Some favorite music

(About music rather than language.)

A few days ago I awoke twice during the night because of the music that was playing on my iTunes feed: two of my very favorite compositions: the wonderfully warm

Mendelssohn, String Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20

and the fabulously joyous

Brahms, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel (for solo piano), Op. 24

(surely one of the greatest variation pieces of all time).

A large part of my iTunes library of classical music consists of piano music (solo or with other instruments) and chamber music. Above we have one of each: the Mendelssohn is chamber music (for strings), the Brahms is (solo) piano music.

Wikipedia on the Mendelssohn:

Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, was composed in the autumn of 1825 and completed on October 15, when the composer was 16. He wrote it as a birthday gift for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Ritz (1802-1832); it was slightly revised in 1832 before the first public performance on 30 January 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Conrad Wilson summarizes much of its reception ever since: “Its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.”

And Wikipedia on the Brahms:

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, is a work for solo piano written by Johannes Brahms in 1861. It consists of a set of twenty-five variations and a concluding fugue, all based on a theme from George Frideric Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat major, HWV 434.

The great music writer Donald Tovey has ranked it among “the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written”. Biographer Jan Swafford describes the Handel Variations as “perhaps the finest set of piano variations since Beethoven”, adding, “Besides a masterful unfolding of ideas concluding with an exuberant fugue with a finish designed to bring down the house, the work is quintessentially Brahms in other ways: the filler of traditional forms with fresh energy and imagination; the historical eclectic able to start off with a gallant little tune of Handel’s, Baroque ornaments and all, and integrate it seamlessly into his own voice, in a work of massive scope and dazzling variety.”

Brahms did one other notable variation piece for the piano, in fact for two pianos, though it’s most commonly encountered in an arrangement for orchestra:

Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, (Chorale St. Antoni) Op. 56: for orchestra, Op. 56a; for two pianos, Op. 56b (but written first)

Wikipedia on this Brahms:

The Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, (German: Variationen über ein Thema von Jos. Haydn), now also called the Saint Anthony Variations, is a work in the form of a theme and variations, composed by Johannes Brahms in the summer of 1873 at Tutzing in Bavaria. It consists of a theme in B-flat major based on a “Chorale St Antoni”, eight variations, and a finale. The work was published in two versions: for two pianos, written first but designated Op. 56b; and for orchestra, designated Op. 56a.

… The theme begins with a repeated ten-measure passage which itself consists of two intriguing five-measure phrases, a quirk that is likely to have caught Brahms’s attention. Almost without exception, the eight variations follow the phrasal structure of the theme and, though less strictly, the harmonic structure as well. Each has a distinctive character, several calling to mind the forms and techniques of earlier eras, with some displaying a mastery of counterpoint seldom encountered in Romantic music.

The finale is a magnificent theme and variations on a ground bass, five measures in length, derived from the principal theme. Its culmination, a restatement of the chorale, is a moment of such transcendence that the usually austere Brahms permits himself the use of a triangle.

The ground bass in the finale is famous (and once I think about this Brahms piece, I have that earworming basso ostinato in my head for the rest of the day).

On ostinatos and ground basses, from Wikipedia:

In music, an ostinato … (derived from Italian: stubborn, compare English: ‘obstinate’) is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, usually at the same pitch. The best-known ostinato-based piece may be Ravel’s Boléro or Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love.

The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself. Both ostinatos and ostinati are accepted English plural forms, the latter reflecting the word’s Italian etymology. Strictly speaking, ostinati should have exact repetition, but in common usage, the term covers repetition with variation and development, such as the alteration of an ostinato line to fit changing harmonies or keys.

…Ground bass or basso ostinato (obstinate bass) is a type of variation form in which a bass line, or harmonic pattern (see Chaconne; also common in Elizabethan England as Grounde) is repeated as the basis of a piece underneath variations. Aaron Copland describes basso ostinato as “… the easiest to recognize” of the variation forms wherein, “… a long phrase — either an accompanimental figure or an actual melody — is repeated over and over again in the bass part, while the upper parts proceed normally [with variation]”. However, he cautions, “it might more properly be termed a musical device than a musical form.”

Finally, two more favorite works, both of them quintets — a string quartet plus another instrument:

Schubert Trout Quintet: Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667

Mozart, Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581

Both of them make me deeply happy. Wikipedia on the Schubert:

The Trout Quintet is the popular name for the Piano quintet in A major, D. 667, by Franz Schubert. The work was composed in 1819, when he was 22 years old; it was not published, however, until 1829, a year after his death.

Rather than the usual piano quintet lineup of piano and string quartet, Schubert’s piece is written for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. The composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel had rearranged his own Septet for the same instrumentation, and the Trout was actually written for a group of musicians coming together to play Hummel’s work.

The piece is known as the Trout because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s earlier Lied “Die Forelle” (The Trout). The quintet was written for Sylvester Paumgartner, of Steyr in Upper Austria, a wealthy music patron and amateur cellist, who also suggested that Schubert include a set of variations on the Lied.

And Wikipedia on the Mozart:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581, was written in 1789 for the clarinetist Anton Stadler. A clarinet quintet is a work for one clarinet and a string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello). Although originally written for basset clarinet, it is almost always played on a clarinet in A or B-flat. It was Mozart’s only completed clarinet quintet, and is one of the earliest and best-known works written especially for the instrument. It remains to this day one of the most admired of the composer’s works. The quintet is sometimes referred to as the Stadler Quintet; Mozart so described it in a letter of April 1790.


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