Monthly Archives: October 2014

Robert Schumann, Carnaval

Robert Schumann was one of the most-regarded Romantic composers of the 19th century, having quit a career in law to pursue his talents in piano. After a hand injury he switched to composing, where he wrote piano exclusively until 1840. Carnaval was composed in 1834-35 as a 21-piece set exclusively on piano representing various Carnival goers. The subtitles represent his friends, colleagues and characters from the Italian comedia dell’arte.

The music is remarkable because it is on four notes; Carnaval was subtitled Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes, or Little Scenes on four notes. These four notes are A, B, C and E, and Schumann hides three musical cryptograms, in german ASCH, AsCH, and SCHA, referring to the place of birth of his fiancée, the first day of Lent and his own name respectively. The most notable cryptogram is the BACH, or Bflat, A, C, B. The music itself is mostly very calming, uncrowded and aesthetically pleasant. The 4-note motif is reminiscent of Chopin’s études, and in fact Schumann dedicates one of his 21 pieces to Chopin.


Debussy: Préludes (“La fille aux cheveux de lin”)

Debussy was born in Paris, where he spent all of his life. According to Greenberg, the Frenchman “could not tolerate being anywhere else.” His deep love for the city and its language is embodied in his musical style. His Preludes demonstrate affinity through sophisticated delicacy. That is, he is able to portray the gracefulness of the French language without sacrificing emotion. More specifically, he is able to maintain technical precision transitioning from his prolonged pianos to his expressive crescendos.

His prelude, “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” adroitly exemplifies his Francocentric style. From the onset, Debussy induces calmness in the audience through his tight note range and repetitive theme. He makes the listener feel as if she were in a worriless world. In symbolic terms, he perfectly paints the innocence of the fille aux cheveux de lin. I cannot help but smile at the piece’s flawless dynamics. While one can argue that the piece in fact is fairly static, there are moments (1:36), which exemplify his compositional genius. He times the succession and pitches of notes in such way that mandates action from the listener, whether it’s acknowledging its beauty or placing the song on repeat –as I just did.

Chopin, Ballade in G minor, op. 23

Chopin(1810-1849) lived during the Romantic period, and wrote four ballades for the solo piano. While the term ballade was associated with the French verse-form, Chopin ventured to create an abstract form without using words in his ballades. It is considered one of the most difficult pieces of the piano repertoire not only because of the technical aspects throughout the piece but also because a performance must try to encapsulate as much emotion and meaning that Chopin tried to insert into the piece. With that said, this piece is a reflection about Chopin’s loneliness during the war years.

Another remarkable element of this piece is that although written in the Romantic era, the piece is written in a sonata form. The first theme begins around 0:37 with the recurrent 6 notes that rise and fall. The recurrence of this theme almost appeared like an obsession about his lonely state. I also think that the sonata form helps to depict this return to loneliness because even though he shows variation in the middle, he always returns back to the 6 note phrase. After the first theme, he presents another theme at 2:15 (I think) and 3:10 seems to mark the end of the exposition. As the Classical musicians did, Chopin took theme 1 and developed it as you can hear in 4:02. The fun starts at 6:02 as Chopin, expectedly, defies our expectations of a classical sonata and introduces a passage that is dance-like and exciting. This seems to build up excitement and take us away from the brewed notes in the beginning. However, this fun doesn’t last long as in 7:34 you hear the return to the initial theme that depicts our lonely state.

I think the 6 note phrase is really powerful because for me, it had the power to isolate myself from the environment and make me think about the state I am in. In this way, although no lyrics have been said, Chopin almost compels me to think with just his music and his beautiful crafting of a theme.

Etude 3

An Etude is an instrumental musical composition usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill. In this case it would be the piano because there are no lyrics in the piece. The music is polyphonic and it has a slow and sad melody. He tries to recreate the lyrical song with the piano, which you can tell in the first part of the piece. As you listen throughout the song the music is very slow which could signify sadness and longing. It sounds like a love song though. There are no words in the music, but the emotions are portrayed through the piano. The rhythm speeds up around 1:30 and then there is some dissonance until 2:18 and then the music’s rhythm slows down and it goes back to being a majestic love song.  During the times of dissonance it must have portrayed a distance or anger with missing and loving home or maybe a time when something did not go as well as planned at home. The middle part is also the most intense.

