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Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op. 102
The late 1840s saw Schumann take up “house music” in a big way. This does not mean that he began to DJ at raves, playing dance music with repetitive drum tracks and synthesized basslines. Rather, he had a productive period composing music specifically designed for the home market: Hausmusik. This was music meant to be appreciated by amateurs making music in their own homes, a demographic that had come to make up an increasing proportion of the German middle class during the Biedermeyer period (1815-1848) in which family life was celebrated and home activities like music-making cherished.
In Schumann’s Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano, the “popular” style of these pieces is evident in their simple A-B-A formal structure, their strongly profiled melodies, and their frequent use of drone tones in the bass.
The first piece is entitled Vanitas vanitatum, a phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). It is likely meant to depict a drunken soldier like the one featured in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. Its heavy peasant swing conveys something of the soldier’s alcoholic swagger, or perhaps even stagger, but offers glimpses of his tipsy charm, as well.
The second piece is like a drowsy lullaby, or perhaps just something cozy to play in a room with plenty of coals on the fire and a hot bowl of punch at the ready. This is warm home life distilled into sound.
An aura of mystery seems to pervade the third piece, which opens with a sad waltz in the cello dogged by furtive interruptions in the piano. More lyrical material occupies the middle section, notable for the high register used in the cello and the double-stop writing in 6ths.
The fourth piece offers one of those bravely optimistic and celebratory anthems that one often finds in Schumann, alternating with more fretful expressive outpourings in its middle section.
The least ‘amateur’ of the set is the fifth piece that features copious scoops of double thirds in the piano part and a restless, roving cello line determined to sing out its line on its own terms.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major Op. 69
Beethoven may have made his name in music history for his restless moods and Dionysian fury but there is another side to him that his A major Sonata Op. 69 represents well. This is the Apollonian, classical-era Beethoven, the Beethoven content to live – for the space of four movements at least – in a Mozartean world of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.
The opening theme of his first movement, for example, presented in the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, is symmetrically balanced around its opening note, the home note of A major. This solo entry of the cello and its follow-up phrase in the piano (ending in a short cadenza) is then succeeded by a solo entry in the piano and the same follow-up phrase in the cello (ending in a short cadenza). Moreover, the sonata’s second theme is a mirror image of the first, simply inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. While minor-mode turbulence intervenes from time to time, notably in the operatic outpourings of the development section, the piano and cello remain like best buddies in a road movie, always on the same page, never fighting with each other.
The 2nd movement scherzo sets out to see how much fun can be had with syncopation. At first peeking out and then hiding behind the pillars of each bar’s first beat, the two instruments find themselves dancing cheek-to-cheek (in 6ths) in the Trio’s two contrasting episodes.
The 3rd movement Adagio cantabile has puzzled many performers. Its extraordinary brevity, a mere 18 bars, barely gives Beethoven time to stretch out his lyrical limbs … and then it’s over. Glenn Gould has suggested a reason for this, a reason rooted in Beethoven’s emerging fascination with continuous form:
It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end … to make things all of a piece.
Nonetheless, Beethoven’s last movement takes off with a merry twinkle in its eye and a bustling accompaniment of steady 8th notes in the piano to keep every toe in the hall tapping in time. The opening theme of this sonata-form movement is derived from the first movement’s opening theme. Simply bursting with good humour and bonhomie, this movement manages to be both cute and coy by turns while constantly radiating a sunniness of disposition that even the mock-worry of its development section cannot efface.
Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 11
Anton Webern presents us with among the most concentrated aesthetic experiences possible in music. Using the 12-tone technique of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, in which complete statements of the 12 chromatic tones are presented as musical ideas, he writes works characterized by an astonishing density of musical thought. This is music of meticulous craftsmanship, music under a magnifying glass, in which seemingly small gestures take on great significance.
Webern’s Three Little Pieces Op. 11 are contained within a space of 9, 13 and 10 bars, respectively, and they take less than two minutes to perform. The outer movements are relatively slow and extremely soft (ranging between pp and ppp) while the second movement is loud and fast.
Catching the essence of music this fleeting requires concentrated listening. Only repeated hearings can really bring its minute details into focus. But one characteristic that might well be perceivable right away is how the piano and cello, like an old married couple, seem to complete each other’s musical thoughts.
When one goes up, the other goes down in response, creating a kind of symmetry in their dialogue.
Sonata in G minor Op. 65
Chopin, a cello composer? Who knew? And yet the piano’s most famous composer actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, written between 1845 and 1846 for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).
In retrospect, however, the baritone range typical of the cello had always been a fertile ground for countermelody in Chopin’s piano music. Indeed some works, like the Prelude in B minor Op. 28 No. 6, or the Étude in C# minor Op. 25 No. 7, sound almost like transcriptions of works originally written for cello and piano. What most distinguishes this late sonata from those earlier “cello-like” works, however, is a new tendency towards increased chromaticism in the melodic line. Chopin’s sense of harmonic momentum is dizzyingly paced, especially in the first and last movements of this sonata.
