#328 BRAHMS PAGANINI VARIATIONS, OPUS 35

#328

BRAHMS

PAGANINI VARIATIONS, OPUS 35

TATIANA KOLESOVA, PIANO

EVGENY KISSIN, PIANO

 

It is a humbling thing for a pianist when he encounters works that he realizes he will not ever be able to play. All pianists eventually find these pieces–works that are so gargantuan in their technical demands that one knows immediately, after attempting to read through a certain work, that it is just never going to happen. Or, better stated, you know that a convincing performance of such and such piece will never come from YOUR hands.

I have never actually counted such works—it is one list I have not made! But if I HAD made a list, the Brahms Paganini Variations would be at or near the top—meaning, MOST unplayable.

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Oftentimes, making such a discovery is something that one remembers: I had been bringing in to my teacher at Juilliard, Ania Dorfmann, some Rachmaninoff Preludes, which are very challenging pieces. I guess she was impressed enough with my playing one day to suggest that I learn the Brahms Paganini Variations. I went out and purchased the score.

Buying music in those days, at least for many Juilliard students, meant going to Frank’s Music, a classical music store in an ancient 13-story building about 10 blocks from school. You took an elevator up to the top floor, and when the elevator door opened, you were facing a cage with an opening and a very old man on the other side—Frank Marx, the owner. The place was dimly lit—you got the sense Frank was trying to conserve on electric bills—but through a window behind Frank, you could see New Jersey across the river. It was kind of like a ticket booth. You told him what you wanted, and he would go and search through stacks and stacks of music, and minutes later come back with your request.

Anyway, I digress, sorry. I purchased the Brahms-Pag and went immediately back to the Juilliard practice rooms to “try them out.”

The Brahms Paganini Variations are written in such a way that the easiest page is the first one—the theme. BUT, from the very first variation on—with its continuous sixths in the right hand and thirds in the left, sometimes in parallel motion, sometimes contrary, and moving like the wind—you see that this is no ordinary piece, even by virtuoso standards. After a few attempted read-throughs, I realized the obvious, and informed Mme. Dorfmann the following week that we would need to pick something else, and “wait until another time” to do the Brahms. That, of course, was a lie that we were both aware of. It was never going to happen.

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Brahms composed his variations on a theme of Paganini in 1863, when he was 30 years old. You may recall that when I posted Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini (Music I Love #280), I mentioned that there is a particular, catchy tune, attributed to Nicolo Paganini, the 19th century violinist/composer, that has been utilized many times as the basis for variations—by Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Lutoslawski, even Andrew Lloyd Webber—and by Brahms.

The work consists of two books, each starting with the theme and followed by 14 variations, all in A Minor. Although the big piano works of Brahms—the concertos, a lot of the chamber music involving piano, and many individual pieces—are technically quite difficult, there was nothing in Brahms’ oeuvre, before or after the Paganini Variations, that rivaled it for being awesomely complex from a technical standpoint. In that regard, it is highly uncharacteristic of him. In writing these variations, it was as though he was trying (and succeeding) to out-Liszt Liszt. However, even in such a technical tour-de-force, Brahms could not help also baring his own expressive soul.

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I’m linking to two clips. I think the first one is quite informative about the extraordinarily high level of playing that one encounters in the international piano competitions. This performance is by Tatiana Kolesova, from the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 2005. She is, as you will hear, extremely impressive. Kolesova is a Russian pianist, and was 20 years old in this clip. She won the competition. She is now 33, has won every notable piano competition, and has a major career, performing all over the world.

I thought it would also be very interesting, for those so inclined, to follow along with the score while you listen. You do not have to be a pianist to get a feel for how difficult this work is through looking at the score. Evgeny Kissin’s (also incredible!) rendition of the Variations is accompanied by the score.

Enjoy.

KOLESOVA:

KISSIN:

 

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#327 CYNDI LAUPER TIME AFTER TIME

#327

CYNDI LAUPER

TIME AFTER TIME

 

Cyndi Lauper—Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper—(b. 1953) is a singer, songwriter, and actress from Astoria, Queens, New York City. Known as well for her variety of hair colors and eccentric clothing as she is for her singing and acting, her career was propelled by a series of pop hits in the mid-1980’s. “Time After Time” was part of Lauper’s debut album, She’s So Unusual.

I liked this song from the very first time I heard it, listening on the car radio. I was in my third year of being part of Sinclair’s Music faculty, Tiraje and I had a young son, and life felt like it was at its beginning…the happiness of this song permeated my mind.

I still find “Time After Time” difficult to just listen to it once–it always takes several re-plays for me to get my fill. It is a simple and well-composed song, with a catchy refrain. This may have been the peak of keyboard synthesizer usage in pop music, and it certainly got a boost here. Of special appeal to me was the flexible, repetitive bass guitar line (very good for air guitarists!).

