Friday Performance Pick – 159

Korngold, Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

erich-korngoldErich Korngold (1897-1957) made his mark in two separate musical worlds. In his childhood, his works were praised by composers like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. He was in many ways their heir-apparent in Vienna. At age 14, his first orchestral work was premiered at the Gewandhaus. Bruno Walter conducted Korngold’s first opera in 1916.

As expected, Korngold became one of the leading composers in Europe. And he surely would have continued on that path but for one thing. He was Jewish, and events in Europe were conspiring against him.

In 1934 Korngold agreed to arrange the music for a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warner Bros. snapped him up, and in 1935 he composed the score to the Errol Flynn movie Captain Blood. The film scores would keep coming. He won two Academy Awards for best original score: Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

He initially attempted to balance his work in Vienna and Hollywood, but that became impossible as Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938 and most of Europe soon after. Korngold would not return to Europe until after the war.

Korngold was one of many renowned composers who migrated to Hollywood to avoid Nazi persecution. Film was entering its heyday, and the cream of European musical talent determined its musical landscape. They brought with them the compositional techniques pioneered by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto was composed in 1946 and premiered by Jascha Heifetz in 1947.

Friday Performance Pick – 158

Shostakovich, Polka (from The Golden Age)

What makes music funny? Should we even ask the question? The writer E.B. White said,

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

I almost always defer to E.B. White on things having to do with writing clearly, but I think we can safely analyze some of the musical humor in this week’s selection.

chaplinWe all listen to music with a set of expectations. Much of composition involves a careful balance between predictability and surprise. Humor in music also depends on predictability and surprise, although it disrupts the balance.

The surprise may be a sudden event, a departure from the norm, or some incongruity. To recognize an incongruity (or, put another way, to get the joke), you need to understand what would normally happen. Translating that to music, you need to understand the normal musical context.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) makes that relatively easy in this case. He sets up our expectations throughout by using common musical idioms. After a short introduction, he sets up a rudimentary accompaniment pattern in the left hand (at 0:05) on a single major triad. It’s childlike—something you might expect in the simplest music. The rhythms too are simple and repetitive.

But these very ordinary things set us up for surprise. We expect the little arpeggiated figure in the melody to lead to a note that fits with the simple harmony, but it takes us consistently to a note outside the key. At another point (0:44), Shostakovich presents an even simpler melody with a ponderous doubling (the same notes two octaves apart). Accents are misplaced. Dynamics and texture change suddenly for no apparent reason. Normal things, put together in an incongruous way.

It’s rather like the ordinary bowler hat worn by Charlie Chaplin. It just doesn’t quite fit.

Composers sometimes insert little “inside jokes” into their music—a device or quotation that only other musicians would recognize. But by using common idioms, Shostakovich ensures that virtually every listener will grasp the humor.

Friday Performance Pick – 157

Schubert, Shepherd on the Rock

Years ago, Dr. Stanley Shumway, my primary professor in my doctoral studies, claimed that he could teach most of music theory using only the Chopin Mazurkas. I thought about that and concluded that I could teach most of music theory using only the Schubert songs. We may both be right.

Schubert Lieder has a wonderfully rich harmonic vocabulary—perfect for teaching modulations to distant keys and the effective juxtaposition of major and minor. Schubert also excelled as a melodist. When you add in the text painting, you have most everything you need to explain music of the 19th century.

Since all of this may not be apparent to the casual listener, let me offer a couple of points from this week’s selection. We can’t analyze the harmonic progressions in this short space, but we can consider other factors. Shepherd on the Rock has three sections: a pastorale (0:00-5:00) in which the shepherd from his rock looks out on the valley and speaks of his loneliness; a lament (5:00-8:40); and a closing section of hope and happiness over the coming of Spring (9:00-11:40). (The timings are approximate.)

shepherd-rockIn the first section, the melody moves in arpeggios extending from the top to the bottom of the vocal range. “When, from the highest rock up here, I look down into the valley and sing.” The shepherd sings of the echoes, which you can hear clearly in the clarinet. You should also hear the harmony moving often to some unexpected places.

But let’s focus on the middle section and its text:

In tiefem Gram verzehr ich mich,
Mir ist die Freude hin,
Auf Erden mir die Hoffnung wich,
Ich hier so einsam bin.
I am consumed in misery,
Happiness is far from me,
Hope has on earth eluded me,
I am so lonesome here.
So sehnend klang im Wald das Lied,
So sehnend klang es durch die Nacht,
Die Herzen es zum Himmel zieht
Mit wunderbarer Macht.
So longingly did sound the song,
So longingly through wood and night,
Towards heaven it draws all hearts
With amazing strength.

The transition between sections 1 and 2 (4:45-5:00) effortlessly moves us to the minor key. The melody of section 2 stays in a confined range as the shepherd sings of loneliness, often refusing to budge from a single note. The music is driven largely by the highly unsettled harmony. The clarinet takes on a clearly subsidiary role, offering only a few short echoes of the vocal sighing. But then the last two lines change entirely. A shift back to major comes at the mention of “all hearts” (7:13). And you can hardly miss the melody being drawn up toward heaven along with them.