Although Romantic in spirit, the sonata is written in the four-movement structure of the Classical era, comprising a sonata-form 1st movement, a 2nd movement scherzo, slow 3rd movement and rondo finale. The 1st movement’s opening theme might be described as a songful march, lyrical but inflected with pert dotted rhythms that add a slightly martial air to the melody’s unfolding. The second theme, by contrast, is a serene 10 notes (the first four on the same pitch) that exude a lyrical sense of repose, a repose not long held in this generally turbulent movement. The development is short, expanding on the rapturous potential of the 1st theme, in particular. Serious confrontation and drama occur only in the recapitulation, which draws much more vehemence from its material than the opening had done.
The 2nd movement scherzo is much lighter in texture and midway in mood between Mendelssohnian scamper and Brahmsian heft. Its lyrical trio is a nostalgic waltz to melt the heart of the crustiest old curmudgeon.
Lyricism of the simplest kind also prevails in the short 27-bar Largo third movement, but of a kind more vocal in its inspiration. Its widely spaced, nocturne- like piano accompaniment of eighth notes evokes a sense of calm that makes it the emotional pivot around which the whole sonata revolves.
The rondo finale reprises the martial inflections of the opening movement, but its dotted rhythms are now enlivened with a triplet energy reminiscent of the tarantella. In more lyrical sections the cello part is notable for the type of double- stop writing in 6ths one might expect in a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
In 1782 Mozart’s patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, showed the composer a number of manuscripts of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and encouraged him to make string arrangements for performance at the Baron’s regular series of Sunday afternoon concerts in his home. The result was a collection of Bach fugues arranged for string trio and for string quartet.
The E-flat fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a four-voice fugue of remarkable design. Its voices enter in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) to build up a four-voice texture firmly grounded in the home key, and almost all subsequent appearances of the theme enter in the same keys as the opening: E flat and B flat.
The harmonic stability that characterizes the formal plan, however, is enlivened by a fugue subject of great vitality, created out of an ear-catching mix of melodic leaps laid out in a pattern of note values accelerating from slow to quick. Combined with the built-in phrase repetition in the theme itself, the result is almost dance-like.
Arranging this fugue for string quartet allows the work’s contrapuntal texture to be presented in higher sonic relief to the listener’s ear, with long notes swelling in the middle in a way impossible on the keyboard, and short notes articulated crisply by means of adroit bowing.
Dmitri Shostakovich was the ugly duckling of 20th-century composers, a thickly bespectacled, chain-smoking musical intellectual whose scores, while contemporary in their sound palette, often bristled with the contrapuntal intensity of a previous age. No stranger to the larger forms of symphony, concerto, and opera, he focused increasingly at the end of his life on the more intimate genres of the song cycle and the string quartet. Following the diagnosis of a heart condition in 1965, his works became darker in spirit, beset with a tragic undertow no doubt influenced by the experience of his declining health.
His 15th string quartet was his last, composed in 1974, the year before his death. Written in the dark key of E-flat minor, it unfolds as an uninterrupted sequence of six slow movements, all marked Adagio. Beneath the death-inspired melancholy of this work glimmers faintly the memory of living human emotions, expressed in the titles given to each movement.
The first movement Elegy opens with an eerily subdued fugal exposition in the low range of the instruments. Its melodically inert, death rattle of a theme whispers out three notes on the same pitch, then continues to circle listlessly around it in the modal style of medieval chant. A second theme, based on a C major arpeggio, eventually emerges but brings scant cheer, as the entire movement, the longest of the work, never rises above the dynamic level of mp.
Not so the sharply profiled second movement Serenade, which begins with a 12- tone row of snarling—or perhaps shrieking—crescendos, each on a single note played by a single instrument, swelling from ppp to sffff. In the course of this movement these violent gestures play against an absent-minded waltz, to curious effect.
The short Intermezzo features a similarly odd pairing between an exuberant, almost ecstatic cadenza in the first violin and scattered melodic musings in the other instruments. Genuine sustained lyricism arrives for the first time in the Nocturne, as the viola pours out its soul against a delicate tracery of arpeggios in the other instruments. Played with mutes, this movement rarely features more than three instruments playing at a time, giving it a quality of nocturnal intimacy.
There is no mistaking the grave, commemorative tone of the following Funeral March, in which we hear the pure minor chords and dotted rhythms of traditional funeral music projected with surprising aggressiveness in both chordal declarations and solo laments.
The concluding Epilogue sums up the previous emotional terrain with cadenza-like flights of fancy alternating with dull echoes of both the first and second themes from the first movement. Its flurry of trills has been compared to “the sounds of wind whistling through a graveyard”.
The late quartets of Beethoven are known for raising the bar in terms of formal experiment and range of expression, but the first of these, the Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, is almost shockingly conventional in this regard. Tuneful in the most popular manner, its expressive aspirations rarely exceed those of the common air or folksong, and its four separate movements are laid out in the most traditional of formal patterns: a sonata-form first movement, theme-and-variations second movement, followed by a scherzo and a sonata-form finale.
What this quartet does have in common with many late-period works is the extravagant dimensions of its theme and variations movement—it clocks in at over a quarter of an hour in length, in a league with the variation movements of the late piano sonatas Opp. 109 and 111. Equally remarkable is the sustained lyrical impulse that broadly dominates the first two movements, to the detriment of Beethoven’s trademark penchant for striking contrasts and high-voltage drama, which only join the party in the scherzo.
