Grieg’s Lyric Pieces

May 6th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Of the 66 short songs written for solo piano as a part or Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, I randomly chose three to listen to for this Blog.  The first recording that I encountered was from Book I, op. 12-3 entitled Watchman’s Song. From that titled I would have expected something very different.  To me, the term watchman conjures up images of a night guard, perhaps in uniform, perhaps on patrol.  This song, however, reminded me of early morning, a hazy light, dew on the grass – a picture much more sublime and calming than I would have guessed.  Watchman’s Song seems to speak more of a metaphorical watchman of nature or the earth than a hired guard for a fortress.

The second piece that I listened to was op. 43, Butterfly. Even shorter than Watchman’s Song, Butterfly brings to mind the image of an ever moving, fluttering, beautiful butterfly.  There are moments when you can hear the butterfly land for a moment on a branch, or pause hovering for a short moment over a flower, but then he quickly takes flight again on the gentle breeze.  This type of piece seems very programmatic to me.  I think it would very difficult to say that this song has no extra musical associations, especially in a short piece with a very specific title.

The third and final song that I listened to was Op. 54, No. 3 Troltog or March of the Trolls. My first reaction to this piece was that it strangely reminded me of listening to a song entitled In the Hall of the Mountain King.  After looking this second piece up, I realized sort of sheepishly that In the Hall of the Mountain King was also composed by Grieg.  In my defense, I only heard this song while in Elementary school music class.  There was a music game that went along with the song that was my class’s favorite activity.  I find it interesting that never having studied Grieg’s music and only hearing his other composition as a young girl, I subconsciously found such a strong underlying musical connection between his works.  I guess this could be called a musical style, but I’ve never so instantaneously heard the stylistic similarities between two works of a composer without first studying what the characteristics were and then listening for them.

Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition

April 30th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The first version of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky that I listened to was the orchestral arrangement by Ravel. I found it to be very exciting and grandiose in style. I especially enjoyed some of the passages with the brass instruments. I didn’t realize until doing some more digging that the original composition by Mussorgsky was for piano alone. The piano version is certainly stunning in its own right but the work lost some of the grandeur that I had felt while listening to the orchestral arrangement. Perhaps it would have been better had I herd Mussorgsky’s original intention before listening to Ravel’s version.However, the complicated technical aspects and the intimacy of Pictures at an Exhibition were much more apparent in the piano version.  This in a way makes Mussorgsky’s original composition more impressive than Ravel’s arrangement. Leaning that Mussorgsky had no real formal musical training makes this composition even more remarkable.
This piece does in some aspects sound Russian in character, which is what I would assume Mussorgsky, and other Russian composer contemporaries of his time were striving for. However, I don’t find it too much at odds with other instrumental music of Western Europe that was being composed around the same time period. This is especially true when listening to Ravel’s orchestral version. I guess one could argue that since Ravel is from France, of course it would sound similar to other Western European compositions. However, Ravel did take Mussorgsky’s original composition to base his arrangement off of.  My question this is why Ravel would choose to do this? I would assume that to some degree, Ravel felt a connection with this particular composition. This leads me to believe that Russian music, however nationalist it might be, was still accessible to a more Western audience who followed the musical “rules” Russia was trying to break away from. While I enjoy this composition and other Romantic Era Russian compositions, I don’t think it’s quite as different as the “Mighty Handful” would have hoped. Romantic Era is about the Avant-Garde, pushing boundaries, and creating new styles and Russia was just one more piece to the puzzle.

Der Rosenkavalier

April 24th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I greatly enjoyed listening to the opening act of Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. I really enjoyed the comedic aspects along with the beautiful melodies that seemed to flow effortlessly in and out of each other. I found it particularly interesting that while this opera was written in the beginning of the 20th century, it was set in 18th century Vienna and used a woman to play the part of a young man. Many operas written during the 18th century, such as Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, use pants roles to portray young men. It seems as though since he used a similar time setting, he thought the pants role would be fitting in this situation as well.

