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 – from which they would depart, and to which they would return – and that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed from a root, a third and a fifth, at a minimum. 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, as is evident in his Sonata Op. 1, published in 1910.
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. Its principal melodic motives however, presented in its opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the successive intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, spanning a minor 7th in a dotted rhythm, announced in the opening bar, and (b) a falling sequence of thirds, in the next 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, 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.
Napoli Suite FP 40
The aesthetic attribute most prized by the French is that utterly indefinable quality known as ‘charm’. Among its leading proponents among 20th-century composers is Francis Poulenc, whose picture-postcard piano suite Napoli whimsically evokes the seaside pleasures, the serene beauty and urban bustle of Italian life as seen through the lens of an urbane French tourist in Naples.
The opening Barcarolle imitates the rocking of a small boat lapped by the choppy waves of the sea. Its left-hand triplets of widely-spaced sonorities are pedalled into blurry billows of watery wetness while cross-rhythms in the right add an extra element of wobble to its cheery melodic flow.
The middle-movement Nocturne is all stillness and moonlight, with open sonorities sounding out across a wide swathe of the keyboard over a stabilizing pedal tone in the bass, interrupted only by melancholy musings of a sharper harmonic colouring in its central section.
The Caprice italien that ends the suite is a virtuoso tour de force modelled, according to the composer, after Chabrier’s Bourrée fantasque. Poulenc’s capricious finale, like its model, alternates chatty, slightly manic sections of moto perpetuo animation with more lyrical moments of reflection. The lyrical section at the centre of this movement is almost melancholy, its sudden outpouring of sentiment after so much cheekiness balancing precariously on the knife-edge of parody. Given that Poulenc’s night haunts included music halls and gay bars, might we not be hearing here the teasingly intimate stage confessions of a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich on a stool in net stockings with a cigar?
Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2
Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2
Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52
Chopin was of mixed Polish and French parentage. He spent the first half of his life, up to the age of 20, in Poland. The last half of his life, until his death at 39, was spent in France. It should be no surprise, then, that his musical style is a similar cross-breeding of French elegance and Slavic soulfulness. His nocturnes, with their intimate songful melodies, breathe the perfumed air of the Parisian salon. The exotic scales and displaced accents of his mazurkas, by contrast, convey more the flavour of his native soil.
Fundamental to an appreciation of Chopin’s music is the recognition that he was a composer of small pieces to be performed in small spaces. While Liszt filled concert halls with his Freddy-Mercury-sized ego, Chopin wrote exquisite miniatures directed towards a select audience of aristocratic patrons playing or listening to his music in the comfort of their more-than-comfortable homes. In his entire career he gave no more than 70 public performances, and even at these the complaint was frequent heard that his playing was too soft to fill the hall. His is music of refined sentiment and nuance, to be heard close-up.
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The opening section of his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 in the sugary key of F-sharp major features a melody with the languidly falling sighs and ecstatic leaps up to the high register of an opera diva singing Bellini. A major challenge for the pianist in this section is how to incorporate Chopin’s delicate dribbling ornamentation into the melodic line without disrupting the poised unfolding of the melody itself. The middle section in doppio movimento (double movement) introduces an element of drama, with its insistently repeated dotted figures atop a rippling accompaniment of quintuplets, symbolizing the quickening heartbeat of an anxious soul. The return of the innocent opening material then seems to ask: was it all a dream?
There is an Eastern, Oriental flavour in the tonal realm occupied by the brief, melancholy Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2. The wincing bite of its opening melodic interval, a dissonant minor 9th, is further elaborated in the bittersweet chromatic wanderings of a plaintive melody constantly hovering between major and minor.
The Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 is haunted by wistful remembrance, symbolized at its opening by pedal tones in the mid-range held over several bars while dancelike harmonies echo eerily around on either side. These memories of the dance become more forceful and assertive in the mazurka’s middle section before the opening mood of pensive reflection returns.
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Chopin’s Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular style of story-telling. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting 1st and 2nd themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or, in the case of the Ballade in F minor (1842-43), in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.
To hear the innocent bell-like opening of this work, there would be little to predict its end. A blissful peace seems to reign unperturbed but the melancholy little waltz that arrives as the work’s 1st theme tells another story. Here the repeated bell tones heard in the opening carry real pathos, and are made more plangent and urgent when repeated with a countermelody in the alto.