A hint of the more “muscular” Beethoven is given in the first movement’s opening fanfare, a fanfare that recurs several times throughout the movement. But at each appearance it can’t help melting into song, the operating principle of the movement seeming to be that of leisurely continuous variation rather than dramatic set-up and release. This is evident in the minor-mode second theme, which is minimally contrasting and echoes fragments of the first, while the development, for the most part, prefers to stretch out its melodic lines like toffee instead of fragmenting them like peanut brittle. The question “Why can’t we all just get along?” seems to have found its answer in this movement.
The theme of the second movement’s variations is a lyrical ascent of scale notes extending over more than an octave followed by a series of gracious descents. Eminently vocal in character, this melody was actually split off from the quartet and published separately as a song after Beethoven’s death. The six variations that follow unfold calmly with an admirable simplicity. They maintain the gentle flow and relaxed feel of their founding melody, and rather than dressing it up with ornamental curlicues, they simplify it, as in many of Beethoven’s late variation sets, seeking to reduce it to its core constituents.
The Beethoven of contrast and drama returns in the scherzo. Its theme is a mischievous collection of little gestures comprised of dotted rhythms and purring trills, creeping up the scale in stages, answered imitatively by its mirror opposite coming down in the opposite direction. The opening and closing sections of the movement swing wildly between clever counterpoint and rampaging unisons while the trio alternates between breathless scurrying and rustic swagger.
This rustic quality is much in evidence as well in the final movement Allegro. Its folk-like character is conveyed in a seemingly endless stream of simple, tuneful, and symmetrically phrased melodies (Joseph Kerman calls it a “medley”), imprinted with the oafish good humour of drunken village dancing. Near the end, a heavenly trill in the first violin summons the rustics to heed the angels of their better natures, and the husky rhythms of their revels give way to the smooth flowing lines of human concord as the work ends.
Donald G. Gíslason 2016
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B-flat Major, Hob. XVI:41
In 1784 Haydn wrote three keyboard sonatas for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterházy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each is a two- movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young Princess for lighter fare.
The second in the set, the Sonata in B-flat, begins in a spirit of pageantry with an emphasis on sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent coy changes in dynamics, indicating clearly that the work was intended for performance on the fortepiano, which had largely replaced the harpsichord by the 1780s.
The female breast is given ample room to heave beneath its stiff lace bodice with the arrival of a restlessly modulating second subject dark with minor-mode colouring and rippling triplet accompaniment. A rich variety of ornamentation in the form of trills and turns maintains a high level of elegance in the melodic flow throughout.
The second movement Allegro di molto strikes a quasi-learned tone with its freely contrapuntal texture of answering phrases and its lively chatter of small leaps in dialogue with smooth runs and churning broken chords, all within the grasp of the delicate hand of a princess. In this movement as well, a minor-mode shadow falls melodramatically over the proceedings, only to be banished by a cheerful reprise of the opening material, tastefully varied at its return.
Kreisleriana Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented, for Robert Schumann, the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fiction of E. T. A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.
Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work comprises contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.
Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.
Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.
Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.
But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.
Anton von Webern
Variations Op. 27
The 12-tone system of composition propagated in the early 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, and employed by his students Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, presents a daunting challenge for audiences accustomed to listening for tunes to hum in the shower and rhythms to inspire a tapping motion in their footwear. The density of intellectual content of this music is far out of proportion with the ability of even seasoned musicians to perceive its organizing principles on a first listening.
And yet, like modernist works of abstract art that pull in the viewer’s attention at a visceral level, 12-tone works such as Webern’s Variations Op. 27 can exercise an unexpected fascination that requires no explanation.
So in listening to this three-movement work, it is merely necessary to be aware of the scale of listening at which the composer wishes to engage his audience, and that scale, in comparison with traditional music in the repertoire, is the minute. This is music for listening with an “aural magnifying glass,” music of pointillist patterns of sound unconnected to scales or keys, the elegance of which lies in the symmetry of its gestures and balance of its tonal patterning.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A Major, Op. 101
The works of Beethoven’s late period see him writing with a more relaxed approach to form and a wider sound palette, one that in the case of his piano music reaches out to the extreme ends of the keyboard. This is music of an increasingly personal stamp, wilfully pushing towards new expressive horizons with a confidence that virtually defines this composer’s ‘brand’.
His Sonata in A major Op. 101 presents us with two pairs of contrasting movements. Movements 1 and 3 are lyrical and reflective, with little by way of strong profiling in either tonality or rhythm. They seem to flow onward at the pace of personal thought and feeling. Movements 2 and 4 are punchier, driven by the momentum of a large-scale formal plan, with a decisive rhythmic edge and clear tonal outlines at the heart of which lies a yearning for the rigour of serious imitative counterpoint.
The work opens with a movement of great gentleness of expression, almost a meditation, full of rippling pulses rather than strong beats. Its exposition goes by in a single page, more a succession of dream states than a delineation of contrasting ideas, and its development merely seems to intensify rather than challenge the prevailing mood.
The second movement is a bold and forthright march with sharply chiselled dotted rhythms peppered with points of imitation (of a kind that may have inspired the fifth movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana) and an even more formally contrapuntal trio.
The slow movement is surprisingly short, more an intermezzo than a formally poised exposition of lyrical thoughts. With an air of improvisation it follows a little melodic turn figure through a series of harmonic adventures culminating in a daydreaming cadenza and a reminiscence of the sonata’s opening bars.
