Monday, July 1, 2013

New Year Sabbatical: Some Romantic Notions

The Fiscal New Year Sabbatical continues for at least one more day!

Five Years Ago in The Infinite Art Tournament!

Every once in a while I think it would be interesting to try to write about classical music.  Today's rerun comes from July 1, 2008, and was from a short series called "Classical Wednesdays."  

I've argued before that one of the advantages of cultivating an interest in classical music is that it holds still, relatively speaking.  A list of favorite rock bands from five years ago would look pretty long in the tooth if I dug it up now.  This list of favorite 19th century music is still as fresh and shiny as it was the day I made it.

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!


pfly said...

Wait, the theme in ''Variations on a Theme by Haydn'' isn't by Haydn? And (looking it up), no one knows *who* wrote it? I had no idea! I like that Brahms piece and know it well, but didn't know that.

Michael5000 said...

Yep. I think it's called the "St. Anthony's Chorale," and nobody really knows where it turned up first. Right purty, though.