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Istituto Europeo di Musica
Scienze pianistiche: A.A. 2017-2018
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April 24, 2017.  Prokofiev.  Confusion surrounds the birth date of Sergei Prokofiev.  One problem is calendar-related: when he was born, Russia was using the old Julian calendar.  Prokofiev Sergei Prokofievhimself always thought that he was born on April 11th of 1891.  When Russia moved to the Gregorian calendar after the October Revolution, April 11th became April 23rd while, quite confusingly, the anniversary of the revolution itself fell on November 7th.  Prokofiev celebrated his birthday on the 23rd, but that’s not what is written in the existing copy of his birth certificate, which says that he was born on April 15th (old style), or April 27th.  Last year we celebrated Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary and we wrote about him in some detail.  Prokofiev’s life, like the lives of so many Russian artists of that time, can be divided in geographic periods: Russia, America, Europe, the USSR.  He was born in the village of Sontsovka, not far from the present-day Donetsk, where his father managed an estate.  His mother gave him his first piano lessons.  At the age of 11, while in Moscow, he was introduced to Sergei Taneyev , who was quite impressed and asked his friend, composer Reinhold Glière, to give Prokofiev lessons in composition.  A year later Prokofiev entered the St-Petersburg conservatory, where his studied with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. 

A brilliant pianist and promising composer, he became famous early, even though the more conservative public was scandalized by works like The Scythian Suite.  After the Revolution Prokofiev emigrated to the United States, thus starting the second and rather short period of his life.  His time in the US was not very happy: as a pianist, he had to compete with the very successful Rachmaninov, and as a composer – with the more famous Stravinsky.  He did compose a very successful opera The Love for Three Oranges, but as his career was not progressing, he moved to Europe, thus entering the third phase of his life.  Prokofiev lived in Europe from 1922 to 1936, first in Germany and then in Paris.  He married a Spanish singer, Lina Lubera, continued composing for Diagilev and mended his ways with Stravinsky, who considered Prokofiev the greatest Russian composer – after himself.  Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev continued to maintain relationships with Soviet musicians and even wrote music for a Soviet film, Lieutenant Kijé (he reused the music in a very popular suite).  He even received a commission from the Mariinsky theater, then recently renamed the Kirov, to create a ballet, Romeo and Juliet.  As his links with the Soviet musical establishment grew, he was offered to return to Russia; he accepted in 1936.  Why he made this fateful decision, considering the purges and recent condemnation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, we’ll never know.

The Soviets promised him a good life and artistic freedom, and initially that’s how it worked.  Prokofiev adapted his work according to the political climate, writing songs on patriotic texts and a cantata in 10 movements for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, whose orchestration included a military band and several accordions.  (Despite all this the Cantata had to wait its premier till 1966).  Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and Prokofiev, like all important artists, was evacuated to the eastern parts of the country.  Despite the hardship he continued to compose, which to some extent was easier as the musical censorship was relaxed.  The three War piano sonatas and most of the opera War and Peace come from that period.  And then, as the war ended, “Zhdanovshchina” erupted.  While Stalin’s underlings Yezhov and Beria were terrorizing people physically, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief ideolog, terrorized the Soviet cultural elite.  He started with the writers and the poets in 1946, then moved on to condemnations of theater and film.  Then, in 1948 the Politburo of the Communist Party issued a resolution criticizing “formalism” in classical music.  We’ll consider the tragic consequences of this resolution another time.  Here, from a much happier period, is Prokofiev’s answer to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – his Scythian Suite.  Claudio Abbado conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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April 17, 2017.  Happy Easter!  The Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar; the Western Churches – the Gregorian that we all are accustomed to.  Both use arcane methods (phases of the moon come into play) to derive the dates of Easter Sundays.  Once in a while these obscure calculations end up with the same date, as it happened this year (we won’t have another oneAndrea Mantegna Crucifixion till 2025).  In addition, Passover this year started on Monday, April 10th and runs through April 18th, making for an unusually rich holiday period.

The Western tradition of writing music for Easter goes back to the Middle Ages and became especially strong during the Renaissance.  In 1585, the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published a set of 18 motets called Tenebrae responsories sung during the Latin services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the Holy week.

