Friday Performance Pick – 145

Tárrega, Recuerdos de la Alhambra

Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), considered the “father of the classical guitar,” is best known for his Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of Alhambra) written in 1896. My travels in Spain have not taken me to Alhambra yet, but it appears to be a rather memorable place.


Charles V Palace, Alhambra, Spain

Tárrega has not made it into the Western canon, but music from Spain at many points in its history tends to lie outside the mainstream classical repertoire. Of course, the significant influence of Moorish culture for 700 years put Spain on a different historical trajectory. The rhythms and dance forms of Spain provided composers in the rest of Western Europe with a rich source of exoticism. And so the most famous “Spanish” opera—Carmen—is French.

But Tárrega was thoroughly Spanish. His father, a flamenco guitarist, gave the young Francisco opportunities to receive a musical training. But despite the boy’s fascination with the guitar and the opportunity to study in Barcelona, he ran away at age 10 to play in restaurants. His father managed to bring him back, but at age 13 Francisco ran away again to join a band of gypsies. In 1874, after running away a third time, he entered the Madrid Conservatory. The elder Tárrega deserves some award for patience, or at least perseverance.

Francisco gained fame as both a composer and concert artist. In addition to his own compositions for guitar, he transcribed numerous piano works by other composers for the guitar.

In Classical Guitar Magazine, Rhayn Jooste says, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra is arguably the most iconic composition in the classical guitar’s solo repertoire—it’s a piece nearly every guitarist aspires to play. Alas, it can also be extremely frustrating to instigate, since plenty of practice is required before the aural illusion intrinsic to the music succeeds.” The aural illusion is the “tremolo technique” of repeated notes intended to give the melody the character of a sustained line. 

Friday Performance Pick – 143

Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K. 331

This week I have found myself searching through Mozart’s compositions for some musical examples related to a music theory project. The Mozart Sonata in A Major (K331) kept coming to mind, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

I needed to find examples that were clear and straightforward, things that a student could see easily. Clarity and Mozart go hand in hand, right? Yes and no. With Mozart there always seems to be a twist—some complicating factor that needs extra explanation.

This sonata has too many twists that distracted from the points I wanted to make. It begins with a theme and variation on a Czech folk melody instead of a typical fast movement in sonata form. In fact, it is unusual in having none of its three movements in sonata form. And the last movement, the famous Rondo alla turca, makes an excellent example of the Viennese fascination with exoticism. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (along with many others) wrote compositions featuring what the Viennese imagined as “Turkish” music. But that too was a distraction.

When I started looking for a recording of the sonata that would fit my criteria for this series, I came across many recordings that were, how shall we say, dull. A Mozart sonata needs to be performed with some restraint, owing to the general style and the sound of the fortepiano of Mozart’s day, but not at the expense of intensity and energy. This performance by Latvian pianist Olga Jegunova strikes the right balance, I think.

Friday Performance Pick – 142

Clara Schumann, Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) became one of the most celebrated pianists in Europe for much of the 19th century. Her career began at an early age with a concert tour to Paris in 1830, spurred by the unrelenting discipline of her father and teacher, Friedrich Wieck. Wieck had another student named Robert who at age 20 was apparently so taken with Clara that he decided to give up his law studies and pursue music full time. (Someday I must write something about all the people who gave up the study of law for music.)


Julius Giere, Clara at age 15

Robert proposed to Clara when she turned 18, and her father vigorously opposed it. The couple actually sued to allow the marriage. Robert could have used that law degree. Clara became the breadwinner, performing frequently. As late as 1846, someone at one of Clara’s concerts reportedly asked Robert, “Are you musical, too?” The marriage would produce eight children before Robert’s untimely death in 1856. Clara would outlive him by 40 years and be a major force in ensuring recognition of his works.

Clara was also a composer. She completed her first piano concerto at age 16 and performed it at the Gewandhaus with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. Much of her writing was accomplished in her earlier years before Robert’s death.

She composed the Three Romances in 1853, the same year she met the 20-year-old Brahms. Clara and Robert were both impressed with Brahms, and Robert published a glowing article about him. 1853, if you recall, was a very auspicious year for Brahms, the same year that he met Liszt. Liszt, along with his troublesome son-in-law Wagner, would push for musical innovations in what became known as the “War of the Romantics.” Brahms would personify the traditionalists, with Clara as his ally and friend for life.

