Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading Brahms's 3rd

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was one of the great originals of the Romantic period. Fiercely independent and innovative, with such a distinctive musical palette that his music is instantly recognizable as his own, he was also - at the same time - a prey to criticism for his conservatism, because he continued to use musical forms (such as fugue, passacaglia, sonata, and the symphony itself) which, at the time, were considered old-fashioned and elitist. He made these forms his own, instilling them with his own blend of asymmetrical rhythms and passionate melodies, a broader sense of tonality and harmonic function (parallel to, but independent of, Chopin's), and a warm-hearted insight into the human soul. He wrote in nearly every genre except opera. And each of his four symphonies is a masterpiece.

Brahms wrote his 3rd Symphony in F during the summer of 1883, when he was 50 years old. He had a late start as a symphonist, due in part to feelings of insecurity about walking in Beethoven's shadow. Nevertheless, from the first page of his first symphony onward, he showed himself a mature artist with a firm grasp of the form. In my opinion, the third is Brahms' most accessible symphony, with a clarity, simplicity, and tautness unrivaled by the other three. Perhaps I say this simply because it was the first Brahms symphony I heard and learned to love. It speaks to me very directly, in the language of an intimate old friend.

From the first two chords of Movement I, Brahms begins stretching our concept of the way harmonies relate to each other within the world of functional tonality. The tools he uses to do this include harmonic progressions by thirds (as opposed to the traditional fourths), dithering between major and minor versions of the same chord, and changes of rhythm and metre.

After those first two chords, Movement I proceeds with a plunging first theme exploding with energy and passion. This leads to more peaceful and gentle ideas, and then another dramatic passage in which Brahms combines bits and pieces of his rich variety of themes. The exposition's secondary tonal area, instead of the usual Dominant (in this case, C), is A major (which is tonally quite remote from F); the section ends in a dark, stormy, minor-key mood which continues into the development. The passion finally dissipates in a slow, soft horn passage, leading to some development of the plunging first theme. Those opening chords are often in the background, also in the coda, which briefly threatens to turn into another development section before an unexpectedly soft ending.

Movement II is a slow movement in ABA form, which opens with an apparent conflict between winds and strings. The winds seem to want to play a cheerful, bucolic tune, but the strings continually interrupt with something mysterious and vaguely threatening. Eventually the whole orchestra comes together to let the woodwind theme open up like a beautiful flower, a moment of joy quickly dampened by the strings' determination to brood. The B section is more somber, with a consoling second idea introduced by the strings. An abstract bridge passage leads to some variations on the A theme, and another abstract bridge leading, this time, to a gentle, poignant coda.

Brahms's third movements tend to fall into a pattern better described by the word "Intermezzo" than "Scherzo." Neither dancelike nor flash-and-dazzle, Movement III of Brahms's 3rd is basically another ABA movement, only not so slow as Movement II. The material of the outer sections sounds like a soulful, melancholy serenade, poured out beneath a window whose owner gives her suitor no encouragement whatsoever. The trio, or B section, has a syncopated feel to it, but only adds a little extra energy to the overall tenderness of the movement. The A section then returns with some changes, chiefly in instrumentation (e.g. the melody solos out the horn, oboe, and clarinet in turn), and the closing phrases lightly allude to the trio.

Brahms's 3rd shares with Mendelssohn's 4th the distinction of ending a major-key symphony with a minor-key movement. This Movement IV, however, isn't a rollicking saltarello that dares you to forget that it's in a minor key. This Movement IV is a brooding, misanthropic creature that occasionally lets fly with loud, angry outbursts. Its passion and drama are scarcely dampened by the appearance of a game second theme that begins with a little hop, or catch of the breath. The development builds fragments of first-group material to a colossal climax before a truncated recap, beginning with the second theme, brings the movement round to another surprisingly soft and peaceful ending.

Brahms's 3rd Symphony was quite well-received in its time - except for some futuristic fanatics who despised Brahms for what they regarded as counter-revolutionary tendencies. More recently, it has been overshadowed by his other three symphonies, which are longer and/or more flamboyantly idiosyncratic. Not the least of its drawbacks, in terms of box office appeal, is the way all four movements of the F Major Symphony end: softly. But if your mind is open to a deviation from the general run of symphonies with loud, emphatic, closing chords, you might find something meaningful and even moving about the calm, quiet assurance that follows the great questions, soul-searching, and stormy passions of this symphony. You might even discover that this symphony's way of confiding, rather than preaching or arguing, makes it the type of piece you return to again and again...like visiting an old friend.

IMAGES: Brahms (not Dumbledore); a watercolor of Brahms's study; a cartoon of Brahms (not Hitchcock) going to his favorite pub, called the "Red Hedgehog"; and Brahms' library. You gotta love a guy who loved books! EDIT: And here, played by God Knows Whom, is a lovely rendition of the third movement:

Monday, July 30, 2007

Reading Schumann's 1st

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was another highly significant figure in the history of Romantic music, alongside his close associate Mendelssohn. Hampered by a hand injury from pursuing his career as a pianist, Schumann concentrated on composing, writing and editing a journal of music criticism, and championing the music of others. He helped revive the music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, and gave a boost to composers of his time such as Berlioz, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. At the same time, he was unsparing in his hostility toward Wagner and Liszt - in which positions he was increasingly in the minority.

Many of Schumann's piano compositions were written for his wife Clara, a brilliant pianist in her own right, who continued to support Brahms and other musical artists after Robert's mental deterioration (he apparently suffered from siphylis, mercury poisoning and bipolar disorder, poor lamb) and his early death. Besides his legacy as a father of modern music criticism, Schumann left behind an impressive body of music, including numerous songs, priceless concertos for piano and cello, tons of piano pieces, and four significant symphonies. He also discovered Schubert's Great C Major symphony (though Mendelssohn conducted its premiere) and the talent of a youngster named Johannes Brahms. So we have a lot to thank Schumann for.

Let's begin by giving thanks for Schumann's 1st Symphony in B-flat, known as the "Spring Symphony." He wrote it in 1841, the year after he married Clara in the very epitome of the Romantic Love Story. The first movement has an abundance of rhythmic energy and charming musical ideas. It begins with a horn call that opens up a slow introduction with a bucolic atmosphere. This leads to an exuberant sonata whose first theme is based on that opening horn call. Schumann breaks this theme into motivic fragments and builds them up to triumphant ejaculations, before subsiding into a more subdued, second theme introduced by the clarinet. The development is based, again, on fragments of the first theme, plus a countermelody first heard on the oboe. Finally Schumann ushers in an accelerating coda sparkling with the sound of a triangle, until a broader theme brings the movement to a majestic close.

Movement II is a set of double variations in ABABA form. The first theme is tender, dignified, almost reverent, like a musical picture of a woman of ideal beauty and virtue (any guess as to who?). This contrasts with a brighter, more tonally adventurous theme. The first theme comes back for a variation in which the cellos take the melody; then a varying B section builds up to a final variation in which the oboes have the theme over increased activity in the strings. The rest of the movement is extended "wrapping-up music," including a wistful horn passage and an ending that softly dies away.

Movement III is a typical Schumann scherzo: that is, it has two trios, blurring the line between a scherzo and a rondo. The main scherzo theme is unusually serious, a minor-key tune with touches of chromaticism. The second part of the scherzo (remember that old rounded-binary form?) begins with more carefree material shared between the clarinet and flute, before the heavier stuff returns. The first trio is a lively little number with repeated notes reminiscient of the first theme of Movement I. This briefly shows signs of developing into a full-blown Schumannesque theme, but it hasn't got the room to do it properly before the scherzo proper returns. After this second scherzo comes a second trio, faster and more agitated than the first, but with a joyful ending. The scherzo returns a final time, slowing down as it goes into its second part and coming to a soft, languid end.

