Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beethoven's Fate

Work had already begun on the C Minor Fifth by April 1804. It was completed by the beginning of 1808. The first performance took place in the Theater An Der Wien on 22nd December 1808.
This symphony is one of the most popular and well known compositions in all of European classical music. This is one of the most frequently played symphonies of all. It is in four movements: an opening sonata allegro con brio followed by an andante, a scherzo with trio and attaca to the finale.
This symphony has become popular due to the terse nature of the themes and because of the artistic unity of the work; also due to the fact to a large degree of Anton Schindler's oft-quoted story much after Beethoven's death that Beethoven described the opening of the first movement as "Thus Fate knocks at the door!". Ever since, this symphony has been supposed to portray the struggle with fate on both personal and universal terms.
While composing this symphony, Beethoven continuously interrupted this work to prepare others like Fidelio, Appassionata sonata, the Razumovsky string quartets, the violin concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven was in his mid thirties during this time and his personal life was troubled by increasing deafness. Even the world was troubled by the Napoleonic wars, political turmoil in Austria and the occupation of Vienna by Napoleon's troops in 1805.
The Fifth Symphony is scored for 23 first violins, 14 second violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (B flat and C major), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 french horns (in E flat and C major), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (alto, tenor and bass) and two pairs of timpani (tuned in G and C). A performance dictated by the tempi markings should last a minimum of thirty three minutes if the repeats are ignored in the first and last movements.
The Allegro Con Brio is ferocious. It begins by a distinctive four-note motif twice, allegorical to "fate knocking at the door". Hence I too call this symphony , "FATE". This motif appears frequently in popular culture too from disco to rock and roll; to appearance in films and TV. During the second world war, BBC used the four-note motif to inroduce its radio news broadcasts because the rhythm it denotes is the morse code letter 'V'.
Some conductors take this motif 'molto ritardando' with the fermata over the fourth note justifying this. Following the first bars, Beethoven uses imitations to expand the fate theme; these imitations forming a single, flowing melody. A very short fortissimo bridge is played by the french horns that takes place before a second theme is introduced. This second theme is in E Flat Major, the relative major to the home key and is lyrical. the codetta is again based on the four-note motif. The development section follows using modulation sequences and imitation including the short fortissimo bridge. During the recapitulation, there is a brief solo beautiful passage for the oboe in improvisatory style and the movement ends in a massive coda.
The Andante is delicate. It is in A Flat Major. It is lyrical in double variation form. Two themes are presented and varied in alternation. After these variations, there is a long coda. The first theme is a melody in unison by the violas and cellos with accompaniment by the double basses. The second theme is harmonic with support by clarinets, bassoons, first and second violins with a triplet arpeggio in the violas and double bass. This is followed up by a third theme with thirty-second notes in the violas and cellos with a counterphrase running in the flute, oboe and bassoon. Then, there is an interlude where the whole orchestra joins in a fortissimo leading to a series of crescendoes and a coda to close the movement.
When the scherzo arrives, we understand that the unity extends through the entire work. The second subject of the scherzo again beats out the hammering opening rhythm of the symphony in its first bars, this time on a single note. Such inner unity which enables a work of art to live must spring ultimately from the creative mind with a constant interplay between intuition and hard grinding work. This movement is in ternary form consisting of a scherzo and trio. It follows the traditional mould of classic symphonic third movements but breaks out of the minuet-trio hemisphere. Even with Beethoven's early works, the scherzo is followed by a contrasting trio section, a return of the scherzo and a coda. But this is so different that it towers over all scherzo-trios written before, with especially the strings pizzicato touch, an effect that was brilliantly mirrored again by Tchaikovsky in his F Minor Fourth. The usual classical symphonies as I told earlier employed the minuet and trio as the third movement; but Beethoven chose to use a new scherzo and trio form. The movement returns to the opening key of C Minor played by the cellos and double basses. It is reminiscent of the opening theme of the final movement of Mozart's G Minor Fortieth, though in a different key and range. This was discovered by Gustav Nottebohm when he examined Beethoven's sketchbook of the Fifth where 29 measures of Mozart's finale appear copied out by Beethoven at the side. Th opening theme is answered by a theme played by the clarinets, oboes and bassoons. The french horns loudly announce the main theme. The trio section is in C Major and is written contrapuntally. When the scherzo returns for the final time, it is performed by the strings pizzicato and marked 'piano'. The scherzo then contrasts this figure with the famous motif (3+1) from the first movement which takes command of the whole movement in transition... accelerando... attacca... to the Allegro
which begins triumphantly and exhilaratingly without interruption. This movement is in C Major and is significantly interspersed by a return to the hammering motif of the scherzo. The orchestra is here enriched with a piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones. This is the transition from darkness to light. It is an unusual variant of sonata; at the end of the development section, the music halts on a dominant cadence played fortissimo. Then the music continues after a pause with a quiet reprise of the horn theme of the scherzo movement. The recapitulation is then introduced by a crescendo coming out of the last bars of the interpolated scherzo section just as the same music was introduced at the opening of the movement. Haydn, in his own style, had done this in his Forty Sixth Symphony in B Major. Maybe, Beethoven had kept that at the back of his mind. Peer influence does speak somewhere. Haydn had tutored Beethoven for a short while. This finale includes a long coda in which the main themes of the movement are played in temporally compressed form. As the crescendo builds, the tempo is increased to 'presto'. The symphony ends in a magnificent style with 29 bars of C Major chords played fortissimo.
Many noteworthy conductors have disappointed while recording this symphony - a long list includes Toscanini, Furtwangler, Solti, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn,Otto Klemperer and Riccardo Muti to name a few. Two performances among many have made the grade - Herbert Von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and it is the latter which is the definitive performance because Bernstein respects and honours the repeats in both the opening movement and the finale taking the symphony to a respectable thirty eight minutes in his 1961 performance.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams' First Symphony, a choral one. This is a good performance by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir.It is a remarkably evocative piece of music. The symphony is scored for a large choir, soprano, baritone and orchestra. It is the first complete choral symphony in that each movement is written for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. The text is from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. Bertrand Russell introduced Vaughan Williams to Walt Whitman's work while they were studying at Cambridge. The work was premiered at the Leeds Festival in 1910 with Vaughan Williams conducting.
The symphony begins with a trumpet fanfare, a thrilling silence before the chorus' entry. At first unaccompanied but later rejoined with a crash of cymbals.The treatment of the steamers is complete with chugging string playing and braying brass reflecting on the title, 'A song for all Seas, all Ships'. The second movement, Largo, is 'On the Beach at Night Alone'. It begins with a low wind-led orchestral introduction with plucking in the bass. Here, we imagine the poet under the stars deep in thought at the beach with quiet rhythm of the sedate waves. The third movement is the Scherzo ' Waves'. This movement is most directly concerned with the sea itself. The scherzo is repeated with increasing pitch and urgency driving us once more into unison to gather the vocal forces for a fanfare conclusion with large interval jumps and lot of percussion. The fourth movement, 'Explorers' is actually hinting at a Passage to India. Here, the emotional intensity is cranked up and the words and music combine most powerfully. The movement concludes after the choir fades away, the orchestra finishes with the double basses bowing like a distant fog horn. The ship sails out of our sight and out of our world. Andre Pevin's reading with the London Symphony dating back to 1970 still sounds good.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Herge - A classy writer with classy adventures!

