Friday Performance Pick – 152

Verdi, Va’ pensiero

verdiGiuseppe 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 drama centers around King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) and the Babylonian Exile. The Hebrew people sing about the loss of Jerusalem in a choral lament known world-wide by its initial words: Va pensiero. With a text drawn in part from Psalm 137, the chorus addresses the fate of a nation and captures the spirit of the times in Italy, which had yet to become a nation.

But it would, in a movement known as the Risorgimento, a process beginning with the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  The political will of the people eventually transformed the loose collection of Italian city-states into the nation of Italy in 1871. Because of opposition to this idea, a secretive rallying cry arose: “Viva Verdi”—an acronym and code for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia (Viva Victor Emmanuel King of Italy). Va’ pensiero quickly became an icon of Italian culture. It remains one.

In fact, Professor Carol tells the story in Discovering Music of how she needed an Italian tailor in Dallas to do a rush job for her. He said it would be impossible. Somehow she started talking about opera, and soon the two were enthusiastically singing Va’ pensiero in the tailor shop. He agreed to do the impossible and the skirt was altered on time. You see, knowledge of opera can be useful!

Va’ pensiero, sull’ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l’aure dolci del suolo natal!

Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate…
O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!
O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!

Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!

O simile di Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù.

Go, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion’s toppled towers…
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Either, akin to the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
or let the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.

As we have done in previous years, the Friday Performance Picks will go on hiatus during the season of Advent and resume after Christmas. The daily posts of the Advent Calendar take precedence. If you have not signed up on our mailing list, I encourage you to do that in the side panel so that you will get the calendar post each day.

Friday Performance Pick – 151

Fanny Mendelssohn, String Quartet (2nd Movement)

fanny-mendelssohnA 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 musical aptitude was recognized early.

Fanny was not quite four years older than Felix. Both were taught composition by Carl Zelter. Historians credit Zelter and Felix Mendelssohn for sparking a revival of the music of J.S. Bach.

Zelter wrote to his friend Johann von Goethe about the extraordinary talent of both Mendelssohn children, offering particular praise of Fanny. At age 13, Fanny performed all 24 Preludes and Fugues in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to celebrate her father’s birthday. Unlike Clara, who was well known as a performer, Fanny performances and compositions were heard primarily in private gatherings at home.

People at the time did not consider composition to be a suitable vocation for women. Fanny nevertheless wrote numerous works and published a few of her “Songs Without Words” under Felix’s name. At least one commentator has pointed out that Fanny, whose compositions were not subject to public scrutiny, was able to be more daring in her writing. I won’t attempt to rate composers according to boldness, but I certainly find her string quartet to be vivid and interesting.

I debated which of the four movements to feature. But while I was listening to the 2nd movement, my 4-year-old granddaughter came into my office to say she really liked that music. So, the decision was made. Patti (whom you may know from Professor Carol’s posts) has endorsed the second movement. If you enjoy it as much as she does, you may want to hear the first, third, and fourth movements as well.

Friday Performance Pick – 150

szervanszky_endreSzervánszky, 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 in 2017. Today I want to add another Hungarian composer to the list, one that you may not be familiar with: Endre (Andrew) Szervánszky (1911-1977).

Szervánszky was influenced by Bartók and Kodály and wrote in a similar style, making liberal use of Hungarian folk tunes and rhythms. In the years after World War II, his music also reflected the artistic constraints imposed by communism. Later in the late 1950s and early 1960s he turned to more modern techniques and became an important figure in setting a new direction for Hungarian music.

He studied clarinet performance at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and joined the faculty after the war, remaining there until his death in 1977. His first woodwind quintet dates from 1953. Its accessibility and use of folk tunes follows the artistic guidelines imposed at the time

Szervánszky was given the “Righteous Among the Nations” award by the State of Israel in recognition of his efforts to save Jews from the Nazis.

All four movements of the quintet can be heard here.

Photo: Zeneakadémia képgyűjteménye

Friday Performance Pick – 149

Bellini, Casta Diva


Poster for the Premiere of Norma in 1831.

