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Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor L. 140
The sound of Debussy’s music confounded many of his contemporaries. From a tonal point of view, it floated in stasis in a world of pastel sounds that arrived at their destination more by whim than by design. How, they asked, could what he composed actually be called music? After all, it had so little of what, since the 1600s, had been the operating principle of Western music: tonal tension. Tonal tension was the feeling that certain chords wanted, needed, felt the inner urge to proceed to other chords, and that when they did so, the music went from a state of tension to one of relaxation—in other words, that dissonance had resolved to consonance.
Debussy didn’t just break the established rules of harmony. He ignored them. His use of parallel streams of identically structured chords blurred the distinction between harmony and melody. His textures seemed like lush exotic gardens of sound, with each melodic phrase a flowering plant swaying in the breeze, combining with others to create an overall impression. The comparison with the emerging school of Impressionist painters was all too obvious.
And yet, for all his painterly credentials as a musical pictorialist, we find Debussy at the end of his life writing sonatas, the most rule-laden form (apart from fugue) that Western music had produced, the genre most associated with the musical Establishment. The Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, Debussy’s last major work, was composed in 1917 as part of a projected set of six sonatas for chamber instruments, of which only the first three were completed before his death.
We find Debussy’s trademark sense of understatement everywhere in this sonata, which unfolds in a subdued atmosphere of soft to medium-soft dynamic levels, imbued nonetheless with considerable emotional warmth. Phrases tend to be short and often unpredictable, either coquettishly playful or tender and pensive. Textures are thinned out and made more transparent by the use of streams of parallel 5ths, especially in the bass, and melodic octave doublings throughout the texture.
There is little sense of ‘stable’ melody since Debussy’s melodies are self-developing—they mutate as soon as they are announced—but to compensate, the pace of harmonic rhythm is slow. Debussy thus inverts the normal relationship between melody and harmony.
It has been suggested that the title ‘Sonata’ for this work is equivalent to using ‘Untitled’ for a painting. The reference to visual art is quite appropriate, since Debussy treats melody and tempo like the eyeball movements of a viewer in front of a painting, and harmony like the moods that slowly melt into one another as the viewer gazes from one area of the canvas to another.
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The Allegro vivo first movement opens in a manner strikingly similar to that of the Franck Violin Sonata in A major, laying down a reflecting pool of keyboard colour over which the violin enters with a melodic motive of slowly rocking 3rds. Elaboration of this melodic motion in 3rds, in 4ths, and then in 5ths is a major source of onward momentum in the more active sections of the movement, which on the whole is nevertheless warmly melodic in tone. Debussy also, however, makes frequent nods to the rhapsodic practices of gypsy fiddling, especially pronounced at the end of this movement.
The Intermède tips its hat to the traditional sonata scherzo in a playful movement of wide melodic leaps and their opposite: insistent patterns of repeated notes. The opening bars set the movement’s tone of sly whimsy with a pair of ‘oopsa-daisy’ portamenti from the violin that nevertheless recover quickly enough to display an acrobat’s sense of balance in a few showy arpeggios. Clownish as this nimble movement is, its sense of mischief is more hopping Harlequin than hapless hobo.
The Très animé finale is all about exuberance, expressed in relentless toccata-like chatter from the keyboard paired with swirling or swooping melodic figures in a violin line that extends over the entire range of the instrument. An introduction nostalgically recalls the opening melody of the first movement but then it’s off to the races. The breathless pace continues throughout, relieved only briefly in its middle section by the appearance of what one commentator has called a “drunken waltz”.
Violin Sonata No. 2 in D minor Op. 121
Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, written in 1851, is an energetic work in four movements, some of them thematically linked. The piano scoring is luxuriantly rich but for most of the sonata the violin plays low in its register, so the timbres of the two instruments tend to merge rather than contrast. The neurotic irregularities that typify Schumann’s compositional style – his avoidance of balanced periodic phrases and clear decisive cadences, his metrical ‘wobbliness’ – give this sonata a rhapsodic character. It seems to unfold as an unstoppable flow of musical ideas.
