Monday, July 31, 2006

In The Moment, Part 2

In the previous article on this topic, I introduced the concept of a “moment” in music; a time in a piece in which for a short time the piece seems to reach its emotional climax. It’s the stretch of the music that we all anxiously await and seems to capture everything that the piece is trying to be.

We identified a few examples: the recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the recapitulation in the first movement of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, the cadenza from the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, the recapitulation from the Mars chapter of Holst’s The Planets, and the flute “solo” in the 4th movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony.

Let’s continue the list, still sticking with classical music. Well, I’m a pianist by heart and I’ve always loved fumbling my way through the great concertos, so, once again, I’ll cite a piano concerto. Piano concertos tend to be generally beloved in the classical repertoire, and composers themselves often regarded their piano concertos to be of their most important works, so I guess I don’t feel too guilty about it. This time, I want to discuss the finale of the 1st Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky. The concerto itself is one of the most revered pieces for pianists, but many tend to focus on the first movement. Rightly so, as it is 20 or so minutes of treacherous, but equally beautiful music (the opening theme is one of the more famous ones in all of classical music). However, focusing solely on this first movement forgets two other wonderful movements, the second with a romantic theme as good as Tchaikovsky has ever penned, and the third a boisterous allegro firmly rooted in the Russian romantic style.

In this third movement, we are first introduced to the main theme – a pseudo-scherzo bouncing around between the notes themselves as well as the pianist and the orchestra. After the movement settles down, the second theme is introduced by the orchestra and then repeated by the pianist. It is this theme that I wish to focus on.

It is repeated once more in this fashion a few minutes later, before the final interlude leading to the climax. This interlude features strings working their way up the scale using the first 4 notes of this second theme. When it finally reaches the peak, the piano takes over with a blistering set of octaves (what we pianists all trained for). And then, similar to the moment in the Rachmaninoff cadenza, the “pause”. The pianist and the orchestra take a quick breath before crashing down in unison to repeat the theme once more. In my opinion, despite the greatness of the first movement, the whole concerto is summed up in these 30 seconds, as the piece races to its finale a few seconds later. In addition to its majesty, I also believe (but can’t prove) that at least 2 other notable concertos, the Grieg Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, use the exact same technique, copied from this moment. Let’s take a listen [TCHAIKOVSKY EXCERPT].

Let’s move on with one final (final!) example from a concerto. This time, however, I’ll choose another instrument: the violin. There are a few violin concertos regarded as the greats – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky are all in that club. Another of the most popular is that by Mendelssohn. It’s main theme is another example of those classic melodies that most have heard and will never die, the violin singing it on top of the orchestra to open the concerto. This theme appears throughout the opening movement, but never in more beautiful a fashion as its reprise coming out of the cadenza. The cadenza begins with a series of arpeggios of varying tempos reaching the stratosphere of the violin’s capabilities. Remember these faster arpeggios for a moment as the violin moves into trills, double stops, and octaves. Once again these arpeggios return, slowed down at first before settling into the main tempo. Finally, the orchestra, led by the woodwinds, returns for a quick recapitulation of the main theme, and for about 15 seconds there is a perfect harmony between the violin and orchestra, the soloist and accompaniment, and the melody and harmony. And topping all of that off is that it all happens with one of the most beautiful melodies in all of classical music. [MENDELSSOHN EXCERPT].

Ok, enough with the concertos already! Let’s move to a pure orchestral piece and an extremely famous one at that. This piece is one of the more odd pieces in classical music – it’s form and function was so different than mostly anything we’d seen before. Maurice Ravel started Bolero as a commission for a Spanish ballet, and it ended up being a single-movement orchestral piece, starting from a soft snare drum (which repeats for the entire piece), gradually building up before the final climax and completion. The piece is predominantly in C Major, but towards the end, for only 8 bars, it switches to E Major before returning back to C Major for the ultimate finale, in which the bass drum finally enters after 15 minutes of absence. It’s this ending sequence which I find so fascinating. The piece is setup such that the audience gets almost hypnotized by the ostinato rhythm of the snare drum and repetition of the melody. For the bulk of the piece we are in this trance, until finally in the last minute he changes the key, leading to that final climax to the ending chord (B-flat chord down to the C). If you sit through the entire piece, it feels almost like a release of all the energy building up throughout – a complete musical catharsis. A great moment. [RAVEL EXCERPT].

There’s so many more pieces I can select to round out my list, but there are other things to talk about and we haven’t even left classical music yet, so I’ll give you one final moment. This is another interesting one, in that it has two versions, an original version for piano and numerous orchestrated version(s) (by other composers). While there are a handful of examples of this happening, I’m speaking of perhaps the most famous, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote the piece for solo piano, and our friend from earlier, Maurice Ravel, orchestrated it many years later. The piece itself is a fascinating journey through musical interpretations of the art by Viktor Hartmann, though he composed it for a fictitious exhibition, which, when an exhibition actually did occur, only three of the works for which Mussorgsky composed music were displayed. The piece goes through numerous moods and styles, generally connected by a theme called the “Promenade” to represent walking from once piece to the next. The last two pieces are translated as “The Hut of Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate Of Kiev”. This last work has to do with a celebratory gate that Hartmann had designed for Tsar Alexander II, which was never created. As a result, Mussorgsky made it his most majestic piece of the suite, erupting from a torrid descending glissando to end off “Baba Yaga”.

The piano version is powerful enough, crashing down chord after chord to its end. However, in Ravel’s version, the entire orchestra with bells and percussion is tough to top. There’s very little setup needed for this, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end this series than with the final bars of this piece, the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. [MUSSORGSKY EXCERPT].

Well, there you have it. 9 of what I consider to be the great “moments” in classical music. I hope you enjoyed the list and also the listens. There are of course countless others, and, in many ways, it’s arguable that every piece has its moment. Once again, enjoy the moment!

Recommended recordings:
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1in Bb Minor. Van Cliburn, Kiril Kondrashin, RCA Symphony (RCA Victor)
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E Minor. Yehudi Menuhin, William Furtwangler, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI)
Ravel – Bolero. Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony (Decca)
Mussorgsky – Pictures At An Exhibition. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony (RCA Victor)


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