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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Piano Quartets by Richard Strauss and Johanness Brahms

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Piano Quartet in C minor, opus 13, by Richard Strauss

A few weeks ago I compared Clarinet Quartets by Mozart and Brahms to show what each reveals about the historicity of music, and how composers can use notes outside the key signature of a given piece to emphasize chromaticism (from χρώμα, color) over diatonicism (διατονική, notes belonging to the prevailing key). Chromaticism abounds in these piano quartets by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms. From program notes to Strauss’ Piano Quartet, by Eric Bromberger:

in 1883, at the age of 19, Richard left college and moved to Berlin to study music, and in the process he discovered a new model: Johannes Brahms. Brahms was at this point only 50 years old and at the height of his powers – his Third Symphony had just been premiered, and he was about to begin his Fourth (in fact, Brahms and the young Strauss would meet at the premiere of the Fourth Symphony in October 1885).

Under the new influence of Brahms, the teenaged composer began his Piano Quartet in C minor in the spring of 1884 in Berlin and completed it later that year. This music shows an unusual fusion of musical personalities – the sobriety and grandeur of Brahms are here wed to the fire and impetuous virtuosity of the young Strauss. The Piano Quartet is a big piece (35 minutes), it has a rich, dark sound, and it develops its ideas with a blazing energy.

The quiet opening of the Allegro is deceiving, for the music will quickly explode in a shower of energy, and that sharp contrast may be a key to this sonata-form movement: moments marked con espressione or tranquillo will instantly give way to superheated passages marked molto appassionato or agitato. This opening movement is the most “Brahmsian” in the Quartet, particularly for its dark sonority, its development of small thematic motifs, and its dramatic scope – the movement drives to a close that is virtually symphonic in conception and sound.

The Scherzo, marked Presto, is full of quicksilvery motion and a great deal of energy, especially in the pounding octave drops that recur throughout. A flowing trio section leads to a return of the opening material, and Strauss recalls a bit of the trio section before the movement whips to its Prestissimo close.

After two such powerful movements, the Andante brings a measure of calm. The piano’s lovely opening idea gives way to the viola’s lyric second subject, and Strauss extends these two themes gracefully. The concluding Vivace returns to the mood and manner of the opening movement. Its fiery beginning, full of sharp edges and syncopated rhythms, leads to the cello’s calm second theme (molto con espressione, specifies Strauss), and these two ideas are developed at length – and with a great deal of virtuosity – before the music hammers its way to the conclusion on a firm C-minor chord.

The Piano Quartet in C minor was premiered in Weimar on December 8, 1885, and the following year it won first prize (among 24 entrants) in a piano quartet competition sponsored by the Tonkünstlerverein of Berlin. But this music represents a direction the young composer did not choose to follow. With his Violin Sonata of 1887, Strauss would say goodbye forever to chamber music: ahead of him lay the great tone poems, which wed a slashing orchestral virtuosity with the most vivid pictorial imagination. Chamber music (and the influence of Brahms) were no longer of interest to him, and this Piano Quartet – trailing clouds of Brahms – represents one of the last moments of Strauss’ youthful apprenticeship before he discovered the path to his own musical independence.

Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor opus 60, by Johannes Brahms

And from Russell Steinberg’s website, here are Secrets from the Brahms Opus 60 Piano Quartet:

The great C minor Piano Quartet, op. 60 shows the art of a lion tamer and is easily one of Brahms’ finest achievements. He began the piece while living with Clara Schumann and helping run the Schumann household while Robert was in the mental asylum. Brahms was candid that the brooding quality of the piece was a direct reference to Werther, Goethe’s Romantic hero of unrequited love who eventually commits suicide. To his publisher he wrote, “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose. Since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That was the exact description of Werther and 20 years later Brahms was able to joke about his hyper-passionate feelings.

The piece was originally in C# minor, the key used by E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous character, the hypersensitive composer Kreisler (on whom Schumann wrote his famous piano suite Kreisleriana). So it is transparent that Brahms was embroiled working out his growing feelings for Clara amid the tragedy of Robert.

