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Fantastic Fantastique

Louis-Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was not a child prodigy; at age 12 he was a latecomer to music (by that age Mozart had already completed his first performance tour). His father discouraged him from studying piano, so he did not. His parents wanted him to be a doctor (every Jewish mother wants her son to be a doctor), and Berlioz was sent to Paris to study medicine. At the age of 23, despite his parents’ objections, he formally abandoned the study of medicine and focused solely on music.  Berlioz never received classical musical training, and thus it was easy for him to break the rules of music composition since he didn’t know them.

It’s hard to say whether Berlioz’s musical adventure would have amounted to much if he hadn’t fallen in love. When he was 27 he attended a performance of Hamlet. There he saw her: Harriet Smithson, Irish Shakespearean actress. He was fatally smitten. He wrote her love letters, but his love went unrequited. He rented an apartment across the street from her and then wrote her the ultimate love letter: Symphony Fantastique.

Fantastique was written in the pain of unreturned love. Berlioz wrote:

Oh, if only I did not suffer so much!… So many musical ideas are seething within me.… Now that I have broken the chains of routine, I see an immense territory stretching before me, which academic rules forbade me to enter.

In another letter he wrote:

Sometimes I can scarcely endure this mental or physical pain (I can’t separate the two) … I see that wide horizon and the sun, and I suffer so much, so much, that if I did not take a grip of myself, I should shout and roll on the ground. I have found only one way of completely satisfying this immense appetite for emotion, and this is music.

As a side note, the topic of pain and creativity is very dear to me. I strongly believe most creativity in the world is unleashed by pain. If it was not for pain we would not have Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he wrote after suffering a three-year depression from the failure of his first symphony. Or think about this: Beethoven was deaf the last ten years of his life, and this is when he composed his best work.

Back to Berlioz. Either Berlioz could not take the pain or he needed additional stimulants to access his newfound creativity; in any case, he consumed a lot of opium in the course of writing Fantastique. Fantastique premiered to incredible success in 1830 and turned Berlioz into a huge star. Harriett was unfortunately not at the premier and only heard the symphony two years later. By then Berlioz is famous, and she recognizes his genius. They get married and … are unhappy and separate.

Nevertheless, we should all thank Harriet for this incredible masterpiece.

Here is how Leonard Bernstein summarized this symphony: “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”

Final point. Fantastique is a five-movement program symphony. (Program music means that the symphony follows written program notes; think of them as silent opera.) It’s the love story of Berlioz’s unrequited love for Harriet – on psychedelics. There is a glittering ball, a lonely idyll in the countryside, and other visions induced by opium. (I kid you not; here is what Berlioz wrote in his program notes: “The Artist, knowing beyond all doubt that his love is not returned, poisons himself with opium. The narcotic plunges him into sleep, accompanied by the most horrible visions.”) The symphony continues with the murder of the artist’s love interest, the execution of the artist after a stirring march to the gallows, the artist’s funeral, and the artist’s love interest’s reappearance as a witch). You can read the whole fantastical story here.

Leonard Bernstein conducts:

Mariss Jansons conducts:

 

Guess-This-Classical Music Game

My family is an avid user of Spotify – every family member with the exception of 3-year-old Mia has an account.  Every time we get in my car, Mia says, “Dad, can you play ‘Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’?” so my Spotify-suggested playlist also features some odd music for three-year-olds.  Personally, I am a Spotify junkie and listen to it all day long.  Having all this music at your fingertips is mind-boggling.

We recently discovered that Spotify has an interesting feature: it can turn any album into a radio station.  For instance, take Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and turn it into an “album radio,” and Spotify will create a random playlist of tracks by composers who lived plus or minus 50 years (my guess) around the time of Tchaikovsky, and who composed piano music and symphonies etc.

Hannah is a very happy and always smiling eleven-year-old who would do anything to spend time with me, even if she has to listen to classical music.  Coming home from our last skiing day trip at Beaver Creek, Hannah and I created a new classical music game.  We took one of those “album radios,” and each of us had to guess who composed the track that was playing.  Hannah had to guess first.  Every time, we’d discuss the music.  If it was Mozart I’d tell her to notice how happy and light it was.  If it was Tchaikovsky, I’d call attention to the enormous, bigger-than-life melodies.  With Liszt I’d point out how the piano often sounds like the whole orchestra.

