Grieg, Lyric Pieces and Songs

EDVARD GRIEG! I was wondering why his name sounded so familiar. The reason is because I accompanied my friend, Lacey, when she sang “Solvejg’s Song” for piano class. He was Norwegian.

The most notable Norwegian musical element that is found in Grieg’s music is his use of the raised fourth scale degree that descends chromatically to the natural fourth scale degree. According to Jon W. Finson, “The device translates the scale often used on the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.”

His Lyric Pieces are a collection of 66 pieces for piano, all relatively brief. The first piece, Arietta, was Grieg’s favorite. It’s lovely, lilting, flowing and calm. He used it’s theme in his last lyric piece, Efterklang (Remembrances) in a Waltz style.

I can see why the first piece is his favorite, but I don’t think that he did it justice in Efterklang. At first, I thought that Grieg should have just left Arietta alone and forgotten the whole waltz twist of Efterklang, but on second listen I decided that the nostalgic aesthetic of Efterklang is so appealing that it perfectly wraps up his epic collection of piano pieces. See for yourself:


Efterklang (Remembrances)

Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky bases this piano suite on the artwork of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, who was as passionate about Russian nationalism as Mussorgsky. He died of an aneurysm at a young age and his over 400 of his works were shown at a posthumous exhibition which Mussorgsky attended. The experience moved him so deeply that he composed the piano suite in an attempt to depict the works created by Hartmann.

While the suite was originally composed for piano, many composers have revamped it to be performed by a full orchestra, the most popular version being that of Ravel.

Like the other five composers of the “Mighty Handful” (Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin), Mussorgsky’s work is rich with Russian nationalism. What’s interesting about this piece is that it doesn’t derive its nationalistic qualities directly from Russian folklore, folksongs and histories, but uses art as a primary resource for these themes. In other words, he is still using a ton of nationalism in his work but he is accessing it by means of nationalistic artwork.

Strauss, Rosenkavalier, Act I

While Strauss’s first two operas were controversial enough to repel the audiences of his time period, his opera Rosenkavalier was a pretty huge success. This is probably because he gave up on writing his own libretti and handed that baton off to a poet named Hofmannsthal.

This opera was popular from the premier in 1911 onward. The only criticism that it evoked was for his use of waltzes which were out of style in that time period.

I think that’s a little silly. Do we still dole out criticisms for music that’s out of style? How could we if we listen to music as old as this? I’ve never heard of a composition being criticized for that in modern times, but maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

My favorite part about Strauss’ music is that it really suits the voices of some of my favorite sopranos, among them, Kiri Te Kanawa.

Wagner, Parsifal, Act III

Wagner was a big fan of fusing various elements of opera together. This resulted in what became termed “music dramas” – operas in which the musical poetic and dramatic elements merge. The orchestra plays a huge role in his operas: he uses leitmotifs which are basically little themes that are used to represent various characters or emotions in the opera. With the use of these leitmotifs, the orchestra rises to the dramatic level of the singers on stage, which makes Wagner’s operas more connected in drama and music (get it? music drama).

The orchestra being such a huge part of the opera is probably what makes Wagner so tough to sing. Wagnerian singers are a rare breed in this era. Back in the time of Wagner, every soprano might as well have been a Wagnerian soprano but now that we know that such heavy singing can completely wipe out some people’s voices, categorizing fachs can come in handy and save careers.

Parsifal has a pretty involved plot. Wagner was really into philosophy and read a lot of Schopenhauer – this carried into his libretto for Parsifal, which is based off of the legend of the Holy Grail. Hearing act III without any context is weird. By jumping into the storyline without all the background of the first two acts, both dramatic and musical elements such as the leitmotifs lose their impact and the listener is more or less lost in a sea of confusion.

Verdi, Don Carlos, Act IV

Verdi was primarily known for his operas. He wrote 28 of them and they all have beautiful, mostly diatonic music.

This is probably Verdi’s longest opera. Most times, I can’t happily sit through three hours of entertainment at one time. It can be done, but it’s not something I categorize as entertainment (more in the realm of torture). This opera contains about four hours of music altogether. Four. Hours.

Not to mention the plot is insanely heavy – it’s as if there is no break in the melodramatic storyline. Like I said, for an hour and a half to two, I could do it. NOT four. I imagine it as being a show that would alter one’s entire day due a plot line as dense and dramatic as Schiller’s play, Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien, a historical tragedy.

Honestly, the music is beautiful, but I would never want to see this opera.