The song, from 1984, has had an immense amount of recognition:

American Video Award for both Best Female Performance and Best Pop Video
BMI Award for Pop
Billboard Best Female Performance
Most Performed Foreign Song (in Canada)
MTV Best New Artist
MTV Best Female Video
Grammy Song of the Year
Grammy Best New Artist
Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Love Songs
VH1 Greatest Songs of 1980’s
Nerve’s 50 Greatest Love Songs of All Time

The language that critics used for Time After Time was florid and impressive:

• “Time After Time” stands tall among the music of the entire rock era as one of its all-time great timeless ballads”

• “a masterpiece…the best and most significant song Lauper ever wrote or recorded…sentimental, gorgeous”

• “gorgeously heartfelt, one of the decade’s finest ballads”

• “beautiful and bittersweet ballad”

• “Lauper’s most enduring masterpiece hits at the very essence of commitment…she captures real romance in the most simple and straightforward of lines”

Here are those straightforward lines:

Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Caught up in circles confusion–
Is nothing new
Flashback–warm nights–
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories,
Time after–

Sometimes you picture me–
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said–
Then you say–go slow–
I fall behind–
The second hand unwinds

If you’re lost you can look–and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you–I’ll be waiting
Time after time

After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows–you’re wondering
If I’m OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time–

If you’re lost you can look–and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you–I’ll be waiting
Time after time

You said go slow–
I fall behind
The second hand unwinds–

If you’re lost you can look–and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you–I’ll be waiting
Time after time

Time after time…
Time after time…
Time after time…
Time after time…

Lauper is understandably and immediately associated with “Time After Time.” But it should be noted—and I will, in a future post about her—that Lauper is a significant composer for Broadway. She won the 2013 Tony Award for her score to Kinky Boots. Additionally, she has attracted a lot of attention for her acting in films, on television, and on the Broadway stage—truly, a multi-talent.

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And, as an important aside about Lauper: she has long been associated with the LGBT movement, championing causes, raising support funds, and campaigning all over the world for equal rights. Her song, “Above the Clouds” was written in remembrance of Matthew Shepherd, the young Wisconsin man who was beaten to death because he was gay. Lauper’s True Colors House in New York City serves as a residence for homeless LGBT youth.

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#326 LISZT SONATA IN B MINOR – PART 2

#326

LISZT

SONATA IN B MINOR – PART 2

YUNDI LI, PIANO

It is worth reiterating at the outset that Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is widely regarded as one of the greatest works for solo piano, that pianists and audiences alike have revered it for 165 years now, that even a cursory glance on YouTube or Amazon or Arkiv Music reveals over 50 recordings of the work, and that it has been the subject of more scholarly attention than any other of Liszt’s works.

I am re-mentioning these things as a preface to a couple contemporaneous quotes about the work, which in retrospect, are both amusing and thought-provoking:

Quote 1 Clara Schumann

“Liszt sent Robert today a sonata dedicated to him. It is dreadful! Brahms played it for me, but it is utterly wretched … This is nothing but sheer racket – not a single healthy idea, everything confused, no longer a clear harmonic sequence to be detected there. And now I still have to thank him! It’s really awful.”

A little background: Robert Schumann, the famous German composer who was Liszt’s exact contemporary and good friend, had written his own Fantasy for piano in 1836. It was a lengthy and challenging work of three movements played without interruption or stop. As we’ll see, below, Liszt’s Sonata shared this particular characteristic. Liszt lovingly dedicated the work to Schumann, sending it to his wife Clara, the pianist and wife and Robert. Schumann himself was already in an asylum at this time. Clara writes the above in her diary on May 25, 1854.

Quote 2

“Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help”.

Eduard Hanslick was a German music critic. He was the first—and some have said greatest–music critic, someone who made his living and reputation writing about new music and music performances for publication. He was never a fan of Liszt (or Wagner, or “new” music in general). To him, Liszt’s Sonata was just one huge waste of ink on paper.

Quote 3

“Liszt did not know how to write for the piano.”

Glenn Gould—the great pianist and champion of Bach—remarking about Liszt’s piano music in general…

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Finally, although I mentioned above that Brahms had volunteered to read the Liszt Sonata for Clara Schumann to hear—an astonishing/mind-blowing feat all by itself—this was not the first time that Brahms himself had heard the piece. As a young man, just 20 years old, he traveled from Hamburg, his hometown, to Dusseldorf, with the intention of meeting his idol, Robert Schumann. He was well received and became the closest friend to both Schumanns. Shortly after this visit, Brahms also went to Weimar to meet Franz Liszt. Sitting in on a master class of Liszt’s, where Liszt was playing through his newly composed Sonata, Brahms fell asleep, so uninteresting did he find it.

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Inevitably, though, Liszt’s Sonata was recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Although, I should say there are still, to this day, those who feel that, because of the difficulties Liszt’s Sonata presents for the pianist, that the amount of work invested in learning it does not equal the (lesser) amount of player satisfaction one ultimately receives. There are numerous quotes from famous pianists about the sonata, all in agreement that the work falls apart in the hands of anyone who is not up to the task.

