Monday, December 17, 2007

Debussy, The Snow Is Dancing

Achille-Claude Debussy (pronounced [aʃil klod dəbysi]) (August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel he is considered the most prominent figure working within the style commonly referred to as Impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions. Debussy was not only among the most important of all French composers but also a central figure in all European music at the turn of the twentieth century.

Debussy's music virtually defines the transition from late-Romantic music to twentieth century modernist music. In French literary circles, the style of this period was known as Symbolism, a movement that directly inspired Debussy both as a composer and as an active cultural participant.

Debussy Préludes Book1 - Des pas sur la neige

"Des pas sur la neige" (Footprints in the Snow)is the 6th piece of Claude Debussy's first set of preludes. It evokes a stark, glacial landscape of resigned sadness and solitude. The melancholy of the fragmented melody is superimposed by plodding ostinato figures.

Maurice Hinson considered this piece the saddest and most moving of any of Claude Debussy's preludes.

With his Préludes Debussy continues the development of a form that has flourished since the Baroque, first serving as an introductory movement and then acquiring life of its own, particularly in a sense of conveying a single concentrated thought, emotion or impression. The fact that the titles appear only at the end of each prelude confirms that music is in the foreground and the titles are there not to give programme but to indicate the suggestion of an impression and make a contribution to the overall listening pleasure.

"Des pas sur la neige" (Footprints in the Snow)is the 6th piece of Claude Debussy's first set of preludes. It evokes a stark, glacial landscape of resigned sadness and solitude. The melancholy of the fragmented melody is superimposed by plodding ostinato figures.

Maurice Hinson considered this piece the saddest and most moving of any of Claude Debussy's preludes.

The complexity of the suggested imagery necessitated advances in the tonal language: these preludes bridge the transition from complex tonal through non-functional triadic to post-tonal.

The first set of twelve Préludes appeared in 1910. Danseuses de Delphes uses parallel chords in counterpoint with pentatonic melody to portray figures from Greek vases depicting dancers from Delphi , a city at the foot of Mount Parnassus , which had a temple of Apollo (god of oracles, poetry and arts).

Voiles (translated as either "Veils" or "Sails") presents an extreme case in Debussy's language: it is based on a whole-tone scale plus the pentatonic scale in B. Alfred Cortot saw in this music "the flight of a white wing over the crooning sea towards the horizon bright with the setting sun".

La vent dans la plaine is written in toccata style but is always of a light (indication "as light as possible" at the beginning) and non-intense nature. Its middle section is based on a whole-tone scale.
The title of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and perfumes swirl in the evening air) is a quote from Harmonie du soir , Baudelaire's poem in Les fleurs du mal , set by Debussy for voice in 1888.
Les collines d'Anacapri combines a Neapolitan song with tarantella fragments. Anacapri is a town on the island of Capri (Capri=goats), in the Bay of Naples, 500 meters above sea level, known already as a Greek colony in 400BCE.
Debussy indicated that the prelude Des pas sur la neige "should sound like a melancholy, snowbound landscape". Its repeated rhythmical pattern suggests the image of footsteps fighting with deep snow, while its fragmented melody and stark harmonies give an impression of a study in black and white.

In Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest , virtuosic technique of Lisztian proportions is applied to Debussy's harmonic language, based here on the pentatonic and whole-tone scales. It is an illustration of nature's powers unleashed and a portrait of the wind of destruction on the French west coast.

La fille aux cheveux de lin is a title from Leconte de Lisle's Chansons écossaises , set by D. in 1880. Its recurring lines elucidate well the poem's ambiance: "L'amour, au clair soleil d'été/Avec l'alouette a chanté".

La sérénade interrompue commences with an imitation of guitar strumming as the background. The superimposed melody makes only one truly emotional break (at librement there is an instance of the Andalusian canto hondo . The interruptions suggest some kind of intervention (water thrown, window shut, fear?) and the piece ends in a defeated retreat.

The indications in La cathédrale engloutie , such as "in a gentle, harmonious haze", "gentle and fluid" and "emerging from the haze gradually", demonstrate well the sfumato technique implemented by the composer to evoke mysticism and supernatural, in what is really a study in exploration of chordal sound. The legend that served as inspiration is one of Cathedral of Ys, sunk off Brittany 1500 years ago as a punishment for impiousness, which occasionally rises at sunrise as an example. The use of the story proves Debussy's continuing fascination with the sea. His recording of the piece is characterised by the use of long pedal that preserves the bass pedal notes.

