Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46

The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg was one of the most influential musicians in the twentieth century. As a pioneer of the Expressionism, he created music by revealing the true reality of human life; as the first composer who discovered "atonality" with his twelve-tone technique, he presents an innovative way of music making to against compositional tradition. After he composed his first twelve-tone piece - Piano Suite, Op. 25 in July 1921, he continued to produce more and more new music till A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 was accomplished in 1947.

The idea for a work honoring the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany was suggested to Schoenberg in early 1947 by Corinne Chochem, a dancer of Russian origin who had organized programmes of Jewish dances in New York in the 1930s and was co-author of a book containing music, choreography and photographs illustrating dances performed by Palestinian Jews. However, the collaboration between Chochem and Schoenberg was not successful, but Schoenberg decided to pursue the idea and compose this work independently. In the summer of 1947, he received a letter from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and decided to accept the commission for composing this work.

A survivor from Warsaw is such a wonderful work with a variety of novel elements. For instance, the men's chorus appeared through the entire piece; a narrator speaking a story over orchestral accompaniment with full of emotional impact. More surprisingly, this work as short as seven minutes compare to other music with orchestra. Trumpets open with dramatic motive which attract my attention immediately, and keep my attention with building up woodwinds till the narrative comes up.

The narration is the most attractive part to me in this composition. It depicts a story of a survivor from a concentration camp, living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. The survivor has remembered one morning, the Nazis assembled the entire camp (the trumpets sound reveille), and all of the prisoners come out hastily, "get out! The sergeant will be furious" The man was shout, and strings, percussion, woodwinds are creating chaotic and flurried atmosphere as background. "They came out; some very slow: the old ones, the sick ones; some with nervous agility." Even though they were hurried as they can, sergeant still think they were not quickly enough, and beat them cruelly. Even more horrible, "The sergeant and his subordinates hit everybody: young or old, quiet or nervous, guilty or innocent." the tremolos, accents, fortissimos in the orchestra present the commotion of the disorder situation along with German soldiers' shouting and yelling in the camp. “it was painful to hear them groaning and moaning." "I had been hit very hard, so hard that I could not help falling down." All of these words described how miserable the Jews’ life was.

I am so impressed the way that Schoenberg expresses emotion through the text and music in this work. For example, when the narrator speaks in dotted sixteenth notes on the “I have no recollection how I got underground”, horns accompanied with urgent sound, and then the speaking and music getting more intensive, suggesting a strong sense of tension till the "so long a time" comes with less intense quarter notes. Those quarter notes and "poco rit" bring listeners to the climax with all feeling of agitation. The tempo marks such as "poco rit" and "a tempo" appears almost in every two measures, or the number of juxtaposition of phrases in the text, all of these elements are so effective to present dramatic emotion under Schoenberg’s hand.

A survivor from Warsaw was a widely accepted composition by the public when it was premiered on November 4, 1948 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. No matter it was well received by its special meaning of exposing Nazi barbarism which people abominated the enormity of their crime at that time, or the Schoenberg's development of the twelve-tone method in this innovative work for orchestra, choir and narrative, it is significantly influenced the compositional trends of the twenties century music. I would support it should be included in the canon.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Carl Nielsen's Concerto for Clarinet

Born in the same fairy country as famous author Hans Christian Andersen, Carl Nielsen was a Danish composer and conductor around 19th and 20th centuries. His works include variety of genres of the time, "from Brahmsian Romanticism at the outset to a high-principled, personal brand of neo-classicism." His concerto for clarinet is such an unconventional and attractive work to audience.

Carl Nielsen wrote this piece for Danish clarinetist Aage Oxenvad, who was a member of Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Nielsen was touched by the extraordinary musical interpretation of this group after he heard their rehearsal, and then He decided to compose music for each person. Unfortunately, Nielsen only accomplished the flute concerto in 1926 and clarinet concerto in 1928 before his death in 1931.