We have seen the animated versions of Tin Tin many times but never paid attention to its creator. I was watching the 'Secret of the Unicorn' yesterday and it has inspired me to do some research on the creator of Tin Tin.
Georges Prosper Remi (nom-de-plume 'Herge' - pronounced Erzhe)was a Belgian, born on 22nd May 1907 (shares the same birthday with the famous German Composer Richard Wagner though Wagner was born in 1813). Herge was a comics writer and an artist. He kept the pen name with the reversal of his initials from Remi Georges , sounding RG or Erzhe in Belgique French. He wrote twenty four episodes of Tin Tin with the last, The Tin Tin and Alph Art being left unfinished when he died on 3rd March 1983. He was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003.
He was born in Etterbeek in Brussels, Belgium. He displayed an early affinity for drawing. This famous Belgian grew up to be the most influential comic artist ever. He was a Boy Scout and that influenced his personality. In fact, the character Tin Tin was often compared with the stereotype of a boy scout. Herge started his writing career in a scouting magazine, 'Le Boy Scout Belge' with the character, Totor, a predecessor of Tin Tin. Herge's name will always be tied to Tin Tin. 'Le Bijoux de la Castafiore' was probably his best episode in the Tin Tin series.
The good news for movie connoisseurs is that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed to bring Tin Tin Alive on the screen this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rosemary's Baby - A Polanski Masterpiece

This is a brilliant horror movie. Polanski has done a great job. Horror films are usually associated with ghosts rattling chains, masked maniacs slashing flesh and vampires sucking blood. But Polanski has definitely got a unique touch here in this 1968 make. He has written the screenplay and directed this Ira Levin novel. A young couple move into a new apartment only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbours and when the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life. Mia Farrow is good as Rosemary Woodhouse. John Cassavetes is Guy Woodhouse who is a struggling actor; he makes a pact with the devil through witchcraft to offer his wife in delivering the satanic child through an old ritual in return for success in the field of theatre and films. Ruth Gordon picked up an oscar for her performance as Minnie Castevet, the neighbour. Krzysztof Komeda's music is effective and chilling. This is definitely not a film for expecting mothers. Polanski picked up an oscar for screenplay. This is one of the best horror films of all time.