Click here to read the program notes for this performance.
Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!
Click here to read the program notes for this performance.
Mezzo-soprano Eva Nikolovska has curated an intriguing recital program of songs composed in the forty years between 1865 and 1905, a selection that highlights the changing styles of music emanating from three important centres of music-making.
From Vienna there are the contrasting voices of the traditionalist Brahms and his aesthetic adversary Hugo Wolf, from France the varied sound-pictures of Debussy and Ravel, and from Boston a small sample of the astonishing output of the first successful American female composer, Amy Beach.
* * *
Wie Melodien zieht es mir Op. 105 No. 1
Lerchengesang Op. 70 No. 2
Der Gang zum Liebchen Op. 48 No. 1
Ständchen Op. 106 No. 1
Brahms’ compositional concern with structure and form made him a leading proponent of absolute (i.e., non-programmatic) music, and thus an unlikely contributor to 19th-century European art song, with its story-driven texts and pictorial modes of expression. And yet from his early twenties to his final years Brahms was a prolific composer for the human voice, publishing no less than 190 lieder for solo voice and piano, now staples of the recital repertoire, as well as numerous works for other vocal ensembles.
Like his instrumental works, Brahms’ lieder feature diatonic melodies supported by a strong contrapuntally-conceived bass-line that structures functional (not coloristic) harmonies. But his overriding ideal is really the direct expressiveness and guileless simplicity of traditional folksong which he imbues with an elegance of construction designed to please his audience of Viennese amateur singers. While written for an indoor urban audience, the aesthetic frame of reference of Brahms’ lieder, as with his Hungarian Dances, is the wide outdoors and the life of the country village.
* * *
Wie Melodien zieht es mir (It moves like a melody) features a teasingly abstract text, with a recurring reference to an unexplained “it” (es) that periodically moves the singer but the feeling doesn’t last. “It” wafts away like scent (Duft) when melody calls “it” forth. “It” vanishes like the greyness of mist (Nebelgrau) when captured in words or print. Only in the germinating bud (Keime) of lyrical poetry (Reime) is “it” (the poet’s message) revealed to the moistened eye of the receptive soul. A continuous flow of 8th notes in the piano accompaniment and constant small inflections in the harmony express both the singer’s free flow of thoughts and the way those thoughts evaporate soon after they appear. The piano’s cascading arpeggios most often move in contrary motion to the melody line, as does the bass line, in keeping with good contrapuntal practice.
Lerchengesang (Song of the larks) is utterly magical in the vividness of its tonal imagery. The “ethereal distant voices” (ätherische ferne Stimmen) of the lark’s song, brilliantly evoked by a delicate two-note figure in the high treble of the piano, envelop the singer in a delicate haze of remembering as she closes her eyes to recall twilights “pervaded with the breath of spring” (durchweht vom Frühlingshauche). The splendid isolation of the singer’s musings is highlighted by intermittent silences from the lark (i.e., piano), allowing the melody line to suddenly stand out alone. The separate realities of the bird and its solitary listener are conveyed in cross-rhythms, with four 8th notes in the piano matched against triplet quarter notes in the singer’s melodic line.
Der Gang zum Liebchen (The walk to the beloved’s home) is an actual folk song text that Brahms found in a collection of Deutsche Volkslieder and his setting is eminently folksong-like in its use of recurring rhythmic patters and melodic motives. The text describes the worries of a lover as he makes his way to the home of his beloved, tortured by anxious thoughts of her unfaithfulness or even her death, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The flickering changes in mode between minor and major reflect the lightning mood swings of the quickly pacing lover, but there is a fair bit of irony at play, as well. The piano’s dance-like accompaniment (reminiscent of the famous accelerating passage of Chopin’s C# minor waltz Op. 64 No. 2) might easy represent the lover’s racing thoughts, but equally well conveys the piano’s twinkling sly suggestion that he frets for nothing because merriment aplenty awaits him upon his arrival.
Ständchen (Serenade) presents a very realistic depiction of a natural setting, with the moon shining brightly onto the mountainside, as three students play a serenade with a pretty girl nearby as their audience. Their instruments are a flute, a fiddle and a zither, the strumming of which is evident from the crisp arpeggiated chords of the piano’s opening. We, as listeners, are witnesses to this scene, hearing how the pretty girl floats off into a reverie — to swirling piano figuration in the middle section. She daydreams of her fair-haired lover, whispering to him “Forget me not!” (Vergiss nicht mein) just before she wakes up with the final “zither strum” from the piano.
Ich sagte nicht Op. 51 No. 1
Three Browning Songs Op. 44
The Year’s at the Spring
Ah Love but a Day!
I Send my Heart up to Thee
Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed prodigious talent while young as both a pianist and composer. At 18 she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a wealthy Boston surgeon some 25 years her senior, and henceforth published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. Comfortable in the large-scale forms of orchestral, choral and chamber music, she was best known for the 117 songs for solo voice and piano that she published between 1880 and 1941.
Her harmonic idiom was the chromatic language of late Romanticism, with Liszt and Wagner as major influences, and her scores feature a wealth of chromatically altered chords and expressive modulations. She was particularly adept at creating restless, long melodic lines smouldering with lyrical intensity and crowned with impassioned climaxes. As an idealistic Victorian of Wagnerian sensibilities, she was acutely sensitive to the voluptuousness of music, but aimed to use it for a higher societal purpose. Impervious to the violent cross-currents of cultural upheaval transforming the early 20th century, she persisted throughout her career to believe that “the true mission of music is to uplift.”
* * *
The German text of Ich sagte nicht (I didn’t say) from 1903 paints the scene of two lovers blissfully staring into each other eyes, neither of them thinking or needing to say “I love you” (Ich liebe dich). Mrs. Beach’s Wagnerian inspiration is clear from the score’s creeping chromatic voice-leading and long appoggiaturas that recall a similar love-delirium in Tristan und Isolde.
In The Year’s at the Spring, the first of Three Browning Songs (1900), the heaving bosom of a Victorian matron bubbles over with excitement at the change of seasons, symbolized in a continuous chatter of piano triplets, while ecstatic upward leaps of a 4th in the melody line lead in mounting excitement to the famous concluding line: “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”
A more serious note is struck in Ah Love but a Day, which deals with the subject of a wife’s distress at her husband’s losing interest in their marriage. The soulful pining quality of the melodic line as the song opens evokes the kind of wistful pathos that Gershwin would later incorporate into Porgy & Bess. But minor turns to major in the second half of the song as hope springs eternal in the breast of a faithful wife, musing over the thought: “The world has changed, look in my eyes, wilt thou change, too?” The very last phrase, with its melody line intoning an unchanging 5th note of the scale, is a brilliant touch of dramatic tone-craft.
The rapture of true love returns in the third song of the set, I Send my Heart up to Thee! with a surging piano accompaniment that paints the welling up of tender feelings in the singer’s heart and the waves of the sea that symbolize these emotions in the text.
