Program Notes

October 25, 2009: Baroque and the Neo-Baroque

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Program notes:

October 25, 2009

Johann Sebastian Bach

While the Baroque era lasted for only approximately 150 years, the music form this period (1600 – 1750) has influenced and developed later periods for almost 200 years. Johann Sebastian Bach’s works from  his large musical output has been used in various settings, from liturgical services to technical studies to rich performances. Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D major, originally published separately in 1728, was compiled in 1731 as one of six partitas in a set titled, the Clavier Übung (Keyboard Exercise). Along with his English and French suites, the Partitas were Baroque-style collections of dances for solo keyboard. Like the Classical-style sonata that followed, the Baroque Partitas were composed with a strict formal scheme in mind. The first movement, the French overture (so-called “French” because the form was developed by the 17th century French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully), begins with a slow section, filled with dotted-rhythms, and is followed with the fugue, a style of composition in which a melodic figure is played and imitated in succession as different “voices.” The partita continues with the slow Allemande dance and the fast Courante. The series of dances is interrupted with a brief, yet charming melody in the Aria. Both the Sarabande and Minuet are slow triple meter dances, while the Gigue concludes the suite as a lively and rich triple meter dance that brings the fugue, one of the hallmarks of the Baroque era, to the forefront.

Although the popularity of Baroque music waned by the middle of the 18th century, the revival of Bach music by Felix Mendelssohn would greatly change music pedagogy in 19th century Europe. Frédéric Chopin’s early music education in his native Poland included a thorough study of counterpoint and fugue. His later compositions would be strongly influenced by Bach, for Chopin often carried with him the Well-Tempered Clavier wherever he traveled. Chopin was known for his beautiful motifs and expressive melodies, and this is especially true of his nocturnes. One can see Bach’s influence in how Chopin effortlessly employed counterpoint, harmony, and texture into his works, without which the melodies would not be as memorable.

The early 20th century was a time of various changes in the direction of classical music. Some composers experimented with atonal music, while others sought a return to older styles. The late romantic era was characterized by the slow erosion of tonality and regular tempo and the emerging Neobaroque movement revived the role of rhythm and counterpoint in music. Paul Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3, composed in 1936, is written in four movements. The sonata-form first movement and scherzo second-movement are both rhythmically driven and developed using technical contrast. Following the third movement march, the last movement employs another tribute to Baroque music: the fugue. Paul Hindemith’s work reflects the approach of neoclassical composers; while the scope and structure of neoclassical compositions were clear and inspired from older forms, the intricate and specific components were more unique to 20th century music. Hindemith’s melodies and harmonies might be peculiar compares to those of Bach’s day, but they still maintain the sense of tonality and the appropriate resolution of dissonance into consonance.

Listen to a recording of me playing Hindemith’s Piano Sonata no. 3, Fugue here

December 11, 2009: Concert of 20th Century Piano and Clarinet Repertoire

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Program Notes:

December 11, 2009

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: Clarinet Sonata

Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, published in 1942, was the first composition he published. This piece, composed while he was still studying at the Curtis Institute, has two movements: a lyrical grazioso and an Andantino – Vivace e leggiero. The first movement echoes Paul Hindemith in its neoclassicism; however, the melodic lines are uniquely American in their objectivity. The second movement begins with slow music, but melds into the vivace e leggiero with its jazzy rhythms and 5/8 and 7/8 time, foreshadowing Bernstein’s popular broadway musical West Side Story.

Joseph Horovitz: Clarinet Sonatina

Jazz continued to influence classical music well into the 20th century. Joseph Horovitz, currently Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music, composed Clarinet Sonatina in 1981. He developed a blend of jazz/neo-classical that permeated many of his successful compositions. Light-hearted by nature, this sonatina follows the traditional three-movement pattern: Allegro calmato, Lento quasi andante, and Con brio.

George Gershwin: Three Preludes for Piano

George Gershwin

When blues and jazz music first became popular during the beginning of the 20th century, George Gershwin was the composer who brought this music into the concert hall with his performance of his popular composition Rhapsody in Blue. Rather than scorn this music as beneath him, which many classical composers were doing, Gershwin was one of several composers who used jazz and blues to enhance his work, blurring the line between classical and jazz. Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano were first performed in 1926, and are well-known examples of 20th century classical music that were influenced by jazz. The first prelude, Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, is based on a five-note blues motif. Flattened sevenths give the piece a strong jazz feel. The second piece: Andante con moto e poco rubato, was itself referred to by the composer as “a sort of blues lullaby.” It starts slowly, with a steady bassline. The third piece, Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, also known as “Spanish Prelude,” is a brief but exciting blend of rugged jazz rhythms and syncopations. These short pieces show Gershwin’s brilliance at melding jazz and classical idioms; in fact, Gershwin went on to influence composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, who would both go on to write pieces that would also meld jazz and classical elements.

Three Preludes for Piano were arranged in 1987 by composer and Julliard graduate James Cohn for clarinet and piano.

Robert Muczynski: Time Pieces for the Clarinet and Piano

Another late 20th century composer, Robert Muczynski, who is Professor of Composition and Composer-in-Residence at the University of Arizona, composed Time Pieces for the Clarinet and Piano in 1984. The piece, while drawing from jazz rhythms and blues harmony, also much resembles the musical vocabularies of Hindemith and Copland.