The abrupt “gunshot-echo” chords that greet the listener in the opening bars of the first movement land somewhat awkwardly in the ear with their duple groupings in triple metre, setting the stage for a sonata movement permeated with temperament and willful passion. From this restless slow introduction emerges an exposition that boldly announces the movement’s first theme in the violin on the pitches D-A-F-D, a reference to the dedicatee of the sonata, the German violinist Ferdinand David (1810-1873).
This theme, in even half notes on strong beats of the bar, is counterpointed by syncopated off-beats and skitterish chatter in 16ths in the piano to complete the line-up of motives – slow strong beats vs. quick off-beat patterns – that will characterize the ensuing musical discussion. The more lyrical second theme in even quarter notes has the same texture as well, adding an element of conceptual unity to this sonata-form movement.
The second movement scherzo has two contrasting trio-ish sections to give it a five-part form: A-B-A-C-A. Its serious forthright tone and rhythmic drive seem to presage the scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, with which it shares many details in common. These include the incessant ‘knock-on-the-door’ triplet motive from the opening section and a melody paraphrasing the chorale tune Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (May you be praised, Jesus Christ) that is delivered in long notes near the end of the final section.
The young Brahms did not meet Schumann for the first time until more than a year after this sonata was composed but after the composer’s death in 1856 he helped Clara Schumann prepare the edition of Schumann’s complete works, so he would evidently have known this sonata.
The rather eccentric theme and variations movement that follows is based on the chorale melody just heard near the end of the scherzo. The theme appears first in pizzicato multiple-stops in the violin over an oddly restrained oom-pah accompaniment in the piano and then with utmost simplicity played arco (with the bow) before melting into a dreamy Viennese-style variation in 16ths. But things get a bit quirky when this daydream keeps getting interrupted by sudden reminiscences of the punchy triplet motive from the scherzo, like a Monty Python character bursting in to say: “There’s trouble down at the mill!” In the end, though, even this triplet motive succumbs to the mood of reverie, bringing the movement to a quiet close.
The sonata-form finale is a bustling affair, its repeated exposition dominated by the headlong moto perpetuo drive of the movement’s opening theme, which proceeds in a continuous stream of 16th notes. This theme, like Schumann himself, has a split personality, by turns obsessive, flighty and march-like. The development section begins by musing at a more leisurely pace, in 8th notes, over the dotted rhythms of the opening theme’s march-y side but soon gets drawn, over and over again, into the 16th-note orbit of its moto perpetuo sibling. And the recapitulation, once wandering into the major mode, has so much fun that it stays there, to end this D minor work in a resolute D major.
Four Humoresques, Op. 89
Sibelius was a composer who loved the violin, having aspired in his youth to become a virtuoso solo performer on the instrument. His Four Humoresques Op. 89, along with two more from Op. 87, were composed in 1917 as a suite of six pieces for violin and orchestra and were premiered in Helsinki in 1919. When played in recital, performers have until recently had to use the arrangement for violin and piano by Finnish pianist and conductor Karl Ekman (1869-1947) – which Sibelius did not like at all – but just recently a new transcription, more faithful to the orchestral score, has come out from the pen of Jani Kyllönen.
While the name humoresque might suggest a kind of jocular flippancy, these pieces are all imbued with a Nordic sensibility that finds wistful sadness lying at the edge of every emotion, even happy ones. Sibelius himself said that these pieces reflect “the anguish of existence, fitfully lit up by the sun.”
The first piece of the Op. 89 set is labelled Alla gavotta and indeed it has the strong-beat emphasis and courtly strutting quality of that dance. But mixed in, as well, is the harmonic vocabulary of the gypsy violinist. The mode shifts effortlessly from minor to major between phrases and it is often the “Hungarian” minor scale, with its sharpened fourth scale note that captures our attention.
