Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute Op. 66
Beethoven’s set of variations on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute features twelve sharply chiselled operatic duets between piano and cello, widely differentiated in character like the comic personalities in the Singspiel from which the theme is derived. Audiences of Beethoven’s time, on hearing this tune, would recall with an indulgent smile the simple complaint of Tamino’s hapless sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, that he is much in need of female company. Not that he is fussy, mind you: either a ‘girl’ (Mädchen) or a ‘little wife’ (Weibchen) will do.
Mozart captures the endearing simplicity of Papageno’s rustic character in a theme harmonized virtually entirely with tonic and dominant chords. Beethoven takes the characterization further in a series of witty one-dimensional caricatures, with quicksilver changes of costume between variations, communicated by instrumental texture and melodic invention alone, without the learned trappings of imitative counterpoint.
The first variation belongs to the piano alone, but its nifty division of the melody into little two-note groups scattered all over the keyboard qualifies as more than a mere musical introduction to the cello’s eventual entrance. It discombobulates the theme to such a degree that when the cello does enter in Variation 2, it needs to play the tune virtually straight in order to re-assemble it in the listener’s ear.
The work proceeds in the following variations with a distinctly different rhythm or figuration pattern defining the two ‘characters’ duetting in each scene. Unusual in this variation set is the inclusion of not one, but two slow variations preceding the lively finale, both in the minor mode. The double-dotted rhythms of the first (Variation 10) lend an air of grim fatalism to the proceedings, much in the style of the Commendatore’s stern address to Don Giovanni. The second (Variation 11) is chillingly still, with the cello plodding eerily in the bass accompanied by slightly creepy chromatic pulsings from the piano—a perfect set-up for the finale.
The time signature changes to 3/4 in the final variation, which alternates between the sunny, smiling melodiousness of the cello belting out the tune and the headlong rambunctiousness of the intervening piano figurations. The listener’s smile is complete when, despite all the hubbub, the work ends cutely, and almost unexpectedly, with a sweet little diminuendo.
Grave (1981): Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano
The abstract patterning of much 20th-century music presents a significant challenge to modern audiences. Tunes suitable for humming in the shower, you see, are typically quite thin on the ground in modern scores and the old-fashioned aesthetic of simple tunefulness is often replaced by a compositional obsession with pitch organization—a process which inevitably involves encoding abstract formal principles within a work that have scant truck with the scales and keys that small children learn about in their first music lessons.
Witness Lutosławski’s Grave, composed in 1981, which bears the subtitle Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano. This work stands astride the divide between tunefulness and abstraction in its choice of melodic materials and the processes it applies to them.
The work opens with a forthright statement in the solo cello of the famous ‘forest motive’ (the pitches D-A-G-A) announced in the opening bars of Debussy’s opera Pélleas et Mélisande. This is the subject of the work, in two senses. It pays tribute to the composer’s close friend, the Polish musicologist and Debussy specialist Stefan Jarociński (1912-1980), to whose memory the work is dedicated. And it presents the intervals of a perfect 5th (D-A) and a major 2nd (A-G-A) motivating the transformations in the melodic line (the metamorphoses) that will ensue as the piece proceeds.
Two further ‘processes’ are worth noting: the piece climbs ever higher in register as it works its way to a climax, and at the same time it experiences a written-out accelerando, with its transformations heard first in half notes, then in quarters, then 8ths, then triplet 8ths, and finally in 16ths. The work comes full circle when the forthright opening notes D-A-G-A are offered up once again in the cello, but this time drifting up to the highest register, surrounded by a sonic haze of widely spaced soft glitter in the piano.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor Op. 6
The music of American composer Samuel Barber is most widely known from the use of his Adagio for Strings in the 1986 anti-war film Platoon. His songs and instrumental works, however, are equally popular in the programs of the world’s leading concert artists and ensembles. Barber’s Piano Sonata, for example, was performed more than once in the piano semifinals of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow earlier this year. But the enduring popularity of Barber’s music should be no surprise, given its vocally-inspired lyricism and its sympathy with the Romantic-era aesthetic that still lies at the heart of the modern concert repertoire.
Barber’s Cello Sonata was written in 1932 when the composer was still studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and Brahms in particular looms large as an influence on its compositional style. Among its Brahmsian features are its high-serious tone and emotional intensity, its employment of cross-rhythms, and its luxuriant use of the rich low range of the keyboard. Among its modern features, however, are its frequent changes in meter and the angularity of many of its melodies.