An ear-catching flourish of trills leads us into the finale, a sonata movement brimming with exuberance and good-humoured melodies drawn from country life, including an Austrian mountain yodel and a rollicking contradance. Each is presented from the outset with its own imitative echo, preparing us for the full-on fugue that breaks out in the development section. By his use of the extreme low register Beethoven turns the lowest voice in the fugue into a kind of basso buffo from comic opera, humorously out of place in such a learned context.
Four Dances from Czech Dances (Book II)
Bedřich Smetana was among the first composers to promote a distinctly Czech style of music in the 19th century during a period of rising nationalist sentiment in his native Czech homeland. His best-known works are his comic opera The Bartered Bride and the set of six symphonic poems based on themes from Bohemian country life entitled Má Vlast (my homeland).
Smetana was a gifted pianist and composed more for the piano than for any other instrument, with dance music playing an important role in his projection of the Czech national style. His second set of Czech Dances dates from 1879 and are intended to be artful examples of the actual music that might accompany Czech folk dancing.
Medved (The Bear) is a heavily textured stomping piece combining duple and triple metres to paint the lumbering gait of the bear, with a much sweeter middle section that imitates the sounds of the Czech bagpipes.
Hulán (The Lancer) is a slow, tender dance evoking the love of a young girl for her soldier boyfriend. Despite the subdued mood, an underlying current of intense yearning provides the performer with the occasion for flamboyant pianistic display.
Slepička (The Hen) is a vivid portrait of the race of barnyard fowl immortalized by Rameau’s La Poule and the animated film Chicken Run. Smetana’s hen is a busy creature indeed, with a daily agenda full of strutting, clucking and feathery flapping, all to a polka rhythm occasionally put humorously off-stride by unpredictable changes in metre.
Skočná (Hop Dance) is an exhilarating stomping dance for couples that sees its participants whirling each other ever more frenetically around in circles with a joyous, almost madcap abandon.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102
Long before Martha Stewart made middle-class home furnishings a “thing,” the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) ushered in a bourgeois age of cozy home interiors that celebrated domestic family life and gave music a prominent place within it. Biedermeier Europe enjoyed the blessings of peace after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 much as the Eisenhower era did in North America after WWII. But instead of washers, dryers, and TV sets, the European ‘mod con’ most in demand was the piano, an instrument that afforded middle-class families the luxury of home music-making once reserved for the wealthier classes.
As a consequence, the market for Hausmusik (music for amateur performance by small ensembles in the home) expanded considerably. This market had its peaks of reﬁnement in the works of Schubert and Mendelssohn, and its valleys of vulgarity in the variations and potpourris of lesser composers, as annoyingly popular in Biedermeier drawing rooms as YouTube cat videos on computer screens today.
Robert Schumann, after spending the 1830s composing solo piano music exclusively, made up for lost time at the end of the 1840s with a bumper crop of Hausmusik including his Five Pieces in Popular Style (1849), his only work for cello and piano. The simple “popular style” (Volkston) of these pieces is evident in their simple three-part (A-B-A) form, their strongly proﬁled melodies with little emphasis on development, and in their prominent use of drone tones in the bass.
Schumann was not engaged in a form of musical “slumming” by evoking the musical idiom of the rural countryside. This was not Dolly Parton arranged for chamber ensemble. For him, the folk music of a nation was emblematic of its very soul, providing a bulwark against the cheapening of musical taste that “fashionable” music threatened to enact on an unschooled public. Hence, the codas of these pieces reveal ﬂashes of sophistication that see them end more artfully than they began.
The ﬁrst is entitled Vanitas vanitatum (from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”) and is likely a humorous depiction of the drunken one-legged soldier in Goethe’s well-known poem of the same name. It has a heavy peasant swing to it but, like many an engaging tippler, is not without occasional touches of sly whimsy.
The drowsy second piece may make you yawn. Its long-held bass drone foreshadows Brahms’ famous lullaby. The third begins with an aura of mystery, its ‘sombre waltz’ opening yielding to more lyrical effusions remarkable for the high register of the cello in which they are set, and for the use of double stops in 6ths.
The fourth piece alternates between a nostril-expanding march and an equally breast-swelling lyricism while the ﬁfth, the least ‘amateur’ and most developed of the set, pairs a piano part full of scampering double thirds with a wide-ranging and restless cello line of steely determination and wilful exuberance.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69
The furrowed brow of care is nowhere to be found in this remarkably sunny and serenely conﬁdent sonata from Beethoven’s middle period. Composed between 1806 and 1808, it overlaps the composer’s work on the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies yet evinces none of the disruptive tumult of the celebrated C minor Symphony nor the wondrous, walk-in-the-woods pictorialism of the Pastorale. It seems perfectly content to live in its own world, a world characterized by an almost Mozartean sense of balance and equilibrium: between formal sections, between instrumental entries, and between the motivic units used to construct each phrase.
Consider the opening. A rhythmically tranquil theme, beginning with a rising 5th, is presented by the solo cello in the manner of a fugue subject, its balanced mix of open and stepwise intervals symmetrically arranged on either side of the home-key note of A. This gesture then ﬁnds the perfect continuation of its thoughts in the luxuriantly relaxed and songful reply of the piano that drifts as high in its register as the cello ended low.
