Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suite No. 6 in E Major BWV 817
The spirit of the dance can be felt across a wide range of Bach’s works, from the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier to the Mass in B minor. For Bach lovers with toes eager to tap, then, an entire suite of dance pieces comes as veritable picnic for the ear. In this regard, the French Suites are among Bach’s most immediately appealing keyboard works and the Sixth Suite especially so for the wide range of dance genres represented in it.
The standard Baroque suite as practiced in German lands comprised an allemande, a courante, a sarabande and a gigue, with any number of other dances filling out the space between sarabande and gigue – the so-called galanteries. These latter Bach lays on with a liberal hand, giving us in his French Suite No. 6 in E Major a largely French-inflected list of additional dances, including a gavotte, a polonaise, a minuet and a bourrée.
The influence of French lute music is apparent in the opening allemande with its pervasive pattern of arpeggiated chord guration. Broken chord gures in the so-called style brisé (“broken style”) were a staple of the lute repertoire and widely adopted in the harpsichord literature of the late Baroque era because they provided a means for implying a multi-voice texture within a continuous stream of short-value notes. The peppier courante, while also unfolding in a steady stream of 16ths, relies far more on the impressive effects to be gained from standard idiomatic keyboard writing, especially runs and single lines passed between the hands.
The dignified sarabande expresses its grandeur by means of a gradual widening of the distance separating left and right hands, extending out to more than three and a half octaves at its height in the second half. It is also the most ornamentally decorated of the dances in this suite, simply rippling with trills in its melodic line against more philosophical ruminations in the bass.
The galanteries (gavotte, polonaise, minuet & bourrée) are typically French, with all the fashionable frills and ruffles of the early-18th-century style galant on full display. The gavotte hops while the polonaise purrs and twinkles, with an abundance of mordents. The minuet is a moderately paced sequence of short elegant phrases, breathlessly outpaced by the more rustic bourrée that follows.
The gigue nale displays the traditional mix of leaps and scales that normally characterize this exuberant English dance, with its opening theme turned upside down, as is the custom, at the start of the second half.
Impromptus Op. 142 D 935
Schubert was a pianist, but not a touring virtuoso trying to carve out a career for himself by burning up the keyboard in front of an ever-changing audience of strangers in the various capitals of Europe. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and his smaller pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.
The first impromptu in F minor is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern introduction that soon dissolves into the kinds of buoyant, quivering keyboard textures that “spoke” very well on the Viennese piano, with its relatively light action. The utterly enchanting B section features a whispering murmur of broken chords in the right hand over top of which the left hand enacts a dialogue between bass and treble on either side.
The second impromptu, in the form of a minuet and trio, is simplicity itself, dividing its attention between an anthem-like chordal opening theme, of small range and intimate character, and a wide-ranging middle section of rippling broken chords that drives (lovingly) to a sonorous climax.
Impromptu No. 3 in B at is theme and five variations. The theme is a gently toe-tapping melody of balanced phrases, varied in all the standard ways: rhythmic subdivision, textural infilling, elegant ornamentation, and a thickly scored, passionately throbbing minore variant. The last variation resembles a Czerny piano etude of unusual elegance and élan.
The impromptu with the most personality in the set is the last one in F minor, a rondo that really wants to be a scherzo. It hops and bounces, twinkling away in the minor mode, full of restless energy that erupts from time to time into overt displays of keyboard moxie in sudden outbursts of jarring trills and dazzling runs.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rondo in A minor K 511
Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.
The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece as a whole are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn gure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos-tinged whimpering of chromatic half steps and the mood of forthright self-assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.
Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the Major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale gures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.
The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111
Beethoven’s last piano sonata presents the composer in the two guises that characterized his musical genius: as earth-bound raging titan and heaven-seeking poet of the human spirit. Its two movements correspondingly display the widest possible contrast in structure and mood, comprising a restless and argumentative sonata-form allegro in the minor mode followed by a placidly serene variation-form adagio in the tonic major. Both movements strive to push musical expression beyond known limits with an almost religious intensity of feeling, but they address different gods. Dionysus provokes the frenzied ravings of the first movement, Apollo the mystical contemplations of the second.
The first movement’s maestoso introduction presents the ear with a defiant gesture, a jagged downward leap of the harmonically unstable interval of a diminished 7th, answered by a jangling trill higher up. There seem to be volcanic forces at play in the way that much of this movement’s turbulent musical material rises abruptly to the surface after suspenseful passages of eerie calm. Scurrying passages of unison between the hands lend a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric while contrapuntal episodes of fugato only seem to concentrate its fury, not tame it. Emblematic of the extremes within which the argumentation of this movement operates is the sheer amount of sonic distance that often separates the hands. One climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass takes place over 6 octaves, and the movement’s final chord, which arrives more out of emotional exhaustion than from a sense of resolution, extends over a space of 5 octaves.
This spaciousness of sound distribution characterizes the way in which the second movement’s opening theme is harmonized, with a good two octaves separating the angelic melody of the right hand from the bass tones giving it harmonic meaning down below. The movement begins in a mood of elegy and contemplative repose, moving by small steps in its initial variations into more animated figuration, each growing naturally out of the previous. Contrast and variety is not the aim here, but rather organic development. Particularly spectacular is the arrival of a sparkling and jazzy third variation out of the dotted rhythms of the second. From this point on, however, the mood turns increasingly poetic, with a concentration on the heavenly timbres of the high register lovingly supported, from time to time, by a plush carpet of rumbles from the deep bass. Beethoven seems to be speaking to us outside of the world of normal harmony, in pure sound. In a blurry texture of tremolos and trills spanning the full range of the keyboard, his theme rises above all earthly cares, as if transfigured, leading the movement to a serene close.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017