Thursday, May 1, 2008


Ben Johnston, born in 1926, was active as a composer during the mid twentieth century. His output includes stage works, vocal pieces, chamber pieces, and electro-acoustic pieces (Grove Music Online, S.v. “Johnston, Ben”). Johnston took great inspiration from the composer Harry Partch, who was known for his innovations in just intonation. Richard Kassel speaks about the influence between Partch and Johnson:“While Partch’s theory was proundly [sic] influential on him, his more comfortable relationship to Western art music and lack of instrument building skills let him to compose primarily for traditional instruments and genres, especially the string quartet” (Grove Music Online, “Johnston, Ben”). Out of all of Johnston’s pieces, Gilmore argues that String Quartet no. 4 (Amazing Grace) is his most popular work. Drawing on a hymn that nearly every American has heard countless times, Johnston weaves an elaborate web of sound, transforming the familiar hymn in new and unexpected ways.
String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace) was composed in 1973. The piece, in theme and variation form, is approximately eleven minutes long and is based on the American hymn tune “Amazing Grace.” Later, Johnston indicated that his String Quartet no. 4 could optionally be combined with his String Quartet no. 3 to form a two movement piece known as Crossings with a period of silence of sixty to one hundred and twenty seconds separating the movements. Johnston discusses Crossings:
One may equally well consider Crossings a triptych, since The Silence, the middle movement, is a more than merely pregnant pause, but constitutes a tenuous and breathless traverse of a ridge or bridge between two opposite canyon walls, the nearer the post-Viennese expressionist ethos, submitted to the liberating but at the same time straitjacketing abolition of twelve-tone equal temperament in favor of ultrachromatic microtonal just intonation; the farther the deceptively simple and direct-seeming American folk hymn “Amazing Grace,” generating variations of steadily increasing rhythmic and microtonal profusion, always securely grounded in new-old once more frontier-fresh modal tonality capable of wide proportional spaces: new reaches of consonance and metrical intricacy which push the boundaries of intelligible complexity beyond horizons conceivable in the confines of conventional tuning. This is the world of String Quartet no. 4, The Ascent (Ben Johnston, “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music, p. 200).
Although Johnston’s String Quartet no. 4 is seemingly simple, the score for the piece is quite complex. In the performance notes, Johnson calls for the use of several different tuning systems throughout the piece. Bob Gilmore explains the tunings in the liner notes:
The quartet traverses three different tunings in its eleven-minute span, all of them forms of just Intonation: Pythagorean tuning (based entirely on chains of pure fifths), triadic just intonation (based on pure fifths and pure major thirds), and an experimental form of extended just intonation using, in addition to pure fifths and thirds, intervals derived from the seventh partial in the overtone series (a narrow minor 7th quite different from its equal-tempered equivalent).
In the score, Johnston notates how pitches should either be raised or lowered by a series of symbols consisting of pluses, minuses, or elaborate accidentals. The Pythagorean tuning at the beginning was not immediately obvious to me the first time I listened to it, but it had the subtle effect of evoking folk or modal music.
The quartet also presents several rhythmic challenges such as intricate contrapuntal textures, complicated time signatures such as 10/64 or 27/32 and different time signatures occurring simultaneously. Randall Shinn comments that the pitch/rhythm relationships in the quartet show the influence Medieval and Renaissance music more than any other style. (“Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet,” p. 159).Yet, the complicated rhythmic texture never gets in the way of Johnston’s musical intentions. As Shinn implies, this piece displays all the effortless simplicity of medieval polyphony, with the lines of each instrument weaving gracefully in and out of prominence in the overall texture.
I enjoyed this quartet immensely. I sometimes assume that most twentieth century classical music is atonal and ugly. I was pleasantly surprised by the clear tonality and easy-to-follow theme and variation structure of this piece. Although the score for this piece is filled with mixed meters, and polyphonic textures, and multiple tuning systems, these enhance rather than distract from the enjoyment of the performance. Unlike some of the more atonal avante-garde music of the twentieth century, this piece can be enjoyed and appreciated by a wide audience because its accessibility. By using a well-known American hymn tune as his theme, Johnston has made this piece immediately appealing to a wide variety of listeners. “Amazing Grace” has become such an integral part of American culture that it has almost achieved folksong status and is recognized by nearly everyone. The fact that Johnston uses this hymn makes the piece approachable by giving the audience something familiar to grasp on to. Although I feel this piece is more than worthy of being included in the Canon, there are several reasons why it is not. In 1973, with popular music on the rise, it was difficult for classical composers to generate interest in their works. Additionally, in the world of classical music, Johnston’s quartet had to vie with the established string repertoire of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven for performances and audiences. Unfortunately, because of its novel tuning system, it has probably intimidated performers as well as audiences, who immediately dismiss it as one of those dreaded “modern” pieces. It is a pity that such a well balanced and satisfying work has been relegated to the back shelf of the musical world. Perhaps the coming years will see a renewed interest in the works of Ben Johnston, and his String Quartet no. 4 in particular.


