Baroque Forms – Part 2

For the second part of this exercise, I have chosen five Baroque forms to listen to.

1. Chaconne

Reputedly originating from Latin America, the Chaconne first appeared in Europe in Spain and Italy in the form of a triple metre dance, written as a series of harmony notations for guitar. The performers (both vocalists and instrumentalists) would compose melody variations on top of these harmonies, and eventually the music began to be fully notated. Interestingly when the Chaconne arrived in France, it was slower and more stately; the kind of transformation I have been reading about in the context of modern performance practice. Well known composers who wrote Chaconnes include Monteverdi, Lully, Rameau, Bach, Purcell, Handel and Couperin.

Bach: Partita no. 2 in D minor, movement 5

Written between 1717 and 1720, each movement of this partita for solo violin is a dance form. The last one, the Ciaccona, has since been transcribed for many instruments. It is thought they were likely written for Bach’s patron, the accomplished musician Prince Leopold.

Gidon Kremer | Academy of St Martin in the Fields | Universal Music B.V. 1996

Bach opens the movement with a strong statement of the harmonic progression in D minor, using double stops. The first variation introduces a dotted quaver melody as the middle line. Subsequent variations use different rhythms and convey very different moods, from quite dramatic (extremely virtuosic, fast passages) to gentle. There are also some which use chromatic elements. In the second half Bach transforms the harmonic material by changing to D major, but returns to D minor for the end and closes with a restatement of the opening.

2. Concerto Grosso

The concerto grosso involves a small group of instrumentalists (the concertino) playing against a larger group (the ripieno). This idea of contrast was a key feature of Baroque music. The composer Arcangelo Corelli, born in 1653, was one of the first to write music under this name; Bach and Handel continued the tradition. The form went out of fashion during the Classical period but has been revived in the twentieth century by many composers including Stravinsky, Glass, Bloch and Villa-Lobos.

Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 5

Handel composed his Twelve Grand Concertos’ in 1739 to be performed during the intervals of his newly composed oratorios. The oratorios marked a significant change in the composer’s style (following a period of physical and mental ill health), and so to help attract audiences he wrote these concertos which were advertised in the local newspapers before each performance.

Academy of Ancient Music | Andrew Manze | harmonia mundi usa 1998

The concertino for these concertos consists of two parts – violin I and violin II, while the ripieno is scored for strings and basso continuo. The opening of no. 5 is very grand with a distinctive repeated run of three demisemiquavers, and trills on the main beats of the bar. Often the concertino and ripieno parts for violin I are actually the same, which I didn’t expect, but Handel also indicates solo lines in places. The second Allegro part is predominantly imitative counterpoint, with an attractive repetition moving down the instruments. The Presto is also imitative, and works like a kind of conversation between the concertino and ripieno. The Largo is a complete contrast – measured and sedate, with long sustained lines (played in this performance with no vibrato, as it would have been in Handel’s time). In the next Allegro, the melody notes mostly move on crotchet beats, but are played as repeated semiquavers which give the piece a lot of energy. The final movement is written for the violins to play in unison – a stately Menuet with simple rhythms and harmonies, which I’m afraid I didn’t find a particularly inspired way to finish the concerto!

3. Canzona

This early Baroque form began life as arrangements of songs, such as French Chansons. By the late 16th century, composers were transforming them into true instrumental works for ensembles or keyboard instruments, and eventually it effectively merged into the sonata. The canzona was characterised by usually simple structures, counterpoint, and the use of sections to convey different moods and emotions.

Frescobaldi: Il Primo Libro delle Canzoni

Girolamo Frescobaldi published this set of canzoni in Rome in 1628, shortly before he moved to Florence to the court of  Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. The composer was also an accomplished organist and skilled at counterpoint, which is evident in the toccatas and partitas he wrote for the instrument.

Il Primo Libro Delle Canzoni Vol. II | Il Viaggio Musicale | Bongiovanni 2014

There is plenty of imitative counterpoint in this selection of the composer’s canzoni, played by an ensemble of early wind and string instruments, and harpsichord continuo.  Although the performance was probably stylistically accurate, I found the thin sound of the violin quite jarring. Many typical Baroque features are present in the music, including ornamentation and use of the tierce de Picardie. Some sections sound like dances, while other more contemplative sections are rhythmically quite free and improvisatory in nature. Many of the pieces have the dual major/minor feel of the Renaissance – in general I felt that they sound like they belong to this era much more than the Baroque.

