Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 13 (Pathétique)
At the end of the 18th century, a young Ludwig van Beethoven burst upon the scene with a musical personality that mixed brooding machismo with emotional vulnerability. This unusual combination soon established him as the Marlon Brando of Viennese composers, with the key of C minor as his black leather jacket.
This dark and troubled key, evil twin of the blameless and angelic C major, was in the next three decades to host a series of restless, turbulent works such as the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, 32 Variations in C minor and the last piano sonata Op. 111, all written in what would come to be known as Beethoven’s “C minor mood.” At the head of this list, however, stands the Pathétique Sonata of 1798, ominously indexed as the composer’s Op. 13, a breakthrough work so impactful that it went through 17 editions during his lifetime.
The rough terrain of this sonata’s high-relief emotional landscape is announced in the opening slow introduction, with its startling contrasts of loud and soft, of high and low register, of fragile hopeful recitative sternly answered by implacable thick chordal rebuke. The mood of heightened emotional tension continues in the Allegro that follows, newly animated by a throbbing tremolo in the bass and a headlong rushing theme above.
The unusual feature of this movement is its lack of modal contrast: it remains doggedly stuck in the minor mode for virtually its entire duration, relieved only rarely by momentary glimmers of major tonality. The second theme, normally a source of daisy-sniffing tra-la-la lyricism in a sonata-form movement, enters here in the dark key of E flat minor (instead of the expected E flat major) and is just as nervously fidgety as the first, even adding an element of daring with its repeated hand-crossings. More unusual still is the way in which the grim deliberations of the slow introduction bring the proceedings to a grinding halt at major articulating points in the structure. These thickly scored minor chords and grave dotted rhythms interject a moment of worrying caution at the end of the exposition before the listener is swept headlong into the tumult of the development section. The same ominous admonitions recur at the end of the recapitulation, as well, setting up the mad race to the movement’s dramatic final chords, which arrive with the abruptness of an incensed dinner guest who stands up, throws down his serviette, and storms away from the table.
It is left to the Adagio cantabile to smooth over the listener’s ruffled feathers with the healing balm of a lyrical long-limbed melody worlds apart in shape and construction from the breathless motivic fragments of which the first movement was composed. Laid out in the A-B-A-C-A pattern of a rondo, it alternates between reverential major-mode serenity and passing shadows of minor-mode introspection. While the propulsive quality of the first movement stands emblematic of a distinctly masculine musical energy, the undulating triplets in which this slow movement’s melody is eventually draped unerringly betoken the fluttering of the female heart.
The arrival of a rondo finale is normally the signal for sonata aficionados to prepare their toes for some serious tapping, but Beethoven’s finale is anything but merry. This is a vigorous movement that repeatedly contrasts its sullen opening tune in the minor mode with intervening episodes in the major. These episodes begin innocently enough but gradually work themselves into a churning froth of excitement which climaxes in a spectacular run descending from the highest regions of the keyboard.
All the greater, then, is the contrast provided by the central episode, a solemn study in academic counterpoint of unimpeachable rigour that nonetheless finds itself drawn into the fast-paced vortex. It thus falls to the quarrelling musical forces to meet at high noon in the Coda Corale to have it out for good in a great slugging match of off-beat sforzando accents, swept along on a wave of irresistible harmonic momentum.
Connoisseurs of the concept of ‘cyclical form’ will no doubt notice how cleverly Beethoven has slipped in sly references to the preceding movements in this finale, the opening refrain tune beginning as a copy of the first movement’s fidgety second theme in E flat minor, and the contrapuntal episode drawing its numerous 4ths from the melody of the Adagio.
Réminiscences de Norma
In the 1830s a swarm of pianists descended like a biblical plague on the city of Paris, attracted by the rich harvest of opera tunes produced each autumn on which to feed when concocting the potpourris, fantasies and paraphrases that were their chief stock in trade.
Each vied for public favour with his own bag of keyboard tricks, but two contenders stood head and shoulders above the rest. First there was Sigismund Thalberg, of aristocratic bearing, born seemingly without sweat glands, who sat perfectly motionless at the keyboard while astonishing audiences with his famous ‘three-hand effect’ (a clear melody sounding out in the mid-range surrounded by wide-ranging accompaniments above and below). And then there was Franz Liszt, an earthy Hungarian, born with an excess of hair follicles, whose theatrical performing style gave him the idea of turning the piano sideways on the stage (where it remains today) so that audiences might be prompted to even greater admiration of the trills, repeated notes and other sparkling ear candy that spilled from the instrument when he played.
All Paris was eager to hear these two titans perform together on the same program, but Liszt was scornful of the prospect of appearing with a man he called “a failed aristocrat and a failed artist” (ouch!) while Thalberg sniffed scornfully, “I do not like to be accompanied” (me-ow!). But then Princess Cristina Belgiojoso, an Italian emigrée in Paris, scored the social coup of the season when she managed to engage both pianists for a charity concert (and pianistic cage match) that took place in her salon on March 31, 1837, at which opera fantasies were front and centre on the bill. Thalberg played his fantasy on Rossini’s Moses in Egypt and Liszt played his own on Pacini’s Niobe. The result? The Princess declared afterwards that “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world—Liszt is the only one.”
