fast staccato rhythms that give it the feel of a Spanish dance.  It’s in 3/4 with a strong emphasis on the second beat which is quite characteristic. Number 4, Córdoba, has a very different mood – more musing and thoughtful, though it too develops into a kind of dance with an accented second beat. A predominant rhythm in both pieces is:

spanish_rhythm
 The semiquavers drive towards the accented second beat, which fits well with the kind of rhythmic stamping common in Spanish flamenco dancing for example.

Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances

Kurt Nikkanen & Rohan De Silva| Collins Classics 2011

This version of Bartok’s short dance suite is arranged for violin and piano.  Several of the movements are centred on the Eastern European scales which are closely related to the harmonic minor scale (the major version has a characteristic flattened second and the minor version a sharpened fourth), which gives them a very Eastern flavour. They also have quite a passionate character which I think is in keeping with the associations from that part of the world – the violin part is highly articulated with lots of marcato and double stops.  The faster movements sound very much like gypsy dances.

Chopin: Polonaises

Arthur Rubinstein | Naxos 2010

The Polonaise is a Polish dance in 3/4 (the name is French for ‘Polish’).  Interestingly , this style of dance makes strong use of the same rhythm I identified in Chants d’Espagne.  Rubinstein (who was a Polish pianist) plays this in an exaggerated way in the recording of Chopin’s Polonaises I listened to, by holding down the first quaver for slightly longer and making the following semiquavers faster.  There’s an interesting article on the Chopin Foundation website which suggests that Chopin’s music reflects feelings of rebellion, hopes and frustrations, during a difficult time in Poland’s history.  I think the Polonaises are a very good example of this – they are dramatic and heroic sounding, full of challenging octave passages and big chords.

English Identity

It’s interesting that the Polish, Romanian and Spanish music I listened to all have some quite specific musical characteristics such as a particular time signature, rhythm or scale, but I can’t think of any  equivalent features for English music.  I think instead its identity is more defined by mood and character – reflecting the perception of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ – defiant, stately and predominantly cheerful.  Definitely not particularly emotional or dramatic like Russian music for example.

Elgar is of course the first composer that springs to mind; besides his most well known compositions, I think his ‘Cockaigne Overture’ which I’ve played with my local symphony orchestra is a good example of a piece of music reflecting a very English identity. The march rhythms and use of percussion and brass give a real sense of stately occasion. The rhythms in particular I think are quite important – they’re simple but strong throughout, which holds the music together.  Elgar’s repetition and development of the melodic themes also give the piece a very defiant personality.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra | Sir Simon Rattle | EMI Records 2008

Known as the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ due to its unusually large scale, Mahler’s work was premiered in Munich in 1910.  The symphony uses eight vocal soloists as well as two full SATB choirs and a children’s choir.  The orchestra is also extended to include an organ, harmonium, piano, harps, celesta and mandolin.

The combination of full choir and orchestra creates a very powerful sound, particularly when combined with the organ.  I quite like this effect, but as a prolonged texture I feel it can be a little muddled; when there is too much going on the parts tend to get in the way of each other.  The symphony is in two main parts, each divided into a large number of short sections based on passages of text from a Latin hymn and Goethe’s Faust.  This structure gives the sense of a story being unfolded, or of a journey of some kind, and the sections featuring solo vocalists are quite operatic in nature.  It doesn’t quite capture my imagination very effectively though, which surprised me as I expected to like this kind of Romantic symphonic music.  I think this is partly due to the texture, and partly because there’s just nothing about the harmonies, melodies or rhythms which particularly grabs me (sorry, Mahler fans!).  The parts I liked the best were those with a thinner texture, such as the Più mosso  in Part 2. Maybe after several listenings I would enjoy it more, but as a newcomer to the work I find it rather meandering.

Programme Music

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

London Symphony Orchestra | Sir Colin Davis | LSO Live 2002

In this exercise we are asked to listen first to this symphony without reading the programme and think about the images or emotions it evokes.

First impressions

The first movement is one of light and shade – lighthearted dance like sections alongside more serious and ominous suggestions.  The double basses hold a long sustained note while the harmony above it changes between major and minor.  It’s mostly in a major key however and I think has a joyous character.

The second movement opens with tremolo strings and a harp, diminished chords building up suspense before resolving into a waltz in a major key.  I really like the flowing melodies and sense of movement and direction that all convey the impression of an energetic but elegant dance.