  Here’s one of these motets,
O vos omnes (All you who walk by on the road), sung on Saturday.  It’s performed by the ensemble Tallis Scholars.  About 25 years later, Carlo Gesualdo wrote his own setting of Tenebrae responsories.  It’s an amazing vocal piece whose tonal modulations sound startling even today.  Here’s Omnes amici mei dereliquerunt me (All my friends have deserted me) for Good Friday.  The Taverner Consort is conducted by Andrew Parrott.  Both settings above were created for a Catholic service.  When Thomas Tallis composed his Lamentations of Jeremiah sometime in the 1570s, England’s Anglican Church had already separated from Rome, although it’s not clear whether Lamentations were composed for the Catholic or Anglican service.  In England of the late 16th century the settings of the Lamentations were traditionally performed at the Tenebrae service of the Holy week.  Many settings were written – William Byrd for example, created one.  Tallis’s is probably the most profound.  Here’s the first part, performed by the ensemble Magnificat, Philip Cave conducting.

 Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of the greatest music for Easter: two sets of Passions, one, set to the chapters of the Gospel according to St. John, another – St. Matthew.  Bach’s obituary mentions five Passions but these two the only ones extant.  Bach also wrote Easter Oratorio, the first version of which was completed the same year as the St. Matthew Passion, 1725.  Here’s the first part of St. John Passion.  Concentus Musicus Wien and Arnold Schoenberg Choir are conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The Eastern orthodox church historically lacked the tradition of “composed” music.  Different chants, the so-called Znamenny chant being the major one, were used for centuries.  These chants go back to the Byzantine service and are written not in notes but special signs . Only at the end of the 19th century did Russian composers turn to the liturgical music, Alexander Gretchaninov and especially Sergei Rachmaninov among them.  There are many recordings of the traditional services, but the one created by the choir of the Chevetogne Abbey is especially interesting.  They Abbey is dedicated to Christian unity and though it is a Benedictine abbey, it has both Western rite and Eastern rite churches and made recordings of both Eastern and Latin services.  Here’s the first part of the Service for Holy Saturday, performed by the Choir of the Abbey of Chevetogne.

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April 10, 2017.  Robert Schumann, Eichendorff Liederkreis, Part I.  Today we present the first part of an article about one of the most captivating song cycles in the history of European music, Schumann’s Liederkreis (song cycle) op. 39.  Based on the poetry of Joseph Eichendorff, the cycle Robert Schumannis usually called Eichendorff Liederkreis to distinguish it from another song cycle, op. 24, written on the poems by Heinrich Heine earlier that same year (1840), Schumann’s Year of Song.  There are many great recordings of Eichendorff Liederkreis, made both by male (tenors and baritones) and female (soprano and mezzo) singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a famous recording, and so did Hermann Prey, also a baritone.   The English tenor Ian Bostridge made a wonderful recording, and Peter Schreier, a German tenor.  Jessye Norman, a dramatic soprano, was excellent in this cycle, but so was the Dutch lyric soprano Elly Ameling.  We decided to illustrate Eichendorff Liederkreis with the recording made by a lesser known but superb Leider singer, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.  Gerold Huber is on the piano.  ♫

In his early years as a composer, Robert Schumann composed virtually exclusively for the piano. However, the year of 1840 saw at least the creation of 138 songs. Since then, this abundant creative outpouring has become known as Schumann’s Liederjahr, or “Year of Song.” The sudden shift from piano to vocal music, though, was not purely coincidental. It marked the culmination of his courtship of Clara Wieck, and his long-awaited and hard-won marriage to her.

Schumann and Clara first met in March 1828 at a musical evening in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. So impressed was Schumann with her skill at the piano, he soon after began taking piano lessons from her teacher and father, Friedrich, during which time he took up residence in the Wieck’s household. In such close proximity, Schumann and Clara soon formed a close bond that would, in time, blossom into a romantic relationship. Friedrich, however, did not think highly of Schumann. Thus, they kept their relationship a secret, and in 1837, on Clara’s 18th birthday, Schumann proposed to her. Clara accepted, yet her father refused to give his consent. However, this did not deter the two young lovers, though it did place a strain on their relationship. Schumann and Clara continued to exchange love letters, and met in secret whenever they could. In a display of tender devotion, Schumann would even wait for hours in a café just to catch a glimpse of Clara as she left one of her concerts. Refusing to be apart, the couple sued Clara’s father. After a lengthy court battle, Clara was finally allowed to marry Schuman without her father’s consent. The wedding took place in 1840.

