Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Variations of Clara Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn

It is my first time to listen both pieces Clara Schumann’s Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op.20 and Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses Op.54. I am glad to write some of my thoughts here.

Clara Schumann was a great pianist, and less known as a composer. She was very talented musician, and could be a great composer, but her role was as a wife and a mother of eight children, her compositions just got little attention comparing to those of her husband. Clara’s music has clarity of texture, lyricism, tonal color, and elegance of feminized style. Her Variations on Theme of Robert Schumann is a late piece of her works. It seems there was sadness around her during composing the music. The twenty-four measure theme is in F sharp minor within a ternary form, and it is based on Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blatter, Op.99, no.4. The melody is almost like a descending 5 notes-Clara’s theme. The seven variations are based upon increasing rhythmic motion, dynamic force, textural density and harmonic complexity. Generally, I think Clara, as a composer, she doesn’t have any special dazzling musical ideas comparing to other famous composers in 19th century. Even though the Variations Op.20 has more difficult technique, but there are no much interesting things to play. Let is just what I think.

Comparing to Clara Schumann’s Variations, Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations Op.54 in D minor is more interesting and more like a master piece. Mendelssohn was known for his easy and nice style, like ‘Songs without Words’. But the piece Variation Serieuses Op.54 is a surprise to me, because it is very serious and difficult to perform. It is traditionally ranked with the principal variations of Beethoven and Brahms. The first time I listen to the piece, I am truly amazed by the level of energy imagination that each variations contains and how from a simple theme the composer manages to explore totally different universes.
The religious gravity of the theme is remarkable for its hymn-like clarity and the four-part writing is close to the spirit of the chorale. Following the theme, there are 17 variations. Some of the variations display almost baroque contrapuntal writing style, and others are more purely romantic, coming close to Robert Schumann’s variation style.
Many textural ideas recur through the variations, such as repeated triads syncopated between hands, but each time given distinctive expression. (Var.2) Over the variations, the theme’s melody sometimes loses its rhythmic identity and its original pitches gradually show up with freedom. (Var.8) Bach’s music was first found by Mendelssohn, so he used Bach’s fugue writing style often, it happened in Var.10. This piece is a very fascinating piano composition which is worth to play by any pianists who are interested in.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Weber's "Invitation to the Dance"

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was a German composer. His music has colorful harmonies and orchestration. He used popular themes from central European folk music. His is famous for his operatic music.
Weber wrote the ‘Invitation to the Dance’ as a tender gift to his wife, and presented it with a “program” that is so musically self evident that it needs no detailed explanation. A young lady receives a courtly invitation to a ball from a gentleman who asks for the honor of the first dance.
Related in the biography of Weber, by his son, that while the composer was playing the piano version of the piece to his wife, he gave her the following program of the piece:
“Bars 1-5, first appearance of the dances. Bars 5-9, the lady’s evasive reply. Bars 9-13, his pressing invitation. Bars 13-16, her consent. Bars 17-19, he begins conversation. Bars 19-21, her reply. Bars 21-23, speaks with greater warmth. Bars 23-25, the sympathetic agreement. Bars 25-27, addresses her with regard to the dance. Bars 27-29, her answer. Bars 29-31, they take their places. Bars 31-35, waiting for the commencement of the dance. The conclusion of the dance, his thanks, her reply, and their retirement.”

Weber was the founder of the dance music expression of deep feeling, and of a school of which Richard Strauss afterwards was a follower.

Hummel's Rondo and Sonata

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), an Austrian composer. He studied with Mozart and Haydn, so his music reflects the transition from the Classical to the Romantic musical era. His music style was slowly going out of fashion at that time because his classical ideas were seen as old-fashioned. Hummel wrote twenty-four preludes set for piano which was written in each key and mode. He wrote two piano concertos, almost 25 sonatas and other staffs.
Rondo in E flat major, Op.11, when I first time listen to it, I thought the composer must be a clown, because the music sounds like for acrobatic troupe. From the other side, I think the piece is also brilliant and playful because of the staccatos, the fast 16th notes passages, the ornamentation, long trills, and dotted notes.
Hummel’s Sonata Op.81 in F sharp minor, is the peak of his writing for the piano. The sonata has drama, brilliance and pathos. It is a quite challenge for the player. The composer makes the player running the span of the keyboard in a single measure. There are dramatic passage of rapid playing and introspective moments of reflection, particularly in the beautiful Largo. I personally like the beginning of the third movement. It is really playful. From the music score, you can see there are a lot of notes on there. I think Hummel liked writing more notes than Haydn and Mozart, and that is the differences comparing with classical composers.
Hummel philosophy on which he based his actions was to “enjoy the world by giving joy to the world”. I like it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mendelssohn's Song Without Words

First, I would tell my student some important points about Mendelssohn’s life and his music. The German composer Mendelssohn was from a notable Jewish family. The social life of his parents brought him widespread recognition, and provided much experience. Mendelssohn toured Europe visiting a number of countries where he sketched musical fragments later to be turned into concert works, which is why a number of his works have titles suggestion these countries. He visited Scotland, writing the Scottish Symphony; he sketched his Italian Symphony while visiting Rome and Naples, and note that three of his Song Without Words are Venetian Boat Songs.