No matter is instrumentation or structure, it is written without regard to tradition. Distinct from standard concerto form, fast-slow-fast, Nielsen's clarinet concerto is written in a long movement with several subdivided sections. Music opens with a perfect fifth played by cello and bassoon in an Allegro un poco tempo. The perfect fifth gives audience strong sense of rhythm, even though the instruments are playing in low register so that sounds a bit peasant. The two eighth notes slurs, rests, staccatos, and sustained notes obviously are elements of Danish folk dance music. The soloist comes in after sixteen measures with this folk-like theme, which has been alternating in whole work. This joyous and cheerful melody seems presents the innocent and lighthearted children. When the snare drum appears later, it interplays with clarinet leading music to become aggressive and gloomy, and it plays a significant role in this work, which is uncommon in the 20th century music. The second theme comes with a melancholy melody. However, it doesn't last long before the cadenza. The folk-like theme not only can be heard in the middle section of the cadenza, but also plays an accompaniment ostinato in the recapitulation till the next section.

The tempo is changed to Adagio in the second section. Horns and bassoons begins in a calm atmosphere, and repeated a major sixth higher by the clarinet and the strings. The drums break the peace of the music, but it does not continue to get climax as I expected. I was not satisfied with this feeling that it is fading away and becoming quite again so quickly. Even though I was not very impressed by its not tuneful melodies and irregular rhythm, I do like the snare drum accompaniment which has been performed in many measures with a repetitious three sixteenth notes. This march-like presentation makes music more energetic and excited regardless of the corny clarinet melody.

The first three notes of main theme suggesting Nielsen's folk music heritage also can be heard in the third movement even though it develops new material. The intensive emotion dominates entire movement till the finale. The clarinet brings out the theme first, and then taken by the basses and violins. All strings playing at the extremely high pitches lead to the coda. Finally, the music ends with gradually dying sound.

Undoubtedly, this is a unique work according to its engaging compositional technique. The significant role of snare drum makes this piece sound like a double concerto, and the limited instruments in orchestra part, the two bassoons, two horns, snare drum and strings shows a hint of chamber music writing. In addition, the unusually musical language is also the one of the reasons to keep this work outside of the canon.

David Fanning. "Nielsen, Carl." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed March 20, 2010).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Romantic Listening Journal Isaac Albéniz: Suite española, no. 1 and no. 2

Romantic Listening Journal

Isaac Albéniz: Suite española, no. 1 and no. 2

Isaac Albeniz was a Spanish pianist and composer born in 1860 in Camprodon, a small city in Spain. A child prodigy, Albeniz played in public when he was only four years old. Three years later, he passed the entrance examination for piano performance at Paris Conservatoire but was too young to enroll. When he was 12 years old, Albeniz hid in a ship going to Buenos Aires, and then he transferred to United States from Cuba. He has travelled various countries and gave many worldwide performances to support himself. Four years later, when Isaac Albéniz was fifteen years old, he went back to Europe and studied at the Leipzig and Brussels concervatories. In 1893, he decided to live in Paris, where his works began to be taken seriously and respected.[1]

Isaac Albéniz was strongly influenced by folk music. In his music, the punteado (Plucking) and rasgueado (strumming) of the guitar improvisations, the syncopated rhythms imitating dancers' whirling and the Phrygian mode melodies are all frequently appeared in his compositions. In 1883, Albeniz met Felipe Pedrell, who was a famous Catalan composer, musicologist, and teacher in Spain. Also, Pedrell possessed a "fervent love of the homeland,"[2] and he inspired Albeniz to create the Suite española, which including all of above elements.

Albeniz wrote the Suite española, op. 47 for solo piano on 21 March 1887 to pay homage to the Queen of Spain. This collection includes eight pieces which describe different regions and musical styles in Spain. However, Albeniz only composed four pieces of this suite: “Granada,” “Cataluna,” “Sevilla,” and “Cuba.” After Albeniz’s death, the editor Hofmeister and Union Musical Espanola published these four pieces and also added other four pieces: “Cadiz,” “Asturias,” “Aragon,” and “Castilla.”[3] It is interesting that we do not know whether Albeniz planned to compose these four pieces.

