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The Irony Keys

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Keyboard Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825 - J. S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded as a mastermind, and one of the most prolific artists in western civilization.  He specialized in counterpoint, a composition style of calculated interactions between musical lines, lending to a complex sonic texture.  Instrumental music of the Baroque era, in large part, functioned for the dancing experience, thus collections of Suites and Partitas were common, of which this is one.  This collection of elegant dances possess an overall solitary and contemplative character, free for the listener to fill with their own thoughts.  The Praeludium folds melodic lines onto themselves like an Invention, with layers of subjects and countersubjects.  The Allemande and Corrente are more obvious dance numbers at a more lively pace.  Bach’s Sarabande dances more slowly and flirtatiously, showing off stretches of times and cascading tones, spoken like secrets, followed by a pair of Menuets that dance with a curious chatter for two characters.  The Partita closes with a delightful jumping Gigue, that creates three voices with only one tone at a time.

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rondo - mozart

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partita - bach

Rondo in A Minor, K. 511 - W. A. Mozart

Another cornerstone of music history is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, well known prodigy as a performer and composer.  The Classical era takes a small step away from the calculated complexity of the Baroque Era, towards an increased interest in emotional expression and musical clarity.  Compared to later eras, such expression remains fairly reserved and still under the wraps of many of the compositional rules of the Baroque, but in much different textures.  Rondos follow a structure that consistently returns to a primary theme [ABACADA], and Mozart varies this primary A theme slightly each time to combat the repetitive nature of the form. This Rondo in particular, unlike a more famous other in A Minor, is a winding pattern of recurring themes and experiments between, at slow, quiet pacing.  Even it’s more turbulent moments are reserved with clarity, it’s quieter moments held with a trancing stillness.

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scherzo - chopin

 
 
 
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rondo - mozart

Scherzo No. 2, in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 - Frédéric Chopin

Another step in music towards a more powerful, less restrained emotional expression in music is the Romantic Era.  This arose thanks to a push of art movements away from the concrete, into the more instinctual, visceral, and abstract, as well as revolutionary engineering innovations that greatly expanded the sonic capabilities of the piano.  Chopin took advantage of the increased power in the piano, without losing any touch with beauty, delicacy, and imagination, particularly in his Scherzos and Ballades.  This powerhouse Scherzo takes adventurous twists and turns, igniting explosions of harmony, followed by singing streams of heartfelt poetry, and celebrations of glorious victory.  The middle section is tender, and then morphs into something strangely sinister and exciting, before making a return to the first explosive themes. 

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duex poemès - scriabin

 

[ intermission ]

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scherzo - chopin

Duex Poèmes, Op. 32 - Aleksandr Scriabin

As the Romantic era progressed, composition pulled further away from the old rules in order to evoke feeling as intensely present, beyond merely describing the feelings.  Russia’s composers at this time turned to a particularly turbulent brand of artistic beauty.  Aleksandr Scriabin used his extraordinary sense of color [particularly utilizing his synesthesia] to crunch together fairly unique harmonic movements seen here in the Two Poemes, with sharply contrasting expressions, both constructed in ABAB form.  The first is marked with expressions to sing, sometimes with great affection, sometimes elusively.  The second poem drops a powerful crush of sound, and directs: “fast, with elegance and confidence”.  Even in the midst of gradiosity, there’s moments of warmth.

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nocturne - fauré

 
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duex poèmes - scriabin

Nocturne No. 1 in E♭ Minor, Op. 33, No. 1 - Gabriel Fauré

Music of the Romantic Era often expressed emotions that were less straight- forward, and more true to the raw experience.  Gabriel Fauré was particularly adept at injecting a sweetness to even tragic atmospheres in his Chopin-flavored piano textures.  Nocturnes are a genre that generally convey some usually vague expression of the nighttime, unlike the fairly daytime nature of the classical era.  This particular Nocturne sounds like an elegy for a fallen hero and their powerfully tragic life story.  Opening with the notes of a song for a funeral, the next section cuts like a flashback to heroic events and mysterious circumstances.  The piece returns to the opening haunting melody in layers of stories before a solemn closing.

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tumbáo - león

 
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nocturne - fauré

Tumbáo - Tania León

Many historical movements are a backlash to the prior, but the era we dub “Contemporary” or “Modern” distinctly proposed that the Romantic era did not do enough to bend the rules and find raw expression.  Thus many artists sought to bend the rules to break, experimenting further with the concepts of music and sound, pulling the expressive goals of Romanticism to its extreme.  In this age of endless information and infinite connection, we live in a unique point in time where all musical artistic movements are concurrently kept alive.  This piece is a little example of various “rule breaking” ideas carried out against the Common Practice Period regulations on harmony, rhythm, and technique.  Tania León was one artist commissioned by Elena Riu in 2005 to infuse salsa beats with contemporary art music, and she created Tumbáo.  She cites her early influences to be Bach and Cervantes, and brought her Cuban roots to her classical composition training, generating an intoxicating rhythmic flair.

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sevilla - albéniz

 
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tumbáo - león

Suite Española, Op. 47: iii. Sevilla - Isaac Albéniz

Romantic era Spanish piano music lies surprisingly a bit on the outskirts of the “standard” piano repertoire in comparison to the music of German, French, and Russian influence.  During the Romantic era, distinctly Spanish music experienced a flourish of activity as interest in Nationalism and creating a Spanish musical identity arose.  Composers crafted this distinct, instantly recognizable style by drawing directly from the influences of Domenico Scarlatti, the guitar, and music’s historical bond with dance.  Isaac Albéniz was one of the finest composers of the Post-Romantic era to bring this music forth, starting with his Suite Española, Op. 47 - his first significant work with a specific draw from Spanish culture.  “Sevilla” is written based on Sevillanas, a folk music and dance of Sevilla, influenced by flamenco, full of lively flair for the A section, a sweet dream for the B section, before returning to the A section.

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el puerto - albéniz

 
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sevilla - albéniz

Iberia, Book I: ii. El Puerto - Isaac Albéniz

Towards the end of his life, Albéniz wrote Iberia, which is widely regarded as his crowning achievement. The enormous, Impressionistic work is a suite of four books for piano, at three pieces each, is a marathon of virtuosic Spanish repertoire.  "There is really nothing in Isaac Albeniz's Iberia that a good three-handed pianist could not master, given unlimited years of practice and permission to play at half tempo. But there are few pianists thus endowed."  From Book I, “El Puerto” is both a dance and a story - its rhythms are based on a zapateado, a flamenco dance.  The piece flashes from scene to scene with sudden changes in musical textures and tones, depicting slice-of-life events, conversations, and relationships at El Puerto de Santa Maria, a trading seaport located on the banks of the Guadalete River in the province of Cádiz, Andalusia.

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serenade - balakirev

 
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el puerto - albéniz

Serenade Espagnole - Mily Balakirev

Spanish music took the interest of various composers across Europe, who then dipped their pens into the Spanish flavor for a bit.  Mily Balakirev was a Russian composer who took an interest in such exoticism, writing music inspired by far away places (in this case, Spain).  This piece reflects less of a dance, focusing instead on singing tones and guitar textures.  There are various presentations of guitar strumming throughout the piece, varying from finger plucking to ensemble guitar chords.  Overall, this serenade evokes a tender expression.

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