It still has the lyrical tone, which is what the first part of the piece has too. Within the first opening seconds the theme is introduced to the piece. The theme is very important throughout the entire piece because it is underneath the entire song. Also the piece progresses there are two melodies at the same time. That means that the left hand and the right hand are playing two different melodies, which makes it a very difficult piece for many pianists. At the end of the piece the theme that was presented at the beginning of the piece is reintroduced at the end. It is like a ritornello, the repetition of themes that was introduced in Bach. Chopin has said that it was his best melody and it contrasts with the other pieces in his set. According to a few sources the song is nicknamed “Tristeese” which means sadness, the piece is apparently for Chopin’s love and nostalgia of his homeland, which was in Poland. Another source says it was his love for Constancia Gladkowska because they emigrated from Poland together. They were married and he wrote this Etude at one of the happiest times of his lives and she was one of his only loves. This etude has a lot of passion and fervor and it.

Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig”

Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is a lied ballad based off of the poem “Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe. A lied ballad is a type of miniature composition (Greenberg, 209) in which a narrative piece (usually a poem) serves as the fundamental subject matter for a song. Miniature compositions are composed for a solo voice and/or piano and usually do not last more than a few minutes. The poem “Erlkönig” tells the story of father who is riding through a forest on horseback carrying his son home. His son keeps complaining about the “Erlkönig“ or Elf King who is whispering to him and trying to take him away, but the father ignores him. The father attempts to save his son from the Elf king, but it is too late and his son dies in his arms.

A miniature composition is intended to invoke a single emotion or state of mind. The overwhelming affect created by this piece is one of suspenseful anticipation. This is created by the piano keys playing in a quick, almost continuous manner (0:01) along with the drawn out bass line that immediately follows it (0:03). The voices of the characters also have an eerie element to them, especially those of the Elf-King and the son. Throughout the piece tension is build up by the piano and vocal components and is not fully resolved until the ending when the continuous alternation of the piano keys stops (3:29) and the boy is announced dead with a final exit from the piano (3:38).  According to Greenberg, the continuous piano keys from 0:01 are meant to represent the gallops from the horse’s hoofs (Greenberg, 210).

There is one vocalist in this piece who portrays 4 distinct characters of the story: the narrator, the father, the child, and the Elf King. This is a huge task for the vocalist, as he must attempt to embody four sentiments. Since the same vocalist is singing, differences in character are denoted through slight pitch and stylistic variations. The narrator comes in at the very beginning and end of the story (0:22, 3:11) and his voice is low and melodic. The father first comes in at 0:51, his voice is much lower and oftentimes has a rough or angry sound to it (1:54). The son first appears at 0:58, his voice is higher than his father’s and has a timid and anxious quality to it (1:43). The Elf King first appears at 1:21 and has the most distinctive voice of the four characters. The Elf-King’s voice is low, but very smooth and soothing because he is trying to persuade the young boy to come with him. However, at 2:57 the voice of the Elf King changes quickly from piano to fortissimo, in order to demonstrate him becoming angry and leaping down to grab the child.

Personally, I was pleased to shift from large instrumental forms to small vocal and instrumental forms, because I felt that I was better able to grasp the musical content and focus more on how musical elements create affect. I also enjoy that miniature compositions are not absolute music and fall closer into the category of program music, or music that is meant to communicate emotion.

Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune

In one of the first Copland chapters we read, Copland states that music always conjures up certain affects, even if we can’t precisely say what a piece of music “means.” That’s definitely true for Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun),” which was meant to be performed prior to a live reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” (source = The poem seems to portray the dreams, memories, or imaginations of a faun lazing in the afternoon heat, and several clusters of the sensations it offers appear in Debussy’s musical interpretation: (1) heat, mirages, and sluggishness/sleepiness; (2) lust, flesh, and ripeness; and (3) flutes, music/melodies, breath, and wind.

