Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Classical Wednesdays VI: Get Romantic, Sucka!

Last week, Classical Wednesdays covered the Romantic Era. Which was great. But I know you've been walking around frustrated ever since, thinking to yourself "But what specific Romantic Era pieces might I start with?" Well, it's time to let that anger go, because this week it's time for the Romantic suggestions.

The Romantic Era: Conventional Choices

Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto: Mendelssohn, who did most of his writing in the 1830s and 1840s, was considered a conservative composer in his day. If you have been listening to lot of Mozart and Haydn after we talked about the Classical era, though, the difference of style will be plentifully obvious to you. In the Mozart Concerti I talked about last time, you always get a minute or two of jaunty introductory material from the orchestra before the solo instrument makes its entrance. Here, Mendelssohn gives the orchestra about three seconds to set the mood before the violin announces itself with a dramatic line that feels at once sobbing and soaring. Through the rest of the first movement, there will be plenty of crashing orchestral passages, yet the whole thing maintains a melancholy tenderness that is pure Romanticism.

If you pay close attention, you’ll hear some interesting tricks in the construction – there’s a bit, for instance, where the orchestra as a whole takes over the solo line, and the solo violin essentially plays the accompaniment. It took me decades to notice that stuff, though, and this is certainly not a piece that needs to be dissected to be appreciated. A must!

Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn: The theme, it turns out, wasn’t really by Haydn, but whatever. When a serious composer writes “variations,” they dig into the deep, theoretical structure of the melodic line they are toying with, so it’s not just a matter of speeding it up, slowing it down, having the bassoons play it, and adding a few extra notes the fourth time around. Just from listening, there’s no real way for an amateur like me to tell what the eight variations have to do with the original theme. But that doesn’t really matter. This piece has a wistful, autumn sweetness to it, and it has a real grandeur without being off-putting. It’s not at all challenging, and that’s just fine.

Dvorak, Slavonic Dances: The Czech composer Dvorak was by all accounts a real regular guy, and of all the major composers his music has the highest ratio of joy to angst. He was also one of many Romantic composers who were excited by the ideas of nationalism percolating in late 19th Century Europe, and he was among the first to actively mine the folk music of his country for melodies and tonalities. The Dances were a product of this interest.

The Slavonic Dances were originally composed as piano pieces to make some cash in the sheet music market, and later orchestrated to be short concert pieces. With that pedigree, they really should suck. But they are actually a lot of fun: rambunctious, high-spirited, a bit goofy, and unabashedly noisy. (They were such a money-maker that he wrote some more of them later. The second set isn’t as good, so make sure you get the opus 46 set, not the opus 72 set.)

Borodin, Polovetsian Dances: In an inverse of Romantic nationalism, a Russian composer imagines the culture of the people of the Central Asian steppes. Colorful and exotic, it is rotten musical anthropology but a vigorous and exciting guilty pleasure as pure music.

Mahler, Symphony #1: One of the last great composers of the Romantic era, Mahler still worked with the basic forms inherited from the classical era but pushed them to extremes. Even this, his first symphony (of nine), is a big, sprawling experiment in sound and texture. The first movement coalesces very gradually out of a indistinct, mysterious soundscape, with several minutes already gone by the first time we hear a recognizable theme. That theme, though, is a lovely one, well worth the wait. Keep an eye out for the third movement too, with its crazy minor-key rendition of “Frere Jacques” that periodically degenerates into something that sounds like a German academic’s concept of a New Orleans funeral. Cooooool.

Off the Beaten Path

Lalo, Cello Concerto: Dvorak has the most famous Cello Concerto, but minor-leaguer Maurice Lalo wrote the best one. From its knock-you-out-of-your-shoes opening fanfare to the sonic strangeness of a warp-speed waltz that keeps cropping up unexpectedly in the slow movement, this Concerto offers a smashing showcase for the loveliest of the string instruments. It also captures a wistful, joyful nobility that is characteristic of the finest works of the Romantic Era.

Dvorak, Requiem: Dvorak is such a fun, joyful composer so much of the time that his more serious and somber stuff often gets overlooked. The Requiem is pure symphonic power. Sweeping, hard-hitting, and emotionally austere, this is devotional music on a massive scale. Warning: Contains choral parts.

Sibelius, Symphony #5: The great Finnish composer conjures up themes of the most sweeping pop sensibility, but never turns them into show tunes. Sibelius is continually setting up your expectations, but then undercutting them and sending the music in surprising new directions. In the final movement, the elusive main theme builds up enormous tension before finally resolving in one of the most singular endings in the symphonic literature.

Schumann, Fantasiestucke. Short, but very sweet. A light-spirited but just slightly melancholy duet for cello and piano, it is just possibly the most charming piece of chamber music ever written.

Got some suggestions of your own? Related to music of the Romantic Era, that is? Put 'em in the comments!


Yankee in England said...

How oh how did you know that I have been walking around frustrated ever since, thinking to myself "But what specific Romantic Era pieces might I start with?" No really this week I think I might take a walk down to my public library, which I must say is very lovely compared to my back of the woods no where library in Kansas where they looked at you funny for wanting anything that was not by Dean Koontz or Daniell Steele, and see if I can't find any of the music you have suggested

Elizabeth said...

The last movement of the Sibelius is one of my all-time favorites, and the key change at about 2-3 minutes in especially. Gives me goosebumps every time. I used to turn the stereo up as loud as it would go for that part and put my head right up against the speakers so the music would wash through every cell in my body.

Check out this on YouTube - complete with visual effects at the right moment! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLOig_N14Dg

Another favorite of mine is Grieg's "Holberg Suite" - I used to play it when I was depressed and it would cheer me up.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

My dad's a very well-cultured college professor, so he tried to have Classical Music Night when we were kids. The whining was all he could handle, so there was only one Classical Music Night. Shit just couldn't compete with Atari.

Rex Parker said...

Ooh, LALO. Good crossword answer.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if these fall into the category, but Sibelius' FInlandia is wonderful, as is Dvorak's cello concerto.
And Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto and the 1812 Overture, though I (blasphemously) hate the cannons.

Michael5000 said...

@Yank: That's the spirit!

@Elizabeth: Thanks for the link. Anybody who pumps up the volume for Sib#5 is all right in my book.

@Dr. Ken: Classical music and computer games are not mutually exclusive. When I'm on a Civ jag, I like to turn off the game music and instead play classical music appropriate to my empire. Doesn't really work with the Carthagianians, though.

@Rex: Good letters, but "Composer of michael5000's favorite cello concerto" would be a weak clue.

@karma: They all fall into the category. I like Finlandia, too; it is also historically interesting as a piece deliberately created to inspire Finnish nationalism.

I love Dvorak and I love cello concerti, but the Dvorak cello concerto has never done much for me. My loss. It is generally regarded as a masterpiece.

The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto has its detractors -- it's structurally clumsy -- but it's clearly a great piece of high Romantic music. (The Violin Concerto, for my money, is the best Tchaikovsky Concerto, for its sheer Eddie Van Halen style fireworks).

The 1812 Overture -- I shall not mince words with you, Karma -- was a hack job. Tchaikovsky hated the assignment, and hated what he wrote for it, and for good reason: it is a clumsy and amatuerish piece of writing. And, yes, I like it too! It is 5000 times better with a choir, though -- WAY too many recordings leave out the choir.