The second theme of the movement is similarly tongue-in-groove with the aforementioned, being a mirror image of the opening theme, inverting its rising interval to a pair of falling intervals with the same rhythmic imprint. And throughout it all, cello and piano bask in a honeymoon of mutual admiration and support, even when touring through quite a bit of minor-mode drama and Italian-style pathos in the development section.
The second movement scherzo makes up for the ﬁrst movement’s overall stability of pulse with a serving of jumpy syncopations and offbeat accents, enlivened by a large helping of contrapuntal side-chatter and imitative cross-talk. The two appearances of the movement’s much-less-skittish trio provide a measure of relief from the twitching, but in the end, even they get caught up in the general mêlée.
The third movement Adagio cantabile holds more surprises in store, however. Like a marathon runner who smiles at the press at the starting gun and then, after rounding the ﬁrst turn, takes a cab to the ﬁnish line, this movement calls it quits after a mere 18 bars of lyrical reﬂection, proceeding directly to the last movement.
Cellist Leonard Rose thought this regrettable, but Glenn Gould saw it as part of an emerging pattern in Beethoven’s later works: a tendency to break down the walls between movements, to write sonatas as a single continuous thought:
It’s almost as if he wanted to write on one plane and one plane only, that of an allegro mood from beginning to end… to make things all of a piece.
Whatever the reason, the Allegro vivace last movement, in sonata form, is as toe- tapping a ﬁnale as could be imagined, its chuckling good humour kept bubbling by an almost constant 8th-note patter in the piano. And because this sonata lives in a thematic hall of mirrors, its main theme is an inversion of the piano’s delicious opening phrase in the ﬁrst movement.
Pohádka for Cello and Piano
Leoš Janáček is a one-off in music history. His is a voice of visionary ecstatic utterances, of mysterious murmurings evoking the folk music of his Moravian heritage, all tinged with the blurry soft hum of its favourite instrument, the cimbalom. As American conductor Kenneth Woods puts it:
Janáček comes from nowhere and leads to no one. There is simply no music before or after Janáček that sounds like his. His music is inﬁnitely easy to recognize and completely impossible to replicate.
Janáček was fascinated by the study of speech rhythms and his music, while often misty and atmospheric, is strongly imprinted with the rhythm of the human voice. Utterly indifferent to the compositional conventions of his time, he creates his textures out of short bursts of melody that shimmer with sudden changes of modal colouring. These build to powerful emotional climaxes by the repetition of ostinato fragments that rarely seem to start on the strong beats of the bar.
Janáček’s Fairy Tale (Pohádka) for cello and piano dates from 1910, and after numerous revisions, reached its ﬁnal form in 1923. Like much of his instrumental music, this three-movement work is programmatic, loosely based on scenes from The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852).
While the story is long and convoluted, the gist is that the handsome young Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, has had his soul promised to the King of the Underworld, Kashchei, but on mature consideration decides that he would much rather run away with the grumpy King’s fetching young daughter, Maria, a decision which leads to an adventure-ﬁlled chase over hill and dale until the two lovers ﬁnally reach safety and live happily ever after.
Just how Janáček’s score relates to the events of the tale is not really clear, but many interpreters see the cello in the role of the young prince, with his signature dotted- rhythm motif announced at the outset, and the piano as Maria. Steven Isserlis offers a very suggestive version of how the music illustrates the story, as follows.
The ﬁrst movement, he says, opens with the dreamy setting of a magical lake where Ivan and Maria ﬁrst meet. Enraptured by each other’s company, they fall into a love duet, but then big bad Kashchei arrives and they have to escape to the pounding of horses’ hooves.
The second movement is full of magic. In a nearby palace Ivan gets a spell put on him so he will fall in love with someone else and in a ﬁt of pique Maria turns into a blue ﬂower, prompting an achingly lyrical outpouring in the middle section. But a magician who does house calls ﬁnally releases them both and they rejoice in their good fortune in each other’s arms throughout the ﬁnal movement.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in F major Op. 6
While some people’s children are perfectly content to play in the mud for as long as the sun shines each day, taking only small breaks to tip over a vase or torture the household cat, others—the young Richard Strauss comes instantly to mind—prefer to while away their infant hours composing German lieder or small character pieces for piano, commensurate with their limited handspan on the keyboard.
To say that the composer of Til Eulenspiegel and Der Rosenkavalier was a prodigy is to state the obvious. Reportedly able to read musical scores before he could decipher the alphabet, Richard Strauss began his ‘mature’ period as a composer at an age when most of us were preparing for the high school prom. His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 6 was begun when he was only 17 and completed two years later in 1883.
It is a radiantly conﬁdent work marked by boundless exuberance, passionate lyrical intensity, and no mean degree of compositional skill, its phrases driven forward with an irresistible harmonic momentum, parcelled out with consummate formal mastery. The cellist encounters a score extending over the entire range of his instrument while any pianist with a hand smaller than a catcher’s mitt will need to arpeggiate many of the work’s Brahmsian left-hand chords.
The ﬁrst movement Allegro con brio opens the work with a heroic introduction leading to a ﬁrst theme of rhapsodic sweep beginning high on the ﬁngerboard over an undulating piano accompaniment, and this is followed by a sombre second theme, just as passionate, rising up from the lowest string. The development section percolates along, bubbling with imitative motivic play, until unable to hold off the urge to burst into a full-on fugato. Call this boy a show-off if you will, but he sure can write imitative counterpoint.