The first public performance of the piece, fortunately, was given by someone completely up to the task, the great Hans von Bulow. Von Bulow, a pianist/conductor, also premiered another “unplayable” work, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat minor. (Von Bulow also married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima.)

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And also fortunately, there have always been, throughout the past century and a half, pianists who are up to the task. Liszt’s Sonata has become a staple in the repertoire for all serious concert pianists. Walk down the corridors of practice rooms in any music conservatory, and you will definitely hear the Liszt Sonata being worked on! It is one of the Everests for classical pianists.

Aside from the work’s considerable technical difficulties, one reason the piece has attracted the attention of music scholars is its form. Even to this day, there is no solid agreement about its form. As I mentioned it is performed non-stop and is about 30 minutes long, one long arch of a piece. Within those 30 minutes, there is disagreement about whether Liszt’s intentions were to incorporate three—or four—“sub”-movements. This kind of structure was not without precedent—there was Schumann’s Fantasy, already mentioned, as well as Schubert’s greatest work for piano, his Wanderer Fantasy, both of which were large, continuous pieces-within-a-piece structures. But there had never been anything on the scale of Liszt’s sonata.

There are three themes introduced early in the sonata, which form the melodic foundations for the entire work. As the work itself progresses—and soon becomes a challenge of technical endurance for the player during which listeners wonder: how long can this person keep this up?—Liszt writes, near the conclusion, a brutally difficult fugato that only those with enough “fuel left in the (technique) tank” can accomplish.

Since we know Liszt loved giving descriptive titles to his works, it may be meaningful that he did not do so with the Sonata. Perhaps he regarded its “meaning” as simply being beyond human expression. The nature of the various THEORIES about its possible meaning are interesting–and reflective of the profound impression the work leaves–in that they are all pretty “heavy.” It has variously been thought to reflect:

* the Faust legend
* Liszt’s own saint/sinner life
* a musical depiction of Milton’s Paradise Lost
* an allegory of the Garden of Eden story from the Bible

The drama of the work in its entirety is underscored by the fact that Liszt begins AND ends the piece in the most subdued, pianissimo fashion.

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As is obvious from my first post on the Sonata, featuring Stephen Hough, I am a big Hough fan. Strangely, though, there is not a complete Hough performance of the Sonata on YouTube. But there are numerous others, some of them legendary, and choosing a great one is almost like throwing darts: all of them are impressive. I’ve chosen a performance by the young Chinese pianist, Yundi Li. I think it is almost as important, in listening to the Liszt Sonata, to SEE the performance as well as hear it. That is just the kind of work it is—it must be seen to be believed. I think Li’s performance is a good one.

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As a related topic to the sonata, it is interesting to know that the 1960 movie Song Without End, which was a biopic of Liszt’s life starring Dick Bogarde as Franz Liszt, featured an orchestrated version of the Sonata—as well as other Liszt piano music played by pianist Jorge Bolet—as the movie’s score/background music. The movie won the Best Music Score Academy Award and the best Motion Picture Golden Globe.

I’ll have more to say about Song Without End in a future post of “movies about classical composers.”   

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Pictures: Liszt and one of the rooms in which he composed.

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#325 LISZT SONATA IN B MINOR – PART 1

#325

SONATA IN B MINOR – PART 1

STEPHEN HOUGH, PIANO

I have mentioned before that the complete catalogue of Franz Liszt’s works for piano takes up an incredible 99 compact discs, admirably performed by Australian pianist Leslie Howard. Howard is the only pianist to have attempted—and completed—such a daunting task. That is a lot of piano music. A random sampling of any of these CD’s will reveal piece after piece of heretofore unheard-of (in the mid-19th century) technical gymnastics, often interspersed with beautiful melodies. And one does not have to be a pianist, or even a musician, to get a feel for how Liszt expanded the arsenal of possibilities open to composers who write for piano. There had never been anyone like him.

But—if one is honest—there is a lot of sameness about Liszt’s music for piano, monumental as it is. One can quickly tire of hearing even the most amazing technical feats.

Liszt was well aware that there were varying degrees of depth and meaning among his many works for piano, of course. Included in this huge mountain of piano music, there are—as one could guess—an impressive number of works that, while raising the bar technically for pianists, are also works of great depth and extreme beauty. Liszt’s only Sonata for piano is one of them.

I’d like to devote two posts to Liszt’s Sonata, and—through a series of videos featuring pianist Stephen Hough—consider this post as an introduction to the man, to his music, and specifically to this work.

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There is a certain amount of intimidation involved in writing about Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. As Stephen Hough says, the work can be considered the greatest work of Romantic-era piano music that was ever written. That is a monumental statement, and if accurate, would put Liszt’s Sonata—in music—on par, for instance, with Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamoazov in literature or Monet’s Impression, Sunrise in art (revealing my own 19th century leanings, but you get the idea). By common consent among music lovers, Liszt’s Sonata is his greatest work for piano, and probably his greatest work, period.

