Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in D major K. 381 for Piano Duet
In the 1760s, when Wolfgang & his sister Nannerl were touring Europe as child prodigies, the keyboard duet was a popular novelty item on their programs, one that offered a fuller range of sound from a single instrument while still allowing each performer the opportunity for individual display.
When the Mozart children were touring, though, they would most likely have been playing the harpsichord, since the hammered fortepiano (progenitor of the modern pianoforte) did not replace in popularity its string-plucking keyboard cousin until the following decade. While the Sonata in D major K. 381 was composed in 1772, the lack of dynamic markings in the manuscript probably indicates that it was still written for harpsichord, not the fortepiano.
In harpsichord writing loud and soft are created by manipulating the texture, ‘loud’ being produced by means of full chordal harmony with a strong bass presence, ‘soft’ by writing single lines thinly accompanied. These qualities are particularly evident in the outer movements of this sonata, which feature strong textural contrasts between consecutive phrases, a pattern that resembles the interplay between various sections of an orchestra. And indeed, this entire sonata has been described as a three-movement Italian symphony composed on the keyboard.
This orchestral style of writing can be heard clearly in the way the first movement opens, with four distinct textures presented in close succession: a full-throated ‘tutti’ chord, a strutting fanfare of unisons, then a demure little skipping melody with panting accompaniment, and finally more fanfare drama in unisons—all in the space of a mere 12 bars. The development section is even more contrasty, with an arresting ‘damsel-on-the-railway-tracks’ tremolo passage as its melodramatic highlight.
Simple songfulness pervades the Andante second movement but here again the play of textures adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, especially in the rich use of low bass tones. There is even an unusual passage in which the top melodic voice is doubled in the tenor range, as if a string or flute melody were being doubled by the bassoons and cellos.
The Allegro molto finale has the character of a scene from comic opera in which separate characters engage in punchline-oriented repartee. It features short question-and-answer phrases in which bright bold chords are answered by frivolous fluttering triplets, and blithe solo melodies by blaring military trumpet calls. Scotch snaps and chirpy grace notes anticipate the comical musical effects that Rossini would use decades later.
Fantaisie Tableaux Op. 5
Rachmaninoff’s first suite for two pianos, entitled Fantaisie Tableaux, is an early work composed in 1893, just a year after the composer’s graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. Conceived as “a series of musical pictures”, its warmly expressive tone and vivid harmonic colouring reveal the influence of Tchaikovsky, to whom the work is dedicated.
Each of its four movements depicts a scene from nature or from personal life: the lapping of waves against the side of a gondola, bird calls in the wild, tears dropping, the clangorous ringing of church bells. Typical Rachmaninoff stylistic traits such as the use of ostinati and repeated sequences that build to a climax are present throughout.
Barcarolle opens with the delicious quiet rippling of water, soon joined by a simple, mildly obsessive tune that always seeks to return to the same note. The filigree patterns surrounding this foreground melody gradually grow in elaboration to become a lush carpet of harmonic colouring covering a full five octaves of the keyboard as the opening ripples are transformed into great surging waves of piano sonority.
Even more pictorially vivid is the stuttering high-pitched birdcalls of L’amour, la nuit (The night, the love). This movement opens with the repeated motive of a major 3rd representing the warbling of the nightingale, soon paired with a downward sliding chromatic melody embodying the feelings of romantic love. Ecstatic flights of fancy in the high register express the ecstatic emotions of the scene.
Les larmes (Tears) depicts the falling of teardrops with a repetitive four-note motive that opens the movement and pervades it throughout, at times rhythmically displaced from the main beat to suggest the convulsive spasms of sobbing.
The suite ends with Pâques, an evocation of the clamorous joy of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. In this virtually melody-less movement, open 5ths in the bass convey the weighty resonance of massive swaying church bells while a hammering tintinnabulation of repeated motives in the high register imitates the chiming of metallic overtones above. Almost lost in the near-cacaphony of full-spectrum ringing sounds is the solemn intonation of a Russian liturgical chant in the mid-register.
Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli
Liszt’s Tarantella is from the collection Venezia e Napoli (published 1861), a revised version of earlier pieces which he issued as a supplement to his Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année devoted to his musical impressions of Italy. Based on dance melodies by the Neapolitan editor and music publisher Guillaume-Louis Cottrau (1797-1847), Liszt’s bravura treatment of this material features many of his trademark tricks of the trade.
It leaves the starting blocks at presto speed, dicing and slicing the agitated tarantella melody into an impressive series of choppy and sparkling pianistic textures, often alternating duple and triple versions of the tune.
The slower middle section, featuring a sensuous and langorous canzona napoletana with Bellini-esque arabesques of vocal ornamentation, serves to interrupt the torrential onslaught of virtuosity, but it too soon erupts into iridescent cascading rainbows of tonal colour and peppery sprays of repeated notes—perhaps in reference to the favourite instrument of the Neapolitans: the mandolin.