Trois chansons de Bilitis
In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to drum up enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality – a fin de siècle fascination of the time – he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho from the famously girl-friendly isle of Lesbos. I undressed to climb a tree – writes Bilitis, in a mood for sharing as she voluptuates in her own contours – my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.
The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897-1898. Using modal scales, especially the Lydian mode with its raised 4th degree, he paints a vivid sonic picture of the ancient world, setting this trio of poems in free-floating speech-like declamation, the melody line often sitting on a single pitch or moving in small intervals. His harmonies are impressionistic, sometimes based on the whole-tone scale, with parallel 5ths in the bass a frequent device for rapidly shifting tone colours.
* * *
La Flûte de Pan (Pan’s flute) presents a scene that Mrs. Beach would hardly consider edifying. As the piano imitates a relaxed strumming of the strings of a lyre, a young woman, who has carelessly let slip her belt, wanders off wide-eyed, alone and belt-less, into a lush natural setting to look for it. There she meets a young man of pedagogical inclinations who kindly offers her a place on his knees for a kind of lap-dance music lesson so that she might learn to play his syrinx, or pan pipes. The wax that binds together the stiff reeds of the instrument, she notes in passing, is as sweet as honey on her lips. In a bid to improve her embouchure, the young man joins her in blowing into the instrument and the two of them remain cheek-to-cheek until their lips meet. As the evening draws on, frogs from a nearby pond are heard in the piano accompaniment, lending a chorus of amphibian approval to the young girl’s sexual awakening.
In La Chevelure (The Tresses of hair) the piano intones a blurry ostinato, preparing us to hear the viewpoint of the young man himself. He has had a dream, he tells the young woman, in which her tresses had coiled round him like a necklace, and mouth-to-mouth they had been united, like two laurel trees that share a single root. (The piano accompaniment perks up considerably here and rises to a surging climax.) Untangling their limbs as they recover from this insight into forest ecology, the pace slows, the piano returns to the dream-like pulsing of the opening, and it’s all over but for the tender staring into each other’s eyes.
Le Tombeau des naïades (The Tomb of the naiads) commemorates the death of the mythological gods of the forest. A winter frost has overtaken the landscape as the young woman wanders in a daze, her hair caked with icicles and her sandals laden with snow. The young man informs her that the cloven footprints of the satyrs she is following lead nowhere. The satyrs are all dead, and with them the nymphs who once frolicked nearby. (An echo of their laughter is heard in the piano accompaniment.) Breaking off a piece of ice from the now-frozen spring, he holds it up to gaze through it at the paleness of the sky.
Auf einer Wanderung
Hugo Wolf brought a new level of expressive intensity to the German lied. Obsessed with making his musical setting correspond to the poetic text in every dimension – melodic contour, harmonic colouring, voice-piano relationship, etc. – he stands as a miniaturist adherent to the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) ideal of Wagner, whom he adored, and a precursor to similar experiments in ‘absolute control’ carried out by serialist composers in the early 20th century.
In little more than 20 years he contributed a unique body of songs to the repertoire, grouped for the most part in collections focusing on a single poet or a single anthology of folk poems. His settings expanded the psychological dimensions of these texts but often went far beyond the intentions or even imaginings of the original poets.
* * *
Nachtzauber (Night magic) comes from a collection of poems by Germany’s pre-eminent Romantic poet of nature Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose recurring themes of wandering, nostalgic longing, and the passage of time are reflected in the text. Eichendorff paints a night-world made magical by an awareness of its mysteries. These he itemizes with a sense of awakening wonder tinted with intimations of the sublime.
A burbling spring is evoked by a murmuring ostinato in the piano as the song opens, an ostinato that will remain an unsettling presence in the harmonic texture throughout, despite a bass-line that often supports the melody with the standard moves of functional harmony. The singer’s melody line wanders chromatically in dream-like fashion, sensually describing the scene: the solitary marble statues beside the lake, the wondrous gleam of the valley as night falls – sights that prompt memories of flowers “that blossomed in the moonlit valley,” and the song of nightingales. But the pain of love is recalled as well, and the steady march of time. The song ends nevertheless in ecstatic defiance of all that has come before: Komm, o komm zum stillen Grund! (Come, oh come to the silent valley!)
* * *
Another collection of Wolf songs sets the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), a Lutheran minister and utterly unclassifiable German poet with a list of literary interests that included erotic poetry. Mörike’s Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable love) is not the sort of thing on which to base a Sunday sermon. Indeed, its sado-masochistic text would quite likely require the application of smelling salts to the fainting frame of Mrs. Beach, should she find herself in the pews listening to spiritual guidance of this kind.
The playful opening gestures in the piano establish a tone of mischievous mockery before the singer introduces us to the notion that trying to satisfy Love with kisses is like trying to fill up a sieve with water. For such is Love (So ist die Lieb’). To the syncopated off-beat interjections of the piano accompaniment, the singer allows as how kisses lead to bites until, like a lamb to the slaughter (Wie’s Lämmlein unter’m Messer), the girl’s eyes will say (with a dramatic octave leap downwards in the melody line): “Do go on, the more it hurts the better!” (nur immer zu, / Je weher, desto beßer!).
The song closes with the self-justifying thought that even wise King Solomon made love this way, to a musical setting that Wolf himself described as “a right old student’s song, damned merry.” While Mörike might well have been sending up these laddish sentiments in his poem, we can’t really be sure of Wolf, whose first sexual experience in a brothel when he was 18 gave him the syphilis that eventually drove him insane, and resulted in his early death at the age of 42 in 1903.
* * *
There is no doubt, however, of the sincerity of the joyous sentiments expressed in the last Wolf song in this recital, his setting of Mörike’s Auf einer Wanderung (On a walk). Here a pleasure-seeking hiker passes through a small town, its “streets aglow in the red evening light” (In den Strassen liegt roter Abendschein). From across the rich array of flowers on a window sill comes a voice like a choir of nightingales (Und eine Stimme schient en Nachtigallenchor). With a spring in his step and utterly besotten, he leaves through the town gate, his heart stirred by the Muse with a breath of love (O Muse, du hast mein Herz berührt / Mit einem Leibeshauch!)
Numerous colourful modulations document the miraculous changes in mood of the visitor as he passes through town. The piano’s joyous skippy accompaniment, as in many of Wolf’s songs, lives in a completely separate world from that of the singer, but one that nonetheless here complements the singer’s experience perfectly.
The 1907 premiere of Ravel’s nature documentary in music about four birds and an insect was an outright scandal. A major part of the pearl-clutching was occasioned by Ravel’s defiance of tradition in setting to music the prose poems of Jules Renard’s Les Histoires naturelles (1896) rather than choosing verse poetry from the French literary canon. Setting fans even faster aflutter, he had abandoned the aristocratic rules of pronunciation according to which a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word was considered a separate syllable, as it is, for example, in the French version of O Canada: Ter-re de nos aïeux. This, to the French salon set, sounded like the language of the street, or worse, the musical hall.
