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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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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
Sonata in A major G 4
Luigi Boccherini was perhaps the greatest cellist of the 18th century, and like his compatriot of a previous generation, Domenico Scarlatti, he spent the most active portion of his professional life at the court of Spain. His royal patron, the Spanish Infante Don Luis Antonio, younger brother of King Carlos III, was a music-loving prince with his own string quartet. The addition of Boccherini to this ensemble was likely the creative prompt for the more than 100 string quintets – in the unusual configuration of 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos – for which he is principally known.
A cellist of extraordinary technical skill, Boccherini, like Paganini after him, wrote for his own hand and acquired a reputation as a virtuoso performer through performances of his own works. One feature of his playing that astonished his contemporaries was his predilection for playing the violin repertoire, at pitch, on the cello, and indeed passages in which the cello plays in the high register are a recurring feature of his own scores.
His musical style stands at the intersection of two eras: floridly ornamental in the late Baroque manner, but early Classical in its slow harmonic rhythm and clear periodic phrasing, with direct repetition of short phrases a prominent characteristic.
The opening Adagio of Boccherini’s Sonata in A major displays well the style of ornamentation for which he was well known. Its gracious but relatively unadventurous melodic lines are set within an elaborate filigree of appoggiaturas, trills and flamboyant scalar flourishes. An ascending arpeggio in the penultimate bar nearly sends the cellist off the fingerboard to reach a high E above the treble staff.
The following Allegro demonstrates Boccherini’s ability to create an entire movement out of the repetition of small phrases and fragmentary motives. His habit of slurring phrases from a weak beat to a strong gives his music a gentle gracefulness that has even been called “effeminate,” a quality noticeable, as well, in the insistent sigh motives of the concluding Affettuoso. It is no wonder, then, that the good-natured charm of his works led to his being called “Haydn’s wife.”
Nocturne and Scherzo
Debussy made his first public appearance as a composer in 1882 in a performance of his Nocturne et Scherzo, a work originally scored for violin and piano but later that year revised for cello. This work of his student years was performed only once and then vanished from the public record until the manuscript was rediscovered in the early 1970s and Mstislav Rostropovich gave it a ‘second debut’.
It is comprised of two sections, arranged in a rounded three-part A-B-A form. Despite the titling, the scherzo is actually the first section, imprinted throughout with the 2nd-beat emphasis and drone tones of a mazurka. The second section is the dreamy nocturne, that in its lilting rhythms seems to evoke the nostalgia of a gentle waltz more than the stillness of the night.
Sonata in D minor
Debussy’s compact little sonata for cello & piano was written in 1915 as part of a series of instrumental sonatas meant to assert the value of French culture during a depressingly long war that Debussy saw as threatening France’s very survival. The work comprises three movements, each successive movement shorter than the previous.
The first movement Prologue announces its motivic foundations in the first bar: a quick triplet and long note, followed by a descending modal scale figure. Rhapsodic elaborations of the triplet figure form its first theme, tender ruminations on the descending scale figure its second. An animated middle section prepares for the triumphant return of the opening material and its serene farewell.
The Sérénade that follows lives up to its title with ample pizzicato writing for the cello and a fair imitation of guitar strumming in the piano. Capriciously paced and leering with portamento slides, this movement pursues its evening entertainment goals with infinite delicacy.
In contrast to the spare scoring of the previous movements, the Finale simply bubbles over with running notes. This is a movement in a hurry to get somewhere, but the scamper is often rewardingly interrupted by—or superimposed with—long strands of lyrical melody.
Romance Op. 78 No. 2
Malinconia Op. 20
Sibelius, though best known today for his symphonies and Violin Concerto, could not live off these large-scale works alone. And so it was that during The Great War (1914-1918) he composed a set of four pieces for violin and piano, Op. 78, expressly directly at the domestic market. These were simple tuneful pieces intended for amateur performance in the home.
The second of this set, simply entitled Romance, soon became one of his most popular compositions, and this work has remained a staple of both the violin and cello repertoires. The wistful carefree character of its eminently hummable melody encapsulates the period’s nostalgia for an age of parlour music that would soon slip away into memory.