The name of Clara appears immediately in the musical notes, based on Schumann’s own musical motto for Clara—C#-B-A-G#-A, which Brahms in his revisions transposed in C minor to: Eb-D-C-B-C. A discerning ear will hear this motto and variations of it throughout the piece.

But for us this is significant mostly in that it took Brahms 20 years to sort this all out in a piece of such ambitious Beethovenian grandeur. Changing the key of the piece to C minor itself is a Beethovenian move, and the quartet certainly recalls the drama and fate motives of Beethoven’s C minor pieces. The finale deliberately recalls Beethoven’s stormier piano sonatas (op. 2#1 last movement particularly) as well as quotes of the 5th symphony motto. And placing the slow movement after the Scherzo can’t help but recall Beethoven’s similar decision in the 9th symphony.

The two overriding compositional ideas in the quartet are the sigh figure and the octave. The sigh’s two descending notes imbue gloom and expression, while the octave lends a power and drama. Frequently these ideas are bound together. The piece begins with octaves in the piano followed by the sigh figure in the strings. The second phrase begins a full step lower, as if the piece has literally fallen, and thereby creating a sigh figure on a longer structural level between phrases. The opening of the Scherzo is an octave followed by the sigh figure inverted (going upwards). The slow movement descends in an arpeggio down an octave followed by an inverted sigh. With Brahms’ technique of developing variation, it is not an exaggeration to say all four movements are a continual evolution of these two ideas bound tightly together.

Yet a deeper unifying “secret” of the work lies embedded in its harmonic construction. Strange moments seem to subvert the tonality of C minor. For instance, after the opening bars comes a suspended moment where the viola plucks E natural, a note that is as distant from C minor as possible, confusing our ear as to whether we are in C minor or C major. This E natural becomes in the highest sense of the word, an “irritation” that accumulates as the movement develops, until in the recapitulation when a significant passage modulates entirely to E minor. The third movement of the piano quartet itself is in E major.

This subversion of C minor with E is a telltale that there is a bigger harmonic game going on beneath what at first might seem standard classical structure. What Brahms has done is to organize the entire work around an augmented triad—C-E-G#, far more than a traditional minor triad—C Eb-G. The augmented triad is the “key” that unlocks so many of the strange and wonderful harmonic and melodic impulses of the work. Sometimes the sound of the augmented triad is on the musical surface—such as the opening theme of the slow movement G#-E-C-A etc. Most other times, though, the augmented triad is the secret underpinning of larger progressions, such as the areas of the development section in the first movement around a G augmented triad—G-B-Eb.

Whence the hidden augmented triad structure? My hunch is that the augmented triad is the fusion between the original key of the piano quartet—C# minor—and the finalized key—C minor. A C# minor triad is the notes C#-E-G#. A C minor triad is the notes C-Eb-G. A tonic “fusion” of these two would be the augmented triad C-E-G#. Similarly, the “fusion” of the dominant chord would be G-B-D# which is precisely the structure Brahms uses to alternate throughout the quartet.

This may seem overly technical, but there is a poetic idea behind it. C# minor was the key that represented for Brahms the suicidal unrequited lover. C minor was the key of Beethoven that represents heroic struggle. Brahms used the fusion of these two harmonic centers as a device to represent the powerful music drama of this piano quartet.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Grieg Piano Concerto, performed by Leif Ove Andsnes, Leonard Slatkin conducting

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Last night I saw the Grieg Piano Concerto performed by Marc-André Hamelin with the Seattle Symphony. I thought I was done with big, gushing romantic pieces like the Grieg concerto, but it was outstanding. Hamelin was amazing. Not that I know a lot about what makes one virtuoso better than another … they all just play so damn fast!

Here is Hamelin himself playing Chopin’s Minute Waltz, Debussy’s Feux d’artifice and Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. This last piece is quite good, and if you’re wondering how Liszt wrote a Petrarch sonnet for the piano (I was), here is an article by Andrew Fowler that explains what Liszt set out to do.