The first movement opens with a series of melodic leaps in both the piano and cello, much in the manner of the surging opening of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major Op. 99. A smooth songful melody soon appears in the cello as a second theme, and is then taken up by the piano, but the development section of this sonata-form movement is largely preoccupied with the melodic leaps that opened the work. Indeed, the interval of a minor 6th is a recurring motive throughout the entire movement.
Instead of writing a slow movement and a scherzo, Barber imbeds a fast-paced scherzo within his slow movement. The contrast could not be greater. The opening Adagio is slow and purposefully lyrical, with the resolution of each appoggiatura and harmonic dissonance a notable event. The Presto is a classic scherzo: fleet and lightly textured, bristling with rhythmic tricks and coy interplay between the instruments.
The finale displays Barber the neo-Romantic at full sail, plying successive waves of emotion. It opens with a passionate piano solo churning restlessly in the bass in support of a yearning right-hand melody in the mid-range. The cello when it enters is equally incandescent and the emotional range of the movement as a whole is wide in the extreme. In contrast to the often thrashing assertiveness of the keyboard texture, it also features sections of dreamy remembrance of previous movements, as well as playful episodes—all within the formal constraints of a sonata-form structure.
A major challenge for the performers is the coordination of the thorny cross-rhythms and lightning-fast changes in tempo that qualify this movement, like the others, as both willfully Romantic and unabashedly modern.
Sonata for Piano and Cello Op. 19
Rachmaninoff’s piano music is renowned both for its lushness of scoring and for the technical challenges it presents to any pianist with a hand smaller than an oven mitt. The role given to the ‘accompanying’ instrument in his Cello Sonata in G minor is no exception. The keyboard writing in this chamber work is just as opulent, its technical demands every bit as challenging as anything in his concertos or major works for piano solo. Its piano textures still feature a rich panoply of countermelodies in the mid-range riding sidecar to sumptuous melodies ringing out in the right hand above, regardless of whatever throbbing lyricism might also emerge in baritone territory from the cello. Most of the themes in the work are introduced by the piano and one could almost believe, as has often been said, that the work is really just a big piano sonata with cello accompaniment.
Written in 1901, around the same time as Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2, this sonata is remarkable for its expressive range and the orchestral heft of its textures. As Steven Isserlis has pointed out, many of its themes bear the stylistic imprint of Orthodox hymns, especially in their use of close intervals, their obsessive repetition of single notes, and their bell-like sonorities.
The first movement begins with a slow introduction that slips in much of the thematic material that will be pursued in the following Allegro moderato. Of special note is the rising semitone, intoned in the cello’s mid-range, that opens the work. This oft-repeated motive pervades the themes of the exposition and drives the momentum of the stormy development section, which is end-weighted, merging into the recapitulation at its climactic point of highest tension, as in the first movement of the Second Concerto. The movement closes with the punchy, rap-on-the-door rhythmic gesture that was to become this composer’s signature sign-off: RACH-man-in-OFF!
The second movement Allegro scherzando is remarkable for its emotional volatility. It begins with a worrisome patter of triplet 8th notes reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig but lyrical impulses soon begin to mix in with all the fretting and the middle section is a swaying duet of no small sentimental charm. Nonetheless, Rachmaninoff does not hesitate from time to time to reveal the iron fist within the velvet glove in outbursts of distinctly muscular pianism.
The Andante third movement is the jewel of this sonata, its quivering harmonic ambivalence between major and minor a bittersweet and vaguely exotic sonic wrapping for the bell-like repeated notes of its opening phrase. Dark and brooding, the long phrases of this elegiac movement build up to an impassioned climax before ebbing into a consoling calm of warm contentment.
The Allegro mosso finale in a triumphal G major is a sonata-form movement of abundant contrasts. It features a upbeat “sleigh ride” of an opening theme built up out of short motives, doggedly repeated, like the opening themes of the 2nd & 3rd piano concerto finales. The stand-out melody of this movement is its heartbreaking second theme announced in the cello, a wistful anthem of tribute to every underdog who has ever struggled against overwhelming odds. From time to time, however, these themes yield to the type of fervent military march that so often emerges in Rachmaninoff’s finales. Just before the end, the pace slows to a crawl in a coda that seems to want to pass in review the movement’s best lyrical moments past. Will this be the end? No, of course not. Our dreaming duo awake from their reverie and scamper off to the work’s brilliant conclusion like a pack of squealing school children let loose to find Easter eggs.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019