I did some research on this opera and found a very informative and fascinating web page sponsored by the San Diego Opera. The San Diego Opera Company presented Der Rosenkavalier at the beginning of this month and put together this informative web page to educate and excite (and I’m sure also to promote) future audience members. The website includes behinds the scene footage, a panel with the artists, sound clips from parts of the opera and a segment called “Opera Talk” which I found to be the most helpful. Opera Talk is approximately a half hour and discusses the history of how Der Rosenkavalier came about, early performances, a plot, favorite recordings and DVDs and even goes through and highlights particular musical ideas to listen for if you see the entire opera.

I was fascinated to learn that even though Der Rosenkavalier is set in an older time period, it was still considered very provocative for its day. Strauss apparently loved to shock his audiences and some things that he wasn’t allowed to actually show in the action of the opera he portrayed instead in the orchestra. For example, the overture supposedly very vividly portrays what is going on in the bed of the two lovers. When the curtain opens, Marschallin and Octavian have just finished their tryst, which we didn’t see but we certainly heard. I didn’t pick up on this at first, but I definitely heard it after listening a second time. I also found it interesting that Strauss used Viennese waltzes which were not actually in the style that would have been used in the 18th century. While these waltzes are anachronistic they appear only when a character is lying or attempting to get away with something. In addition, Strauss uses leitmotif figures for each of the characters.

I don’t think I would have picked up on these features on my own, but once I knew about them it was a lot easier to hear them. It also gave me something to listen for which made the experience much more engaging. I think it is valuable to do a little research about an opera or a musical work before you go see it, even if it is not absolutely necessary. The little bit of work makes the entire musical experience even more enjoyable.

Wagner’s Parsifal

April 16th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Parsifal is Wagner’s final ‘opera’ and I would put definitely put this, along with Wagner’s works, under the category of music drama. While listening to act III, I strongly noticed the importance of the orchestra as in other Wagner masterpieces. The orchestra is very full and rich and often plays for long periods of time while no one is singing. Instead of just accompanying, the orchestra really serves as part of the narrative of the story. In addition to the grand orchestra, there are definitely very long and beautiful melodies sung by the singers. I can see how Bellini may have influenced Wagner in this regard. I found the Good Friday Music from act III particularly stunning.

The story line deals with the holy grail, the spear that pieced Christ’s side, spells and potions. While some might call this a sort of religious story telling, it also has many elements of myth, which along with the big orchestra is often associated with music drama. I found this very interesting synopsis of Parsifal on YouTube. Instead of a normal written synopsis, someone in a rather monotone voice tells you the story line while a badly animated video “shows” you what happens. It is mildly confusing but I have noticed that most Wagner operas have confusing plots and the animation does help to keep different characters straight at the very least.

From just listening once to Act III I didn’t pick up on any leitmotif material. However, I looked it up and as it (unsurprisingly) turns out, Parsifal is full of leitmotifs. While leitmotifs are extremely common within Wagner’s works, he uses a different style in Parsifal than in the Ring Cycle. I found a very interesting and informative website which explains the style which Wagner used while composing Parsifal in comparison to some of his earlier operas in addition to a leitmotif guide to the entire opera.

Verdi’s Don Carlo

April 10th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I really enjoyed listening to act IV of this opera.  Personally, I love Verdi opera style and have seen/heard a few, but this was my first time listening to Don Carlo that I remember.  Like most of Verdi’s operas that I have listened to it, it has a very commanding feel to it.  The interplay between the voices and the orchestra in the duet was especially striking.  I noticed a lot of things that we had talked about with the act II duet from La Traviata within this duet.   For example, there was the conversation feel, very different moods and emotions emanating from the two different characters, and the orchestration that helped to develop the inner feelings of the characters.

I found this really interesting article online from TIME magazine, which discusses the Met production of Don Carlo that was broadcast live in HD this past December.   The article equates this opera to Shakespeare’s King Lear.   While many of Shakespeare’s plays can and are performed by very amateur groups, King Lear really takes seasoned professionals.  Don Carlo also needs very commanding and experiences singers to pull off a credible performance.  Due to its difficulty, this opera is not performed as often as some other Verdi operas, but when it is, it is apparently quite a show.  I did not get a chance to see the Met broadcast but would like to someday.  I’m sure it was quite spectacular.

