To ward off evil spirits...
FALLA’S RITUAL FIRE DANCE
The strings play buzzing, shimmering trills – imagine the haze of a sultry night in Spain. The oboe sings an intricate, mournful song – a beautiful gypsy girl is haunted by the ghost of her dead lover. He was wicked, jealous and dissolute; he made her very unhappy when he was alive and now he returns whenever she is courted by someone new. But her latest lover has a plan to exorcise the jealous and malevolent spirit. A circle is drawn on the ground for a ritual fire dance that will draw the ghost to temptation and the flames.
There is an atmosphere of tension, of seduction and relentless bravura. Without resorting to musical clichés, Falla’s captures the passionate gypsy spirit. It’s no surprise that this tiny number – just a few minutes long – became Falla’s greatest, and most characteristic, hit.
Beginning a fabulous career...
BRUCH’S FIRST VIOLIN CONCERTO
Max Bruch wrote three violin concertos but the one that's famous today – and which made its composer famous – is the first, his Violin Concerto in G minor.
The soloist for the premiere in 1868 was Joseph Joachim. Many years later he described it as 'the richest, the most seductive' of the four great German violin concertos. And it still keeps company with the other three (Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn), not to mention Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. At some point, every violinist plays Bruch's first concerto.
Joachim absolutely nailed the reasons for the concerto's popularity: from the first entry of the soloist, it spins enticing and heartfelt melodic lines. For Bruch, melody was 'the soul of music' and the violin was the best instrument for 'singing.' The concerto's lyrical qualities are balanced by brilliance, and the whole piece is satisfying to hear and rewarding to play. It's greatly loved now, and was a near instant success when it was composed, soon enjoying what Bruch called 'a fabulous career.' But the concerto’s success must have held an element of frustration: he'd sold the full rights to a publisher for just 250 thalers.
The concerto begins with a prelude (Vorspiel in German). A soft drum roll makes the introduction, and then the soloist enters the spotlight – exchanging its own rhapsodic flourishes with emphatic gestures from the orchestra. Once the main theme begins, the violinist is called upon to play two-note chords – a virtuoso technique known as double-stopping that adds to the sonority and harmonic richness of the solo part.
The first movement makes a seamless transition to the second movement (Adagio) and here the concerto truly earns the adjective 'seductive'. This is possibly the most beautiful slow movement ever written for a violin concerto and its gorgeous themes carry the music on a tide of emotion.
The third movement (Allegro energico) gives the concerto its energy and vitality. At times, the themes have a dance-like Hungarian gypsy flavor, at others they convey a soaring nobility. And all the while the solo part is exhilarating in its virtuosity.
T'A slender Greek maiden'
One of the most famous observations about Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony came from the composer Robert Schumann. He described the symphony as ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants’.
The giants in question are the Eroica Symphony (No.3) and the Fifth. The Third is known for its heroic and monumental character; the Fifth for its emotional journey from despair to triumph. The compact Fourth Symphony might appear calm and serene, even ‘slender,’ by comparison with the surrounding drama and intensity but it’s audacious in its own way.
In some ways it’s remarkable that the Fourth Symphony is so different from Fifth, since Beethoven composed both symphonies almost concurrently. Work on the Fourth Symphony took place at the summer castle of Prince Lichnovsky. A regular guest there was Count von Oppersdorf, and on one occasion he heard a private performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Impressed and delighted, the Count, who had an orchestra of his own in Poland, commissioned Beethoven to write another symphony, offering him 350 florins. The letters between them suggest that Beethoven initially planned to offer him his C minor symphony, then in progress. But for some reason, perhaps because the Count desired something closer to the spirit of the symphony he’d already heard, Beethoven set aside the stormy opening movements of what was to become the Fifth Symphony and began work on a quite different symphony in B flat major.
The new symphony was written quickly, almost spontaneously, and seems to be everything its neighbors are not. It is compact, graceful, balanced and apparently light-hearted. But the joy is subtle and we arrive there via a tragic introduction – in Beethoven ‘light cannot exist without darkness’. This introduction sets out in B flat minor, a key that Beethoven’s contemporaries would have associated with gloom and terror. Beethoven leads us through a heavy, sighing, fragmented atmosphere to the main part of the first movement (Allegro vivace), optimistic and tight-knit.
After the inventiveness of the slow second movement (Adagio) ¬with its exquisite writing for the wind instruments, there follows a tongue-in-cheek Minuet. This movement, gutsy and good-humored, expands its simple thematic ideas through alternating repetitions of the opening part of the movement (Allegro vivace) and a contrasting ‘trio’ section. The finale (Allegro ma non troppo) is brilliant, boisterous and sometimes surprising, with all the impetuous vigor we’d expect from Beethoven.
The proportions and scale of the Fourth Symphony are undeniably ‘classical’ – looking back to the symphonies of the previous century – and the musical language is less complex than in the Eroica symphony. So at least some of Beethoven’s contemporaries saw it as a welcome return to the style of his first two symphonies, free of Beethoven’s more fantastical and surprising gestures. But others heard something more in the symphony and accused it of crudeness, excessive detail, and a lack of dignified simplicity!
Yvonne Frindle © 2012
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2012
Manuel de Falla
Manuel de Falla (pronounced ‘fie-uh’) was one of the leading Spanish composers of the first part of the 20th century. His studies in Paris exposed him to the influence of the colours and harmonies of composers such as Debussy. He composed an opera, La vida breve, and two ballets: The Three-Cornered Hat and Love, the Magician (1925), from which his greatest hit, the Ritual Fire Dance, comes. The Spanish Civil War prompted Falla to leave Granada for Argentina in 1939.
Max Bruch was born in the same city as Beethoven – Bonn – but unlike Beethoven his musical career tended towards opera, perhaps because his gift was for elegant and graceful melodic writing. An uncontroversial figure, he enjoyed recognition and success in his lifetime, but today he is best known for just a few pieces, including Kol Nidrei for cello, and his first violin concerto, which made his name in 1868.
Ludwig van Beethoven
When he was just 32 years old and at the beginning of a brilliant musical career, Beethoven had to come to terms with a dreadful truth: he, a composer and piano virtuoso, faced a future without hearing. It’s a testament to his courage that he dismissed thoughts of suicide, and in pulling through this crisis he entered new creative phase, his middle or ‘heroic’ period, during which he wrote the famous Fifth Symphony and many other masterpieces.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....