The 2nd theme, a lilting barcarolle with the solemnity of a chorale, brings consoling relief and even a touch of gaiety to the story, until the 1st theme’s haunting presence begins to hover again. But then … magic! The bell tones of introduction return and we enter a kind of suspended animation as the narrative stops to gaze up at the sky.
But the 1st theme’s lament intrudes on the daydream, circling round itself introspectively in close imitation (imitative counterpoint, in Chopin!) before setting off on yet another thematic variation, this time more turbulent and more expansive. The 2nd theme follows, but it, too, finds itself riding on wave after wave of left-hand turbulence culminating in a showdown of keyboard-sweeping arpeggios and cannonades of block chords until … magic again! Another pin-dropping pause.
Five angelic chords descend from Heaven but cannot stem for long the coda’s hellbent fury, a fury that drives the work to its apocalyptic conclusion with bitter and tragic resolve.
Les Cloches de Genève
The three collections of piano pieces entitled Années de Pélerinage represent Liszt’s poetic response to the cultural landmarks and picturesque natural settings of the places he lived in or visited in his travels throughout Europe. The idea of ‘pilgrimage’ (pélerinage) in the title is a literary reference to Goethe’s famous Wilhelm Meister novels in which a young protagonist embarks on a spiritual quest to ‘find himself’ through his wanderings. That Liszt should present his life experience as ‘literature’ should be no surprise, given that he presented his concerts as ‘poetry’ – having invented the term ‘recital’ for his solo public appearances.
The first book of Années de Pélerinage is devoted to Switzerland, where Liszt lived in the mid-1830s with his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult. The last piece in the collection, Les Cloches de Genève (The Bells of Geneva) is dedicated to his daughter Blandine, born to the Countess in Geneva in 1835. The work is a classic piece of Lisztian musical pictorialism.
Subtitled Nocturne, it opens in the stillness of the evening with a distant carillon of bells that then gently transforms into the rocking accompaniment of a tender lullaby in honour of the newborn baby girl.
The work progresses in a series of ingenious keyboard textures imitative of first the chiming, then the sonorous ringing, and finally the hefty swaying of bell-towers and churches throughout the city. It ends poetically with a return to the innocent bell sounds with which it began, their sonic resonance fading softly into the distance.
Ravel was a member of an avant-garde coterie of musicians, writers and visual artists who jocularly called themselves Les Apaches, Parisian argot for “ruffians” or “hooligans”. Between 1904 and 1905 he composed Miroirs, a suite of five pieces, each describing “in a mirror,” as it were, a fellow member of the club. While the connection with individual personalities is unclear (and may even have been fanciful), these pieces remain among the most pictorially vivid—and technically challenging—in the piano repertoire.
Ravel vividly depicts the irregular flight of night moths in the first piece of the set, Noctuelles, which opens with a busy blur of chromatic flutter extending over vast swathes of the keyboard but centring on the upper range. The unpredictability of the moths’ flight is depicted in phrases of uneven length that rev up out of the blue in rapid-onset crescendos, with brief silences punctuating the succession of sweeping phrase gestures. The moths seem to settle on some object of mothy interest in the slower-paced central section, but soon lose interest and flit back to life in the closing section.
Ravel described Oiseaux tristes as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.” As the piece opens we hear one solitary bird, singing alone, but soon joined by others. Fauré describes the texture as follows: “Fundamentally Ravel set store by the player bringing out two levels: the birdcalls with their rapid arabesques on a higher, slightly strident level and the suffocating, sombre atmosphere of the forest on a lower level which is rather heavy and veiled in pedal without much movement.”
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.
Alborada del gracioso is a satirical portrait of a character from Spanish theatre, the crude and clownish gracioso, the equivalent of Beaumarchais’ Figaro but a touch more malevolent and mischievous. He is pictured singing an alborado, or morning serenade. The strumming of the guitar and distinctive punchy rhythms of Spanish folk music permeate this work. This is the most ‘pianistic’ piece in the set. Among the technical challenges keeping pianists practising after midnight are extended passages in rapid-fire repeated notes and double glissandi in 3rds and 4ths played by the right hand alone.
The suite ends with La Vallée des cloches, a multi-layered sonic depiction of the lingering overtones of bell tones hovering in the air. Sonorities based on 4ths and 5ths evoke the muffled metallic resonance that drifts in every direction as bell-clappers in towers near and far strike their target.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019