Also on the program last night was a world premiere by the composer Sebastian Currier. Divisions is an orchestral piece I rather liked, particularly a weird sequence near the beginning in which a chord played by the entire (or most of the) string section was bent to waver a few times before the orchestra continues the same discordant dialogue as before. To give you a sense of Currier’s style, here also is a violin concerto called Time Machines that is pretty great. Performed by Anne Sophie Mutter, who is always worth listening to.

And here is the composer being interviewed about that last piece, with some interesting observations about “objective time” and “psychological time” and the way music is the optimal medium for exploring this (with comparisons to film and television). Here is another, more general interview, beginning with a selection from his String Quartet, New Atlantis and including comments about a piece based on a poem by Wallace Stevens.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Frank Sinatra, Live at the Seattle Civic Auditorium in 1957, Full Concert

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

In the Billie Holliday post from last week, I noted that one of her biggest fans was Frank Sinatra, who even picked up some of her style by dropping just behind the beat in some of the phrasing.

So: in an effort to bring Big Jon back to the site, here is a complete recording of Frank’s 1957 concert at the Seattle Civic Auditorium (where McCaw Hall presently sits).

Several commentators have remarked that this is an even better recording than the famous show at the Sands a few years later, and I completely agree. Nelson Riddle conducts the orchestra through a fantastic set list, and Frank works in some pretty good jokes along the way. He’s clearly having a great time.

1. Introduction / You Make Me Feel So Young
2. It Happened in Monterey
3. At Long Last Love
4. I Get a Kick Out of You
5. Just One of Those Things
6. A Foggy Day
7. The Lady Is a Tramp
8. They Can’t Take That Away From Me
9. I Won’t Dance
10. Sinatra Dialogue
11. When Your Lover Has Gone
12. Violets For Your Furs
13. My Funny Valentine
14. Glad to Be Unhappy
15. One For My Baby
16. The Tender Trap
17. Hey Jealous Lover
18. I’ve Got You Under My Skin
19. Oh! Look at Me Now

From the YouTube Music Video Archives, Special ZORRO Edition: Hurrian Hymn n°6, performed by Michael Levy

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

While somewhat concerned that I’m putting that Kierkegaard quotation to the test, I’m also especially anxious to please ZORRO (though for whom perhaps only displeasure is pleasing). To that end, I’ve dug up one of the most ancient pieces of music recovered so far—a Hurrian Hymn from 1400 B.C. As Michael Levy writes,

This unique video, features my first of 2 arrangements for solo lyre, of the 3400 year old “Hurrian Hymn no.6”, which was discovered in Ugarit in Syria in the early 1950s, and was preserved for 3400 years on a clay tablet, written in the Cuniform text of the ancient Hurrian language – The Hurrian Hymn (catalogued as Text H6) was discovered in Ugarit, Syria, in the early 1950s, and was preserved for 3400 years on a clay tablet, written in the Cuniform text of the ancient Hurrian language – except from a few earlier Sumarian fragmentary instructional musical texts from c.1950 BCE (Musical Instructions for Lipit-Ishtar, King of Justice) the Hurrian Hymn it is the oldest written song yet known, in History!

Although about 29 musical texts were discovered at Ugarit, only this text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction.

In short, the Cuneiform text clearly indicated specific names for lyre strings, and their respective musical intervals — a sort of “Guitar tablature”, for lyre!

Although discovered in modern day Syria, the Hurrians were not Syrian — they came from modern day Anatolia. The Hurrian Hymn actually dates to the very end of the Hurrian civilisation (c.1400BCE) . The Hurrian civilization dates back to at least 3000 BCE. It is an incredible thought, that just maybe, the musical texts found at Ugarit, preserved precious sacred Hurrian music which may have already been thousands of years old, prior to their inscription for posterity, on the clay tablets found at Ugarit!

My arrangement here, is based on the that the original transcription of the melody, as interpreted by Prof. Richard Dumbrill. Here is a link to his book, “The Archeomusicology of the Near East”:

It is played here, on a replica of the ancient Kinnor Lyre from neighbouring Israel; an instrument almost tonally identical to the wooden asymmetric-shaped lyres played throughout the Middle East at this amazingly distant time…when the Pharaoh’s still ruled ancient Egypt.

