Mahler Symphony No. 2 – The struggle begins to get very real

In our continuation of looking at Mahler’s second symphony, we will explore the second and third movements. These middle movements are kind of an interlude as the character of this story pauses to reflect on his life (see the last post for an introduction). Movement 5 (the last movement) will return us to the present moment. Here’s a look at what might be going on in the 2nd and 3rd movements.

Movement 2

24:40- This movement is of a happier and lighter mood as the character recalls the memories of his youth. Hear his regret or sadness as he recalls these memories at 29:19.

Movement 3

35:33- This movement starts out ominously as the character is being driven to despair. He begins to question his beliefs and begins to have inner conflict. The lighter moments may be times when the character is remembering good times, but then he fails to see the meaning of it all. After 42:00 it especially becomes ominous as the character struggles trying to resolve these issues. But hope is waiting for him in the coming movements.

Pause at 47:11 before the soloist comes in, and come back next time to hear the epic resolution to this story.



Mahler 2 Mvmt 1- More than just great battle music

We will now begin to explore Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, (known to music nerds as Mahler 2) which is nicknamed “Resurrection”. The first movement introduces the themes that set up for the final movement of the symphony, which is epic, but let’s take one movement at a time.

Mahler wrote a program to accompany this symphony, but could not settle on a suitable story that could express all that is in the work. But for this first movement, in one of his programs he describes a scene of someone facing death and asking the questions to discern the meaning of life (deep questions):

“What is life and what is death? Will we live on eternally? Is it all an empty dream or do our life and death have a meaning?”

From the opening notes you can hear this conflict and impending doom as the character ponders these questions. Parts of this movement resemble a funeral march (aka ominous music in marching tempo). Hear this march at 2:51, 10:00, 14:00, 17:00, and 21:00. Because of these parts this movement would make epic battle music IMO.

One particular theme of note occurs at 15:04, which is really important in this piece, occurring later in the final movement. This is the Dies Irae theme (or Judgement Day theme), which comes from the Middle Ages. The words describe a judgment day scene in which all souls are judged at the end of the world. The character of the story may be contemplating a final judgment as he reflects on his own life and what happens next.

Mahler called for a pause at the end of this movement (23:38), as the middle movements are of a different character. These middle movements are a reflection of the life that this character has lived, and the last movement tells what happens to him in the end. But you’ll have to wait a few posts to find out what happens. 🙂

So pause at 23:38 (unless you’re ready to handle the rest) and next time we’ll look at what happens in the second movement as the character reflects on his life.


Fugues on Popular Themes

As promised, here is a playlist of fugues from popular themes. I think I was searching for fugues on YouTube and these came up. They were so nerdy they made me laugh and I was entertained for hours. Here are my favorites:

1. Fugue on Angry Birds- This theme fits perfectly with the Baroque style IMO

2. Nokia Fugue- Fugue on the Nokia ringtone

3. Fugue on Lady Gaga- Fugue on Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance

4. Final Countdown Fugue- Fugue on Europe’s Final Countdown

5. Fugue on Britney Spears- Fugue on Oops I did It Again


Fugues- The Nerdiest Compositions Ever Conceived

Bach-unfinishedfugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach. – Berlin State Library, Germany.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Some compositions are so nerdy that you can only start to appreciate them after you understand how they work. A Star Trek version of a Mozart opera is pretty high on the nerdy scale, but one type of composition rivals it: the fugue.

Fugues can get really complicated. Like I said in the last post, it could take a post or two to explain all their parts. So today we’ll explore the most fundamental parts of the fugue: subjects and answers.

Subjects and Answers

Fugues are based on a subject (or theme) that is presented in the beginning. This is followed by an “answer”. The answer is a repetition of the subject in which another voice comes in. For example on a piano, a fugue starts with the subject played by one hand, then the other hand plays the answer as the first hand continues on. It’s a dead giveaway that when you hear this subject and answer the piece you’re listening to is a fugue. Compare these fugue introductions:

Texture of Fugues

Fugues have a contrapuntal texture. This means they have two or more melodies going on at the same time. It’s like a more complicated version of singing a round (like Row Row Row Your boat or Three Blind Mice). The genius of these compositions is making two melodies sound good together. It gets even harder when there’s three or more.