Renard’s lighthearted anthropomorphizing of common wildlife makes delightful reading, and even more delightful listening in Ravel’s wittily conversational renderings. While caricaturing the poses and manners of these animals, the composer still retains a measure of sympathy for the guileless sincerity with which they live out their lives.
* * *
Le Paon (Peacock) is blissfully ignorant of how silly he looks as he gets stood up at the altar, still dressed in all his finery. Ravel doubles down on the humour by giving him a strutting French overture kind of piano accompaniment, as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.
The busy housekeeping chores undertaken by Le Grillon (Cricket), magically evoked by Ravel’s clockwork ticking accompaniment, make him out to be so adorable, you just want to pet him.
The pictorial representation of water, a trademark of impressionist musical imagery, is brilliantly accomplished in Le Cygne (Swan).
Le Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher) is the only one of the set in which the human is the animal being observed, wondrously captivated by the appearance of a wild bird on the end of his fishing rod.
La Pintade (Guinea fowl) is hilariously painted as the bully of the aviary world, disturbing every other creature with its loud cackling and enforcing its own pecking order on surrounding hens and turkeys.
Donald G. Gíslason 2021
Andante from the Sonata in C major
The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.
The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.
Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911
The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.
To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.
The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.
A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.
The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68
Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi, from the melancholy to the exuberant. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.
Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.
Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.
The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.
The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119
Brahms’ late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.
While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.
The Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.
A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.
The Intermezzo in C# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.
The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30
In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.
A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.
The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.
The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs
Une Barque sur l’Océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.
Sonata Op. 1
The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.
The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”
This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. However, its principal melodic motives, presented in its two opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, announced in the opening bar in a dotted rhythm, and (b) a sequence of falling thirds in the following bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.
And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.
What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, in the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.
Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.
The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53
Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.
Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.
The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.
Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.
But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020
Notturno in E-flat major Op. 148
Schubert’s Adagio for Piano Trio D 897 was composed in 1827 but only published decades later, under the publisher’s title Notturno. And indeed, the opening section does conjure up images of nighttime serenity, with its heavenly texture of harp-like arpeggios in the piano supporting a hypnotic melody intoned in close harmony by the two stringed instruments.
Formally structured A-B-A-B-A, the work alternates this ‘angelic choir’ A-section with an equally repetitive, but much more assertive and glorious B-section, as triumphalist as anything from a Liszt piano concerto. Without straying much beyond the tonic-dominant harmonic vocabulary of the average ABBA chorus, it manages to stir the passions by means of the wide-ranging carpet of piano tone that it lays down in cascades of broken chords. With the resolute character of a processional anthem for someone wearing a crown, or at least a long cape, it makes you feel like you ought to be standing while listening to it.
The style of this work, of course, is classic Schubert. In the minds of some it represents an exaggerated Romanticism that abuses the patience of its audience. Detractors obsessed with the prolixity of Schubert’s musical thoughts, and their thin motivic content, will no doubt be quick to point out how the work opens by squatting for a whole six bars on the E flat chord – clear evidence of compositional “dithering.” (One wonders what they would say of the pages and pages of E flat in Wagner’s Rheingold prelude.) And with a little prompting, they will vent their irritation over how Schubert’s melodies never seem to “go anywhere” but just seem to circle around a single pitch.
Schubert aficionados of long standing will, by contrast, ascribe to these same procedures the virtues of ‘heavenly length’ and ‘delicious dreaminess’. Only arguments from personal taste can be dispositive in deciding whether Schubert provides the soul with dessert-quality Viennese cream puffs of exquisite manufacture, or simply empty musical calories.
What both sides can agree on, however, is that given the repetitious quality of the work’s double-dotted rhythms and its multiple incantations of the same melodic fragments, it is the electrifying changes in harmony that provide the principal drama in this work.
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op. 67
Shostakovich’s second piano trio was composed in 1944, in response to the unexpected death by heart attack of his close friend and mentor, the musicologist, music critic and artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Ivan Sollertinsky (1902-1944). Sollertinsky had championed the music of Mahler in the Soviet Union and the edgy parodies of folk music in this trio (especially the klezmer tunes in the last movement) may well be a tribute to Sollertinsky’s fascination with this composer.
Shostakovich’s signature style of starkly simple contrapuntal lines is much in evidence in this commemorative work. The textures, while frequently dissonant, are kept clean in the ear by exceptionally sparse writing for the piano, which often plays mere single lines in widely-spaced open octaves. The mental scene set before us is that of a trio of mourners, expressing together a common range of bewildering emotions, from the dull aching pain of grief to the hysterical laughter of despair.
Extreme ranges are proxies for extreme emotional states, as illustrated by the fugato introduction of the first movement. The cello begins in harmonics, like the eerie wailing of a dead spirit, so high in its range that the violin’s entry forms a bass-line underneath it. When the piano joins in, it does so in its ‘graveyard’ register, far below middle-C. This topsy-turvy texture expresses just how much the emotional world of the composer has been turned upside-down with bewildering sadness. Then, over a breathy drumbeat of repeated notes in the strings, the piano announces the movement’s principal theme, hauntingly scored with right hand high in the treble and the left hand stalking it like a dark shadow four octaves below. Almost incongruous folk-like buoyancy appears from time to time, as the instruments engage in conversation in a densely imitative texture, but the movement ends quietly, as if drained of energy.
The short second movement scherzo, however, has energy in spades but it is more than a little manic, full of triadic scamper and obsessively repeated small motives.
The third movement Largo is a funeral dirge cast in the form of a Baroque passacaglia, based on the six-fold repetition in the piano of an 8-measure chordal progression that sounds out as the movement opens like the tolling of a death knell. The exchange of imitative entries in the violin and cello that unfolds above this slowly repeating bass pattern has the searing intensity of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. In 1975 this movement was played as the public filed past the coffin of the composer lying in state in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
The Allegretto finale follows immediately, without a break, introducing a klezmer-inflected tune in pizzicato in the violin, metrically off-balance like the gait of a limping hobo. This tune muses sadly—or playfully, it’s hard to tell which—over a close clutch of semitones, occasionally leaping back and forth over the space of a minor 9th, to a distinctly folk-like oom-pah accompaniment. In this danse macabre, merriment and mourning sit on either side of a knife-edge of irony, building in emotional intensity until memories of previous movements re-appear in its closing section: the theme of the opening movement over a shimmering carpet of piano sound, the glassy harmonic of the work’s opening, and finally the solemn chords of the 3rd-movement passacaglia. In such a series of deeply tragic thematic remembrances, the final quiet major chord of this work sounds more lurid than peaceful.
Piano Trio No. 1 in B major Op. 8
Brahms’s Piano Trio in B major is a work both young and old. Brahms was only 19 when he published it in 1854 but more than 30 years later, when the Simrock publishing house acquired the rights from Breitkopf & Härtel, he was offered the chance to make revisions. He accepted, and in 1889 took sheep-cutting shears to large swathes of every movement except the Scherzo with the aim of reining in what he considered the “youthful excesses” of the work’s original version.