Arnold Schoenberg is remembered for his achievements in breaking away from tonality and for pioneering the twelve-tone method of composition which inspired many composers of the twentieth century. Schoenberg had already enjoyed a successful career as a composer when he came to America in 1933, largely due to the anti-Semitism that was beginning to appear in Hitler’s Germany. In 1947, Schoenberg began writing a piece for orchestra, narrator, and chorus that would pay tribute to the Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis during World War II (Michael Strasser, “‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ as Personal Parable,” 52 & 54). This piece was eventually titled A Survivor from Warsaw and was premiered in Albuquerque on November 4th, 1948 with tremendous success (ibid., 56-57). Michael Strasser comments on the importance of the piece:
The emotional impact that A Survivor from Warsaw had on the performers and audience at the Albuquerque première has not dimmed with time. The source of the work’s effect on audiences is not difficult to fathom, for the event to which it bears witness—the brutal and systematic annihilation of most of Europe’s Jewish population—is a crime unparalleled in the annals of human history. To audiences of the late 1940s and 1950s, for whom the bitter experiences of world war were still vivid, A Survivor from Warsaw must have carried a special meaning (“‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ as Personal Parable,” 57).
The piece retained its popularity in subsequent performances and is seen as one of Schoenberg’s most successful works. Because Schoenberg was such a pioneer in the field of composition in the 20th century, and because this work is so well known, it deserves further examination.
Scored for orchestra, male narrator, and men’s chorus, the piece lasts slightly over seven minutes and is built on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Strasser divides the work into two main sections, the first consisting of the narration with orchestral accompaniment, the second when the chorus comes in with the “Shema Yisroel” (ibid., 62). He comments that although the first section lasts much longer than the second section, the emotional climax of the second section helps to give a sense of balance to the piece (ibid., 62). In the first section, the focus is on the narrator as he tells the story of the doomed Jewish prisoners. After a jarring instrumental introduction, the narrator enters with the words:
I cannot remember ev’rything. I must have been unconscious most of the time.—I remember only the grandiose moment when they all started to sing, as if prearranged, the old prayer they had neglected for so many years—the forgotten creed! But I have no recollection how I got underground to live in the sewers of Warsaw for so long a time.— (Joseph Auner, A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life, p. 319).
The narrator goes on to tell how the Nazi soldiers round up a crowd of Jewish men to beat them and take them to the gas chambers. Although Schoenberg most likely meant for the title to reference the Jewish Warsaw revolt of 1943, the actual events of the story most likely take place in a concentration camp (“‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ as Personal Parable,” p. 58). The text is at times shockingly brutal, portraying the Nazi soldiers beating the Jewish men. Although the text itself is emotionally powerful, it can take on different shades of expression based on the delivery of the narrator. As a member of the orchestra in a recent performance of this piece, I was able to witness this first hand. When the narrator describes the physical and emotional state of the men who were just beaten by the Nazis, the text says “It had become very still—fear and pain.” In the recording I listened to, the narrator puts the emphasis on the word “pain” by nearly shouting the line; the effect is one of anger and sharp physical pain. During rehearsals for the performance I participated in, I heard the narrator deliver this line in several additional ways. One was to linger on the word “pain” but in a much gentler voice, giving the whole line a much more tragic and eerie effect. The piece gives the narrator power to give added nuance to the story by vocal inflection. Although the narrator is crucial in telling the story, it is the chorus that provides the emotional climax of the piece.
As the narrator relates how the Nazi guards prepare to take the prisoners to the gas chambers, the orchestra gradually builds and crescendos into a state of frenzy. The narrator cries, “They began again, first slowly: one, two, three, four, became faster and faster, so fast that it finally sounded like a stampede of wild horses, and all of sudden, in the middle of it, they began singing the Shema Yisrael.” At this moment, the chorus enters in unison, singing ‘Shema Yisroel,’ a traditional Jewish prayer in Hebrew. Taken from Deuteronomy, the text of the prayer translates:
Hear Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord, And you should love the Lord, your God, With all your heart and with all your soul And with all your might. And these words, which I command you today, Shall be in all your heart; [sic] And you shall teach them diligently to your children and talk of them When you sit in your house And when you walk along your way, When you lie down and when you rise (Joseph Auner, A Schoenberg Reader: Documents of a Life, p. 320).
The first time I listened to the piece, this moment struck me as the most powerful and dramatic moment of the work. Despite my general dislike of the twelve-tone composition method, I found myself grudgingly liking this piece for the raw emotional power it achieves by its text, orchestration, and effective use of men’s chorus.
When I first listened to this work in preparation for a rehearsal, I was unsure of what to expect. Most of the time, I dislike twelve-tone music in general and dislike Schoenberg’s music in particular. However, my preconceived notions about this piece turned out to be wrong. In this piece, I felt that the twelve-tone orchestral part served to accentuate the brutality of the text. While I can sometimes find myself bored by music from the Second Viennese School, the gripping story of the narrator held my attention until the entrance of the chorus brought the piece to a breathtaking climax before its furious close. I am not sure whether this piece should be included in the Canon. The subject matter and the jarring twelve-tone orchestration make it difficult to listen to, and the large performing forces make it a challenge to perform. Although there are other difficult-to-perform works in the Canon such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, most of them are tonal, or semi-tonal, giving them a wider appeal to a public accustomed to tonality. These are all contributing reasons why this piece is not currently in the Canon. Yet in a world plagued with racism, genocide, religious prejudice and violence of all types, A Survivor from Warsaw gives powerful witness to the reality courage and faith in the midst of violence and hate. While it will probably never reach the level of popularity of the great works included in the Canon, A Survivor from Warsaw should never be forgotten.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Zoltan Kodaly, Psalmus Hungaricus