The third movement starts with a gentle oboe solo.  For the first few minutes we hear mostly solos or unison melodies, conveying the idea of a solitary scene.  The texture builds up over the course of the movement, but didn’t really put me in mind of any particular images or associations.  The ending is somewhat interesting – the oboe solo returns but now with rumblings of quiet timpani, giving the impression of receding into the distance.

 Movement four is a complete change of mood – opening with threatening timpani and a minor melody in the cellos and double basses.  It’s a fairly slow, deliberate march, and has a sense of occasion about it which reminds me of the military, ending in a flourish of percussion and brass.

The final movement also starts with the cellos and basses and retains an ominous mood. High pitched strings and pitch bend in the wind instruments sound particularly sinister. This is followed by a playful section which sounds out of place after this threatening beginning.  Then an insistent melody with repeated notes (reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ but in a minor key) played out in the lower strings and brass, with the addition of a gong which sounds particularly ghoulish, like a death knell.

Research

The first movement is about a young musician falling in love.  This makes sense to me – I think the music captured well the contrasting joys and heartaches of young passion.  The second movement describes a ball, which of course fits the elegant waltz that Berlioz wrote perfectly.  Part three is a ‘scene in the countryside’, a solitary pastoral scene which the opening definitely reflected.  The development of this movement describes the musician’s hopes and fears, and the timpani at the end is supposed to represent thunder (which in hindsight, I think it does well).  The story then becomes quite surreal and nightmarish, with a vision of murder and his own execution.

I re-listened to movement four after reading the programme.  The slow march perfectly matches the idea of a procession to an execution, resembling heavy footsteps.  The quiet rumblings in the timpani also build up the suspense, as do ascending passages in the strings, climbing both in pitch and dynamic.  A sudden silence followed by a brief melody in the clarinet (a final plea from the poor musician?) and then a dramatic extended drum roll announces his execution really effectively.

Evolution of Beethoven’s Work

Early Period

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

Cleveland Orchestra | George Szell | Sony Essential Classics 1962

This four movement symphony published in 1801 opens with an Adagio which features some call and answer chords between the strings and wind/brass.  It sounds like a Classical piece from the outset – elegant and balanced, with motifs based on scale passages.  Easily singable melodies are passed around between the sections of the orchestra in a very Classically appealing way and it sets an uplifting mood.  The rest of the symphony continues in a similar vein, and seems considerably more pedestrian than the twentieth century symphonies I have listened to for Part 2 – there are longer sections where the music remains in the same key, texture or motif, as well as more repetition.  The symphony itself is also fairly short, lasting only about 26 minutes.

String Quartet No. 1, Op. 18

Alban Berg Quartet | String Quartets Nos. 1-3 | EMI Classics 1999

The first Allegro con brio movement seems to juxtapose some very Classically sounding phrases in a major key with more aggressive, minor sections that sound more typically Beethoven.  It features an accompaniment of repeated detached quaver chords played by the middle parts while the violin sings a melody over the top and the cello plays a bass line, although the melody is sometimes passed around the parts as well.  The beginning of the second slow movement is predominantly quiet, but with crescendos played through the sustained note in the melody part which give the music a very expressive quality.  There’s then a more impassioned section deserving of the movement’s Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato title with sudden changes from forte to piano.  The final movement again sounds often very Classical in style.

Middle Period

Symphony No. 3 in Eb major, Op. 55

London Philharmonic Orchestra | Vladimir Jurowski | LPO 2017

This is Beethoven’s well known ‘Eroica’ symphony, first performed in 1805 and originally dedicated to Napoleon.  With its loud, bold chords, this symphony definitely feels like it’s starting to move away from Classical traditions, and at just over 50 minutes long it’s a significantly larger work than his first symphony.  It’s exciting and dramatic music, with more of a sense of leading to somewhere.  In the Adagio assai second movement (a funeral march), I found the deep, rumbling double bass line very effective and ominous sounding.

Fidelio, Op. 72: Overture

London Philharmonic Orchestra | Vladimir Jurowski | LPO 2017

This is the overture to Beethoven’s only opera, also premiered in 1805.  The main theme based on a rising arpeggiated pattern is well known and the bold statement reminds me of the Eroica.

