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Robert Schumann
Violin Sonata No.1 in A Minor, Op.1
Schumann wrote his first Sonata for Piano and Violin, Op. 105, betw...
Béla Bartók
Violin Sonata No. 2
Violin Sonata No. 2, Sz. 76 Béla BartókI. Molto moderatoII...
Heitor Villa-Lobos
O Polichinelo
Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the strongest advocates for nationalism i...
Heitor Villa-Lobos
Impressoes Seresteiras
Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the strongest advocates for nationalism i...
Heitor Villa-Lobos
Alma brasileira
Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the strongest advocates for nationalism i...
Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in E Major, K. 162, L. 21
In the middle of the concert program, we find Béla Bartók and Dome...
Domenico Scarlatti
Sonata in D minor, K. 32
In the middle of the concert program, we find Béla Bartók and Dome...

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Aril 18, 2016.  Prokofiev.  Sergei Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary is on April 23rd.  One of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century, his life was as tempestuous as the century itself.  He was born in what is now Ukraine, spent his youth in Moscow and St.Petersburg and by Sergei Prokofiev (Konchalovsky)the age of 25 was famous as a composer and pianist.  By that time he had already written a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev which made him a name in Paris.  Following the First World War and the October Revolution, he left Russia for the United States but two years later moved to France.  By then he was the composer of several operas, a symphony, two ballets, concertos for piano and the violin, and four piano sonatas.  In the late 1920s he returned to Russia for a series of concerts and after that, while still living in France, became more involved with the Soviet musical establishment.  Then, in 1936, he returned to the Soviet Union – permanently.  He wrote Peter and the Wolf for Natalia Sats’s Children’s theater and collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky, but also was compelled to write “Soviet” music, like the infamous Zdravitsa, written for Stalin’s 60th birthday and Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (even though written on texts by Marx and Lenin, it sounded too unconventional for the Soviet musical apparatchiks and wasn’t performed during Prokofiev lifetime). 

He continued composing during the great Patriotic War, as WWII was called in the Soviet Union, part of which he spent in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Estranged from his first wife, Lina, since 1941, he married Mira Mendelssohn, 24 years his junior, after the Soviet government officially “annulled” his marriage to Lina.  Lina in the meantime was arrested and sent to the Gulag.  In 1948 Prokofiev himself almost ended up there: he was severely criticized for the 6th Symphony and the opera The Story of a Real Man, which was staged at the Kirov Theater but then immediately cancelled.  Prokofiev’s health was failing and he moved to his dacha outside of Moscow.  His doctors prohibited any exertion and allowed him to compose for just one hour a day.  He died on March 5th of 1953, the same day as Stalin.  The Soviet Union descended into an official, utterly hysterical mourning.  Hundreds of people were trampled to death during Stalin’s funeral procession.  Prokofiev’s death wasn’t reported for days, as all periodicals were filled with articles eulogizing Stalin.

We’ll hear his Piano sonata no. 6, op. 82.  Prokofiev stated working on it in 1939 (that year he also started piano sonata nos. 7 and 8 – together they’re known, somewhat inappropriately, as “War Sonatas”). No. 6 was completed in 1940 and premiered by Prokofiev himself in April of that year Prokofiev met the pianist Sviatoslav Richter during that time and Richter became a great champion of this works.  Richter and Emil Gilels, who premiered Sonata no. 8, created a number of classic recording of the “War Sonatas,” and to this day they count among the very best.  Still, there are some very interesting performances made by younger musicians.  Listen to this live recording made by Yuja Wang – the verve and the energy are quite extraordinary, as is the technique.  The portrait of Prokofiev, above, was made by the Russian artist Pyotr Konchalovsky in 1934.

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April 11, 2016.  Four Ballades op. 10 by Brahms.  Today we’re publishing Joseph DuBose’s article on one of Johannes Brahms’s youthful compositions, Four Ballades op. 10.  We’ll illustrate them with performances by Sevgi Giles.   

Johannes BrahmsThe four Ballades of Brahms’s opus 10 were the first foreshadowing of the eventual direction his output for piano would take. Composed in 1854, they followed the completion of his third and last piano sonata by roughly a year, and were his first foray into the newfound realm of miniatures. Perhaps it was mere curiosity that led the young composer—Brahms was only in his early twenties at the time—from his Classically inspired sonatas to the miniatures born of the Romantic period, yet it would be the latter pieces that would largely come to define his output as composer for the piano. Although nearly a quarter of a century would pass, in which time Brahms championed the large-scale variation form with such works as the Paganini and Haydn Variations, and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of G.F. Handel, he returned to the miniature in his 8 Klavierstücke, op. 76. This work would, in turn, prove to be only the foundation for the ethereal and introspective pieces to come during the 1890s.