The second half of the article also includes the beginning of a synopsis that cuts off right when the plot begins to thicken.   While I understand a news article may not want to spoil the ending, I wanted to hear the rest of the story.  I found a full synopsis on the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hansel and Clara Schumann

March 19th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I really loved the Fanny Mendelssohn-Hansel Trio for Piano and Strings in D Minor. The opening Allegro was exciting and had a lot of driving, forward moving motion. Yet at the same time, she incorporated beautiful, yearning melodies that seemed to emerge from all of the excitement. The second movement (Andante espressivo) was simply lovely. The strings entering in rhythmic unison and then splitting into more separate lines moved me. Again, she created beautiful melodies that seemed to organically emerge from the texture and then sink back as they were absorbed, only to emerge again later. The third movement (Leid: Allegretto) had a delightful, light, hopping melody that began in the piano and was imitated later by the strings. It reminded me of a late afternoon, carefree stroll through the park or along the beach. The fourth and final movement (Finale: Allegro Moderato) had much more grandeur than the previous movements. At times it had a sort of “tango” feel to it and others a slightly lopsided waltz feel. It was like an evening that couldn’t decide what it wanted to do, but it would be a grand evening. The four movements created a fabulous, colorful picture for me that I really enjoyed.
Clara Schumann’s op. 22, no. 2 Romance for Violin and Piano is a delightful piece. I love the interplay between the Violin and Piano. Sometimes it seems as if they are teasing or flirting with each other. The give and take of the melody and the tempo give this piece a really playful and fun spirit. It seems to flow effortlessly but with a wink here and a wink there thrown back and forth. It reminds me of the beginning of a new and exciting relationship.
This may seem silly, but I feel special connections to Fanny and Clara more so than to most male composers.  I give then a lot of credit for what they did because I know that it must have been doubly difficult. I found that during the readings, I was getting mad at the men in their lives that were against their compositions and performances. This is especially true in Fanny’s case, but also in Clara’s. While they did receive from some a remarkable amount of support considering the time period, I find it a shame that both probably would have had the opportunities to be even more productive, or at least take more credit for their work, had they been men. They are obviously very talented musicians and if they had been born in a different era, perhaps we would see even more of what they had to offer. That being said, both women a profound impact on women in the music world and I give them a lot of props for that.  I am very happy that, even though a bit late, both women were able to meet.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell

March 11th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I find that William Tell contrasts a lot with La Cenerentola, a Rossini opera that we listened to last week.  There are of course, many similarities, but being that the same person wrote them, I thought there would have been more.  In what I listened to, I didn’t hear the same long, difficult, melismatic passages that just seemed to appear everywhere in La Cenerentola.  I am assuming I am probably missing many musical parallels having only really listened to one act of each opera one time. 

The fact that this opera is originally in French really surprised me.  I guess it shouldn’t, now that I know more about the opera world during this time period and that Rossini spent a good deal of time in Paris.  However, I would say that about half of the recordings that I found are in Italian, which is what I always assumed the opera was written in.  I find it interesting that it seems completely acceptable to perform this opera in either of the two languages.

I found this to be a really fabulous example of Romantic era ideas.  From a setting in the middle ages to, peasant characters, to the ending “hymn to nature and liberty,” it’s an opera that incorporates many elements in one.  I found a really great plot synopsis online on the National Public Radio website.   In an article that actually precedes the synopsis, they discuss the phenomenon of operatic “tunes” that become famously completely outside of an opera context, the overture to William Tell being a prime example.  Indeed, while I have heard the overture countless times during my life, I don’t think I have ever listened to the opera and I certainly didn’t know what it was about.  The npr article also has a link to a really great rendition of the act II trio that I highly recommend.

Rossini’s La Cenerentola

March 7th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I really enjoyed listening to Rossini’s La Cenerentola.  As a vocal performance major, I have to admit that I tend to be more biased towards vocal music, especially opera.  I feel as though I can often connect to it more so than with purely instrumental music.  This is not always the case, but I do love opera.