4. Oratorio

Oratorios are sacred works intended to be performed in concert, usually involving an orchestra and chorus as well as soloists. They date back to the beginning of the 17th century, with the staging of several sacred operas in Roman Catholic Italy. Sometimes they were sung in Italian (oratorio volgare) and sometimes in Latin. Subsequently oratorios became purely musical / narrative – without any acting. Oratorios spread to Germany in the late 17th century, and Handel wrote his first in 1707.

Handel: Jeptha

I have to come back to Handel for this, as he is so well known for his oratorios. I have chosen to listen to his final one, Jeptha, composed in 1751. This is based on the story of the same name in the Book of Judges, in which Jeptha leads the Israelites into battle and vows that if he is successful he will sacrifice the first person he meets – who turns out to be his daughter. Interestingly the oratorio deviates from the bible story, providing a much happier ending than the bible suggests! Its first performance was at the Royal Opera House in February 1752, and was without any scenery or costumes as the law in Britain at the time prohibited the acting of biblical stories.

English Baroque Soloists | John Eliot Gardiner | 1989 Universal International Music B.V.

This oratorio is in three Acts, and I listened to selected parts of each one. The solo storytelling parts sound very much like the Italian opera style of recitative, with sparse basso continuo (harpsichord) accompaniment. The songs are also operatic in nature, with a strong connection to the words – ‘Twill be a painful separation, Jephta…’ features a solo flute and guitar, summoning up an image of loneliness. The choruses, such as “How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!” at the end of Act 2, tend to use imitative counterpoint. They gradually build up in intensity in a quite beautiful way, and sound particularly dramatic. I can imagine that when performed live they could be spine tingling.

5. Cantata

Originally meaning a sung piece (as opposed to the instrumental sonata), the first cantatas appeared in the 1620s. Over time they became structured into recitative and aria style sections; some were written with full orchestral accompaniment, and others with just basso continuo. From the twentieth century the term began to have a wide meaning, encompassing many choral works of different styles.

Telemann: “Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus”

Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas | Philippe Jaroussky | Parlophone Records Limited 2016

The accompaniment to the first cantata consists of essentially dry, short chords in the strings and basso continuo, which is surprisingly unusual and effective. I like the way that the organ blends in with the strings, creating a different tone colour, especially when it is contrasted with the strings playing alone. Overall the cantatas have a very pure sound which appeals to me. My previous exposure to Telemann was with some very banal and boring chamber music, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I quite enjoyed listening to these works, although I am not a particular fan of the countertenor voice.

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Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847)

Songs without words, Op. 8

This is a set of four short solo piano pieces. There aren’t many recordings of Fanny’s works unfortunately, but I was able to find these on YouTube.

No. 1 has a restless quality to it – frequent changes of harmony and a running left hand accompaniment. It is very expressive and quite chromatic in places, it actually reminds me of Chopin.

No. 2 features a melody in thirds and an off-beat pedal note in the base which gives it a feeling of momentum, as well as colourful, shifting harmonies.

No. 3 starts with a lovely, simple melody, developing into a rather wistful, melancholy mood. The melody moves between the hands which creates a nice variety of tone colours. It contains some expressive dissonances created through chromaticism.

No. 4 has an arpeggiated texture running through it with a melody singing out over the top, and a very grandiose finish.

Liszt: Dante Sonata

Après une Lecture de Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata (1849)

Arnaldo Cohen | Franz Liszt | 2011 Musical Concepts

This single movement solo work for piano was inspired by Dante’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy”. It starts off quite slowly, with some long rests that build up a feeling of suspense. Then the Presto agitato assai section begins the first main theme in D minor – played in octaves in the right hand and highly chromatic. The chromatic nature continues throughout the piece, though later the underlying harmony changes to a major key. There are also some juicy dissonances, such as the C# against the D natural in the left hand of the following extract:

liszt

This is one of the techniques Liszt uses to portray the intense themes of purgatory and hell which are described in Dante’s poem. The piece ends with a tremolo passage using a very low chord on the piano, resulting in a kind of rumbling sound. Following on from Beethoven’s legacy, Liszt was one of the first composers to really focus on the tone colours and textures of piano music (see my notes on this here) and I think this is a good example.

There are aspects of this piece that I really like – particularly the F# major section which has some unexpected harmonies and a lovely texture created by the left and right hands being slightly out of sync with each other. However as a whole it didn’t really grab me; I felt it lacked the cohesion that for example Chopin’s Ballades have, as well as melodic content (the chromatic octaves were a bit much for my taste, by the end!).