Movement IV, by contrast, announces itself with a big, loud opening. Then a cheerful, chatty theme appears, during which one is free to visualize chirping birds, chattering squirrels, and leaf-laden bows shaking in the breeze. Schumann then delivers a remarkable display of musical logic (though it wasn't the first of its kind; one sees something of its sort, for example, in the finale of Schubert's Great C Major symphony). What am I talking about? I'm talking about the transition passage between the first and second themes - the minor-key bit with soft statements alternating with loud ones - which qualifies as a "transition" not only in the sense of moving from the key-area of the first theme to that of the second, but also by presenting material that foreshadows and, as it were, blossoms into the second theme.

This isn't the only work in which Schumann creates a sense of one musical idea evolving into another; for another example, listen to the first movement of his Piano Concerto. But not yet; first, listen to the rest of this movement! Theme 2, in a rather unusual contrast to Theme 1, is more emphatic and strongly marked, though it also appears in a gentler guise (led by the clarinet). The mysterious-sounding development section is tied together by fragments of the first theme, building intensity until a short, candenza-like passage in which the music seems to stand still. First the horn, then the flute extend the cadence, creating a feeling of expectancy that is finally fulfilled when the recap arrives with its return of the madcap first theme. Finally, Schumann wraps up the movement and the symphony with an accelerating coda that uses motives from the second theme to build up to a triumphant close.

What a wealth of musical ideas! What a lively display of youthful passion and promise! What a natural-sounding, tight-built, clean-lined structure! If only everybody's First Symphony carried itself with such easy-going confidence! To borrow a line from Schumann himself: "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!"

IMAGES: Robert Schumann; Clara Schumann; Robert composing his Dichterliebe (a song cycle); an engraving showing Robert and Clara together. I like this last image a lot; click on the thumbnail for a closer look. EDIT: I would love to put a video of a live performance of at least one full movement of this symphony here, but for the life of me I can't find one!!!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reading Mendelssohn's 4th

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47) lived only 38 years, but he had a tremendous impact on musical history. In 1829 it was Mendelssohn who revived J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion for the first time since Bach's death in 1750. Due to changes in taste and fashion, Bach's music had been in eclipse for some time; since Mendelssohn's pioneering work, interest in Bach has continued to grow to this day. Then, in 1839, Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony - mind you, ten years after its composer's death - a premiere that launched it directly into the heart of symphonic repertoire.

Like Bach and Schubert until Mendelssohn's time, Mendelssohn himself fell out of favor after his death. His music, full of easy-going charm and sprightly energy, hails from an early part of the Romantic period. Much of it seemed rather pale and thin next to the earthshaking utterances of Wagner and Mahler. Besides this, Mendelssohn's Jewish background became a liability, even in his native country, during an era of unparalleled antisemitism. Nevertheless Mendelssohn is now increasingly recognized for his skill and inspiration as an original composer whose works include sacred oratorios (St. Paul, Elijah), his works for organ and piano, his cantata The First Walpurgis Night, his violin concerto, his overtures, chamber and vocal music, and of course, his symphonies.

Besides five numbered symphonies for full orchestra, Mendelssohn left behind a dozen symphonies for strings, which he wrote as a child prodigy. They sound like late Haydn or early Schubert, only without woodwinds. Due to this early-blooming genius, his family's wealth and their intellectual connections (his grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), young Felix had the best teachers and plenty of room for his creative muse to grow, even within the space of his short but happy life. Some have argued that all this made composing too easy for Mendelssohn, and therefore his music sometimes flows so smoothly that it doesn't stick in the mind. This cannot be said, at any rate, for two of his symphonies: the 3rd or "Scottish" Symphony, and the one on today's playlist, the 4th or "Italian." They are both pleasing to the ear and memorable, both charming and exciting. They deserve their place on the list of symphonic standards from now until the last orchestra plays its last chord.

You really don't need to do any analysis to appreciate the A-major symphony by Mendelssohn. I think it will immediately appeal to you, from beginning to end. However, there are some interesting things about it. Inspired by Mendelssohn's travels in Italy, the piece was first played in 1833, but the composer was never fully satisfied with it. He continued to make revisions on it, so it wasn't published until after his death. Even now one can hear performances, or recordings, of multiple versions (including a simplified version for "beginner" orchestras, which is quite striking to an ear that knows the standard version well). Another interesting factoid is that both this symphony and the "Scottish" have often been praised for capturing the spirit of the countries that inspired them...though some of the people who have said so were confused about which symphony was which!

The "Italian" Symphony is lovely from one end to the other. The first movement sparkles with cheerful energy. The second has an ancient mystique about it, the third is captivatingly gracious and tender, and the fourth is full of dancelike fury and dramatic fire. There is hardly a bar in the whole piece that doesn't partake of a memorable melodic phrase. It all goes down very easily. But there are some odd things in it that deserve to be pointed out; perhaps they will help you appreciate Mendelssohn's craftsmanship all the more.

Movement I, an effervescent sonata in A major, opens abruptly with a joyful, skipping melody over the kind of accompaniment that must make wind-instrument players want to put ice on their tongues afterward. The second theme is less hurried, but has a similarly skipping character and attractive good-humor. The eye-opener in this movement is the development section, which is dominated by a minor-key theme that appears nowhere in the exposition. It comes back in the recap as well, increasingly combined with a fragment of the first theme.

Movement II begins with a plaintive, minor-key/modal lament, often accompanied only by a steadily marching bass-line. This archaic-sounding melody returns after two contrasting sections featuring a more up-to-date, Romantic sound, forming a nice ABABA structure.

Movement III is an equally touching, gentle dance number with long-breathed, somewhat asymmetrical phrases. The trio section begins with a horn fanfare that, tonally, seems to come from a great distance, and which develops into a passage of military bearing, in contrast to the silky-smooth dance that eventually returns.

Movement IV, finally, is a breathlessly rapid saltarello which, most unusually for the finale of an A-major symphony, is quite firmly in A minor! If any wind players have survived the first movement, this one is sure to finish them off. If you see a flautist swishing and spitting Ben-Gay, he may be practicing for this piece. Nevertheless, it brings the symphony to a thrilling finish which, thanks to its rhythmic flash, doesn't lack for brightness in spite of the minor key.

Head's up! This is the tenth part of our original "Bakers' Dozen" of Symphonies. If you're listening along, you might want to start getting ready for Assignment Two, so we can start right in on them after the last three symphonies from Assignment One. So here's what I suggest for the second Baker's Dozen:
  • Haydn, No. 100 in G, "Military"
  • Haydn, No. 104 in D, "London"
  • Mozart, No. 39 in E-flat
  • Beethoven, No. 9 in D minor, "Choral"
  • Schubert, No. 5 in B-flat
  • Mendelssohn, No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish"
  • Schumann, No. 2 in C
  • Brahms, No. 1 in C minor
  • Antonín Dvořák, No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World"
  • Peter Tchaikovsky, No. 6 in B minor, "Pathétique"
  • Anton Bruckner, No. 7 in E
  • Jean Sibelius, No. 5 in E-flat
  • Sergei Prokofiev, No. 1 in D, "Classical"

IMAGES: Mendelssohn; last page of the 1833 version of the Italian Symphony; last page of the 1834 ditto; the house in Leipzig where Mendelssohn died.

EDIT: Beginning about 1:40 into the video below, Volker Hartung conducts the Cologne New Philharmonic in the first movement of the Italian symphony.

Textile-Induced Vertigo

When I lived in Kansas City, there was an old movie theatre there - which, I believe, has since closed down - whose carpet gave me vertigo. I only visited the place once, and that was a big part of the reason I never returned.

At that time, nothing like that had ever happened to me before. It was a totally new sensation, but not one I cared to explore further.