Kreutzer Sonata in A Major, Op. 47

Maxim Vengerov & Alexander Markovich | Teldec Classics 1992

The first movement opens with a conversation between the violin and piano.  It doesn’t remain long in A major, soon changing to a minor key.  Melodies are built on rising scale patterns and arpeggios, the double stopped passages on the violin sound raw and less refined than Classical music, and the piano part contains lots of octaves in both hands. One particularly noticeable feature is Beethoven’s use of the augmented fourth resolving to the perfect fifth, as well as the leading tone resolving to the tonic.  The second movement is a theme and variations – in the theme the melody is doubled between the piano and the violin.  Some of the variations are quite playful and others more serious, and there’s something like an Alberti bass in the piano part of one variation which sounds very Mozart-like.

Late Period

Symphony No. 9, Op. 125

Wiener Philharmoniker | Sir Simon Rattle | Warner Classics – EMI Records 2003

Beethoven’s final completed symphony was premiered in Vienna in 1824, by which time, astonishingly, the composer was completely deaf.  What immediately occurs to me listening to the start of this famous symphony is that the textures and orchestration are quite different to previous works – for example we hear the entire orchestra playing the same melody in unison.  The symphony also employs tremolo strings and timpani, and of course is famous for including a chorus in the final movement which gives a real sense of drama and must have been quite awe inspiring when it was first heard.  The Adagio third movement is surprisingly serene and gentle, with lyrical melodies, quiet sustained notes and pizzicato accompaniments.  In the final movement we hear the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ theme first played very quietly in unison on the cellos and basses, before being developed into a jubilant melody played by the wind and brass.  I find the climax, when this theme is also sung by the chorus, to be extremely emotional music – something about the simplicity of the melody and the insistence of the repeated notes makes me think of defiance, and overcoming hardship.

String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131

The Jasper String Quartet | Sono Luminus 2014

This is the last of Beethoven’s string quartets, completed in 1826.  The first movement is an incredibly beautiful slow fugue, with harmonies that sound very unusual and colourful, changing key frequently.  Beethoven is also much freer with his structure by this point – the quartet has seven movements, varying between under a minute and around seven  minutes in length.  His reference to the first movement’s fugue in the final movement was also very unusual for the time – something which I find quite satisfying to listen to as it gives a sense of completion.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

No. 1 in F minor (Op. 2)

I listened to Alfred Brendel’s recording of this sonata from his album Beethoven – Complete Piano Sonatas and Concertos.  The texture of the first movement is predominantly that of melody and accompaniment, with the left hand given chords or arpeggiated passages, sometimes not dissimilar to the alberti bass pattern used in the Classical era.  The second movement is a gentle Adagio in F major; this movement uses ornaments such as mordents which sound particularly Classical in style, as well as suspensions which were also common in this era.  The Menuetto movement modulates to Ab major, the relative major of F minor which was a frequently used modulation in the Classical style, and then back to F major.  The final movement sounds more like Beethoven’s later works, with loud chords, octaves and very fast arpeggiated passages, sometimes low down in the piano’s register.

No. 32 in C minor (Op. 111)

This sonata was composed around twenty five years later, around 1821-22.  I listened to a recording from the same album performed by Brendel.  It’s definitely much more Romantic than the previous sonata – large chords, more extreme dynamics and more demanding of the pianist’s technique, encompassing a larger part of the piano’s keyboard.  Harmonically it is also more advanced, containing dissonances, chromatic passages and more frequent modulations, staying in one particular key for a shorter amount of time.  It is also quite different structurally, containing only two movements, the second of which is a theme and variations.  Perhaps one throw-back to the Classical era is the use of repeated sections.  The piece has a very gentle ending in C major, with a long sustained trill in the right hand and an arpeggiated left hand.

Research

Beethoven’s first sonata was dedicated to Haydn.  The first and last movements are in sonata form (very much a Classical structure), and parts of the piece have been likened to some of Mozart’s work, such as Symphony no. 40.  His Op. 111 on the other hand is the composer’s very last sonata, and unmistakably ‘Beethoven’ in style.  Whereas his first sonata is looking back at the likes of Mozart and Haydn, his last is very forward looking – the syncopation in the second movement almost anticipating jazz and ragtime.  As  I thought from listening to it, the piece is considered a serious challenge for pianists.