In the opening theme (0:00-0:36), for example, the flute (a wind instrument that sounds light and airy) fixes on a note for a few seconds, then floats down a chromatic scale. This makes the key of the piece uncertain–contrasting strongly with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, where the key is immediately obvious, and even with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which begins on the tonic note (even though whether the piece is minor or major is still ambiguous). This, combined with the free rhythm and the harp arpeggios (0:27-0:30, 0:40-0:43) make the overall affect magical & mysterious–which is fitting, since the poem’s speaker is a mythical creature. The flute’s carefree melody seems to mirror some of the flute references in the poem, too–“No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs / To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze / Out of the twin pipes…”

Furthermore, just as the faun in the poem describes his pent-up sexual desire (he refers to “Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril: / I seize them without untangling them and run / To this bank of roses… / All perfume”), Debussy’s piece is full of tension, which he creates through dynamics and extensive use of dissonance. With dynamics, the instruments frequently swell from piano to forte, only to subside to piano again; for example, from 0:58-1:10, the strings quiver underneath the flute, then swell briefly (1:10-1:13), subside, and then come back very loud with the woodwinds (1:37-1:48), only to subside again.

As an example of dissonance, at the beginning of the piece, the brass instruments layer several melodies over the flute (0:29-0:53) and do not harmonize until a very brief moment at 0:54. In general, consonance & harmony are fleeting–from 2:02-2:06, for example, we feel like we’re at “home base” musically, but then the music immediately becomes dissonant, and seems to fly to random melodies and chords until 2:34, where part of the opening theme returns. Yet another example is 3:04-3:30, where the clarinet runs up and down a chromatic scale while the strings play dissonant chords; again, there is no clear tonal center here. Perhaps the only lasting moment of consonance is the very end, where the music seems to finally reach an unambiguous key. (This final moment of harmony could point to the faun falling asleep at the end of the poem (“I / Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand…”).) Thus, Debussy uses huge swings in volume, strange harmonies, and absence of an obvious key to mimic the faun’s “eternal swarm of desire,” and perhaps even to mirror his sluggishness and daydreaming in the heat (“…this heavy body, / Succumb[s] to noon’s proud silence slowly…” and “Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour”).

Just as the poem’s speaker is a mythical creature dreaming in the sweltering afternoon, describing his intense sexual desire and the music he makes with his flute, Debussy conveys these sensations musically through large changes in volume, consistent use of dissonance, a lack of an unambiguous key, and prominent use of woodwind instruments (especially the flute).

Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was an exceptional symphony that stood out for two main reasons: first was the idée fixe, and second was programme that Berlioz gave to the audience prior to  the performance.

We first hear the idée fixe in the first movement. It is played with the flute and violins with a lower register playing short staccato notes. The idée fixe is interesting because it involves a buildup of tension and some sort of release in itself. Because this is suppose to represent Heriott, we already get a sense that she is going to be mysterious and there will be many ups and downs regarding her relationship. This idée fixe will continue to be used throughout all five movements of the symphony but each time with a different emotion and feeling.

The programme that is handed out prior to the symphony has a strong effect on the listener. Throughout the first movement, we can easily hear the protagonist’s struggles described in the programme. This movement consists of floating, airy melodies, followed by grand buildups and drops that represent every emotion possibly felt. We have slow melodies, immediately followed by rushes of excitement and many short notes. This is especially evident towards the end starting at around 9 minutes. Within the last 4 minutes of the piece, we hear clean simple melodies, followed by minor sounds, and then fanfare like sections with a strong percussion. Then immediately, simple solos that are interrupted by grand fanfares once again. In this section, we can understand the barrage of feelings and emotions Berlioz has described in his programme.

The second movement is perhaps the most simple of the movements. After a short introduction, this movement sounds like a very typical waltz or some sort of ballroom dancing music played in a triple meter. Although it is often interrupted with idée fixe that seems to intrude and then join into the dancing. The music then starts to speed up and become a little more confusing as it strays from the typical waltz sound and bounces back and forth between two ideas.

In the third movement, we hear a duet or exchange between an flute and oboe or clarinet. This represents the two shepherds that Perlioz described. Other instruments slowly join in with various strings giving you a sense of the rustling trees. This peaceful state continues until about 7 minutes into the piece, where various instruments seem to have an exchange with different melodies. The minor sounds give you a sense of betrayal as the protagonist is once again overcome by his emotions and confusion regarding Heriott. We have a mix of solos and ideas until about 13 minutes, when the same soloist as in the beginning of the movement is interrupted by the timpani which represents thunder. Unlike the beginning though, there is no response from the other soloist, and the movement ends without a response.

In the fourth movement we can clearly hear the march that was described in the text. However, it doesn’t give off a sense of death until it is interrupted with other melodies and instruments. towards the end, the melodies once again interrupt each other and go up and down to enforce the sound of confusion. The idée fixe makes a brief appearance towards the end to be interrupted by a fanfare that represents the fatal blow.