It adds up to a pretty interesting biography. In fact, it was the subject of a 1947 movie with Katherine Hepburn playing Clara. I have not seen the movie, so I can’t recommend it or vouch for its accuracy.

Friday Performance Pick – 141

Bernstein, Overture to Candide

leonard-bernsteinLeonard Bernstein (1918-1990) sprang to fame in 1943 when he found himself conducting the New York Philharmonic on short notice. He had studied with the top names in the music world at Harvard and the Curtis Institute and had just been appointed assistant conductor. So when the scheduled guest conductor came down with the flu, Bernstein took the stage at Carnegie Hall. The concert was broadcast on national radio, and his conducting career took off.

Many people got to know Bernstein through his Young People’s Concerts, a series of 53 televised programs produced from 1958-1972 in which he conducted and explained music to a live audience of children. The programs have been acclaimed as the best music education series ever televised. The complete set is in publication and can be purchased on DVD.

He also championed the music of American composer Charles Ives and led a revival of interest in Gustav Mahler.

And we know Bernstein as the composer of West Side Story. His collaboration with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and writer Arthur Laurents makes an interesting story in itself. You can hear Professor Carol tell it in one of her podcasts.

It was about the same time that Bernstein wrote the music for Candide, an operetta based on Voltaire’s satirical novella of 1759. Voltaire’s work is filled with sarcasm, wit, and irony as it portrays the title character indoctrinated in a philosophy of naive optimism. But the operetta had a bumpy road to success. The original production flopped on Broadway in 1956. According to some reviews, the text by Lillian Hellman was too heavy-handed. (That criticism did not apply to Bernstein’s music.) A second version, absent the work of Hellman, found more success in London. It was later expanded, and in 1988 Bernstein was making changes to the music to fit the latest version. He then conducted a recording of the complete new version in 1989.

Photo: Jack Mitchell (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 140

Hildegard von Bingen, Caritas abundat

Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098-1179) is one of the earliest composers we can identify by name. A saint, doctor of the church, mystic, and abbess, she experienced visions throughout her life. She eventually recorded her visions and left a significant body of writing on theology and natural science.

The image here is an illumination from her Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe.

Even if she had not become a hot topic of research in the past few decades, we would have needed to include her story in our Early Sacred Music course.

So we stopped by her abbey at Eibingen, now a part of Rüdesheim am Rhein, just across the Rhine from Bingen. There we filmed a short commentary while trying to keep a couple of motorcycles out of the shot.

But nothing really captures Hildegard as well as the performance we filmed in a 15th-century church outside Milan. For three days, we filmed numerous performances of medieval and Renaissance music with the Ring Around Quartet. They even brought along several of their colleagues with harps, drums, viol da gambas, and a portativ organ. Before we get to the performance, take a look at the setting.

Caritas abundat gives you an example of one of the earliest forms of polyphony—a single-line melody over a drone. In this performance, the three singers in the background create the drone.

The Latin text is as follows:

Caritas abundat in omnia,
de imis excellentissima
super sidera,

atque amantissima in omnia,
quia summo Regi
osculum pacis dedit.

Love abounds in all, from the depths exalted and excelling over every star, and most beloved of all, for to the highest King the kiss of peace she gave.

RingAround Caritas from Professor Carol on Vimeo.

Friday Performance Pick – 139


Bolcom, Three Ghost Rags When you think of Ragtime, you probably think of Scott Joplin. Maybe you should think of William Bolcom (b. 1938) as well. Bolcom played a key role in reinvigorating interest in Ragtime and in Joplin back […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 138


Debussy, Sonata for Cello and Piano When you think of the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918), you might conjure up big washes of sound—the kind of sonorities you would find in his seascape La Mer. Or perhaps you think of […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 137


Cimarosa, Concerto for Two Flutes in G Major (G. 1077) As I was considering something by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) for a performance pick, I searched the Professor Carol website to see what we might have already said about him. As […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 136

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 (Farewell) I started this series almost three years ago with a work by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In between that first “performance pick” (No. 1) and this one (No. 136), Haydn has been missing. It confirms, I […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 135


Bartók, Out of Doors — The Night’s Music Carol’s essay a few days ago on night music prompts this week’s performance pick. Why not follow up on her post by featuring the movement she discusses from Bartók’s Out of Doors? Coincidentally, […] Read more.