The result is a stereoscopic view of the composer both at the very start of his career and in his mature years. What is clear is that the mature composer’s taste for rich, low piano textures was present from the very beginning. The piano introduction to the first movement Allegro con brio hardly strays a few notes above middle C before the cello enters with a broad, almost anthem-like main theme in the baritone range, soon joined by the violin in a glorious duet.
A second theme in the minor mode based on slow broken-chord figures provides thematic contrast without breaking the mood of sustained lyricism. The job of roughing things up is given to pulsing syncopations in the piano part, and to stabbing triplet motives that appear at the end of the exposition. These triplets are a major force to contend with in the development section and even continue rumbling away at the bottom of the piano keyboard when the strings re-introduce the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.
The second movement Scherzo, in B minor, has a Mendelssohnian fleetness of foot but treads more menacingly on the ground of this genre. Beginning softly, it frequently explodes with a violence of emotion that recalls Beethoven. Beethovenian, as well, are the ‘jab-in-the-ribs’ accents on the last beat of the bar. Distinctly Brahmsian, however, are the darkly glinting washes of keyboard colour that occasionally splash across an otherwise jumpy texture of staccato quarter notes. The contrasting trio in B major has a dancelike elegance that, with just a little more lilt, could easily have become a waltz.
The Adagio has a certain intimacy about it, but it is the intimacy of sitting alone in an empty cathedral. There is mystery in the widely-spaced and sonorous piano chords of the opening, whispered from opposite ends of the keyboard, regularly answered by the strings in a strangely impassive dialogue. A spirit of gradual awakening animates the middle section, but still, the mystery remains. There always seems something that this movement is not telling us.
The Allegro finale in B minor demonstrates Brahms’ uncanny ability to draw mighty consequences from the slenderest of musical materials. Written in sonata form, its main theme is an anxiously repetitive melody presented by the cello that frets chromatically on either side of a single note in a hushed mood of worry and concern. Burbling piano triplets give an undercurrent of nervous agitation to this theme, soon taken up by the violin. By the time the piano takes the theme in hand it has become a passionate outcry, riding atop a rich carpet of piano tone surging up in the left hand from the deepest regions of the keyboard. A more spacious second theme in the major mode tries to counter the tragic undertow but to no avail. Despite moments of calm in the development section, the forward drive of this movement is irresistible, as wave upon wave of swirling piano tone envelop the plaintive pleadings of the strings.
Whatever revisions may have been made in later years, the dark passions roiling the heart of the young Brahms remained starkly evident in the final version of this trio.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E minor Hob. XVI:34
It is unusual to encounter a sonata in a minor key from “Papa” Haydn, a composer best known for his chipper disposition. But his Sonata in E minor likely dates from the late 1770s, which could explain its turbulent mood. The 1770s was the decade of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an aesthetic trend that promoted extreme emotionalism in art. In music, the result was moody or stormy works in a minor key evoking abnormal psychological states.
The first movement of the E minor Sonata exemplifies this tribute to abnormality both in its obsessive repetition of the same motivic material over and over again and in the disjointed nature of its construction. It lurches forward in small motivic gasps, echoed between the hands, and sometimes simply stops dead in its tracks for an unnerving moment of silence in which nothing at all happens—the equivalent of a worrisome character in a film dropping what he is doing and looking directly into the camera for several seconds. Its eruption into a fiery coda at the end of the recapitulation foretells a structural anomaly that would be used to great effect by his student, Beethoven.
There is a slightly manic quality to the way in which the Adagio second movement appears fully decked out in melodic circumlocutions of ornament straight out of the gate, like a person who talks too much because of some sense of nervousness or anxiety. The worry is brought to the surface when the minor mode surfaces at the very end, in a cadence on the dominant that leads directly to the concluding rondo.
The opening refrain of this finale features a simple, toe-tapping, folk-like melody over a churning Alberti bass that gives it a kind of devil-may-care breeziness, despite its being in the minor mode. The movement makes great play out of the alternation of major and minor, but these are merely differences in tone colouring. The underlying sense of bubbly good spirits is evident throughout. Haydn gives us here a taste of what Mendelssohn was to do many decades later: use the minor mode to convey merriment rather than concern.
3 Intermezzi Op. 117
Brahms’s late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.
While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’s musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.
* * *
The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117, published in 1892, combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.
The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E flat major, actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E flat minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.
The Intermezzo in B flat minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its first theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first—a typical Brahmsian touch—and the development section dwells expansively on the flowing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.
The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried in the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely-spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations Op. 120
In 1819 the Viennese composer and publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) issued a call to 51 Austrian composers to contribute a variation each to a waltz theme of his own composition. He would publish these in a collected edition for the relief of widows & orphans of the Napoleonic wars, an initiative that was part charitable (Bob Geldof’s Band Aid avant la lettre) and part clever marketing. The invitation list included the leading compositional lights of the era, including Schubert, Hummel, Franz Xaver Mozart (Wolfgang’s son), and Beethoven’s friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, personages whose association with Diabelli’s publishing firm would greatly enhance its prestige. Even the pre-pubescent Franz Liszt got into the collection, likely through the intercession of his teacher Carl Czerny, who was also on the list.
Fifty of the fifty-one composers duly submitted their single variation. One did not. Ludwig van Beethoven had a better idea. In a creative spurt he began working on a massive work based on Diabelli’s theme, completing more than 20 variations in 1819 and picking up the project again to add more in 1823, in which year his complete set of 33 Diabelli Variations was published.
This monumental work has often been compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations for its encyclopedic scope and masterful display of compositional technique. Alfred Brendel has declared it “the greatest of all piano works” and odds are that his student, Paul Lewis, shares that view. While audiences have found its extreme length, bizarre chromaticism and wild contrasts a stumbling block to a heartfelt embrace of the work, a knowledge of Beethoven’s ribald sense of humour and fondness for parody goes a long way towards bringing the reluctant listener on board.
* * *
Diabelli’s theme, the initial starting point of the work, has found few admirers, having been labelled as trivial, banal, even outright stupid by any number of distinguished scholars with whom it is hard to disagree. But its very weaknesses—its chugging chordal accompaniment and repetitive harmonic sequences, its cutesy opening grace-note figure answered ludicrously octaves below in the bass, not to mention its lumbering air of yokelish self-confidence—are the very features that Beethoven zeroes in on for his variations. So rather than simply decorating the musical ideas of the waltz, Beethoven uses these characteristics to give each variation a radically distinct personality, drawn musically in high relief. Var. 9, for example, does nothing but obsess over the theme’s initial grace-note figure, like a stuttering child that can get out no more than the first word of his sentence.
Most of the set is ruled by an ethos of Homeric jest, with parody and originality vying in equal measure for the listener’s interest. The most comical of the set is undoubtedly Var.13, in which the chattering accompaniment of the theme is omitted entirely, leaving long gaps of silence against which the loud pompous chords outlining the theme’s harmonic structure sound absolutely silly.