The second movement Andante ma non troppo is a richly hued but dark collection of ruminative melodies over which the lyrical spirit of Mendelssohn hovers benevolently, as it does over the Allegro vivo ﬁnale, with its mixture of coy drawing-room coquettishness and scherzo scamper.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for cello & piano in C major, Op. 102, No. 1
Those who think of sonata form as a well-organized dinner plate – with the red meat in one corner, the mashed potatoes stationed opposite, and peas or broccoli distributed neatly over the remaining space – might be forgiven for thinking that Beethoven was playing with his food in composing this sonata, so irregular are its formal outlines and so free its inner patterns of musical thought.
But there is nothing childish about it. Along with the preceding Op. 101 piano sonata, it marks the beginning of the composer’s late period, a period in which his deafness moved him to express his thoughts in ever more concentrated form, yet with ever greater freedom. The world of late Beethoven is a world of contrapuntal textures, fluid formal boundaries, and not infrequently of ear-filling trills. It is the willful inner world of a composer who has retreated from the realm of sound, but with his love of that realm intact.
The first noticeable irregularity in this sonata is that it only features two movements, each of which begins with a slow introduction. Opening a sonata movement with a slow introduction is not an innovation on Beethoven’s part: Haydn had used it at the start of his Symphony No. 103 in E♭, as had Beethoven himself in his Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13. But here its use is different. Instead of portentously building up a sense of anticipation for the section that will follow, the slow introduction of this work’s first movement seems blissfully happy to merely meditate over the main motives that will recur throughout the sonata as a whole: a series of stepwise-falling fourths and a faster stepwise ascent of the same interval, presented by the solo cello at the outset. With a dynamic marking of piano and the expressive indications teneramente, dolce cantabile, this slow introduction is a virtual love-duet between piano and cello.
The end of this cheek-to-cheek slow-dancing in the placid key of C major comes all the more suddenly, then, when the sonata movement begins in earnest – in the key of A minor, the relative minor. An opening theme in octaves and unisons between the piano and cello opens the exposition, but expends its fury after two statements, stopping abruptly to allow a musical thought of smaller range, the second theme, to intervene. This abruptness is a characteristic feature of the movement. Beethoven feels no real need to create transitions between sections: he merely stops, as if a new thought has occurred to him, and goes off in a new direction after a pause. Although the exposition is repeated, that is perhaps the most “normal” feature of this movement, which has a compressed development section and a recapitulation which seems ready to luxuriate in a lingering coda – but no, it decides not to after all, and puts a quick end to the discussion.
The slow introduction that opens the second movement is more a serious affair, introspective and reflective, as if gazing at the stars. At first, the piano and cello seem to be in another duet, trading florid phrases back and forth, but then each retreats to its own corner, the cello ruminating deep in the bass as the piano explores ever higher terrain above. Bringing them back together is the opening theme of the first movement, recalled in a mood so lyrical that it dissolves into a dreamy triple trill before the perky theme of the Allegro vivace bursts its bubble.
This theme, an accelerated version of the rising stepwise fourths of the first movement, is uniquely Beethovenian in character. It is both a motivic cell that animates serious discussion in the fugato of the development section, and a toy-like bauble that gets tossed out playfully in a game of tag between the instruments, made all the more humorously dramatic by the numerous expectant pauses that punctuate these mischievous exchanges.
Sonata for cello & piano, Op. 99
Brahms’ second cello sonata is a ‘meaty’ work, the kind that Brahms no doubt would have wanted to play when he was studying the cello earnestly as a young music student in Hamburg. Designed expansively in four movements in the Beethovenian manner, with a third movement scherzo, it combines the impetuous spirit of the younger Brahms with the generous latherings of lyricism that characterize his mature style.
This sonata is a product of Brahms’ later years, a time when his life followed a predictable seasonal schedule. In the summer he would retire to the countryside to compose, then revise and correct his works for publication during the winter season. Waiting eagerly to play his new works when he returned home to Vienna each autumn were the members of the Joachim Quartet, headed by his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. The F major sonata was composed in the summer of 1886, during a summer sojourn in the Swiss countryside, and dedicated to Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), cellist in the Joachim Quartet – the same cellist for whom, with Joachim, he wrote the Double Concerto in A minor the following year.
The orchestral sweep of the sonata’s opening, with its rich carpet of tremolando figuration in the piano supporting bold fanfares in the cello line, sets it immediately apart from the subdued opening of Brahms’ previous cello sonata, the Sonata in E minor, Op. 38. This passionate but fragmented first theme in the cello seems to be shouting important news in all directions, like a town crier, while the second theme, announced by the piano, is a more smoothly connected melody. The tremolo figuration of the opening is not just sonic “filler”: it functions as a stabilizing counterfoil to the disjointed character of the sweeping opening theme, and plays a major role at the opening of the development section as well. Especially noteworthy in this movement is the magical passage that prepares the recapitulation, a passage in which time seems to stands still as the cello plays tremolo while the piano enacts great leaps from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.
The Adagio affetuoso second movement in simple ternary form carries the major emotional weight of this work. It opens with a procession-like tune in the piano, setting the scene for the cello to emerge in full-throated glory, singing out a richly chromatic but ever-so-lyrical melody that shows off the instrument to advantage in its high range. A middle section in the minor mode gives the piano a place in the sun as well, but the pool of light on the stage in this movement goes to the cello, which returns in the third section to wax lyrical once again, enveloped by an even more lavishly decorative piano accompaniment.
