Paul Drayton ‘Masterpiece’: A Musical Assortment

Happy Sunday my wonderful readers! I have such a treat to share with you today, I’m sure you’re all going to love this brilliant work. I was thinking the other day I should find a piece that has a humorous edge to it, because that’s what is so wonderful about this genre – it’s so versatile! To help me with this blog I contacted the composer on the off-chance that he would reply, and to my luck he did! So today’s blog is on the wonderful Paul Drayton’s vocal work, Masterpiece.

Paul Drayton was born in the East of Yorkshire, 1944. After taking an academic route at a young age, Drayton successfully completed his advanced performing diploma of the Royal Academy of Music by the time he was sixteen. After this, he went to study his undergraduate degree in musicology at The University of Oxford, which was followed by his postgraduate degree in composition. Drayton not only composes, but also teaches, lectures and writes on different musics.

Drayton has worked as the musical director of Cornwall’s premier opera company, Duchy Opera. With this company he has conducted productions such as Verdi’s Tosca and Handel’s Semele. Whilst there he also conducted his own “operatic chiller” The Hanging Oak (you can find recordings of all of Paul Drayton’s work on his website: Drayton’s music has been published, recorded around the world and he has played/conducted in many wonderful venues such as Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.

Drayton has composed a vast range of different music within his lifetime, these include works for organ such as: Dance in a Desolate Place and Advent Dances. Orchestral works such as: Sinfonietta for Chamber Orchestra, Odyssey Variations and Elegiac Variations for 12 Cellos. Drayton has also composed a number of stage works such as The Hobbit, Nero and The Mermaid of Zennor.

His main compositional output, however, is for voice. He has written compositions for solo voice such as Perceptions (for tenor and chamber ensemble), Orchard Nocturne (mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano) and How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear! (five songs for tenor and piano). As well as solo voice, Drayton has also composed for chorus and orchestra, for example: Canticle of the Bells (double SATB, piano duet, organ and percussion), Orpheus (chorus and orchestra) and The Scholar’s Life (chorus and orchestra).

Drayton has had a very positive relationship with the fantastic vocal ensemble The King’s Singers, and has composed commissions for this group. Works such as Sonnet and Six Characters in Search of an Opera are among the many compositions Drayton has composed for this ensemble. Masterpiece was written in 1987 (soon to be published by Hinshaw Music, USA), for The King’s Singers who ran a competition for a new piece, but the ensemble decided that the work could not win the competition as it wasn’t really pastiche. However, the ensemble really liked the composition and it has since been sung all over the world. The King’s Singers then recorded it for their 2005 DVD From Byrd to The Beatles. Naturally, as the personnel of the ensemble change, so does the interpretations of the work, however it is still being requested in the present day from audience members.

Masterpiece essentially aims to cover the last 400 years of Western Classical music in c.11 minutes. Over email, Drayton told me that due to time constraints he (obviously) could not fit in all composers, apparantely due to this he provoked wide complaints of the work. Drayton says he picked the composers that he thought were the most entertaining and also the most susceptible to crude mimicry. Each composer that is mentioned may be sung in the stereotypical style of that era. The work shows a progression between the starting composer (Bach) and one of the end composers (Debussy). I personally find this piece not only incredibly clever and witty, but intriguing as to how we perceive certain types of Western classical musics. I’m going to attempt to give a walk-through account of this work, so I can point out any particularly witty parts and also celebrate just how fantastic this piece is!

The piece begins with a short tenor solo singing ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ in a very Bacherian manner. Other voices begin to enter to make this beautiful polyphony – something that Bach composed a lot within his music. The voices are paired together at this point singing either ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ or different tempo markings such as ‘tempo guisto’. There is a running joke through this section of the performers singing the very many initials of Bach’s sons (Johann Christian, Carl Phillip Emmanuel etc). Soon the voices split into trios and argue between the various sons names as well as J.S Bach’s name. The bass then takes control of the situation and very loudly proclaims ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’, to which the voices begin to resolve into a cadence before a quick silence, then the bass starts with the beginning cadence note, whilst the other voices layer in to create a perfect cadence. The performers end with a very pertinent ‘ch’ sound at the end of ‘Bach’ which is highly comical, and perhaps to do with how we are taught to say Bach’s name from a young age (especially those who had singing lessons!).