The hero of La danse de Puck is the mischief-maker of Danish and Swedish legends. He was immortalised by Shakespeare as the page to Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream . This is an ethereal and fleeting dance of a fairy creature with interjections of a horn motive.

Minstrels conclude Debussy's exploration of music-hall song begun in Golliwogg's cake-walk and The little nigar . Banjo chords, drum beating, a sentimental song - all of these find their place in this sketch of an exotic (for Europeans) performance, brought to Europe after 1910 by travelling troupes.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Felix Draeseke

Felix August Bernhard Draeseke (October 7, 1835February 26, 1913) was a composer of the "New German School" admiring Liszt and Richard Wagner. He wrote compositions in most forms including eight operas and stage works, four symphonies, and much vocal and chamber music.


Felix Draeseke was born in the Franconian ducal town of Coburg, Germany. He was attracted to music early in life and wrote his first composition at age 8. He encountered no opposition from his family when, in his mid-teens, he declared his intention of becoming a professional musician. A few years at the Leipzig conservatory did not seem to benefit his development, but after one of the early performances of Wagner's Lohengrin he was won to the camp of the New German School centered around Franz Liszt at Weimar, where he stayed from 1856 (arriving just after Joachim Raff's departure) to 1861. In 1862 Draeseke left Germany and made his way to Switzerland, teaching in the Suisse Romande in the area around Lausanne. Upon his return to Germany in 1876, Draeseke chose Dresden as his place of residence. Though he continued having success in composition, it was only in 1884 that he received an official appointment to the Dresden conservatory and, with it, some financial security. In 1894, two years after his promotion to a professorship at the Royal Saxon Conservatory, at the age of 58, he married his former pupil Frida Neuhaus. In 1912 he completed his final orchestral work, the Fourth Symphony. On February 26, 1913, Draeseke suffered a stroke and died; he is buried in the Tolkewitz cemetery in Dresden.

Music and Styles

During his career Draeseke divided his efforts almost equally among compositional realms and composed in most genres, including symphonies, concertos, opera, chamber music, and works for solo piano. With his early Piano Sonata in c-sharp Sonata quasi Fantasia of 1862–1867 he aroused major interest, winning Liszt's unreserved admiration of it as one of the most important piano sonatas after Beethoven. His operas Herrat (1879, originally Dietrich von Bern) and Gudrun (1884, after the medieval epic of the same name) met with some success, but their subsequent neglect has kept posterity from understanding Draeseke as one of the few true successors to Wagner and one of the very few who could conceive dramatically convincing and musically compelling examples of "Gesamtkunstwerk".

Draeseke keenly followed new developments in all facets of music. His chamber music compositions make use of newly developed instruments, among them the violotta, an instrument developed by Alfred Stelzner as an intermediary between viola and cello, which Draeseke used in his A major String Quintet, and also the viola alta, an instrument developed during the 1870s by Hermann Ritter and the prototype of viola expressly endorsed by Richard Wagner for his Bayreuth Orchestra.

A master contrapuntist, Draeseke reveled in writing choral music, achieving major success with his B minor Requiem of 1877–1880, but nowhere proving more convincingly his powers in this direction than in the staggering Mysterium Christus which is comprised of a prolog and three separate oratorios and requires three days for a complete performance, a work which occupied him between the years 1894–1899 but whose conception reaches back to the 1860s. Of all the symphonies from the second half of the 19th century which are unjustly neglected, Draeseke's Symphonia Tragica (Symphony No. 3 in C major, op. 40) is one of the very few which deserves repertory status alongside the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner, a masterful fusion of intellect and emotion, of form and content. Orchestral works like the Serenade in F major (1888) or its companion of the same year, the symphonic prelude after Kleist's Penthesilea have in them all that is declared necessary for audience success: rich melodic invention, rhythmic vivacity, and extraordinary harmonic conception. Draeseke's chamber music is equally rich.


During his life, and the period shortly following his death, the music of Draeseke was held in high regard, even among his musical opponents. His compositions were performed frequently in Germany by the leading artists of the day, including Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Fritz Reiner, and Karl Böhm. However, as von Bülow once remarked to him, he was a "harte Nuß" ("a hard nut to crack") and despite the quality of his works, he would "never be popular among the ordinary". Draeseke could be sharply critical and this sometimes led to strained relations, the most notorious instance being with Richard Strauss, when Draeseke attacked Strauss’s Salome in his 1905 pamphlet Die Konfusion in der Musik — rather odd as Draeseke was a clear influence on the young Strauss.