As a musical form, the ballade takes its name from the literary tradition of ballad poetry, which often employed grand themes of heroism or mythology. The ballade became established primarily at the hands of Chopin, who composed four examples between 1831 and 1842. Though it is suggested Chopin’s compositions were inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, there is no direct evidence of this from the composer himself. Instead, the term ballade for Chopin seemed to have a similar connotation as the fantasia, a rather free development of ideas with little or no expectation as to formal arrangement, yet also unified with a greater sense of coherence—the development of a musical “narrative,” so to speak. It is natural, then, that Chopin’s ballades borrowed from the established conventions of sonata form, and thereby furthered the weighty discourses found within them.

Perhaps the most significant set of the ballades to follow Chopin’s was that of Brahms, though other notable composers, such as Franz Liszt, would compose their own ballades. Brahms approached the ballade in the same manner as he would many of the piano pieces of his last years—i.e., the three-fold division of the ternary form. Brahms’s ballades in this regard are less expansive as Chopin’s. All four embody some variation of a tripartite form. The first, perhaps, has the closest connection to Chopin. While in ternary form, its middle section, instead of presenting new material, develops upon that of the principal theme. Yet, its monothematicism and abbreviated reprise hardly qualify it as a bona-fide sonata form. The second employs a modified ternary, or, perhaps more appropriately, arch form, while the fourth nearly presents a complete rondo. Only the third is composed in a blatant ternary design. (Continue reading here).

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April 4, 2016.  Johann Kuhnau.  We’ve recently mentioned Kuhnau’s name several times, in connection with Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach.  Kuhnau’s music is not very popular these days, but in his time, as the Leipzig Thomaskantor, Johann Kuhnauhe was one of the most famous musician in the German-speaking lands.  Kuhnau was not just a composer: he was also a lawyer, write, philosopher, linguist, theologian and mathematician.  No wonder the Leipzig city fathers were dissatisfied with Johann Sebastian Bach, who succeeded Kuhnau as Thomaskantor: upon Bach’s death, while looking for a replacement, they said that they need a real Kantor, not just a Kapellmeister, meaning a person who would be a teacher (as Kuhnau was), not just a musician.

Kuhnau was born Johann Kuhn on April 6th of 1660 in Geising, Saxony, a small town on the border with Bohemia, where the family came from.  From an early age Johann showed great scholastic aptitude; he also had a fine voice.  At the age of ten he was sent to Dresden.  There he studied the organ playing with the court musicians and for a while sung at Kreuzkhirche, famous to this day for its boys choir.  He also found time to learn two languages, French and Italian.  The plague epidemic forced him to return to Geising, but soon after he went to Zittau, famous for its Gimnasium, to further his education.  In addition to his studies, he played the organ at Johanniskirche and even served as an acting Kantor.  In 1682, upon graduating from the Gimnasium, he moved to Leipzig to study law at the university.  He applied for the position of the organist at Thomaskirche, which he didn’t get at first; two years later, in 1684, he received the appointment.  In 1688 Kuhnau published his dissertation and started practicing law (all the while continuing as the organist at Thomaskirche).  Around that time, he also published several collections of his keyboard compositions.  Even that was not all: he somehow found time to study mathematics and two more languages, Greek and Hebrew.  He wrote a satirical novel and also translated several French and Italian books into German.  In 1701 the previous Kantor of Thomaskirche, Johann Schelle, died and Kuhnau was appointed the new Kantor.  At Thomasschule Kuhnau taught several classes (including Latin – something neither Bach nor Telemann, whom the city council wanted to hire as the Kantor instead of Bach, were ready to do).  As the Kantor he directed music at several major Leipzig churches and the University.

Telemann, who arrived in Leipzig at the time when Kuhnau became the Kantor, was young and ambitious.  He established a rival musical organization, Collegium Musicum, and revived the opera, attracting many good singers from the Thomaschor.  He even acquired permission to write music for Thomaskirche, thus encroaching on Kuhnau authority.  Kuhnau by that time was in ill health and his protestations were often ignored.  Nonetheless, Kuhnau continued to serve as the Kantor for the rest of his life.  He died in Leipzig on June 5th 1722.

Much of Kuhnau’s music output consists of keyboard compositions and sacred works, most of which were lost.  Among his keyboard pieces, the set of six sonatas, the so-called “Biblical Sonatas,” is the most important.  Kuhnau gave each sonata an elaborate title and separately described each movement.  We’ll hear the first of these sonatas, which is called “The Combat Between David and Goliath." It consists of eight movements, their wonderfully poetic (and learned) subtitles are: The Boasting of Goliath; The Trembling of the Israelites at the Appearance of the Giant, and Their Prayer to God; The Courage of David, and His Keen Desire to Repel the Pride of His Terrifying Enemy, With the Confidence That He Puts in the Help of God; The Combat Between the Two and Their Struggle; The Stone Is Thrown From the Slingshot Into the Brow of the Giant; Goliath Falls; The Flight of the Philistines, Who Are Pursued and Slain by the Israelites; The Joy of the Israelites Over Their Victory; Musical Concert of the Women in Honor of David and The General Rejoicing, and the Dances of Joy of the People.  The organist is John Butt.