References to other composers’ music undoubtedly inform the style of many of the variations but seldom as overtly as in Var. 22 in which Diabelli’s waltz theme is dressed up as Leporello singing Notte e giorno faticar from the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is hardly a coincidence that Leporello’s complaint about how hard he has to work could apply equally well to the pianist’s own labours in the following Var. 23, a parody of a five-finger exercise by piano virtuoso Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858). And yet, Beethoven himself is no slouch when it comes to creating brilliant and arresting piano textures, especially with flurries of trills, as in Variations 6, 10, 16, and 21, or in the cascading canonic entries that dazzle the ear in Var. 19.
These high-impact pianistically-inspired variations sit side-by-side with more contrapuntal treatments of the theme, such as the fughetta of Var. 24, after which the learned and lyrical effusions of the following stomping German dance of Var. 25 sounds particularly incongruous. These ‘sound gags’ stop for good, though, when the tone colour turns for the first time to the minor mode in Var. 29, initiating a set of three slow variations of imposing seriousness. From here on in, Beethoven gets into his hot-air balloon and begins a steady ascent into the ethereal realms of musical poetry familiar from his last sonatas Opp. 109 to 111.
Var. 31 is a profoundly expressive, richly-ornamented aria that invites comparisons with Variation 25 from Bach’s Goldbergs. This is followed in Var. 32 by a monumental multi-themed fugue that transmutes the trite repeated chords of the waltz theme into a shoulder-poking fugue subject of a distinctly Handelian stamp to bring the work as a whole to what seems to be its apotheosis.
But no. Instead, a dramatic series of arpeggios stretching from one end of the keyboard to the other sweeps all the musical toys off the table so as to begin again … with a final minuet. The rough bass-heavy waltz that began the proceedings 33 variations ago now closes this work as an elegant courtly dance ascending to the stars in the high treble in a manner not unlike that of the arietta finale of the Sonata in C minor Op. 111.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
7 Fantasies Op. 116
If the word fantasy implies improvisation and free association of thoughts, then the collection of three capricci and four intermezzi that Brahms published under the title Fantasien in 1892 are misnamed, as they are among the most densely expressive and tightly crafted miniatures to come from his pen. Some have seen the collection as a kind of multi-movement ‘sonata’, with the three intermezzi in E (Nos. 4-6) grouped together as a slow movement. Less controversial is the notion that the motive of the descending 3rd forms a unifying thread running through the entire set.
Expressive devices seem to be in overdrive in this collection of richly layered pieces, with the fundamental parameters of musical construction – rhythm, harmony, melody, and tone colour – constantly shifting under our feet as we listen. Rhythm is the most obvious of these, its regularity being subverted at every turn by the use of hemiola, syncopation, and other dislocations of the metrical pulse. Harmonies swimming in rich pools of bass overtones constantly come in and out of the shadows and further stretch our sense of time when resolutions are delayed.
The tone palette is orchestral in its range of colours, suggesting the various instrument choirs of a large ensemble, with textures ranging from heftily scored to virtually threadbare. The contrapuntal weave of these works is thick and two-voice imitative duets abound, sometimes even in the same hand. You get the impression that the real meaning of these pieces is often being whispered to you in the middle voices.
Each is in ternary (three-part) form, with a contrasting middle section and an opening section that returns at the end, often varied in some essential way. The moods presented may be fiery or deeply reflective, with the term capriccio generally describing those of more extraverted character and intermezzo – those more inly wrapped in musical thought.
The opening Capriccio in D minor presents a volcanic lava flow of piano sonority stretching from the very bottom of the keyboard to the upper mid-range, and is particularly ambiguous in its metrical pulse.
The Intermezzo in A minor begins like a sarabande, with a prominent stress on a long-held second beat of the bar. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of wistful minor tonality and major-mode contentment.
The Capriccio in G minor is restless in its pursuit of chains of descending thirds. Its middle section rapturously develops out of an instinct for chorale-singing.
The Intermezzo in E major has the quality of a nocturne, its middle section luminous with the soft gleam of moonlight.
The Intermezzo in E minor is remarkable for its eerie opening, configured in two-note groups of full chords and single notes, creating an almost hiccup-like texture of mismatched resonances on the keyboard.
The second Intermezzo in E major that follows evokes a stately court dance of some sort, quizzically interrogated by a chromatically climbing middle voice.
The final Capriccio in D minor restlessly explores the descending 3rds motive in its opening section. Its middle section is a marvel of keyboard scoring that features a leading voice in the middle of the texture surrounded by garlands of ornamental figuration.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI:20
The period of the 1770s was remarkable for two important developments in music history. The first was the replacement of the harpsichord by the fortepiano as the preferred instrument for keyboard composition and performance. The second was the aesthetic movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm & stress) that promoted emotional intensity and deep expressivity as leading characteristics in artistic expression. In music, this resulted in works streaked with pathos, anxiety, and moodiness, often in minor keys and rife with dramatic contrasts of soft and loud.
Haydn’s C minor Piano Sonata, composed in 1771, stands emblematic of both developments. The sudden dynamic contrasts in the score reveal it to be Haydn’s first keyboard sonata expressly written for the piano, while its dark tone and wide emotional range mark it as a typical product of the Sturm und Drang era.
This is evident from the way the first movement opens, with a pair of two-note sigh motives, more sobs than sighs. And yet the movement’s mood is not one of sustained hand-wringing but rather of emotional volatility, a volatility expressed most tellingly in its quicksilver changes in rhythm and texture that keep the listener constantly on edge. Lavishly applied trills, turns, and mordents, combined with perky dotted rhythms and impetuous scale figures, convey energy and a focused sense of purpose but they alternate with sigh motives and even an adagio cadenza that daydreams the proceedings to a complete halt in the middle of the exposition. Indicative of the sense of worry and restless unease that underlies the movement as a whole is the way that it ends softly, as if with a whimper.
The second movement, Andante con moto, has an archaic feel to it, as if some echo from the preceding Baroque era were being channeled in the simple two-voice texture with which it opens: a noble melody of small range advancing in measured steps over a walking bass. It reaches its peak of expressivity in its many passages of throbbing syncopations between the left and right hands.
Haydn makes a move to the dark side in his choice of finale. The standard practice of the time was for a last movement to be gay and lighthearted but the Allegro finale of the C Minor Sonata is by contrast psychologically intense and filled with a sense of urgency. Its peak of restless energy is reached in an extraordinary display of virtuoso hand-crossings of its second half.
Ludwig van Beethoven
7 Bagatelles Op. 33
If you have ever wondered what it might be like to have Beethoven at your dinner party, half in his cups and mischievously holding forth at the keyboard for the entertainment of all, then such an experience has been frozen in time for you in the score of his Bagatelles Op. 33. These seven little “trifles” (bagatelles in French) were published in 1803 for the popular market and they find him “trifling” with his audience’s expectations at every turn. Who knew that Beethoven could be such a cut-up?