The aria “Casta diva” may be one of the best examples of the bel canto style of the early 19th century. It appears in the first act of the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835).

Bel canto, or beautiful singing, generally means an elegant, florid style with long melodic lines. Bellini, even during his short life, was acknowledged as a master of bel canto style. Who else from the early 19th century wrote melodies with these same characteristics? Well, Frederic Chopin, for one, who was a friend and ardent admirer of Bellini. You might hear those similarities more readily in this performance of “Casta diva” arranged for piano, flute, and cello.

An older contemporary of Bellini and superstar of opera, Giacomo Rossini, listed three requirements for someone to become a successful bel canto singer:

a naturally beautiful voice that was even in tone throughout its full range, careful training that encouraged effortless delivery of highly florid music, and a mastery of style that could not be taught, but only assimilated from listening to the best Italian exponents.

“Casta diva” excels beyond these qualities. The level of virtuosity (vocal difficulty) was, and remains, nearly unsurpassed, and yet the singer must seem to glide effortlessly through the ultra-high vocal fireworks (coloratura). To highlight these lines, Bellini added quiet, hypnotically beautiful interjections sung by the chorus.

When Norma premiered at La Scala in 1831, it was not very well received. Even so, it had 32 performances in its first season. Within a few years it had become quite popular, and it earned the praise of diverse composers like Richard Wagner (not one inclined to hand out praise lightly) and Giuseppe Verdi.

In the opera, the Druids are resisting the invading Romans. The priestess Norma makes an appeal to the moon Goddess for peace, Casta diva (chaste Goddess).

Chaste Goddess, whose silver covers
These sacred ancient plants,
we turn to your lovely face
unclouded and without veil. . . .

Friday Performance Pick – 148

Ligeti, Sonata for Cello


György Ligeti

Very early in this series I featured a bagatelle by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006). It was rather light, short, and humorous—what you might expect of a bagatelle. The Sonata for Cello strikes a very different mood. But I think both works exhibit two important things. First, originality—the thing that 20th-century composers seemed to prize most and often failed to achieve. And second, Ligeti’s originality remains tied to musical traditions. (The 20th century is littered with works of composers who sought originality at the expense of all else.)

The sonata has two movements, roughly equal in length, entitled Dialogo and Capriccio. Ligeti composed the first movement in 1948. He explains:

It’s a dialogue. Because it’s like two people, a man and a woman, conversing. I used the C string, the G string and the A string separately. . . . I had been writing much more “modern” music in 1946 and 1947, and then in ’48 I began to feel that I should try to be more “popular”. . . . I attempted in this piece to write a beautiful melody, with a typical Hungarian profile, but not a folksong . . . or only half, like in Bartók or in Kodály—actually, closer to Kodály.

The second movement was written five years later when a cellist asked him to compose a work for her. He decided to expand the earlier work by adding a virtuosic second movement. Again, Ligeti:

Because the second movement had the ‘ambition’ to become a sonata movement I wrote it in sonata form. It is a virtuoso piece in my later style that is closer to Bartók. I was 30 years old when I wrote it. I loved virtuosity and took the playing to the edge of virtuosity much like [Paganini].

The Communist Party censors did not approve the work, and it remained under wraps until 1979. Today, it has become a popular choice for cellists seeking  attractive, yet innovative and demanding, solo works for their instruments.

Image: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Friday Performance Pick – 147


Reynaldo Hahn, À Chloris The mélodie of the 19th and early 20th century represents in many ways a French version of German Lieder. German Lieder gained prominence with the rise of Romanticism after the turmoil of the French Revolution and […] Read more.

Friday Performance Pick – 146


Merulo, Canzon vigesimaterza a5 and Canzon decimaottava a5 This performance of canzonas by Merulo comes from the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. You may presume you know all about cornetts but have not encountered a sackbut. But the opposite is […] Read more.

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 […] Read more.

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 […] Read more.

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 […] Read more.