“Granada” is the first piece of the Suite española. Its subtitle is “Serenata,” suggesting calm and light music played in the evening, a suggestion borne out in the song-like melody that runs through the whole piece pianissimo. The music opens with incessant “strummed” chords in the right hand, imitating a guitar-like figuration and the theme is unusually placed in the tenor voice. A four-bar transition brings us to the B section, which the music is also song-like. The melody, however, is taken by soprano with right hand and implies a dialogue between the A and B section. Finally, this piece ends with a four measure arpeggiation coda.

Compared to other master piano repertoires, the form and style of the Suite española, Op. 47 No.2 are not particular. However, it does have distinctiveness in compositional techniques. The Suite española, Op. 47 No.2 is “Cataluna,” which subtitled Curranda. It is one of the few pieces Albeniz inspired by his original hometown Cantaluna. The Curranda is a traditional Catalonian dance rooted in the Italian Corrente and the French Courante. The typical Curranda pattern – triple meters with one of two active beats followed by two relatively restful ones, with the third beat having a feeling of rhythmic climax – dominating rhythmic patterns in this work. “Cataluna” opens in a tranquil atmosphere. A D ties in almost four measures with dotted quarter notes in each third beat played by the right hand alternating to the left hand. The repetitious rhythmic pattern leads to the climax, which is all dotted rhythm with fortissimo followed by the theme in measure 31. It is interesting that composer doesn’t give any dynamic marks until the first fortissimo emerged in the climax, and only two – ff and mf presented in this work. To illustrate this point, he used other ways to give the performers a clue what kind of sonorities should be sound. For example, he wrote una corda in measure 15, which requests performers hold down the left pedal to lower the sound so that it has contrasting color with the previous similar section. In addition, he added more notes in every chord to intensify the sound effects which implies the climax coming instead of write a crescendo directly as usual. When theme comes back in measure 48, the left hand added a rapid moving voice with sixteenth notes to emphasize passionate emotion of the Currante dance, and four-measure ascending parallel scales followed by the four brilliant chords guide audience to the end. The whole music suggests hunting-like song in the Romantic period.

Suite española, Op. 47 presents audiences with vividly descriptive elements of Spanish folk music and refreshing writing techniques. Whether "Granada's" guitar–like figuration and relation to Moorish music or the lively Spanish style courante of “Cantaluna,” every piece in this suite refers to a different region with its distinguishing traits and reveals Albeniz’s nationalistic characteristics. Albeniz wrote a letter to his friend Enrique Moarages: “I live and write a Serenata, romantic to the point of paroxysm and sad to the point of despair, among the aroma of the flowers, the shade of the cypresses, and the snow of the Sierra. I want the Arabic Granada, that which is all art, which is all that seems to me beauty and emotion.”[4] Albeniz created both delightful and melancholy affection to the folkloric traits music in multifarious compositional features. That is an attractive point to listen his music. Compared other massive piano repertoires, However, the Suite española, Op. 47 is not enough impressive or influential on its compositional invention and creativities. I suppose that is why this suite is not a part of the canon.

Barulich, Frances. "Albéniz, Isaac." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed February 24, 2010).

Clark, Walter Aaron. Issac Albeniz: Portrait of a Romantic, Oxford University Press, 1999

Sinclair, A. T. "Folk-Songs and Music of Cataluña." The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 23, No. 88 (Apr. - Jun., 1910), pp. 171-178

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Classical Listening Journal: Mozart - The Flute and Harp Concerto KV 299

Mozart: The Flute and Harp Concerto KV 299

Flute is one of my favorite musical instruments, and its softness and clear sonorities always speak to my heart. When musicians play the flute in its highest register, its sound is as bright as a wisp of fresh sunlight in the morning. When played low, its graceful bass voice is like a misty taste of moonlight. The flute's elegant sound and diverse musical skills make it not only an important solo instrument, but also one that frequently serves a main position in the orchestra. Compared to the flute, which is a woodwind, the harp is a string instrument. It is an ancient instrument which has an incomparably beautiful sound, especially when playing arpeggios and glissando. The harp's volume is sometimes gentle and sometimes mysterious. Because of its rich and exquisite sound, the harp always represents special colors and fills orchestras and operas with a poetic atmosphere. Combining these two incredibly gorgeous musical instruments perfectly, the way W. A. Mozart did in his Flute and Harp Concerto, KV 299, produces magical effects.

