Johann Sebastian Bach: French Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Bach composed suites for keyboard, for various solo chamber instruments, and for full orchestra, each comprising a varied and aesthetically balanced collection of dance movements written in the fashionable style of his day. The harmonic task given to each two-section dance is a simple one: to move, in the first part, from the home key to the key of the dominant, five notes up, and then in the second part, to return back to the home key, with each section played twice.
The moderately paced Allemande that opens this suite exudes an air of quiet assurance and harmonious calm. It is the most “conversational” of the movements in the suite, its walking bass supporting two upper voices that circle and twine round each other like two old friends who complete each other’s sentences. Beginning unusually low, the first half moves towards the middle register, while the second half begins correspondingly high and descends to the mid- zone of the keyboard.
In the Courante we move to triple metre, and a livelier pace. The single upper line moves in a continuous stream of running triplets while its jogging partner in the bass skips in time to it below. The stately Sarabande that follows restores a mood of ceremonial propriety as the hands take turns echoing the opening motive, with its characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar.
The galanteries, or optional dances that precede the finale, are usually performed in the following order. First is the Gavotte, which in contrast with the smooth running figures of the preceding dance, moves by a succession of little leaps, imitated between the hands. A much longer second Gavotte follows, with an unusually wide variety in phrase lengths, for a dance movement.
The Air features a continuous texture of running notes, with a lively imitative dialogue between the voices in the second half. The Minuet moves in bite-sized two-note groups echoed between the hands, which gives it a sense of courtly daintiness not shared by its rougher country cousin, the Gavotte.
The real toe-tapper comes at the end of the suite in the Gigue, the most emphatic and rousing of all the dance movements. Displaying more leaps than a skateboarder’s trick set, this rollicking finale follows traditional Baroque practice of inverting the opening motive at the start of its second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57
The sonata known to history as the Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s most emotionally charged and “edgy”
compositions, a work that – in its outer movements especially – pushed piano music to new extremes in dynamics, in technical difficulty, and in sheer expressive power.
Beethoven’s choice of key, F minor, allowed him to write for the full range of the piano of his day, from its lowest note (F1 in the bass) to its highest (C7 in the treble), both of which appear prominently in the score. Extreme as well is the economy of musical material used. As he was to do in the great C minor Symphony to follow, Beethoven constructs the entire compositional edifice of his first movement out of a small number of primal musical materials, all presented on the first page.
The sonata opens in a conspiratorial whisper, the furtive dotted rhythm of a rising F minor arpeggio finishing in a trill in the upper register, more eerie than decorative. The entire phrase is then repeated a semitone higher, in G-flat, introducing the Neapolitan harmony (on the flattened 2nd degree of the scale) that will haunt the entire movement. Completing the motivic line-up is a short knock-on-the-door motive in the bass, ominously tut-tutting this Neapolitan ascent with a corresponding semitone descent, and suspensefully setting up the explosion of echoing cannon- fire chords that begin the movement’s emotional journey in earnest. After a transition section buzzing with repeated notes, a calmer second theme appears in the major mode, but its dotted rhythm and restless triadic roaming show it to be merely the flipside of the first theme, as if Beethoven were playing bad-cop/good-cop with the same thematic material.
There are no formal repeats in this sonata-form drama: the emotional intensity is kept at fever pitch throughout the exploratory modulations of the development and the triumphant recapitulation in the major mode. But this is not the end. As in the C minor Symphony, this first movement is massively end-weighted in an extended coda that reaches its emotional climax in a virtuoso cadenza spluttering with rage and apocalyptic fury. Its pianississimo ending, fluttering with menace into the distance, merely recedes from, rather than resolves, the musical torment burning at its core.
No greater contrast could be imagined than that presented by the second movement, an emotionally stable, harmonically rock-solid set of variations, each with its own repeat. Far from ranging over the full expanse of the keyboard, its solemn melody spans barely a handful of notes in the mid- range. Melodic interest is thus concentrated in the bass line, but as the variations progress, it gradually filters upward into increasingly elaborate patterns of decorative detail in the upper register. Then just as the movement reaches its cadential close, a harmonically destabilizing diminished 7th chord mysteriously steps in to replace the final tonic harmony. Strident repetitions of this chord in a higher register trumpet the breaking news that the last movement is at the gates, set to begin – without a pause.
In this last movement the feverish restlessness of the first movement returns in a moto perpetuo of continuous sixteenth notes, so hell-bent on its mission that its “second theme” is barely distinguishable from the first, merely moved up into the key of the dominant minor, five scale degrees higher. As in the first movement, frequent flecks of Neapolitan harmony add a dark glint to the harmonic mix in both key areas.
Where new motives and punchy countermelodies do emerge is in the development section, which is perhaps why it, along with the recapitulation, is given a repeat. The work ends with a presto coda described as a “demonic czárdás,” stomping, skipping and finally racing to its finish in a whirlwind of F-minor broken chords cascading from the top to the bottom of the keyboard.
Robert Schumann: Papillons, Op. 2
Two artistic influences flutter over Robert Schumann’s second published work, an interconnected cycle of twelve dance pieces appearing in 1831 under the title Papillons (i.e., “Butterflies”). The first is the piano music of Schubert, especially his dance pieces and variations, which intrigued the young composer with their “psychologically unusual connection of ideas.” The second is the work of German Romantic novelist Jean Paul Richter, with whose fanciful writings Schumann became utterly besotted in his student years in Leipzig while studying law.