Fugues of J S Bach

We can’t talk about fugues without mentioning Bach, who was the master of fugues. He wrote a collection of fugues in his Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as in other compositions (like the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor). But the work that really showed off his masterful skills in writing fugues was The Art of Fugue, in which he writes 14 different fugues and 4 canons based on one subject. It includes 4 voice fugues (4 different melodies at one time), exploring the vast amount of variations possible on one theme. By the way, when you can write something that has “The Art of…” in the title, you’re pretty good at it. But Bach was not just “pretty good”, he was the master of fugues. His preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier are so important to keyboard repertoire that most music colleges suggest playing one prelude and fugue for auditions or recitals.

Let’s listen to one of the fugues from this collection from book 2, the fugue in F minor. I played this (along with the prelude) in my senior music recital:

  • Hear the subject at 4:11, then the answer at 4:16
  • Listen for the subject at 4:25, 4:42, 4:46, 5:01, 5:15, 5:41

Next time we will listen to some fugues on themes you may know from popular culture. Stay tuned.


A Few Piano Sonata Recommendations

As promised, here is the playlist of some of my favorite piano sonatas. You might notice something of a bias toward Beethoven, that’s not really intentional, he just happened to have written some of the best piano sonatas of all time (I’m not really biased in any way) 😉

Try not to feel overwhelmed by this long playlist, these are just recommendations for you to check out from various composers, there will be no test later on. We’re focusing on the first movements mostly, since they usually follow sonata form. I have included the times of the exposition, development, and recapitulation for the less complicated sonatas, if you are nerdy enough to want to know where they are. See the last post for an explanation of the parts of a piano sonata.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 2 No. 1- This is early Beethoven (only his 2nd opus), so he follows the rules more closely than his later stuff. He liked to put introductions before the first theme is presented in his later sonatas, as you will see in the next one. You can hear the separations of the parts more clearly like in the Mozart Sonata we looked at last time.
Exposition: 0:00
Development: 1:53
Recapitulation: 2:46-3:45

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 13 – Here Beethoven starts with an introduction before presenting the first theme, and uses it in the development and recapitulation.
Introduction: 00:19
Exposition: 2:05 Beethoven presents 3 themes instead of the usual two (rebel)
Development: 5:35- Beethoven uses material from the introduction to start the development
Recapitulation: 7:12-9:42 At 8:44, it stops to use material from the introduction before coming to a dramatic ending.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 57 “Appassionata”– In this sonata it is harder to find the three sections than the last two.
Exposition: 00:00
Development: 2:30
Recapitulation: 4:53 (movement ends at 9:24)
After the slow middle movement (in which he does a series of variations), he wakes everyone up with dissonant chords to start the super fast finale (15:59) which is also one of my favorites.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 960- This is Schubert’s last piano sonata, written around the same time as Beethoven’s sonatas. Richter plays a slower interpretation than is usually played, but I like how it changes the mood. We’ll focus on the first movement:
Exposition: 00:00 – (this repeats after about 6 minutes)
Development: 12:40
Recapitulation: 17:06-24:28

Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2- We now go to the Romantic period. This is the one with the famous “Funeral March” (in the third movement). The still follows sonata form, but it’s harder to follow than the previous sonatas, you don’t hear where it stops and starts again easily like Beethoven’s first sonata. My favorite movements are the first two.

Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor- Liszt did something unconventional here in making a piano sonata that consists of one movement. It does, however, follow the fast slow fast model of the three movement piano sonatas, yet within the framework of one piece.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 No. 1- Another single movement piano sonata, though not quite as long. This is very early 21st century, from 1909, so it’s not quite as dissonant as some later 21st century stuff where it sounds like someone is playing random notes on the piano.


A Little Explanation of What Happens in a Piano Sonata

Today I hope to uncover one of the great mysteries of classical music for those unfamiliar with it. Why do they call a bunch of music piano sonatas and not others? Why don’t they come up with a clever name for them? Because piano sonatas follow a certain form of writing and composers are nerds that like to work within that form to create something better than the next guy. Therefore piano sonatas are nerdy, since nerds write them.

But just because piano sonatas are nerdy does not make them boring. The thing is, composers can follow all these rules about how sonatas should go, and you would think it would be really boring, but it isn’t. That is the beauty of classical music, following rules and patterns and coming up with a gorgeous piece of music.