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March 28, 2016.  Haydn’s “The Severn Last Words of Christ.”  March 31st is the birthday of Franz Joseph Haydn and yesterday was Easter, so we thought it would be appropriate to bring the two together.  Haydn was born in 1732 on Rohrau in eastern Austria.   He had a difficult childhood, Joseph Haydnpart of which he spent with a relative, in poverty and hunger.  A good voice brought him to Vienna, where at the age of seven he became a chorister at the St. Stephen Cathedral.  That lasted till the age of 17 when he lost his soprano voice (it’s said that the empress Maria Theresa herself started complaining about his singing).  During the next several years he earned his living as a freelancing music teacher, accompanist, organ player, and a composer.  In 1757 he found a permanent job, the first one in his life, as Kapellmeister with Count Morzin in Vienna.  He was let go in 1760 (the Count was having financial problems) but was immediately hired by the Esterházy, one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the empire.  He worked for the Esterházys for the next 30 years.

Even though Haydn was spending most of his time in the different estates of the Esterházy (and longing to return to Vienna), his musical fame was spreading around Europe, especially after 1779, when Prince Nikolaus allowed Haydn to sell his compositions to publishers.  Commissions followed, mostly from Paris and London.  An unusual commission arrived in 1783 from Spain.  Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, a church in Cadiz, asked for a series of orchestral pieces set to the last words of Christ.  They were to be performed on Good Friday.  Haydn called the sections “Sonatas” and described them as “lasting seven or eight minutes, together with an opening introduction and concluding with a Terremoto or Earthquake.”  The bishop was supposed to deliver “discourses” on each of the words, with music in between them.  Haydn commented on the difficulties he encountered in confining himself to the allotted time and writing so much music without “fatiguing the listeners.”   The end result was clearly to Haydn’s liking: he called “Seven Last Words” his most successful composition.  The score was published and performed in Paris in 1787; and then in Berlin and Vienna.  Also in 1787, Haydn adapted “Seven Last Words” for a string quartet; this is the version that is performed more often these days.  The Vermeer Quartet made it its own.  It played it all over the world and made a recording with Dr. Martin Luther King reading the introduction and Billy Graham and several other religious leader commenting on each section.  In 1796, the Austrian composer Joseph Friebert, who at the time was the Kapellmeister in Passau, created a choral version of the “Seven Last Words.”  Haydn heard it, was impressed but decided to improve it, preparing his own version.  It became an oratorio, the first of the three Haydn ever wrote (The Creation and The Seasons were composed in the next two years).

We’ll hear the Introduction, Sonata II ("Today shalt thou be with me in paradise"), Sonata VIː ("It is finished") and the final Earthquake.  Le Concert des Nations is conducted by Jordi Savall.

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March 21, 2016.  Bach.  Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.  He was born in 1685 in Eisenach, the city we mentioned last week while celebrating Bach’s friend, Georg Philipp Telemann.  Last year we wrote about Bach’s life around 1723-1724, as he arrived in Leipzig, after spending 6 years in Köthen.  Bach was going to assume the duties of the Kantor at Thomaskirche, the post that was left open with the death of Johann Kuhnau, the previous Kantor and Telemann’s nemesis, a year earlier.  This was a prestigious position: the Kantor was Johann Sebastian Bachpractically the director of church music for the whole city.  During the previous years Bach had changed employers several times, moving from one place to another, but he would remain in Leipzig for the rest of his life.  Last year we mentioned (and played) the St. John Passion, one of his early Leipzig masterpieces.  Bach wrote it in 1723-1724; it was first performed during the Good Friday service on April 7th, 1724, at Nikolaikirche, one of the most important churches in Leipzig, second only to Thomaskirche.  Bach’s workload was enormous.  First of all, he was supposed to teach music to the students at Thomasschule, one of the oldest schools in Europe: it was founded in 1212, together with Thomaskirche.  The school was located in the courtyard of the church and was extended during Bach’s tenure (the old building was demolished in 1903, a pity).  There were 50 to 60 students, split into four choirs.  Each choir performed in a different church, and each had its own musical curriculum.  Bach was also supposed to teach Latin but was allowed to employ substitutes. 

In addition to teaching, Bach was required to compose music for the services at the main churches of Leipzig: a cantata for each Sunday service and for every holiday.  In Leipzig, Bach composed five annual cycles, about 60 cantatas each (altogether Bach wrote almost 300 cantatas; of these, 200 are extant and about 100 were lost).  Most of the Leipzig cantatas were written during his first years as Thomaskantor, the last one – around 1745.  Cantatas were written for vocal soloists (usually four of them- soprano, alto, tenor and bass, but sometimes just for one vocal solo), who were supported by the Thomanerchor (the choir of the St. Thomas School), and the orchestra.  The choral part was usually written for four voices, and there were four singers per group – 16 choristers altogether.  Bach himself lead the performances and played the organ.  The soprano solo very often was Anna Magdalena, his young second wife.