It's hard to explain, or even guess, why this happened. But the carpet had a multi-colored pattern in it, all abstract shapes that somehow suggested a kind of perspective. Every time I found the pattern of that carpet within my field of vision, I suddenly knew that I had seconds to sit down in order to avoid falling down.

Fortunately there were benches along the foyer of this theatre, and inside the auditorium it was too dark to see the carpet. Between benches in the foyer, I had to choose between walking around with my eyes closed, staring straight up at the ceiling, or using my hands to shield myself from the sight of the carpet. I did a little of each, to keep it interesting. People around me must have thought I was totally nuts.

Last summer, my mother bought me a shirt that has a similar effect on me. And as a cheapskate (when it comes to clothes), I don't throw away a perfectly good shirt until it is more hole than garment. Nevertheless, I have to be careful not to wear that shirt to work or in other contexts where I need to concentrate. When I do wear it, I try not to catch a glimpse of myself (shoulders, upper arms, etc.), even out of the corner of my eye. Especially out of the corner of my eye. The pattern of tiny light-blue and dark-blue checks makes my eyes swim. Or rather, the pattern itself swims around, making me feel dizzy and, at times, nauseous.

Am I absolutely alone in suffering from fabric-induced vertigo? If not, there's some poor clothing designer out there who is seriously in need of some constructive feedback. Such as: "Dude, your fabric pattern totally makes me sick. I mean literally - violently ill, dude. You must be stopped."

Reading Schubert's 9th

The "Great C Major" Symphony by Franz Schubert, his last and greatest symphony, has been numbered his 7th, 8th, and 9th in different catalogues of his works. It is sometimes called the 7th because, although it was the last symphony Schubert completed, it came to light before the 8th (which, remember, wasn't performed until 37 years after the composer's death). It is sometimes called the 8th, either because it did come after the "Unfinished Symphony," or because the Number 7 is customarily assigned to an even-more-unfinished Symphony in E (which was completed in sketch form, but only partially orchestrated, before something broke Schubert's train of thought). Nowadays, however, Schubert's "Great C Major" symphony is most widely designated as his Ninth, after both the E major sketch symphony and the B minor "Unfinished"...except by those who have given up numbering them altogether and just call it Schubert's "Great C Major" symphony.

To illustrate further how confusing all this is, there is also the question of the "Gastein symphony" Schubert was supposedly working on in 1825, but which was regarded as lost for many years. The recently-discovered but probably-spurious Symphony in E, which I described here, has been put forward as a candidate for this vacancy, but more recently it has been been proved that the "Great C Major" symphony (completed in 1828) was, in fact, the self-same large-scale symphony Schubert was working on in 1825. And finally, just to make sure your last nerve is raw, further sketches have been found of another 1828 symphony, this one in D, which is now known as Schubert's 10th, or "Last," Symphony. I have yet to hear it performed.

But now, back to the 9th. The original reason this symphony was called the "Great C Major" Symphony was to distinguish this large-scale work from Schubert's 6th, a shorter symphony in the same key which is therefore nicknamed the "Little C Major" Symphony. Most of us would rather think the nickname "Great" has to do with the symphony's grandeur and sophistication, its status as the Schubert's crowning achievement, its large dimensions and its breadth of scope. Any of which would be adequate grounds for calling this symphony "Great."

The first movement opens with a stately horn solo, introducing a moderately slow ("Andante") introduction which goes on so long that it might fake you into thinking it's the movement proper. But this finally builds and accelerates into a fast sonata, based on material unrelated to the slow intro. The first subject group combines dotted rhythms, broken triads, scales, and an accompaniment of repeated chords in a rapid triplet rhythm. Schubert seems to be grappling with the very elements of music here. After about 50 bars of this, plus very little in the way of transition, a second subject group begins with a much more distinctive melody in E minor. While this subject undergoes some exposition-section development (a touch of the formal heterodoxy that contributes to this symphony's unusual length), a melancholy countersubject is introduced by the trombone in A-flat minor - making this the first symphony to give such an independent role to the trombone. The expo section closes with a codetta full of noisy grandeur; and although it adds a good deal to the length of the movement, I think observing the repeat sign is vital to appreciating the surprising harmonic turn at the beginning of the development.

The second subject and its countersubject provide most of the thematic material for the development, though the triplet rhythm from the first subject pervades a lot of it too. There are about 100 measures of development (compared to around 350 of expo, including the repeat). The recap begins as expected, with the first subject in its original key of C, and the second subject begins in C minor this time, but the structural heterodoxy continues as the music continues to modulate, reaching the D-flat minor in time for the trombone theme, which then follows its own tortured route back to C major. The recap closes with a codetta that might have been an adequate ending for the movement...but Schubert keeps going for another 113 bars!

This extended coda brings back the first subject, now in the character of "wrapping up music" as opposed to its original "getting underway" character. Schubert goes a little crazy in this coda. First, he pulls some chromatic stunts to mess around with your sense of having arrived. Then he does some lickety-split, Italian-comic-opera-overture-on-way-too-much-espresso stuff, and finally he commits the ultimate enormity against sonata orthodoxy by reintroducing the subject of the slow introduction in the very closing bars, pulling this whole huge, 15-minute movement together in an incredible unity. It's amazing.

If anything, Movement II runs a bit longer. But you hardly notice the passage of time. A sonata-rondo marked "Andante con moto," which I translate as "an ordinary marching pace" - neither funereal nor double-quick - it begins with seven measures of accompaniment that contain only a few tantalizing hints of the melody to come. It finally does come in bar 8: a rounded-binary marching tune introduced by the oboe in A minor. If this theme hasn't changed your life by bar 23, I don't want to speak to you. It has all the right things in it, and none of the wrong things: sincerity without sentimentality, good humor without shallow sparkle, strength and dignity without pompousness or brutality, gentle pathos without self-pity, wit without irony, and a steady tread without becoming tiresome.

The theme has another side to it, however. After a quietly glowing A-major passage concludes the first part of the rondo subject, the second part commences in E major: harsh, strident, and alarming, with what sounds like bugle calls in the midst of battle, and a massive unison passage. The section ends with a return to the nice oboe theme and the A-major closing passage, but then repeats with some further development of the strident material before closing again in a similar manner.

The episode, beginning in F major, introduces a sweet, hymn-like theme that achieves its own dramatic climax, and also has a second theme in D minor (I seem to recall it being introduced by a clarinet). The rondo subject (ritornello) returns, with some variation suggesting, again, signals from a distant battle. This time the strident part takes the ball and runs with it, undergoing a considerable amount of development and reaching the loudest climax of the piece so far...and then, after a pause, very softly and hesitantly, a new theme appears (which is really based on the first subject).

This strange moment past, the episode material returns in varied guise (and in A major this time), having seemingly picked up an electric charge since we last heard it. This added energy breaks forth in an emphatic climax. The second theme (now in F-sharp minor) leads to a soft transition back to the final ritornello, in which the rondo subject is almost immediately interrupted by coda figuration that combines bits of all the themes.

Some time ago, I blogged a poem I wrote based on the third movement. It says what I feel about this movement, apart from noting that it's a pretty much orthodox Scherzo-and-Trio structure, only in more of the character of a rustic Austrian dance with lots of colorful leggings, wooden clogs, and tassels galore. The remarkable thing about this movement is that it is so long. Built to the proportions of this nearly hour-long symphony - I should have warned you before about how much time you would need to set aside for this! - this scherzo alone, with repeats, runs for around 11 minutes.