The next composer mentioned is George Friedrich Handel. This section starts as a fanfare on the composer’s name. The tempo then speeds up into a very bouncy sequence of melismatic notes from the counter-tenor and the bass voices. There is a very sweet sound to this section, and again, is a very predictable sound we would hear from compositions by Handel. Also, it is worth noting that this section is incredibly difficult due to the compound time and the amount of notes in each melismatic phrase. So on the outside it may seem bouncy and simple, but for the performers I would suggest that this is one of the hardest sections to sing (and to still be clearly heard!). This section ends on another perfect cadence.

The next section revolves around Mozart. With a slow Alberti bass to begin with, the performers comes together as an accompaniment before the tenor voice takes a solo line. This section is ever so sweet and it lists different performance directions and operas that Mozart composed. There is an alternation between voices here, so firstly you hear ‘Cosi fan Tutti’, followed by ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’. Then ‘Don Giovani’ which is replied by the basses with ‘Idomeneo’. There is also an emphasis of the expression term ‘expressivo’, which rises above the operas being mentioned. This section ends quietly with the voices coming together saying “by Mozart”.

Next up is Beethoven. This section always seems to find people’s attention as it is a massive mood change from the preceding sections. Again, as a play on his name, the performers sing in a very Beethoverian style, not least mimicking that of his Fifth Symphony. There’s a very lovely embellishment within this part of the section from the top voices (can you hear it?). I really like the juxtaposition of moods here as it shows Beethoven’s colourful palette for mood and emotion. To start a new accompaniment, the performers comically sing some performance directions such as ‘Sforzando, subito piano, agitata, appassionata’ – these are then repeated (as they all oppose each other in the sequence). Then a new joke is made between the discrepancy between the composer’s name. So Beethoven changed his Dutch ‘van’ in his name to ‘von’ to imply some sort of aristocratic pedigree. This is illustrated here between two voices who argue which one it truly is. The voices then speed up until they come to a compromise. A small fanfare then leads the outcry of ‘Beethoven’ – which is answered with a comical whistle (typically from the bass): the second of these whistles mimics Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The section ends with a fade-out of the initial fanfare. This segues into a bass solo, which tries to find the next bass line, before starting the next section.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is the next composer on the list. This is a very simple section which is very easy to listen to (similar to the Mozart section). There is a nod to Mendelssohn’s sentimental value in his music, which leads to this short section ending with one of my favourite lines: ‘allegretto con molto sentimen…delssohn’. A quick segue sees us into the next composer which is Strauss. A change into 3/4 to create a waltz feel sets this section up to be very resonant of Strauss. The performers go through the different members of the Strauss, before then singing about various pieces by the different Strauss composers. There then a change in mood and various conductors are mentioned such as Herbert von Karajan and Willi Boskovsky. The tempo starts to speed up until the voices come together to proclaim ‘amen to the waltzes of Johann Strauss!’.

There is a whirlwind of notes heard until it begins to calm and land into the next section, which is perhaps my favourite. The tenor then sings ‘Claude Debussy’ in a very laid-back style. The performers then begin singing in French, which creates a very fluid and beautiful section. They sing about Debussy’s arabesques for piano among other compositions. Clair de Lune and La Mer are also mentioned in this section. Interestingly, the voices are mostly together throughout the whole of this section. By the end of the section the tempo has sped up and the voices are proclaiming ‘Monsieur Debussy’.

This section leads us into a speed-list of different composers, beginning with Cesar Franck, Liszt, Holst and Bax. This list is then interrupted by a tenor singing ‘Wagner! Wagner! Herr Richard Wa..!’ before stepping back after realising he’s the only one singing. The speed list starts again with other composers such as Britten, Bruckner, Chopin, Schumann, Mahler and Poulenc. Composers names that start with similar sounding letters are grouped together to create some sort of consistency. This is then interrupted again by a proclamation of Wagner. This time he pursues this comical interruption. This then leads into yet another speed-list which includes composers such as Berlioz, Massenet, Meyerbeer and Viotti. This leads up to each voice saying the next composer in this order (bass-counter-tenor): Pacini, Mussorgsky, Menotti, Rossini, Resphigi, Puccini!

There is a small pause, before a small section on William Byrd, where the performers sing in the style of the composer. They then exclaim ‘Cage’, referring to modernist composer, John Cage. Whilst in contact with Paul Drayton, he told me about his joke in this section. It’s one I have never noticed before but think about it…Byrd Cage! After this, the performers start singing ‘From everyone…’, then proceed to probe the likes of Stockhausen and Gershwin (with a really nice use of a blue note!).

To end the piece the singers go back to Bach, singing ‘And Bach again’ over and over again. There is a small phrase which starts at the basses and makes it way through the voices which soars above the spoken word. The piece ends with a small phrase similar to that of the previous motif, which then resolves perfectly at the end with all voices entering on different beats.