Bagatelle No. 1 in E flat opens with the most naively innocent tune, sent aesthetically off-track from the get-go by a generous lathering of ornamentation in questionable taste that gets ever more garish with each reprise of the theme. And the formal proportions of the piece are way off-base, with trivial transition sections and routine cadencing patterns hilariously repeated and developed beyond their musical merits.
Now, Beethoven’s scherzo movements are known for their metrical and rhythmic jokes, but Bagatelle No. 2 in C major (actually labelled a scherzo) is way over the top in its manipulation of rhythm and accent, leaving the listener struggling to understand where the basic pulse is supposed to be. And the transition from the mock-serious Minore section back to the jumpy opening material is so abrupt as to be ludicrous.
No. 3 in F major spoils its charmingly folk-like melody by placing its second phrase in a remote key, unprepared, which makes the modulation back to the original key for the repeat all the more awkward. The problem only gets worse when Beethoven adds appoggiatura ornamentation to the theme, highlighting the incongruity.
No. 4 in A major parodies a sugary musette, with a stationary pedal tone in the bass supporting a treble melody that doesn’t move much either. The middle section in the minor mode proceeds with much more harmonic variety, except that it is all accompaniment. There is no melody above for it to accompany!
The first section of No. 5 in C major sparkles in the high register, a real “tickling of the ivories.” But it does nothing more than set up, and then execute, a cadence pattern, over and over again. This piece is a parody of vapid passagework, and features on its last page a comic representation of a composer sitting at the keyboard, playing the same single note over and over again, trying to figure out where to take the music. In the end he decides … to repeat what he has already written before.
The tune of No. 6 in D major is at war with itself. The first phrase longs to be taken seriously as lyrical, but the second phrase spoils the effect with a playful cadence.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the repeated 3rds at the opening of No. 7 in A flat major were about to issue out into an early version of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53. This final bagatelle is a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much repetition and the erroneous notion that you can get a different result by merely doing the same thing over and over again.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat major Hob. XVI:52
Joseph Haydn wrote his last three piano sonatas on his second visit to England (1794-95), keenly aware that the sound of the English piano was very different from that of its Viennese counterpart. Viennese pianos were quick and responsive but their sound, like their action, was light. English pianos had a heavier action, longer keys, and a fuller, more room-filling sound.
The so-called ‘London’ piano school (Clementi, Cramer, Dussek) excelled in exploiting this ‘beefier’ sonority to create keyboard textures brimming with dramatic effects that played to the instrument’s strengths: full chords in both hands, frequent dynamic contrasts, dizzying runs plunging from the top to the bottom of the keyboard, and dulcet double 3rds for an extra-sweet sonority in the upper register.
Haydn obviously knew this bag of tricks carefully, because his Sonata in E flat contains all of them, and more. Opening boldly with a fanfare of full-textured 6- and 7-note chords, its first 10 bars feature no less than 5 alternations between forte and piano, the last coming at the end of a dramatic run that swoops down a good 4 octaves to a low E flat. The 1st theme abounds in double 3rds while the 2nd theme imitates the tick-tock action of a mechanical clock, a popular musical motif of the period. Piano sonority is putty in Haydn’s hands, swelling with the throb of orchestral tremolos, then subsiding in long held notes. A good example of this is just before the development section.
A different kind of sonic theatre is enacted in the 2nd movement sarabande, a stately piece in 3/4 time with a noticeable emphasis on the 2nd beat. Added stateliness is assured by the double-dotted rhythm in the theme, but the real story in this movement is in the ornamentation. The score is simply swimming in grace notes and other grand ornamental additions to the melodic line, many of them ecstatic runs gliding up to the high register in the manner of an improvising opera singer.
The finale pulses to the beat of a army drum, introduced at the opening in a series of repeated notes over a low bass pedal: the shepherd’s musette meets the military tattoo. Adding to the comic tone of the proceedings, all this mechanical precision is frequently stopped dead in its tracks by inexplicable pauses that often set the listener up for a sound explosion and a burst of activity to follow. Add in more than a handful of cheeky fz accents on weak beats of the bar and you have as good a demonstration of Haydn’s impeccable musical wit as his keyboard music has to offer.
Songs from Opp. 6, 72, 86 & 96
It may be surprising to learn that while Brahms is universally revered as a giant of 19th-century instrumental music, he is often listed as one of the lesser composers of 19th-century art song. This may be because the texts he chose to set were for the most part not those of the great German poets. It may also be because he was loathe to indulge in the type of word-painting that Schubert had established so effectively as a major dramatic feature of the Lied (art song) genre.
But Brahms was strongly of the view that truly great poetry had no need of music, and so he chose lesser works that his musical ideas could more easily illuminate. His musical ideal in vocal music remained the simple German folk song with one general mood, subtly varied in response to the meaning of the text. A major role in creating that mood was the piano accompaniment, as illustrated in the songs chosen by Sir Simon.
In Nachtigallen schwingen (Nightingales beat their wings) the twitter and rustling of birds is picturesquely sounded out in the piano’s chattering triplets that create an animated aural backdrop to the singer’s identification with them as he walks through the forest.
Even more vivid is the piano’s depiction of the ebb and flow of waves breaking and foaming on the shore in Verzagen (Despair).
The piano conveys the tramp-tramp-tramping of footsteps over heathery terrain in Über die Heide (Over the heather) while its gentle drowsy pulse and saturated harmonies evoke the mood of Brahms’ famous lullaby in O kühler Wald (O cool forest).
An unusual and slightly eerie alternation between major and minor captures the ear immediately in the piano introduction to Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker). It almost sounds like a mistake, but conveys brilliantly the floating psychological state of the somnambulist.
A more playful interaction between piano and singer characterizes the last song in the set, Es schauen die Blumen (The flowers gaze), in which the piano plays the role of supportive sidekick, often echoing the vocal line back to the singer, as if to say: “Hear, hear. Well said.”
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Francis Poulenc was absolutely besotted with the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), originator of the terms cubism and surrealism. Apollinaire’s manner of constructing the fantastical ‘word salads’ of his poems finds its musical equivalent in the way that Poulenc composed these four settings of Apollinaire poems in 1931. Poulenc would compose isolated phrases individually, and then assemble them together as a kind of cubist collage.
The result is a kaleidoscopically colourful mix of sometimes comical non-sequiturs depicting with twinkling irony and dreamy nostalgia the somewhat louche demi-monde of society in which the composer thrived, and into which he threw himself with gay (in all senses) abandon. A pose of restrained elegance, however, keeps the aesthetic pose well this side of ‘camp’.
L’Aiguille (The eel) is a valse-musette that, in the composer’s words, “evokes the atmosphere of a shady hotel, with a rhythm inspired by little steps in felt shoes, and should be touching.”
Carte postale is dedicated to Madame Cole Porter and strikes a tone of amorous mockery.