In the last movement, the idée fixe appears in brief chunks again but is harder to uncover as it has changed sounds almost completely. We have various instruments that sound like they are conversing with each other as the different creatures and monsters followed by happy uplifting melodies that become chaotic and rise and fall constantly. Finally, a tuba melody introduces a mysterious dark feeling perhaps signaling the arrival of the witch. It seems like Berlioz ends the symphony as he did the first movement, with various instruments and sections playing different melodies and interrupting each other with buildups and than brief releases of tension.

Throughout this symphony we can clearly see the idée fixe changing and representing different emotions and feelings. However, I feel like Berlioz’s text had an even larger effect on the way we listened to and perceived his symphony. Along with the text, we could clearly understand the various melodies and instruments and what they were representing. This successfully created a sort of story with characters and a plot without actual actors or people performing. This plot and story made Berlioz’s symphony truly revolutionary and different.

The Idée Fixe of Symphonic Fantastique

In Symphonic Fantastique, Berlioz utilizes an idée fixe, a theme that appears in all five of his movements and lends unity to the piece as a whole. As I listened to Symphonic Fantastique, I saw Berlioz’s idée fixe as representing a combination of operatic leitmotifs and the ritornellos or thematic repetitions composers used in sonatas. While leitmotifs were a way to remind the audience of a particular person or object, sometimes prompting subtle connections or links between the action in the drama and the theme being played, the idée fixe was also a way for Berlioz to represent Harriet. Moreover, just like composers repeated themes (by variation, fugue, development) to unify the movements of their symphonies, Berlioz, too, repeated the idée fixe in his five movements.

Yet, Berlioz not only combines the operatic leitmotif with the symphony’s repetition of themes, but he takes these tools a step further by varying them and complicating them in each movement. Because there is no physical presence of Harriet for us to see on stage, he must mold her idée fixe in each movement to convey how she changes or how his feelings toward her changes. The change of the idée fixe is the means by which he communicates the plot to us.

When he initially presents the idée fixe in the first movement, he uses the flute and strings (5:08). The idée fixe sounds mellifluous and homophonic here, and our introduction to Harriet is soft and warm. Even within this movement, however, Berlioz experiences emotional change with respect to his feelings for this woman. At 7:41, the idée fixe is already presented differently. Here, I feel an escalation and tension, conveyed through a more dramatic crescendo than at 5:08. Moreover, while the staccato sound of a string instrument is present in between the first idée fixe melody at 5:11 and 5:17, it does not overlap with the main melody. In contrast, in the idée fixe at 7:41, this same strings sound overlaps with the idée fixe, and another texture is added on top of both of these at 7:58. The idée fixe here is polyphonic and busy, thus sounding more tense than its earlier counterpart.

At 2:04, in the second movement, we hear the idée fixe once again, and while it begins slowly and calmly as before, it is then quickly complicated by the addition of overlapping instruments at 2:17. A deeper wind instrument dominates the idée fixe melody here, as opposed to the softer sounds of the strings and flute in the first movement. Thus, while a tenderness does remain in Berlioz’s view of Harriet, I sense a tension through the deeper, overlapping sounds, as well.

In the third movement, the same idée fixe returns, but is punctuated by sounds of a dissonant, dark affect.  At 7:12, we hear a solo instrument gently produce the idée fixe, but this is quickly interrupted at 7:17. At 7:24, the soft idée fixe returns, but is interrupted once again at 7:30. This sort of back-and-forth between the soft idée fixe and the foreboding, harsh sounds that interrupt it continues until 7:37 when they both overlap, generating simultaneous, conflicting emotions in me. Finally, however, the dark sounds take over and drown out the pleasant idée fixe around 7:57. Berlioz hence creates a struggle between the idée fixe and a darker melody, and by allowing the darker melody to prevail, he communicates a plot to us through his music. We are able to tell that a darker side to his love has emerged.

In my opinion, the use of the idée fixe is most dramatic in the fourth movement. Here, we do not even hear the theme until the very end at 4:11, and it is almost immediately interrupted by a large, dramatic orchestra. This orchestra completely drowns out the solo instrument that was playing the idée fixe a split second before. While we see the idée fixe engage in a back-and-forth struggle with the darker sounds in the third movement, here, in the fourth movement, there is no struggle. The idée fixe does not “fight back.” It is as if all hope is lost.