Zoltán Kodály played a leading role with Béla Bartók in establishing Hungarian music in the 20th century and shared Bartók’s commitment to Hungarian folk music. In their article in The Grove Music Dictionary Lászlo Eősze and Mícheál Houlahan say of Kodály: “With Bartók, he was one of the creators of a new Hungarian art music based on folk sources, and he laid the foundation for the development of a broadbased and musically literate culture” (Grove Music Online S.v. “Kodály, Zoltán). The liner notes of the recording say of Kodály: “He rose to national and international fame in three interrelated ways: as a composer, as a musicologist specializing in folk music, and as an educationalist, with a particular interest in the promotion of choral singing.” These three areas are reflected Kodály’s first compositional successes, Psalmus Hungaricus, first performed in 1923.
This was a setting of the translation of Psalm Iv [sic] by the 16th-century preacher-poet Mihály Kecskeméti Vég, composed as a large-scale oratorio for tenor, chorus and orchestra within the space of two months. The premiere was conducted by Dohnányi on 19 November 1923 to mark the 50th anniversary of the union of Pest, Buda and Óbuda into Budapest, and the first performance outside Hungary took under Andreae in Zürich on 18 June 1926. It marked a turning-point in the international recognition of Kodály’s art. (Grove Music Online S.v. “Kodály, Zoltán”).

Psalmus Hungaricus lasts about twenty three minutes and is in the structure of a rondo consisting of alternating sections between the chorus and the soloist with brief orchestral interludes (Victoria Meredith, “Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus: Its New Relevance in the Changing World Order,” pp. 9 & 10). Kodaly’s interest in choral singing is apparent the prominent role he gives to the chorus throughout the piece. The liner notes to the recording point out how the music reflects “the spirit of Hungarian folk music, melodic inflections derived from Gregorian chant, polyphonic choral writing, and a sophisticated harmonic scheme.” The text from Psalm 55 deals with the biblical King David’s betrayal and persecution at the hands of former friends, and covers a wide array of emotions from rage, fear, and sadness to resignation and trust. The combination of a compelling text, large instrumental and choral forces, and diverse compositional techniques give this piece vigor and energy that make it worth listening to.
Kodály uses a variety of methods to bring the emotion and drama of the text alive to the listener, including text painting and creative uses of orchestration. Kodály employs orchestration to set a solemn mood for the piece by beginning the orchestral introduction with a timpani roll, which gradually fades from the fortes of the brass and percussion to prepare an a capella entrance of the choir in unison. The orchestra again rises in strength, and a timpani role and a cadence herald the entry of the tenor soloist. An effective use of text painting in the piece occurs when the tenor sings of the wicked, “They often assemble together, widows and orphans demand to be avenged, they disregard the word of God, for their wealth has made them conceited.” This stanza is introduced by an undulating, nervous bassoon line that is soon joined by swirling string lines. The chorus comes in softly over the orchestra singing the syllable “Ah” repeatedly to a descending figure. As the tenor progresses into the stanza, the chorus gradually rises in pitch and intensity, perhaps depicting the sighing of the orphans and widows which leads into a full-throated rendering of the chorus. Another example of Kodály’s dramatic use of orchestration occurs during the text “But I cry to you, my Lord, morning, noon and eve I beseech you, from you I await deliverance, for I fear the enemy greatly.” The choir and the soloist sing in harmony at a forte dynamic punctuated by statements from the strings. Eventually, the brass join the choir and for a brief moment, all are in unison during the statement “for I fear the enemy greatly.” Kodály skillfully juxtaposes this powerful climax with a quiet interlude for harp and woodwinds that successfully changes the mood before the soloist enters again.
Another feature in Psalmus Hungaricus is beautiful woodwind writing. I was especially struck by the expressive clarinet solos, which utilize the full range of the instrument and serve to introduce or accentuate emotions in the music. Paul Globus explains the role of the clarinet in Hungarian music:
One place with a particular affinity for the clarinet is Hungary. In the ancient land of the Magyars, the clarinet reigns supreme. Some have even suggested that no other instrument comes as close to the Hungarian soul as does the clarinet. (“The Clarinet in Hungary: An Enduring Love Affair,” p. 71).

