7 Fantasies Op. 116
If the word fantasy implies improvisation and free association of thoughts, then the collection of three capricci and four intermezzi that Brahms published under the title Fantasien in 1892 are misnamed, as they are among the most densely expressive and tightly crafted miniatures to come from his pen. Some have seen the collection as a kind of multi-movement ‘sonata’, with the three intermezzi in E (Nos. 4-6) grouped together as a slow movement. Less controversial is the notion that the motive of the descending 3rd forms a unifying thread running through the entire set.
Expressive devices seem to be in overdrive in this collection of richly layered pieces, with the fundamental parameters of musical construction – rhythm, harmony, melody, and tone colour – constantly shifting under our feet as we listen. Rhythm is the most obvious of these, its regularity being subverted at every turn by the use of hemiola, syncopation, and other dislocations of the metrical pulse. Harmonies swimming in rich pools of bass overtones constantly come in and out of the shadows and further stretch our sense of time when resolutions are delayed.
The tone palette is orchestral in its range of colours, suggesting the various instrument choirs of a large ensemble, with textures ranging from heftily scored to virtually threadbare. The contrapuntal weave of these works is thick and two-voice imitative duets abound, sometimes even in the same hand. You get the impression that the real meaning of these pieces is often being whispered to you in the middle voices.
Each is in ternary (three-part) form, with a contrasting middle section and an opening section that returns at the end, often varied in some essential way. The moods presented may be fiery or deeply reflective, with the term capriccio generally describing those of more extraverted character and intermezzo – those more inly wrapped in musical thought.
The opening Capriccio in D minor presents a volcanic lava flow of piano sonority stretching from the very bottom of the keyboard to the upper mid-range, and is particularly ambiguous in its metrical pulse.
The Intermezzo in A minor begins like a sarabande, with a prominent stress on a long-held second beat of the bar. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of wistful minor tonality and major-mode contentment.
The Capriccio in G minor is restless in its pursuit of chains of descending thirds. Its middle section rapturously develops out of an instinct for chorale-singing.
The Intermezzo in E major has the quality of a nocturne, its middle section luminous with the soft gleam of moonlight.
The Intermezzo in E minor is remarkable for its eerie opening, configured in two-note groups of full chords and single notes, creating an almost hiccup-like texture of mismatched resonances on the keyboard.
The second Intermezzo in E major that follows evokes a stately court dance of some sort, quizzically interrogated by a chromatically climbing middle voice.
The final Capriccio in D minor restlessly explores the descending 3rds motive in its opening section. Its middle section is a marvel of keyboard scoring that features a leading voice in the middle of the texture surrounded by garlands of ornamental figuration.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI:20
The period of the 1770s was remarkable for two important developments in music history. The first was the replacement of the harpsichord by the fortepiano as the preferred instrument for keyboard composition and performance. The second was the aesthetic movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm & stress) that promoted emotional intensity and deep expressivity as leading characteristics in artistic expression. In music, this resulted in works streaked with pathos, anxiety, and moodiness, often in minor keys and rife with dramatic contrasts of soft and loud.
Haydn’s C minor Piano Sonata, composed in 1771, stands emblematic of both developments. The sudden dynamic contrasts in the score reveal it to be Haydn’s first keyboard sonata expressly written for the piano, while its dark tone and wide emotional range mark it as a typical product of the Sturm und Drang era.
This is evident from the way the first movement opens, with a pair of two-note sigh motives, more sobs than sighs. And yet the movement’s mood is not one of sustained hand-wringing but rather of emotional volatility, a volatility expressed most tellingly in its quicksilver changes in rhythm and texture that keep the listener constantly on edge. Lavishly applied trills, turns, and mordents, combined with perky dotted rhythms and impetuous scale figures, convey energy and a focused sense of purpose but they alternate with sigh motives and even an adagio cadenza that daydreams the proceedings to a complete halt in the middle of the exposition. Indicative of the sense of worry and restless unease that underlies the movement as a whole is the way that it ends softly, as if with a whimper.
The second movement, Andante con moto, has an archaic feel to it, as if some echo from the preceding Baroque era were being channeled in the simple two-voice texture with which it opens: a noble melody of small range advancing in measured steps over a walking bass. It reaches its peak of expressivity in its many passages of throbbing syncopations between the left and right hands.
