CHAPTER 7:  Absolute Music

 

LISTENING LIST 7.1

Listening Guide 7.1.1

Historical Background

Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: Russian

Life and work: Born into a military family, Tchaikovsky became a music theory professor and music critic before gaining fame as a composer and conductor.  He eventually went on the conduct the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City and received a generous annual pension from the czar.  Many of his compositions have been beloved ever since his death.

Symphony No. 4, op. 36

I. Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima (1878)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 18 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-allegro (Introduction, 0:24; Exposition, 1:44; Development, 9:14; Recapitulation, 12:38; Coda, 16:04).

Comment: A great restlessness permeates the music, which keeps changing key and tempo; the result is something at once private in its uniqueness but public in its memorable tunes, which, as is common in Russian music at this time, are often repeated.  You’ll hear the second theme during the exposition at 5:44 and during the recapitulation at 13:11.

Listening Guide 7.1.2

Historical Background

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work: Born to a musical family, Mozart became a famous child prodigy and, under the guidance of his father, toured Europe with his sister, also a brilliant pianist.  Eventually, Mozart settled in Vienna, Austria, where he was a freelance musician.  Though he had some notable public successes, he often struggled financially.  His posthumous fame has far exceeded anything he experienced in his lifetime.

Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 “Prague”

I. Adagio--Allegro (1786)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 12 minutes and 25 seconds

Mode: major

Form: sonata-allegro (Introduction, 0:00; Exposition, 2:51; Exposition repeat, 5:31; Development, 8:13; Recapitulation, 9:52).

Comment: As always, listen for the second theme: it’s like the second most important character in a novel (or opera) after the first theme’s protagonist.  You’ll hear the second theme in the exposition at 4:20 and 7:01 and in the recapitulation at 10:45.

Listening Guide 7.1.3

Historical Background

Composer: Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Russian

Life and work: Though from a musical family, Stravinsky’s father did not want him to pursue music.  Nonetheless, before he was thirty, Stravinsky was in demand as a composer, a demand he sustained until he died.  Perhaps the most celebrated composer of the twentieth century, he was also active as a conductor of his music. 

Symphony in C, I. Moderato alla breve (1940)

Instrumentation: orchestra

Duration: 9 minutes and 45 seconds

Mode: major, freely tonal

Form: sonata-allegro (Introduction, 0:00; Exposition, 0:39; Development, 3:54; Recapitulation, 5:53; Coda 1, 8:06; Coda 2, 8:58).

Comment: You can hear the second theme during the exposition at 2:32 and during the recapitulation at 7:16.

LISTENING LIST 7.2

Listening Guide 7.2.1

Historical Background

Composer: Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: Austrian

Life and work: Born to a musical family, Mozart became a famous child prodigy and, under the guidance of his father, toured Europe with his sister, also a brilliant pianist. Eventually, Mozart settled in Vienna, Austria, where he was a freelance musician.  Though he had some notable public successes, he often struggled financially.  His posthumous fame has far exceeded anything he experienced in his lifetime.

Piano Concerto K. 466 in D minor, I. Allegro (1785)

Instrumentation: piano and orchestra

Duration: 15 minute and 15 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-concerto (Expositions, 0:57—orchestra, 3:42--with piano; Development, 6:44; Recapitulation, 8:31; Cadenza, 11:51).

Comment: One of Mozart’s most famous concertos, the piano actually enters “early” here with a lovely solo before the orchestra joins it for the second part of the exposition at 3:42.  The second theme, omitted from the orchestral exposition, can be heard at 4:48 and in the recapitulation at 9:58.

Listening Guide 7.2.2

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37

I. Allegro con brio  (1803)

Instrumentation: piano and orchestra

Duration: 16 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-concerto (Expositions, 0:08—orchestra, 3:39--with piano; Development, 7:30; Recapitulation, 9:40; Cadenza, 12:56).

Comment:  One of Beethoven’s great “C minor” works, the fifth symphony being another example, the stormy third piano concerto sealed his status as a great composer of piano concertos.  The second theme can be heard at 1:40, 5:16, and in the recapitulation at 10:35.

Listening Guide 7.2.3

Historical Background

Composer: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: German

Life and work:  Born into a musical family, Brahms worked as a pianist and choir director before achieving fame as a composer.  During the height of his career, he was regarded as a standard-bearer for traditional musical values in an age that placed too much emphasis on flashy originality and formal ambiguity.  His music has remained in the repertoire since his death.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, op. 15

I. Maestoso (1858)

Instrumentation: piano and orchestra

Duration: 22 minutes

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-concerto (Expositions, 0:07—orchestra, 4:10--with piano; Development, 10:41; Recapitulation, 13:57).