Masterpiece is such a brilliant piece that mixes comedy, stereotypes and complex musical styles together to create this compact guide to the last 400 years of Western classical music. This is genuinely one of my all-time favourite pieces as it just makes me smile every time I listen to it. The King’s Singers are absolutely sublime in their performances of this work and it really does it the justice it deserves.

I would like to express my gratitude to Paul Drayton for helping me out with this blog as some information was tricky to find. I hope you have enjoyed this blog, many thanks for your kindness!

Like they say at the start of this piece – if your favourite composer isn’t mentioned…tough!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:



Morton Feldman ‘For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin’: A Persisting Character

It’s that time again classical music fans! I’m very excited to share with you a piece that is incredibly simple, yet speaks volumes for me. This work is by the fantastic American composer, Morton Feldman. So for something a little different today, here is my breakdown of Morton Feldman’s For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin – enjoy!

Morton Feldman was born in 1926 into a Russian-Jewish family. From a young age he began to learn piano where he found his love for music and composition. Feldman learnt with and admired a range of different German-modernist composers such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. After a successful run in his early musical career, Feldman became very close friends with John Cage. With the aid of Cage, Feldman began experimenting with composition, such as dabbling with non-standard systems of musical notation. Feldman also became very interested in composing ‘chance music’, which gives away a lot of responsibility to the performer. Through this he became a much more well-known American composer.

Through his friendship with John Cage, Feldman met a range of prominent figures within the New York arts scene (which included a range of different art forms such as architecture and fine art). He began taking a lot of interest in abstract expressionists, and from there he started composing with these figures and works in mind. Through the 1970s, Feldman composed a fair bit of music that was based on these abstract ideas, such as Rothko Chapel (1971).

As well as abstract compositions, Feldman also composed a few film scores. The first was for Jack Garfein’s 1961 film Something Wild. Interestingly though, this commission fell through very quickly as Feldman composed the music for the opening scene, where a female character (who also happened to be Garfein’s real-life wife), is raped. After hearing Feldman’s music for this, Garfein famously exclaimed: “My wife is being raped and you write celesta music?!”. As you can perhaps guess from this, his commission was abolished, and instead Garfein enlisted Aaron Copland to compose the score.

After his very creative period, Feldman branched away from his graphically notated scores and bizarre notation systems and his music became much more rhythmically precise. The breakthrough piece within this new period was his short work, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety – which was dedicated to his childhood piano teacher. He then became very involved with composing music that was very long in duration. Usually these works were in one continuous movement, which made them even more stand-out. To name but a few works included in this period:

Violin and String Quartet (1985, 2 hours)

For Philip Guston (1984, 4 hours)

String Quartet II (1983, 6 hours)

These works are very static, with an incredibly slow developmental theme that runs throughout. These compositions are comprised of many small, quiet sounds which build up over the duration of the work. Whilst he was composing this incredibly long works, he was also a Professor at the University of Buffalo. Feldman died in 1987 from pancreatic cancer and he has left behind an incredibly rich and fruitful legacy within modernist music history.

For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin was composed in 1981, and unlike a lot of his other works in this period, it is only 72 bars long, with a duration of around 4 minutes. I find that this work has a very simple surface, but actually when you get under this layer it has a lot to offer (so bare with me on this one – it’s worth it I promise!). So the work is for solo violin, and it’s very slow and it comprises of most just single notes in a bar – with a few changes throughout the work. The violin is muted, and the choices of pitches by Feldman is very interesting as it creates this wonderful ambiguous transparency. Throughout the whole work, Feldman only uses seven white-key pitches. This introduces an interesting element of diatoniscism into the work, which contradicts a lot of his other works which are heavily chromatic and harmonic.

The first seven pitches are as follows: G,F,D,C,B,A,E. These cover the seven pitches used throughout the piece. It seems that these pitches descend (usually by step) to one another, until the final pitch is hear and a very loose ‘cadence’ is heard (note that this is without octave transposition). Feldman used an approach in some of his music that he labeled “crippled symmetry”, to which he uses it in the second round of these pitches being sounded. The reason for this title is that the notes are symmetrical, although the duration of the notes are varied ever so slightly. Feldman starts using compound time signatures such as 7/8 and 5/4 to slightly change the symmetrical image of the last round. The different durations do not appear to follow any sort of internal logic, however the way the new durations are placed may give some clue as to Feldman’s logic. For example, the first alteration is weighted towards the end of the sequence, which creates a slower progression.