Perhaps the reason the clarinet (known as the tárgató) enjoys such wide popularity in Hungary is because it is an instrument traditionally favored by peasants, who use it as a solo instrument and have even been known to make their own clarinets (Garland Encyclopedia of World Music S.v. “Hungary”). Also notable are the flute and oboe solos in the work. An apt example of Kodaly’s woodwind writing occurs when the woodwind section accompanies the lines “He will relieve you of every care and will hearken to your entreaty” with long, flowing phrases along with pulsing chords from the harp.
After listening to this piece, I was puzzled as to why it is not included in the Canon. It certainly contains the scope, intensity, power, and emotion equal to the great choral and orchestral works of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, or Brahms. The powerful choral climaxes provide dramatic impact, but are tastefully balanced with understated sections that express more subtle emotions. The solo line is neither flamboyant nor shallow, but expresses the text with sincerity and emotion. However, unlike the above composers, Kodály does not enjoy a huge international reputation, and his music is less innovative than that of many of his contemporaries. His association with Hungarian folk music has distanced him from the mainstream of European composers, and makes his music seem more like an exotic novelty. Unlike the compositions of the Second Viennese School, Psalmus Hungaricus does not break much new ground or try or abandon tonality which is perhaps another reason why Kodály has been largely overlooked. Unfortunately, history often designates him as the sidekick of Bartók, doomed to obscurity except when discussing nationalistic music of the early 20th century. A more practical reason why Psalmus Hungaricus is not in the Canon might be the difficulties inherent in performing it. In addition to calling for a large orchestra and full choir with a tenor soloist, Kodály indicated the optional use of a children’s chorus. Many orchestras would not want the expense or inconvenience of performing such a massive work. All of these considerations together form the reason why Psalmus Hungaricus does not hold a place in the Canon. Despite all of these facts, it is my opinion that this work is a masterpiece equal to any other great choral work in the Canon. It deserves to be performed and appreciated as the powerful and emotionally riveting work that is. Let us hope that some adventurous conductors will dust off this piece in the future, and audiences will again get to enjoy Psalmus Hungaricus.

Carl Nielsen, Clarinet Concerto

Carl Nielsen was a Danish composer of the early 20th century and a contemporary of Jean Sibelius. David Fanning points out Nielsen’s importance:
One of the most important and free-spirited of the generation of composers who straddle the 19th and 20th centuries, his music covers a wide range of styles, from Brahmsian Romanticism at the outset to a high-principled, personal brand of neo-classicism in his last years. He composed in virtually all the main genres of the time, but he is best known for his six symphonies, which significantly contributed to the renewal of the genre in the 20th century . . . . His activities as conductor, teacher and writer made him the most prominent and influential Danish musician of his time, although international recognition was sporadic in his lifetime, it has grown steadily since the 1950s, especially in Britain and the USA. (Grove Music Online S.v. “Nielsen, Carl”).