The last two works in the collection, Avant le cinema and 1904, are patter songs that rely on the straight face of the singer for their wit to come across at just the right voltage.
Suite Française for piano
In 1935 Poulenc was commissioned to write incidental music for Edouard Bourdet’s play La Reine Margot about Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henri de Navarre (1553-1601), later crowned Henri IV of France. To get the right period feel for his music, Poulenc plundered the Livre de danceries of 16th-century French composer Claude Gervaise, whose dances he rewrote in a modern neo-classical style for chamber orchestra, much as Stravinsky had done with the music of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella. A piano version of this incidental music to La Reine Margot came out in the same year under the title Suite Française.
Like Stravinsky, Poulenc mostly kept the four-square phrasing, simple repetitive rhythms and modal harmonies of the original scores, creating variety by setting various sections for different choirs of instruments within the orchestra – a feature mimicked in the piano version. The modern sound of Poulenc’s score comes from his austerely sonorous, widely-spaced chord figurations, replete with 7ths and 9ths, as well as many acerbic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies.
The dances vary in mood, with the lively bransles, fanfare-like Petite marche militaire and celebratory Carillon alternating with the more serene and wistful Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.
Le travail du peintre
Poulenc was a keen and enthusiastic observer of visual art. In the journal he kept on a visit to the United States he wrote enthusiastically about the paintings that captured his attention at the museums he visited. The idea of writing a song cycle about 20th-century painters that he admired first came to him after the publication in 1948 of Voir, an anthology of his friend Paul Eluard’s poems about the painters in his life. Eluard was also an art lover and an avid collector, who owned works by all the painters included in the song cycle that Poulenc eventually composed almost a decade later as settings of Eluard’s poems. Le Travail du peintre (The work of the painter) was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances of the song cycle in 1957 in Paris with the composer at the piano.
Poulenc’s settings are more a reaction to Eluard’s poems than a direct appreciation of the painters they set out musically to describe. Pablo Picasso is iron-willed, filled with invincible energy. The playful fantasy and dreamlike mischief of Marc Chagall is captured in what Poulenc called a “rambling scherzo.” Georges Braque is fondly remembered for his aquatints and etchings of birds in flight, imitated with the zesty chirping of bird sounds in the piano. The carefully composed cubist constructions of Juan Gris find their correlative in the balanced phrases of the song composed in his honour. Paul Klee receives short shrift in a quick song having little, it seems, with the painter’s actual work but inserted because of a need for contrast in the cycle as a whole.
The song devoted to Juan Miró seems fixated on that painter’s treatment of the sky. And finally, Jacques Villon, pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp (brother of the more famous Marcel) is memorialized in a litany of phrases that Poulenc sets with an even, regular pacing as a timeless contemplation of eternal human values.
Schubert is credited with single-handedly transforming the German Lied from its status as a form of home entertainment mostly cultivated by amateurs, and largely ignored by serious composers, into a worthy vehicle for artistic expression at the highest level. Not a bad item on your resumé if you were a mere teenager, as Schubert was when in 1815 at the age of 17 he composed his first epoch-making lieder, Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.
What distinguished Schubert’s contributions to the genre was the way in which he brought the full range of musical resources – harmony, texture and declamatory style – to bear on the expression of the poetic text, as the selections on Mr. Keenlyside’s program amply demonstrate.
Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem Liebesbotschaft (Message of Love) asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.
Alinde is another song combing water imagery and the theme of love’s yearning. Its gently rocking barcarolle rhythm in 6/8 time represents both the lapping of waves at the water’s edge and the lover’s impatience as he waits for his beloved to arrive. An endearing, almost cutesy touch is provided by the small run-up ornaments in the piano.
Standchen (Serenade) is a song drawn from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In the scene in which it appears none-too-bright Cloten has crept into the bedroom of Imogen, who lies sleeping, to sing her this artless song with the hope that she will awake, arise, and make him happy in the way that only a young woman in nightclothes can. Cloten’s doltish overestimation of his chances in this regard is underlined by harmonies based on pedal tones and a naively upbeat rhythmic pattern in the piano.
Pity the budding epic poet in An die Leier (To the Lyre) whose musical sidekick, his lyre, has a mind of its own and will only let him sing love songs. Anxious calls to war are conveyed in clangorous dotted rhythms of diminished 7th chords out of which sweet dominant 7ths always seem to emerge to send the music in a more amorous direction.
In Nachtstück (Night Piece) an old man slowly walks into the forest at the close of day to commune with nature and consider his own approaching death. The opening introduction depicts his slow measured gait but more consoling music intervenes when he considers the rest that death will bring.
Similar thoughts on the impermanence of human life motivate An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), a quasi-operatic solo aria, complete with recitative, bound together by a recurring ritornello in the piano. The constant presence of the moon shining down on the singer is evoked by the piano’s frequent echoing of the vocal line.
Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is Schubert’s tip of the hat to the lads and lasses who bring in the harvest. Folksong-like in the simplicity of its melody and its structuring in balanced phrases, it has an almost Handelian sense of quiet dignity and restful lyricism.
The last song in Sir Simon’s selection of Schubert songs is Abschied (Farewell) from the Schwanengesang song collection. This parting song is remarkable for its complete absence of melancholy. The singer is obviously leaving on his own terms and happy to do so. We can just see him, trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of his mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018
Johann Sebastian Bach
Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004 (arr. Brahms)
The Bach revival of the 19th century began with a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, conducted by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It reached its stride at mid-century with the founding, by Robert Schumann and others, of the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society tasked with the publication of Bach’s complete works. Over the next 50 years, European musicians had ever-greater access, at a pace of almost one new volume a year, to the complete range of Bach’s creative output: cantatas, chamber music, concertos, and orchestral suites, as well as works for harpsichord, clavichord and organ – the whole lot of it.
Only one problem remained: getting the public on their side. The most popular solo instrument of the 19th century, both on the concert stage and in the family home, was the piano, and while Bach wrote for virtually every performing instrument of his time, the piano was not one of them. The piano only began to overtake the harpsichord in popularity in the 1770s, a good 20 years after Bach’s death, so any work by Bach played on the steel- framed, three-pedalled 19th-century piano, with its wide range of dynamics and tonal colours, was by definition a transcription.
And the transcribers were many. Each saw in Bach the figure that most appealed to his own individual aesthetic outlook. The virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni saw the prototype of the Romantic hero, a lonely, moody, solitary figure capable of making the stone walls of his great church tremble with the force of his musical personality. Brahms, who became a subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft edition in 1856, took another view. For him, Bach was a musical craftsman whose surpassing merit resided deep in the formal structures of his scores, not in their surface effect.
His transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor for Solo Violin BWV 1004 is thus an attempt to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the sound of the violin on the piano. And in keeping with the severity of his approach, he wrote for the left hand alone, in order to reproduce for the performing pianist the challenges this polyphonic work would have originally posed for the solo violinist.