It is, in fact, the scene of the masked ball at the end of Richter’s novel Flegeljahre (1804) that provides the dramatic “setting” for the cycle, a scene in which two brothers, in love with the same woman, vie to win her heart amid the gaiety and varied musical offerings of a social evening with dance orchestra.
These brief pieces, most of which are waltzes, manage to fit a maximum of drama within their diminutive formal frames. Eyebrow-raising is the occasional use of the minor mode in this collection of generally festive dances, as well as the frequent presence of two wildly contrasting moods within the same piece – features which hint at the testosterone- soaked rivalry between the two brothers. Noteworthy as well is how the personalities of the rival brothers in Richter’s novel – one dreamy-eyed and introspective, the other passionate and action-oriented – parallel the two alter-egos that Schumann was to develop for his own split musical personality: Eusebius and Florestan.
Most clearly narrative is the final dance in the set, which opens with a quotation of the Grossvatertanz (Grandfather’s Dance), a centuries-old tune traditionally played at the end of wedding celebrations. Against the backdrop of this tune, Schumann recalls the opening waltz as the clock tolls repeatedly to signal the end of the ball. The final cadence features a dominant 7th chord that is peeled up from the bottom to leave only its top note sounding, before the final chord brings a quiet close to this kaleidoscopic evening of musical nostalgia.
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1
The nocturne, popularized in the early 19th century by the Irish pianist John Field, became in the hands of Chopin one of the most characteristic genres of the Romantic era. Typically featuring an Italianate cantabile melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment of widely spaced chords in the left hand, it sought to evoke a dreamy nighttime mood through its slow harmonic rhythm and the atmospheric use of pedaling effects over recurring drone tones.
This nocturne, one of the last published by Chopin during his lifetime, seeks the same goal, but by different means. More contrapuntal in texture, it features a harmonically active bass supporting a vocal line that unfolds in an even flow of eighth notes, with overlapping phrases that avoid clear and unambiguous cadences in pursuit of the Romantic ideal of the “endless melody”.
Its middle section grandly widens the range between melody and bass while venturing further afield in its modulations before returning to the opening material, thrillingly ornamented with chains of trills and melodic filigree. A longish coda features orientally-tinged scalar elaborations ranging widely over the keyboard which lend end-weighting to the work as a whole.
Frédéric Chopin: Étude in A flat, Op 25, No. 1 Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 Étude in C# minor, Op 10, No. 4
The two sets of twelve piano studies which Chopin published as his Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), along with the Trois nouvelles études which he contributed to the Méthode des méthodes (1839-40) of Fétis and Moschelès stand, even today, as the foundation of modern piano technique. In the words of pianist Garrick Ohlsson: “If you can play the Chopin Études … there is basically nothing in the modern repertoire you can’t play.”
It is easy to imagine why the Étude in A flat, Op. 25, No. 1 is known as the “Aeolian Harp”. Beneath a steady pulse of melody notes, many of them repeated on the same pitch, strums a swirling, rippling accompaniment that challenges the pianist to split his hands conceptually in two between a melody or bass-note finger (the pinkie) and the fingers playing the accompaniment (all the rest). Particularly perilous are the exhilarating leaps – in opposite directions! – at the emotional climax of the piece.
The Étude in E minor, Op 25, No. 5 is the “ugly duckling” amongst the Études. To each attack in the right hand is
attached, like a barnacle, a chromatic inflection a semitone away that makes it walk like it has a stone in its shoe. Its contrasting middle section in the major mode – as poised and elegant as the opening section is grotesquely limping and ungainly – is richly carpeted with a harmonically full, rolling texture that allows the left hand to sing out a simple but engaging baritone melody of small range and modest harmonic goals.
The Étude in C# minor, Op. 10, No. 4, a fiery and aggressive moto perpetuo of small running figures that change hands every few bars, is one of the longest of the Études. Bristling with chromatic inflections and peppered with sforzando accents, it makes the arrival of a stable key centre a major event on the last page of the score.
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31
The scherzi of Chopin have little of the tripping, skipping, good-humoured jesting of the genre created by Beethoven, and only the last of them, the Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, displays any of the mischievous scamper and effervescent buoyancy of the models offered by Chopin’s contemporary, Mendelssohn. Rather, these are big-boned works, projecting pianistic power and lyrical intensity with a directness and confidence very much at odds with the popular image of Chopin as the delicate performer of perfumed salon pieces.
What links them, perhaps, to their forebears is not only a broadly conceived ternary (A-B-A) form, but also a certain mercurial volatility of mood and a desire to entertain wildly contrasting emotions not just between sections, but within them.
The Scherzo in B flat minor, composed in 1837, is a perfect example. It opens with a dramatic exchange between a whimpering triplet figure and an explosive salvo of raw piano resonance, only to be followed by an ecstatic exclamation arriving from the extreme ends of the keyboard, which then in turn morphs into a yearning, long-lined lyrical melody singing out over a sonorously rippling accompaniment in the left hand.
The middle section begins in a mood of quiet elegy, but gradually is persuaded to emerge from its introspection into a lilting three-step waltz, accompanied at every turn by an attentive little duplet-triplet figure in the alto. It is this coy little waltz tune that will build up in urgency and sonority sufficient to motivate the return of the dramatic musical gestures that opened the work. A coda pulls and tears at this material to lead it to a triumphant conclusion in D flat major, the key to which it had always been drawn throughout its course.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.