Among Nielsen’s output are three concertos, one for violin, flute, and clarinet. The latter is regarded by many clarinetists as one of the most challenging yet rewarding concertos in the clarinet repertoire. Its overt displays of virtuosity and the wide range of musical ideas make for a brilliant performance when it is played well. Yet elements that have struck fear in the heart of many clarinetists include the use of the extreme altissimo, the grueling length of the work, and the extremely difficult technical passages. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, it has become a staple in the clarinet repertoire.
The story of the Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is intimately connected with the writing of his Woodwind Quintet, composed in 1922 for the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet (Lawson, Carl Nielsen, p. 175). Nielsen planned to compose a concerto for each of the Copenhagen Quintet members. The first of these was his Flute Concerto, written in 1926 for the flutist Gilbert Jespersen. The Clarinet Concerto, written for Aage Oxenvad, was the second as well as the last of his woodwind concertos, finished in 1928, four years before Nielsen’s death. It met with mixed reviews from audiences (Jack Lawson, Carl Nielsen, p. 206). Although it elicited favorable comments from some, it was poorly received by others such as the Olaf Peterson, who called it: “absolutely the worst thing that this slightly too obviously experimental and provocatively sidestepping Dane has yet put together. . . Nielson hereby confesses himself to be a cacophonist” (Jack Lawson, Carl Nielsen, pp. 205 & 206). Despite this harsh criticism, Clarinet Concerto has become a staple of the modern clarinet repertoire.
Although it has gained an accepted place in the solo clarinet repertoire, the Clarinet Concerto does not make for easy listening. When I first heard the piece years ago, I remember admiring the virtuosity of the performer, but disliking the Concerto. The large amount of dissonance, the lack of catchy melodies, and the meandering length of the work, make for difficult listening. Indeed, Nielsen himself hinted that this piece would be difficult to listen to: “I actually have no idea how it will sound. Maybe it won’t sound good, but I will not compose music if I always have to compose it in the same manner” (Jack Lawson, Carl Nielsen, p. 205). Despite the fact that many average listeners remain indifferent to the piece, clarinetists still perform this work quite frequently, relishing the challenge it presents to push their capabilities to the limit. Robert Simpson writes: “The tense Clarinet Concerto, hitting every nail ruthlessly on the head, is the finest since Mozart’s masterpiece . . .”(Carl Nielsen: Symphonist, p. 146). After almost one hundred years, the Nielsen Concerto is still enjoying success. It remains to be seen whether it can stand the test of time as long as Mozart’s Concerto has.
Scored for string orchestra, a pair of bassoons, a pair of horns, and a snare drum, the concerto lasts for about twenty four minutes. Unlike the standard three movement concerto of the Romantic Period, Nielsen’s concerto is one long work divided into four separate sections run together without breaks. The first section, marked “Allegretto un poco,” starts with an energetic opening theme before moving into a lyrical second theme that suggests of blues in with its flat sevenths and slight relaxation of tempo. The second section, marked “Poco adagio,” is in ABA form and starts with a meandering, melancholy melody in the clarinet before moving into a militaristic B section in which the clarinet soars over the dotted rhythms of the strings and punctuation of the snare drum. Snatches of the theme of the first movement interspersed are generously throughout the movement. One of the most memorable moments in the third section, marked “Allegro non troppo,” is the counterpoint between a humorously disjunctive bassoon melody and the clarinet’s more elegant rendering of the same melody. About the fourth movement, marked “Allegro vivace,” Stephen Johnson observes in the liner notes, “The clarinet’s tender solo before the last burst of Allegro centres [sic] on the same two notes with which the solo part of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto begins—Nielsen would have known that this was Mozart’s last major completed work.” The cadenzas of this concerto contain the most challenging sections to the soloist. Covering the clarinet’s full range with rapid runs and leaps, they are usually accompanied by the snare drum, which plays a prominent role throughout the concerto. In the liner notes to the recording, Stephen Johnson sheds light on the snare drum’s unique role:
Nielsen described the clarinet as ‘troll-lie’. In Scandinavian legend Trolls are famously changeable: beguilingly beautiful one minute, hideous the next. Like the flute in the earlier concerto, the clarinet has an intriguing alter ego: a side drum, which Nielsen requests should be ‘of the smallest possible size and the brightest tone’. Throughout, the side drum behaves like an impish sidekick, goading the troll on; perhaps trying to prevent him growing too melancholy.

After covering a wide gamut of emotions, the concerto draws to a quite close, leaving the listener as well as the soloist exhausted.
Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto presents something of an enigma. Its dissonance and the complexity of its melodic scheme could be one possible reason why this piece is not contained in the Canon. Another reason could be that Nielsen’s music does not neatly fit into either of the two main musical styles of the time, namely, serialism or neoclassicism. However, it has firmly established its place within the clarinet repertoire. What makes this concerto so appealing to clarinetists while being overlooked by the average listener? I think the answer lies in the fact that this piece is one of the challenges par excellence of the clarinet repertoire. To perform the Nielsen is almost a right of passage into the realm of advanced clarinet playing. Executing blistering runs, tastefully presenting the many themes, surviving the twenty four minute length and often performing from memory, are challenges that are just too enticing for the ambitious clarinetist to pass by! Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, which arguably holds a secure place in the Canon, is not likely to be eclipsed any time soon. But for the daring listener or performer, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto presents a challenge for those willing to stray off the beaten path.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Isaac Albéniz’s Suite Espanola No. 1 and No. 2 provides a depiction of Spain through ten brief piano pieces that represent areas such Aragon, Granada and Seville. Their pleasant, simple melodies call to mind Spanish folk music. Although the pieces are brief, each contains a unique character and could easily stand on its own. In her article on Albéniz in the Grove Music Dictionary, Frances Barulich gives insight into the style and importance of Albéniz:
Albéniz, one of Spain’s foremost musicians, not only contributed to the rebirth of Spanish nationalism but also gained international recognition for Spanish music . . . Albéniz preferred to suggest, rather than quote, rhythms and melodic elements to evoke the Spanish landscape. (Grove Music Online S.v. “Albéniz, Isaac”).

In his book Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, Walter Clark points out Albéniz not only influenced other Spanish composers such as Manuel de Falla, but that he also influenced “composers such as Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and, later, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez” (p. 5). Albéniz’s unique position in music history makes his music worthy of study.
Many of the pieces in these suites share common stylistic features. One of the most prevalent features is the use of an ostinato. This usually appeared in the left hand while the right hand played the melody such as the chromatic ostinato in “Cataluna (Corronda).” One of my favorite appearances of an ostinato pattern was in “Castilla (Seguidillas),” where the galloping ostinato in the left hand is repeatedly interrupted by insistent accented chords in the right hand, forming something of a conversation or maybe a war between the two voices. Spanish dance rhythms play a prominent role in the majority of these pieces (Walter Clark, Issac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, p. 65). Clark writes:
The suite contains the ever-popular ‘Sevilla (Sevillana),’ which employs the spirited rhythms of the sevillanas (a light-hearted song and dance performed during the summer feria in Seville) in the A section as well as a stirringly lyrical and animated copla in the B section, interspersed with motivic reminiscences of the A section. (Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, p. 68).