* * *
In February of 1900 the typhus epidemic that was sweeping through Finland claimed the life of Sibelius’ 15-month-old daughter Kirsti. From the pain of this event came a work shortly thereafter for cello and piano entitled Malinconia (Melancholy), a work in which the composer allowed himself to grieve.
The cello recitative with which it opens struggles upward, step by weary step, to arrive at an anguished cry of grief. In response, the piano rips up and down the keyboard as if to paint the flailing of pleading arms in the wind.
Each instrument is given extended solo cadenzas that exploit the extremes of their range. When playing together, they often play apart: the piano in syncopated pulses of bewilderment deep in the bass against the cello’s wailing melody in the mid-range. Or they quiver at each other in turn, in passages of sustained tremolo. French composer Eric Tanguy has deemed this work “utterly unique in the entire literature of music for cello and piano.”
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D 821
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871, long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.
The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.
The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.
The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4
In the Napoleonic era, when a Viennese aristocrat was thinking of entertaining friends at home, he might pop down to the local shop to pick up a six-pack—of string quartets, that is. The most refined form of home entertainment in Austria’s capital was the string quartet, and the established practice was for publishers to commission them, for composers to compose them, and for amateur performers to buy them, by the half-dozen.
And so at the end of the 1790s, when Beethoven decided to scale the summit of compositional glory by composing for string quartet—a genre already aglow with masterpieces by Haydn and Mozart—he had a big task ahead of him. Or rather, he had six tasks.
The six quartets which Beethoven published as his Op. 18 were an important milestone in his career and he was out to impress. Each of the members of this brood of sextuplets displays a distinct personality and a temperament widely different from that of its siblings. The ‘brat’ of the pack is No. 4, the String Quartet in C minor, an eccentric work, by turns moody, mocking, musing and manic.
Its pulse stays at the upper range of the human heartbeat, with nothing slower than a stately Andante in its four characterful movements. There is no slow movement at all, no moment of lyrical repose amid the onrush of musical ideas. More eccentric still, there is both a scherzo and a minuet (normally the former replaces the latter), and even these seem to be cross-dressing, conflicted as they are over their ‘genre identity’.
Beethoven writing in the key of C minor is always a wild ride and the opening movement of this quartet does not disappoint. Just like the first-movement Allegro of the Pathétique piano sonata (also in C minor), it begins in a state of anxiety, with a pulsating pedal tone in the bass lending melodramatic urgency to a series of rising musical gestures above. All this breathless urgency seems justified when these opening phrases issue into a series of brutally direct triple-stop chords, like a SWAT team knocking down a door. The second theme is more sociable, borrowing the wide melodic leaps of the first theme and serving them up as “happy hops” in a sociable duet format with lots of countermelody interest. But the downward emotional pull of the movement as a whole drags even this happier theme into a minor-mode vortex of alarm and anxiety in the development section.
The inner movements, a scherzo and a minuet, seem confused as to which one is which. The scherzo proceeds at the dainty, mincing pace of a minuet while the minuet has the serious driving energy of a scherzo, complete with its trademark rhythmic quirks such as syncopation, hemiola, and off-beat accents. But there is more than a whiff of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn in the scherzo, especially in its mechanical-clock regularity of rhythm. So perhaps the ‘joke’ is the compositional overkill of having such a light movement begin with an academically impeccable triad-and-scale-based fugato. Indeed, this movement may well have been written more for the delight of its performers rather than for its listeners, since such a learned texture would provide ample excuse for collegial ‘eyebrow theatre’ and an amused exchange of knowing glances between the players.
The Minuetto, by contrast, is a fast-paced brooding affair, about as dance-like as a roller derby, and with many of the same elbow-spikes built into its rhythmic texture. It does, however, take a tea break in its Trio to toss a simple triadic figure back and forth between the instruments.
The last movement rondo begins at a frenetic pace, its Hungarian-tinged refrain theme terminating, like the rondo theme of the Pathétique Sonata, in a series of shoulder-poking repeated notes. Providing the rondo ‘filling’ between its appearances are a broad, stately theme in longer note values and a mischievous series of scurrying triplet figures. Despite the intense race-to-the-finish mood of the coda, it is these whimsical little triplet figures that are loudly proclaimed in the work’s last bars. Beethoven’s parting witticism is that since all four instruments play this motive together in unison, we have no idea whether the movement ends on a major or minor chord!