The Andantino second piece is the simplest and yet perhaps the most enigmatic of the set. Against an ever-so-discreet harmonic backdrop in the piano, the violin ruminates over and over again on a simple phrase structured around the notes of the minor triad, a phrase that ends with a cadential trill. Short playful episodes intervene but the opening phrase always returns – until in the final bars the melody line suddenly flies up to its highest register and just disappears.
The third piece in the set, marked Commodo, has a happy-go-lucky air about it, with its naively simple “Farmer John” melody that contrasts plodding quarter notes with bouncy buoyant off-beat accents to convey a mood of jollity and contentment. The tune is so gall-darn pleasant you just want to whistle it, which the violin does in the middle section – in harmonics.
The Allegro finale is an exhilarating chase up and down the fingerboard, dance-like in spirit and folk-like in its use of two different versions of the G minor scale: the natural minor with A as its second degree and the Phrygian modal version that uses A flat instead. Its many capricious mood swings suggest the gypsy violinist with a glint in his eye, winking at his audience as his showy routine comes to a soft and exquisitely delicate conclusion in the highest reaches of his instrument.
Sonata No. 3 in A minor Op. 25
Enescu’s Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926) is subtitled “in the popular Romanian character,” a reference to the unique sound world and virtuoso performance style of gypsy music that the composer set out to imitate and to write down – a transcription endeavour that Enescu’s student Yehudi Menuhin called “the greatest achievement in musical notation” of its day.
Enescu knew this musical style well, having grown up hearing it all around him in his childhood. In his sonata the violin plays gypsy fiddler to the piano’s cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer). The result is a musical texture of emotion-laden melodies in the treble over a sonic background that buzzes and dazzles with kaleidoscopic clouds of metallic overtones rising up from below.
This is music with highly decorated, highly chromatic melodic lines studded with augmented seconds, lines shimmering with so much decoration that melody and embellishment merge into one. Enescu was a student with Ravel at the Paris Conservatoire and the French influence in his keyboard writing can be heard in the great washes of impressionistic tone colour that emanate at times from the piano, clarified harmonically by open fifths in the bass. At other times massive chord clusters turn the piano into percussion, adding punchy almost pitch-less drum-beat pulses to the texture.
The work is laid out in three movements, each in a standard form: sonata-form first movement, slow movement in A-B-A ‘song’ form, and a rondo finale. But a Western audience used to the neat and tidy layout of Viennese sonata form can be excused for not perceiving clearly the sectional divisions in these movements, given the rhapsodic sweep and improvisatory style of this music as a whole.
The first movement Moderato malinconico opens with a soft churning haze of tone colour, supported by drone tones in the bass, over which the violin intones a melancholy tune imprinted with the major motive of this movement: a filled-in descending minor third. The soulfulness of the violin melody is embodied in the singing quality of its many long-held notes, each preceded by a hurried run-up gesture of fast notes. Dance-like sections provide contrast to the wailing mournfulness of the principal melody.
The Andante sostenuto e misterioso slow movement that follows moves between expressive extremes. Its opening section begins softly and delicately, like a piece of night music, with the violin playing in flutey harmonics, like a pan-piper, over a patter of repeated notes and other drones in the piano. But gradually the expressive intensity grows, culminating in a massive climax in which the violin holds out in long notes over a piano part digging up shovelfuls of sound from one end of the keyboard to the other, after which the hushed mood of the opening returns to close out the movement in the mysterious calm with which it began.
The finale is a dance-like Bartokian romp with a march-like principal theme, bristling with spicy dissonances, spiky rhythms and stomping percussive effects. The metallic timbre of the cimbalom is astonishingly well portrayed in the scoring of the piano part while virtuosic display informs the violin part. The intensity builds steadily till the end, with both instruments playing fff, the violin shrieking out violently while the piano churns up massive clumps of sonic mud at the very bottom of its range.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022
Quartet in D minor Op. 56 Voces Intimae
Sibelius’ Quartet in D minor was completed in 1909 and has five movements, symmetrically arranged in an arch form around the lyrical third-movement Adagio, with scherzos on either side separating it from the opening movement and finale.
