“Beethoven left us no music in which he is more sure of himself, and none in which his humanity is more warmly evident.” ~Richard Freed, National Symphony Orchestra annotator
The history of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is the stuff of legend. Written quickly in 1806, and premiered at the end of the same year, the popular story insists that the young soloist Franz Clement sight-read the part at the first performance, throwing in a virtuosic piece of his own between the first and second movements with the violin held upside down. (In fact, Clement’s showpiece came, decently, at the end of the program.) It is true that the first performance did not have sufficient preparation, as the concerto was not a resounding success until a historic performance in 1844, by thirteen-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim and conductor Felix Mendelssohn. Its particular beauty, then, was not easily revealed.
The concerto, inscribed with the pun “Concerto par Clemenza pour Clement” (“Concerto with Clemency for Clement”), was tailored to its first soloist’s unique talents: “an indescribable delicacy, neatness, and elegance, an extremely delightful tenderness and purity” (Michael Steinberg, The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide). The violin’s role is often exquisitely ornamental, and the piece was deemed unplayable by many a violinist for its sheer proportion of notes in the upper stratosphere.
The music begins with five hushed D’s on the timpani—certainly like nothing Beethoven’s audience had ever heard before. The most shocking surprise is yet to come, with the appearance of D# in the tenth bar, which seems to strangely jolt the winds’ tranquil melody out of its place for a moment. Beethoven had initially written the enharmonic E-flat, showing his own uncertainty about the function of this foreign pitch. The pattern of four even, tapping beats, with or without a resolving fifth note, pervades the movement and reminds us of the constant rhythmic drive behind the tirelessly breathtaking lyricism. The development in G minor is perhaps the darkest and most introspective point in the movement. Kreisler’s brilliant cadenza, played by most modern-day violinists, features a glorious section in double-stops, with the juxtaposition of the beloved second theme and its own counter-melody. The cadenza leads seamlessly into an ethereal coda, which nevertheless allows for the simplicity of the second theme heard for the first time in its entirety on the violin’s lower strings.
“The Larghetto is, almost uniquely in Beethoven’s output, music without action, conceived as a set of variations on a theme that goes nowhere, has no inherent contrast of material, and doesn’t imply any change of key. The result is a romance, as Beethoven called it, of breathtaking stillness” (Denise Wagner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes). The theme, a hushed chorale, is introduced by the orchestra before the violin begins to add delicate embellishments. After the third variation “comes something to stop the heart” (Steinberg): an improvisatory, dreaming theme, low and gentle. In this movement alone Beethoven attains “a level of sublimity paralleled among his works only in his most intimate chamber music” (Freed). After the movement’s unwavering center in G Major, the move to the dominant with a C# in preparation for the finale—especially after the violin has trailed tenderly away into the heavens—sounds astonishing.
The third movement’s rondo theme is at once pastoral and “Olympian…in keeping with the nobility of the two preceding movements” (Freed). Not one note of the distinctive tune is altered each time it returns. In between, the movement proceeds with a sparkling, mischievous air; the recapitulation even throws in the soloist’s only two pizzicato notes in the entire concerto.
Copyright (c) 2005 Jessica Hung
Today is a wonderful day. Andrea Swan is an amazing, sensitive musician, and I am quite excited to be playing with her tomorrow night. We had a lesson and a rehearsal this morning that went very well. I love how she gives all the notes in the Brahms just the right amount of space, so that they have room to breathe and luxuriate, but are still beautifully flowing. Since I played all morning on a bottle of Mountain Dew, I went out afterwards to Panera and had a delicious Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad (to which I am so addicted that I'm even giving it the respect of capitalizing its title) whilst listening to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (the title of which I would be a fool not to capitalize). Everything today and even my recital program has reflected my mood and my excitement at the prospect of soon sharing my biggest joy and passion with those I love.
About to do some more practicing, this time in my dress to make sure it's comfortable, since I've been sitting in front of my computer for far too long perfecting my program instead of my playing! Tomorrow I'll make copies and try to enlist someone to do lots of mindless stapling. A very close friend of mine, a cellist, also has her recital tomorrow afternoon, so I would like to go buy some pretty flowers as well. Things are certainly a little more convenient here with a car! I also probably still have time to have dinner with a friend tonight, so I'd better get going. Will post the Beethoven notes later tonight.
Brahms Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78
“I could not help bursting into tears of joy over it. Many others could perhaps understand it and speak about it better but no one could feel it more than I do. I wish the last movement could accompany me to the next world.” ~Clara Schumann
“Come, rise to higher spheres.” Brahms inscribed his first of three violin sonatas with this quote from Goethe’s Queen of Heaven. The G Major sonata’s bittersweet lyricism, which sets it apart from the rest, indeed instills the work with an atmosphere of surprising sublimity.