First, we will look at a sonata that you might find predictable, but this is only to show how the sonata is made up. In my favorite sonatas, you don’t really notice the divisions of the themes and stuff, you just notice how epic the music is.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C is from the Classical Era. One characteristic I find of music from this era is that it’s logical. You can usually tell what’s coming next (some composers like to throw in surprises), or where it’s ending, as it follows a certain form.

This piano sonata has three separate movements. It’s kind of like albums having multiple songs, they are all different songs but they are part of the same album. So the three (or sometimes four) movements make up a piano sonata. For this sonata, the first movement is fast, the second slower, and the third faster. We will focus on the first movement, which follows something called sonata form. This movement has three parts: exposition, development, and recapitulation. So follow along in this video as I explain these three parts:

Exposition- (00:00-00:54) (repeats during 00:54-1:41) This is when you will hear the main theme, this section will repeat in the recapitulation, with a few changes. The exposition in sonata form will have one theme, a transition to a second theme, then after the second theme a fancy coda to end the section. Mozart transitions to the second theme in 00:15 with some scales. The second theme occurs at 00:27-00:36, then the fancy codetta to end the exposition.

Development- (1:42-2:02)-  Here the composer experiments with various themes that have been presented in the exposition, here arpeggios and scales like the transitional part and the codetta.

Recapitulation- (2:03-2:57) So now he repeats the part we heard at the beginning, but this time it’s played higher, and he changes it up a little with the scale transition part and codetta.

For further listening, here’s where to find the 2nd and 3rd movements:
Second Movement- 3:02
Third Movement- 6:44

So basically in sonata form (which usually occurs in the first movement of a piano sonata), the composer is working with a couple themes, and presents and develops them as the piece progresses.

Next time, I’ll give you a playlist of some of my favorite piano sonatas so you can hear more complex versions of this sonata form.


Graduate Student Composes Variations on 4’33"

Seattle, WA- Chelsea Whiting, a local graduate student at the University of Washington, is daring to do something never done before- compose variations on the popular John Cage piece 4’33” for her graduate composition project.

The original work composed by John Cage, is a composition in which the pianist sits at the piano in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and the music becomes the ambiance of the concert hall or venue in which it is played. For her composition, Chelsea wanted to experiment with non traditional venues.

Chelsea recorded the piece in various locations around Seattle as a tribute to her hometown. She took her own upright piano to each location to add her own signature to the piece. In the “Pike Place Market” variation, you can hear the famous fish throwers throw a fish onto the piano keyboard and tourists asking “What’s going on?” as they watch Chelsea sit motionless at the piano, as three more fish hit her in the face.

The “Mt Rainier” variation was recorded on location in Mt Rainier National Park.

“I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the park that holds so many childhood memories for me,” said Chelsea. “You can even hear the park rangers telling hikers not to pick the wildflowers and stay on the path.” Picking wildflowers and straying from the hiking trail is prohibited to preserve the natural beauty of the park.

For the 12th variation, Chelsea brought her piano to record outside Century Link Field, as a tribute to the 12th man.

The finale is recorded in the practice rooms at the University of Washington, which incorporates elements of atonality as you hear the muffled sounds of other students practicing nearby, much like a Charles Ives piece.

Chelsea’s composition professor had much praise for the project, especially the “Sitting on the Couch at Home Reading a Book” variation: “When you listen to this variation, it’s like that feeling you get when you’ve been listening to music with headphones for a while and it stops and you can finally hear that person who was trying to talk to you. This work takes you to that moment in time, it’s that powerful.”

Chelsea graduates this year with a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Washington.

Prepare yourself for some gorgeous music…

We’re gonna look at one of those pieces you hear and you just melt into the floor because you cannot contain yourself because it sounds so gorgeous. A piece like this could only be written by none other than the heartthrob of the 19th century- Franz Liszt.


Barabas-liszt” by Miklós Barabás – Fine Arts in Hungary: . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Liszt by Herman Biow- 1843.png
Franz Liszt by Herman Biow- 1843” by Herman Biow – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The last time we looked at something from Liszt, we looked at a darker piece called Totentanz. But this time, we’re gonna look at a piece which is very different in mood.

