Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor
Liszt’s 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies pay tribute to the gypsy music of his native Hungary. Like an ancient insect trapped in amber, they encapsulate for posterity the dramatic, improvisatory performance style of the roving bands of Romani musicians that Liszt heard as a boy growing up in the small Hungarian village of Raiding, and whose campfires he eagerly frequented when, as Europe’s most celebrated pianist, he returned to his homeland in 1839 after an 18-year absence.
There are 19 rhapsodies in all, the first 15 composed in the period between 1846 and 1853. Fundamental to the form of each rhapsody is a two-part division into a slow, introductory lassan followed by a quick, dancelike friss. In the soulful and brooding lassan, a handful of folk melodies are repeated over and over, trancelike, in varied forms, blooming from time to time into dazzling cadenza-like flourishes of keyboard sparkle and colour. The friss is sectional, presenting a series of impish dance tunes that in an accelerating pattern of frenetic activity inevitably drive the work to a barn-storming conclusion.
The Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor presents trademark features of the style: the so-called “Hungarian cadence” rhythm (DAH-dum-dump … duh-DAH) and the exotically flavourful, gap-toothed Hungarian minor scale, comprised almost entirely of semitones and augmented 2nds, heard unmistakably in the work’s opening recitative.
Liszt’s achievement, here as in the other Hungarian rhapsodies, lies in how authentically he captures on the keyboard what his biographer Alan Walker calls the “sonic surface” of the Gypsy band. In these works you hear the “will-o’-the-wisp” ornamentation style of the gypsy violin, the contralto richness of the low clarinet—when Liszt places the tune in the mid-register, played by the thumbs—and the heartbeat-racing thrum of the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) in textures bristling with repeated notes.
While the 13th Hungarian Rhapsody is not nowadays among the most frequently performed of the set of 19, it did have its admirers in the 19th century. Pablo de Sarasate used a tune from the 13th Rhapsody’s friss section in his famous Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for violin and orchestra.
Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude
The intersection of literature and music was one of the hallmarks of the Romantic era. A striking example is Liszt’s Benediction of God in Solitude, part of a cycle of piano pieces composed between 1845 and 1852 entitled Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, that references a collection of poems with the same name by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869). In his collection Lamartine waxes rapturous over the divine presence in all creation and Liszt, who as a teenager had wanted to become a priest and who was later to take minor orders in the Catholic Church, could not agree more. He even provides a quote from Lamartine’s poem Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude at the head of his own eponymous keyboard hymn, one that begins: D’où me vient, ô mon Dieu, cette paix qui m’inonde? (Whence comes, oh my God, this peace that floods over me?).
Liszt’s pianistic ode to having some ‘alone time’ with the divine unfolds in an A-B-C-A form: an opening section returns after two intervening episodes. The texture employed in the opening section is identical to that of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3: a single line of melody walks calmly through the mid-register, enveloped by a deliciously dreamy ripple of celestial keyboard colour above, and the fatherly warmth of a deeply sympathetic bass-line below. And as in the Liebestraum, Liszt’s melt-in-your-mouth harmonies provide voluptuous moments of pleasure with virtually every change of chord.
A lunga pausa leads to an episode (Andante) based on a quietly questioning dotted motive and a serenely stable pedal point in the bass, emblematic of the reassuring presence of the divine. A second lunga pausa separates the first from the second episode (Più sostenuto, quasi preludio), that introduces an intimation of yearning, fully exploited at the return of the opening theme. This final section reaches an emotional climax that might seem to be in contradiction with the work’s theme of peaceful contemplation. But this explosion of emotion undoubtedly evokes the last line of the work’s quotation from Lamartine: Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence. (A new man is born within me and starts off anew.)
Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H
The creation of musical ciphers (spelling out words by means of musical pitches) was as much fun as playfully-minded composers could have on the job before the arrival of Little Orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring in the 1930s. Bach set the tone for the practice in the last Contrapunctus of his Art of the Fugue, a massive quadruple fugue in which the 3rd subject spells out his own name, B-A-C-H (in German, B refers to what we call B-flat, and H to B-natural).
Liszt uses this musical motive-B-flat, A, C, B-natura-in his own tribute to the Thomaskantor of Leipzig, his Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H. Originally an organ work, composed for the consecration ceremony of a new instrument in the Merseberg Cathedral in Saxony-Anhalt in 1856, Liszt produced a revised version of the work for piano solo in 1870.
This piano solo version in no way tones down the original snarling organ score to suit the more modest sonorous capabilities of the pianoforte but rather, like the organ version, aims to set the walls shaking and the rafters quivering in whichever hall it is performed. Given the commemorative premise of the work, it is a surprisingly angry and at times violent offering of remembrance to the composer who penned Sheep May Safely Graze and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. But then again, self-aggrandizing showmanship and pious humility were ever the poles between which this complex artistic personality so often shuttled.