Feldman also starts playing around with triplet off-beat beats, which makes the performer think whilst they play, which naturally gives off a rather hesitant feel to the work. It’s strange, because I can relate that as the performer it would become quite difficult to get each off-beat rhythm and pitch exactly right. However, after a succession of these off-beat rhythms, Feldman writes back onto the natural beat of the bar, and the sequence begins again which brings some relief for both the performer and listener.

In terms of character, one may argue that ‘well there’s some repeated notes in a slow tempo – surely there’s no character!’ – but I couldn’t disagree more. The G-F dyad that opens the piece is incredibly distinctive within the shaping of this work. With the octave transposition, this rising seventh is indeed a specific character that Feldman then repeats throughout the piece. The importance of this seventh is also reinforced by other notes such as C-B, which sounds not long after the first. After doing my reading on the compositional styles of Feldman, I am very swayed with the idea that this particular work does not develop in the way that we know music to develop. Feldman does not take on the Germanic classical development ritual, but instead he makes his ‘character notes’ persist. This gives a lot of interpretation to the listener as a lot can be said for this piece, and my imagination runs wild when I hear certain intervals in this way. The function of this piece is not to generate new and expansive motives out of a small chunk of music, but instead to explore and really hone in on the particular notes that are played and how they are played (i.e – with the violin being muted).

With the violin being so much in the spotlight, and with no accompaniment to hide behind, the use of harmonics is also an interesting one. For example in the opening few bars the harmonics played on G and D really resonate and create such a wonderful colour within the violin. It can be argued (and indeed I am arguing) that G is the most important and central pitch within this work. It always appears as a harmonic, from the start to the end of the piece it is the only pitch to be repeated immediately at any point in the piece (whenever and wherever in the sequence of notes). Each note sits and exists in its own right within this work, and it was noted by Feldman that each note should resonate within the body of violin. With this thought process in mind, it is worth mentioning that the G-string harmonic on the violin is perhaps the richest in tone, and therefore is an ideal note to have at the centre of a piece such as this.

An aspect within this piece that always grabs my attention is the octave displacement, which runs throughout the piece. I believe that the idea of G being the most important note is interesting when viewed within the octave displacement. It’s like Feldman does not want G to be noticed as the same as the original G played. So for example if the first G was played above the stave, and the second was played on the stave, this creates slight ambiguity into what the note may be (unless you have perfect pitch of course!). It’s tricky within this piece, and I certainly found it whilst analysing the music, that it is difficult to connect notes and pitches together. There is not so much voicing extremities, as he only covers two octaves within the work.

Sonority on different harmonics are created through this work, so firstly we had the major seventh, and following this there is a lot of emphasis on the major ninth interval. These different intervals are emphasised a lot through rhythmic variations in the score. The fluctuation between 7/-3/5-5/4 is very interesting as it puts the weighting of the phrases in different places – creating very different atmospheres.

Within the last 12 bars of the piece there is an emphasis on the rising major seventh and ninth figures, which have been so central throughout the work. Many of the first musical ‘ideas’ heard at the start of the work begin to echo within the last few bars, conforming to Feldman’s “disorientation of memory.” There is certainly a feeling that Feldman wanted to focus on the gesture and placement of the notes, rather than the development of these ‘characters.’ Although this work seems incredibly sparse at first glance, it is actually rich in tones, ideas and themes that, once you’re aware of, you may listen to this piece slightly differently.

It feels as though with For Aaron Copland for Solo Violin takes each page as a visual for an idea. So the first was the major seventh interval, but then on the next page it was the major ninth. Each page should perhaps be treated as a more visual concept and then these ideas may merge together in a more understandable and coherent manner. I would like to think that after reading my partial analysis of this piece that you may think of it as much more than a few notes played on a page. I find the diversity within Feldman’s music so exciting as some works are absolutely bizarre and complex to both listen to and perform. Whereas other compositions, such as this one, are incredibly simple and are perfect to perform some analysis on. I hope you can find something interesting in this work – I know I definitely have!

This blog is for a violinist who I admire very much Jenny (aka JENNNNAAAAAYYY) Espin. I hope you find some simplistic beauty in this piece – you’re wonderful, keep doing you!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Johannes Brahms ‘Symphony No. 3’: A Musical Memory

Good afternoon readers, happy Sunday! After finishing my reading 2 hours ahead of my schedule for the day, I’ve decided to indulge and write another blog. This is a celebratory blog as well as it’s my 80th (yes 80th!) on classicalexburns! So that’s 80 different works by 79 composers! To join this brilliant collection of composers and works I will be writing about Romantic composer Johannes Brahms and his Symphony No. 3. Sit back, relax and enjoy this Romantic rollercoaster.