Then the finale hits you, runs right over you, and speeds off into the distance before you can get a good look at its plates. It only runs slightly longer than the scherzo. It opens with flourishy triplet material based on the C-major triad, loudly accented dotted figures, and running parallel thirds that seem to be building up to something. That pretty much sums up this whole first subject group, which (like its counterpart in the first movement) seems to be leading to something else, although it goes on for over 100 bars. A long transition passage then leads to a very strong dominant cadence (that's G major for y'all). Then Schubert takes a deep breath before introducing his second theme, which is characterized by accented, repeated notes. The triplets sneak back in as an accompaniment figure as Schubert develops this theme, then chucks in some runs in dotted rhythms, harking back to the first group and thereby provoking loud protests from the second group's repeated-note theme. Out of this grows a climactic melody, related to the second theme, which seems to be the very thing the whole first group was aiming for. A charming codetta then leads to another obligatory repeat (don't groan; it's worth it) and, the second time around, to a development section that leads off with that big, noble tune.

About 180 measures later, the second-group theme with the repeated notes gets its turn at the trough, figuring in some of the most masculine music Schubert ever wrote. Then Schubert outdoes all his previous atrocities against sonata form by bringing in the recap in the wrong key. Starting in E-flat major, instead of C, it works its way to a resounding E major cadence (still not C). But after another deep breath, the second group cleverly pivots on a unison E into C major. Afterward it threatens not to stay in C, but all its harmonic adventures lead back to C again, where the big, loud, noble codetta theme looks poised to wrap things up...but again, as in the first movement, this proves to be a feint. Schubert lets the tonic cadence die away in a long diminuendo, then starts fiddling around with all his themes, and going through any number of keys, in a coda some 250 bars in length. Of course the last couple of pages are nothing but huge V-I cadences, befitting the massive proportions of this symhony's architecture.

Okay, maybe you did have time to get a look at its plates. It was a 12-minute finale, after all. But unlike some other hour-long symphonies I could name, the length isn't all - or even mostly - the result of insecure hestitations and discursive ramblings. Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony is a consistently inspired piece that owes its large dimensions to its wealth of big, versatile themes that seem to generate pages of variation and extension from within themselves. For all that you could probably get in a good, refreshing nap during the time it takes to listen to this symphony, you will probably be on the edge of your seat through all of it, and will go home humming tunes - like the horn solo from the very beginning of the piece - that you last heard the better part of an hour ago. Which is a good sign that you have encountered an unforgettable piece of music.

IMAGES: Schubert at age 18; the autograph score of the Great C Major Symphony; Schubert later in life; Schubert's desk with the score of his last song; the room where Schubert died.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Latest from Bachelor Gourmet

Here's my latest culinary discovery. Combine the products below (I hope I needn't mention that the packaging is to be removed, and the noodles cooked):

I think it it's quite a good combination. Take my advice with whatever quantity of salt you consider appropriate for one who has admitted to eating a sauerkraut-and-banana sandwich...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Reading Beethoven's 7th

Beethoven's 7th Symphony in A major was first performed in 1813, and was immediately so popular that the second movement had to be encored. Beethoven himself called it one of his best works; and if I hear Wagner's "apotheosis of dance" catch-phrase for the symphony too many more times I might scream. (This bit of music-criticism-by-sound-bite is repeated at least as often as the symphony itself.) Beethoven's 7th does for a bright, sunny major key what Beethoven's 5th did for a dark, stormy minor key: it stretches the limits of orchestral sound to create a richly inventive, extroverted work that flat-out owns its corner of the symphonic repertoire.

The first movement begins with a long, slow introduction that consists, mainly, of decorative scales and introductory-sounding chord progressions, though a charming and noble melody also appears a couple times. Then a lively sonata breaks forth and runs itself breathless with joy. The main theme is marked by an energetic "dah-dit-dot" rhythm which haunts every corner of the movement, including a secondary theme that first appears in C-sharp minor. The exposition ends with a striking scale passage that reminds me of a spring-driven clock being wound up. The next surprise is an ostinato passage in the coda that builds up to a huge climax, over a bass line circling chromatically (i.e. by half-step intervals) around C-sharp.

Movement II is an unusual slow movement in several ways. For one, it isn't particularly slow ("Allegretto" means "a little on the fast side"). For another, it has always upstaged the other three movements. Instantly popular, it remains one of Beethoven's greatest hits - even apart from the noisier and more exuberant movements surrounding it. The fact that it is in A minor makes it unusually close, for a slow movement, to the symphony's overall key of A major. And its form is a bit puzzling too; it is either a theme and variations in which a second theme makes a couple of incongruous appearances, or an ABABA-type thing in which the A section contains variations. Plus, there are bridge passages and a bit of development...aw, heck! Let's just call it a free-form novelty and leave it at that! You won't care anyway, because you will be so captivated by the melancholy marching theme, its sweeping countermelody, and the unexpected beauty of the second theme that interrupts the variations, that you won't care what label the art snobs stick on it.

Movement III is, natch, a scherzo. Marked "Presto" (which translates as "lickety split"), it bubbles and froths with merriment. When I hear this piece, my imagination conjures images of champagne flowing and happy people laughing and conversing. The central trio ("Presto meno assai," i.e. "not so lickety split") has a more dancelike character, touched with wistfulness and, unless my imagination deceives me, a subtle hint of nausea in its sharp waves of loudness and softness. My totally unsupported guess is that Beethoven meant this as a humorous musical picture of some stone-faced drunk trying to act sober. The champagne-pouring, laughing, and conversation return, but the movement isn't over; the trio comes back for a second tipsy dance (something that often happens in the works of Beethoven and later composers - the double trio, I mean, not the tipsiness). Then, after a third run through the scherzo, Beethoven gives you a musical pinch: he starts in on the trio for a third time - just long enough to make you flinch and wonder if this movement could go on forever - then laughs in your face with five quick, closing chords.

The finale is another spirited sonata, beginning with two loud, emphatic, musical Ahems, followed by a first theme that reminds me of a hot-rod revving its engine. This theme is in two parts, like a subject for variations, but it is followed by a passage of solid, sonata-form transition material, full of throat-clearings, revvings, and a bit of soaring melody. A second theme finally emerges, vacillating between E major and C-sharp minor, and then the hot-rod takes off in a brilliant codetta. Whether the development introduces a new theme is an open queston; the first music you hear after a full restatement of the first theme actually seems to be development based on the throat-clearing motif, with a countermelody added to help keep it going. In the recap the second theme returns in an unambigous A major. (Compare this to the second theme of Movement I, which remains in the minor on its final return.) Finally, the movement plunges into a lengthy coda in which, once again, the bass line moves around chromatically, creating a next-to-last-minute surge of uncertainty that is finally resolved by a last-minute glory of dazzling A major. After one or two last revs the hot-rod takes off for good, and the final chords sound final indeed.

This symphony is not to everyone's taste. Though it may not be guilty, it is at least susceptible to the charge of being tastelessly noisy. Wiki cites a conductor who allegedly likened the symphony to "a lot of yaks jumping about." However, its enduring place among the most-played and -popular symphonies of Beethoven, or any composer, suggests that whatever got those yaks jumping is infectious.

IMAGES: A bust of Beethoven; a Viennese masqued ball at which Beethoven's 7th Symphony was performed; yaks. EDIT: As a rare bonus, here is a video of the ENTIRE 7th Symphony, as Herbert von Karajan conducts (I think) the Berlin Philharmonic:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reading Schubert's 8th

Franz Peter Schubert's 8th Symphony in B minor has been nicknamed "The Unfinished Symphony." It's not that there aren't other unfinished symphonies, but mystery and tragedy of this particular symphony's being unfinished is especially poignant. Even as it stands - trailing off into silence after two magnificent movements - it is one of the greatest, most nearly flawless works of the symphonic art.

Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his B-minor first movement and the E-major slow movement that goes with it in 1822, when he still had 6 years to live and another whole symphony to write. He also sketched most of a scherzo, but barely started orchestrating it before he stopped working on this symphony, for reasons unknown. One can only speculate as to what kind of finale Schubert had in mind; but given the large proportions of the two completed movements, the finished symphony would probably have run for 45-50 minutes. As it is, the symphony clocks in at about 25 minutes.