Draeseke's music was promoted during the Third Reich and Draeseke joined the ranks of Anton Bruckner, Max Reger and Louis Spohr to enjoy Nazi patronage. After the Second World War, changes in fashion and political climates allowed his name and music to slip into obscurity. But as the 20th century ended, new recordings spurred a renewed interest in his music. An ever widening audience seems to be developing for Draeseke at last and the phenomenon is based on perception of individuality, inventiveness and stylistic integrity, music which truly rewards attention.

Obertura “Gudrun” (10’46”). Orq. Sinf. de Wuppertal. Dir.: G. Hanson. Landschaftsbilder, Op. 20 (Selec.) (11’05”). I. Danz (con.), R. Trekel (bar.), C. Garben (p.). Serenata en Re mayor, Op. 49 (27’35”). Orq. Fca. de la Radio de Hannover. Dir.: J. P. Weigle. Mitternacht, Op. 24 (4’02”). I. Danz (con.), C. Garben (p.).

Dubbed a "giant" by Franz Liszt, Felix Draeseke was one of the leading composers of the new-German school. From the late 19th- to early in the 20th-Century, the music of Felix Draeseke was performed and held in high regard by leading artists including conductors Arthur Nikisch, Hans von Bülow, Fritz Reiner, and Karl Böhm. Changes in fashion and political climates allowed his name and music to slip into relative obscurity, but as the 20th Century ended, new recordings spurred a renewed interest in his music.

The Internationale Draeseke Gesellschaft (IDG) and International Draeseke Society/North America (IDS/NA) have established the Felix Draeseke Pages to provide an opportunity to discover and explore the works of this remarkable composer. Here you will find detailed biographical information, catalogues of Draeseke's works, essays on his music, as well as lists of publications and recordings; audio examples are available in both mp3 and RealAudio formats.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Silent Forest

Erkki Melartin (February 2, 1875–February 14, 1937) was a Finnish composer and pupil of Martin Wegelius from 1892-99 in Helsinki, and Robert Fuchs from 1899-1901 in Vienna. Interestingly enough, he shares identical birth and death years with more famous composer Maurice Ravel.

As well as composing, Melartin also taught and directed music at the Helsinki Music College, later the Helsinki Conservatory. As conductor of the Viborg Orchestra in 1908-11, and despite chronic health problems, Melartin toured extensively (as far as North Africa and India), conducting the first performance of Gustav Mahler's music in Scandinavia, a movement of the Resurrection symphony in 1909 (see the Finnish Music Information Centre link, [1].)

Although Melartin was chiefly a lyricist, the symphony was central to his musical output. He wrote six symphonies (1902–1924) and was the first Finnish composer to bear Mahler's influence. The fourth symphony uses a vocalise like that of Carl Nielsen's Sinfonia Espansiva. The fifth is a Sinfonia brevis ending in a fugue and chorale, while the sixth, harmonically more advanced than the other five, advances stepwise from a C minor first movement — with evocations of Mahler's seventh symphony — to an E-flat major finale. His musical output also includes an opera, Aino (based on the character from the Finnish national epic), a violin concerto, four string quartets, and many piano pieces. His works therefore are divided mainly into large-scale works for orchestra, and chamber pieces for much smaller groups and soloists. In spite of working in the same time period as Jean Sibelius, he was not influenced by the more famous composer's style, and subsequently his work has been largely overshadowed by Finland's most revered composer.

Erkki Melartin — A Man of Many Talents

The most versatile of Finland’s Late Romantic composers was Erkki Melartin (1875—1937). His oeuvre comprises several hundred works with an exceptionally wide stylistic range. Although a Romantic at heart, he would sometimes switch to an Impressionist or even Expressionist idiom.

His versatility was reflected in other walks of life as well. An eminently practical man, he was a conductor and, from 1911 to 1936, director of the Helsinki Music Institute (the Conservatoire from 1924 on). But he also had a meditative streak, published a collection of aphorisms, and had a penchant for theosophy and mysticism.

Melartin’s most important works are his six symphonies, which reflect the influence of e.g. Bruckner and Mahler and range from adaptations of folk music to complex counterpoint and the Modernist idiom of the Sixth Symphony.

Melartin’s piano oeuvre: a mixture of styles

Melartin’s extensive oeuvre for piano also incorporates a wide variety of elements. He composed some 250 piano pieces in all, most of them in the Romantic style fashionable in his day. Some of these are clearly associated with Finnish folk music, others point to the world of the European salon.