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg, 1833, into a Lutheran family. His father pursued a career in music, working as a wind and string player. After a lot of time trying to find the perfect music job, Johann Jakob Brahms settled as a double-bass player in the Hamburg Stadttheater and the Hamburg Philharmonic Society. Brahms was the second child out of three to be born, and his younger brother, Fritz also became a musician, playing and teaching as a pianist. Johann Jakob gave his son his first dose of musical training, where Brahms learnt to play the violin and cello. From 1840 (at about 6-7 years old), Brahms then took up piano with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel. Whilst learning the piano (and being brilliant as a concert performer), Brahms also began composing music. By age 10 he had composed his Piano Sonata in G minor. 

Between the years 1845-1848, Brahms studied with Eduard Marxsen (who also happened to be Cossel’s tutor. Marxsen had very traditional ways of teaching, ensuring that Brahms followed in the footsteps of the ‘greats’ – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Bach. After giving a wealth of recitals on piano, Brahms was entered into the more professional world of classical music. He was introduced to the ‘gipsy-style’ of music and this built a foundation for him to compose some of his most popular and lucrative works: Hungarian Dances (1869 and 1880). During 1850, Brahms made contact with composer Robert Schumann, and Brahms even sent Schumann some of his compositions by post, but alas it was returned, unopened.

After a decade of performing, composing and meeting lots of big names in the industry, Brahms met the likes of Liszt, Cornelius and Raff. With an attempt to bring together Brahms and Schumann, Raff provided Brahms with a letter of both recommendation and introduction to Schumann. In 1853, Brahms travelled to Düsseldorf to meet Robert and Clara Schumann, where he was warmly welcomed. Schumann was very impressed by Brahms’ talent. 1854 saw a turbulent year for Schumann he as attempted suicide, and was then confined in a mental hospital in Bonn. Brahms then based himself in Düsseldorf and supported the Schumann family, and after Robert’s death, Brahms and Clara Schumann remained very close until her death. Brahms also dedicated his Op. 9 Variations on a Theme of Schumann (1854), to Clara.

Between 1856-1860, Brahms felt some setbacks in his professional career. The premiere of Piano Concerto No. 1 was poorly received and came as a double-blow to Brahms as he was also the soloist at the premiere. This backlash also meant that publishing his works would become a difficult task, so he began building relationships with other publishing companies. Brahms also began engaging in public musical polemics, which saw him come into a bit of bother. In 1860 he debated on the future of German music, and the backlash from this was very large and unsavoury. Together with Raff, Brahms and others attacked Liszt’s followers, what the called the “New German School”. The main arguments surrounded traditionalism, nationality and musicianship. Interestingly, Brahms was sympathetic to their leader, Richard Wagner. After the draft of this was leaked, Brahms was all over the news and subsequently never got involved in that kind of public display anymore.

Vienna was a hot-spot for music in the mid-1860s, and Brahms first made a trip there in 1862. He held a number of musical director positions in and around Vienna and between 1872-1875, he was director of the concerts of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The University of Cambridge offered Brahms an honorary doctorate of music in 1877, but interestingly, Brahms refused this. Throughout his life, Brahms was a very active composer, even whilst travelling and collaborating with other composers. He became friends with Johann Strauss II and Dvořák and worked with them on concerts.

By 1890, Brahms had come to the conclusion that he would stop composing, however this didn’t happen and ironically he composed some his most famous works. He composed several piano cycles (including his Lullabies) during the lead up to his death. In 1896 he developed pancreatic (though it has been researched that it may have been the liver) cancer. During March 1897, Brahms made his final public appearance where he conducted his Symphony No. 4. He died a month later on 3 April 1897, aged 63.

Brahms’ legacy has lived on very vividly since his death, and it is down partly to his sheer contribution to a menagerie of different types of works. He wrote a number of major works for orchestra, which include serenades, symphonies and concertos. He also composed choral works, with perhaps his most famous being A German Requiem. As well as this, Brahms also composed chamber works such as string quintets/sextets, clarinet trio, horn trio, piano quintets and piano sonatas and ballades (the full list is incredibly lengthy!). Throughout his professional career as a composer, Brahms maintained a classical sense of form and order in his works, this made his fans see him a champion of traditional forms and “pure music” (whatever that actually means!).

