George Frederick Handel
Chaconne in G Major
While Handel is principally remembered as a composer of operas and oratorios, it was well known to his contemporaries that he possessed major moxy as a keyboard performer, as well. In witness thereof, history records a famous keyboard duel in 1708 between Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, hosted in Rome by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (who declared the contest a tie). And throughout his later career, Handel was renowned as a keyboard improviser who left his audiences gasping in admiration.
A good example of the sorts of effects that he could pull from the harpsichord can be heard in his Chaconne in G major from a collection of suites published in 1733. The work consists of 21 variations on a floridly decorated sarabande theme beginning with the familiar four-note bass descent G-F#-E-D, also used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The work falls into three sections. Variations 1-8 pull increasingly animated churn from this harmonic framework until proceedings hit a speed bump in Variation 9, which is a contemplative and plangently tearful Adagio in G minor. Yet even in the minor mode, Handel knows how to go on a tear, whipping up excitement in subsequent variations until he delivers the theme back to its original G major in Variation 17. From here on in, it’s a race to the finish as Handel rips up the keyboard with fistfuls of broken chords to create a boom-box sonority on the instrument.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Allemande from the Partita No. 4 in D major BWV 828
The Allemande from Bach’s 4th Partita of 1730 is as refined a piece of melody-making as you will find in any of Bach’s works, whether for keyboard or not. Music of such sophisticated lyricism aimed to offer the ears of Baroque listeners a “pleasurable diversion” by dint of finely wrought melodic contours, enlivened with subtly varied rhythms and small-scale dramatic surprises.
Like the Andante middle movement of the Italian Concerto, this Allemande spins out long, fly-casting lines of melody that are then slowly drawn back to their point of origin for a deliberative ceremonial cadence. It features an extreme variety of rhythm in the right hand, that fantasizes freely against a regular 8th-note pulse in the left.
Frequent rhythmic gambits include the use of so-called Lombardic rhythms (in which a short accented note, on the beat, is followed immediately by a longer note) and of small-scale ornamental patterns in triplet 16ths and 32nd notes, organized in sequential patterns of repetition. Despite the degree of surface activity in the melodic line, there is a concentrated serenity evoked by this work, like that of admiring the painted scenes on a piece of fine porcelain.
Courante from the Suite in A minor
Were one to seek a visual analogy for the effect of French harpsichord music on the ear, the idea of a delicate hand elegantly waving a lace handkerchief might inevitably spring to mind, such is the degree of ornamental ‘flutter’ on the sonic surface of this Baroque genre of keyboard music. And yet Rameau’s keyboard works, as exemplified by the Courante from his Suite in A minor (1728), come off as rich, deeply satisfying tapestries of sound rather than as frivolous baubles of Rococo entertainment.
One reason is the way in which Rameau uses ornamental detail not as an end in itself, but to encrust and bejewel an underlying framework of impressive harmonic solidity. Most of the phrases in this two-part Courante, for example, are built up out of melodic and harmonic sequences, rock-solidly grounded in the circle of fifths. Add to this Rameau’s eagerness to let his left-hand figurations plunge to the snarling depths of their range-two octaves and more below middle-C-and the appeal of playing Rameau on a modern concert grand becomes readily apparent.
It was the habit of François Couperin to give descriptive titles (“captions” might be a better term) to his short keyboard pieces where dance genres were not explicitly being referenced. Atalante, the last piece in the 12e Ordre of his Second livre de pièces de clavecin (1717) is a chatty moto perpetuo in a simple two-voice texture that only rarely stops to take a breath and cadence. Compositionally, it is based on a little three-note head motive that recurs frequently at the beginning of phrases.
Which mythological figure the title refers to is not absolutely clear. It could be the indomitable virgin huntress Atalante of Greek mythology, or the sorcerer Atalante of the late-medieval Orlando romances. Whichever it is, the breathless pace of this musical characterization leads one to assume that the hero of the piece has a high blood-sugar level and better-than-average aerobic conditioning.
Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin
Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was written near the end of the Great War as a tribute not only to a golden age in French music-the age of the great keyboard composer François Couperin-but also as a memorial to the war dead, many of whom he saw up close while working as an ambulance driver at the front. The term tombeau refers to commemorative music written in mourning for a great figure, but Ravel chooses instead to commemorate the greatness of French musical culture through a re-creation of the sensibility of the Baroque dance suite, echoed in the use of modal harmonies and 18th-century ornamentation, but seen through the colourful chromatic lens of early-20th-century neoclassicism.
The riguadon was a boisterous, high-stepping folk dance, similar to the bourrée, that originated in Provence and became popular at the court of Louis XIV. Ravel’s Rigaudon is true-to-form in its punchy rhythms and bright sonorities, but features a contrasting middle section in which a gently plaintive pastoral melody is accompanied by guitar-like plucked chord patterns.
Each work in the piano suite is dedicated to individuals who died during the War. The Rigaudon is dedicated to brothers Pierre and Pascal Gaudin, lifelong friends of Ravel’s, who were killed by the same shell on their first day of service. When asked how he could include so much joyous music in his Tombeau, “The dead,” he wistfully replied, “are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10
The title of György Ligeti’s piano suite Musica Ricercata (1951-1953) has a double meaning. It pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare, the early-17th-century forerunner of what would later become the Baroque fugue. But ricercata also means “searched for” or “sought after,” a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch-“out of nothing,” as he put it. The system he arrived at in the 11 pieces that comprise the suite was to begin with just two pitches (and their octave equivalents), adding one pitch as he went along until in the 11th piece he was using all 12 chromatic pitches of the octave.