By the time Franz Liszt was in his twenties, he was already known as the greatest pianist in Europe. He was friends with every composer of note, and traveled all over the continent, performing. Unlike his friend Frederic Chopin who shied away from playing in public, Liszt came to life when on stage. He was the first to perform with his profile to his audience, he performed everything by memory, and he was, it seems, also the first classical artist with a rock-star ambiance—young women flocked to hear him, and were very enthusiastic about getting to know the artist personally.  It is estimated that he gave well over a thousand solo concerts before his retirement from the concert stage at the age of 35.

Even though Liszt lived to be 75 years old, dying in 1886, there was never a time in his life that he was not regarded as one of the greatest living musicians. Students and admirers flocked to him, wherever he called home (which most primarily Weimar, in Germany.) And although he had officially announced his “retirement” at 35, his performing did not come to an abrupt end, but rather gradually declined. It was in the 1840-1855 period that he wrote some of his greatest works for piano, including the B Minor Sonata in 1853.

The great British pianist Stephen Hough has a marvelous set of short videos devoted to Liszt and specifically to the Sonata. Rather than my writing here about such things, it will be so much more interesting to post these links.

The Sonata itself is nearly a half hour long work, and benefits, I feel, from some explication, so I will save that for my next post. The Hough clips are a wonderful and loving (and short–each clip is less than three minutes long) introduction.

WHY IS THE SONATA IN B MINOR A MASTERPIECE?

WHO WAS FRANZ LISZT?

WHY DID LISZT TURN TO COMPOSING?

WHAT WAS THE FIRST PERFORMANCE LIKE?

HOW SHOULD THE SONATA BE PLAYED?

WHY IS THERE NO TITLE?

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#324 MINNIE RIPERTON LOVIN’ YOU

#324

MINNIE RIPERTON

LOVIN’ YOU

I first heard Minnie Riperton’s voice in the summer of 1967. My brother, then in college, had come home for summer break, and one of the albums he had acquired was The Rotary Connection by a group of the same name. It was psychedelic rock, and there were a few songs on it that were mildly attractive. But the main attraction was the stand-out voice of Minnie Riperton, their lead singer.

Rotary Connection was an experimental group, a project in which a group was artificially formed, created to take advantage of the psychedelic movement, then in full bloom. It was the brainchild of Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess, the founder of Chess Records. Included in the group was Minnie Riperton, who in 1967 was working as a receptionist at Chess while simultaneously hoping to have a big break in the recording business.

Growing up in Chicago, she sang throughout her teen years, and received enough recognition to become a backup singer for Etta James, Fontella Bass, Ramsey Lewis, and Chuck Berry. Rotary Connection’s popularity was relatively brief—they fizzled out in 1971—but by then Riperton’s voice has drawn enough attention that a solo career was inevitable. Her 1974 album, Perfect Angel, went to the top of the charts. From Perfect Angel, Riperton had three singles releases. The third one, Lovin’ You, was a number one hit in 25 countries in the spring of 1975.

Lovin’ You is notable for Riperton’s use of what is called the “whistle register”, the highest register the human voice can sing in. From what I have read about the whistle register in terms of pitch, it extends over an octave above the highest note that coloratura sopranos sing. (Think Queen of the Night by Mozart.) The lyrics of Lovin’ You are simple and innocent:

Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful
Makin’ love with you is all I wanna do
Lovin’ you is more than just a dream come true
And everything that I do is out of lovin’ you
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Do do do do do

No one else can make me feel
The colors that you bring
Stay with me while we grow old
And we will live each day in springtime
‘Cause lovin’ you has made my life so beautiful
And every day of my life is filled with lovin’ you

Lovin’ you, I see your soul come shinin’ through
And every time that we, ooh
I’m more in love with you
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Do do do do do

No one else can make me feel
The colors that you bring
Stay with me while we grow old
And we will live each day in springtime
‘Cause lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful
And every day of my life is filled with lovin’ you
Lovin’ you, I see your soul come shinin’ through
And every day that we, ooh
I’m more in love with you
La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la
Do do do do do
Na, ooh, la la la la la la la la la
Do do do do do

At what would turn out to be the apex of her career, Riperton was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 1976. At the time of the diagnosis, the cancer had metasticized and she was given six months to live. She went public with her cancer, and bravely became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society. She received their Courage Award from President Carter at the White House in 1978. Riperton died in July of 1979 at the age of 31.

Riperton had been married to Richard Rudolph, a music producer. Together they had two children. Maya Rudolph, the famous comedian/actress from Saturday Night Live, is their daughter. Although “Lovin’ You” has always been regarded as a romantic love song, if you listen closely to it, near the end, you’ll hear Riperton singing Maya’s name over and over—she regarded the song as a lullaby for two-year old Maya.

