The Hungarian Rhapsodies are a lot of fun, though they are more nationalistic showpieces than anything, so they can feel shallow at times. But the music is so lyrical, a great use of folksy melodies [of course they were accidentally assumed to be “gypsy” melodies when really they were popular music by Hungarian composers played by traveling Romani bands], fun toe-tapping rhythms, and have the fluidity of any improvisation. My favorites of the set of 19 are nos. 3, 5, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17
Published as his fourth symphonic poem, Orpheus is a beautiful poetic statement, an impressionist painting of the tragic figure. Also, has such a noble theme, very classy.
8. Piano Concerto no. 2
Modeled after contemporary composer Henri Litolff’s “Concerto-Symphoniques”, the work is a single movement synthesis of piano and orchestra, almost like a symphonic poem without a subject, a set of variations on a simple theme. Great stuff. Was by jam back in high school.
7. Dante Sonata
From his second year of pilgrimage. Also my jam in high school. I came for the high concept “Dante’s Inferno” dark imagery and heavy-metal atmosphere, stayed for the high brow thematic transformation.
Bleak and grim, but with a touch of hope. The use of harsh harmonies was a shock to my younger self, who was just getting used to the less “pretty” side of classical music. The drama in this work and the background political origins makes me wonder why it wasn’t used in war films. For some reason I can’t help but think of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
5. La Lugubre Gondola
In both existing forms, though “La Lugubre Gondola 2″ is more developed, and the heightened anxiety and harmonic flow remind us that this was essentially a tombeau for Richard Wagner.
4. Vallee d’Obermann
From his first year of pilgrimage. Also has one of the more lovely, underrated melodies in the Romantic piano repertoire. And I still can’t help but be caught up in the Romanticism of it’s subject matter: a forgotten novel about a man living in the countryside alone and finding spiritual fulfillment. Something I would love to have.
3. Fantasy and Fugue on Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam
A magnificent organ piece, like the Sonata in b minor, the entire work develops out of one theme from a Meyerbeer opera based on the Münster Uprising [which resulted in one of the more gruesome executions in history, if you have four and a half hours, listen to Dan Carlton’s Hardcore History: Prophets of Doom]. The fugue part is so wild, I have it memorized.
2. Ballade no. 2
Few composers wrote ballades that are as great as Chopin’s four that started the genre. But this Liszt ballade does reach that transcendence, a great concentrated movement from darkness to light, redemption through love, a lot of extra-musical ideas caught up in the murky depths that I love.
1. Sonata in b minor
His masterpiece, and I think the greatest 19th century piano sonata after Beethoven. It’s so generously written, the main themes interwoven and reused in meaningful ways, no note is superfluous, and the ending is otherworldly. The first time I listened to the work was at a piano recital by Garrick Ohlsson, and I didn’t want the music to end.
Reichlen danced with a kind of serene daring, betraying no effort at all. The moment in which two men throw her high into the air was particularly striking; she seemed poised to fly. Her dancing looks almost unschooled, as if she had been born to move this way. One never sees a preparation or an ending; each movement simply leads into the next. She’s just herself, imperturbable.
Of his own concerto, Ravel said it was, “written very much in the same spirit as those [concertos] of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. The music of a concerto should, in my opinion, be lighthearted and brilliant, and not aim at profundity or at dramatic effects. It has been said of certain classics that their concertos were written not ‘for’ but ‘against’ the piano. I heartily agree. I had intended to title this concerto ‘Divertissement.’ Then it occurred to me that there was no need to do so because the title ‘Concerto’ should be sufficiently clear.” Even with this in mind, as well as the knowledge that Ravel intended this to be a crowd pleaser during his American tour, sprinkling in watered-down jazz, the concerto is far from being trite. From the first whipcrack and the dizzying piano mechanics, we are thrown into an almost Gershwin like rhapsody, whose contrast theme is a calmer Blues smear over hushed harmonics, later a buzz of wind and brass instruments. This is certainly Jazz with a Basque/French flavor. The second movement opens with an almost effortless piano prelude, later accompanied by the orchestra and reaching the same type of “profound” moments he himself claimed don’t need to be touched in the concerto genre. What’s also an interesting fact is that Ravel’s father was an engineer, and his mechanical work sparked Ravel’s lifelong fascination with complicated but efficient machinery. I’m sure he would be the type of person to watch those 15 minute long “Most satisfying video EVER” clickbaits on youtube that show machinery in action, producing art or food. Anyway, this type of, almost neo-Baroque “clockwork”/”spinning wheel” perpetuum mobile is most obvious in the dazzling final movement toccata, which is often also used as an encore. For years this concerto has been one of my favorites, mainly for the second movement’s prelude which touched my heart at the right time and place, one winter in high school where I felt my lowest and most lonely. I guess that’s kind of silly, but if music can make someone feel like it’ll all be alright in the end, why judge that? Also, being the Romantic I am, I love the idea of pairing each movement with a different area in Chicago. The first movement is Downtown at night, near the restaurants and theaters, the second movement is a north neighborhood beach on a foggy day, and the third movement is riding the L everywhere around the city, maybe the Red, Green, or Pink lines.
Unlike his earlier and more popular Rhapsody in Blue, this piano concerto sticks closer to a more conventional classical language than jazz. But that doesn’t mean this work isn’t jazzy. Far from it, the first movement is bursting with brass and jumps along unexpected harmonies, and sounds almost reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s last piano concerto [which was also jazz inspired]. Gershwin takes it to a new level with the blues inspired slow movement, with melodies and orchestrations that reflect his earlier rhapsody [a lot of plucking bass, and smearing wind rises]. Also, unlike his rhapsody, Gershwin himself orchestrated the concerto. The music feels very cosmopolitain, both its popular stylistic roots and its forward thinking harmonic voicing. In his own words, Gershwin describe the work, "The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettle drums…. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano. The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.“
A Symphony (1852). Moritz von Schwind (Austrian, 1804-1871). Oil on canvas. Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
Schwind “composed” A Symphony in oils and said that the individual zones of his painting, into which he wove a love story, correspond to the four movements of Beethoven’s Fantasia in C for Piano, Orchestra and Choir. At the bottom we see a chamber music rehearsal (Introduction), in which one of the young listeners falls in love with the singer; later they meet in a wood (Andante); above this again we see the young man declaring his feelings at a ball (Adagio); and finally, in the little castle, the happy husband and his bride are setting off for their honeymoon in the stronghold of bliss (Rondo).
I don’t know if I can answer this. I can’t - it’s like the moment in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, in the first movement, just over halfway through, when the orchestra keeps playing fragments of the themes and none of them stick. It’s chaotic, and the tension builds and builds and the keys keep changing and then finally, finally, the sequencing starts growing in a measurable pattern and the piano starts to break through from the messy orchestral part, demanding attention in a way that makes the listener’s heart unavoidably beat faster as the tension grows. There’s a huge crescendo and a dramatic build up and everything seems to stop and fall out from underneath the music until finally the piano sings, free of the clashing and conflicting themes, soaring above the orchestra, and then the orchestra and piano are unified once again and it’s soothing and freeing in a way nothing else can possibly approach - kissing John is something like that, only better.
There was never anything in my life other than music that could make my heart feel as if it’s too big for my body in ways I couldn’t understand, nothing that could make my stomach feel as if it’s turned itself upside down, nothing that could make my heart feel as if it’s - impossibly, I know - singing…and then there was John, and then there was kissing John.
I know that I’m speaking in ridiculously poetic language. It’s - that’s very unlike me. I feel, though, that I have no other way to express this because it’s something that defies explanation. John defies explanation.