The name Voces Intimae derives from a Latin inscription (meaning “intimate voices”) written in the composer’s hand above three mysterious repeated chords in the manuscript of the lyrical slow movement. And indeed, the whole quartet seems like one long conversation between inner voices, given how much motivic material the movements share between them.
The work opens with a short duet between violin and cello that affirms the work’s allegiance to the simple D minor scale. When all four instruments join together they introduce at the top of their first phrase an important musical motive: a single step up, followed by a downward leap of a 4th. This motive will dominate the development section in the middle of the movement and is emphatically proclaimed in its closing bars. Another melodic pattern repeated throughout the entire quartet comes in the movement’s second theme, a short skip up and down the scale with a dotted rhythm.
Sibelius’ slivery coolness of affect in this movement results from his constant use of running scale passages, often in all four voices simultaneously. His ideas are mostly presented linearly, in contrapuntal lines that often move together in the same note values, rather than in the standard texture of foreground melody with supporting background harmony. Block chords in this movement are reserved for special moments of emphasis that separate phrases or formal sections.
The brief second movement follows without a break and its tone is that of a Mendelssohnian scherzo that transforms the principal motives from the preceding movement into a feathery moto perpetuo of pulsing string tremolo, either scurrying along in unison like the string lines that open the famous finale of his Fifth Symphony, or richocheting acrobatically through sonic space.
The emotional heart of this quartet arrives in its third movement Adagio, structured around the alternation of two themes in contrasting tone colours—one major, the other minor. It is during the first appearance of the minor-mode theme that we hear the three mysterious chords that have given this quartet its nickname. Abandoning the contrapuntal ‘coolness’ of previous movements, Sibelius allows the first violin to pour its heart out in a series of tender melodic lines pleading for resolution, their sense of yearning reinforced by sigh motives and sobbing syncopations.
If the first scherzo in this quartet owes much to Mendelssohn, the second, in the fourth movement, is more indebted to Brahms in its seriousness of tone, Spartan texture and rhythmic heft. The heavy-footed plodding of its simple folk-like theme is occasionally relieved by mysterious strands of minuet-like melody that stand out against the murmuring whispers of running lines in the inner voices.
The concluding rondo finale begins with considerable swagger as punchy phrases, rocking back and forth with off-beat accents, echo through the texture. A new theme of small range is then announced by the viola over a bouncing-bow accompaniment and put up for discussion between all instruments. As the alternation between opening refrain and intervening episodes proceeds, a moto perpetuo dynamic takes over, turning the last half of the movement into an accelerando of steadily increasing momentum. Small fragments of melody pop up from time to time to plead their case against the onslaught of 16th-note patter, but to no avail. This movement drives relentlessly to its conclusion with an energy that even Rossini would envy.
Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81
Concert audiences of the late nineteenth century were powerfully attracted to Antonín Dvořák’s ethnically flavoured but artfully crafted music. The reasons are not hard to find. In a developing age in which the language of music was rapidly changing, Dvořák offered a range of aesthetic virtues that harkened back to the Classical era: formal clarity, rhythmic vitality, and a clear sense of tonality, devoid of the chromatic ambiguities and slip-sliding harmonic drift that made Wagner’s music so disorienting for the ear. At the same time, Dvořák appealed to late Romanticism’s love of the exotic with his soulful melodies tinged with the tang and bite of village life, frequently enriched with loving countermelodies. And performers loved him, too, for his brilliant use of instrumental colour in a seemingly infinite range of inventive textures and scorings that made every piece ‘speak’ well in the concert hall.
All of these qualities, and many left unmentioned, are to be found in his Piano Quintet in A major, composed in the late summer and early autumn of 1887, a work which along with Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat and Brahms’ mighty F minor Quintet, stands at the summit of what 5 instruments, 10 hands and 50 fingers can accomplish under the creative direction of a master composer.