MUSIC FROM THE NORDIC COUNTRIES
Folk music is the music of all the small places. It is the local music, but as such it is also the music of everywhere and everyone. Like rivers, the melodies and dances have flowed from region to region: Whenever a fiddler stumbled on a melody, he would play it and make it his own before passing it on. You don’t own a folk tune, you simply borrow it for a while.
In 2013 we borrowed and arranged a bunch of Nordic folk tunes on a recording that we called Wood Works. This album created quite some stir and has been featured on concert stages all over the world, on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, and even as the soundtrack in Starbucks coffee shops. Now we have decided to embark on yet another journey through the rich world of Nordic folk melodies, and have recorded and released ‘Last Leaf’ – another album of traditional music from the Nordic countries, the Faroe and Shetland Islands.
The Danish String Quartet
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 74 No. 10 (“Harp”)
Beethoven’s buoyant and good-natured “Harp” quartet of 1809 gets its name from the unusually prominent use of pizzicato in its first movement. Structured in the standard four-movement pattern, it features a sonata-form first movement with slow introduction, a songful slow movement, and a whirlwind scherzo connected without a break to a theme-and-variations finale.
The slow introduction that opens the work generates a sense of mystery and suspense by inching forward in a searching series of tentative, short phrases, the quizzical nature of which is answered from time to time by more resolute chordal exclamations. In the Allegro that follows, the movement’s first theme is announced with a broken triad, a motive destined to be much bandied about in the pizzicato sections to come. The easy-breathing lyrical melody that follows sets the tone for the movement’s carefree mood. The first pizzicato episode leads us to the exuberant second theme, full of scurrying runs and busy-work figurations. As the movement proceeds, it gathers ever more momentum, becoming almost festive by the end of the exposition, and the development section does nothing to spoil the party atmosphere. Rather than a stern cross-examination of these themes, it prefers to celebrate them, in whole and in part, with very little modulatory drama or fretting in the minor mode. It ends with one of the movement’s most unusual instrumental effects, a gradual written-out accelerando that begins in pizzicato and switches to arco just before plunging into the recapitulation. An even more compelling special effect is the rapid-fire cross-string figuration of the first violin, that breaks away from the pack in the coda to imagine itself a concerto soloist, until it is escorted gently back down to earth by the other instruments.
The second movement Adagio ma non troppo is a lyrical rondo with an expansive cantabile refrain melody in the major mode that recurs in ever more embellished form after diversions into minor-mode territory. Almost Mendelssohnian in its fireside warmth and coziness, this is some of Beethoven’s tenderest music.
The scherzo Presto that follows is a jittery jaunt through motivic territory that combines daredevil leaps and stepwise cross-chatter. The repeated notes in its opening section are a twitchy caffeine-soaked version of the ‘knocking door’ motive in the Fifth Symphony’s third-movement scherzo. Fast-paced as this Presto opening section is, its trio section, marked Più presto quasi prestissimo, is even faster. And like the Fifth Symphony, as well, instead of letting his scherzo off-leash to drive to its headlong conclusion, Beethoven tapers it down at the end, ever softer, to graft it into his finale.
This final movement offers up a polite and well-behaved theme, divided up into cutesy bite-sized phrase groupings, each straddling the bar-line in the style of a gavotte. The theme is then followed by six variations, mostly chummy ensemble tributes to the theme’s underlying harmonies, but the second and fifth showcase the viola and first violin, respectively, in solo roles. A whirlwind coda rushes towards a triumphant finish but at the last moment Beethoven pulls it up short to simply blow out the candles on this quartet with two light puffs of chordal harmony.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata A flat major Op. 110
Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.
The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.
The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprizes, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.
The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.
But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.
All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.
Sonata Sz. 80
In 1926 Bartók’s musical style took a ‘Bachian’ turn towards more clearly polyphonic textures. His Sonata from that year presents us with three movements in two distinct character profiles. The opening and closing movements are bold, direct and massively self-confident, characterized by driving energy and a machine-like sense of rhythm. The slow middle movement, by contrast, is unremittingly bleak, filled with dull, aching dissonances that audience members who have experienced dental surgery may find triggering.
