Gustav Mahler said that symphonies should be like the world and that they must embrace everything. This is, of course, statistically impossible (unless I’m missing the bits in Mahler about Hillbilly Hand Fishing), but that doesn’t mean that the percentage that actually did make it in couldn’t include a wide range of musical styles. In his attempt to encompass everything under the sun, Mahler crafted symphonies and song cycles that speak to an ever-increasing group of people. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that his symphonies are as popular as Beethoven’s now, and if I would said that 65 years ago, I would have been kicked in the groin by men in pork-pie hats.
Gustav Mahler seems like a bit of a dick. Perhaps it’s easy for me to sit here casting judgment from my 6’1’’ body having recently spoken to my all-still-alive siblings and non-alcoholic father while patently not being one of the greatest musical geniuses of all-time, but Mahler seems to have been enough of an asshole to make us consider renaming the Napoleon complex. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, but I’ve grown weary of the “Alma was a whore and poor Gustav suffered greatly by her infidelity” narrative that seems to be everywhere I turn. Now I’m not saying Alma is a gold digger…but she ain’t messin’ with no broke members of the Viennese cognoscenti circa 1900-1920. But wouldn’t you have blown some architect guy if you spent a prime decade of your life quitting your own music to write manuscript copies for somebody else and then having to put up with their bullshit? I know I would, and I don’t even like buildings and shit. Anyway…
Four, count 'em four, voices!
The chorale is a hymn sung in Christian congregations, particularly Protestant denominations. Usually in simple strophic forms or the German Bar (AAB) form commonly found in Bach chorales, they are often harmonized in four or five voices. Over the course of time, it began to include purely instrumental sections of music that maintained the characteristics of the hymns (four voice harmonies, simple tunes, etc.). By way of example, some works with instrumental chorales in them are Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Chausson’s Symphony in Bb.
Mahler employed the chorale frequently in his works, both with voice and without, in spite of his seemingly bewildered sense of agnosticism. There is probably at least one in every symphony he wrote if you look hard enough (or not that hard). But there are two that really stand out for me, so let’s put them to the test. Continue reading
Franz Liszt was the greatest pianist of his generation, a renowned composer, and one hell of a nice guy. His contributions to the symphonic poem influence composers to this day. They just renamed the Budapest Airport after him.
George Enescu was a composer, conductor, violinist, and explorer of folk music. The list of his violin students is mighty impressive (Menuhin, Grumiaux, Haendel, Ferras). The village in Romania where he is born is now called George Enescu.
A Rhapsody is an episodic, free-flowing work that does not necessarily adhere to any formal structures. It is a favorite compositional style of the Romantic period, as unrequited love and tragic heroism also do not follow any formal structures.
Liszt wrote 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano, six of which were arranged for orchestra by Franz Doppler with revisions by Liszt himself. The most famous of the bunch is the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. Enescu wrote two Romanian Rhapsodies for orchestra, the Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 being the more popular one. This will essentially be a BCS-type clash between #1 and #2. Continuing in the spirit of the BCS, Alfven’s sublime Swedish Rhapsody #3 has legitimate complaints about its omission from the contest and may file an antitrust lawsuit. Continue reading
It’s possible you’ve heard of Mozart. He wrote some symphonies, some operas, some piano concerti and sonatas, some chamber music, and some choral music. He is the subject of a movie that won 8 Academy Awards (ironically, the Best Actor award included the actors playing Mozart and Salieri, and Salieri won. Proving that historical fact always gets the last laugh, F Murray Abraham would later star in a film called “Blood Monkey.”). Mozart rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of music.
Gabriel Faure was the foremost French composer of his day, and served as the head of the Paris Conservatoire, where he taught Ravel, Enescu, and Boulanger among others. His music utilizes inventive harmonies and really sets the tone for Impressionism. Faure rests firmly on the Mount Rushmore of mustaches.
The Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, is a liturgical setting from the Roman Missal used to commemorate the repose of the souls of the deceased. It is comprised of 12 sections, beginning with the Introit and concluding with the In paradisum. Not all musical settings of the Requiem Mass incorporate all 12 sections, and many switch the order of the sections around, including the two represented in this Showdown. Continue reading
The dedicatee of some of the greatest music in the repertoire (both Shostakovich Concertos, the Khatchaturian Concerto, and two Sonatas by Prokofiev), Oistrakh is widely considered the finest violin master in the history of Russia.
The Undisputed King of Bach, Milstein had a 72-year performing career (his debut came in the Glazunov Concerto…with the composer conducting), playing well into his 80′s. His memoir, From Russia to the West, also shows that he ran in an unbelievably cool circle of friends.
The concerto by Johannes Brahms is one of the hallmarks of the violin repertoire. Written for the legendary Joseph Joachim, it is a technically demanding showcase for the soloist, but it is also as musically rich as anything Brahms ever composed. Continue reading
Just wanted to alert readers here (hi, members of my extended family!) of two new features I intend to get going in this space in the coming weeks. The first is a charming little game called Showdown, whereby we arbitrarily fight a mythical battle between two musical figures. They could be composers, conductors, performers, writers, whatever. Not unlike the 10 Best lists, they are subjective, frivolous, and an incredible waste of time. But they are also an incredibly effective way to think about, say, Handel and Mendelssohn, when trying to determine who is better/cooler/more bad-ass. In an ideal world, there would be some feedback, because that’s the entire point of a smackdown in the Oxford dictionary definition. You think I sold Gilels short in his battle with Joshua Bell? Say so.
The second new feature that I want to have here is something I call “5-7 questions with a smart person.” In this scenario, I find someone I consider smart. I e-mail them some questions. They are thought-provoking, powerful, transcendent questions that will reveal stunning revelations into the recipient’s psyche. Or they might be things like “what’s the coolest concert you ever went to?” Whatever. Don’t worry about it. Just keep your fingers crossed that you are (or maybe keep your fingers crossed that you aren’t) one of the smart people I’m targeting. I’m pointing my right index and middle fingers at my eyes. Now I’m pointing that same index finger at my computer screen. You are on the other side of that computer screen. See what I did there?