Sometimes Melartin’s Romanticism takes on an added flair from Impressionist or Expressionist touches. It is, however, difficult to give any general characterization of his piano music, as neither the dates nor the order of composition are fully known.

Melartin: Pieces in Romantic style

Melartin’s Romantic style is represented by the early ballad "Kaksi joutsenta" (Two Swans, Op. 5/1), several collections of pieces entitled "Lastuja" (Chips), and the serenely lyrical "Three Piano Pieces" Op. 8. The duet suite "Marionetteja" (Marionettes, Op. 1), which also exists as an orchestral arrangement, is another example of Melartin’s Romantic piano poetry.

Like Palmgren, Melartin composed a full set of "24 Preludes" (Op. 85), published in three albums, the first in 1916 and the two latter in 1920. Although rather uneven, they provide a good general idea of the range of the composer’s Romantic piano style. In accordance with convention, each prelude is confined to rather limited textural matter.

A more Classical aspect of Melartin’s music is heard in the "Piano Sonatina" in G major Op. 84 and the "Piano Sonatina" no. 2, also arranged by the composer as a Sonata for flute and harp.

Melartin: Surullinen puutarha Op. 52

One of Melartin’s best-known piano compositions is the five-movement suite "Surullinen puutarha" (The Melancholy Garden; Op. 52). The work is dedicated to Sibelius, and the first movement, "Me kaksi" (We Two) has a certain archaic Sibelius sound. A rather mixed effect is produced by the way in which the suite combines Romantic and drawing-room touches with Impressionist elements.

The dominant mood is poetic meditation, interrupted by the Impressionistically tinged fourth movement, "Sade" (Rain). One of the high points in Melartin’s piano oeuvre, this movement has a transparent texture reminiscent of Ravel, and yet is unmistakably Finnish in mood. The closing movement, "Yksinäisyys" (Solitude), is also impressive in its sombre intensity.

Melartin: Noli me tangere Op. 87

A more coherent, though pianistically less varied work is "Noli me tangere" Op. 87. Its five contemplative movements are more austere but delve deeper than the earlier work. The fourth movement, "Kuolinhetki" (Moment of Death) soars to a brief, anguished climax punctuated by dissonances.

It is followed by "Syystuuli" (Autumn Wind), built up of fleeting, virtually shapeless octave unisons; as the closing movement, Syystuuli inevitably invites comparison with the finale of Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor.

Melartin: Op. 98

Impressionist elements predominate in two of the pieces in Op. 98, among Melartin’s finest. "Hiljainen metsä" (The Silent Forest, Op. 98/1) evokes a mysterious, contemplative mood. "Korkeuksissa" (In the Heights, Op. 98/3), notated without bar lines, is an intensely meditative piece, with a powerful, painfully dissonant climax in the middle. "Hämärän kuva" (Image of Twilight; Op. 110/4) also has Impressionist touches.

Melartin: Six Piano Pieces Op. 118

The "Six Piano Pieces" Op. 118 (published 1923) are among the high points in Melartin’s piano oeuvre. The first of these, "Syyskuva" (Autumn Image) is still rather conventional, but the five others make highly individual use of Impressionist elements.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the album is its dramatic construction, consisting of quick gestures and abrupt transitions. The contemplative opening of "Salaperäinen metsä" (The Mysterious Forest) gives way to sudden dissonances. "Noita" (The Witch) glitters in shifting, transparent colours. The Kalevala-type melody of "Loitsu" (The Spell) is lost in a harsh eruption of sound. "Virvatulet" (Will-o’-the-wisp) is a swift-moving study of perpetual motion, and the sharp, hard-hitting "Peikkotanssi" (Trolls’ Dance) ends with a haunting flageolet effect.

Melartin: Fantasia apocaliptica Op. 111

Melartin made his most significant contribution to Finnish Modernism in the 1920s with the piano sonata "Fantasia apocaliptica" Op. 111 which, however, seems never to have been performed in the composer’s lifetime.

The work was long lost, and took on an aura of Modernist legend. In a single movement, the "Fantasia apocaliptica" has a fairly free, not entirely balanced construction, in which one may detect the influence of both Liszt and Scriabin.

The work introduces an Expressionist strain into Melartin’s music. It consists largely of heavy, rolling chord sequences and roaring octave unisons, only briefly relieved by more lyrical moments. The harmony ranges from monophonic recitative and freely combined triads to more complex harmonies. The final Maestoso, however, brings the work to a triumphant close in E major.