The work opens in lyrical splendour with a solo cello melody singing forth under the gentle cover of a raindrop accompaniment in the piano. Beginning in a sunny A major, it soon dips into the minor mode before yielding to a restless, more driving variant of itself propelled onward by all instruments. This urge to develop themes straight out of the gate is a particularly Brahmsian touch (the F Minor Quintet begins with such contrasts) and many a variant of the cello’s opening melody are presented before a second theme, in the minor mode, is announced by the viola. This second theme is then folded into yet another utterly scrumptious blend of piano and string sonority. Dvořák’s inventiveness is limitless, his textures like cookie dough for the ears.
The development section, unlike the exposition, eschews sectional contrast to pursue one long continuous arc of harmonic argument that unfolds with a sense of inevitability that impels it into a glorious recapitulation of the opening theme, led by the piano. The movement is crowned by an extended coda with its own propulsive energy that drives headlong to its conclusion.
In place of a slow movement, Dvořák gives us a ‘thoughtful’ one. The second movement is labeled Dumka, a Ukrainian word meaning ‘little thought,’ and the pensive, lonely little opening theme of this movement lives up to the title. This opening also shows once again the depth of Dvořák’s textural inventiveness as its flickering tune, appearing first high up in the piano register, is soon matched with a countermelody far below in the viola. An alternation between slow and fast-moving sections is frequently found in the dumka and this movement features a rondo-like alternation of melancholy and upbeat passages in a formally symmetrical A-B-A-C-A-B-A pattern, with the friskiest section (C) arriving right in the middle. The little opening theme keeps returning, like a nostalgic thought drawn out of memory. The fragile poignancy of the magical final bars radiates the same sense of pathos found at the end of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488, also in F♯ minor.
In the place normally occupied by a third-movement scherzo, Dvořák offers a furiant, a fast Bohemian folk dance that often follows the dumka, erasing all morose thoughts the former movement might have inspired. Along with some eminently toe-tapping rhythms, Dvořák’s furiant offers a healthy display of musical exuberance with plenty of high-jinx and pianistic sparkle in the high register that often sounds like it’s going to run right off the end of the keyboard. The middle section acts as a little island of serenity amid all the frantic frolicking.
Dvořák’s last movement is an uplifting and riotously buoyant sonata rondo, with a spiffy opening refrain theme and a full-on fugato in the middle section. Themes glint and twinkle in between the major and minor modes, and the piano provides a level of keyboard chatter to rival the last movement of a Mendelssohn piano concerto. A slow chorale-like section appears at the end to let everyone catch their breath, but its real function is to act as a springboard for the final exhilarating charge to the finish.
Given its demonstrated mood-brightening effect on concert audiences, this movement should be given serious consideration by the medical community as a replacement for prescription antidepressants.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
Sonata in A major G 4
Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.
A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.
His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.
The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.
The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”
Nocturne and Scherzo
Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.
It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.
Sonata in D minor
Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.
The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.
The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.
In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20
Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.
The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.
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In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.
The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.
Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.
The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.
The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.
The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Kyllikki, Three Lyric Pieces for Piano Op. 41
Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, has earned an honoured place in the modern canon chiefly on the merits of his orchestral works, notably his seven symphonies, the Violin Concerto, and the tone poem Finlandia. Less celebrated are the composer’s more than 150 miniatures for piano, 115 of which were published in his lifetime, grouped into sets of varying size.
Writing in the early 20th century against a modernist backdrop of increasing atonality, Sibelius continued to compose in the tradition of tonal key centres, albeit with a harmonic vocabulary considerably expanded from that of late 19th-century Romanticism. While rooted in the German tradition, his scores, like those of Janáček, often evoke the folk idiom of his native country in textures resonant with pedal points and pulsing with ostinato patterns, occasionally tinged with the timbral vibration of the katele, the traditional Finnish dulcimer.