Liederkreis, op. 39 was one of the song cycles, along with Frauenliebe und -leben and Dichterliebe, composed during the intensive creative episode surrounding Schumann’s marriage to Clara. Based on poetry of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Schumann himself described the songs as his “most Romantic music ever.” The cycle was begun in May, and thus displays Schumann’s rapid advancement and growing sophistication as a composer of song. Interestingly, for a composer with such an affinity for motivic and thematic unity, opus 39 is one of Schumann’s least unified cycles. No narrative links the songs to together as in Frauenliebe und -leben, nor are there connecting or recurring themes as in the case of that cycle or of Dichterliebe. However, a common thread still weaves its way throughout the songs. All, except for Intermezzo, are explicitly set in nature. Furthermore, a theme of longing and separation permeate many of the songs, with a few evenly grimly touching upon death. Yet, ultimately, the cycle culminates in the blissful “Frühlingsnacht,” in which the poet, quite beyond his own belief, has won the object of his affection, and reveals that the songs of opus 39 were perhaps Schumann’s emotional outlet during the time leading up to Schumann’s marriage to Clara.

Opening the cycle is the lonesome “In der Fremde” (here). In a foreign land, the poet looks longingly towards his homeland. Yet, even there, he knows he would remain a foreigner—his father and mother dead, no one would know him (“Es kennt mich dort keiner mehr”). He longs for the peaceful rest his parents now enjoy (“Wie bald kommt die stille Zeit”), when no one in the strange land shall know him either. An unsettled accompaniment of broken chords forms the foundation of Schumann’s setting. The vocal melody is simple. During the first stanza, it hovers closely above the tonic, reaching only up to the subdominant and each time falling back down, effectively capturing the gloomy thoughts that weigh down upon the poet. The melody, as well as the piano accompaniment, changes, however, during the second stanza. Briefly, the music turns away from F-sharp minor to A major as the poet wistfully turns his thoughts towards his parents. Yet, a grim A-sharp foils the melody’s diatonic descent on the words “da ruhe ich auch” (“I, too, shall rest”), and quite startlingly ushers back in the morbid state of the poet. The final line of the poem (“und Keiner kennt mich mehr hier”), twice stated, is most poignantly rendered in F-sharp major. Yet, the warm and comforting resolution of the major key is entirely thwarted by Schumann’s persistent inclusion of G natural, most affectingly in the closing strains of the voice. The piano then echoes the vocal melody’s last strain during its brief postlude.  (Continue reading here).

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April 2, 2017.  Rachmaninov.  Anybody who pays attention to the musical calendar could accuse us of being prejudiced against Sergei Rachmaninov.  Last week we wrote about Antonio de Cabezón, a somewhat obscure Spanish composer of the 17th century with a questionable birth Sergei Rachmaninovdate instead of writing about Rachmaninov, one of the most popular composers of the 20th century who was definitely born on April 1st.  And a year ago, we wrote about Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, but again, not about Rachmaninov.  Fortunately, it seems that among our listeners there are not too many sticklers for historical detail.  We’re not trying to avoid Rachmaninov: he was a great composer, even if perception of his music has been changing over the years (but of course that also could be said about any composer of note).   He was not a pathbreaker; his musical idiom came straight from the 19th century Russian tradition.  Still, the totality of his work is original, he was a wonderful melodist and had a great sense of form.  And, in additional to all that, he was one of the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century! 