I need to point out that Mendelssohn revived Bach’s music. Mendelssohn’s own works show his study of Baroque and early classical music. His fugues and chorales especially reflect a tonal clarity and use of counterpoint.

Mendelssohn’s music is firmly classical in form and romantic in nature. His music is largely pleasant and evocative, without the strong passions. If you listen to any of the Song without words and without knowing the piece title, you might confuse Mendelssohn and Field or Chopin. Field was essentially the grandfather of the nocturnes for piano and Chopin the most expressive and intimate explorer of the human soul, Mendelssohn had all those variables in mind and decided to create an album- Song without words.

Mendelssohn’s Song without words, eight cycles each containing six lyric pieces, remained his most famous solo piano compositions. It is a great stylistic and conceptual unity.
Let’s choose Op.19, No.1 in E major as an example. Most of Mendelssohn’s Song without words has inner and outer voices. I think the first important thing to make the piece sounds better is to know the different level sound of different voices. Top voice is the melody, and it should be heard above all else. The lower voice sometimes has the dialogue with the top voice, so it should be the second important thing. The middle voice is like accompaniment and makes changing the harmonies. It should be very quiet.

Second step is to make even sound between two hands. Most time, the middle voice is shared to play by two hands. It is difficult to play equally.

Last thing to tell is the phrasing. If the student got all technique well done, he has to play long phrase, think horizontal line, or not vertical line. Remember--Virtuosity always serves music singing!
The piece is good for varied kind of students. If you have good technique, you need to work on the phrasing. If you have good musical feeling, and bad for technique, you need to work on the evenness and play it quietly.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Field's Nocturnes and Moschele's Etude

John Field (1782-1837), an Irish composer. He is best remembered for his eighteen nocturnes which are single movement impromptu compositions for piano that maintain a single mood throughout. He is also the founder of the piano nocturne. Field’s nocturnes are further notable for their influence on Chopin.

Field’s Nocturnes are still not as popular as they should be, they may not be as musically complex as the more famous Romantic piano composers, but they are always beautiful.
His Nocturnes are dreamy pieces for the piano with original and charming melodic content, soft, singing lines, and rippling passagework.

Nocturne No.4 in A major, is perhaps the finest of all Field’s nocturnes. It shows a clear, definite idea of a new romantic style. The first theme is lyrical, with four perfectly balanced phrases above a simple accompaniment. The middle section becomes agitated and works up to a dramatic climax. The return of the first theme has the details elaborated. This is, for Field, an untypical composition.
Nocturne No. 5 in B-flat major, is an easy piece for performing, it has very beautiful singing tone. From this piece, you can see the thinner texture and easy left hand accompanying comparing with Chopin’s.

It is a good music to listen to it at dinnertime. Most people heard Chopin’s Nocturnes, but not Field’s. If some classical restaurant managers ask my opinion for the background music during the dinner time, I would suggest Field’ Nocturnes rather than Chopin’s.

Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), is a Bohemian composer.
I have never played his music. Today I seriously listened to his music and found out that He is a really good composer. In his etude Op.95, there are 12 pieces, and each one is like miniatures, has a title with different characteristics. Moscheles’ etudes are not Hanon or Czerny finger exercises, he follows Chopin’s example with technically advanced conceptions combined with equally significant music content.
Moscheles’ Op.95, No. 9, the title of it is ‘Terpsichore’. It sounds really like Fairy Tale. The beautiful melody on the top voice with staccato is like little jewels. He liked using the repeated notes, far range, and big dynamic contrast.
It is worth to use his etudes for advanced students, they are difficult to play and performer might feel nervous and insecure. It is also a good piece for recital encore.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Schumann's Fantasie in C major Op.17 and Papillons Op.2