If the second movement belongs to the cello, the propulsive energy of the third movement, a scherzo marked Allegro passionato, is driven by strongly assertive piano writing. Cresting and subsiding in waves of sound, the opening section builds up sound resonance through the frequent use of pedal tones in the bass combined with a constant chatter of eighth-note motion above. Adding to the intensity of effect are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms (i.e.: “hemiola”), and syncopations that recall the opening of the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. Where the cello emerges more clearly is in the trio middle section, in which it hums a wistful melody in simple note values. While this tune seems folk- like in its simplicity, a number of odd melodic turns indicate that it has more on its mind than it is letting on.
The sonata ends with a fourth movement rondo much in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B♭, Op. 83. Gentle and tuneful, its principal theme alternates with a short series of contrasting episodes, none of which spoil the overall mood of contentment that characterizes the movement as a whole.
Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65
Chopin’s name is so intimately linked with the repertoire of the piano that it is difficult to imagine him writing for any other instrument. And yet he appears to have had a sincere appreciation for the sound and musical qualities of the cello. Not only do his works often feature piano textures with left-hand countermelodies in the cello’s baritone range – his Étude in C♯ minor, Op. 25, No. 7, is a classic example – but he actually wrote three chamber works for cello and piano: an Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op. 3, a Grand duo concertant on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert-le-Diable, and this sonata, his last published work, written for his friend, the Parisian cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884).
The first movement opens with a sober, almost march-like theme announced in the piano, followed by a deliciously- scintillating pianistic flourish up to the high register, of the sort that must have made young ladies swoon. The cello then enters to take hold of the same melody and works through its melodic implications in a series of passionate interchanges with the piano until a moment of calm intervenes to set the stage for a vocally-inspired second theme of the utmost simplicity. While this movement is in sonata form, with a repeated exposition, the recapitulation is foreshortened and begins with the second theme. Because of Chopin’s habit of splitting melodic interest between the hands in his piano writing, the resulting texture when combined with the cello is extremely rich, frequently offering the ear three melodies to follow at once.
The second movement Scherzo pulls no dark consequences from the fact that it is written in the minor mode, preferring instead to create a more Mendelssohnian mood of “wicked merriment” in an exchange of short phrases between the cello and piano. The trio middle section, by contrast, spins out a waltz-like melody in long phrases over a simple, arpeggiated accompaniment pattern in the piano.
The Largo is only twenty-seven measures, but with its naïvely simple melody and widely-spaced piano accompaniment in hypnotically regular eighth notes, it recreates some of the intimacy of the nocturne genre, at which Chopin excelled. This untroubled movement, the still point at the centre of the sonata, has no other formal structure than that of a great sigh: it swells into fullness, then relaxes and fades into perfect repose.
The rondo-like final movement features themes of some dramatic complexity, most of which use dotted rhythms that play against a recurring pattern of triplets. The melodic and harmonic chromaticism of Chopin’s late style is fully in evidence in this movement, which ends with a stirring coda in a sunny G major.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor D. 385
It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades. Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19. Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.
But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata? The answer lies in their publication history. In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime. In fact most didn´t. The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.
The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama. Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1. Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin. It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.
The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise. Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone. A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.
The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.
The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work. Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for violin & piano in C minor Op. 30 No. 2
You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor. There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.
On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint. Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”
This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting. Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature. It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.
The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse. It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below. Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix. The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.
The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme. Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.
The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar. The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.
Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale. It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant. The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.
Sonata for viola & piano in F minor Op. 120, No. 1
We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra. The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.
The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.
We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement. While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.
The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio. Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo. Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.
The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler. Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.
The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor). The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in A flat, Op. 26
Beethoven begins to move away from the norms of the classical tradition in this unconventional four-movement sonata without a single movement in traditional sonata- allegro form. It opens with a noble, almost ceremonial theme with five variations, all based, to some degree, on the principle of rhythmic displacement. The first variation arpeggiates the theme in different registers, as if played by different members of a chamber ensemble or orchestra. The second staggers the melody and accompaniment between the two hands to create a choppy but propulsive texture of relentless off-beats. A much slower pattern of syncopation between the hands is featured in the minor-mode third variation, which draws dark and grave significance from the theme in the unusual key of A flat minor—perhaps the first time this seven-flatted key signature had ever been used. The syncopation is given a brighter face in the playfully hide-and-seek changes of register in the whimsical 4th variation. The fifth is the most orchestral of all, placing the theme in the alto and surrounding it on both sides with a rich rolling texture of chordal arpeggios and the kind of written out trills that would feature prominently in the late sonatas.
In another break with tradition, Beethoven places the scherzo (stand-in for the classical minuet) second in the four-movement structure and by so doing shifts the centre of gravity in the work to the funeral march that follows. For the moment, though, we hear in this movement the exuberant Beethoven boyishly at play, balancing the skipping short phrases and off-beat sforzando accents of the opening with the smooth long stretches of melody in the trio middle section.