Flash forward to the 1840s, when Liszt was enthroned as King of the Piano and touring Europe in regal style, astonishing the multitudes in concerts that frequently included one of his growing list of paraphrases based on tunes from operas by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini, including his Réminiscences de Norma.
Bellini’s Norma, made famous since its premiere in 1831 by its celebrated aria Casta diva, tells the tale of its eponymous heroine, a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who, in a time of popular insurrection, is called upon to chose between her love for the Roman governor and her duty to the gods and to her nation. Liszt offers a concentrated summary of the dramatic core of the opera by selecting melodies from the opening of Act I to evoke Norma’s exaltation as her people’s great hope for victory over the Roman occupiers, and from the last scene finale of Act II to represent her selfless renunciation of love, and of life itself, to further the cause of her warlike people.
The work opens with a series of stern chords and martial drumbeats, echoed high above by sparkling arpeggiations, to set the stage for a tale of war on earth and reward in heaven. These musical motifs recur midway through the piece to transition between opera’s Act I mood of heroic resolve and its tragic outcome in Act II.
Liszt’s inventiveness in creating novel pianistic textures in this piece is remarkable, and one can only imagine rows of countesses dropping like fainting goats in the first row at its first performance. In addition to scintillating cadenzas shooting up to the high register, and muscular displays of bravura octaves, Liszt offers up generous quantities of Thalberg’s famous ‘three-hand effect’, especially in the second half of the work, where the majority of the most outrageous pyrotechnics are concentrated.
His treatment of the lyrical Qual cor tradisti, with its three simultaneous layers—melody, pulsing chordal accompaniment, and martial triplet drumbeat—has been described by musicologist Charles Suttoni as “one of the most ingenious and sublime pages ever written for the piano.”
Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 4
Chopin’s first sonata dates from the time when he was still a student of Joseph Elsner at the Conservatory in Warsaw. While it bears many of the traits of a student composition, we should remember that not all students are created equal. Elsner’s remarks on this student’s graduating report card in 1829 read simply: “Chopin F., third-year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.”
Many of the characteristics of Chopin’s mature style are already present in this four-movement work. It is written for a large hand and takes for granted a virtuoso’s mastery of octave and double-note technique. Its heavy and imposing first movement features a melodically active bass line, strongly imitative texture, and a desire for rhythmic fulness that keeps up a chatter of 8th notes in practically every bar, aided and abetted by a certain contrapuntal chumminess of melody and countermelody that lends a charmingly conversational quality to the right-hand writing, in particular.
Unusual in this movement, however, is its lack of a lyrical second theme in a different key: the work opens by planting its flag in C minor and sits there in lawn chair for the entire exposition. But the development section, by way of compensation, is as chromatically colourful as a bowl of Smarties.
The second movement is the only minuet that Chopin ever wrote and the indication scherzando gives us a hint that crinoline petticoats and powdered wigs were not what he had in mind when writing it. The acrobatic triplet figures in the opening section and mock-seriousness of the E flat minor trio point more in the direction of sly parody than courtly hommage.
The Larghetto that follows, however, is in dead earnest in its lyrical intentions although experimental in their implementation. Written in a highly unusual 5/4 meter, its rhythmic pulse is somewhat difficult to pin down. The ornamentation of the right-hand melody into prime-number groupings of 3s, 5s and 7s against a stable left-hand accompaniment of duple 8th notes presages the operatic arias of the concerti slow movements and the moonlit meditations of the nocturnes.
A tumultuous rondo finale ends the work with a virtuoso display of scintillating passagework regularly interrupted by its thumping principal theme, a kind of Wanderer Fantasy gone over to the dark side in the minor mode. Eruptive surges from the depths of the keyboard, much akin to the deleterious effects of acid reflux, alternate with brilliant cascades of keyboard colour in the treble to end this sonata in a style worthy of a full-on concerto.
Theme and Variations in C# minor Op. 73
Francis Poulenc once famously remarked that the modulations in some of Gabriel Fauré’s music made him feel woozy, almost physically ill. While sales of Pepto-Bismol at concession stands in major concert venues has experienced no significant up-tick when the music of Fauré is performed, it is nonetheless true that this composer remains something of a specialty taste for concert-goers, regardless of their level of digestive resilience.
Fauré was at once a typical and yet an enigmatic figure in French music of the turn of the 19th century. The charm, elegance and delicacy of his musical style was distinctly French while his relative indifference to musical picture-painting and pianistic display set him apart from the predominating trends of his age. That he should be interested in modal harmonies and polyphonic textures should be no surprise, given the strict diet of contrapuntal music that he was fed as a youth at the ultra-traditional École Niedermeyer along with his morning gruel. Less surprising still given his subsequent career as an organist, a line of work in which an interest in polyphonic music is an occupational hazard few manage to avoid.