A photograph of the actual clay tablet on which the Hurrian Hymn was inscribed, can be seen here:

The melody is one of several academic interpretations, derived from the ambiguous Cuneiform text of the Hurrian language in which it was written. Although many of the meanings of the Hurrian language are now lost in the mists of time, it can be established that the fragmentary Hurrian Hymn which has been found on these precious clay tablets are dedicated to Nikkal; the wife of the moon god.

There are several such interpretations of this melody, but to me, the fabulous interpretation just somehow sounds the most authentic.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Doo-Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Because nothing … nothing says the sensuous in its elemental originality like Lauryn Hill singing that thing, that thing, tha at thi i i ing … although there’s nothing especially abstract about that yellow dress. Or the black and white dress, for that matter, or the moves, or the horns that kick the song off, or the rap that just crushes everything other than maybe one of Ice Cube’s (I especially love it when she patters Showing off your ass ’cause you’re thinking it’s a trend, as if calling out Miley Cyrus and all the coprophagists who’ve actually turned it into a trend) …

Where was I? Right … Lauryn Hill. I heard three different songs of hers on the radio last week, which was enough to give me hope that she was going to be putting out a new album. Very sadly, that is not the case. But I dug out the old Fugees albums and Miseducation and have been listening to them all week.

For Korrektiv readers who may not know Lauryn Hill so well, this brief history in the form of music videos are worth your while. Here she is in 1987, thirteen years old, getting booed during Amateur Night at the Apollo. Here she is a few years after that singing His Eye is on the Sparrow in Sister Act 2. While in high school she joined up with Pras and Wycleff Jean and started going by “L Boogie” in the Fugees … here they are murdering the same Apollo Theater, and here they are on Jools Holland doing Killing Me Softly.

Then came the deluge of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, including Ex-Factor, Everything is Everything, Zion, and even an old Frankie Valli song … just scratching the surface of the album with these …

Four years after Miseducation she did a complete 180° with a double album of new songs live on an MTV Unplugged special. Not everybody liked it, some people hated it, but there are some great songs, including Adam Lives in Theory, which, even if you can’t bring yourself to appreciate the song, you’ve got to admit is one of the best titles ever.

After that she didn’t come out much new material, except an odd song here or there for a soundtrack or such like. The Man busted her for taxes a few years ago, and if the youtube videos are an accurate indication she’s been hitting the concert circuit pretty hard recently. Here she is in 2012, backed up by The Roots and blowing the roof off Philadelphia. But if you have to watch just one Lauryn Hill video, Live in Japan 1999 is it.

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Take My Hand, Precious Lord, as sung by Mahalia Jackson

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

There’s a great moment in Selma when MLK is up in the middle of the night, anxious about a speech he has to give the next day, or maybe the march. So he does what many of us might do, which is listen to music. Except instead of putting his earbuds in and queueing up the iPod, he calls up Mahalia Jackson at 4AM and asks her to sing a spiritual for him. She accepts this as a perfectly normal thing to do, or at least something that makes perfect sense, given the times. So she sits up on the edge of bed and sings Take My Hand, Precious Lord. It’s quite the moment, so much so I assume it has to be true. Apparently a vocalist named Ledisi actually sings it in the movie, which I have to say is pretty amazing too. Don’t want to say it’s more amazing than Mahalia, but it’s worth a listen. Lastly, here is the studio version by Mahalia Jackson, which is … something. Seems like a good song for the first Friday of Lent.