Movement I is an innovative and intensely expressive sonata. It is also a very successful, large-scale structure, considering that its composer specialized in miniature musical forms, such as Lieder (art songs). His song-writing background goes a long way toward explaining the tuneful lyricism of this movement, in which nothing is quite what it seems to be. For example, the principal theme pretends to be a deep, soft, brief introduction. The next thing you hear (unless you're listening to this piece on your car radio, in which case you probably can't hear anything yet) is a rustling accompaniment. The tune to go with the accompaniment enters a few bars later - a plaintive, mysterious melody that pretends to be the principal theme, though it is really only transitional material. This builds quickly to a minor climax; then a gentle, sunny second theme emerges over a syncopated accompaniment. After everything (including the supposed introduction) is repeated, everything becomes clear in the development, which is mostly built on motives taken from that deep, ominous, opening theme. The same theme also dominates the atmospheric coda.

And now, luxuriate in the breathtakingly beautiful slow movement which alternates between two broad theme groups. The first group has a sweet, tender, delicate theme; the second alternates between bubbly, cheerful tune (introduced by the clarinet) and contrapuntal passages charged with dramatic power. The movement ends with a mild joke in which the first theme seems to be searching for the correct key.

Why didn't Schubert finish this work? Some say he must have felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of following up such a magnificent pair of movements. Or, perhaps, he simply became preoccupied with other projects, and in a lapse of artistic judgment did not consider this symphony worth completing. In any case, Schubert passed off the score of the two completed movements to a fellow-composer named Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who did not bother to have it performed until 1865! 42 years is a long time for a world-class masterpiece to spend locked in some third-rate musician's desk drawer. Let's be thankful that this paradoxical paragon of unfinished perfection finally came to light!

IMAGES: Schubert; Schubert's eyeglasses on the manuscript of one of his songs. EDIT: As a special surprise bonus, the following video is not of the symphony itself, but of the first half of a Passacaglia by Godowsky on the opening theme of this symphony. I think it's brilliant. Plus, the video enables you to follow along in the score!Be sure to follow it up with Part 2!

Reading Beethoven's 5th

Nothing says "classical music" quite like Ludwig van Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C minor. It is probably the most popular and easily recognizable of all symphonies. It is also the subject of a lot of controversy, ranging from differences of interpretation to textual questions (e.g., should the 3rd movement have a repeat sign or not?). But even though it is vastly overplayed, Beethoven's 5th continues to evoke revolutionary associations in listeners' minds. Not only was it a landmark in the career of a fiercely original artist; it was also a piece that, in many ways, captured the essence of Beethoven's courageous, strong-willed character.

Movement I begins with two loud, sustained announcements of a now-famous four-note motto (dit-dit-dit-dah). As to this motto, myths and misconceptions abound. For instance, the rumor that these four notes represent "fate knocking at the door" comes from rather unreliable sources. A more trustworthy witness claims that Beethoven was inspired by the song of a yellowhammer. The latter interpretation would seem to be supported by Beethoven's metronome markings, which indicate a much faster tempo than the movement is customarily played. I have heard David Robertson suggest that this tempo discrepancy is partly the result of generations of conductors vying to outdo each other in the seriousness and dramatic gravitas of their interpretations. Robertson hints that a more authentic approach would reveal a sonata movement of almost comical lightness.

The key four-note motif is expanded, at first hesitantly, into a full-blown theme before a loud horn call ushers in a soft, graceful second theme in E-flat major. Even during this lighter passage, however, the four-note motto throbs in the background, and comes back for a big, extroverted codetta. The development section is quite short, leading to a recap remarkable mainly for a surprising, cadenza-like oboe solo. A brief coda brings this brief but highly concentrated movement to an end.

Movement II is a slow set of variations on a binary theme (or, as some would have it, double variations on two alternating themes). The first part of the theme is dignified and lyrical; the second part is more strident. As in the variations at the end of the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven lets the middle of the movement drift off into a kind of free development of the first part of the theme, and extends the last variation into a coda that seems reluctant to let go.

Movement III is a scherzo that alternates between a low, ominous theme (based on the theme of the finale of Mozart's 40th) and a loud, threatening theme which, coincidentally, also has a dit-dit-dit-dah rhythm (only, unlike the motive of the first movement, it starts on an accented note). This theme actually makes a more credible candidate for the "fate knocking at the door" theory. Editors of the score, and subsequently conductors, are in disagreement as to whether there should be a repeat sign after the contrapuntal trio section. The repeat was in Beethoven's autograph score, but not in the original published edition (which may represent the composer's "final wishes"). Repeat or no, the movement ends with a version of the opening section of the scherzo, re-scored for soft winds and pizzicato strings, which then extends into a spooky bridge passage that leads, without a break, to Movement IV.

The Finale is a sonata in a radiant C major. The big crescendo leading out of the bridge passage to this movement's triumphant first theme may remind one of the sun surging out from behind a dark, stormy cloud. The movement's exuberance hardly slackens until the end of the development, when - shockingly, if not disturbingly - a soft version of the dit-dit-dit-dah theme from Movement III forces its way in. This last spectre of anxiety is a rather ghastly touch, so close to the end of what had seemed to be a musical statement about adversity being swallowed up in victory. But then it leads once again to that wonderful sunrise-crescendo and the full-bodied rejoicing of the recap. And again, like Eroica, this symphony closes with a long coda that super-emphatically asserts the C major tonic, lest there be any doubt in the listener's mind after the journey Beethoven has led you through.

IMAGES: Top - Beethoven in 1810, two years after the premiere of his 5th Symphony; Bottom - Beethoven's writing desk. EDIT: Here is a classic comedy routine featuring Sid Caesar, Nanette Fabray, and the first movement of Beethoven's 5th:

Muggly Tackiness

The ever-opportunistic, ever-tacky ELCA church sign near my home now reads:


Yeah. They'd better hope their members don't take that idea into their heads.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reading Beethoven's 3rd

Ludwig van Beethoven's 3rd Symphony in E-flat, nicknamed "Eroica" (which means "heroic" in Italian), was a major turning-point in the history of the symphony. It also remains one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Even a surface-oriented hearing will probably tell you that it is music of awesome power, pith, and depth. But a closer, more analytical approach to listening to it may reward you, at first, with frustration. This is because, in this symphony, Beethoven tried a lot of new things that shook people up.

This is revolutionary music, befitting an age of revolution. Written in 1804, it is said to have been dedicated to Napoleon, until the latter declared himself an emperor in May of that year. Then, the story goes, Beethoven ripped out the dedication page and penned a new title: "Heroic symphony, written to celebrate the memory of a great man." Of course, this story is probably greatly exaggerated; in the end, the piece was dedicated to a nobleman named Lobowitz, who was one of Beethoven's financial backers. Blah, blah, blah.

This is also revolutionary music in the sense that music historians mark it as the place where one must "turn the page" from the Classical Period of Haydn and Mozart, to the Romantic Period which brought forth, in its time, the likes of Wagner, Liszt, Brahms, and Verdi. It was the end of a period that prized balanced proportions, clear forms, and genteel restraint; and the beginning of an era of grandiose effects, intense emotions, exoticism, archaism, nationalism, and fashionable excesses ranging from the maudlin to the macabre.

To put it another way, the passage from Classic to Romantic came at a time when the symphony, concerto, and opera were transmuted from the private parlors of the type of people who wore silk doublets and powdered wigs, to the public concert hall and theatre frequented, mainly, by the growing middle class. It was the end of the time when the things most of us take for granted were exclusively enjoyed by the rich and powerful (who pretty much owned everyone else), the beginning of the era when all these things (art and culture, as well as property and political power) were within the reach of the average person. This didn't happen overnight; but Beethoven's 3rd is considered the first symphony that had completely crossed over into this new world order.

So be prepared as these four movements steer us through some unexpected symphonic territory. This isn't Papa Haydn's symphony any more!

