Aram Khachaturian ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’: Enchanting Affection

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) was an Soviet-American composer, who was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. Soon after his move to Moscow, Khachaturian started studying at the Moscow conservatory, where he composed his piano and violin concertos, which subsequently popularised his name in and out of the Soviet Union. Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia is an orchestral piece from Khachaturian’s 1954 ballet Spartacus, which follows the trials and tribulations faced by Spartacus as the leader of the slave uprising against the Romans. The Adagio is heard within the second act of the ballet, when the slave women are set free and Spartacus and Phrygia celebrate to this wonderful orchestral piece.

With the plot of the story in mind (as well as me not actually having a score for this piece!), the opening of this wonderful piece is led by the strings and oboe, with the first theme being heard in the upper strings after the oboe’s beautiful solo of the main theme. This sensual ascending melody is one of my all-time favourites as it oozes decadence and is so easy on the ear, and with the plot of the story in mind, this ‘love theme’ as I shall refer to it as, perfectly exemplifies the feelings of gaiety and love. The luscious strings are united at this point, and to accompany this love theme, the lower brass play warming chord progressions below, with the woodwind, notably the clarinet and flute, playing short counter-melodies to the strings, which add a whole new dimension. This section of the piece is perhaps the most famous as the love theme has been said to be one of the best ever written, which I would not for one second dispute as I love it. The strings then play an intensifying ascending sequence which leads to a break in the rest of the orchestra for no more than two-beats, as the upper strings hold their top note which is incredibly heart-rendering. The orchestra return after this climax and the woodwind lead the strings back into the lower register to begin the next section.

Back from the heights of the skies, a new motif is heard in the lower strings, which is then exploited by the violas and violins soon after. The clarinet and oboe also take a variation of this new theme and use scalic runs to intensify and progress further. The feeling of triumph is still heard within this section, though notably less than the previous section, however the drive within this section, exploited by the lower strings is one of the highlights for me in this section. The woodwind and upper strings have a musical conversation between each other, which highlights the converse between Spartacus and Phrygia. The upper strings then ascend back up into the higher register, leaving behind reality and heading for the skies once more. The brass then interject at this point with a fanfare-like motif, which is the first time the trumpet is heard thus far, and its fanfare motif becomes part of a military-like section to the piece. The tempo is also picked up here with the lower brass really pushing this new theme, which is incredibly intensifying and exciting to hear. The strings and percussion then enter and play a driving theme, which seamlessly transitions back into the initial love theme, though a slight variant of it. This climax is one of the most stupendous musical cells I have ever heard, it makes you feel so free that not even negative energy can penetrate. The strings play the love theme in their higher register which is so prodigious that the trumpet plays a counter-melody after each cell (which one day I hope to be able to play!). The blending of the textures here is so stunning that it usually makes me tear up, as it may do to you too! The whole orchestra is united again at this point, which depicts the story of the slaves becoming free once more. The piece then slowly dies away, leading to the next section of the ballet. Khachaturian’s use of colourful harmonies and incredibly pleasing melodic lines makes for this piece to be an immense contribution to both orchestral and ballet music. This piece has also been orchestrated into an orchestral suite from the ballet, which reiterates its importance within the ballet and instrumental music. I cannot recommend this piece of music enough, its not a long piece of music and is so worth the emotional investment, and I can safely say that there is a 99.9% chance of goosebumps at any time!

Today is Valentine’s Day 2016 and I would like to dedicate this blog to all my friends and family who read my writing, you are all loved so very dearly!

 

Recommended Recording:

 

 

Richard Peaslee ‘Nightsongs’: An Eclectic Trumpet

The inspiration for this blog stems from my love of newer solo trumpet works, with Richard Peaslee’s Nightsongs being among my all time favourite. A fairly unknown composer, Peaslee was born in New York City in 1930, where he later studied composition at Yale University. His initial career path was to compose for big bands, with his inspiration coming from Stan Kenton’s big band. However, his style has been described as eclectic as he encompasses jazz elements, electronic soundscapes, folk-like idioms and extended instrumental techniques. Due to his rich cultural heritage, his style has become an amalgamation of his upbringing in New York City and his involvement in a range of different musical genres including writing for film and TV, dance and various jazz ensembles. Peaslee is probably the best well-known for his work in theatre and writing scores for chamber groups in Broadway. Nightsongs was composed in 1973, specifically for Harold Lieberman, a successful music academic and trumpet player who played for a range of world-famous bands such as Pink Floyd and Benny Goodman. Peaslee wrote Nightsongs while he was in the midst of his musical theatre career, although this particular piece incorporates various jazz and extended techniques.