His life, as lives of so many Russian artists who lived through the Revolution, was broken in two: the Russian part and the exile.  Rachmaninov was born on April 1st (or March 20th, old style) of 1873 on a family estate in the Novgorod province of northern Russia.  His family was quite rich in the previous generations, but his father had squandered much of the wealth, leaving them just one estate at Oneg, and even that would be lost soon after.  Rachmaninov, who received early piano lessons from his mother, was sent to the St.-Petersburg conservatory.  Things did not go well there, and he transferred to Moscow to study with Nikolay Zverev.  Lacking fund for his own place, he lived in his teacher’s apartment.  That was providential, as that’s where he met many musicians who were influential in his development: Anton Rubinstein, Taneyev, Arensky, and, most

importantly, Tchaikovsky.  Taneyev and Arensky became his teachers at the Conservatory; he also took piano classes with a cousin 10 years his elder, Alexander Siloti (Siloti, a pupil of Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, a virtuoso pianist and conductor, would also emigrate to the US after the Revolution).  For a while Rachmaninov continued living with Zverev, but in 1888 moved in with his relatives, the Satins.  Satins had an estate, Ivanovka, near Tambov, deep in the Russian provinces.  Rachmaninov fell in love with the place; that’s where he would do most of his composing (Mahler at Steinbach or Maiernigg comes to mind).   That’s were, in 1891, at just 18 years old, he wrote the First Piano concerto, his first major work.  Rachmaninov fell in love not just with the place, he also fell in love with one of the Satins, the young Natalia.  They were first cousins (Natalia’s mother was the sister of Sergei’s father) and therefore needed special permission to marry: in the end, a petition had to be sent to the Czar and was granted.  They married in 1902 and stayed together till Rachmaninov’s death in 1945. 

In 1892, as a graduation work at the Conservatory, he wrote Aleko, a one-act opera based on Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies.  It was premiered in the Bolshoi a year later, with Tchaikovsky attending.  Some year later Chaliapin sang in it and it’s still being staged today, if not very frequently.  At the conservatory, the opera was awarded the highest mark, with Rachmaninov receiving the great Gold Medal.

Here’s Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 1 in a brilliant performance by Krystian Zimerman.  Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  You cannot compare it to the Second and Third concertos but Rachmaninov’s melodic gifts are obvious, as is the wonderful mix of lyricism and energy.

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March 27 2017.  Cabezón and Haydn.  Antonio de Cabezón, one of the most important keyboard composers of the Spanish Renaissance, was born on March 30th of 1510 (or at least that is traditionally assumed to be his birth date).  The year 1510 makes him the exact contemporary of Flemish composers Tielman Susato and Jacob Clemens non Papa; on the Spanish music timeline, Antonio de CabezónCristóbal de Morales was five years older and Tomás Luis de Victoria - a generation younger.   Little is known about Cabezón: he was born in a small town in northern Spain not far from Burgos, and was blind from childhood.  In 1526 he entered the service of Queen Isabella of Portugal, wife of Charles I, king of Spain, who as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, became the most powerful ruler in Europe.  At the court, Cabezón was employed as an organist and clavichord player.  In 1538 he was appointed the chamber musician to Charles himself.  Later, Cabezón became the music teacher to Prince Felipe, the future king of Spain, and accompanied him on his travels to Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and London.   Cabezón’s music influenced many composers, especially English ones, such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.  Here’s is a short piece by Cabezón called Pavana con su glosa, it’s performed by the ensemble Capella Virelai.  And here is one of his Quatro favordones, variations that so affected his English audiences.   Hamonices Mundi is conducted by Claudio Astronio.