Chopin Nocturnes

Chopin: Nocturnes; 4 Ballades | Vladimir Ashkenazy | 1997 Decca Music Group

Since I liked Ashkenazy’s performance of the B major Nocturne the most (see Research Point 2.4), I chose to listen to some more of his recordings.

I think they are very lyrical pieces – often wistful and nostalgic in mood with a slightly dreamy feel to them, but also sometimes quite intense and brooding. The melody is important (this is usually given to the right hand), and the idea of progressively ornamenting a melody throughout the piece is a common theme. No. 5 in F# for example starts with a very simple theme played slowly in the range of just over an octave, and later on this same theme is given a much greater intensity by extending its range on the piano and introducing chromatic notes. I particularly like the bar towards the end of this piece which dresses up a perfect cadence with a chromatic passage based on thirds, played staccato:

chopin
Extract from Chopin’s Nocturne in F# (Op. 15, No 2)

Texture and tone colour are also all important in these pieces; the right hand is sometimes given fast, expressive ‘gestures’ which complement the main melody but have to be played sensitively and with the right dynamic balance. Trills and grace notes are also sometimes used for additional expression.

Recordings of Chopin

Research Point 2.4 asks us to compare five recorded performances of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3 in B major. I followed along with a score edited by G. Schirmer and also checked any discrepancies I found with a first edition copy on IMSLP. The details of the recordings I listened to are as follows, with the duration of each one shown in brackets:

  1. Chopin Nocturnes ~ Ballades | Vladimir Ashkenazy | 1980 Decca (6:44)
  2. Rubinstein Plays Chopin – Nocturnes 1-19 | Arthur Rubinstein | 2013 Heritage Records (4:42)
  3. Chopin, Vol. 4: The 21 Nocturnes | Vladimir Horowitz | 2011 MusiKazoo (6:10)
  4. Chopin: The Nocturnes | Claudio Arrau | 1978 Universal International Music B.V. (7:05)
  5. Chopin: Nocturnes | Fazil Say | 2017 Parlophone Records Limited (5:47)

In terms of the notes themselves, the performance I found to be most faithful to the score was Ashkenazy’s. Some of the other pianists chose to modify the ornamentation slightly, for example Rubinstein added a mordent at the beginning of bar 5, and Horowitz put in an additional quaver (a D# before the final E) in bar 6, as well as some extra grace notes. Rubinstein’s performance is uniquely different in that he missed out large chunks of the music at two points, resulting in a significantly shorter piece. I wasn’t able to find out the historical context to this, but this Nocturne is the longest in the set so perhaps that had something to do with the decision. Some rhythmic liberties are also noticeable in the performances: Claudio Arrau chose to turn some straight semiquavers into dotted, whereas Fazil Say did the reverse at a different point. Several of the pianists also chose to take the few bars on the penultimate page  marked as Tempo I slower than the original tempo.

All of the pianists I listened to use rubato in the performance of this Nocturne, but they differ in their approaches to the technique. Vladimir Horowitz for example noticeably lengthens the middle quaver in each group of 3 in the left hand, shortening the last one. Ashkenazy plays this rhythm straighter, but uses more rubato in his phrasing – often slowing down at the end of a phrase and speeding up again at the start of the next. Fazil Say used less rubato generally and his performance was by far the shortest of the full recordings. I thought he had a lovely soft touch but I thought this version rather flat and lacking in emotional contrast, in part because of the lesser rubato and also a smaller dynamic range.

Rubato was particularly noticeable in the heavily ornamented bars and there were some common approaches to this between the performances. For example they showed a tendency to pause on the most important notes, such as the high C and B in the following bar:

chopin

Pedalling is another area of difference in the performances. Horowitz used less pedal than most, enabling some unusual articulations, for example a staccato note in the left hand at the end of the first bar. Claudio Arrau’s pedalling on the other hand I thought was too heavy, blurring the harmonies between bars in some places.

My favourite performance was Vladimir Ashkenazy’s – I thought he played this really beautifully. His use of rubato resonates well with me: he didn’t use so much that it detracted from the flow of the piece, but it was enough to underpin the phrasing really expressively. He also created wonderful contrasts in colour through subtle dynamic changes and articulations, including some that aren’t explicitly indicated in the score. For example in bar 7 he dropped down to pianissimo for the end of the phrase, which seems to me very natural before the crescendo takes us into the main theme again.

Johannes Kreidler: Kinect Studies

In my tutor’s feedback for Part 1 of Stylistic Techniques, I was recommended to listen to this work by the German composer Johannes Kreidler, written in 2011. You can watch the video on YouTube.