After the crash that ends the fourth movement, the entire nature of the idée fixe is transformed. This manifests in the fifth movement. In this final movement, at 1:47, we hear the idée fixe again. However, it no longer flows seamlessly and gently as it does in the first movement. Instead, it presents as an odd, punctuated sound. Thus, by the time we get to the fifth movement, we have seen the melody of the idée fixe go from a pleasant sound to engaging in a struggle with darker, more dissonant sounds, to getting overpowered by these darker sounds, and then finally being forced to change form in the final movement. Through the idée fixe, Berlioz creates the plot of a love story and, for me, completely reinvents and revolutionizes the use of leitmotif and sonata-like devices.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major reminded me of a few of the operatic pieces in its presentation of repetition and non-repetition. The first movement begins monophonically, and we hear the ripieno play the ritornello theme in full. Although we continue to hear the ritornello theme throughout the first movement, it is fragmented into shorter pieces rather than being presented in its full form. The repetition of the ritornello theme adds a sense of constancy to an otherwise chaotic movement. This need of constancy is particularly felt during the second half of the first allegro with the presentation of the harpsichord solo. Unlike the ritornello theme, the harpsichord solo is unpredictable, as it lacks a steady melody and cadenza. Most notably, the harpsichord seems to play the fastest notes out of all the instruments, and the second half is remarkably tense. Bach deceptively adds a few cadences, prompting the listener to believe that the harpsichord solo has ended. However, the ripieno eventually rejoins and repeats the full ritornello theme, allowing for the much needed release of tension.

As noted by Greenberg, Bach was the first to dedicate a lengthy solo to the harpsichord, and this solo was most certainly impressive. While the movement departed frequently from the ritornello theme, exemplified by the harpsichord solo, the listener knows that the repetition will eventually return. This is characteristic of Baroque music: “the theme, the control element, the invisible ‘hand of God'” (Greenberg, 100). Unlike some of the operas, Bach’s concerto still maintains a heavy emphasis on religion and almost acts as a devotion to God: Whenever there is a sense of inconstancy, God will add control and structure.

The harpsichord continues its spotlight in the affettuoso, which, unlike the first allegro, is a showcase of the concertino: the flute, violin, and harpsichord. The harpsichord acts independently, while the flute and violin play homophonically and act as a support to the harpsichord’s intermittent solos. But the concertino is finally united at the end of the affettuoso, in which the flute, violin, and harpsichord play homophonically, transitioning the affetuoso to the third movement, the last allegro. The last allegro begins with the concertino but unlike the affettuoso, the tempo is much faster. After about thirty seconds, the ripieno accompanies the concertino, and the last movement embodies a fugue-like form. The initial exposition is followed by slight and short restatements and a series of episodes such as the harpsichord solos. Much like some of the operatic pieces, such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bach’s overture, or exposition, introduced portions of the rest of the piece that would later be presented.

Brandenburg Concerto # 5, Movement 3

The third movement of Bach’s concerto features a steady, duple meter rhythm, an upbeat tempo, and a pleasant melody. This movement is a clear departure from the calm, slower paced rhythm of the second movement and the fast rhythm of the first movement. It was initially challenging for me to recognize the numerous reoccurring themes that were present, simply because I became “lost” in the complexity of hearing various instruments and could not pinpoint reoccurring elements. A better understanding of the role musical forms play in instrumental music enabled me to begin to understand what I should be listening for.

According to Greenberg, the third movement of a Baroque era concerto is typically similar to a fugue. Although I’m not positive that this is true in Bach’s third movement, I could detect what seemed to be elements of a fugue form. The movement begins with the violin coming in, followed by an imitative polyphony from the flute (0:02). This is a theme that is repeated throughout the duration of the movement (0:33, 0:47, 1:09). Afterwards the harpsichord joins in and shortly afterwards another reoccurring theme comes in, possibly the countersubject (0:17, 0:48, 1:03). 1:12 marks the beginning of the series of “episodes” that Greenberg speaks of in which the main theme and countersubject are partially repeated or restated in various ways, while maintaining their original musical characteristic. A brief cadence (3:32) marks the end of the episodes and a final reinstatement of the opening of the movement is heard (3:33 – 4:43) after which the piece is ended (4:44). Although these elements seem to fit in with the fugue form, I am not positive if they are more characteristic of a ritornello or a fugue.