Work for piano by Beethoven performed by Seymour Lipkin on October 30, 2005 and work for piano trio by Beethoven performed by the Eroica Trio on September 14, 2014.
They say variety is the spice of life. It’s also a major theme in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven seems to have never met a theme he couldn't work with—whether he wrote it himself, or borrowed it, from classical or popular music.
In the first piece on our podcast—the Variations on an original theme, opus 34—Beethoven penned the theme, as well as the variations that follow. Each of the six variations is in a different key—a novel feature for the time.
Next up is Beethoven’s piano trio in B-flat Major, opus 11. This piece is a variation, times two. Originally composed for a trio of clarinet, cello, and piano, Beethoven later created a “variation” of the work for the more traditional piano trio: violin, cello, and piano—which is the version we’ll hear, performed by the Eroica Trio.
But the variations don’t stop there. The final movement of the piece is in the form of a “theme and variations,” based on a tune from an opera by Joseph Weigl, a tune so popular, in its day, that is could be heard throughout the streets of Vienna.
Works for piano by Rachmaninoff performed by Nareh Arghamanyan on October 21, 2012 and work for violin and piano by Kreisler performed by Bella Hristova and Ieva Jokubaviciute on February 28, 2010.
Most composers have the ability to perform their own music. Many play several instruments. But there are a few who stand out, in music history, as having especially prodigious performing skills, talents that were more or less commensurate with their abilities as composers.
Rachmaninoff is perhaps the best-known composer in this category. He was, by all accounts, a uniquely gifted pianist and needless to say, he wrote piano music often. We’ll hear two such works: the first three movements of his Morceaux de fantasie, including the Prelude in C-sharp minor, which you may well recognize; and the first five of his Etudes-Tableaux. Both were performed at the Gardner by 25-year-old pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, an Armenian virtuoso who has won prizes at more than 18 major international piano competitions.
After Nareh’s performance, we’ll hear another piece composed by a virtuoso, for his own instrument. In this live recording, violinist Bella Hristova and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute play the Liebesleid of Fritz Kreisler, a brief, lyrical work that is, like the Rachmaninoff pieces, a perfect embodiment of the unique gifts of its author. Kreisler cultivated a sweet, singing, expressive sound that was widely recognized as uniquely “his.” In our podcast, we’ll hear another young violinist developing a voice of her own.
Work for string quartet by Schubert performed by musicians from Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Institute on March 30, 2014.
Schubert had a gift for miniatures. His art songs offer, often in just 3 to 5 minutes, small slices of life. Their diminutive size belies the richness of their musical and poetic depth.
But, as the string quartet we’ll hear demonstrates, Schubert could also scale up, writing chamber works on a scale more often associated with symphonies.
His 15th string quartet in G Major, is a perfect example. Performances of just the first movement can often stretch to 20 minutes; the performance we’ll hear today clocks in, in its entirety, at just under 50 minutes. We’ll hear it performed by three young musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, joined by violinist and program director Miriam Fried.
This quartet was one of Schubert’s last, followed only by his monumental string quintet in C Major. The piece, like much of his later work, seems to move between extremes, from passionate outbursts to touchingly lyrical passages.
With a piece this rich, it’s probably best to let it speak for itself. Here, Schubert’s String Quartet # 15, in G Major.
Works for piano trio by Suk and Smetana performed by the Eroica Trio on September 14, 2014.
We’ll first hear Josef Suk’s Elegie, a piece written for a memorial celebrating the writer Julius Zeyer, an important influence and close collaborator of Suk’s. Suk saw the Elegie as a musical tribute, specifically, to Zeyer’s epic poem Vysehrad, a work based on Czech national legends. A violinist by training, he wrote a great deal of chamber music, including this lovely trio, a brief work of about five minutes.
Our second piece in this “duo of trios” is the Piano Trio in G minor of Bedrich Smetana. The loss that inspired this piece was even closer to home: Smetana wrote this trio in the wake of the death of his eldest daughter, who passed away at age four from scarlet fever. Even as a young child, she showed promise as a gifted musician, and Smetana was understandably devastated by the loss. He dedicated the piece to her memory, and though there is no descriptive “program” to the work, Smetana’s mourning is palpable in the music.
Both pieces were recorded at the Eroica Trio’s recent performance at the Gardner Museum, in September 2014.
Works for string orchestra by Ives and Dvorák performed by A Far Cry on December 8, 2013.
On this podcast, we’ll hear two selections that, to our ears, sound like America.
Only the first was actually written by an American, though: a piece called “Hymn: Largo Cantabile” from Charles Ives’s Set of 3 Short Pieces.
Ives was the son of a musician, a bandleader for the United States Army, and he studied music as a student at Yale. His music pushed harmonic boundaries far beyond what he would’ve learned at the Yale music department. But it always retained a distinctly American flavor, often incorporating popular music and, as in this piece, traditional hymn tunes. The music is a bit mysterious, and it is unmistakably Ives.
Next, we have Dvorák’s “American” Quintet, opus 97, arranged for chamber orchestra. It, like the Ives, was performed at the Gardner Museum by A Far Cry. This arrangement was composed for the group by cellist Blaise Dejardin.
The Dvorák, like the Ives, draws on traditional American tunes, incorporating several snippets of American Indian songs. Like Ives, Dvorák took these tunes and embedded them within his own sound world, creating a piece that is certainly rooted in Native American music, but rendered in Dvorák’s own unique voice.
Works for voice and piano by Marc Blitzstein and Ned Rorem performed by New York Festival of Song on November 3, 2013. Work for string orchestra by Schoenberg performed by A Far Cry on March 6, 2011.