Haydn makes a move to the dark side in his choice of finale. The standard practice of the time was for a last movement to be gay and lighthearted but the Allegro finale of the C Minor Sonata is by contrast psychologically intense and filled with a sense of urgency. Its peak of restless energy is reached in an extraordinary display of virtuoso hand-crossings of its second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Bagatelles Op. 33
If you have ever wondered what it might be like to have Beethoven at your dinner party, half in his cups and mischievously holding forth at the keyboard for the entertainment of all, then such an experience has been frozen in time for you in the score of his Bagatelles Op. 33. These seven little “trifles” (bagatelles in French) were published in 1803 for the popular market and they find him “trifling” with his audience’s expectations at every turn. Who knew that Beethoven could be such a cut-up?
Bagatelle No. 1 in E flat opens with the most naively innocent tune, sent aesthetically off-track from the get-go by a generous lathering of ornamentation in questionable taste that gets ever more garish with each reprise of the theme. And the formal proportions of the piece are way off-base, with trivial transition sections and routine cadencing patterns hilariously repeated and developed beyond their musical merits.
Now, Beethoven’s scherzo movements are known for their metrical and rhythmic jokes, but Bagatelle No. 2 in C major (actually labelled a scherzo) is way over the top in its manipulation of rhythm and accent, leaving the listener struggling to understand where the basic pulse is supposed to be. And the transition from the mock-serious Minore section back to the jumpy opening material is so abrupt as to be ludicrous.
No. 3 in F major spoils its charmingly folk-like melody by placing its second phrase in a remote key, unprepared, which makes the modulation back to the original key for the repeat all the more awkward. The problem only gets worse when Beethoven adds appoggiatura ornamentation to the theme, highlighting the incongruity.
No. 4 in A major parodies a sugary musette, with a stationary pedal tone in the bass supporting a treble melody that doesn’t move much either. The middle section in the minor mode proceeds with much more harmonic variety, except that it is all accompaniment. There is no melody above for it to accompany!
The first section of No. 5 in C major sparkles in the high register, a real “tickling of the ivories.” But it does nothing more than set up, and then execute, a cadence pattern, over and over again. This piece is a parody of vapid passagework, and features on its last page a comic representation of a composer sitting at the keyboard, playing the same single note over and over again, trying to figure out where to take the music. In the end he decides … to repeat what he has already written before.
The tune of No. 6 in D major is at war with itself. The first phrase longs to be taken seriously as lyrical, but the second phrase spoils the effect with a playful cadence.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the repeated 3rds at the opening of No. 7 in A flat major were about to issue out into an early version of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53. This final bagatelle is a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much repetition and the erroneous notion that you can get a different result by merely doing the same thing over and over again.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat major Hob. XVI:52
Joseph Haydn wrote his last three piano sonatas on his second visit to England (1794-95), keenly aware that the sound of the English piano was very different from that of its Viennese counterpart. Viennese pianos were quick and responsive but their sound, like their action, was light. English pianos had a heavier action, longer keys, and a fuller, more room-filling sound.
The so-called ‘London’ piano school (Clementi, Cramer, Dussek) excelled in exploiting this ‘beefier’ sonority to create keyboard textures brimming with dramatic effects that played to the instrument’s strengths: full chords in both hands, frequent dynamic contrasts, dizzying runs plunging from the top to the bottom of the keyboard, and dulcet double 3rds for an extra-sweet sonority in the upper register.
Haydn obviously knew this bag of tricks carefully, because his Sonata in E flat contains all of them, and more. Opening boldly with a fanfare of full-textured 6- and 7-note chords, its first 10 bars feature no less than 5 alternations between forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a good 4 octaves to a low E flat. The 1st theme abounds in double 3rds while the 2nd theme imitates the tick-tock action of a mechanical clock, a popular musical motif of the period. Piano sonority is putty in Haydn’s hands, swelling with the throb of orchestral tremolos, then subsiding in long held notes. A good example of this is just before the development section.
A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the 2nd movement sarabande, a stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the 2nd beat. Added stateliness is assured by the double-dotted rhythm in the theme, but the real story in this movement is in the ornamentation. The score is simply swimming in grace notes and other grand ornamental additions to the melodic line, many of them ecstatic runs gliding up to the high register in the manner of an improvising opera singer.
The finale pulses to the beat of a army drum, introduced at the opening in a series of repeated notes over a low bass pedal: the shepherd’s musette meets the military tattoo. Adding to the comic tone of the proceedings, all this mechanical precision is frequently stopped dead in its tracks by inexplicable pauses that often set the listener up for a sound explosion and a burst of activity to follow. Add in more than a handful of cheeky fz accents on weak beats of the bar and you have as good a demonstration of Haydn’s impeccable musical wit as his keyboard music has to offer.