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#323 FAZIL SAY “NIGHT” FOR PIANO FOUR-HANDS

#323

FAZIL SAY

“NIGHT”  FOR PIANO FOUR-HANDS

LUCAS AND ARTHUR JUSSENS

As many of you know, my wife Tiraje and I are a duo-piano team. As such, we are familiar with both music that is written for two pianos and music that is written for one piano involving two performers. It may surprise some to learn that generally speaking, music that is written for one piano/four hands—piano duets—is more difficult to perform than music written for two pianos—piano duos. In particular, there are three major concerns that pianists playing four-hand music must continually deal with:

• BALANCE: maintaining an absolutely appropriate balance throughout a work – the loudness and softness of one player’s part to another is critical to the success of a four-hands work and is much more immediately apparent to an audience than in works written for two pianos

• PEDALING: pedaling is most often done by the “secondo” part—the player who sits on the left and plays the lower part of the keyboard – for that player, this involves astute listening to absolutely every note the “primo” plays because pedaling decisions are sometimes for both players’ parts and sometimes for only one player’s part – you must continue to pedal exactly even when your part is silent and only “primo” in playing

• LOGISTICS: logistics are very often quite challenging – when, for example, secondo’s part moves into primo territory and vice versa – this involves very rapid, sometimes almost gymnastic, hand crossings

I could add to these three considerations that when one is playing music like today’s featured work—which involves occasionally plucking the strings from a standing position—that a whole new dimension of logistical challenge emerges.

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Fazil Say (b. 1970)—pronounced “sigh”—is a Turkish classical pianist and composer. These days, Say is known for three things—his electrifying pianism, his cutting-edge compositions, and his anti-government/social activism within Turkey. He has become world famous for all three.

As a pianist, he is sensational, one of those pianists who can play anything and everything that has been written with the greatest of ease. I will not forget hearing him play a solo recital some years ago in Cincinnati. He has recorded nearly twenty albums of piano music, ranging from Scarlatti to his own compositions. His pianism has been widely appreciated on three continents. (I’ll be posting examples of Say’s remarkable pianism at a later time.)

Say vehemently opposes the current AKP government in Turkey, with its various social and cultural policies, many of which he sees as freedom-restricting and self-serving. Remarks he made on Twitter in 2012 expressing his skepticism about Islam have resulted in his being tried in court. He was not imprisoned, but instead received a suspended sentence. A few years ago, Turkish courts reversed their ruling, saying that remarks made on Twitter fell within their (current) definition of free speech.

For what it’s worth—from what I have observed, Say’s opposition to the current government is widely supported among Turkey’s artistic community, and certainly among Turkish ex-pats. His pro-freedom and common sense stances have gained him worldwide credibility and admiration.

However—as is always the case—what a composer believes or how he behaves does not address the quality of his creations. Despite his amazing pianism, Say will go down in history as a composer. He started seriously composing at the age of 14 in his hometown, Ankara. His earlier works were written for solo piano, but over time, he turned his attention to orchestral writing. His works have drawn on Turkish folklore—such as in his “Istanbul Symphony”, written in the tradition of Bartok, Enescu, and Ligeti. His 1997 composition for piano, Black Earth, employs techniques made popular by John Cage in works for “prepared” piano.

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I’ve posted performances by the Jussen Brothers—Lucas and Arthur Jussen—prior to this one. They are an extraordinary duo-piano team from the Netherlands. Although they are still in their twenties at this writing (Lucas 25, Arthur 22), they are unquestionably one of the most impressive duo-piano teams in the world. They commissioned Say to write a work for them, and the result is “Night”, a brief tour de force of piano duet writing. This is not your piano duet by Schubert or Mozart!

Even at their young age, the Jussens have taken to making their recorded videos a work of art, as one can see here. “Night” is appropriate recorded in the shadows, so to speak, with ephemeral figures sliding and dancing into and out of sight. As usual, the Jussens are consumed by the music. They become one in service to the music—really quite impressive.

This may not be your cup of tea, but I find it one of the most compelling piano duets of recent times.

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#322 MENDELSSOHN STRING QUARTET #6, ADAGIO MOVEMENT

#322

MENDELSSOHN

STRING QUARTET #6

THIRD MOVEMENT (ADAGIO)

ARTEMIS QUARTET

 

A touching homage to a cherished sister…

Here is a question to ponder: if you were a creative artist—composer, sculptor, painter, dancer, whatever—and someone very close to you died, and you felt COMPELLED to create something to memorialize that loved one—you were not CHOOSING to do so, some internal force was DRIVING you to do so: what do you think would be the nature of that creation? Would it represent your grief—would it be about you? Or would your creation in some way represent a summation of that person’s personality and character—would it be about them? Would only real art be a combination of both?

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The ties that bind siblings are often as strong, or stronger, than any other kind of relationship. This was certainly the case for Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, Fanny. The love that bound them together was impressive in its strength. They had what can only be called a soul-mate relationship.