Kreidler appears to create musical sounds in impossible ways, e.g. hovering his hand above a keyboard without touching the keys, or interacting with non-musical objects such as his own body. This is achieved using the Microsoft Kinect 3D sensor, which was setup to trigger various different sounds at different points in space (the videos have been marked up to display the trigger lines).

On Kreidler’s website, the Kinect Studies are described as ‘videos of conceptual pieces’. Some of them are quite humorous, such as the ‘silence etudes’ where he never goes beyond the trigger line and so the result is simply silence. A more interesting one is the ‘piece for solo violin’, where he moves a violin around in space resulting in pitches dependent on how high he holds it. This feels closer to an actual instrument, as he creates different effects by moving it faster or slower, and also by adjusting the volume using a second plane in the 3D space.

Relating this to the essay for Part 1, Kreidler is breaking some unwritten rules about how music is performed: unlike a conventional violin performance, the actual violin creating the sound is not visible in these videos (he could have waved around any object with the same effect). In some cases he triggers the sound by doing everyday activities completely unrelated to music, such as washing windows. Sometimes he appears engaged with the music but others he is apparently entirely unaware of it. He also creates a direct relationship between the sound and physical space. Intuitively it seems that high notes should correspond to objects further from the ground, and Kreidler makes this artificial association real.

An interesting question is: who is the composer here? On the surface it seems that it is the performer: aside from the limitations of the specific Kinect setup which has been predetermined, the performer is in control over how the music will sound and is not reading a musical score of any kind (in a similar way to jazz improvisation). However in conceptual music and art more generally, it is the idea or concept behind the piece which is central – the actual performance is secondary. I think Kreidler’s Kinect Studies are not so much about the sound output itself (which is often very unmusical to my ears at least), but rather the mechanism of creating the sound, and its relationship to the performer and physical space.

 

 

 

 

Berlioz: Harold en Italie

Harold en Italie is Berlioz’s second symphony, composed in 1834. Unusually, it includes a solo viola part throughout, commissioned specifically by Paganini who wished to play it on his newly acquired Stradivarius viola. The work was inspired by Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Movement 1 – Harold aux montagnes

This is a long (>15 mins) movement, with the subtitle “Scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy”. It certainly does portray a variety of moods, using different instrumentation and textures throughout. It starts with an ominous, chromatic melody deep down in the cellos and basses, which is then picked up by the higher strings. The melody lines are also passed around different instruments and played at different intervals, like a kind of slow fugue. I thought it was interesting that the solo viola player is directed to play “in the foreground, near the public and isolated from the orchestra”. When the viola enters for the first time it plays alone with the harp, creating a complete change of mood and a focus on the solo instrument. This section sounds rather like a lullaby – a slow, major melody with simple harmonies. The next section switches to compound time, and features a call-and-answer type texture between the viola and the orchestra. It has a dance like feel to it, similar to a gigue.

Movement 2 – Marche des pèlerins

“Procession of pilgrims singing the evening hymn” is the subtitle for the second movement. It starts with a rather ambiguous major/minor tonality, and has a mostly homophonic texture in 2/4 which I think conveys the impression of a walking procession quite well. The solo viola plays the lullaby theme from the Adagio section of the first movement, neatly tied in to the new musical material. Later on it plays an atmospheric arpeggiated texture “sul ponticello” (near the bridge), alongside a walking pizzicato bass line. Towards the end there is a noticeable dissonance caused by the C in the harp and French horns (against the B in the flutes and oboes), creating a feeling of tension and unease which is resolved at the end with a major chord.

Movement 3 – Sérénade

The shortest movement of the symphony, this one is subtitled “A serenade from an Abruzzi-mountaineer to his sweetheart”. It has a folk-like feel to it which is appropriate to the title – a drone in fifths played on the clarinets accompanies a simple, jaunty melody in 6/8. We also hear again an adaptation of the Adagio theme from movement 1 in the solo viola part. In this movement the viola often takes on an accompanying role to the rest of the orchestra.

Movement 4 – Orgie de brigands

The final movement is intended to portray Harold seeking wild company in a tavern. It is subitled “Reminiscences of the previous scenes”, and after a short introduction it immediately refers back to the opening chromatic theme of the first movement. Reminiscences of other themes are also heard throughout. This is a more dramatic movement than the others: the tempo indication is Allegro frenetico and it sets the scene with a fortissimo dominant chord involving most of the orchestra, including timpani. Brass and percussion are used extensively in this movement, and Berlioz also makes considerable use of diminished chords. I particularly like the dramatic dynamic changes in the French horns over the top of the chromatic melody in the Adagio section:

harold_en_italie