The first sound of Spring (8:38) is equally unmistakable. And from there “Der Frühling will kommen” (the Spring will come). The melody soars again with a focus on ascending scales. The harmony stablizes. And the clarinet and voice now share equally in a duet. There’s much we could say about the role the clarinet plays in conveying the text.

For all of our students studying poetry and literature, here’s a chance to dig deep into rhetorical devices and literary allusions. Even if you don’t know a word of German, you can follow the text here with the English side-by-side. The text painting is important throughout these songs, and you will miss it otherwise.

Painting: Félix Saturnin Brissot de Warville, Shepherd and Flock in the Mountains (c. 1870)

Friday Performance Pick – 156

Stravinsky, Pastorale

pastorale-bloemaertLast week we focused on the rousing galop in Rossini’s William Tell Overture. But, as we noted, much of the work involves a pastorale scene portraying idyllic life in the Swiss Alps.

A pastorale evokes shepherds and rustic rural life. The musical form has quite a long history. It can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the 6th century B.C. It continues to show up, for example in the 9th-century Carolingian Renaissance, the songs of the troubadours (11th-13th centuries), Renaissance madrigals, and early opera.

It became a favorite form for Christmas music in the 17th and 18th centuries, beginning in Italy and spreading throughout Europe. You might immediately think of the Pastoral Symphony in Handel’s Messiah (1741).

The pastorale is often characterized by melodies harmonized in parallel thirds and a drone or sometimes a gentle rocking rhythm in the bass. Beethoven uses some of these techniques in his Pastoral Symphony and in the Piano Sonata Op. 28. And you will hear the same features in this week’s selection: the rocking rhythm in the bass, drones, and, at times, the parallel thirds. But the form is ultimately more about the imagery than any specific musical technique.

Stravinsky made several versions of his Pastorale. Originally composed for piano and soprano in 1907, he recast it in 1923 for soprano and four woodwinds. Ten years later, he created a version for violin and soprano and another version for violin and woodwinds (the version presented here). The two versions from 1933 were also lengthened, although the work remains quite short.

Painting: Abraham Bloemaert, Pastorale Scene (16th century)

Friday Performance Pick – 155

Rossini, William Tell Overture

When I was growing up, there was at least one Classical piece we all knew. Young boys would sing it on the playground along with shouts of “Hi Yo, Silver.” I knew reasonably early on that this piece had been composed around another legend familiar to children, that of William Tell. But I don’t think many in my generation could ever separate the music from the image of the Lone Ranger.

william-tellVisual and dramatic associations have propelled many serious musical works into the public consciousness. Think of the films 2001, Ordinary People, 10, and Apocalypse Now. But we experience most films just once. In the heyday of television series, we tuned in every week and heard the theme repeated many times.

Unfortunately, we heard only one theme from the closing minutes of the William Tell Overture: the Finale or “March of the Swiss Soldiers.” The music is the form of a galop, a fast dance popular in Paris at the time Rossini composed the opera (1829). So we can assume that whoever decided to use this theme for The Lone Ranger must have paid attention in his music history class.

But the overture contains several other themes that you may also recognize. The overture sets the stage for the opera, depicting the Swiss Alps and life along Lake Lucerne. The slow Prelude is interrupted by a thunderstorm. The calm after the storm is a pastorale with a “call to the cows” (a Ranz des Vaches or Kuhreihen). These simple tunes of Swiss herdsmen became popular in the 18th century and were linked to homesickness among Swiss. Playing them was forbidden by the Swiss mercenaries because they often led to desertion.

When you reach the Finale, with its rousing military imagery, you have pretty much everything you need to tell the story of William Tell.

Image: Engraving by Johann Leonhard Raab (1859) after a drawing by Arthur von Ramberg.

Friday Performance Pick – 154

Beethoven, Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 Beethoven’s first symphony premiered in 1801 when Beethoven was 30 years old. His first two symphonies belong to his early period in which he wrote in a style not far removed […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 153


Scarlatti, Sonata in A Major, K. 113 Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) is best known for his 555 keyboard sonatas. I featured one his sonatas in this series more than three years ago. At this rate, I will need about 1700 years […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 152


Verdi, Va’ pensiero Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco premiered in 1842 when Verdi was not yet 30 years old. It would establish Verdi’s fame as an opera composer at a time when his own life was filled with loss and despair. The […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 151


Fanny Mendelssohn, String Quartet (2nd Movement) A couple of months ago, I featured a work by Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of the famous composer Robert Schumann. Today I’m turning to the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847). Like Clara, Fanny’s […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 150


Szervánszky, Woodwind Quintet No. 1 (1st movement) Hungarian composers have been well represented in the Friday Performance Picks this year. We have featured Kodály, Bartók, and just a couple of weeks ago Ligeti. Liszt has appeared here several times, although not […] Read more.