Nightsongs is a one-movement piece for trumpet and flugelhorn, with a string orchestra accompaniment (though it is sometimes heard with just a piano accompaniment also). There is a four-bar orchestral introduction which is primarily led by the harp playing an arpeggiated G minor chord, whilst the strings gently rumble, moving to the dominant on the off-beats in the bar. The flugelhorn then enters in its lower register, which is luscious and daringly haunting, which is paired with the swelling strings below which are delicately trilling on various notes, beginning on A and going through G and C and finally ending on D, playing a full circle of tones. Tension is built here through non-chord tones and further then releasing them back into chord tones, which creates a to-and-fro effect to the accompaniment. To counteract this, the flugelhorn plays a syncopated rhythm, consisting of dotted quarter-notes, triplets and trills, which are all primary characteristics of the main melody. By bar 26 the texture changes quite a fair bit in both the accompaniment and the solo flugelhorn, with the accompaniment (more specifically the harp and lower strings) playing eighth-note triplets and the upper strings are playing a straight and simplified version of the main theme.

Peaslee bases the next section of the piece on the twelve-tone row, which is passed from the lower strings upwards, creating a very sparse texture. This shift in texture leads up to an exciting array of ascending and descending triplets played by the soloist (note the soloist has changed to Bb trumpet here). The previous feeling of yearning that Peaslee had created in the last section is washed away somewhat and a more hopeful atmosphere is created. To emphasise the use of twelve-tone, or in fact a semi-twelve-tone approach to this section, Peaslee repeats only small sections of the row, and then abandons it after the seventh, which creates a very open feel to this section. This section is also marked Slower-Expressive which further highlights Peaslee’s various compositional decisions. Bar 83 marks the next section of the piece, and this is perhaps my favourite section. Marked Slow the accompaniment play some incredibly enchanting E minor 13th chords, which again, are syncopated. The soloist has changed back to flugelhorn for this section, and after a short introduction from the accompaniment, plays a smooth melodic line. The major challenge the soloist faces at this point is the intervals Peaslee has written, for instance intervals of 9th’s and 10th’s are incredibly difficult to play in a higher range, especially when marked pp. Again, to create atmospheric space, Peaslee relies heavily on the Lydian mode to shine through the rubato melodic lines from the soloist, against the syncopated Ab minor 11th chords played by the accompaniment. The tempo slows a little at this point, however the accompaniment is very active, now playing arpeggiated sextuplets in F# minor, with the soloist building up to the climax of a top C# marked ff and slowly dying away to a subtle mp. This section in particular I really enjoy as it just feels so other-worldly and it really shows off the trumpet as an instrument and just how versatile it can be.

The enchanting E minor 13th chords are heard again, although this time with the soloist who is playing the exact same rhythm as the accompaniment, which infers a sense of unity at this point, which there hasn’t been much of thus far. The upper strings and harp play a short melodic cell which foreshadows what the soloist plays a few bars later, and thereafter the accompaniment starts dying away and becoming less and less prominent. The underlying chords here do reflect Peaslee’s jazz background with the his use of a C minor 9th sus 4 chord underneath the melodic line played by the soloist. An E minor 11th chord is held in the accompaniment and the soloist plays a nifty descending sequence, utilising the locrian mode. This leads into the next section which is marked as Fast, and is by far the most exciting and driven section of the work. Pealsee plays with time signatures a lot here, changing from 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/4 and so on so forth. The rhythmic drive for this section is an eighth-note triplet sequence in the accompaniment and it passed between the parts within the accompaniment and the soloist. There are some very tight harmonies in this section, with Peaslee also being frivolous with his tonal centres in the solo part as you can hear his use of G# Aeolian mode, D Dorian and my personal favourite, G# Lydian mode. The melodic lines played within this section are actually taken from previous material in the piece, but as Peaslee has placed them in a new time signature (5/4 being the most prominent in this instance) he has essentially added two beats to the theme, therefore it sounds fairly different to its original source.

I do hope I haven’t lost too many of you at this point! Moving on, the next section is dramatically slower than the previous section, with a tempo marking of 60 (as opposed to 132). An eight-bar measure of the opening theme is heard in the accompaniment, with the flugelhorn leading in with a trilled low E. A tonal centre of G minor is heard in the soloist at this point, however, as you’ve probably guessed at this point, Peaslee does not stay in with this tonal centre for too long. The soloist is playing in a high range at this point and is playing in syncopation, unlike the accompaniment, which again has become quite active with eighth-note triplets. The soloist retreats back down to a lower register and the tempo starts fluctuating somewhat in the last few measures of this piece. With the accompaniment and soloist playing minimal material here, the soloist picks up and descends into a luscious low B trill, which is played through the last few bars of the piece until the last bar. The accompaniment plays another variation of the main melody based around an Eb7 chord and then the piece ends with two very spacious chords, one open fourths, the other open fifths. This ending leaves the piece feeling very unsteady and uncompleted, which essentially fulfils the overriding feeling of this whole piece.