Composed in 1878 and 1879, shortly after the death of Brahms’s godson Felix Schumann, the piece was actually the composer’s fifth attempt at a violin sonata. Brahms’s relentless perfectionism paid off, as the piece beautifully reflects the idyllic surroundings of his summer resort in Pörtschach, Austria. The violin’s role consists very much of melodic singing from beginning to end, yet the interplay between the two instruments is enriched by constant metric cross-currents and hemiola. As an example of this rhythmic complexity, the first movement’s time signature of 3/2 can be subdivided into either 6/4 or 12/8. “That all three can be suggested simultaneously without any sense of artifice speaks to the thoroughness with which this technique has been assimilated into an expressive language” (Botstein, The Compleat Brahms).
The first movement (Vivace ma non troppo) opens with a motive of three repeated D’s in a dotted rhythm, immediately introducing an expansive melody. This gives way to an even lovelier second theme, with an impassioned peak that is the hallmark of Brahms’s style. The development, initiated by the first theme in the piano and pizzicato chords in the violin, explores stormier realms, though a brief coda brings the movement to a joyous end.
The piano alone begins the second movement (Adagio) with a warm, dignified theme in the key of E-flat; in contrast, the violin’s entrance is more tentative. The middle section revives the dotted-rhythmic motive in the somber manner of a funeral march. When the opening theme returns with rich double-stops in the violin, it is as if the sun shines again.
Brahms omits the traditional Scherzo in favor of a Rondo for the final movement, based on two of his earlier songs, Regenlied and Nachklang, Op. 59, Nos. 3 and 4 (the texts of the original poems by Klaus Groth follow, with translations by Emily Ezust). The minor mode conveys the nostalgia for childhood in Groth’s words, while the piano’s sixteenth notes establish a ubiquitous “raindrop” motive, accompanying a theme in the violin that begins with the same dotted-rhythmic motive of three D’s that began the first movement. Later, Brahms brings back the noble theme of the Adagio, and the beautiful coda serves to return us fully to the major mode—a significant shift from the song, which ends with a Picardy third still in the context of minor. Violin and piano trade the familiar motto back and forth, “as if they were calling their farewells to each other across an increasing distance” (Botstein). Brahms’s friend, renowned musicologist Eduard Hanslick, perhaps put it best: “For me the Regenlied Sonata is like a dear and true friend whom I would never forsake for anyone else. In its soft, contemplatively dreaming feeling and its wondrously consoling strength, it is one of a kind.”
Copyright (c) 2005 Jessica Hung
I feel generally happy and somewhat wistful today. I am more in love with music than ever. So many of those poignant, vulnerable, indescribable moments in life are captured so perfectly in music. And it will always be a wonder and a paradox to me that music can so effortlessly covey those unspeakable emotions--yet at the same time music is forever abstract, and to truly know the power behind it one has to live life. I suppose it's circular. What am I trying to say? That it's simply bittersweet that people appreciate my expression through music--indeed, perhaps my feelings can be expressed in no other way so beautifully; I often feel that playing is the only truly pure, redemptive thing I do--yet that at this point in my life, I still have many things to discover before I am able and allowed to express myself in a much more universal, human way. I have a caveman theory that everything would be easier if we didn't have today's complex societal issues to deal with, if we simply hunted and foraged and raised children and were interested only in survival on the most basic level. But it was once pointed out to me that then, there would be no music.
Wow, what did I work on today? The last movement of Beethoven with a metronome, and also the cadenza. Then I had some time in the hall tonight and I ran things and got comfortable playing in there. It's very live, which I don't think is great for showing every nuance, but it certainly makes everything ring, which is great if I play in tune. Overall, I'm feeling much better today about performing, and starting to get pretty excited. I'm also making tomorrow first movement day, as I was unable to run the first movement of Beethoven to my satisfaction and had to keep stopping. Particularly since I open the recital with it, it should be extra solid; I think I've kind of slacked on it since I played my transfer auditions last quarter. Even the opening two bars only sound and flow right if I forget about the octaves and think only about the line. In addition, I keep going back and forth between which is the harder piece on this recital, so I should probably just throw up my hands already and submit to the fact that they're both hard. I thought that once I had the concerto out of the way, running the Brahms tonight would be easy, but it's still just as true in the Brahms that every little thing has to be there, and that the appropriately rich Brahms sound comes out freely when it needs to.