With such an extraordinary workload, it’s not surprising that Bach reused some of the material from his previous work, as he would later use some of the cantata material in his Oratorios (Easter and Christmas).  Out of the 300 cantatas it is impossible to find the “better” ones or even a favorite, so “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” BWV 170, as great as it is, is neither.  “Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul,” as it is translated from German, was composed in 1726 for the sixth Sunday after the Trinity.  It was first performed on July 28th of that year.  This is a rather unusual cantata as it’s composed for a solo voice, an alto.  Sometimes it’s performed by a countertenor, sometimes by a mezzo-soprano.  In this recording it’s the former, Andreas Scholl.  Collegium Vocale is conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.  And here’s a more mature (and more famous) cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 for four voices.  The first line is usually translated as “Awake, calls the voice to us.” Bach later transcribed the fourth movement, chorale: "Zion hört die Wächter singen" for the organ (BWV 645).  This chorale was further transcribed for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni and several other composers.  The original cantata is performed by the soloists and Concentus musicus Wien and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  Harnoncour, one of the pioneers of “historically informed” performances, died earlier this month, on March 5th.  He was 86.

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March 14, 2016. Telemann.  Georg Philipp Telemann was born on this day in 1681, four years and a week before Johann Sebastian Bach.   Telemann was born in Magdeburg; his family was upper-middle class, his father, who died when Telemann was four, was a deacon and university educated.  Telemann started musical lessons rather late, at the age of 10, and even those were brief. His Georg Philipp Telemannfamily was not supportive and young Telemann studied in secret, learning to play the recorder, violin, and zither.  Upon learning that he continued studying music, his mother confiscated all his instruments.  That didn’t stop Telemann from composing.  He’d even sneak out of his house at night and play on borrowed instruments.  When he was 13, he was sent to school in Zellerfeld, but his main teacher there was interested in music himself and in addition to general subjects introduced Telemann to the relationship between music and mathematics.  In 1697 Telemann joined the old and prestigious Gymnasium Andreanum in Hildesheim.  (The school was established in 1225, and the town, especially its Market square, was considered one of the most beautiful in all of Germany.  It was bombed out during WWII but restored in the 1990s).  His musical talents became obvious and acknowledged; the school commissioned him songs,  and he also performed in local churches.  He even traveled to the courts in nearby Hanover and Brunswick, where he became familiar with Italian music, Corelli and Caldara in particular.  All these extracurricular activities didn’t prevent Telemann from graduating third in a class of 150.

In 1701 Telemann entered Leipzig University.  Even though his intention was to study law, very soon he found himself composing and performing full time.  The Mayor commissioned him to write music for two of the most prestigious churches in the city, the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche (twenty years later these churches would be filled with the of music of Bach).  Telemann founded a student orchestra and one year later, in 1702, became the director of the opera house, for which he composed four operas.  Johann Kuhnau, a prominent composer, was then the Cantor at the Thomaskirche, traditionally the position of the city’s music director, the one that Bach would assume in 1723.  With all of Telemann’s music activities encroaching on Kuhnau’s authority, it was not long before their relationship turned acrimonious.  Kuhnau was especially incensed by Telemann using students in opera productions and petitioned city fathers to stop the practice (apparently with little success).  It’s interesting that Telemann wasn’t shy to acknowledge that he learned much from studying Kuhnau’s music.  Also around that time, Telemann met Handel in Halle and heard an opera by Bononcini, Handel’s future rival, during a trip to Berlin.

In 1705 Telemann left Leipzig for Sorau (now in Poland), where Count Erdmann II, a great lover of music, had just returned from his travels to Italy and France.  Telemann assumed the position of Kapellmeister and, to satisfy the Count’s newly acquired French taste, engaged in studying the music of Lully.   His stay in Sorau was productive but not long: with the army of Swedish King Carl XII approaching, he left Sorau for Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace) and entered into the service of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach as Kapelmeister.  This is where, apparently, he met Johann Sebastian for the first time.  Telemann’s output during his four years in Eisenach was prodigious: four or five cycles of church sonatas, masses, 50 cantatas, and many concertos for orchestra.  This presents one of the problems with Telemann’s legacy: some of his music is of extremely high quality but it has to be searched for within his vast, ofter mediocre output.  Here’s a cantata that’s definitely not: Seele, lerne dich erkennen, it was written around 1725.  It’s performed by Ensemble Caprice with the soprano Monika Mauch, Matthias Maute conducting.

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