This comes from a collection called Trois études de concert, or in English, Three Concert Etudes, and it is the 3rd etude. Etudes are pieces that help develop a particular technique, and the composer writes it in such a way that the technique is practiced throughout the piece. This could get repetitive if you hear the same thing over and over again, but a good composer can take any technique and put it into a gorgeous sounding work that is very pleasant to listen to (i.e. the one we will listen to shortly).

This etude is nicknamed “Un Sospiro” which means “a sigh”. This nickname might not have been Liszt’s idea as it did not appear in the music when it was first published. But nevertheless whoever came up with the nickname interpreted this piece as “a sigh”. You may interpret it differently when you hear it, but that’s one interpretation to consider.

Some techniques that are developed in this etude are hand crossing and arpeggios. This is fun to watch, since the melody notes alternate between hands (you’ll see this in a minute), and the arpeggios are played throughout. You’ll see what these look like as we check out some excerpts from the sheet music (I’ll try to make it simple if you can’t read music). So let’s listen to this:

00:05- Try to contain yourself. Those fast notes you hear at the beginning are arpeggios, then at 00:11, the melody comes in. You’ll see the pianist’s left hand cross over for every other melody note. The melody is circled in the picture below, and below the melody are the fast arpeggios going up and down. I would love to explain all the words you see in the music (which would take forever), so to make it simple, those words tell the pianist how to interpret the piece.

01:38- Now the melody (circled) is on the bottom, played with the left hand (the higher the notes are on the page, the higher they are on the piano, also the lower notes are lower on the piano). This part to me sounds like the music is soaring when the notes go up so high. I like how Liszt uses the same melody, but the character changes when the arpeggios go higher.

03:05- In this part, the melody alternates between hands (the left hand is the lower notes and the right hand is the higher notes). The “>” sign (an accent) notates the melody, so wherever the “>” is, that’s where the melody is. It’s either below the top notes or above the bottom notes.

04:38- The arpeggios have stopped, the piece slows down for the ending. The left hand (circled) descends while the right hand ascends.
If you are not relaxed after listening this piece, I really don’t know what to say.
Stay tuned next week for the playlist of the month, which has something to do a certain holiday that falls on the 14th of February.

Moonlight Sonata- Stuff You Didn’t Know

When you think of Moonlight Sonata, you probably think of this peaceful relaxing piano piece that you can listen to after a long day and unwind with a cup of tea. And you would have the right idea. But it’s more than that. That is only the first five minutes of it.

“Moonlight” is a nickname for Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata or Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2. The Op. (or Opus) gives you an idea of when it was published. The higher the number, the later it was published. Beethoven has stuff from Opus 111, which is from later in his life. So, this sonata being Op. 27, it was written earlier.

And now you may be asking, “Why is it called a piano sonata?” A piano sonata is a work for solo piano that consists of movements (separate pieces) which together make up the whole work. These movements can be different in character/mood and tempo. In the “Moonlight Sonata”, it starts with a slow movement, then has a faster second movement, and a really fast last movement. So the most popular movement, which you may know already, is the first of three movements, the slowest movement.


Now a little about Beethoven and his music. Beethoven is the composer who went deaf in his later years. That is not something you want to happen, especially as a musician. But yet he composed some of his best works (IMO) while being almost entirely or completely deaf. That is talent right there. He wrote 32 piano sonatas (also 32 variations) and they just kept getting better and better as he got deafer and deafer (we will look at some more in the future). He composed in the late Classical era (or early Romantic) so he was the composer who helped transition into the Romantic era (see Classical Era and Romantic Era pages for more info about these styles of music). His early music sounds very much like something in the Classical era, but his later compositions are more Romantic-era sounding, setting the stage for the early Romantic era composers.

Now let’s compare the movements of this sonata:

00:00- 1st Movement: This is the part you know. You may notice this movement sounding sad, that’s because it’s in a minor key. Notice how often the music gets softer or louder (this is called dynamics), it doesn’t stay the same volume throughout the entire sonata, which helps bring out the emotions of the piece.

05:25- 2nd Movement: A faster movement that is a little shorter and is happier in mood, which means in a major key.

07:43- 3rd Movement: Everyone is awake now, and we’re back to the minor key. This is just one of many epic Beethoven Piano Sonata finales. 🙂

So next time you hear someone say they love Moonlight Sonata, ask them how they like the last movement, and you may discover they don’t know the last movement. Chances are they don’t know it if they’re not a music nerd. Try it.