I found the overture to be a very exciting introduction to the opera.  As with other students in the class, I could follow “The Archetypical Rossini Overture” outline that we discussed in class on Thursday.  Starting with the slow introductory section all the way through to the multiple cadences at the end, it was a pretty easy fit.

Before I started listening to the first act, I found a plot synopsis online on the Metropolitan Opera website.   This helped me to follow the melodic implications of the vocal lines.  I love that this opera takes an age-old tale and continues to make it interesting.  Some of the details of the plot are different from other Cinderella stories that I have heard, but I like that it is just a little bit different.  It’s comic, but not overly so.   The singing is full of fun (but difficult) melismatic passages.  I find it very interesting that Rossini chose to have Cinderella be sung by a mezzo-soprano.  Often, the lead feminine character is written for a soprano, but I think in this case, it was a very artistic choice to write this opera for a mezzo.  Personally, I love Cecilia Bartoli in this role.  This clip is from the Act II but if you have time check out Bartoli singing “Non piu mesta.”   She beautifully executes the incredibly difficult melismatic passages that I mentioned earlier.

Schubert, Die Forelle; Piano Quintet in A Major (The Trout), D. 667

February 27th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I have to admit that when I first started listening to this piano quintet I was not very interested.  The first three movements, to me, were nice but not particularly enrapturing.  It seemed like nice background music, but not something I would personally want to sit and listen attentively to at a concert.  However, my interested was perked during movement IV and definitely grabbed during movement V, the final movement.

When the fourth movement began, it seemed very familiar to me.  I think I may have heard it somewhere else before as a separate entity removed from the entire quintet.  The familiarity of movement IV is what I think perked my interest.   It was then that I really started to enjoy the quintet.   I went back later and re-listened to the entire composition starting at the beginning.  I realized that on my second time through, I enjoyed the first three movements just as much as I did the last two (although movement V is still my favorite.)  This made me wonder if I enjoyed it more on the second time through because I was more attentive, or simply because I had already heard it once before that.

I find the name Die Forelle (The Trout) so perfect for this piece.   I didn’t really register that this piece was call The Trout until after I finished listening to it, but I kept envisioning moving water scenes (rivers, stream, etc.) in my head while I was listening.  I can easily see a trout wriggling its way through a river.  As a singer and a dancer, sometimes it is hard for me to imagine scenes that are made purely with instruments without the help of poetry or dance.  I also find that often, I come up with a different scene or picture in my head than what the composer intended.  I appreciate that I could easily follow Schubert’s idea.

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Op. 123

February 20th, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Kyrie begins Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Op. 123 very brightly but almost with a sense of contained emotion. This section features a lot of back and forth between the chorus and the soloist in an almost choppy style, but often strongly emphasizing the word Kyrie. Kyrie is repeated three times by the chorus and soloists during both repetitions of Kyrie eleison, which I would assume is a reference to the holy trinity.
The Gloria begins in a loud, exciting, grandiose style with full chorus. The orchestra is playing fully and has a very melismatic accompaniment. After the opening, it suddenly drops to piano, exercising what I would consider terraced dynamics. The orchestra and choir play and sing in almost hushed tones with staccato notes and then suddenly rush back to forte and the excited tones used in the beginning. There is an oscillation between the two until the four soloists start a sweeter, more flowing section. This is again followed by the grandiose style from the beginning. The rest of the Gloria continues to flip flop between loud, grand, and full and a more subdued and sweet which to me seems almost dizzying. I find both appropriate for a Gloria but wish that the changes were not so often or abrupt. As I got further into the Gloria, the changes in mood were no longer surprising and exciting but almost expected.
While the Credo continued to use the idea of dramatically switching moods and dynamics levels, I think it was managed to greater effect. I felt that longer phrases helped make the musical ideas seem more coherent. Personally, I really loved the solo section in the middle of the Credo. The melodic interplay between the voices was stunning. The full chorus and then again the soloists nicely end the Credo with a mood that seems full of wonder and excitement. Of the three sections, the Credo was my favorite.