The funeral march third movement, when it comes, is weighty indeed, its significance enlarged by the motto Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe (Funeral march on the death of a hero). The dramatic events of the French Revolution had made heroic death—and the public commemoration of it—the subject of intense fascination in the public imagination and Beethoven joined a number of his contemporaries by appealing to this fascination in his music. Most striking in this march is the orchestral texture of the middle section, with its tremolo drum rolls answered by defiant trumpet retorts. This movement was performed, orchestrally, at Beethoven’s own funeral in 1827.
After this funeral march has done the heavy lifting to make this Grande Sonate live up to its name, it falls to the last movement to walk us home from the funeral in a rondo that Edwin Fischer described as “a gentle autumn rain.” By turns blithely conversational and dramatically forthright, this moto perpetuo rounds out a strikingly original four-movement sonata that by its pianissimo ending reveals itself more concerned with poetry than pomp.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the composer of that other funeral march, Frédéric Chopin, included this sonata in his performing repertoire.
Frédéric Chopin: Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
The idea of free-flowing musical fantasy, unconstrained by pre-conceived formal patterning, was well known to Chopin from an early age. As a boy he would entertain his classmates at his father’s boarding school by improvising at the piano on Polish popular melodies. Liszt, among others, relates how he would do the same at aristocratic social gatherings of the Polish exile community in Paris.
There is reason to believe, then, that his Fantaisie, Op. 49 of 1841 is composed in the spirit of such improvisations, containing as it does nostalgic allusions to many patriotic tunes sung by Poles in the aftermath of the failed insurrection of November 1830 in Warsaw.
Emblematic of the free associative processes at work in the piece is the opening march—a genre little known for emotional or psychological complexity. And yet Chopin imbues it with an aura of mystery, not only from its slow pace and low register on the keyboard, but also from the vaguely tragic echoes that reply to it from above. What begins as the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a ghostly military parade glides imperceptibly into the lilting pulse of a graceful dance fit for the salon. Similar patterns of free association mark the main sections of the work, which are separated by improvisatory bridge passages featuring a flurry of arpeggiated figuration spanning the keyboard.
The main thematic material passes through musical moods that progress from anxiety to sanguine exuberance, then defiance (expressed in a series of octaves in contrary motion) and finally military triumph (in a more traditional march). These musical associations pivot on either side of a remarkable still point in the middle of the work, its elegaic Lento sostenuto, nostalgically recalled at the closing of the piece in an evocative recitative.
Camille Saint-Saëns (arr. Liszt/Horowitz): Danse macabre
Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.
Such is the scene of the Danse macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.
Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.
Liszt’s attraction to the work is not hard to understand. He was well-known for his virtuoso transcriptions of opera classics such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bellini’s Norma and the toxic mix of religion and death had already infused such works as his own Totentanz for piano and orchestra, as well as piano solo pieces such as Funerailles. This transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout.
Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement of the Saint-Saens work, thickening some passages to add greater resonance, thinning out others to make them “speak” more effectively on the modern piano, and even adding extra bars to the score, starting with the misty cadenza that immediately follows the tolling of the midnight bells at the work’s opening.
The Danse macabre that results is thus a refracting prism of the picturesque, virtuoso and pianistic contributions of three great exponents of the Romantic tradition in music.
Franz Schubert: Impromptus Op. 90, Nos. 2 & 3
The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of character pieces. Cultivated by composers in the emerging Romantic movement, these pieces presented a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.
The typical construction was a simple three-part form (A-B-A), with a middle section that contrasts in mood or emotional intensity with the outer sections. The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.
The Impromptu in G flat, Op. 90, No. 3 presents a lyrical vocal melody over melt-in-your-mouth harmonies laid out in a gentle but ever-moving accompaniment pattern that perfectly paints the fluttering of the human heart.
A much wider emotional range is explored in the Impromptu in E flat, Op. 90, No. 2, which contrasts the carefree mood of its opening running scale passages with a more emphatic middle section dominated by vigorous emotional outbursts. Recent developments in the design of the Viennese piano made possible the extreme range of the right-hand scalar passages, which Schubert exploits to create thrilling crescendos in the high register.
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Ravel’s depiction of three poems from the collection by French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand strikes terror into the hearts of pianists and listeners alike. Its audience enters a dark but lucid dream world of the magical, the macabre, and the grotesque while the performer confronts pianistic challenges unique in the repertoire of his instrument.
Written expressly to be, in the words of the composer, “more difficult than Islamey” by Balakirev, Ravel’s 1908 masterpiece bristles with the kinds of pianistic difficulties only the Impressionists could create: fleet patterns of figuration across the full range of the keyboard interspersed with colorful but dense tone structures that must be parsed, at a lightning pace, with extreme delicacy of pedaling and with infinitely fine gradations of dynamics.
Ondine is a mermaid who whispers her message of seduction into the ear of a mortal man, trying to tempt him to join her in her shimmering watery world. When he confesses that he is married already, she disappears in a burst of laughter and brilliant splashes of scattered water.
Le Gibet paints the picture of a man hanging from the scaffold, the slight swaying of his body grimly imitated throughout by the implacable ringing of a repeated B-flat in the mid-range of the keyboard as the sifted sonorities of surrounding chord streams evoke the setting sun.
Scarbo is a dwarfish evil imp that flits about the room terrifying a man in his bed. It buzzes in dark corners and dances menacingly in and out of the shadows until, like the flame of a burning candle, it vaporizes into the air and its presence is extinguished.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.