Nightsongs is an eclectic composition that interweaves Peaslee’s jazz background, with his use of extended harmonies, use of modes and extended instrumental techniques. It’s also a piece that requires a lot of endurance from the soloist as changing between instruments is tricky enough, but with the stamina required as well due to the range of the piece and the tricky valve combinations makes it an exciting piece to learn to play. I really enjoy the style of this piece and how it easily changes from one tempo to another, whilst still feeling like a complete piece.  Peaslee’s stylistic considerations within the piece are incredibly intense but so very rewarding and as a jazz trumpeter myself, I really enjoy the extended use of harmonies and jazz modes to create a very mystical and challenging solo piece of music for the trumpet and flugelhorn.

Recommended Recordings:

This is a wonderful recording played by the incredibly talented, Philip Smith – Enjoy!

Samuel Barber ‘Adagio for Strings’: Diving into an Emotional Abyss

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) was originally written as the second movement of his String Quartet in B minor (Op. 11), however in the same year Barber rearranged this movement for a full string orchestra . This piece was written in a really musically fruitful time for Barber, with his work becoming more well received between the years 1936-1939. This is quite ironic considering that Adagio for Strings is perhaps one of the most emotionally driven compositions to ever grace the land, with it being labelled as the ‘unofficial national anthem of sorrow.’ The piece has been has been played for a variety of different occasions, most notably funerals and memorial services, which include the likes of Albert Einstein, John. F. Kennedy and Princess Diana. The piece has also made many appearances on TV and film, with Platoon and The Elephant Man being the most striking. The piece has also been popular within trance music and has been used as a sample track on a few different instrumental trance tracks.

Adagio for Strings starts ever so delicately with a Bb held by the violins, which progresses into hesitant crotchet step movement that creates an eerie atmosphere to the introductory section. This ascending melodic cell is passed around the orchestra and is manipulated in very subtle ways, which consequently makes this piece in arch form.  The meter varies throughout the movement, thought 4/2 time is usually returned to after a sequence in 2/2 or 3/2. This first musical cell is restated by the violas a little later on, although this time they play a fifth down from the original sequence. The timbre of the violas adds a dark, yet comforting sound to the emotional sound world that Barber is trying to create, to which he also uses varying ranges of the instruments to create a compelling, polyphonic section that makes all parts incredibly important.

The incredibly expansive middle section is so very moving with the orchestra acting more as a string choir, which work together to create a more natural sound. The cellos play in a rather high register, that of a mezzo-soprano, which creates a somewhat lighter texture within the ensemble as the violins are also playing in a middle register, although this does grow into fruition slightly later in this section. To emphasise the gripping nature of the end of this section, Barber eradicates all bass lines, leaving the upper strings to ‘fend for themselves’ and fulfil the melodic contours, which reach start reaching some high points, which further grows and grows until the upper violins start creating a ‘swelling’ feeling. I particularly love this end section as it really highlights the wonderful instrument that is the viola. The orchestra build together, each reaching higher and higher registers until the fortissimo-forte section is heard, which is just completely heart-rendering and you’d have to be a distant relative of a brick if it doesn’t touch you even just a little bit. A short pause is then heard, which feels like forever if you’ve emotionally committed to the music as it feels like Barber has tried ripping your heart out of your chest, but then he changes his mind and let’s go, and you’re plunged back into reality once more.

The final section essentially recaps the first melodic cell that was heard in the introduction, as well as an inverted restatement of the second theme, which amalgamate into a contrapuntal concoction of luscious string sounds. The dynamic is piano and I am usually a blubbering mess at this point, so don’t you worry if you’re the same. The oh-so delicate restatement of the first theme is very penetrating as it takes you back to the beginning, before the ‘big fizz’ of the sound world erupted. A solemn line played by the violas and cellos bring a dark, yet incredibly sad timbre to the mixture, making it a very sad farewell at the end of the piece where the instruments slowly die out. I absolutely love this piece and I listen to it everyday as it is on my sleeping playlist, it is so very calming and it’s a piece that, if you let it, will take you into a new sound world (which is worth it, trust me on that one).

This is a piece I highly recommend you listen to as it can be a vehicle of escape for those who need it, or a comforting blanket if that’s what you so desire. Adagio for Strings for me is something that I rely on to let me cry if I need to sometimes, it’s strange, it’s there for you like a friend, but its friendship is shown through musical means instead of physical. Let yourself connect with it, let Barber take you away for 10 minutes and he’ll bring you back at the end, just so long as you trust where he is taking you. Who cares if it’s a bit cliché, its a wonderful piece of music!

 

Recommended recordings:

This recording is very balanced, its perhaps one of my favourite recordings of this piece.

This version, played by Detroit Symphony Orchestra is really lovely also – plus you get to watch the musicians play which is always a bonus!