Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2

Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension. The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 1

The music Beethoven wrote during his first few years in Vienna shows a young man first learning the basics of the Viennese style and then trying to make his distinctive mark in it. He deliberately produced works in all of the genres current there, including six string quartets written between 1798 and 1800, published as op. 18. By that time, he had learned the basics of the style of Mozart and Haydn and had started the process of transforming it. In the sonata forms of the earlier masters, the recapitulation, as we call it now, presented all of the thematic … Continue reading

Miserere, by Henryk Górecki

In 1994, when I was living and teaching in the Chicago area, one of my graduate students, a member of the Lira Chamber Chorus, invited me to one of the group’s concerts at St. Mary of the Angels Church on the northwest side of Chicago. The entire concert would be devoted to new choral works by Henryk Górecki. I had never heard of him and found it intriguing that an entire concert would consist of the works of one living foreign composer. For most of the program, the Lira Chamber Chorus made up only part of a massed choir, collaborating … Continue reading

Jeu de cartes by Igor Stravinsky

After beginning his career as a very Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky became an international composer in at least two very different ways. First, he decided never to return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917. Although he lived in France, he traveled a lot. By the time he moved to the United States in 1939, he had already made numerous contacts. Second, he opened himself to influences from all over the world. Despite the French title, Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes (Card Game) on commission from American choreographer George Balanchine and the newly formed American Ballet in 1936. By that … Continue reading

Second symphony, in D major, op. 73, by Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms composed his second symphony during the summer of 1877, only a year after finishing his first. Although close in time, the two symphonies differ greatly in character. The stormy and dramatic first symphony took Brahms an agonizing 15 years to complete. The warm and lyrical second symphony flowed easily from  his pen. As he wrote to Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” Brahms enjoyed teasing friends about the progress of his works with misleading comments, such as the following. The new symphony, too, is merely a Sinfonie, … Continue reading

The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives

One thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals. Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby. After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions. Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, … Continue reading

Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini

Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera. He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided … Continue reading

St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates. What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism. As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his … Continue reading

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók

Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years. The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944. As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became … Continue reading

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73

In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion. On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled … Continue reading