The work as a whole is characterized by an almost neurotic obsession with the musical motive B-A-C-H, which is thunderously announced in the bass in the opening bars and which permeates the texture of nearly every subsequent measure, whether booming out majestically as fortissimo chords or informing the smallest levels of ornamental passagework. The two descending semitones of this motive, B-flat/A and C/B-natural, give Liszt every excuse to indulge his innate taste for chromaticism and the fugue subject, when it arrives, is a semitone salad: by dint of sequential extension it comes to include all 12 pitches within the octave, creating a subject that is a virtual tone row. Atonality hovers constantly in the air, and indeed it is anyone’s guess just what key this work is in.
But like a Mafia don’s generous donation to the collection plate in Church, Liszt’s musical monument to Bach stands as a testament to how one of the greatest artistic personalities of the 19th century could reconcile his reverence for the past with his mission to create music of the future.
Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor Op. 6
This will unfortunately be the reaction of most audience members hearing for the first time of this great early-20th-century Russian musician. Better known, even in Russia, as a pianist than a composer, Samuil Feinberg was an ardent admirer and tireless performer of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the first in his country to perform the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I in public recital.
It should not be surprising, then, to hear that in his own compositions Feinberg favours polyphonic textures with multiple contrapuntal lines competing for the ear’s attention. His harmonic vocabulary, however, could hardly be called “Baroque.”
In his early period, of which his Sonata in E-flat minor Op. 6 (1918) is representative, he was strongly influenced by Scriabin, and like Scriabin he had a keen ear for widely-spaced sonorities, many of them constructed out of 4ths and 9ths. His single-movement E-flat minor Sonata is opulently scored over a wide range of the keyboard, its expansive but well-balanced chord structures unfolding with little sense of harmonic resolution but leaving behind a warm afterglow of emotional resonance.
He also shares with Scriabin a rhythmic suppleness and mysterious murkiness of pulse that results from his extensive use of irregular metrical units within the bar, alternating with moments of hammering emphasis. In short, there is a kind of wild impulsiveness that his music incarnates, a sort of dark ecstasy longing to come out, indicated most clearly by his tempo and performance markings: Presto impetuoso, burrascoso (stormily), poco languido, luminoso.
The erratic pacing of this sonata, combined with its textural richness, makes it somewhat difficult to organize in the ear, especially on a first hearing, but it makes a strong case for an early-20th-century Russian avant-garde that was not limited to Scriabin alone.
Images Book 1
The three ‘sonic pictures’ that Debussy published in 1905 as the first book of his Images are remarkably different in tone, but each stands at a distinct distance from the musical practice of its time. Traditional diatonic harmonies have little driving force in these pieces, replaced by modal melodies and harmonic constructions based on whole-tone scales that elicit less hierarchical aural expectations in the listener. Tonal ambiguity and blurred harmonic focus have changed from defects to prized features. The ear thinks it’s an eye, gathering in the ‘impressions’ that give this style of music its common descriptor: Impressionism.
Reflets dans l’eau begins by evoking in gentle splashes of sound colour the outwardly expanding pattern of rippling waves in a pool of water into which a pebble—the opening perfect 5th in the bass—has been tossed. Widely spaced sonorities measure the distance outwardly travelled. The highest register glistens dazzlingly with glints of sunlight. Vivid as the scene is in the ear, the experience of taking it in is ultimately a mysterious enterprise, symbolized by recurring glimpses of the echoing musical motive: A-flat, F, E-flat.
Hommage à Rameau presents an austere but nostalgic remembrance of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose opera-ballet Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745) Debussy was editing for publication at the time this piece was composed. The composer is remembered in a slow, purposeful sarabande, moving forward at a processional pace. Its melody walks within the narrow range of the pentatonic scale, and its rhythm is virtually flat. But this apparent surface serenity is made emotional and impactful by the bright harmonic colouring that Debussy attaches to these simple compositional elements.
Mouvement, as its name suggests, is a study in movement-movement propelled forward by a constant whirl of triplets in the mid-range around which fanfare motives blare out on either side. The very obstinacy of these moto perpetuo 16ths suggests mechanized motion, a twirling lathe, perhaps. While the idea is fancifully anachronistic, the present writer can’t repress the image of a dog chasing a car, attempting to nip away at the tires.
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song
The Polish-American pianist, composer and pedagogue Leopold Godowsky was almost entirely self-taught. His extraordinary technical facility at the keyboard prompted him to write hair-raisingly difficult paraphrases of well-known works in the repertoire, bringing them in line with own florid style of delivery. The best-known of these are his more than 50 reworkings of the Chopin études Opp. 10 and 25, which only a few pianists-Marc-André Hamelin among them-have had the courage to perform in public.
In his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song Godowsky sets his sights on fin-de-siècle Vienna and its waltz culture. This work represents well both the breadth of his musical imagination and the grandeur of his conception of idiomatic writing for the keyboard. Slithering chromatic countermelodies constantly dance attendance upon the work’s lilting principal melodies, which are often nestled in the mid-register while harmonic underpinning and ornamental tracery race off in opposite directions on both sides. The texture is distinctly orchestral in sonority due to the vast range of keyboard real estate covered by the hands in each phrase.
The pianist’s challenge in this work is to find the sweet berries of Viennese melody among the bristling thorns of ornamentation in the score-a score of such scintillating chromatic density that Charles Rosen has described it as “more in the style of Richard [Strauss] than Johann, but still echt Viennese.”
Donald G. Gíslason 2018