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on March 31st of 1732, was one of the greatest, if sometimes underappreciated, composers ever.  We’ve written about him many times, and will write more.  Haydn was extremely prolific, writing in every musical genre known in his time.  He composed 104 symphonies, more than 60 quartets, 62 piano sonatas, trios, concertos, wonderful cantatas and even operas, written for Esterházy’s enjoyment.   In 1790, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy died; his successor, Prince Anton wanted to save money and wasn’t interested in music as much as his father.  He formally retained Haydn at a smaller salary but allowed him to travel, something Haydn was longing to do for quite some time.  Johann Peter Salomon, an impresario and a fine violinist, arranged a trip to London, where Haydn’s music was very popular.   Haydn, travelling with Salomon, left Vienna on December 15th of 1790.  They crossed through Germany and arrived in Calais, France.  On New Year’s Day of 1791 they sailed to Dover.  “I stayed on deck during the entire crossing so as to gaze my fill of that great monster, the ocean,” he wrote in a letter.  Haydn had never seen the ocean before.   They arriving in London on January 2nd.  Haydn was welcomed with great enthusiasm.  The papers printed news about him, he was invited to many noble houses, the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) became a patron.  Haydn found many pupils for his piano lessons, again mostly from amoung the nobility.  His music was widely performed, and of the three latest symphonies, nos. 90 through 92, the last one became a favorite.  London, the largest city in Europe, was full of musicians from different countries, from the French escaping the Revolution to the ever-migrating Italians and Germans.  The orchestras were large, larger than in Vienna or in Eszterháza.  At the beginning of Haydn’s employ, the orchestra at Eszterháza consisted of just 14 players, which was quite enough for the smaller halls of the palace.  Later the number grew to about 25.  In London, orchestras were at least 40 players strong, and sometimes consisted of 60 musicians.  Even though Haydn didn’t have much time to compose, during the following year he wrote six symphonies, nos. 93-98, all of amazing quality.  We know them now as his “London symphonies.”  Here’s Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a live 1982 recording of Symphony no. 94, “Surprise.”

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March 20, 2017.  Bach, Hasse and more.  Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st of 1685.  We hope to be forgiven for not going any further this year (but do see below).

A very different German composer was also born this week.  Johann Adolph Hasse, who wrote Italian operas admired both in Italy and in Germany, was born in Bergedorf, near Hamburg.  He was baptized on March 25th of 1699.  Hasse started his musical Johann Adoph Hassecareer as a singer, but by the age of 22 wrote his first opera, Antioco.  The following year he left for Italy.  He traveled through Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome but eventually settled in Naples.  There, he met Alessandro Scarlatti, who befriended Hasse and became his teacher.  He also met with Nicola Porpora and maybe took some music lessons from him too.  Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, Porpora’s pupil, was a brilliant castrato singer; Hasse and Farinelli became good friends and eventually Farinelli would premier several of Hasse’s operas.  Hasse lived in Naples for seven year, enjoying a highly successful career.  In 1730 he went to Venice where his opera Artaserse was performed during the Carnival.  Farinelli sung the title role.   When Farinelli was in Spain (he became the Chamber musician to King Philip V in 1737 and stayed in Spain for the next 10 years) he sung, on the King’s request, two arias from Act 2, Per questo dolce amplesso and Pallido il sole, every evening.  Here’s Per questo, sung by the soprano Vivica Genaux with the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin under direction of René Jacobs, and herePallido, in an interpretation closer to Farinelli’s, as it’s sung by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is conducted by Roger Norrington.

In 1730 Hasse married Faustina Bordoni, a famous mezzo-soprano, who made her name in London singing in operas of Handel and Bononcini (there, her rivalry with another diva, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, was legendary).  That same year Hasse and Faustina moved to Dresden, to the lavish court of Augustus II “the Strong,” the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, where Hasse was given the position of Kapellmeister.  Faustina made her debut at the court the day after the couple arrived in Dresden.  A year later Hasse wrote Cleofide, an opera based on Metastasio’s original libretto.  It was premiered at the Opernhaus am Zwinger, the royal opera house, one of the largest in Europe.  Faustina sung the title role.  Johann Sebastian Bach, who was then the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach attended the performance.  The next day Bach Sr. gave an organ performance in the Sophienkirche, a historic Gothic church that was damaged in 1945 and destroyed later by the GDR rulers (we wrote about the church in one of our entries on Wilhelm Friedemann Bach).  C.P.E said later that Johann Sebastian and Hasse were “well acquainted.”  Here is Cleofide’s aria Digli ch'io son Fedele, sung by the wonderful English soprano Emma Kirkby.  William Christie conducts Cappella Coloniensis.

Hasse’s career was at its zenith, he was immensely popular both in Germany and in Italy, where he was going practically every year.  Hasse was still to meet Frederick the Great and make friends with Metastasio.  About this and more, some other time.

Béla Bartók, one of the most influential composers of the first half of the 20th century, was also born this week, on March 25, 1881.  And Pierre Boulez, extremely influential in the second half of the 20th century, was born on March 26th of 1925.

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