The 20th century was an eclectic one for classical music. Today’s podcast traces just a few of the many strands.
The piece written first is actually the final one we’ll hear: Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. Many of us closely associate Schoenberg with serialism, the formalized system of atonal music composition that he developed with his protégés Berg and Webern. But Verklaerte Nacht embraces dissonance and extended harmonies, and it is luscious and rich music, overtly late-Romantic in language, inspired by a poem about the profound depths of love.
The podcast begins with a piece that comes several decades later, by the American composer Marc Blitzstein. A Philadelphia native, Blitzstein studied locally at the Curtis Institute of Music and then set off for Europe, where he worked briefly with Schoenberg himself. The brief and touching song depicts a young soldier’s note home to his sweetheart, Emily.
After the Blitzstein, we have a piece from the next generation of 20th century American composers: Ned Rorem, who just celebrated his 90th birthday in 2013. Rorem also takes up war as his subject in this, a movement from his cycle War Scenes, based on Whitman poems.
Work for voice and string orchestra by Bach performed by Rebel Baroque Orchestra on November 10, 2013. Work for string orchestra by Bach performed by A Far Cry on December 5, 2013. Work for piano quartet by David Ludwig performed by Musicians from Ravinia's Steans Institute on March 30, 2014.
During the past century, classical music has explored many new and far-flung territories. But it would be a mistake not to recognize the profound influence of earlier music – in particular, that of Bach.
This influence has been felt in many ways. One significant development has been the emergence of historical performance: using centuries-old instruments. The first selection on our podcast, comes from this tradition: the Baroque orchestra Rebel performing an aria from Bach’s St. John Passion, with tenor Rufus Mueller. The historical instruments lend a brightness and transparency that is quite unique.
We’ll then go to a modern performance of an historic work: the chamber orchestra A Far Cry playing Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. They bring a unique perspective to the music of Bach, playing it on modern instruments.
Finally, we arrive at the most modern work of the bunch: contemporary composer David Ludwig’s Aria Fantasy for Piano Quartet. It takes some careful listening to hear, but the piece is actually based on Bach’s famous Goldberg Variations; you may hear quotes from the various movements creep in throughout the work.
Work for solo piano by Haydn performed by Sonia Chan on January 20, 2001 and work for string quartet by Haydn performed by Musicians from Marlboro on April 27, 2014.
In the 1770’s and 80’s, Haydn found himself in a situation familiar to many artists: how to balance his day job with his budding career? Granted, Haydn’s day job was musical as well. He was the Kapellmeister, the musical leader, of the Esterházy musical establishment.
But this steady gig came with strings attached: Haydn’s contract prohibited him from accepting commissions from any external source. The piano sonata written in 1771 demonstrates Haydn’s continuing musical growth. It was his very first piano piece to bear the “sonata” title, and it was longer and displayed more serious emotion than many of his earlier works.
In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract to allow him to accept outside employment, and things began to change. His Opus 50, number 1 string quartet was among the fruits of this highly creative and productive period. The Opus 50 quartets were commissioned in 1784 by Haydn’s new publisher, though it took him a while to complete them. He finally delivered the manuscript to his publisher in 1787.
Works for solo piano by Beethoven and Schumann performed by Paavali Jumppanen on April 13, 2008 and May 4, 2014.
The pianist Paavali Jumppanen is a longtime Gardner Museum favorite, and this podcast features him performing two piano works that show that opposites attract: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90, and Schumann’s Humoreske in B-Flat Major, Op. 20.
Beethoven considered titling this sonata “Struggle Between Head and Heart,” and there is a feeling of opposing forces throughout much of the first movement, labeled (in German) “With vivaciousness, and continuous sentiment and expressivity.” The music starts powerfully, with bold chords, but this muscular, strong emotion is repeatedly interrupted by gentler motifs in a minor key. At only 13 minutes, the sonata is one of Beethoven’s shorter works, but there is much musical delight packed into this diminutive piece.
We’ll then hear Schumann’s Humoreske, a set of short piano pieces, each about 3 to 5 minutes long, designed to be played together. The piece is likewise a study in extremes. The piece vacillates from joy to melancholy to great tenderness, and sometimes in the space of less than five minutes. In all, the set lasts some 25 minutes. It’ll be preceded by the Beethoven sonata.
Work for string quartet performed by Musicians from Marlboro on April 12, 2014 and works for voice and piano by Harry Burleigh performed by New York Festival of Song on October 14, 2012.
An advance warning: this podcast program may have you humming all day long. Our program features eminently sing-able works by two composers: Dvorak and Harry Burleigh.
We’ll start with Dvorak’s Cypresses for string quartet, an instrumental piece based on a set of songs the composer wrote as a young man, settings of the poetry of the Moravian writer Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky The poems are steeped in the emotion of young love. Some movements also touch on the deep pain felt when a first love is lost. The string quartet arrangement has 12 brief movements, totaling about 20 minutes. The performance we’ll hear is by Musicians from Marlboro.
Then, we have performers from the New York Festival of Song, offering up a number of short works by the African-American composer and arranger Harry T. Burleigh. In the 1920’s, Burleigh’s songs and arrangements of spirituals were immensely popular recital fare. The selections we’ll hear include both originals, such as the first piece “A Birthday Song,” and arrangements, including “Steal Away” and “Stan’ Still Jordan.” The podcast ends with all three singers—sopranos Julia Bullock & Dina Kuznetsova, and baritone James Martin—performing “O Rocks, Don’t Fall on Me.”
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