Fauré wrote a considerable amount of music for the piano and was much influenced by the accomplishments of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. In keeping with the quality of moderation and restraint that characterized his own personality, his piano music is characterized by an emphasis on melodies placed in the middle of the keyboard, often divided into gossamer textures of arpeggiated filigree. More given to understatement than exaggeration, he was possessed of an artistic personality closer to that of Verlaine and Proust in literature, than to the more direct theatricality of Gounod or Massenet, the virtuoso exuberance of Saint-Saëns, in music.
His Variations in C# minor were written in 1895 and may well have been inspired, in general spirit and occasionally in texture, by the example of Schumann’s Symphonic Études in the same key. The theme is a kind of march of imposing gravity, modally inflected, in a rhythmically repetitive pattern, and curiously configured with accents on weak beats of the bar. It consists of a simple C sharp minor scale rising up an octave and then lurching back down again by stages. Eleven variations follow, beginning at first with simple ornamentations and textural elaborations, but soon developing into something much more distant from its initial melodic and harmonic outline.
There are no ‘genre’ variations, as such, although dancelike elements do occur. Rather, the very DNA of the theme is spun out in fantastical ways, some passing through a time warp to don the apparel of a Bach invention, others floating more freely in sonic space, held together by strands of imitative counterpoint unimaginable in the era of the Cantor of Leipzig. The ninth variation seems to be walking on the moon. Typical of Fauré, he avoids ending with a bombastic ‘crowd-pleasing’ variation as a cue for audience applause, but rather exits softly, in refined style, in a final meditative variation in the major mode.
Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies (arr. Joseph Moog)
The pianist, composer, and conductor Anton Rubinstein has until recently held but a tenuous grasp on the affections of classical musicians and their audiences. Among his large catalogue of compositions, comprising a vast output of symphonies, operas, works for piano and chamber music, only his Melody in F for piano has remained with any constancy in the repertoire, although his Piano Concerto No. 4 was popular with pianistic titans such as Rachmaninoff and Hoffman in the early part of the 20th century (and has recently been recorded by Joseph Moog). A curious state of affairs, this, given the write-up that Rubinstein receives in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians describing him as “one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century,” whose playing “was compared with Liszt’s, to the disadvantage of neither.”
Like Liszt, his talent was spotted early. He was thus trotted about Europe as a child prodigy as soon as his age reached double digits, and before he had started shaving he had a Rolodex that included the names of Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn, not to mention the pats on the head he received from the Russian imperial family and Queen Victoria herself. It was connections such as these that allowed him in 1862 to found Russia’s first music conservatory, in St. Petersburg, and to serve as its first director, with Tschaikovsky as one of his students.
As a youth he had studied the exaggerated stage mannerisms of Liszt, whose mystical magnetic hold on his audiences Rubinstein attempted to imitate, both in his comportment on stage and in his pianistic style. From the point of view of stage presence, it certainly did not hurt that his facial features bore a striking resemblance to those of Beethoven, causing Liszt to give him the nickname “Ludwig II” (punning on the name of Wagner’s royal patron).
Like Liszt, he had an upbringing that had exposed him to the folk-music idioms of Central Europe and his catalogue of compositions includes many fantasies, variations and dances based on the memory of these folk melodies and their characteristic rhythms.
His Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies dates from 1858 and uses the same slow-fast structure that Liszt used in his Hungarian rhapsodies. Its first section is strongly improvisatory in character, and makes much of the ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm (a short accented note followed by a longer one) typical of certain types of folk music. Rubinstein the virtuoso makes no attempt to hide his light under a bushel here, as he unleashes volley after volley of arpeggios up to the high register culminating in quicksilver janglings of tremolo, richly suggestive of the metallic thrumming of the Hungarian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer).
The second section is more rhythmically regular and features melodies purled out in chains of trills, batteries of octaves, and other trademarks of sonic mayhem typical of mid-19th-century pianistic exhibitionism.
Joseph Moog’s idea of ‘arranging’ a piece which is already, itself, an arrangement lies eminently within mainstream practice of the period. Indeed, Rubinstein specialist Larry Sitsky of the Australian National University (Canberra) heartily commends the practice, insisting that the performer “must have the bravery to add to or contradict the composer’s own markings.” (Period performance enthusiasts might need smelling salts administered after reading this.)
Rubinstein, you see, had various ‘quality control’ issues accruing from his manner of composition—so similar to his manner of performing—that stressed capturing an evanescent moment of inspiration on the fly, without causing too much heat to accumulate in the space between his ears. As of press time, the nature of Mr. Moog’s ‘arranging’ activities are unknown but in the spirit of creating the authentic atmosphere of a genuine 19th-century piano recital, nor should it be.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2015