Movement I begins with two loud bangs. Then the cellos announce a theme that circles around a broken E-flat-major triad. Almost immediately, Beethoven starts disrupting classical expectations: the first movement is in a triple time (only slightly unusual); by measure 6 it is already dabbling in harmonies outside the key of E-flat. Then there is a brief switch to the dominant key (B-flat) within the first theme; a transitional passage containing a theme that undergoes a lot of development later; powerful rhythms that disrupt the 3/4 pulse; a second thematic area containing tons of material and climaxing in six powerful chords.

That's just the exposition; the development is even more radical! Tunes from the transition passage combine with the first theme in a disproportionately long development. Using rich and often surprising harmonies, beyond anything his contemporaries were writing, Beethoven steers the piece through an exciting fugato section, followed by a build-up in which the 3/4 rhythm again breaks down, and climaxing in five shatteringly loud, dissonant, and rhythmically unstable chords. (Peter Schickele once did a gag in which these chords "murdered" his radio jockey character, like a musical bludgeon dealing out Beethoven's righteous wrath.)

After this musical scream, the strings play a transitional passage that reminds one how it feels when all the blood drains out of your face in a moment of shock and horror. Then everyone takes a breath, and Beethoven violates the last orthodoxy of sonata form by presenting a very pleasant, but entirely new, theme in the oboes, first in E minor and then A minor - as far from E-flat major as you can get - and long after the end of the so-called exposition!

By now the audience has loosened their neckcloths and some of them are fanning themselves with their powdered wigs. But it ain't over yet! The first theme reappears in a transformed state, accompanied by an orchestra that is trying to play in 3/4 and 2/4 at the same time (and yet, miraculously, stays together). Then, after a quietly mysterious moment, the development section ends with a weird horn entry in the tonic (E-flat) - weird, because the harmony is in the dominant (B-flat), so it sounds as if the horn player made a mistake and came in four bars early for the recapitulation. Looking at Beethoven's scowling face, you would never have guessed he had such a sense of humor. Of course, if you thought the horn player goofed, the joke was on you!

The recap seems pretty straightforward - or as straightforward as it can be, given its staggering wealth of material, its daring harmony, its rhythmic changeability, and its six crashing chords, and even a tonic cadence (though not the strong, V-I kind you expect at the end of the symphony)...but because it couldn't seem to come to a solid enough conclusion, the music keeps going. This isn't just a coda; this is actually more development going on, as the recap breaks another taboo and starts exploring other keys. That mysterious new theme from the development comes back, first in F and then in B-flat, doing its part to lead back to the transformed version of the first theme that debuted near the end of the development. This version of the theme finally does the trick, and drives the first movement to a big, noisy, heroic, solidly E-flat finish.

It's totally original. It breaks all the rules. But I think it is just about perfect.

And then comes the second movement, titled Marcia funebre. You might be thinking, "What, did Beethoven name this piece after his girlfriend?" But no, that just means Funeral March. It is, again, a virtually perfect piece of music, which Leonard Bernstein once described as an example of musical inevitability. I think, though, that point of view downplays Beethoven's immense originality in this movement. Oppressively slow, yet too fascinating to ignore for even a moment, the movement unfolds in a highly individual version of a sonata-rondo form. The long subject in C minor takes the form of an expansive rounded-binary piece, with a secondary theme in E-flat. This is followed by a bright C-major episode; then the minor-key material comes back for a long "development," including some good old fugato treatment, and occasional (somewhat altered) returns to the C-minor march theme. Towards the end there is some frankly weird stuff going on; the final statement of the C-minor theme seems to come out in a series of dying gasps.

Movement III is titled Scherzo, a type of piece that took the place of the Minuet in symphonies from this point onward. You definitely wouldn't want to dance to a scherzo, which is very fast and mercurial compared to a minuet; and this scherzo is very undancelike, with its sudden changes of rhythm leaving would-be dancers tripping over their own feet. A playful tune emerges out of an indistinct musical cloud, leading to some pretty strong statements. The outer part of the scherzo is shaped, structurally, like a classic minuet; there is even a central "trio" section emphasizing the French horn section. Then the outer scherzo comes back, with some alterations, leading to a wry little coda.

Finally, of course, there is the Finale. This is yet another movement that blurs the boundaries between musical forms; in this case, between the Theme and Variations and the Sonata. Opening with a descending flourish, the movement quickly begins to treat a theme that Beethoven had also used, in 1802, in a set of 15 variations and a fugue for piano known today as (guess what!) the Eroica Variations. The first thing you hear is actually just the bass line of the theme, then two variations based on it. It isn't until the third variation that you actually hear the theme itself - a sort of delayed exposition foreshadowed, perhaps, by the late appearance of a theme in the first movement. No sooner has the theme been introduced than the variations break off and something rather like a development section kicks in. In the course of this development, you hear the theme in a variety of ways: in different keys, nestled in a fugato passage, etc.

The variations return as the movement changes to a slower tempo. Several slow variations follow, each one a bit freer with the theme than the previous one, until we reach a level of abstraction from which it is virtually impossible to pick out the theme. Then the tempo takes off with another loud, descending flourish, introducing one of Beethoven's long, blustery, final-movement codas that sometimes make you want to scream: "Isn't he done yet?" And then he is. I reckon he emphasizes the closing chords so much, just to make up for all his harmonic adventures along the way - so, in the end, there is no doubt in your mind that E-flat major is "home free."

Beethoven's 3rd is a gigantic symphony, both in its proportions and in its rhetoric. It is also a gigantic monument to the heroism of Beethoven, as he continued to fight back against the silence that increasingly enveloped him. (I'm talking about deafness, silly.) But above all, it is a huge work of musical art; in my opinion, it is the best thing Beethoven ever wrote. But the runners-up are numerous and very, very close behind.

And by the way, don't let the idea that Eroica was the first fully Romantic symphony deter you from experiencing Beethoven's 2nd. It might not make it over the top of the hill, but you can see the other side from there...and the view is great!

IMAGES: a statue of Beethoven in Vienna; the house where Beethoven wrote parts of the Eroica Symphony; the title page of the Eroica Symphony in Beethoven's hand; pages of the autograph score with Beethoven's ear trumpet. EDIT: Here is a video of Herbert von Karajan performing the first half of Beethoven's Third. It's a pity that the video cuts off in the middle of the second movement, but what can I do?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Non-Spoiler Review of Deathly Hallows

I was invited to an all-night reading of the newly released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, starting Saturday morning as soon as I could pick up a copy. So even though I had pre-ordered a copy (which didn't get delivered until 3 something in the afteroon), I went to a Borders store at about 10:45 on Friday night to get in line to buy an additional copy. Silly me! I was 1,096th in a line that didn't start moving until 12:01 a.m., and I didn't get through the checkout line until about 1:50. Youch!

The Borders I visited, in Brentwood MO, is a huge store. It has two levels, plus a large cafe. I mooched through every section of the store except the cafe (which was disturbingly full of people) and so managed to miss the one person I knew, who never went outside the cafe and was something like 39th in line. I saw kids in costumes, and kids doing crafts projects. I browsed books, videos, and music. I spent a good deal of time sitting on a stool and reading Your Movie Sucked by Roger Ebert. I also read a bit of Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I almost, but not quite, bought CDs of music by Vieuxtemps and Zemlinsky.

I thought I would lose my mind if the person announcing which ticket numbers could get in line wouldn't stop telling those of us not yet called to stay away from the orange squares taped to the floor. When I did get in the official line, I made sure to step directly on every single orange square. I declined the offer of a free poster, which they were handing out along with the book.

Then I was out of there, and I found my way to my friend's place in University City, and after a couple pieces of pizza, a swig of hard cider, and a cookie or two, I plunged into the seventh and last adventure of the wizard "boy who lived" - wondering: Will he live through this one?