Another common feature is the dominance of melody and lack of virtuosity. I was surprised at the simplicity of many of these pieces. Albéniz emphasizes beautiful, flowing melodies usually in the right hand and sometimes doubled in octaves. The left hand material tends to be relatively modest with any chords, arpeggios, accented downbeats, or ostinati serving as secondary material to embellish and accentuate the main melody. “Granada (Serenata)” and “Cuba (Capricho)” are two good examples of these flowing, mellow, melodic lines.
I noticed many similarities in form among all the pieces. Most of them open with a two to four bar introduction before launching into the main melody and are in some version of ternary form. I found that Albéniz was fond of ending A sections rests or dramatic fermatas before starting the B section. The B sections tended to contrast with the A sections and were more free in tempo than the A sections in the Naxos recording (catalog no. 8.554211-12) that I listened to. This gave them a more cadenza-like quality such as the beginning of the B section in “Sevilla (Sevillanas).” Sometimes there was an increased level of virtuosity as well. In order generate contrast, Albéniz usually changed to a minor key in the B section, as in “Granada (Serenata),” “Sevilla (Sevillanas),” “Asturias (Leyenda),” “Castilla (Seguidillas),” and “Cuba (Capricho).” Walter Clark discusses how Albéniz used the Aeolian and Mixolydian modes in the B section of “Granada” to evoke Moorish vocal music (Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic, p.67). Occasionally, there seem to be smaller sub sections within the B sections before the return of the A theme. Once the A theme returned, it was usually repeated in full before the conclusion, which could either be loud, with an exciting chordal finish, or soft, with an understated finish that faded away.
The second suite contained only two pieces which had some differences from the pieces in first. Both pieces in the second suite called for a higher level of virtuosity than had been used in the first suite, each making use of running triplet or sextuplet rhythms. The opening piece titled “Zaragoza,” contained a chromatic ostinato and a passionate melody doubled in octaves in the right hand. The final piece, titled “Sevilla,” was interesting because it was the only piece in the suite that was in rondo form. Albéniz made effective textural contrasts by juxtaposing a rollicking, driving, triplet reprise with darker, more cadenza-like episodes.
I found the pieces on this recording pleasant, but slightly bland. I expected them to be more virtuosic and exciting and was a little surprised by how simple and mellow they were. After a while, it became rather predictable to listen to them because their form and texture was so similar. However, just because they did not live up to my expectations does not mean that they are not worth listening to. With their simple yet beautiful melodies, colorful ostinato figures, and straightforward form, they would be a welcome contrast to standard piano works of Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin that often get performed on recitals. The different local colors of Spain that are apparent within each piece add an additional layer of interest. Although they can not compete with the works of these giants in terms of virtuosity, structure, or depth, the pieces from Suite Española No. 1 & No. 2 provide simplicity and playfulness that make for pleasant light listening, even if they do not quite deserve a place within the Canon.


The music of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Louise Farrenc, and Marie Grandval presents an intriguing case study in the role of women composers during the nineteenth century. These four women were contemporaries living and working during the Romantic Period, one of the most fertile periods for composition. Although their music seldom gets performed today, I was surprised to learn that they each had relatively successful careers during their lives. Schumann is most famous as the wife of the composer Robert Schumann, but she was a musician in her own right, performing throughout her life, composing, and serving as a piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory (Grove Music Online S.v. “Schumann, Clara”). Mendelssohn, who is remembered chiefly because of her brother Felix, participated in a salon and composed numerous pieces, although most were not published (Grove Music Online S.v. “Mendelssohn, Fanny”). Farrenc was given the Chartier Prize in 1861 and 1869 (Grove Music Online S.v. “Farrenc: (2) Louise Farrenc”). Bea Friedland writes of Farrenc:
Farrenc’s role in music history carries significance beyond that ordinarily accorded to competent minor composers. Having worked in a society whose women musicians attained prominence mainly as performers, and in a cultural environment which valued only theatre and salon music, she merits recognition as a pioneering scholar and a forerunner of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s. (Grove Music Online S.v. “Farrenc: (2) Louise Farrenc”).