Felix and Fanny were born into a prominent Jewish family in Hamburg. Mendelssohn’s father was a successful banker, who was in turn the son of Moses Mendelssohn, the great Jewish philosopher. A sense of established pedigree, intellectual fame, and financial security were part of the siblings’ lives as they grew up. Being older than Felix by four years, Fanny’s musical education began earlier than his. It was inevitable therefore that she would become Felix’s musical mentor. She happened to be extraordinarily talented as a pianist as well as a composer, creating more than 450 compositions.

Had she been born in a different time when women were treated—at least as artists—equally, Fanny Mendelssohn would certainly have been one of the outstanding musicians of the day. Her pianistic abilities were stellar, more impressive even than those of Felix. As it was, she had to be content to bask in the glory and success of her brother. But there was never a time when Felix did not rely on her for compositional advice and insight—which was, of course, in addition to the regular, mundane everyday-life big-sister support that a younger brother can receive. In the same manner that Clara Schumann would, later in the century, provide musical guidance and general nurture for Johannes Brahms, so Fanny Mendelssohn did for her brother, Felix.

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One of Felix’s special compositional skills had always been in writing for strings. So skillful and original was he that his genius as a child—it is alleged by many—eclipsed even that of Mozart. His 12 string symphonies, written between the ages of 12 and 14, are totally delightful—and professionally done. His Octet for strings, written at 16, and the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, written at 17, are stunning masterpieces of string-writing originality. Mendelssohn would write the first of his six string quartets when he was 20.

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At the age of 41, after a rehearsal of one of Felix’s cantatas, Fanny suddenly collapsed and died, the victim of a stroke. Felix was absolutely devastated. He had been married at this point for ten years, but the degree of spiritual closeness he had with Fanny surpassed even that of a husband and wife. Fanny’s death created an enormous chasm in his soul.

The only outlet he had for what he was feeling at the loss of his sister was in composing. He poured these feelings into his Sixth String Quartet, Opus 80—and in particular, the third (Adagio) movement. One of the mysteries of the movement is how reflective and sad it feels despite its being written in a major key. One can only presume that this is how Felix remembered Fanny—this was a musical portrait of her. He titled the quartet “Requiem for Fanny.” Felix’s memorial for her was ABOUT her, a musical memory for him of what being in her presence felt like.

As it would turn out, this would be the last piece Mendelssohn would complete. Like his big sister Fanny, he also died of a stroke, just two months later in November, 1847, at the age of 38. On the surface, it would appear that there was a genetic cause to their early deaths, both through strokes. But it also seems plausible to many that Mendelssohn also died of a broken heart.

The Artemis Quartet is an outstanding German string quartet which has won many major chamber competitions and in their twenty years of collaboration have made an impressive number of critically-acclaimed recordings. The six Mendelssohn Quartets are the latest addition to their discography. I think you will greatly enjoy this short six-minute clip about the group and their Mendelssohn recording project. They are quite impressive! This clip gives a close-up great feel for what it feels like to perform in a world-class string quartet.

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#321 A DOZEN COLORFUL POP SONGS

#321

A DOZEN COLORFUL POP SONGS

I got to thinking the other day about pop songs that had COLORS in their titles. It was easier than I thought to start rattling them off. So, for your possible amusement, and definitely hoping to jog a few memories, I offer this post. I only had two qualifiers for inclusion: a song obviously had to have a color in its title, and I also had to love the song already.

1 BLUE
Hands down, there are more songs about blue—blue eyes, feeling blue, blue skies etc—than any other color. I think a separate post could easily be made for blue! Blue Navy Blue by Diane Renay was a real favorite of mine from 1963. But I also loved Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969) by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Crystal Blue Persuasion (1969) by Tommy James and the Shondells, and of course, Blue Moon by the Marcels (1961), Love Is Blue (1968) by Paul Mariat, and Blue Bayou (1977) by Linda Ronstadt. My favorite “blue” song, though, would have to be:

BLUE VELVET – Bobby Vinton (1963)

2 RED
I only have two “red” songs which I really love: Red Rubber Ball by Cyrkle from 1966 and this one, my favorite “red” song (also a favorite of Tiraje’s):

LADY IN RED – Chris DeBurgh (1986)

3 GOLD
Well, there are a number of personal favorites here, too: Silence is Golden (1967) by the Tremeloes, Goldfinger (1964) by Shirley Bassey, Band of Gold (1970) by Freda Payne, and Heart of Gold (1972) by Neil Young. My favorite golden song, though is:

FIELDS OF GOLD – Sting (1993)

4 WHITE
White is included in many song titles. White Room (1968) by Cream was a song I really liked. I’ve already posted Whiter Shade of Pale (1967) by Procol Harum, definitely a great song. I would have to say my favorite white song is:

NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN – Moody Blues (1967)

5 BLACK
I’m not sure if the prevalence of “black” in so many songs is some kind of psychological barometer of our culture, but there it is… Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, comes to mind right away, of course. Black Water by the Doobie Brothers, Blackbird by the Beatles, Black is Black by Los Bravos—all good songs. My favorite black song:

BLACK MAGIC WOMAN – Santana (1971)