I think Robert Schumann liked writing the style of Fantasie, he has several pieces named on Fantasie, such as Op.12, Fantasiestucke, Op.17, C major Fantasie, and Op.111, three Fantasiestucke. He was like that kind of person who always live in his dreamy world.
Schumann originally conceived of the Fantasie Op.17, as a piano sonata. The three movements related to sonata form. The Fantasie departs from sonata traditions in a variety of ways, including harmonic schemes, formal designs, ordering and balance of movements and textural development.
As a tribute to Beethoven, a lament for Clara, and a work dedicated to Liszt, the Fantasie has an extraodinay history. In the first movement, beginning phrase is Clara's theme. Not only in this piece, but also in his other pieces, wherever you find the descending five notes in Schumann's music, that is Clara's theme. In the development, the legend is showing out, it just like Schumann was telling a love story about he and Clara. At then end of the first movement, he quoted Beethoven's song from his song cycle. Schumann used some more Beethoven's ideas in the third movement as well, such as Beethoven's moonlight sonata like, Emperor concerto like, and Op,111 (2nd mvt) like.
Schumann's poetic intent, musical language, and creative process, everything shows on the C major Fantasie. It is a really great piece.

Together with this piece, I would like to talk some about Schumann's Papillons.
The Papillons was Schumann's early piece, Op.2, and was composed in 1831.It has meaning 'butterflies'. Papillons begins with a six measure introduction, and then following dance-like movements. Maybe it was Schumann's early piece, he didn't care about the connection between the sections. In Papillons, each dance movement sounds unrelated to the preceding ones, until the final, which is tonally similar to the introduction. Papillons is meant to represent a masque ball scence from a bovel, with each movement giving a different character at that ball.
The final dance is a quite famous old folk dance -"Grandfather's Dance". Some other composers copy the basic theme from the melody, for example, Tchaikovsky used it in his ballet "The Nutcracker".
For performing Schumann's music well, you have to use your imagination, because Schumann change characters a lot, you have to catch him. Flegejahre's writing for Papillons is a good reference to read.
At last, I want to argue something about our question in the class. If Schumann grow up or not? Of course, here we mean his music progress. I would like to say YES, he had grown up a lot because we can see in his music. His Abegg Variations,Op.1, and Papillons,Op.2 are his early pieces, they sound simple and not mature. Later until Op.9 Carnaval, Op.16 Kreisleriana, and Op.17 Fantasie are very successful writing. Does it not mean he grow up? I am confusing...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Schumann's Op.16 Kreisleriana and Op.22 sonata in G minor

I played this piece several years ago. I felt I could never finish playing it, because it was a very long piece. If I play with repetition, it would take 40 minutes long. After I learned it, I just love it. It is a very dramatic work and considered to be one of Schumann’s finest-written compositions for the piano.

Kreisleriana is an eight-movement piece, each movement has two different sections, resembling the imaginary musician’s manic-depression, and perhaps recalling Florestan and Eusebius, the two imaginary character s created by Schumann himself, they represented his impulsive and dreamy sides.

I read books and tried to understand more about this piece. Schumann wrote this piece in 1838, and dedicated to Chopin. This piece represents the fictional character Kreisler from the works “The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr” by E.T.A.Hoffmann. There, Hoffmann explores the bizarre, the fantastic, the ridiculous and the sublime. He portrayed himself in the guise of Johannes Kreisler- the hypochondriac, antisocial and moody but brilliant musician. In the book, the tomcat sets out to write his memoirs, using a biography of Kreisler as a blotting pad. By a printer’s error, the two lives get spliced together into a bizarre double narrative.

Comparing Kreisleriana with his sonata Op.22 in G minor, I just feel the sonata is not good writing as Kreisleriana. It sounds boring. I only played the first movement when I was 14 years old, I chose it because it can be played very fast, and I liked playing fast piece. I didn’t work rest of movements because I felt except fast rhythm, nothing else make the piece interesting to me. I still think that way when ever I listen to this piece. I don’t want to write more about the piece. Schumann wrote tempo mark ‘as fast as possible’ because around 1830, Paganinni was famous, so many composers try to copy him. That is why Schumann used fast tempo mark in the sonata.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Chapter Summary

I was reading a chapter from Riedel's article. It described the important development during the 19th century. After the French Revolution, the social currents and political were beginning to go to a correct way. In the 18th century, we know some development in the area of mechanic: the inventions of Hargreave's spinning jenny, Crompton's spinning mule, and whitney's Cotton gin. In the 19th century, the era of widespread invention, created more significant developments. For example, the transportation systems, both steam boat and railroad appeared in 1802 and 1825; the electronic systems, electronic light, telephone and telegraph came out in the 19th century as well; the first undersea cable was laid in 1851. Even though the 19th century was the beginning of a fantastic technological progress, the coming of the Industrial revolution made people's life very difficult for several decades. The increased democratization of society and the need for more highly skilled workers made public education a necessity.