Comment:  Brahms’s massive first piano concerto takes nearly an hour to perform.  Indeed, it was not well received at its premiere, given its high-minded, symphonic character: the piano is no mere flashy soloist here and the orchestra no backup band; the two are integrated to a degree rarely seen before.  Indeed, Brahms even forgoes a cadenza.  The second theme appears first in the piano exposition at 6:55 and then in the recapitulation at 16:55. 

Listening Guide 7.2.4

Historical Background

Composer: Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: American

Life and work: A child prodigy on the piano, Beach was well-known as a composer and pianist around Boston, where she lived.  After her marriage, she limited her musical activities, following her husband’s wishes.  Nonetheless, she was highly regarded, and she herself gave the premiere of this piano concerto with the Boston Symphony.

Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, op. 45

I. Allegro moderato (1900)

Instrumentation: piano and orchestra

Duration: 18 minutes and 5 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: sonata-concerto (Expositions, 0:00—orchestra, 1:24--opening cadenza; 2:55--exposition with piano; Development, 7:31; Recapitulation, 12:15; Cadenza, 15:25).

Comment:  One of the first American piano concertos, Beach’s work compares well with the great European works of the era.  Indeed, its four-movement structure, unusual for concertos, invites comparison with Brahms’s second piano concerto, and the opening cadenza (1:39) recalls Beethoven’s fifth.  But Beach has a sound of her own, certainly rooted in the traditional American music she was familiar with.  The second theme can be heard at 5:38 and in the recapitulation at 12:50.

 

LISTENING LIST 7.3

Listening Guide 7.3.1

Historical Background

Composer: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a non-musical family, Handel’s talent and determination saw him to the top of the London musical world, where he made his name writing Italian opera.  After competition bankrupted his opera company, he reinvented himself by pioneering the oratorio, a composition that resembles an unstaged opera with a prominent chorus.  His music has been a staple of the repertory ever since his death.

“The Harmonious Blacksmith”

from Suite No. 5, HWV 430 (1720)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 5 minutes and 20 seconds

Mode: major

Form: theme and variations (Theme, 0:00; Variation 1, 1:03; Variation 2, 1:54; Variation 3, 2:38; Variation 4, 3:21; Variation 5, 4:03).

Comment:  The theme and each variation follow a structure called “simple binary,” which consists of two sections of music, each repeated—thus, A-A-B-B.  Unlike rounded binary (see Listening Guide 2.3.2), the main theme does not return toward the end of a simple binary structure.  The following chart shows the timings for the binary sections of the theme and the first two variations.

Listening Guide 7.3.2

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Sonata op. 109

III. Songlike, with deep inner feeling (1820)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 11 minutes and 50 seconds

Mode: major

Form: theme and variations (Theme, 0:00; Variation 1, 2:00; Variation 2, 3:47; Variation 3, 5:10; Variation 4, 5:36; Variation 5, 7:55; Variation 6, 8:48; Return of theme, 10:39).

Comment:  The piece starts out using simple binary.  Some of the variations, however, do not present the form in its traditional way, preferring to fantasize widely on the original theme.  Here are the timings, however, for the binary sections of the theme and the first variation; the timings for the “loose binary” sections of the second variation are given as well.

Listening Guide 7.3.3

Historical Background

Composer: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Era of music history: Romantic

Nationality: German

Life and work:  Born into a musical family, Brahms worked as a pianist and choir director before achieving fame as a composer.  During the height of his career, he was regarded as a standard-bearer for traditional musical values in an age that placed too much emphasis on flashy originality and formal ambiguity.  His music has remained in the repertoire since his death.

Variations and Fugue

on a Theme by Handel, op. 24 (1861)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 26 minutes and 20 seconds

Mode: major and minor

Form: theme and variations.  After the theme, Brahms composes twenty-five variations, the last of which is followed by a concluding fugue.  Timings for all the variations can be found on the YouTube page below. 

Comment:  Until the fugue, the piece uses simple binary throughout.  Here are the timings for the binary sections of the theme and first two variations. 

The piece closes with a fugue.  A fugue is (usually) another single-melody piece.  A single strand of music introduces the main theme (the “subject”), and other strands—usually two or three more—enter one at a time, imitating or reproducing the original subject.  The music, therefore, often lacks the clear foreground/background distinction found in most of what we listen to.  For more on fugue, see Listening List 7.4.