Kyllikki, composed in 1904, presents a triptych of lyrical scenes possibly linked pictorially with the adventures of a character from Finnish folklore. Its sequence of pacing and moods parallels that of a traditional three-movement sonata. The opening Largamente is heavily textured and projects an aggressive, Lisztian boldness of utterance, its virtuoso pose projected in flying octaves and sweeping arpeggios that alternate with turbulent patches of modal melody swimming in dark pools of tremolos.
The Andantino ‘slow movement’ opens with a grave evocation of stunned grief in a succession of short phrases low in the register that sigh with the fatalist resignation of the Volga Boat Song. More sanguine sentiments pervade the animated middle section, but standing apart from these contrasting moods of despair and renewed hope is a mysterious dulcimer-like trilling, commenting from afar like a bird singing in the woods. By contrast, the Commodo last movement is a leisurely salon-style piece of the utmost clarity of intention, chatty with coy intimations of the dance.
Sibelius’ Op. 75 ‘tree’ pieces are as much about the Finnish landscape as the sturdy botanical specimens that inhabit it. The Birch bends in the wind, a drone bass rooting it firmly in its native soil as it hums a jaunty little folk tune. The Spruce obviously grew up in a palace park somewhere in the Austrian capital. In a reverie of nostalgic reminiscence, it recalls those warm summer nights when, as a sapling, it learned to sway to the strains of the Viennese waltz.
The Five Esquisses Op. 114 are Sibelius’ last works for solo piano, each a portrait of some aspect of nature. The Forest Lake ripples in continuous 8th-note motion, its disturbingly dark harmonic colouring impervious to the concerns of the human observer. Song in the Forest poetically journeys to the centre of a shaded wood to find a hymn-like melody amid the lush overgrowth of Scriabin-like tritones tracing patterns of light and shade far above. Spring Vision is a walk in the park to the beat of a gentle little Schumannesque march rejoicing in the arrival of April.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E flat major Op. 31 No. 3
Beethoven’s 18th sonata, written in 1802, is a remarkably relaxed work from a composer better known for his turbulent musical impulses and revolutionary spirit. More rambunctious than rebellious, it quarrels little with the pose of classical poise expected in a traditional four-movement sonata, seeking instead to engage its listeners through expressive tenderness and mischievous merriment.
The work opens with a coy serving of bite-sized motives: two wistful sighs (falling 5ths), answered by solemn chords below, concluding in an anticlimactic cadence that seems to say: “Just kidding!” Unfolding with devil-may-care breeziness, it arrives at a chipper second theme pertly singing out over a left hand accompaniment churning with bustle. The development section sets out frowningly in the minor mode but soon lightens up and joins the fun as motives get tossed, in comic opera style, between a gruff growling bass and a chirpy echoing treble. A perfectly normal recapitulation wraps up the movement with few surprises.
The second movement Scherzo eschews the muscular vigour, relentless energy, and even the ternary (A-B-A) form characteristic of the most famous Beethoven scherzos in favour of a return to the original Italian meaning of the term: a “joke”. Unexpected pauses and sudden outbursts abound to great comic effect, both sly and slapstick. Beethoven’s humour is very dry here, with a chorale-like marching hymn in the right hand playing out deadpan against a constant left-hand patter of 16th notes, trotting in mock-military precision. Peppery fanfares and “oops-a-daisy” glissando-like pratfalls add to the fun.
Beethoven reveals his immense gifts as a melodist in a Menuetto of the utmost dignity and lyrical grace, worthy of a noble aria by Gluck. The register-leaping Trio ensures that the movement’s smoothness doesn’t devolve into smarminess.
The Presto con fuoco finale is an exhilarating moto perpetuo that has been variously called a gallop or a tarantella. Its breathless pace, prominent horn-call motives, and slightly off-kilter rocking pattern in the left hand, reminiscent of horseback riding, have given the sonata as a whole the nickname The Hunt.