The first movement opens with a motive comprised of a short skip and a series of hammered repeated notes, reminiscent of the striding pulse of the last of Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka. Stravinskian, as well, is the sonic resonance ringing out clearly from the well-spaced chords that accompany this stomping, hammering pulse throughout the movement. Bartók doesn’t really present us with ‘themes’ as such, but rather short motivic cells that are continually varied, and frequently subject to hemiola effects as they shift in alignment, rhythmically, with respect to the bar line. This is a very athletic movement, with many sudden changes of register, including passages in which the right hand leaps across the left in order to punch out notes deep in the bass.
If repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity, then the opening 6 bars of Bartók’s 2nd movement—featuring an A-flat-E-flat-F chord in the left hand, repeatedly set against a jarring E natural in the right—are clear cause for concern. This movement is bafflingly dissonant. Textured in uncompromisingly gritty 3-voice counterpoint that plods foreword at a relentless quarter-note pace, it offers little to orient the ear in its tangled texture of semitones and minor 9ths: only occasional reminders of the opening harmonic sound-salad and a fixation on rising scale figures. Even the abruptness of its final cadence, normally a place of emotional resolution and rhetorical disarmament, comes as a shock to the nervous system.
The monothematic final movement is by comparison a pleasant jog in the park. Its principal concern is a jaunty little folk tune of a pentatonic stamp announced at the outset. The melodic outline of this ditty—a gapped space of five tones down, then back up—gives it the air of a sea shanty, but the more it gets varied with repetition the more it starts to sound like “Good King Wenceslas”. Despite its constant changes in time signature between 3/8, 2/4 and a very Stravinskian 1/4, this movement manages nonetheless to come off as a real toe-tapper.
The 20th century witnessed the development of new approaches to thinking about the sounds that make up what we call ‘music’. The 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg spawned the serialist movement, dominated by a search to create new formal structures for music organized around ‘series’ (i.e. fixed patterns) of pitch, dynamics, timbre and other properties of sound. And then, beginning in the 1950s, sounds never heard before by human ears, artificial sounds created electronically, were admitted into the composer’s toolkit.
German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the centre of all these developments, producing works based on the newly developed structural principles, and utilizing the new sound palettes that had been discovered. Through this work he quickly became the public face of avant-garde contemporary music—so famous, in fact, that he is featured in the crowd of faces on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (fifth from the left, in the back row).
The 19 works that Stockhausen composed with the title Klavierstücke (keyboard pieces) between 1954 and 2003 embody some of his most important ideas about how music can be internally organized, and the sound gestures that can form part of it. The ninth piece in this series, Klavierstücke IX completed in 1961, is one of his best-known piano works.
This work presents many challenges to the uninitiated, as the parameters of music that we are used to identifying—harmony, melody and rhythm—are not hierarchically deployed in the way that we take for granted in ‘traditional’ music. But a listener coming to this music for the first time should not be overly concerned with its ‘geometric’ dimensions—for example, with how the rhythmic proportions throughout the piece are organized by the Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (etc.) in which each number in the series is the sum of the two preceding numbers. Nor try to count how many times the dissonant four-note chord that opens the work is played in the first (shall we say) ‘phrase’, and how many times in the second. (It’s 139 and 87, for those who like to keep track).
Analytically-oriented listeners might attempt to follow the two main ideas in the piece that alternate in dialogue: the opening four-note chord repeated at varying speeds and dynamic levels, and a slowly rising chromatic scale. But committed admirers of impressionism will want to just set their minds free, close their eyes, and imaginatively listen to the sounds emanating from the stage as if they were the soundtrack to a movie, asking themselves as they listen: what kind of movie is this?
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor Op. 111
Beethoven’s last sonata is surely his most poetic essay for the piano, conceived as a musical diptych expressing the contrasting states of human existence—earthly struggle and spiritual transcendence—framed in terms of the raw elemental building blocks of music itself. It comprises a fast-moving, contrapuntally active sonata-form movement in the minor mode matched with a slow-paced, harmonically stable set of variations in the corresponding major mode.