These challenges were not trivial. The chaconne is a musical form in which a thematic core, conceived of as a succession of chords, serves as the harmonic foundation for a series of variations. Bach’s Chaconne opens with a stern and resolute chord pattern in the distinctive rhythmic profile of a sarabande, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar. The work has a rough three-part design, beginning with 33 varied restatements in the minor mode, 19 in the major mode, and finally 12 more in the minor.
The majestic architecture and encyclopedic breadth of this work foreshadow the artistic heights that Bach was to scale in his Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavichord. Those used to hearing the Chaconne played in the more popular Busoni transcription will hear a new work in this rendition, one much more dependent on the musician’s ability to convey with fewer notes the greatness of its musical design through nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and expressive detail.
Fantasia after J. S. Bach KiV 253
Busoni’s Fantasia was written in 1909 as an expression of personal grief at the death of his father, Ferdinando Busoni, the person who first introduced him to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is a hybrid between transcription and original composition, containing elements of both in equal measure.
Bach is present in fairly literal quotations from three works: the organ chorale partita Christ, der du bist der helle Tag (Christ, who art the light of the day), from which the ‘tolling bell’ motive of four long repeated notes comes; the fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen (God’s son is come) from the Kirnberger chorale settings; and the chorale prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott (Praise be to Almighty God) from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.
Busoni’s own writing in the Fantasia envelops the quotations from Bach in shrouds of downcast rumination, as symbolized by deep explorations of the low range, and by recurring gentle echoes in the high range that are emblematic of a mystical contemplation of the Beyond. How earthly pain vies with religious faith for the mourner’s cast of mind is easily grasped in the way that some of the chorale melodies are rhythmically displaced relative to the regular beat structure of the bass, especially in the dark and brooding introduction.
The high degree of harmonic indeterminacy in the writing gives it a ‘floating’ quality, as if the thoughts behind it were struggling through a fog of confused emotions. At times piercing, patterns of falling semitones evoke the stabbing pain of mourning. This heightened degree of expressiveness, and the means used to convey it, are much akin to the pianistic rhetoric of Scriabin.
The composer’s emotional ambivalence in this liturgical collection of consecrated memories is evident in the work’s closing gestures: a pair of echoes, the first up high, in the major mode, symbolizing heavenly peace, the last down in the bass, in the minor mode, symbolizing earthly grief.
Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24
In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter, or perhaps because of it, he wrote down a theme offered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.
The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized hymn that in its downward-seeking phrases blends the pious fervour of communal singing with the tenderness of personal reflection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring to vary instead its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices, the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.
It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment, the aural traces of a mental window gently closing on the world .
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal (arr. Liszt)
Richard Wagner’s last opera Parsifal is part music drama, part liturgical ritual, glorifying the religious devotion of a band of Arthurian warriors sworn to seek out and defend the sacred relics of Christendom. Chief amongst the treasures of these larger-than-life heroes is the Holy Grail, variously described in medieval legend as either a cup or plate used by Jesus at the Last Supper, or as the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood owing from Jesus’ spear-wound at the Crucifixion.
In Act 1 a newcomer to the band, Parsifal, is granted entry to a communion ceremony at which this sacred relic is revealed before the assembled Knights of the Grail. Wagner’s reverential music for this scene is mystically exalting but with a disciplined, military edge to it, as well.
Wagner’s father-in-law, Franz Liszt, attended the premiere of the opera in 1882 and upon his return from Bayreuth composed a poetic evocation of this sacred scene using important musical motives to symbolize its dramatic meaning. The most immediately audible of these is the solemnly treading march motive of two falling 4ths which begins the work and continues as an ostinato pattern low in the bass throughout.
In the last half appears the famous Dresden Amen, a six-note rising scale figure sung by church choirs in the German state of Saxony beginning in the early 19th century and particularly associated with the city of Dresden, where Wagner had been Kapellmeister. This motive was also used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. For Wagner, who wove musical representations of the actions and psychological states of his characters into the fabric of his opera scores, the Dresden Amen represents the Holy Grail itself.
Liszt is not writing a transcription here but rather a kind of free fantasy based on the motivic take-away of the first act of Parsifal. The virtuoso grandstanding of his earlier opera paraphrases and réminiscences is held largely in check. What emerges is a restrained meditation on the mood of mystery and the religious symbolism radiating out from the first great ‘reveal’ scene in Wagner’s evocation of Teutonic greatness in the German nation’s past.
Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam (arr. Busoni)
In 1847, Franz Liszt ended his career as a touring virtuoso pianist and took up residence in Weimar to concentrate on composition. Perhaps it was the experience of living in a place where Bach had lived and worked that prompted his interest in organ music, or perhaps it was the awakening of the religious feelings that would later see him take minor orders in the Catholic Church. Or indeed, perhaps it was because he simply couldn’t resist the temptation of writing for an instrument that could make even more noise than the iron-framed Érard pianos on which he broke so many strings in his concert career.
His first major composition for organ came in 1850, a gargantuan Fantasy and Fugue (lasting a good half hour) based on a chorale melody from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète, which had premiered in Paris in 1849. In the opera, three evil Anabaptist fanatics in 16th-century Holland connive to convince the Dutch population that they all need to be re-baptized in order to get on the right side of the Almighty. Their recruiting song Ad nos ad salutarem undam (Come to us, to the waves of salvation) is a snivelling little tune in the minor mode with numerous awkward intervals in a demonic dotted rhythm.
Liszt’s treatment of this theme unfolds in three distinct sections. In the opening section the theme is teased out in small dramatic fragments, bit by bit, its character hinted at strongly by menacing snippets of dotted rhythm that unfold in a wide variety of styles, from bombastic assertion to hushed recitative, over vast swathes of the keyboard.
The placid and quietly lyrical Adagio second movement provides much welcome relief from the rough-textured and rambunctious Fantasy preceding it. This movement presents the theme in its entirety, in the major mode, and calmly meditates on its melodic character.
All this daydreaming, however, is interrupted by a sweeping cadenza that announces a return to the minor mode and the last movement’s fugue. Liszt’s fugue subject is a nasty piece of work, highlighting the aberrant intervals and pointed dotted rhythms of the original theme. Of course, Liszt can’t stay long in a purely contrapuntal texture and his fugue soon devolves once again into free fantasy to end in a blaze of triumphalism that would make even Napoleon blush.
Busoni does a masterful job of translating Liszt’s somewhat awkward and unidiomatic organ figurations into the virtuoso language of the piano paraphrase. Mimicking characteristic keyboard textures from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Réminiscences de Norma to convey the sonic heft of the original organ work, he seems at every turn to ask: Why use just one note when ten will do?
Donald G. Gíslason 2018
Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119
Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.
The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.
Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.
It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49
This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.
And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.
When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.
The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.
The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32
The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?
The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.
It is also important to note that the 1770s was the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you find in the first movement, especially, is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.
This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.
In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.
Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119
Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.
Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.
The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between left and right hand.
A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.
The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.
The Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
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