Brahms had a difficult life at times, and it was a lot to do with his perfectionism. He destroyed a lot of his early works as they were not up to his standards, which means only the later works have been officially published. He, like his contemporaries, was very fond of nature and often went into the forests in Vienna to compose. He was reportedly very kind to children, with him always carrying sweets with him so he could give them to children. However to adults, Brahms was often abrupt and sarcastic and often alienated himself (which explains why he never married, although he nearly did once). I’d like to share a really lovely quote from one his students, Gustav Jenner, who wrote:

“Brahms has acquired, not without reason, the reputation for being a grump, even though few could also be as lovable as he.”

He was a man of habit, always visiting the same pub in Vienna every day, always walking with his hands behind his back. His circle of friends were very loyal to him and he repaid them in respect, loyalty and generosity. He was supposedly a rather rich man, although he lived a simple life and gave a lot to others, especially his music students and friends. In any kind of picture you see of Brahms his beard is one thing that is pertinent, and he was often the butt of jokes due to his scruffy beard and clothes and the fact that he barely wore socks. Brahms in general is a very intriguing fellow and his music is battling between modernism and traditionalism, which makes it even more exciting.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 was composed in the summer of 1883 in Wiesbaden, which was about 6-7 years after he had completed his Symphony No. 2. It was premiered on December 2nd, 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Hans Richter. At the time of the premiere, this work was actually seen as ‘contemporary’ (by that I mean not traditional), so both the orchestra and audience found it a difficult work to digest. It’s bizarre to think that this work was seen as ‘modernist’, because now it’s quite quintessentially Romantic. Brahms composed his works so that they could stand in stead with Beethoven’s and his way of thinking certainly developed to achieve this.

Symphony No. 3 is the shortest of the four symphonic works that Brahms composed. The organic qualities of this work is thus more emphasised due to the compressed time of the work. The work is reflective and even pensive at times, with the musical quotation of the motto Frei aber froh (“Free but Happy”). This is Brahms’ response to Raff’s Frei aber einsam (“Free by Lonely”). You can hear this motif in bars when the sequence F-A-F is played. The symphony is mapped out into four movements:

1. Allegro con brio (F Major)

2. Andante (C Major)

3. Poco allegretto (C minor)

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto (F minor – F Major) 

The four movements display various moods and atmosphere’s, which are intensified due to the compactness of the symphony. The ending is a topic of discussion as it breaks away from common convention ever so slightly – which we will discuss in due time. There is a growing-fascination within this symphony and each movement seems to aim to relieve this fascination, but alas we are left unanswered at the end – which I find most exciting. One more thing to look out for is the ending of the movements. All four movements end quietly – which is very a very subtle trick, by its perhaps one of the most pertinent for me. I cannot even name another large-scale orchestral work that does this. Some of the most powerful moments are caught in this restrained tension at the end of the movements.

1. Allegro con brio

The first movement maps out the F-A-F motif and develops that throughout the movement. There are a lot of quick changes in tonality from major to minor. Rooted in F major, the key often switches to the relative minor and then quickly comes back again. This creates this fabulous musical colour that Brahms was so talented at creating. The beginning grabs our attention by playing two very strong tonic and dominant chords. The theme set out by the violins is quite reminiscent and there is a feel for nostalgia. This movement goes through many twists and turns, but the musical foundation is always at the forefront. You can certainly hear from the different textures that Brahms plays with throughout this movement, that he was trained to a very high standard. A dance-like section takes over and the strings and winds are call and responding to one another. The use of brass on more fanfare-like section really makes such a fruitful effect within the orchestra. The lead up to the end of the movement is very exciting, loud and driven, and this is slowly brought back down both in terms of tempo, dynamic and range. The movement then ends on a tonic chord which fades away.

2. Andante 

The second movement begins with a chorale-like motif from the upper winds, which is interjected by the strings, however the winds return and lead this section boldly. There are some real dark moments in this movement where you can hear a tempestuous pedal note from the lower strings, and other more ‘woody’ instruments (bassoon, viola etc) start layering above each other to create a very interesting textual effect. This slow movement is not riddled with sadness, but more pensive feelings of nostalgia. There feels to me some sort of idea of ‘looking back’ – perhaps to Beethoven? The movement is absolutely lovely and the clarinet especially takes some wonderful solo lines throughout. The movement ends with a tonic chord, which is played very delicately by the whole orchestra.