Clara Schumann, Three Romances for Violin and Piano, op. 22, no. 2

Clara has always held a special place in my heart ever since I sang her lied “Liebst du um Schoenheit”. She was a very self-conscious woman who was, like every female composer of her time, severely discouraged from pursuing composition as a career. Nevertheless, they were somewhat considered a married composing “team” by other composers of their time (I say this only because Gustav Mahler referred to them this way in a rather distasteful manner).

While she was married to Robert Schumann, Clara had a strong friendship with Brahms. There is no historical evidence that they had an affair, and they really might not have, but I’m pretty convinced that Brahms was totally in love with her. He asked her for advice on his compositions – he asked a woman for advice – he was in love with her.

Just like Fanny’s trio, the piano is very flowing with lots of broken chords which gives the entire piece a very romantic aesthetic. Unlike Fanny, Clara put didn’t do so much with repetition and sequences, which I prefer a lot. Fanny’s trio kind of bored me in this respect whereas Clara’s really drew me in and held my attention.

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Trio for Piano and Strings in D Minor, Op. 11

Fanny Mendelssohn was a cool lady. She was equipped with more education than most women were privileged to in her time and got a lot of her music published (thanks to her brother, Felix – many of her pieces were published under his name) which was nearly impossible for women. She was discouraged to pursue composition as a career, but she did it anyway. See what I mean? COOL LADY.

I love this trio. The rolling piano is pretty and romantic sounding which is fine, but a little boring. Then the strings come in and it’s suddenly a whole new world for my ears. The piano is a lot of rolling chords and walking arpeggios up and down the keyboard which makes a nice backup to the strings with the melody. The piece also switches textures and tempos which is refreshing for the listener – not too static and predictable.

Rossini, Guillaume Tell

This is Rossini’s last opera, even though he lived long after its completion. The plot’s basis is somewhat unoriginal: forbidden love, how daring.

Act II is essentially about the forbidden love being professed between lovers and then some vengeance.

No matter how expected the plot is, the music is undeniably beautiful and written perfectly for voice. Rossini is known as one of the quintessential bel canto composers (along with Bellini, Donizetti, etc.) and thus while the orchestration in the overture is very famous, what strikes me most is the way that he shows of the voice.

When the voice enters into the picture, the orchestra backs off in a way that really lets singers sound their best without potentially blowing themselves out. As a voice major, it’s pretty easy for me to appreciate this kind of writing.

La Cenerentola

Admittedly, I had never heard of this opera until recently. In summary it is an opera buffa based on the fairy tale of Cinderella – not a totally original idea, but executed in a beautiful and entertaining fashion. The music is very cheery and seems to pay special attention to the vocal line.
Everyone’s role seems to be somewhat vocally demanding: extensive melismatic passages and coloratura is required of every character and the spectrum of vocal range is splayed in the stratosphere and depths of each singer’s register. As an audience member and as one who studies voice, this makes the opera that much more entertaining to watch; not only do the audience members have the opportunity to appreciate musicianship, plot and composition, they also are prepared to drop their jaws in impressed wonder at the (hopefully) finely crafted pyrotechnics of the singers on stage. Such detailed vocal lines clearly aren’t the only way to a successful opera and in some cases might be totally inappropriate, but in this case I think it helps make the opera.
It is interesting that the character of Cinderella isn’t exactly featured in this act. Instead she shuffles about in the periphery of the plot of the stepsisters and their horny attempts to throw themselves at the prince. The text and music don’t reveal much about Cinderella’s emotions or aspirations – perhaps this is just as well. In the story, Cinderella is pretty neglected and doesn’t really have a say in anything she or anyone else does and what better way to convey this by not giving her a say about anything in the actual opera? Rossini, you crafty devil, you.
Anyway, here’s a picture of Cinderella:

Schubert’s Trout

The theme and variations section was a beautiful embellishment of the well-known tune die Forelle. As far as the performance of the lied, my favorite performer thus far has to be Ian Bostridge. He looks a little creepy and looming in this presentation but his phrasing is gorgeous. Watch it!!!

That being said, I almost prefer the quintet to the sung version. I don’t totally prefer it because I’m a sucker for pretty singing, but it’s a close call. There is such beautiful imagery in the instruments. As cheesy as it sounds, I interpret the piano part (delicate, flowing but brisk) as the water and the strings (the violin in particular) as the trout swimming merrily through it. Schubert does a fantastic job at using text painting in the melody to illustrate the darting about of the trout in the brook and weaves the instruments together in a way that makes the piece feel somewhat “swim-like” in instrumentation.