The first thing I noticed were a couple of quotes - from Aeschylus's Libation Bearers and something by William Penn - which immediately made me think: "Crud. The kid dies." So, knowing that my nerves couldn't stand reading the whole book without knowing whether he lives or dies, I read the last paragraph of the book & it cleared that up. Then I was able to enjoy the book. For a while, I read with one or two other folks, then I went home and had a nap and read some more...I finished it at about 10:45 last night, a mere 24 hours after arriving at Borders to buy the book.

Should you ask me if Harry lives or dies, right now my answer would be: "Yes." For more details, read the book yourself. But I do want to review the book now, while it is fresh in my mind - without spoiling it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. So here's what I can say:

  1. The conflict between Harry and Voldemort comes to a definite, and final, conclusion.
  2. Until that resolution, however, there is more tension, more conflict, more danger, darker days for Harry and his world, and bigger battles than anything seen in the series so far.
  3. The phrase "action-packed" was made for this book. The pacing and intensity of the story is awe-inspiring. It scarcely seems that Harry has time to breathe between life-or-death confrontations and narrow escapes.
  4. There are a LOT of deaths. Some of them will hit you hard, if you have been following the series and care about its characters. Some of the deaths come as a grisly shock, some as sad (but not unexpected) casualties in what you know, going in, is going to be a bloody business. A few of the deaths made the people at the U City read-in swear at J. K. Rowling.
  5. Do not read this book without an adequate supply of Kleenex. I got a lump in my throat reading chapter 3. Even if you aren't easily brought to tears, you will probably need to blow your nose by the end of chapter 18. Chapters 23 and 24 afford a good opportunity to let it all out and have a good cry. Chapter 33 may make you a blubbery mess. And there are lots of other times when holding the floodgates shut might give you a sore throat.
  6. A lot of the wacko fan theories about what was going to happen in this book - theories circulated through Mugglenet Editorials, chat rooms, and podcasts until you couldn't stand hearing about them, and which you were sure were a mile wide of the mark - turn out to be right on target. For the first time in the series, I experienced disappointment in the sense that the too-clever-to-be-allowed pundits actually guessed Rowling's game.
  7. However, these theories weren't all equally accurate. There are still some good surprises in store, even for someone who has gone through speculation fatigue.
  8. Even with all the action, there is room for many of the characters and their relationships to grow. The ones who don't grow are the ones to watch out for.
  9. The word "dark" comes up a lot when people talk about this series. It does deal with a struggle against an increasingly dominant evil power which, in this book especially, does a lot of horrible things. Several items and concepts in this book are very sinister. One scene in particular gave me such a case of the shudders, I expect when they make the film it will be the darkest scene ever and you'll need night-vision goggles to see what's going on. However, the book is also full of humor, affection, romance, and moving displays of courage.
  10. The loose ends all seem to have been tied up. Of course many things are left to the imagination, in the end; but I wasn't troubled by a lot of unanswered questions.

Now the Harry Potter series is quite complete. And it does seem to be, emphatically, over. Without committing myself on what happens at the end, I think it is fair to say the chances of a sequel are quite small. But it's nice to see Ms. Rowling's achievement wrapped up with a bow on top. From here on, Harry Potter is in a new phase, where I suppose it will join the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth as finished, but well-loved, series whose future fans will find it whole. To them comes the opportunity to discover Harry Potter and see his journey through to the end, all at once, without enduring months or years of hype and uncertainty. To us, however - to us who have followed the series for some time - a different privilege: to be among the first to discover each new book in the series, and to savor the anticipation which has now come to fulfillment.

Congratulations, and kudos, to Ms. J. K. Rowling.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Breeds of Chess

Chess is a great game with a long history. I'm not awfully good at it, but it interests me. (I hear you asking, "Dude, what doesn't?" Point taken.) After many centuries of development, it has come down to us in a pretty standard form, so that people from Vancouver to Vladivostok, from Stockholm to Santiago de Chile, enjoy the same game with the same rules, the same board, and the same pieces. There have been some genius players, and there have been some amazing computers programmed to play chess, and when they play among themselves (the great human players and/or the machines) it always seems to be a contest among the greatest intellects in the world.

All this is true, but many of us live under the illusion that the form of chess that we know is the worldwide standard. I did, until a couple years ago. No sooner did I discover some interesting alternate forms of chess than I bought sets of several of the games. I am still hoping, some day, to find a willing victim - I mean, partner - to teach to play them so I can experience the different nuances of these chess-like games.

Let's start with Western chess, for a point of reference. It is played on an 8 x 8 square board with alternating light and dark squares. Each player (light and dark) begins with 16 stylized, three-dimensional pieces lined up in two ranks at his own end of the board. In the front rank are 8 pawns that move forward, usually one space at a time, except when they attack; then they move one space diagonally forward.

Behind them stand an assortment of pieces that can move and attack in different ways: two rooks on the ends of the rank, which can move forward, backward, or sideways any number of unoccupied spaces; then the bishops, which can move diagonally ditto; the knights, which can jump over other pieces as they make their L-shaped moves; the queen, who starts on a square of her own color and can move like either a rook or a bishop; and the king, who can only move one space in any direction, and who needs to be protected from attack by the other side. When your king is under attack ("check"), the only move you are allowed to make is to get him out of danger. When there is no way to do this ("checkmate"), you lose the game.

There are other twists, of course - like the option of moving a pawn ahead two spaces from its original position, promoting a pawn to any other piece when it reaches the opposite side of the board, the castling maneuver involving a rook and the king, and the amazing en passant maneuver. These are among the features of Western chess that distinguish it from other historic and cultural variants of the game. And now, here are a few of those variants...

Xiangqi, or Chinese chess, uses the board and pieces shown here. You'll notice the layout is quite different from that of Western chess. Instead of three-dimensional pieces (based on such machines of war as infantry, cavalry, chariots, etc.) it has flat disks with Chinese characters written on them in either red or black. The characters determine the type and function of each piece. The pieces stand on the points where lines intersect, rather than the spaces between them; and the 9 x 10 grid is further embellished by the two "palaces" at opposite ends (from which each General and his two Advisers cannot move) and the the "river" across the middle (which the Elephants cannot cross). The General, who must be protected from checkmate, can move one space vertically or horizontally within the palace; the Advisers can only move one space diagonally within the palace.

The other pieces that start in the back row include, from the center outward: two elephants, which can only move two points diagonally unless another piece stands in the way, and which must remain on the "defensive" side of the river; two horses, which can move one point vertically or horizontally, then one point diagonally, but only if their path is unblocked; and two chariots, which move and attack like a rook in Western chess. Two points ahead of the horses are the two cannons, which move like the chariots, but must jump over an intervening piece in order to attack another piece. Ahead of the cannons stand five soldiers, who can only move and attack one space forward or, after they cross the river, one space horizontally. Once these players start moving, the game continues until a player is either checkmated or unable to make a legal move; that player loses - there is no stalemate in Xiangqi.

Does that seem weird to you? Weird or not, Xiangqi has been played since at least 300 B.C. and is among the most popular board games on earth. China is, after all, a big country! There are Xiangqi clubs and associations all over the world, including the U.S., and top players are ranked internationally. There is even a sort of Chinese breed of checkers or draughts, played with Xiangqi pieces on one-half of a Xiangqi board; it is called Banqi.

Janggi, or Korean chess, is played on a similar 9 x 10 board, only without a "river" across the middle. The pieces are, again, disks with stylized Chinese characters printed on them in red or green; they vary in size according to their importance. The General and his two Counselors can move anywhere within the "palace." The Elephants move one space horizontally or vertically, followed by two spaces diagonally, provided their path is unblocked. The Horses move in a similar way, only the diagonal part of the move is only one space. The Chariots, again, move like a Western rook. The Cannon can move or capture any distance horizontally or vertically, provided there is exactly one piece in his path for him to "hurdle" over; this ensures that the cannon becomes less powerful as more pieces are taken off the board. The five Soldiers on each side can move one space forward or sideways; once they reach the opposite end they can only move sideways. Game ends when one player checkmates the other; there is no stalemate in Janggi, since a player who cannot make a legal move simply skips a turn.