My son Jonah is on spring break, so I don’t have to drive him to school at 7 AM.  Instead, this whole week I let my wife sleep in and drove Hannah to school at 8.  We used this opportunity to turn each 20-minute ride into a session of our guess-this-classical music game.  She absolutely loves it – she’s learned a dozen new composers.  In all honesty she just loves the game element of it and is incredibly happy when she gets the composer right (which is now about half the time).  We talked so much about Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin that this weekend we are planning to watch lectures on The Great Courses by (great!) Robert Greenberg about them, and she is actually looking forward to it.

Today I wanted to share with you Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Chopin wrote this concerto when he was only 20 years old.  Though this was the first piano concerto he wrote, it was the second one to be published; thus it is known as his second piano concerto.

Khatia Buniatishvili

Artur Rubenstein

How Franz Liszt Revolutionized Piano and Classical Music

Franz Liszt was a Hungarian composer and pianist. I don’t think you can talk about Liszt without talking first about the evolution of the piano. The piano you see today in concerts hall or in private homes was not always like that. Though the earlier instrument had a similar shape and had a keyboard, its interior plumbing was completely different. In fact it was called a harpsicord – think of it as a harp (wooden frame with stretched strings) with a keyboard.

Around 1700 the harpsichord gradually transformed into a pianoforte, which had the same look as the harpsicord, but instead of the strings being plucked they were hit by little leather-wrapped hammers. The frame that held the strings was still wooden, and the strings were held at low tension. This is the instrument used by Mozart and the young Beethoven. The sound of the pianoforte is different from the sound we accustomed to hearing today: it is lighter, and the instrument did not have a double escape mechanism and thus could not repeat sounds rapidly – it speaks instead of signing. Each note is very clear and distinct, and the pianoforte has still not completely lost the sound of the harpsicord. Think of Mozart’s piano concertos or sonatas, which were written for pianoforte.

Mozart died in 1791, just as the fortepiano (or simply, piano), the instrument we are all familiar with, was starting to emerge. But from the late 1700s to the early 1800s the piano underwent a significant transformation. This transformation had a major impact on the music that was composed; and, in a musical feedback loop, composers impacted the instrument. Beethoven was one of the early adopters and beneficiaries of the piano’s evolution and played an important role in the evolution of the instrument. At one point he had broken 78% of the strings in his piano. He complained to the piano manufacturer that pianos wore out very fast.

The biggest differences between the pianoforte and fortepiano (the modern piano) are, first, that the frame the harp strings are tied to is not wooden but metal; the low-tension strings have been replaced with high-tension ones; the instrument has a range of two additional octaves (14 extra white keys); and the hammers are covered with tightly compacted felt instead of leather. These changes transformed a delicate instrument into an incredibly powerful beast that can replace an orchestra but that at the same time retains the gentleness of its ancestors.

This brings us to Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt was born sixteen years before Beethoven’s death. He was a child prodigy and a virtuoso pianist. He was the first rockstar of Europe – he was Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson.

As luck would have it, on a trip to Paris, Franz Liszt stayed in a hotel right across the street from Erard Piano – a trailblazing piano maker that invented the double escapement movement that sped up the piano and significantly reduced the limitations of previous generations of pianos. Erard was also the first piano maker to fit pedals under the piano.

As the story goes, young Franz wandered into the Erard store and started playing on one of the instruments. Mssr. Erard smitten by the boy’s genius and also recognized a unique marketing opportunity. He made an endorsement deal with young Franz, providing pianos for all of Liszt’s performances. Liszt went on a three-year tour, giving several performances a day. No town was too small – he loved the attention and the applause. However, this tour was suddenly interrupted by his father’s untimely death.

In 1832 Liszt attended a concert of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. The violin had undergone its most dramatic improvements two hundreds years before the piano did, and it was a mature instrument by that time. After Liszt heard Paganni he remarked, “What wonderful things might be done with the piano if its technical possibilities were developed as those of the violin have been by Paganini.” He decided to become the Paganini of piano. For three years he stopped appearing in public and practiced non-stop (putting in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours).

