In celebration of the beginning of a new year, here are four pieces which qualify as musical “firsts.” Listen to the music on the list and then share your own favorite musical “firsts” in the comment thread below.
Let’s start with the birth of opera. Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is often credited with singlehandedly inventing the art form. In reality, opera gradually evolved out of Intermedio, music and dance sequences which were performed between the acts of early seventeenth century plays. At least two fledgling operas by Jacopo Peri, Dafne (1598), and Euridice (1600), predated Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). But with Orfeo, Monteverdi assembled all of the pre-existing building blocks (aria, recitative, chorus) to create the first mature and fully developed opera. For the first time the blending of music, libretto and staging realized its full dramatic potential. Four hundred years later, Monteverdi’s Orfeo is still regularly performed.
Listen to the haunting recitative from Act 3, Possente spirto (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), in which Orpheus attempts to cross the river Styx into Hades.
Learn more about the history and synopsis of Orfeo here.
Mozart’s First Symphony
Mozart was eight years old when he wrote Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 16. Although he was already known throughout Europe as a wunderkind piano sensation, he had composed little music. The First Symphony was written in London (Chelsea) during the summer of 1764 while the Mozart family was in the middle of a concert tour of Europe. A plaque marks the house today.
Listen carefully to the four note motive in the opening of the second movement (6:07). This motive returns in the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony (listen to Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” here).
Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata
The opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata grabs your attention as if to say, “Here I am!” This opening firmly establishes the home key of D major, but listen to the way we’re pulled into increasingly distant keys as the movement progresses (especially in the development section beginning at 5:26). This opening movement is marked, Allegro con brio (with fire). Listen to the dialogue between the violin and piano.
Beethoven dedicated this sonata, written in 1798, to his contemporary, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), the Italian composer who popular legend has erroneously accused of murdering Mozart. The final movement seems to sparkle with the light frivolity and humor of Italian opera.
Here is a great recording by violinist Pamela Frank and her father, the legendary pianist Claude Frank, who passed away last week:
Listen to the second and third movements.
Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23
Let’s finish with a dose of atonality. In Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, written in 1923, harmonic relationships between pitches are almost completely gone. The final piece is considered to be the first example of twelve-tone composition. This is a highly ordered technique which ensures that all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale remain equal and independent. Schoenberg described this technique, also known as Serialism, as a:
method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.
Here is Glenn Gould’s recording:
2 thoughts on “Four Musical Firsts”
Dear Tim ~
Thank you for posting these works as “Firsts” on January 2, 2015! Having just listened to Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, performed as lovingly as possible by the late Glenn Gould, with pearl like sounds and tenderness, I
still must comment that this atonal work of Schoenberg from earlier on in his compositional journey is not “sweet” to my particular musical pallette. In the last few chapters of my Mother, Betty’s, life, who had been Schoenberg’s protege and selected pianist to play and demonstrate most of his orchestral/chamber orchestral compositions for his most advanced classes at UCLA, she echoed my own sentiments here. “Momma” was not blindly ‘fidel’ to all Schoenberg had composed. Her musical discernment and great Love for Music kept her from falling into a fog of worship for music she admitted was “not my cup of tea.” Not to mistake her reactions to some of her mentor’s work, she was deeply respectful of Schoenberg’s brilliance, musical intelligence, and intellectual overviews. She preferred not to perform this work which Glenn Gould does with such kindness and mastery. For myself, a musician of romantic nature and temperament, I cannot say I would take this work, Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, to a desert island if I had only five days left to live here on Earth … In this case, I cannot in good conscience say I would list this work of Arnold Schoenberg on the “Firsts” of my choice. With all the above said, let me make clear my Mother, who knew Schoenberg and his family quite well, was one of his most respectful and harmonically informed pupils along with her two closest “buddies” from his advanced classes at UCLA, Earl Kim and Leon Kirschner. Her work with Schoenberg deeply strengthened and validated her knowledge and pre-existing natural and instinctive awareness of harmony and theoretical construction for which she always gave great thanks and praise to Professor Schoenberg. However, her heart was not moved to speak every word of passion ever composed in the languages of the world when listening to and performing many of Schoenberg’s great works. Such is the irony of Life ~ To be sure, Arnold Schoenberg changed the course of ‘contemporary composition’ yet seemed not to alter nor warm the hearts of many … (As an after thought, perhaps as one matures in age, respect becomes just as important as love? A subject for discussion at another time ~)
Thank you, Tim, for your timely post of the above subject matter and in such good taste as always …
Your respectful musical colleague,
Once again, I am delighted to hear this wonderful ensemble of father and daughter in the Beethoven Sonata No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Piano, with heartfelt thanks to Timothy Judd for providing us with this profound musical tribute. Tragically, Claude Frank, a world renowned pianist and musician of the keyboard, passed away last week, and I can only imagine what his deeply gifted and exquisitely accomplished daughter, Violinist, Pamela Frank, is feeling at this dreadful time in her life … My sincere and deepest condolences to her upon the irreplaceable loss of her father and obvious musical mentor throughout her life. Upon losing my father, Ralph Matesky, my principal teacher of Violin, all things strings and Music, I was in such shock I could not feel anything but a cold dark sheath of black. My prayer is for Pamela Frank to not have to go through this awful despair. There it is on disc for her to hear and feel her father’s warm presence in this truly gorgeous and musically authentic recording the of First Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano. The musical symmetry between father and daughter is instinctive and so natural. Claude Frank had such great
classical taste which matches Beethoven’s masterful musical line and harmony. HIs daughter’s playing follows suit and I am truly moved by their performance down to the trills which are absolutely simulated and rhythmically in perfect sync. Only a father and daughter or parent and child could attain this perfection of detail. Surprised to hear Pamela Frank playing in a similar vein to my late mentor, Nathan Milstein, I take great pleasure in honouring her collaboration with her famed pianist father, the now late Claude Frank. This recording would be on my list of “Firsts” along with Mr. Milstein’s Beethoven Sonatas which are perfection themselves and transparent such is his masterful technique that the seams do not ever show … Bravo to Timothy Judd in selecting the Claude and Pamela Frank father – daughter Piano and Violin “Duo” on his list of “Firsts” beginning this 2015 New Year. In listening to the complete set of their Beethoven Sonatas, we all now have the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the great American pianists, whom God has called home … May Claude Frank rest in peace knowing his musical heart now continues beating through that of his daughter, Violinist, Pamela Frank ~
With my sincere condolences and sympathy to Pamela Frank and her Family ~
Elisabeth Matesky in Chicago