Frank’s Biggest Fans

as far as I can tell, right now anyway, are Mark Steyn and Bob Dylan. Steyn has been posting his take on Sinatra’s take on the Great American Songbook. Here is an overly long quotation I especially like:

Not all icons survive death: I think of Leonard Bernstein or Bob Fosse, both at their passing the most celebrated practitioners in their respective fields, or Bing Crosby, the biggest selling recording artist of all time at the time he left us, and these days little more than a guy who gets played on the holiday channels in the month before Christmas. Either because of inept stewardship of the legacy, or a reputation that depended on live presence to maintain the conceit, or a combination of both, even the most dominant pop culture celebrity can dwindle away to the point where a decade later on no-one can quite recall what all the fuss was about. With Frank Sinatra, the opposite seems to have happened. When the gravelly old bruiser of the global stadium tours finally expired in 1998, it made it easier for a younger generation to see the man in his prime: the best singer of the best songs by the best writers in the best arrangements. Just about everything short of his morning mouthwash gargles has been excavated, digitally remastered and released on CD.

Well said, as usual. Frank’s other big fan at present is Bob Dylan, who recently recorded an entire album of songs sung earlier by Sinatra. NPR has included a link to Stay With Me to accompany the question, Diamond in the Rough or just Rough? I say Diamond, but then I would. Steyn—again, as far as I can tell—loathes Dylan, and I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Looking forward to whatever anybody else has to say as well.

“Paul and Mick both said absolutely not.”

Bob Dylan almost made an album with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones

They could have been the Korrektiv of rock n roll!

Hymn to St. Cecilia by Benjamin Britten

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.
All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.
I shall never be Different. Love me.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.
O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.
O cry created as the bow of sin Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.
O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again.
O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

~ Words by W.H. Auden

From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

We had some fairly stormy weather today in Seattle—one of those wind storms that turns your umbrella inside out. Pretty funny when it’s somebody else’s, not so funny when it’s your own. I was going to try to find some sturm und drang to mark the occasion, but then I realized that what I really wanted was an antidote rather than more of the same. So today’s diapsalmata features one of the highlights from Così fan tutte. Mozart was of course Kierkegaard’s exemplary composer of sensuous in its elemental originality, and the exemplary work is of course Don Giovanni. To my knowledge, Kierkegaard doesn’t refer to Cosi anywhere in his writing, but others certainly have. I was reading Slavoj Žižek the other day, and came across this, from Opera’s Second Death:

“In all three of these stages [aesthetic, ethical, and religious], the same sacrificial gesture is at work, each time in a different power/potential (in Schelling’s sense of the term). The religious sacrifice is a matter of course (suffice it to recall Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac, Kierkegaard’s supreme example), so we should concentrate on the renunciation that pertains to the ethical and the aesthetic:

The ethical stage is defined by the sacrifice of the immediate consumption of life, of our yielding to the fleeting moment, in the name of some higher universal norm. In the erotic domain, one of the most refined examples of this renunciation is provided by Mozart’s Così fan tutte. If his Don Giovanni embodies the aesthetic (as was developed by Kierkegaard himself in his detailed analysis of the opera in Either/Or), the lesson of Così fan tutte is ethical—why? The point of Cosi is that the love that unites the two couples at the beginning of the opera is no less artificial, mechanically brought about, than the love of the two sisters for the exchanged partners dressed up as Albanian officers that results from the manipulations of the philosopher Alfonso—in both cases, we are dealing with a mechanism that the subjects follow in a blind, puppetlike way. Therein consists the Hegelian “negation of negation”: First, we perceive the artificial love, the product of Alfonso’s manipulations, as opposed to the initial, authentic love, and then we suddenly become aware that there is actually no difference between the two. So because one love counts as much as the other, the couples can return to their initial marital arrangement. This is what Hegel has in mind when he claims that in the course of a dialectical process, the immediate starting point proves itself to be something already mediated, that is, its own self-negation; in the end, we ascertain that we always and already were what we wanted to become, the only difference being that this always-already state changes its modality from in-itself into for-itself. The ethical is in this sense the domain of repetition qua symbolic; if, in the aesthetic, one endeavors to capture the moment in its uniqueness, in the ethical a thing becomes what it is only through its repetition.”

Soave sia il vento
Tranquilla sia l’onda
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai nostri desir

May the wind be gentle,
may the waves be calm,
and may every element
respond kindly
to our desire