La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes
Claude Debussy’s first book of “prints” or “engravings” (Estampes) dates from 1905 and features stylized musical postcards of exotic locales and memorable landscapes, assembled from the musical traces they have left in the composer’s imagination.
The second musical portrait in the series evokes an evening spent in the Spanish city of Granada. The soul of the city is summoned up first by the lilting rhythm of the habañera (DUM-da-dum-dum) that echoes through every octave as the piece opens. Soon the spicy Arab scale, with its augmented melodic intervals, comes into earshot, mixed with the strumming of a Flamenco guitar. The piece ends in a drowsy sonic haze as these aural emblems of Iberian life fade into memory.
Études 7, 11, and 5 from Douze Études
It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano etudes, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with pedagogical drudgery and musical monotony, since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic narcissism and shamanistic showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection and his public persona was light years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.
So his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, a means of building endurance for when it is needed in “real” music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedaling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.
Etude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques is a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings, out of the sound-swirl of which emerges, in the left hand, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an etude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.
Etude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of “composite arpeggios” (i.e., multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.
Etude 5 Pour les octaves finds Debussy in the most extroverted mood, summoning up the spirit of the waltz in voluptuous eruptions of sound echoing up from the bass, reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse or Scriabin at his most manic. The undulating mix of octave leaps both large and small requires a jack-hammer hand in a velvet glove.
Impromptu in A flat Major Op. 29
Spontaneity is the feature most prized in the genre named for it, the impromptu. Chopin projects an air of extemporaneous improvisation in his Impromptu in A flat (1837) by means of swirling arabesques of triplets spun effortlessly out of a simple harmonic pattern, the very image of a bubbling fountain of inspiration. Deeper waters are plumbed in the more pensive middle section in F minor, but here, too, the notion of fresh musical thoughts, spontaneously imagined, is upheld by the lavishly decorative, operatic-style ornamentation of a starkly simple melody.
Étude in A flat Major from Trois Nouvelles Études
In 1839 Chopin composed three etudes for inclusion in the Méthode des méthodes (1840), a comprehensive piano instruction manual published by the Belgian music educator François-Joseph Fétis (1784-1871) and the Bohemian pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). By no means as technically challenging as the composer’s daunting Op. 10 and Op. 25 sets, these “new” etudes assigned the aspiring pianist tasks of a more concentrated, distinctly musical nature: how to maintain interest in a melodic line set within accompaniment patterns that vie with it for the listener’s attention.
In the Etude in A flat an expressive, vocally-inspired melody floats freely within a two-against-three pattern of gently pulsing figuration, outlining melt-in-your-mouth harmonies of a delicate, sometimes aching poignancy. With melody spilling luxuriantly out of all voices in the texture, Chopin in this etude blurs the line between harmony and melody, between melody and accompaniment.
Nocturne in F Major Op. 15 No. 1
Chopin’s early Nocturne in F major Op. 15 No. 1 (1830-31) is a study in contrasts. Its tender opening melody, warmly doubled in the mid-range by the tenor voice, floats serenely over sympathetic harmonies in pulsing triplets, the pure soul of innocence in song. But then, like a daydream broken off by the intrusion of a stray thought,
it pauses… and plunges into a nightmarish middle section in F minor boiling up in turbulence and torment from the bass. This too gradually ebbs, however, and we drift back to the opening melody, as if waking from a bad dream. There is something eerie, almost surreal, about both daydream and nightmare in this piece.
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52
Chopin’s ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of storytelling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they
are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842- 43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.
To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems the order of the day but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones of the opening carry real pathos, made more plangent, and then more urgent, upon repetition with a countermelody in the alto.
The second theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the first theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then… magic! The very first bars of introduction return, in a different key, and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.
But the first theme’s lament returns, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The second theme follows, but it too finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until… magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.
After what seems like a reprieve—five angelic chords descending from heaven—all hell breaks loose and the work rides its fury to a final, fateful conclusion.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015