There is a skeletal starkness to the musical fabric of the first movement, its jagged leaps over harmonically aberrant intervals evoking a mood of worried restlessness, a mood only reinforced by frequent scurrying passages of fugato that seem to emphasize a disunity between the voices rather than their complementarity. Strikingly lacking in this movement is any sense of lyrical repose. The 2nd subject appears only briefly, more in the spirit of emotional exhaustion than heartfelt fulfillment. At every turn, Beethoven seems to emphasize the unusually large space that separates the voices and the hands (separating the mortal from the divine?), at one point orchestrating a climactic antiphonal exchange between treble and bass of more than six octaves.
The C major chord on which the C minor first movement ends is taken up in the second movement Arietta, marking not only a change in mode, but a fundamental change in the construction of the musical texture. Instead of angular motivic gestures we have an eloquently simple and well-rounded melody. Instead of contrapuntal conflict we have harmonic fullness and warmth. The first three variations introduce the compositional process that will guide this melody through its successive transformations: a gradually increasing animation in the figuration accompanying the variation theme. The 3rd variation arrives at degree of elation that in its syncopations prefigures the arrival of jazz, before the timbre turns dark with low murmurings underpinning melodic fragments of the theme pulsing above.
It is here that Beethoven begins to gaze up at the stars in textures that twinkle luminously in the highest register of the keyboard. As the theme becomes ever more cradled in the swaddling clothes of its enveloping figuration, it appears to glow, sonically, from within, by means of pearly chains of trills, until is transmuted, finally, into the essence of the divine.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Isolde’s Liebestod arr. Franz Liszt
The 19th century in Europe was an age in which psychological states went mainstream in the arts, becoming a particularly powerful stimulus for musical expression. A new genre, the nocturne, for example, captured that eerie feeling of being alone with one’s lyrical thoughts at a still point in the night. Other constellations of feelings and moods were captured in the era’s invention of new “character pieces” such as impromptus, rhapsodies and moments musicaux.
No 19th-century composer went further in marshalling the resources of musical expression into direct and compelling proxies for emotional experience than Richard Wagner. And none of his operas exhibit a more focused concentration on one single emotion, romantic love, than Tristan and Isolde (1859).
Wagner’s opera tells the tale of Isolde, an Irish princess promised in marriage to the King of Cornwall who, on her way over to be married, falls in love with his nephew Tristan after they drink a love potion together. Tristan’s death in consequence of this betrayal sets up the final scene of the opera, the Liebestod (“love-death”) scene, in which Isolde, standing over Tristan’s dead body, commemorates him rapturously by imagining their passion and his death as a single indissoluble unity.
Wagner vividly brings to life the insistent quality of the emotion of love through his use of the same phrases, repeated over and over again in a continuous chain of chromatic harmonies which seem to open up new vistas of experience with each occurrence. The feeling of yearning and love-longing is so tellingly conveyed by the use of suspensions and delayed resolutions that it is hard not to feel like an adolescent again while listening.
Liszt lavishly layered his transcription with tremolos to evoke the fine gradations of orchestral colour in Wagner’s score, and thickened the keyboard texture with a machine-gun spray of repeated chords to convey the massive impact of a full orchestral tutti. These techniques inevitably raise questions of musical taste, and it is the performing pianist’s challenge – as it always is when playing Liszt – to avoid suggesting the kitschy excesses of staged melodrama or silent-film music.
Sonata in B minor
“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.
The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.
Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.
The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.
The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.
In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.
Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.
10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op. 75
Prokofiev completed his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and by all accounts this was not a good year to be a Soviet musician. It wasn’t the low pay or difficult working conditions that were top-of-mind for most, but rather the risk of being dragged from their homes and executed by firing squad. Comrade Stalin, you see, was getting grumpy and his Great Purge (1936-1938) had begun.
Plans to produce the ballet had to be cancelled, due to its association with a theatre director who had been purged. So in 1937, as friends and neighbours were randomly disappearing from the apartment block where he lived, Prokofiev moved to salvage his ballet by fashioning a number of suites from the score, including one for piano entitled 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which he performed in public that year and published as his Op. 75. His strategy worked. Performances of the suites, both for orchestra and for piano solo, sparked interest in mounting productions of the complete ballet, which began in 1938, and Romeo and Juliet went on to become one of the composer’s most successful works.