6 YELLOW
Mellow Yellow (1966) by Donovan is wall-papered to my eighth grade summer memories. Similarly for the summer of 1969 is the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. But I’d have to say my favorite yellow song is:

GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD – Elton John (1973)

7 GREEN
I loved Green Green Grass of Home by Tom Jones in 1966. I remember reading that Elvis found out that Tom Jones was going to record it, and furiously went about trying to beat him to the punch, but to no avail. Green Tambourine from the fall of 1967 was a song I liked, recorded by a (somewhat) local group from nearby Cincinnati, the Lemon Pipers. Green-Eyed Lady by Sugarloaf happened to be on the radio during my first month as a student in the big city of New York, and it is permanently branded on my memory from that September. But, for green, I’ll go with the lyrical and lovely Barbra singing the theme song, written by the Bee Gees, from A Star Is Born:

EVERGREEN – Barbra Streisand (1976)

Other colors that are represented in my “favorites” list by only one song, are:

8 BROWN

DON’T IT MAKE MY BROWN EYES BLUE – Crystal Gayle (1977)

(Technically, I guess this song makes the “blue” list, too!)

9 SCARLET
I must have heard this song a hundred times while passing through my son Jonathan’s room back in his youth. The song has a one-word lyric: “Rejoice.” I do not know whether “Scarlet” references a person or the actual color, but in any event, it is a very pleasing song, featuring Bono’s pure voice.

SCARLET – U2 (1981)

10 PURPLE
I suppose this choice would be a no-brainer for a lot of people. Antonino and Carol Vincinette LoTempio—Nino Temple and April Stevens—were a brother-sister singing act from Niagara Falls. April Stevens was gorgeous, and half of the appeal of Deep Purple for me was her speaking voice. Incidentally—and ironically—the British heavy metal band Deep Purple—annually voted the loudest band in the world—took their name from this gentle love song.

DEEP PURPLE – NINO TEMPLE AND APRIL STEVENS (1963)

11 CRIMSON

Yes, Crimson and Clover, of course, by Tommy James and the Shondells (1968):

12 And finally, SILVER! In the Beatles weird and humorously sadistic–if those words can actually be paired together–lyrics:

MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER – Beatles (1969)

 

I know that other pop music lovers will have additional favorite “colorful” songs, and I will really love to hear anyone’s additional color-song suggestions. There are some “colorful” songs that were huge hits that never spoke to me–“Orange Crush” by REM, “Purple Rain” by Prince, and “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for instance–but I am sure I’ve probably forgotten some other universal favorites.

I hope you have all enjoyed this. Back to serious business next post….

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#320 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATAS #9, 10 – OPUS 14, NO. 1 & 2

#320

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATAS #9, 10
OPUS 14, NO. 1 and 2

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

It has been a couple months since my last posting of a Beethoven piano sonata. Just a few reminders as we resume:

• There are 32 Beethoven sonatas.

• Collectively, they are an absolutely central part of the piano repertoire, along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

• Listening to them from the first one he composed in 1795 to the last in 1822, a period of just 27 years, is to observe the psyche of an artist who, because of his increasing deafness, gradually recedes into his own world. One observes that there is an arc in these sonatas, with those written in 1803 and 1805—the “Waldstein” and the “Appassionata” sonatas, numbers 21 and 23—being the most virtuosic and those with the most direct appeal to an audience.

• Over one-third of the Beethoven sonatas have become known by their nicknames—all of which were supplied by publishers in order to increase sales. Although it is foreign to our 21st century way of thinking about contemporary composers now, sales of composers’ piano music was an important part of their income in the 19th century. Shops where music was sold—to feed an absolutely burgeoning market of middle class piano amateurs—were in every European city. Beethoven’s publishers capitalized on his name to sell a vast number of his works. Those “nickname” sonatas became extremely well-known:

Opus 7 – The Grand Sonata
Opus 13 – The Pathetique Sonata
Opus 26 – The Funeral March Sonata
Opus 27, No. 2 – The Moonlight Sonata
Opus 28 – The Pastoral Sonata
Opus 31, No. 2 – The Tempest Sonata
Opus 31, No. 3 – The Hunt Sonata
Opus 53 – The Waldstein Sonata
Opus 57 – The Appassionata Sonata
Opus 78 – The “A Therese” Sonata (Therese was his current love interest at the time)
Opus 81a – The “Les Adieux” Sonata
Opus 106 – The Hammerklavier Sonata

• The piano itself underwent significant changes in its construction, its ability to project into a hall, and the scope of its dynamic range during Beethoven’s lifetime—all because of Beethoven. As the leading composer of his day, piano manufacturers were eager to continually modify their instruments so that his piano works could truly sound the way he heard them in his mind.

To even say that these statements “sum up” the Beethoven sonatas would be a gross–and laughable, really—understatement. But I’m just re-laying a little groundwork as we get back into them.