Tomorrow: first movements, Beethoven first movement cadenza, opening of Beethoven second movement. That gives me more than enough to tackle.
And since it's all I talk about of late anyway, here are official recital details for anyone who may be in Evanston:
Tuesday, May 31 @ 6 pm
2121 Sheridan Rd.
Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G Major
Jessica Hung, violin
Andrea Swan, piano
Reception to follow
All in all today went surprisingly better than I expected. I also spent some time having a late dinner with a dear friend who's very happy and doing well, and that makes me happy in turn. She is looking into some early music programs for grad school, and I think Case Western is reputed to have a good one, so she may visit me next year in Cleveland.
Up tomorrow to shower and get all respectable-looking for my photos. Bed before 2--this is a first for me in quite a while. Goodnight, fellow v.commies!
Perfectionism is another problem that I think abounds for musicians. The process of achieving higher and higher levels of technique and artistry is so often negative, and to an extent that's just the way the field works. You "fix" things that are "wrong" and "bad" and they become "better." It is easy to see how this can carry over into one's self-esteem and personal life: "good players = good people, bad players = bad people." I have watched some of my friends become intimidated by those gravely mistaken assumptions, and I myself feel intimidated and pressured to constantly reprove my musical (and personal?) "worth" at every performance. However, I try my best to keep perspective. Many of my fears are technical, yet I find that when I am working best and at peace, it is because I understand that the ultimate aim of having such high technical standards is only to be able to achieve any sound, any nuance of expression, as effortlessly as possible. And so total artistic freedom demands technical security. Perfect intonation, all the time, is perhaps impossible to achieve, but it is still worth striving for, so that as many notes as possible in one's playing will ring as they only can when they are in tune. At any rate, those are some of the ideals I hold, but they can quickly become weighted down when it seems that people want perfect intonation only for its own sake, or virtuosity merely to dazzle and not to move.
I'll see how this weekend goes as far as practicing. Ideally, I would be compelled to practice the entire weekend out of sheer love, but I am not in the same state of mind I was for my last solo recital, nearly a year-and-a-half ago. I try to remember the thoughts and feelings that constantly motivated me back then, but they're a little hazy. Most of all I had the simple confidence and knowledge that I alone retained the power to make myself happy. As humans we need others--yet we need ourselves just as much.
As daunting as my program as a whole is (and I get particularly frustrated with how difficult it is to psych myself immediately into the opening of virtually every movement--in Beethoven, the first with those octaves, the second so exposed, the third right away with the theme; in Brahms, the mere fact that all the movements must start as if the music had been going on infinitely before it), I am excited and these pieces are taking on a special importance to me, which of course they held before, but it is always a different feeling to dig into a piece and eventually feel somewhat justified in calling it your own, in a way. With the Mendelssohn, I was particularly happy to have the opportunity to solo with orchestra both this year and the year before. I don't know if my interpretation changed all that drastically, but it definitely allowed me to feel increasingly more at ease, and it is simply such a fresh piece, no matter how often played. The Sibelius I will always feel particularly attached to simply because it fits my temperament so well, while at the same time it ironically exploits my greatest fears. It is certainly the piece I have worked hardest on and struggled the most with.
The pieces on my program this year are different creatures altogether. I recently read Michael Steinberg's program notes for the Beethoven Concerto (I really adore his writing), and he actually takes the view that the piece has been weighed down and burdened by its labels of "greatness" and "depth"--that the tempi are usually too slow, and that it sometimes misses the lightness, delicacy, and essentially ornamental nature that must have characterized its first performance by Franz Clement, to whose singular playing the composition was fashioned. I admittedly have a penchant for slowing things down, but I hope to find a balance between lightheartedness and profundity throughout the work. Perhaps they are not such extremes as the seem; after all, the depth in the most simple lines, such as when the violin plays the entire second theme on the D and G strings in the coda for the first time, is readily apparent.
I have been thinking a bit about general aspects of my playing that I would like to work on in the coming couple years. I have gotten a lot of comments about needing more variety in vibrato; my natural vibrato is quite wide and often too slow if I'm out of shape or just not being vigilant. Even when it is fast enough, the width can sometimes distort the pitch. So being able to phrase with vibrato as seamlessly as with the bow is one thing. Speaking of which, bow changes are another thing; in orchestra as well as solo playing it is important that they be smooth and indiscreet. I have a habit of speeding up or jerking the bow just before I change. Also, sound colors in general. It is hard to balance a flautando or airy sound with maintaining the core of the sound. In orchestra playing this is often not an issue, because the sound lies in a combination of sounds from so many string players, but in solo playing or even in playing orchestra excerpts for auditions the core is often still vital. (It is interesting that playing in the section and playing an orchestra audition are very different things--some good advice I have heard is that in the audition, one should sound like the section, still playing sensitively, but always clearly, whereas in the actual orchestra it may be the case that a fuzzy sound or one that's not even pleasant under the ear is necessary to contribute properly to the section sound.) I'm excited to be studying with Helen for a bit this summer because she is absolutely amazing at tone colors (check out her website at www.helencallus.com).