In creating a version for piano, Prokofiev was coming full circle, as the original score had been composed for piano first, and then orchestrated. These pieces, then, are not mere orchestral reductions, but pianistically conceived scene paintings with the hands of the virtuoso pianist in mind. In keeping with its role as music for dance performance, the tonal language is relatively simple, in parts reminiscent of the clear textures of his ‘Classical’ Symphony in D (1917). Also present in abundance are Prokofiev’s trademark quirks: quicksilver diversions to remote keys, melody notes that land one note off from where you expect them to go, and his classic “off-road” harmonic wanderings within phrases that always somehow manage to find their way back home just in time for the final cadence.
The suite begins with two dance movements in a popular vein that introduce us to the moods and manners of the common folk of fair Verona, where the composer sets his scene. The carefree opening Folk Dance gets its ‘folkiness’ from its simple two-voice texture and the drone-like elements in its bass line. The following Scene: The Street Awakens is simpler still, its chipper mood guaranteed by the steady pulse of its prancing accompaniment.
We then go indoors for the arrival of guests to the Capulet ball. The opening Minuet theme is ceremonially repeated as new guests arrive, alternating with more flowing passages as each new arrival wanders in to inspect the room.
Juliet as a Young Girl sees our 14-year-old heroine playfully scampering around her room as she gets dressed, incessantly fussed over by her Nurse. Moments of tenderness intervene when she catches sight of her own beautiful self in the mirror.
The heavy pulse, eccentric tone clusters, and fractured harmonies of Masks alerts us to the fact that Romeo and his best mate Mercutio are crashing the party. The widely-spaced arpeggiated chords in the left hand of this piece are a major test of the pianist’s agility and endurance.
Romeo and Juliet meet and dance together for the first time in the most famous and recognizable piece from this ballet, the dance of the Montagues and Capulets. Ominous, elegant, seductive and sinister, this music sums up the entire dramatic conflict of the ballet’s storyline.
This is followed by the calm and soothing reassurances of Friar Laurence, whose quiet dignity and seriousness of purpose is conveyed in the steady deliberate pace of his music portrait.
Mercutio, by contrast, is portrayed as whimsical, brash and self-confident, almost to the point of recklessness. The amount of wide-ranging keyboard scamper in this piece tells us that here is a guy who runs with scissors.
The Dance of Girls with Lilies shows us Juliet’s girlfriends, who have come to wake her up on the day she is to be married to Paris, the husband her family has chosen for her. The recurring minor harmonies in this piece hint that there is something wrong, something unstated but slightly creepy, about her situation.
The finale is an affectionate look back at Romeo and Juliet before Parting after they have spent the night together. Their drowsiness as they are awoken by the rising sun is conveyed by the static harmonies and chiming pedal tone of the opening. A mood of blissful nostalgia hovers over this piece to bring the suite to a close on a note of romantic reverie.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
Waldszenen Op. 82
It is not by chance that Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the founding work of German musical Romanticism, is set in a forest. Nor is it a coincidence that German Romantic poets from Ludwig Tieck to Joseph von Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine extolled the deep spiritual joys of Waldeinsamkeit: ‘alone time’ in a forest.
The Germans, you see, have a thing for forests. In the Teutonic imagination, a forest is a place of primordial re-connection with the restful, wondrous, and sometimes thrillingly spooky elements of Nature, all of which Robert Schumann sets before us in the nine character pieces of his Forest Scenes Op. 82, composed in 1849.
Unfolding as a series of intimate scenes, the set begins with our entry (Eintritt) into a cool and shadow-dappled tree world of murmuring forest sounds, out of which emerges a simple tune suitable for humming, its asymmetrical phrasing evoking the moment-by-moment wandering gaze of the forest stroller.
This idyllic daydream is interrupted by the urgent horn calls and intermittent rifle-fire of Jäger auf der Lauer (hunters lying in wait) who break out into the open to pursue their prey, with echoes of the furious triplets from Schubert’s Erlkönig conveying the excitement of the chase.
The two ‘flower’ pieces that follow are starkly contrasting. The naively simple Einsame Blumen (lonely flowers) proceeds in a gentle, continuous flow of 8th-note melody with a phrase structure as teasingly irregular as that of the opening Eintritt. The eerie double-dotted rhythms of Verrufene Stelle (haunted places) convey the macabre scene described in a poem by Friedrich Hebbel that stands at the head of this piece, describing a dark red flower that draws its colour from earth that has drunk human blood. The Schumann’s wife, the pianist Clara Schumann, refused to play this piece in public, describing it as “haunted music.”