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2

I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s music when I was well into my thirties. I am not talking about his ballets or even his first piano concerto. (I feel I consumed that concerto in tandem with my mother’s milk.) But I feel that I had to mature as an adult to be able to relate to the deep emotional content of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Today I want to share with you Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. I listened to it a few times when I was younger, but it didn’t click with me until recently.

Tchaikovsky was a symphonist. He admitted to a friend that he hated the way the piano sounded with an orchestra. In Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos the piano is often not a soloist but just another instrument. You can clearly hear this in the second movement of his second piano concerto.

There are two versions of this concerto. The first version is what Tchaikovsky originally composed; but it was long, and so it was modified (cut) by Tchaikovsky’s friend, the composer Alexander Siloti. The second movement of this concerto received most of Siloti’s knife work, allowing us to clearly see the difference between Tchaikovsky’s piece and what a by-the-book piano concerto should be like. Siloti took what sounded lik`e a triple concerto (a concerto for violin, cello, and piano) and turned it into a concerto for piano and orchestra.

Luckily for us, both versions were preserved. Here is the (uncut) original version. It starts with a violin solo, followed by solos for cello and then piano – a typical triple concerto.

Here is Siloti’s shortened version, which clearly follows the rules of traditional piano concertos.

I love both versions equally. What about you?

Schubert – In Mozart’s Shadow?

Lately I have found myself completely hooked on Franz Schubert (of all addictions, not the worst one to have). I’ve shared with you his

Impromptus No. 3

Death and the Maiden

Fantasia

and his (finished) Symphony No. 9.

These are extremely diverse pieces, but they have one thing in common: though they elicit a lot of emotions, they don’t radiate happiness. This brings us to the happiest piece I’ve heard from Schubert, his Symphony No. 5. 

I stumbled on it serendipitously on YouTube. At first I thought I was listening to Mozart – it is happy, it is light, there is not a single sad note in it. I was shocked when I learned that it was Schubert. Schubert composed it in 1816 when he was only 19, arguably in his happier days, before he was infected with (then deadly) syphilis. Schubert was infatuated with Mozart and wrote this in his diary: “O Mozart! Immortal Mozart! What countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!”

We took my almost-three-year-old daughter, Mia Sarah, to Schubert’s 9th symphony last week. I was very nervous. I was thinking, would she be able to sit through a long concert? (The 9th symphony is called “great” because of its length – it is 55 minutes long.) Is she going to be able to be quiet? Well, this concert goes into my memory bank as one of the happiest. Mia Sarah sat patiently through almost the whole thing. Only one-third of the auditorium was filled, and at the end when she got a little impatient, I picked her up and took her to the back rows where she could roam freely without disturbing anyone. My favorite part was when my wife and Mia Sarah were conducting Schubert’s 9th. In fact, Mia Sarah and I have watched a few classical pieces – she sits on my lap and we conduct them together. I am smiling just writing this.

In Beethoven’s Shadow

“The greatest misfortune of the wise man and the greatest unhappiness of the fool are based upon convention”. – Franz Schubert

A few weeks ago my father, my daughter Hannah, and I went to the Boulder Symphony to listen to Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (conducted by Leonard Bernstein). Before the performance, Boulder Symphony’s conductor, Devin Patrick Hughes, gave a very interesting lecture on Schubert.

Beethoven’s genius and fame were (unintentionally) very toxic for his contemporaries (like Schubert) and composers who lived long after his death (Brahms and many others). Schubert grew up in Vienna, a few blocks away from Ludwig Van Beethoven and died less than a year after Beethoven. There are conflicting theories about whether Schubert ever met Beethoven. We know that he was a huge fan of Beethoven’s music. He was Beethoven’s pallbearer. He asked to be (and ultimately was) buried next to Beethoven.

Imagine living in Vienna in the early 1800s and trying to compose your own music when you have heard the ingenious 7th symphony composed by a fellow who lives a few blocks down the road. Any sound that comes to your head will seem to pale in comparison, and anything you put on paper will somehow seem insignificant.