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As would occasionally happen along the way in Beethoven’s sonata writing, he would follow some heavy-duty, seriously profound and/or seriously challenging (for the pianist) work with a more lightweight work before resuming on the ever-increasingly steep slope of his sonata writing. The last sonata I posted was the Pathetique Sonata, Opus 13 in C Minor. There is good reason that it has an appellation—it is a monumental work of profound emotional depth. Beethoven followed this work with not one, but two, lighter weight works of simplicity and beauty, both in major keys, the Opus 14 sonatas.

We’ve observed that music publishers back in Beethoven’s time published works in groups, six string quartets, three piano or violin sonatas, and so on. It has been speculated that Beethoven was anticipating publishing these two “happy” sonatas along with the “Pathetique”, but that it simply seemed absurd to include a work like the Pathetique alongside anything else, so the two Opus 14 sonatas became a group of two only.

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KEYS AND EMOTIONS digression…

Opus 14 No 1 is in E Major, Opus 14 No 2 in G Major. The other day, my students and I spent an entire Performance Class talking about the emotions that are correlated to the various keys in which composers write. Everyone—musicians and non-musicians—generally agree that major keys are “happy,” minor keys are “sad.” This has to do with the different whole-step/half-step arrangement of pitches within the major and minor scales.

But there are twelve major and twelve minor scales, each one starting on a different pitch—there being 12 notes within the octave—and composers very often (not always, but often) choose their keys based on the particular emotional qualities associated with that key. E-flat minor is generally considered to be the most tragic key, E-flat Major heroic, D major is sunny, and so on.

In another post, I’ll capsulize not only emotions that are commonly associated with keys, but also colors. Synesthesia is the phenomenon of “experiencing” certain colors when one hears certain harmonies, and is a fascinating study all by itself. Perhaps it is needless to say that these types of associations—emotional or “colorful”—are not settled science. There are different opinions about these things from people who have spent long years studying them. Nevertheless, with regard to emotions that are associated with harmonies, there is quite a bit of common ground.

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SO—these two sonatas are in E MAJOR—“vividness, vivacious and joyful” is a typical definition; and G MAJOR—“bright, relaxed, easygoing.” Whether one agrees with the exactness of such definitions, it is hard to escape the fact that these two keys are especially happy.

Both of these sonatas were written in the last two years of the 18th century, 1798-99. Beethoven was not yet 30, and things were going well for him. He had not lost his hearing yet. He was becoming very well known—and enormous fame was right around the corner. These two sonatas were intended more for the salon than the concert hall, and one can feel that right away. Both are happy gems, and neither one is exceptionally long. Both sonatas were dedicated to a Baroness Josefa von Braun, his patron at the time.

Richard Goode, as always, is…pardon the pun…so good.

OP. 14 NO. 1 E MAJOR

OP. 14 NO. 2 G MAJOR

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#319 DAVE CLARK FIVE GLAD ALL OVER BECAUSE

#319

DAVE CLARK FIVE

GLAD ALL OVER
BECAUSE

Back in the days when the Beatles were an up-and-coming but still largely unknown band in Liverpool—and represented the best of what became known as the “Mersey Beat” sound—their main competitors from north London, representing the “Tottenham” sound—were the Dave Clark Five. Like the Beatles, the DC5 was not a hastily put-together group, hoping for some transient success. At the time of their big break-through in 1964, they had been writing and performing together for seven years already. They had honed a comfortable stage presence. Like the Beatles, they were ready for success.

The DC5 was the second group of the so-called “British invasion” to appear on the Ed Sullivan TV show in March of 1964—just weeks after the Beatles. They would ultimately have 18 appearances on the show, more than any of the British invasion bands. The DC5 had an impressive string of hits from 1964 to 1967:

• Glad All Over
• Bits and Pieces
• Do You Love Me?
• Can’t You See That She’s Mine?
• Because
• Any Way You Want It
• I Like It Like That
• Catch Us If You Can
• Over and Over
• You Got What It Takes

The Dave Clark Five was comprised of Dave Clark (drums), Mike Smith (keyboard) Lenny Davidson (lead guitar), Rick Huxley (bass), and Dennis Payton (sax, harmonica, guitar). They were always held in the highest esteem by their musical colleagues. Their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 was a memorable ceremony, with Tom Hanks officiating and narrating their story, and with performances of their music by Billy Joel, John Fogerty, and John Mellencamp. The group disbanded in 1970. Sadly, at the time of this writing, three of the members of the group have passed away—only Dave Clark and Lenny Davidson survive.

The musical style of the DC5 was vocally based, and relied on very tight harmony. They were equally adept at ballads and straight-ahead rock. The time of my life that corresponded to the DC5’s notoriety was sixth and seventh grades. A prized possession for me in those years was a Magnavox transistor radio, a miracle (to me) of engineering that kept me in touch with the world of pop music. I distinctly remember listening to both of these DC5 songs through its tinny little speaker, late at night.

The audio on these two tracks has been lovingly enhanced. Two great songs.

BECAUSE

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