Hands down, the biggest comment I get is about my motions. I get mixed comments, with my peers mostly saying they help and are part of my charisma, and my teachers mostly saying that they're too much and get in the way of the sound. I definitely think I could learn to be more efficient, and I know that is something I will need a lot of help with.
Probably the biggest downside of today is that I used practicing as an excuse to procrastinate starting my Brahms 4 paper, so tomorrow will not be pleasant. I have a full schedule including a lesson and may not be able to start until the evening. It's due Thursday at noon, so thankfully after that time I can focus solely on recital preparation, no distractions hopefully.
On Saturday I have an appointment to have a few professional pictures taken with my instrument, as I'm kind of running out of good pictures to use (and also my senior pictures from high school featured blue streaks in my hair). I can't fake a picture smile to save my life, so I hope they turn out okay...
Bed slightly earlier tonight; getting in gear for the Union League Auditions downtown on Saturday.
In other news, I am now the proud NUSO stand partner of a new Cleveland Orchestra member, Alicia Koelz! I think the orchestra feels like it just collectively had a baby or something; we're so excited. Congrats, Alicia! (And as Andrew said, "[The Cleveland Orchestra] is no NUSO, but it'll do." Haha!)
Fairly busy day tomorrow with orchestra rehearsal and a sort of emergency trio coaching. Hopefully I'll still have time to focus and practice and rest up for Saturday. Speaking of which, bed sounds pretty good right now. Goodnight!
I played just the first movement of Mendelssohn in studio class and it was fine, although I wasn't quite settled and flubbed the octaves on the first page--just takes some more practice and the right mindset. I feel pretty good about Saturday in general, and need to spend some time right now writing my thesis for my Brahms 4 paper. It will probably have something to do with the mixed critical reception, and why exactly it took a while for the work to be recognized as a true orchestral masterpiece, tying into the division between programmatic and absolute music, etc.
I also agreed to fill in at the last minute for a friend's student chamber group (their violinist is injured) and learn the first movement of the Schubert B-flat Trio to perform in a week! It is absolutely beautiful, but one of the most demanding pieces in the trio repertoire. With all that's going on, I sometimes feel I don't have a moment to waste, and yet I still waste hours online.
I have neglected German a lot this quarter, which I feel slightly bad about, but music has to take precedence. (Although admittedly, surfing the net and reading The Onion does not.) I would like to continue taking German at Case next year, but I'm not sure when I'll really have the opportunity to go abroad--not for a few years, most likely--and so it's a bit hard to stay motivated to go to class four times a week (which is a lot in college--that's more than half the week!).
Essentially my job until Saturday is simply to maintain my concerto (not to mention my positive feelings about the performance, which are just as vital; I should probably do some visualization), learn the notes to the Schubert first movement, and start cracking again on the last movement of Beethoven, which poses the most technical difficulties for me. Continuing to breathe is also a good idea. Off to invent a thesis and then practice!
I then ran the Beethoven first and second movements. The first I had not really worked on since the Fuks masterclass last month, and it was actually quite refreshing to not be so worried the whole time--ironically, because I hadn't been working on it, I was able to just simply play, and many things went very well. Even the first two bars in octaves, for example, which everyone is always hyperparanoid about playing in tune, were fine, as I was thinking only about the phrase, and not the precise placement of my fingers.
About to have dinner with some friends!
For the rest of today I will probably work on the last movement of Mendelssohn, and the double-stops in the 2nd movement that must be searingly gorgeous but are unfortunately a big technical pest, and generally sound worse under the ear than out in the hall. Despite all these details that can always be refined and perfected further--I was quite happy with how the first rehearsal with orchestra went, and am very much looking forward to the concert. If anyone is in the Chicago area and is interested in attending, here are the details from the University of Chicago Music Department website:
Saturday, May 14, 2005
UNIVERSITY CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
This concert centers on two early Romantic masterworks: Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759, two movements of unearthly beauty; and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Northwestern University student Jessica Hung as soloist. Andrew Koehler conducts.
Fulton Recital Hall, 8 pm, Free
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