The concert's history began when Mozart travelled to Paris in 1778 and met an amateur flautist - the Duke of Guines. The Duke's daughter was an excellent harp player who studied composition with Mozart, so the Duke commissioned Mozart to write a piece for flute and harp, ultimately the only music Mozart created for harp.[1] Unfortunately, it is generally known that the flute was not a music instrument which Mozart liked. The reason probably was that the all woodwind instruments were not made perfectly at his time: “The holes being bored very much to suit the natural spread of the fingers, thus causing several notes to be out of tune unless blown with great care."[2] It was scarcely endurable to this talented composer for writing music with this defective instrument but actually it delighted all of the audience. Therefore, the flute frequently appears in his orchestral work, and he also wrote several concertos for flute. Although Mozart had a strong aversion to flute, he still composed flute repertoires successfully. The Flute and Harp Concerto KV 299 was created with not only a delicate and elaborate sound, but also dramatic expression and subtle changes in every part of the music.

Mozart wrote the concerto in Classical concerto archetype, which is a fast-slow-fast form. In the beginning of the first movement, all of the instruments besides flute and harp - oboe, clarinet and strings - play forte in unison, a brilliant opening to attract the audience. Only after two measures, the composer gives the audience a surprise: he suddenly changes orchestration to oboe and strings with soft sounds. This short passage is quickly followed by a series of alteration between soft and strong dynamics. In the development, harp sometimes accompanies a flute, sometimes becoming the main part and the orchestra decorates it. The fountain-like sound of the harp and crisp sound of the flute create a vivid music, like a landscape painting.

The second movement opens with a twelve measure lyrical melody in strings which becomes the theme and leads the music to the movement's end. Flute and harp take up the theme unexpectedly in the thirteenth measure. After that, the flute sometimes plays duet with the harp, or they provide background for each other. The orchestra imitates the melody of the flute and harp, and supports them with continuous harmony. In this movement, the flute and harp present the music dramatically with their melodious and harmonious sounds with orchestra. It is an incredible experience to have both cheerful and sentimental feelings at the same time, but Mozart is an unquestionable master who manages it with greatness.

A conventional character of concerto form in the Classical period is that the third movement is a Rondo. The strings bring the vibrant and lively theme, and winds reinforce the theme by thirds and sixth. After a brilliant tutti ensemble, the theme is next taken up by the harp with a graceful and lighthearted tone, and followed by the flute leading to the G major theme. Mozart made multifarious subtle alterations on both instrumentation and orchestration, such as adding notes on the theme, or imitating a dialogue based on shared thematic material between the harp and flute, soloists and orchestra. Movement finishes with a florid and magnificent ending.

Undoubtedly, this is an unequivocally successful work for Mozart. He perfectly connected two distinctive music instruments - flute and harp - which were an uncommon combination in the 18th century. Stewart Gordon wrote, “Although Mozart’s music often seems bright and serene to the casual listener, it harbors beneath its surface qualities that are deep and profound with underlying tenderness and melancholy.”[3] These are the best words to demonstrate this unique and magnificent work- The Flute and Harp Concerto KV 299, which deserves a special place in the history of Western music.

1 Zaslaw, Neal. “Notes.” Second Series, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Dec., 1985), pp. 387-388

2. Ward, Martha Kingdon. "Mozart and the Flute." Music & Letters, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 294-308

3. Gordon, Stewart. A History of Keyboard Literature: Music for the Piano and Its Forerunners, New York: Schirmer Books, 1996.