The concluding section returns to the bravura frenzy of the opening, upping the tempo to prestissimo and heading off to the horizon like a cat with its tail on fire. The sheer volume of piano tone pulled from the instrument on the final page is eyebrow-raisingly theatrical.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
The first thing to know about Debussy’s symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is that it is one of the foundational works of the Impressionist movement in French music and is based on the poem by the same name by symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). The second thing to know is that it has nothing at all to do with Bambi.
In Ancient Roman mythology a faun (not ‘fawn’) was a nature spirit with the upper torso of a young man and the bottom half of a goat. Much at home in woodland settings, fauns led an idyllic life with little to do each day but (a) play the pan pipes, (b) chat up the local nymphs, and (c) fall drowsily asleep to dream about (a) and (b).
Debussy’s orchestral score of 1894, which he transcribed for two pianos in the following year, captures the leisurely life of one such faun as he plays his pan pipes, gazes in fascination at the nymphs frolicking around him and finally slips into slumber in the heat of the afternoon. The musical scenes depicted are presented in an ambiguous new musical language that uses whole-tone scales and ‘colour chords’ that float freely in sonic space, unregulated by the established rules of chord progression in Western harmony.
The seemingly improvisatory way in which the piece moves forward, evoking the timeless world of ancient myth, belies the work’s tight organization around a series of melodic cells and motives. One of most important of these is the melody that opens the work, a languorous chromatic descent of a tritone, representing the pan pipe, which establishes no key and has no sharp rhythmic profile.
Other motives emerge with more animation, depicting the stirrings of woodland creatures in the passing scene, but all share in the aimless ‘wandering’ quality that characterizes the work as a whole.
The pianists’ challenge in this piece is to knock every sharp edge off the percussive sound of their instruments to create the hazy, delicately nuanced sound environment that suggests in the listener’s ear the imaginary world of Mallarmé’s text and Debussy’s symphonic poem.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6
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 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 is unusual in having four sections, each based on a separate Hungarian folk melody. The first two form a kind of introduction, comprised of a great thumping march followed by a fleet-footed dance—both somewhat ‘wild’ and exotic in their use of rhythmic displacement and off-beat accents.
The standard rhapsody lassan begins in the 3rd section, and what a change in tone it brings. Its halting, almost sobbing melodic gestures set the words of a troubled Hungarian poetic text that reads: “My father is dead, my mother is dead, I have no brothers and sisters, and all the money that I have left will just buy a rope to hang myself with.” Liszt’s musical meditation on this chipper text—a classic example of over-sharing—is ruminative and spasmodically emotional by turns, in true Gypsy style.
The friss that follows brings welcome relief with its simple playful tune constantly repeated over a folk-style drone in the bass. Excitement leads to exhilaration as the pace progressively accelerates and thicker textural cladding is added. Eventually, the quarters and eighths of the tune in the right hand morph into a machine-gun-fire of repeated notes—hammered out in octaves, no less—in a severe test of the pianist’s wrist technique. Meanwhile, the left hand accompaniment commutes back and forth from the nether regions as a full-on, octave-spanning stride bass.
All in all, this Hungarian rhapsody displays 19th-century pianistic showmanship at its most extroverted.
Ravel first made plans to write a celebration of the Viennese waltz in 1906, sketching out a piece he called Wien (Vienna) as a tribute to the “waltz king” Johann Strauss II. But the project lay dormant for many years, and it was only under a commission from impresario Sergei Diaghilev (of the famous Ballets Russes) that he was prompted to finish it in 1920. Diaghilev rejected the work after hearing Ravel’s two-piano version of the score (to be played this afternoon), but the composer orchestrated it anyway and it went on to become a highly successful ballet, premiering in 1926 in Antwerp with the Royal Flemish Opera Ballet and later used in works by Jerome Robbins and Sir Frederick Ashton.
Ravel describes his poème chorégraphique as follows:
Swirling clouds offer glimpses of waltzing couples. As the clouds scatter little by little, an immense hall filled with a whirling crowd comes clearly into view. The scene grows steadily brighter until the chandeliers bursts forth with dazzling light at the fortissimo. An imperial court, about 1855.
Given the glittering age it celebrates, one would expect the work to be as bright in mood as the ballrooms it depicts. But this score is unusually dark for Ravel. It begins rumbling deep down in the bass before scraps of waltz rhythm begin to emerge above in the mid-range. After this introduction, the work is structured as a series of waltzes, alternating in mood between a voluptuous, sometimes explosive joie de vivre and more demure evocations of coyness and lilting nostalgia.
Being composed immediately after The Great War, Ravel’s La Valse has been heard by some as a Dance of Death, as the calamitous fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ironically played out to the tune of its own best-loved music. The aesthetic stance of the work is ambiguous, to be sure, and that is perhaps the quality that has made it endure in the repertoire since its first performance a century ago.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020