Grandval won the Councours Rossini in 1880 and her compositions include orchestral pieces and operas as well as numerous chamber works. Judy Tsou points out that Grandval’s friends included Gounod, Saint-Saëns, and Bizet and writes, “Her stature as a respected composer is clear from the many favourable contemporary reviews of her works.”(Grove Music Online S.v. “Grandval, Marie, Vicomtesse de”). It is valuable to investigate the works of these women because of the unique place they have in music history. I was surprised by the variety of styles, instrumentation, and compositional devices used in the pieces on this recording, and how each piece reflects a unique character. They are all chamber works, with the exception of Schumann’s Konzertsatz, a concerto.
I was disappointed by Schumann’s Konzertsatz in F minor because it lacked originality and character. On this recording by the Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble, only one movement of this unfinished piece was presented, and that movement was not even finished by Schumann, but was instead completed and orchestrated by Jozef de Beehouwer. Unlike previous concertos from the Classical Period, there is no “double exposition” in this concerto—the piano enters on a diminished chord after a dark, brief orchestral introduction. This is just one example of how, thanks to the innovations of Beethoven, Schubert, and Robert Schumann, the pieces of the mid 19th century increasingly pushed the boundaries of the Classical form. The piano’s first theme is a melancholy, restless melody that gradually builds in intensity. The tonality changes to a major key which ushers in a gentle, meandering second theme before the orchestra begins a new melody with the piano adding embellishment. Compared with the great piano concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky, I found Schumann’s work relatively dull. Although there were three main melodies, none of them grabbed my attention as do Mozart’s melodies. The development section failed to hold my interest as well—it consisted mainly of short snatches of the melody developed in different keys, with lots of running 16th notes from the piano and the occasional chordal climax. There was nothing original to set this piece apart from any other piano concerto in the mid 19th century. This piece left no distinct flavor in my mouth except maybe vanilla.
If Schumann’s piece took inspiration from Beethoven, Schubert, and Robert Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, op. 11 shows the influence of Felix Mendelssohn. The Trio, scored for piano, cello, and violin in four movements, immediately calls to mind Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor in the opening “Allegro molto vivace,” where the doubled octave line in the violin and cello is strongly reminiscent of the opening melody of the Violin Concerto. Felix Mendelssohn’s concerto was composed in 1844, so it is probable that Fanny had heard it by the time she wrote the Piano Trio in 1846. The third movement is titled “Lied: Allegretto,” and features a piano introduction leading into a vocal violin melody that is soon joined by the cello. This refreshing movement lasted just over two minutes and was an effective adaptation of the vocal genre to an instrumental one.
Although composed in1861, Louise Farrenc’s Clarinet Trio in E flat, op. 44 hearkens back to Classical chamber music more than any of the other pieces on this recording. Scored for clarinet, cello and piano, I found it intriguing that Farrenc’s Trio in E flat has an almost identical opening with Mozart’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat Major, which is scored for the same instrumental combination with the exception of Mozart’s use of a viola instead of a cello. The abundance of light, graceful melodies and periodic phrase structure throughout the work also reminded me of Mozart as did the conservative classical harmonies. Occasionally, however, hints of Romanticism broke through. Although the minuet is a relic of the Classical Period, Farrenc’s “Menuetto: Allegro” contains a dark, foreboding 16th note passage in the low register for the clarinet and cello in octaves. Such a dramatic shift in register and tonality would have been out of place in the Classical Period, but was typical for the Romantic Period. By and large however, this piece retained strong ties to the earlier generation. If I had not known that this work was composed in 1861, I would have guessed that it was composed in the late 18th century. It certainly has more in common with Mozart and Beethoven than it does with Berlioz, Schumann, or Weber.
I enjoyed Deux pieces by Marie Grandval. As the title implies, this work contains two pieces—“Romance: Andantino” and “Gavotte: Allegro non troppo” and is scored for piano, oboe, and cello. This work had many more Romantic characteristics than Farrenc’s Trio. In the liner notes for the recording, Misha Donut claims that the first piece shows the influence of Camille Saint-Saëns. To my ear, the oboe part brought to mind the oboe writing in Francis Poulenc’s Sextet, who may have taken inspiration from Saint-Saëns as well. In any case the long, passionate melodic lines and progressive harmonies link this piece closely with the French Romantic School. The “Gavotte: Allegro non troppo” pays tribute to the French Baroque with its opening melody, its harmonies, and its ornamentation even while retaining its Romantic identity by the more progressive melodic and harmonic material in the middle section. This movement strongly reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s La tombeau de Couperin in its nostalgia for the French Baroque, and I found Grandval’s whole work to be pleasantly fresh and original.
Personally, I enjoyed some of the pieces on this recording more than others. I disliked the Schumann because of its lack of melodic originality. The Farrenc and the Mendelssohn each contained some enjoyable moments and well-crafted melodies that would make them worth listening to again. However, my favorite piece on this recording was Grandval’s Deux pieces. With its unusual and colorful instrumentation, contrast of movements, and effective combination of old and new styles of composition, I found this piece to be refreshing and enjoyable. Despite my own tastes, it is easy to see why none of these works are in the Canon. In general, pieces that end up in the Canon have been widely performed in public. With chamber music that was written to be performed for an intimate audience of family and friends, it would have been difficult to get public exposure, especially since these pieces were composed by women. Despite the fact that these women were all skilled musicians, only men were viewed as the professional composers in the eighteenth century—women’s compositions were seen more as a hobby. These pieces were never widely performed which explains why they have fallen into relative obscurity today. Meanwhile, so many high quality compositions have been added to the Canon during the Romantic Period that there is hardly room for more. While I do not think that there is room in the Canon for these pieces of Grandval, Farrenc, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, they deserve to be heard and explored by anyone motivated and interested enough to venture outside the Canon.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008