Schubert was able to at least partially overcome the toxicity of living in Beethoven’s shadow, as he was one of the most prolific composers of all time, composing till his last breath. But living in Beethoven’s shadow prevented Schubert from publishing a lot of his work, as he felt unworthy of publication.

Tragically, Schubert lived all his life in dire poverty and only became famous after his death. Schubert would have been utterly shocked that, 200 years later, his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s. He would also be surprised that today he is known as one of the great symphonists. Schubert did not hear most of his symphonies performed, as they went unpublished.

Schubert’s 9th symphony was rediscovered by Robert Schumann. Today Robert Schumann is known as a great composer (and as the husband of Clara Schumann – another great composer). However, in his time he was a very well-respected and popular music critic. Schumann visited Schubert’s brother in 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, and discovered the unpublished manuscript of a symphony. Schumann was shocked at how wonderful the symphony was and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn. Today Mendelssohn, too, is known as a great composer, but at that time he was also a very famous conductor. Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert’s symphony, which today we know as the 9th.

There is an interesting lesson here: The greatness of others can be intimidating, and it could injure our own creativity if we let it. We should allow it to inspire us but not allow it to put us down.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how much we enjoy going to the Boulder Symphony. We live in Denver. The Colorado Symphony would be a much easier and shorter commute. But last year one of my readers introduced me to his father, Tony Santelli, who is on the board of the Boulder Symphony. Tony raved about the symphony, and we had to check it out. Unlike the Colorado Symphony, which employs its performers, the Boulder Symphony is run on pure love (most of its musicians are not paid).

I like the unpretentiousness of this experience. It lacks the fanciness, the black ties and clicking of Champagne glasses of your usual urban symphony. The performances takes place in a Presbyterian church that seats only a few hundred people – a very quaint venue with terrific acoustics. During the intermission you can come up and chat with the performers and even with the very talented conductor.

Obviously, I have no frame of reference, but I would like to imagine that in the time of Schubert and Beethoven, many orchestras resembled the Boulder Symphony – orchestras for commoners where people came not to show off their designer dresses but purely because of their love for music.

I am Jewish and, as was well-demonstrated by Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, Jews crave tradition. If you do something twice, it automatically becomes a tradition. The last two times we went to the Boulder Symphony we stopped by Lark Burger before the performance, and after it we walked to downtown Boulder and the kids loaded up on sugar at a candy store. (I bribe my kids with burgers and sweets so they’ll keep coming with me to classical music concerts.)

Finally, I am writing this at midnight, listening to great music and thinking how lucky I am that a few of you will actually read these words. To these few – thank you.

Franz Schubert – Fantasie in F Minor

Today I wanted to share Fantasie in F Minor by Austrian composer Franz Schubert.  Schubert lived a very short life: when he was 25 he contracted syphilis, and at the time syphilis was a treacherous, painful death sentence (just like AIDS 20 years ago).  He died at the tender age of 32.

Just imagine a young man age 25, his life supposedly lying ahead of him, but instead he is staring death in the face.  Understandably, Schubert was depressed.  You can hear this depression in his music; it is full of melancholy.

Schubert was an addict: he was addicted to composing.  In the sixteen years of his creative life he wrote over a thousand songs, 9 symphonies, 22 piano sonatas, 17 operas, over a thousand works for piano, and many other works.  Most composers were not able to accomplish as much in a full natural lifetime.

Schubert was a very mediocre pianist.  Where Sergei Rachmaninoff or Franz Liszt were virtuoso pianists and thus their piano music was very demanding of a performer’s technical skills, for Schubert the piano was just a vessel to communicate his music and nothing more.

This Fantasie is a great example of that.  It is written for a piano and four hands (or two mediocre pianists).  This is speculation on my part, but if Liszt or Rachmaninoff had written this piece it would have been for two hands (or one virtuoso pianist).  In this observation, I am not trying to detract anything from Schubert – quite the opposite – but I feel these small glimpses into composers’ lives help me to understand and relate better to their music.

Fantasie in F Minor, Franz Schubert – piano, Lucas & Arthur Jussen

As a bonus, Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 4

 

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