3. Poco allegretto 

The penultimate movement of the symphony, directed Poco allegretto begins with a swaying motif from the strings. The mixture of pizzicato and arco strings creates a wonderful timbre to the start of this movement. There is a shift in tonality in this movement, as the previous was in C Major, and this movement is in C minor. This does not create darkness, but more colour to the music. The timbral build up at the end of the movement comes to a wonderfully delicate close at the end of the movement.

4. Allegro – Un poco sostenuto

The final movement of this fantastic symphony begins with a mysterious lower-string motif. This is taken and passed and developed around the orchestra, to again highlight the F-A-F motif from the first movement. There are lots of change in mood in this movement, with the tonality forever shifting between major and minor. The heavens open and there is this feverish string texture which leads us not to the triumphant ending that is expected, but a peaceful resolution. The ending is surprise, not just because it settles into F Major and not the minor, but because it ends in a such a way that was virtually unknown in the Romantic era. This ending allows the music to unwind and essentially put its last bit of energy into the memory and aura of the symphony’s opening.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is such a fantastic work in many respects, and it’s certainly one of my favourite works by the composer. With all that went on in Brahms’ life, his music certainly retained a certain Romantic quality that is still loved today. I hope you have enjoyed this blog – as it’s the 80th blog on the site – so a massive thank you for all your support so far – here’s to many more blogs!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Remember – you can listen to this work and all the other works I have covered on my new Spotify playlist – 


Alban Berg ‘Vier Stücke’: Charismatic Miniatures

Good day, readers! Today’s blog is on a composer who I admire very much – Alban Berg. Recently, I have been to a wealth of concerts in and around Sheffield which have inspired me to try to write more regularly on different musics so that they can be shared with as many people as possible. I attended a recital not long ago, and heard this Berg piece again and remembered how much I liked it – so today’s blog is on Berg’s Vier Stücke for clarinet and piano.

Berg was born in Vienna, 1885 to a family who were comfortable with their placing in society (although this did shift somewhat when Berg’s father, Conrad, died in 1900). As a child, and even at points in his young teenage years, Berg was more interested in literature than music. Around age 15 he started to teach himself how to read music so that he could have a go at composing. Berg had to grow up very quickly though, because age 17 he fathered a child with Marie Scheuchi, who was a servant girl in the Berg household. Purusing his musical interests further, Berg became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, where he received his first formal music education. With Schoenberg, Berg studied the basics of counterpoint, harmony and theory, and was a student of Schoenberg’s until 1911 (after which they stayed lifelong friends).

In his early composition career, Berg wrote songs and piano sonatas, with his Piano Sonata No. 1 becoming one of his most formidable early works. Similar to Schoenberg’s technique, Berg was taught the idea of ‘developing variation’, which means all aspects of a composition are derived from a simple single idea. Berg was a part of Vienna’s cultural elite during the turn-of-the-Century. In 1911, Berg married the singer Helene Nahowski. In 1913 his Five songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg were premiered in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg. The songs were accompanied by a large orchestra, but the concert caused a riot and had to be stopped. This, of course, came as a massive blow in Berg’s self-confidence, so he withdrew the work, which is such a shame as it is perhaps his most innovative in his catalogue of orchestral works. This particular work was not performed in full again until 1952, over 20 years since the composer’s death, with it not even being officially published until 1966.

Between the years 1915-1918, Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. During a period of leave in 1917, he started work on his first (and most certainly his most well-known) opera, Wozzeck. After the end of World War I, Berg settled back in Vienna and began working with Schoenberg with his Society for Private Musical Performances. Being a rather superstitious man, Berg had an affiliation with the number 23, and he based a few of his works around this number. It is not known for definite what this number meant to him, but one theory is that because his first asthma attack was on the 23rd of a month, it has stayed with him. Another theory is that it is based on Fliess’ biorhythm cycle, which is also 23 days.

Once World War II had broken out, it became much harder for the musical world in the 1930s in Vienna and Germany. The rise of antisemitism and the Nazi ideology meant that modernity was denounced. This also meant that Berg was in a bit of bother because he was a student under the Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg. After not very long, Berg’s music was place on the list of degenerate music, and he was not allowed to perform his music in public. In 1932 Berg moved to a secluded place in Carinthia, Austria, where he was able to work in seclusion. There, he worked on his Violin Concerto and Lulu. Berg’s music, much like Schoenberg’s, uses the twelve-tone technique which enables the composer to be creative tonality and atonality. Berg is remembered for being one of the most important composers of the 20th Century and is the most performed opera composer from the Second Viennese School. Interestingly, his works are seen as more emotional than that of Schoenberg’s, which infers he brought more ‘human values’ to his music. Berg composed with both Romantic lyricism and modernity in mind, which created a phenomenal amalgamation of works which kept the Viennese tradition of classical music, whilst still being innovative. Berg died from blood poisoning on 24th December 1935 in Vienna.