The recording The Continental Harmonist, consists of nineteen short a cappella vocal pieces by the composer William Billings grouped together thematically in sets of two or three. The pieces are in English, and are scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass and performed by the Gregg Smith Singers. The texts range from patriotic, to Biblical, to secular. Individual pieces tend to be short, lasting about three minutes on average.
Billings (1746-1800) was one of several composers to take the Calvinist chorale-writing tradition to the American Colonies and was also the first North-American composer to publish a collection of psalms with his New England Psalm-Singer. While the pieces on this recording definitely show a chorale influence, I also found many other stylistic features that likely took inspiration from a wide variety of sources.
One of the things I found interesting about these pieces was their variety of styles, moods, textures, and structures. Moods of the pieces ranged from light-hearted to somber, texture was either contrapuntal or simple, and style sometimes reflected Handel, Bach, and Martin Luther, and at other times reflected folk-songs, the Beggars Opera, and even Renaissance madrigals. “Chester” is probably the most famous piece on the recording. This well-known tune patriotically proclaims “New England’s God forever reigns.” In this and several other pieces, I could clearly hear the influence of Reformation chorales. Since these chorales had become so well established in Protestant churches, they probably had an influence on Billings. Some pieces make dramatic use of text-painting. For instance, in the humorous piece “Consonance,” the basses are given a low descending line with the text: “Down sings the bass with grave majestic air.” In the piece “Jargon,” the dissonance of the chords matches the text: “Let hearty jargon split the air,” and “Let hateful discord greet the ear . . .” Most humorous was the piece “Modern Music,” in which the lyrics are clever to a degree almost worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan:
We are met for a concert of modern invention, to tickle the ear is our present intention. The audience are seated, expecting to be treated with a piece of the best, with a piece of the best, and since we all agree, to set the tune on E, the author’s darling key he prefers to the rest.

Billings employs what would have been considered basic conventional harmonies in most of these pieces. As might be expected, he tends to use major keys for lighter lyrics and minor keys for more serious subjects. Although some of these pieces employ a large amount of imitation and fugal techniques, others use melodies so simple that they sound like folk-tunes. One example of this is the piece “A Virgin Unspotted” which has a lilting simple melody in compound time. The fact that Billings composed simple, short pieces set in English with folksong-like melodies perhaps owes something to the influence of The Beggar’s Opera, which had gained enormous popularity in England 1728. Although Billings was composing in the later part of the century, he had likely heard of the fame and success of the Beggar’s Opera. The piece “When Jesus Wept” has a beautiful haunting melody, reminiscent of an English folk tune. The voices enter one by one in a fugue. Text painting appears in this piece with the words “falling tears” being set to a descending figure.
I was intrigued by the way Billings used tempo, meter and texture to achieve unique results. There are tempo changes halfway through some of the pieces, most notably in “Swift as an Indian Arrow Flies” and “Shepherd’s Carol.” Billings also uses call and response and antiphonal devices, especially in “The Lord is Risen.” This full and triumphant piece calls to mind the oratorios of Handel, whose music Billings was probably familiar with. Also interesting about this piece is the fact that not only does the text deal with Christ’s resurrection, but it also speaks of “humanity triumphant”—clearly an Enlightenment idea which would have been especially well received in the newly-formed United States. Numerous pieces have small fugues in them, and some were even labeled in parenthesis as “fuging tunes.” I had never heard a chorale that made use of a fugue before, so Billings must have been influenced by some of the more ornate instrumental music of the late Baroque, or perhaps by some of the more elaborate vocal writing of Handel. Although Billings’ pieces employ techniques that wouldn’t normally be expected in simple chorales, they could have easily been sung by amateurs in singing schools as a means of recreation.
I found some of these pieces intriguing, and others tiring and flat. The pieces that grabbed my attention made use of unusual and unexpected compositional techniques, and were beautiful and satisfying to listen to. I enjoyed “Swift as an Indian Arrow Flies” because it opens in a somber minor key and then unexpectedly changes to a tempo that lives up to the swiftness of the title. I also enjoyed several of the dark minor pieces such as “David’s Lamentation” and “Morpheus” which were simple and powerful and reminiscent of Renaissance English madrigals. Several pieces I found a little less original were “Hopkinton,” “A Virgin Unspotted,” and “Boston”, mainly because their melodies quickly became repetitive and didn’t contain much contrast. Overall, these pieces are worth listening to because they hold a unique place in music history as well as possessing some artistic merit. While I can see how they have been eclipsed by other pieces and deprived a place in the canon, they deserve to be known and appreciated by modern audiences.