Then there is Shogi, or Japanese chess, which I find particularly interesting. The set I own is played, not on a wooden board, but on a leather mat that is rolled up between games. Played on a 9 x 9 grid, the flat, pointy pieces are placed on the spaces (as in Western chess), starting in three ranks. The characters on both players' pieces are black, so one tells whose piece is whose by which way they are pointing. Many pieces can be promoted once they reach the far third of the board; they are then flipped over, revealing a different character written in red, signifying their new rank.

Another really awesome twist is that captured pieces can be "dropped" on the board, in their unpromoted rank, pointing back the other way. Thus they serve as reinforcements for the capturing side. A piece can be dropped anywhere on the board except to: (1) immediately capture a piece; (2) checkmate the opponent's king (in the case of dropped pawns); or (3) undergo mandatory promotion. Also, a dropped pawn cannot occupy the same rank as another unpromoted pawn belonging to the same player.

The pieces in Shogi move as follows. The King can move one space in any direction. Starting to either side of the king are two Gold Marshals, who can move one square in any direction except diagonally backwards. The two Silver Marshals, starting outside the Golds, can move one square diagonally or straight ahead. Next, outside the Silvers, are the two Knights, which can only jump one square forward plus one square diagonally forward, regardless of intervening pieces. On the outer corners are the two Lances, which can move any number of free spaces forward. Starting the game in the second rank, ahead of the Knights, there are one Bishop (on the left) and one Rook (on the right). These pieces move like their counterparts in Western chess. The nine Pawns in the third rank can only move ahead by one space per move. Pawns, Knights, and Lances enjoy mandatory promotion when they reach the far end of the board (in the case of Knights, this means either of the far two ranks); otherwise they can't move at all.

Here's how promotion works. Silvers, Knights, Lances, and Pawns all promote to Gold Marshals. The Rook and Bishop become the Dragon and Horse, respectively. In addition to their usual choices of moves as a Rook or Bishop, they can also move one space in any direction, like a King. Kings and Golds do not promote.

Sittuyin, or Burmese chess, is played with standard Western chess pieces on an eight-by-eight grid with two diagonals crossing the center of the board. The game starts with only the pawns on the board, the four on each player's right in his fourth rank, the left four in his third rank. The opening moves consist of the players, by turns, placing their remaining pieces anywhere on their own side of the board (i.e., behind their own pawns).

Only a few pieces act differently from their Western chess counterparts. The queen, known here as the General, can only move one step diagonally. The bishop, here called the Elephant, can move one step diagonally or forward. While standing on a space with a diagonal going through it, a pawn can be promoted to General provided the original General has been captured; this promotion constitutes one turn. Stalemate is not allowed.

Makruk, or Thai chess, is also played with Western pieces on an 8 x 8 grid. Considered the living chess variant that is closest to the original game that is the common ancestor of all these warlike board games, it is more popular than chess in Thailand and Cambodia. Makruk opens with the pieces set up pretty much like those in Western chess, with two exceptions: both kings are to the left of their queens (known here as Ministers), and the pawns begin in the third rank.

In Makruk, the pawn moves and attacks just as in Western chess, except it doesn't get to advance two spaces on its first move, and there is no en passant move. The bishop and Minister move like the Elephant and General in Sittuyin. The other pieces move like their western counterparts, though the rook is called a Boat, and the knight a Horse. Pawns promote to Ministers when they reach the third rank from the far end. The most complicated part of Makruk involves counting the number of moves allowed, after all the pawns have been removed from the board, before declaring the game a draw. I would rather not go into that right now.

Shatranj is a Middle-Eastern variant of chess that developed in Persia (present-day Iran) a thousand years ago. Western chess is directly descended from Shatranj, though the latter is not the original form of the game (more on that to come). The king (Shah), rook (Chariot), knight (Horse), and pawn (Soldier) move exactly like their modern counterparts, except the pawn doesn't have the option of a two-space opening move. The bishop (Elephant) moves exactly two spaces diagonally, by jumping over the intervening space. The queen (Counselor) moves only one space diagonally. There is no castling (ditto all these other variants of chess), and a player who cannot make a legal move loses the game (hence, no stalemate either).

Tamerlane Chess was an extended version of Shatranj, developed during the reign of the Persian Emperor Timur (1336-1405). It was played on a 10 x 11 grid with two additional squares (one to the right of each player's second rank), known as "citadels." Only kings can occupy a citadel, and one can obtain a draw by taking possession of the opponent's citadel. Of course some extra pieces are required for this expanded setup. Besides the king, knights, rooks, and a full complement of pawns, each moving like their modern-chess counterparts, the pieces and their moves included a General (one square diagonally), a Vizir (one square horizontally or vertically), a Giraffe (one square diagonally plus three squares horizontally or vertically), a Picket (at least two squares diagonally), an Elephant (exactly two squares diagonally, if its path is unobstructed), a Camel (two squares diagonally, plus two squares horizontally or vertically, provided its path is unobstructed), and a Siege Engine (two unobstructed squares horizontally or vertically). Pawns that reach the far end of the board promote to whatever piece started in the same file. Since one of the pieces starting in the first rank is an additional pawn, this raises the complicated issue of promoting the "pawn of pawns." Plus, due to promoting the pawn of kings, there may be as many as 3 kings to a side - and there are still other complicated rules which one would best learn about here.

The original game from India, and the common ancestor of all these variants of chess, is Chaturanga. All the pieces in modern, Western chess have counterparts in chaturanga: the Raja (king), Minister (queen), Chariot (rook), Elephant (bishop), Horse (knight), and Soldier (pawn). In later variants, some of these names were swapped around, or changed into other things such as ships and camels. The pieces are initially arranged on an 8 x 8 grid as in Western chess, except that each king is to the right of his queen. The pieces move mostly as in Shatranj, except it is not quite clear how the Elephant was supposed to move - it probably changed over time. Oddly, the game was won either by taking all the opponents pieces except the king ("baring" the king), or by being unable to make a legal move. (By the way, I did notice that the modern-day "Chaturanga" set in the picture actually fits the description of Chaturaji. Go figure.)

A four-player version of Chaturanga also existed, known as Chaturaji. Each player began with a king, boat (rook), horse (knight), and elephant (bishop), lined up in that order in one corner of the board (with the elephant in the corner square) and guarded by a line of four pawns. The pieces moved mostly like their modern-chess counterparts, except the pawn didn't get a two-space opening move, and the boat moved by jumping diagonally over a square. A boat can capture all three opposing boats at once by moving so that the four boats fill a 2 x 2 square. Originating a thousand years ago, Chaturaji was originally a game of chance. Moves were determined by a throw of the dice; a later, diceless version continued to be played in India until the 1800s.

Many, many other fascinating variants of chess have been tried, some of them requiring special equipment, and some of them existing only as computer games. To explore more of these variants of chess, see this Wiki page. Chess is a surprisingly diverse game. You can play it with other real people by mail, over the phone, by email or IM, and online. You can play it alone with more or less sophisticated computers. Legions of books have been written about chess strategy. Chess problems and puzzles have fascinated generations of people who enjoy having their brain teased. The boards and gamepieces are often unique and exquisite works of art (including the sittuyin pieces pictured here, and the chaturanga set above). And now it turns out that learning variants of chess can be a great way to gain insights to other cultures, to learn foreign languages, and to broaden one's understanding of historic war strategy. And I haven't even mentioned Go, Backgammon, Pachisi, or any of their respective legions of related, warlike boardgames...maybe another time!