Vier Stücke was composed in 1913 and are perhaps Berg’s only true miniatures. His wife, Helene, writes that he composed them in June, which means it was in the same month as his fateful visit to his tutor, Schoenberg. It is recorded that this meeting was somewhat traumatic for Berg as Schoenberg supposedly heavily criticised his student for working on small-scale works and was insistent he worked on large extended orchestral works. It has also been researched and found that Schoenberg not only criticised Berg’s music, but also his personality, which knocked the young composer’s confidence even more so.

Vier Stücke premiered in 1919 in Vienna. The four different pieces in the collection undergo constant changes in tempo, articulation and dynamics, which make them very exciting. The four movements are marked as follows:

1. Mäßig

2. Sehr langsam

3. Sehr rasch

4. Langsam

The first and last movements are much longer than the middle two, with the second being a slow movement and the third being a scherzo-like movement. As these are minatures, the whole pan out only 59 bars, but within this Berg takes you through a wealth of different emotional states. The set takes around 8-9 minutes to perform and the work as a whole is much more ignited when given full attention from the listener.

  1. Mäßig

The first movement Mäßig, begins with a cheeky motif played by the clarinet, before the piano enters with an uneasy progression of chords. The clarinet and piano play very different motifs which layer onto one another to create the ‘blow your mind’ feeling. The clarinet is using a wide range of notes, including those nearer the bottom the tessitura, which bring a very rich effect to the piece. Flutter-tonguing is also used to create a different timbral effect, and you can hear this on the motif that descends in the clarinet. There are hints of lyricism, but also that of mystery and uneasiness in the open chords that are played. The piano plays a very high motif, which then descends to the bottom of the piano. The dynamic is very quiet at this point and the movement eerily dies away.

2. Sehr langsam

The second movement begins with delicately placed repeated chords from the piano. The clarinet enters with uncomfortable intervals, which I find create such an aura around the soloist. The piano stays in the middle range for the first part of this movement, where the clarinet is up in its top range, which creates a much more piercing sound. There are moments of silence from the piano, and then it returns once more to play against the clarinet. Slight pitch bending is used to nod towards the use of the twelve-tone scale. The piano plays the starting chords over again in a lower octave to round off this movement.

3. Sehr rasch

This movement is much quicker than the previous two, and it acts as the scherzo movement of the four pieces. It begins with a fast-paced motif from the piano which is soon interrupted by the clarinet. The tempo shifts from manic, to slightly slower and more controlled. This movement is very colourful and the mixture of timbres between the piano and clarinet are really celebrated in this movement. The end of the movement is a burst of fast-moving motifs by both instruments, with the clarinet using flutter tonguing once more. The movement then ends abruptly.

4. Langsam

The final movement of Vier Stücke is the longest of all the movements and starts at a very slow tempo. The piano plays repeated dissonant chords. The clarinet joins in with a solemn melody, which hints at Berg’s Romantic lyricism once more. This movement is ever so quiet and the control from the clarinet and piano make it incredibly eerie and towards the unknown. Trills are passed from piano to clarinet and the two instruments work together to come back to a sort of reprise of the beginning of the movement. The piano plays the same chords, and the clarinet enters with a new motif. The tempo then changes very suddenly to a very quick and tempestuous pace. The clarinet races up to the piercing top range of the instrument, whereas the piano goes the opposite way and goes to the bottom of the piano. The thunderous sounds by the piano bring a very a new emotion to the front: anger. Very quickly, again, the tempo starts going down to the first speed. The harmonics of the piano are left to ring, whilst the clarinet enters and plays a short lyrical motif. The piano plays again and the pair come to a very quiet end.

Vier Stücke is such a wonderful set of miniatures which highlight and celebrate the sound and different characteristics of the clarinet and piano. The different timbres, tones and registers are tested and the outcome is incredibly exciting. Berg is such a fantastic and influential composer, even if he does make your mind melt into jelly at times! This set of miniatures is definitely worth your time and attention – they’re so very intriguing.

I was reminded of Vier Stücke after attending a final MMus recital by my friend, Beth Nichol. Congratulations on becoming a Master of Music! What a fantastic recital – this blog is dedicated to you (and a massive thank you for all your help over the years!).

Happy Reading!

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