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Thursday, February 24, 2005
  Symphonie fantastique IV. March au supplice
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 9 Tracks 1-6

What we have here is a peacock more interested in his feathers than his mate. When Hector saw Hamlet and fell in love with Harriet, playing Ophelia, he, I suspect, was more in rapture with the theater than he was interested in learning about Harriet's needs as woman. Spurned by the woman with whom he would later share an unhappy marriage, Hector applied his talents to this cathartic breakthrough of Western symphonic literature. The orchestra has never been the same since.

In spite of the detailed events produced by Berlioz, I do not feel that the story of our young hero is important to the listener. In fact, the famous idée fixe is, particularly in this movement, not vital to the work's effectiveness. What is vital is the orchestration. Why would Berlioz feel it important to have so many people participating in this event? The ambition Berlioz had, the fire in his belly, was the idea to assemble a mass of people coordinated in refined musical events big and small. And his music, then, becomes a large-scale ritual.

Speaking of recordings, listen for the low B-flat in the trombones at track 3. I have always heard this note as a loud honk while the march gets moving. Listening to a fantastic recording by Boulez, I was impressed with the restraint shown by the trombones of the Cleveland Orchestra. The low B-flat is, in fact, marked mf while the rest of the band is marked f. Apparently Berlioz knew better than to encourage the trombones. 
Thursday, February 03, 2005
  String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, No. 14, Op. 131, b) Allegro molto viviace (second movement)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Track 70

A composition teacher of mine once said that the problem with much music is simply that nothing happens. Though I feel I could write a book about the preceding fugue, given the money, it is, like the music my teacher complained about, a work free of pinnacle. Like the authors of Romantic tone poems, Beethoven took advantage of the multi-movement form to allow some of the movements, that fugue for example, to explore their potential without conforming to the necessities of drama. Eventually, as Beethoven knew, something does have to happen.

And that happening is the second movement. Whereas the previous movement had little rhythmic interest and focused the listener's attention on motivic entanglement, Beethoven rewards our kind attention with the promised 'D.' It arrives in gallant six-eight meter. This slow-fast arrangement is one that I usually associate with Romantic solo pieces. And I always like the opening slow movement best.

Yet this folksy scene was not carelessly constructed. I especially like the unison passage that signals the denouement. The value of monophony, known by the ancients, will increase after Beethoven's life. For instance, as it is heard in the Quartet for the End of Time
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
  String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, No. 14, Op. 131, a) Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo (first movement)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 8 Tracks 67-69

Does a key signature have meaning beyond the technical information it provides the performer?

Perhaps the answer depends on how you have been spending your time. For instance, if you have been sitting in a string quartet the open strings on those instruments would effect your feelings towards various keys. Those notes, 'C-G-D-A-E,' have a powerful resonance for string players and thus keys that use them as a home base are lent a feeling of stability we do not hear in our piano exercises. 'D' is an exceptionally stable place to be since the low 'D' will instigate sympathetic vibrations in the open 'D' and 'A' strings above it.

To the string player, a pitch a half step shy of an open string, C-sharp for example, has that sense of otherness Bernstein spoke about with or without the E-flat tonality of the Eroica. The pitch is full of all sorts of colors and we find out, after some time, that it has been leaning toward 'D.'

Beethoven makes sure we are aware of this as the subject of his fugue lands so heavily on the flat sixth scale degree, an 'A.' (sol, ti, do, la) The second voice, transposed down a fifth, lands heavily on a 'D.' If only because of our scholar's choices, I am reminded of the ringing fifth that started Clementi's piano sonata. However, here Beethoven is no longer the young promising pianist nor the politically charged symphonic writer. This music comes from the long walks in the woods he took and the vision of what music could be that came to him.

Here the key signatures serve the idea of the piece completely. This first movement is an extended, ornate C-sharp that carries us toward the 'D' of the second movement. Though ornate it is as tightly written as one would later expect from Bartok, as we hear in the opening of Bartok's sixth string quartet. Using the micro to establish the macro, Beethoven modulates to the key of 'A' after a few solemn adventures elsewhere. Before we return to the low C-sharp, we enjoy the upper register of the instruments whose sounds, during these few bars, can only be described as angelic. Like the key signatures, the form of the piece, a fugue, is purposeful. Too often fugues are gratuitous: the third movement of Brahms' unwieldy first piano concerto comes to mind. (Radu Lupu performed that piano concerto in Hamilton county just last month.) In the case of Opus 131, it is as if the fugue were discovered in the way these themes intermingle. 
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
  ...a few more notes.

After listening to the Eroica the next masterpiece on our tour is the first movement of the C-sharp Minor string quartet, No. 14, Op. 131. I need a little time yet before I can put my thoughts together about this piece. Meanwhile, I was recalling a wonderful archive in The Rest Is Noise which, among other things, talks about the C-sharp in the Eroica
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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