LISTENING LIST 7.4

Listening Guide 7.4.1

Historical Background

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: German

Life and work: From a profoundly musical family, Bach was employed as a musician by churches, royal courts, and schools throughout his life.  While he had a prestigious position at the end of his life, his music was almost entirely forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Contrapunctus 1

from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 (ca. 1745)

Instrumentation: string quartet

Duration: 3 minutes and 10 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: four-part fugue. 

Comment:  Bach worked on The Art of the Fugue, one of his most celebrated compositions, over the course of the last ten years of his life.  He did not finish the piece, and he left the instrumentation unspecified.  The present fugue is the opening movement of the piece.  Each movement is a fugue that uses the same subject, but in different ways, in an attempt to demonstrate the contrapuntal possibilities latent in one particular subject.  Here is a chart detailing the first exposition and episode.

Listening Guide 7.4.2

Historical Background

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Era of music history: Baroque

Nationality: German

Life and work: From a profoundly musical family, Bach was employed as a musician by churches, royal courts, and schools throughout his life.  While he had a prestigious position at the end of his life, his music was almost entirely forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Toccata in C minor, BWV 911 (ca. 1717)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 10 minutes and 55 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: A “toccata” is a long keyboard work in distinct sections.  This one starts with an improvisatory section (0:00) and continues to a slow “Adagio” (1:01).  The rest of the piece consists of two fugues on the same subject.  The first is a three-part fugue that begins at 4:07.   The second is a “double” fugue—one that develops two subjects simultaneously—in three voices that begins at 6:33.

Comment:  Especially famous for its long subject, Bach’s C minor toccata is a great example of how fugues can be integrated within larger compositions to very dramatic effect.  The double fugue is a more exciting than the single fugue that precedes it and moves to a thrilling climactic episode (9:50).  Below is a table that details some of the events in the first fugue.

Listening Guide 7.4.3

Historical Background

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Era of music history: Classical

Nationality: German

Life and work: Born into a musical family, Beethoven attracted the attention of Joseph Haydn and by the time he was thirty was the hottest composer in Vienna.  For much of his life, he enjoyed the patronage of the aristocracy.  But he also made money through publishing and performing his music.  A legend within his own time, Beethoven’s works have been the backbone of the classical repertoire since his death.

Sonata, op. 110, III. Adagio ma non troppo (1821)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 10 minutes and 40 seconds

Mode: The lament is in minor, while the fugue and coda are in major.

Form: non-standard (Recitative, 0:00; Lament 1, 1:26; Fugue 1 (three-part), 3:23 ; Lament 2, 6:09; Fugue 2, 8:24; Coda, 9:34).

Comment: Beethoven’s style of fugue is very different from Bach’s.  He is less strict about the number of voices in the texture, often choosing to add notes to emphasize a particular line.  The two fugue subjects are related by inversion: when a note rises in the first fugue subject, it falls in the seconds: thus, the later subject is an upside-down version of the first.  Below is a table that details some of the events in the first fugue.

Listening Guide 7.4.4

Historical Background

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Era of music history: Twentieth-Century

Nationality: Russian

Life and work: Born into a non-musical family, Shostakovich was nonetheless recognized early as a musical prodigy.  Success as a composer came in his early twenties, and, despite a stormy relationship with Soviet cultural censors, he remained an eminent figure in Soviet and world music until his death.  Many of his works remain in the repertory.

Fugue no. 7 in A major (1950)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 2 minutes

Mode: major

Form: three-part fugue.

Comment: Shostakovich composed his own set of twenty-four preludes and fugues to complement Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  This A major fugue is among the set’s most famous.  The table below highlights some of the events.

Listening Guide 7.4.5

Historical Background

Composer: Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Era of music history: Twentieth-century

Nationality: American

Life and work: Among the US’s most successful composers, Barber was a prominent member of the classical music community by his mid-20s.  He was able to sustain this success for decades, winning many prizes and fulfilling numerous prestigious commissions.  His “Adagio for Strings” is among the most often performed works of the twentieth century.

Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, op. 26

IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirito (1949)

Instrumentation: piano

Duration: 3 minutes and 55 seconds

Mode: minor

Form: four-part fugue.  (But Barber is not very strict with the number of voices in the texture.)

Comment: Composed for the famous virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, this scintillating fugue is among the more athletic and explosive examples in the genre.  The table below highlights some of the important events.