In the area of medical sciences, it was increased more than before, and it is another expansion of 19th century. They started having nursing profession and professionally trained phamacist. Many diseased were wiped out, such as cholera, small pox, and bubonic plague. The population was increasing because people could live longer than before with good medication.

The impact of these political, social, and industrial advances was felt in musical life. Music in 19th century reached a large audience than any other time in history. The music theaters, the entertainment halls, dance halls, all these flourished as a result of the broadened exposure of the public to more music and to materials related to music. There were more publishing for music showing out, such as music magazines, music periodicals and newspapaers etc. At that time, the concert life was extended into communities, musicians were able to travel a lot for giving recitals. The great conservatories of music were founded in every important cities.

For the more closed communication between the artist and his audience, "local color" was explored. Folklore furnished a wealth of colorful material with nostalgic overtones reinforced by nationalistic emotions. The artist explored the dream world, the supernatureal and various personal topics, more distinguish and individual. Musicians in 19th century also have propensity for objects of natural world, for example, in things pertaining to night, and by establishing a personal closeness to religion.

Much of the music from the 19th century was refered to as being in the Romantic style. The word "Romantic" means a folk story or a "Romance" in the vernacular. The story usually involved love and ligh adventure. Many great composers lived through this era. German composers Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner behaved like revolutionaries. Several composers were involved in political affairs, such as Bizet and Dvorak. In 19th century, patronage took on new forms, and musicians performed in Salons and Soirees of middle-class Parisian society, such as Chopin and Liszt. The 18th century's composers, they wrote music for emperor and court for earning money, they have purpose for writing. But, the 19th century's composers were free to write music for themself, they composed what they pleased.

Late Romantic composers expanded folk materials of their native cultures, such as Grieg, Dvorak, and the Russian Five. They often adapting melodies, patterns and the choral folk music forms. The folk music societies appeared in every Western nation during the 19th century.

This article chapter" the social order and music" is interesting to read. I got more knowledge about 19th century's development, not only from music area, but also other areas. I am glad to read it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Carnaval (Schumann)

I have never played Schumann's Carnaval Op.9, because I always thought it is a very long piece and there is nothing interesting to me. After learning this piece in piano lit class, I find some interesting things in the piece. Schumann created tonal unity in this twenty-two movement piano cycle. He liked using letters of name for composing the main motives. His "Abegg Variations" was used a lady's name. In the Carnaval, he used letters from his own name. In each section of Carnaval appears either or both of two series of musical notes: A, E-flat, C, B (signified in German as A-S-C-H); A-flat, C, B (signified in German As-C-H).
There are titles for each section and express different characteristic. "Pierrot" is a character of mime and from commedia of art. The ornamentation and the fast 16th notes runs present a crown's humor. Schumann's personal life was clearly reflected in the piece through the use of two alter-egos of his personality. "Eusebius" has lovely sound with 5 notes or 7 notes passages, it described passive and dreamy side of Schumann; and "Florestan" depicts composer's fiery impetuous side. The melody from "Papillons" shows out here. Schumann also used people's name as movement title for describing their characters, such as "Coquette", a flirtatious servant in Wieck's house; "Chiarina", Schumann used Russian name for depicting Clara Wieck; "Chopin", the Chopindish style writing really represent the lyrical style of Chopin. I remember one of my favourite movie "Pianist on the Ocean". The talent pianist never learned piano, but he can play very well and he can create different melodies for different characters of people. I really like that section of the movie. It is the same that Schumann described different mood for different people. This piece is one of the most representative and celebrated works. Now I think that Carnaval Op.9 is a pleasure to perform because I understood and found out the interesting of the piece.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cortot, What a wonderful musician!

Alfred Cortot was a Swiss pianist and conductor. He is one of the most popular 20th century musicians, especially renowned for his poetic insight in Romantic period piano works, particularly those of Chopin and Schumann. I have never heard Cortot's playing. Today in the piano lit class, Dr. Gainsford showed us video of Cortot's master class. It was transcendent! He was all passion and Poetry. He had the most distinctive and beautiful tone. "Penetrating-right to the soul." There was blood in his playing-the blood of a poet. I love how Cortot was able to transform such a simple piece into something extraordinary. He is not only a musician, but also a poet who transposes the idea of dreaming and personal peace, with a beautiful sound. I understand the truth is, you need to dream this piece, rather than just play it.