Tomaso Albinoni, 1671 - 1751
Tomaso Albinoni was a Venetian Baroque composer, born in l671 to a successful paper merchant in Venice. At an early age, he became proficient in music through studies in both violin and voice, but he had the good fortune to be able to cultivate music for pleasure rather than as a livelihood. He became a prolific composer and operated a successful academy of vocal music. Unlike many composers of the era, Albinoni appears never to have sought a post at either a church or a court of nobility, which freed the composer to choose to work at what and when he wrote and performed.
He achieved early fame as an opera composer in many cities in Italy and although his output reached 89 operas, most were never published and thus lost. He did complete and publish nine collections of instrumental works, and it is as composer of instrumental music that he is known today. Musicologists have favorably compared Albinoni’s works with those of Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi. In 1751 the composer died of what was thought to be diabetes.
Much of the composer’s work was lost during the latter years of World War II with the bombing of Dresden and the State Library, but some of his instrumental works survived. The Sinfonia in G minor is cast in three contrasting movements (fast-slow-fast) and is similar to the tripartite overtures (for which the term “sinfonia” was also used) to Baroque Italian operas. The outer movements feature an interplay between the two violin sections, and the middle movement is a lilting song.
Serenade in C for String Orchestra, op. 48 - 1880
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840 – 1893
Careers in the arts are greedy consumers of time, and often the specter of financial insecurity leads a musician to other professional options. For that reason teenager Peter Tchaikovsky became a lawyer. As a compromise, he also attended St. Petersburg Conservatory as a part-time student and ended up graduating. He then dropped law completely to become a theory professor at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory. While teaching, the young, handsome composer/teacher succumbed to the pursuits of a music student but their marriage only lasted 7 months. To ease the pain of failure, the overly sensitive Tchaikovsky traveled abroad, during which time his future was to change dramatically and make him the first independent composer in the western world.
An admiring, rich patron, Nadezhda von Meck, had contacted him with an offer to provide financial support if he would devote himself entirely to composition. He then churned out his best masterpieces in all styles of music.
The Serenade in C turned out to be the composer’s favorite work, but he was also writing 1812 Overture under an independent commission. He wrote to von Meck that he disliked the second work. “It is noisy, showy music without artistic merit, warmth, or caring.” In contrast, his beloved Serenade was written “from the heart” with its composer most eager to have it performed in whole.
The lively Piece in Form of a Sonatina begins with a chorale-like introduction before veering off with a simple four-note theme that develops into vigorous scale passages; these passages demonstrate the various tones and colors available within the string section. Brilliant passages complement the lilting movement of the short theme that is followed by a more playful second theme. A reprise of the introductory, chorale-like introduction follows, but provides more energy and animation. The Waltz is the composer’s 19th century answer to the minuets of Mozart’s serenades, as heard in his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The string sections take turns carrying the dancing melody to rhythmic lines from the other string sections. The movement ends in a gentle softness that leads to a subdued Elegy. Like previous movements, it is built on a scale passage whose notes rise with energy and force. The lower strings carry a good portion of the reflective, somber, songlike melody. Luscious swings of emotions are provided by a passionate, heart-breaking melody. The passion ends in a whimper, as the work softly heads into the Finale. Its first theme is a slow folk song depicting Russian boatmen hauling goods on the Volga River. This is followed by a second Russian folk tune - an animated Russian dance scored with pulsing, balalaika-like pizzicatos. The movement returns to the stately chorale-like introduction prefacing the first movement.
Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas
(Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) - 1965
Astor Piazzolla, 1921 – 1992
The Argentine composer and bandoneon (a small accordion) prodigy Astor Piazzolla ranks among his country’s most celebrated composers, standing high in the realm of 20th century tango and Argentine music. His early classical training in composition was under Argentinean composer and teacher Alberto Ginastera. After six years he was encouraged to participate in a grant to study in Paris with eminent pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. It was 1954 and he had grown weary of his fame as a tango composer, and he longed to have a career of composing “serious” classical music. Boulanger coaxed Piazzolla to pull out his bandoneon and play his compositions. She discovered that his most recent works resembled bits and pieces of Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, and Hindemith “but no Piazzolla. Do not give him up!” These words from the renowned pedagogue convinced the composer to recreate his tango style. He then experimented with 20th century styles of jazz, fugal technique, and percussive rhythms and sounds and ended up with a new Argentinian tango form that revealed exciting, hypnotic rhythms. Tango had been regarded as “disreputable folk music” in the field of serious music, but now in its place was the “Nuevo Tango” style.
Between 1965-1972 Piazzolla composed four Nuevo Tango-inspired compositions and had them published as Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas. Since “porteño” means “of or related to a port city,” and in Argentina the main port city is Buenos Aires, the English rendition of the title is usually The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. He scored the four works for a quintet of violin (or viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass, and bandoneon. The composer also made a bow to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by structuring each movement into the Baroque tripartite form of fast-slow-fast. The composer also directly inserted sly references to Vivaldi’s 1725 work.
In the late 1990’s Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov was commissioned to rearrange the pieces into a suite for full string orchestra with solo violin, including the obvious portions of the Vivaldi work. The Piazzolla Seasons still displayed sassy, rhythmic elements of the tango mixed with Baroque era elements.
An extended melancholy cello solo dominates the first section of Autumn, using tango elements to illustrate falling leaves and dying vegetation. Winter provides the soloist the opportunity for cadenza displays using an intensely emotional tango form. Suggested are cold winds, breaking and bending of tree branches and falling sleet. With Spring, we hear an exciting re-creation of gardens and warm breezes, and with Summer come impressions of hot, tiring, sultry heat waves.
The composer’s percussive additions are especially magical and intoxicating. Between the usual tonal aspects of the strings and solo are moments of percussive sounds from the instruments - hitting strings with the wood of the bow and playing on the wrong side of the bridge (in imitation of the gourd-like instrument the “guiro”).
Four Seasons of Buenos Aires became a sensational success with this arrangement and others that use different choices of instruments. The work is an inspiring, challenging addition to 20th century violin repertoire, and Piazzolla’s deserved place in music history. He fulfilled his dream of becoming a composer of “classical chamber works” and audiences and critics heartily applaud the results.