This 11th piece, Andante misurato e tranquillo, is conceived of as an homage to the 16th-century keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), who long held the position of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Frescobaldi was not only a master of the austere ricercare style but also also a bold innovator in his use of chromatic melody. Ligeti pays tribute to this important musician in a slow-moving ricercare of his own, with a subject that uses every note of the chromatic scale, laid out in various intervals, almost entirely in quarter notes. The countersubject which follows is an equally paced descending chromatic scale.
The 10th piece, Vivace, capriccios,o is an antic romp through tonal space featuring scampering scales of minor 2nds alternating with bitonal arpeggios. The spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos hovers brightly over the chippy rhythms and salty dissonances of this piece. Towards the end, big tone clusters make an appearance-to be performed “spitefully” and “like a madman”-but stop suddenly to let a silkily smooth arpeggio slide softly and nonchalantly down to the nether regions to end the piece-as if to say “Just kidding!”
Fugue from Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26
In 1947, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers commissioned Samuel Barber to write a sonata to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society devoted to the promotion of American music. Although Barber only had a three-movement structure in mind, Vladimir Horowitz, who was to perform the premiere, convinced him that it needed a “flashy finale” and Barber obliged-in spades.
The last movement of Barber’s Sonata in E flat minor is a full-on fugue, fulminating with all the arcane contrapuntal devices of Baroque thematic transformation (inversion, augmentation, diminution, stretto) but applied to a fugue subject, and countersubject, with a syncopated jazzy feel.
Barber, who had studied piano at the Curtis Institute under Isabelle Vengerova, admired the Russian school of piano-playing with its wide range of tonal colours and massive sound palette. And the score he delivered to Horowitz could not have been more suited to the great pianist’s taste and technique. The range of moods presented under the rubric of fugal development is simply immense. A quiet moment of calm in the middle gives the pianist a chance to spin out the most hummable of ditties, using the fugue’s rocking countersubject as tune-fodder. This contrasts markedly, however, with the movement’s spectacular climax, which features a dazzling cadenza and barnstorming cascades of sound blocks tumbling over a vast range of the keyboard, leading to one of the most exciting conclusions in the entire 20th-century piano repertoire.
British composer Thomas Adès’ Blanca Variations (2015) were written for the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition in Vevey, Switzerland, and integrated into the plot line of the composer’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, based on the 1962 film of the same name by Luis Bunuel. The opera features a select group of high-society opera-goers who retire after the theatre to a dinner party, where they make the unpleasant discovery that they are unable to leave. Among the group is the famous pianist Blanca Delgado, who sits down at the keyboard in Act 1 to entertain the guests with a piece based on Lavaba la blanca niña, a traditional folksong in Ladino, the dialect of Judaeo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic minority communities around the Mediterranean. The figure of Blanca in the story bears a subtext of Jewish exile and Adès indicates that the tune she plays is one that expresses longing and bereavement.
The work is set as a theme and five variations. The theme itself, presented at the outset, evokes the pathos-laden singing style of Iberian folk music, a style that is continued in the variations that follow, with their hesitations and rhythmic uncertainties, exotically ornamented melodic lines and cadenza-like flights of fancy. As in flamenco music, the pose of the performer is one of indomitable strength of will, but it is a pose that conceals the knowledge of tragic loss and unbearable pain. The fifth and final variation, with its tender pleading mordents and mad delirious trills, is simply heart-breaking.
Variations & Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24
Brahms’ antiquarian sympathies were well known, in particular his fascination with the impressive compositional achievements of the Baroque era. After all, he chose to write a passacaglia for the finale of his Fourth Symphony, and even his most lyrical effusions in works at a smaller scale are often thickly larded with rich layers of imitative counterpoint. Moreover, in an age in which the new and the current were alone of interest to musicians composing variations, he became the first of his time to choose a variation theme by a composer who had been dead for more than a hundred years.
Handel’s Suite in B flat major HWV 435 was published in 1733, in the same collection that contained the composer’s Chaconne in G. Brahms’ variations on a theme from this suite, composed in 1862, are rigorously formal: they maintain the harmonic architecture of the original, revealing it to be capable of underpinning musical inspirations ranging from poetic reverie to exuberant displays of muscular pianism.
In keeping with his conservative historical bent, Brahms not only follows tradition in switching to the minor mode for several of his variations, but also dresses up his theme in the guise of musical genres of times past, many of them popular in the Baroque era: the siciliana (Variation 19), canon (Variation 6), musette (Variation 22), and of course the culminating fugue.
Distinctly Brahmsian touches abound as well, however, such as the polyrhythms of Variations 2 and 21, the hefty chordal formations and weighty sonorities of variations 4 and 25, and the “Gypsy violin 6ths” of the funeral march in Variation 13. Brahms was writing uncompromisingly for his own pianistic hand in these variations. Who else but Brahms would write trills at the top of the hand while the thumb was engaged playing other notes below, as in Variation 14?
The massive fugue that crowns the work is based on two ascending melodic 2nds taken from the opening phrase of the variation theme. This fugue is worked through in the authentic Baroque manner, using inversion of the fugue subject, and augmentation of its 16th notes into 8ths, as the principal contrapuntal devices employed.
The 28-year-old Brahms played this work at his debut concert in Vienna in 1862, the year it was composed. One can only imagine what the audience in that storied capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have thought of this young musician, with his mop of long hair and encyclopedic knowledge of their musical traditions.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018