A mood of unfettered delight returns in the rippling triplets and evenly balanced 4-bar phrases of Freundliche Landschaft (friendly landscape) while the comforts of a warm fire and comfy chair are evoked in Herberge (the inn). There is a forthright, almost ‘churchy’ self-confidence in this hymn to hostelry that makes it a perfect representation of Biedermeier coziness.
The most famous piece in the cycle is Vogel als Prophet (bird as prophet), a brilliant piece of sound painting that imitates the flitting of wings as a bird darts from tree to tree. In its chorale-like middle section it sanctifies the mystical powers of aviary prophecy.
There is a triumphal quality to the following Jagdlied (hunting song) that is reminiscent of the finale of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes Op. 13. The hunters in question are obviously in an upbeat mood, returning home with full sacks of game and anticipating the feast to come.
In his song-like farewell (Abschied) to the forest’s flora and fauna Schumann returns to the reflective mood with which the cycle began, enriched, however by numerous references to the melodies and keyboard textures featured in previous scenes.
In the Mists
Janacek’s four-movement piano cycle from 1912 presents us with intimate, personal and emotionally immediate music that stands stylistically on the border between eastern and western Europe. Its sound world is that of the fiddles and cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) of Moravian folk music, as is its use of small melodic fragments, repeated and transformed in various ways. In the composer’s use of harmonic colour, however, there is more than a mist of French impressionism à la Debussy, but an impressionism filtered through Czech ears.
The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetition of a tonally ambivalent 5-note melody, set against non-committal harmonies in the left-hand ostinato. A contrasting middle section brings in a less troubled chorale melody that alternates with, and then struggles against, a cascade of cimbalom-like runs, before the nostalgic return of the melancholy opening material.
The varied repetition of a 4-note motive dominates the many contrasting sections of the Adagio, as a noble but halting melody engages in conversation with rhythmically and melodically transformed versions of itself.
The Andantino is similarly fixated on a single idea, presenting the gracious opening phrase in a number of different keys until it is interrupted by an impetuous development of its accompaniment figure. It ends, however, exactly as it began.
The 4th movement, Presto, with its many changes of metre, is reminiscent of the rhapsodic improvisational style of the gypsy violin. The cimbalom of Moravian folk music can be heard most clearly in the thrumming drones of the left-hand accompaniment and in the occasional washes of metallic tone colour in the right hand.
Out of Doors
In Bartók’s Out of Doors suite of 1926, the sound world of Hungarian village life is projected through a thick lens of aesthetic primitivism in which rhythm and melody alone engage the ear. Traditional harmony, dependent on chord spacing that parallels the layout of the overtone series, has no place in keyboard textures so richly encrusted with tone clusters and bristling with dissonances.
Radical simplification is the modus operandi of these textures. Rhythm is often reduced to a steady beat or ostinato, providing a background pulse to an irregular overlay of melodic fragments of small range and short duration. Notes repeated on the same pitch are a major constituent element in both background and foreground layers of sound. This is chunky, ‘Lego’ music built up from simple rough-hewn elements, but assembled in patterns of considerable sophistication.
The opening With Drums and Pipes divides the piano into two distinct registers. In the deep bass, a loud stuttering volley of sounds, both muffled and clearly-pitched, represents an echoing pair of drums while the mid-range offers up the pipes (i.e., low wind instruments) in a similar imitative interplay of overlapping short motives.
The Barcarolla features the same continuous 8th-note motion, but in a constantly wandering two-voice texture that imitates the rocking motion of a Venetian gondola, over which a plaintive gondolier’s melody struggles to be heard.
The creak and skirl of village bagpipes is portrayed with astonishing accuracy in Musettes, with quicksilver trill figures representing the typical ornamentation patterns of traditional pipe-playing. The questionable tuning of these instruments is conveyed through pungently dissonant drone patterns in the bass.
A heightened awareness of stillness in the night is the principal characteristic of The Night’s Music, with its tightly-packed tone clusters imitative of the eerie nocturnal musings of crickets, cicadas and frogs.
The suite closes with The Chase, a toccata-like romp over hill and dale with a furiously churning ostinato in the left hand that surely must count among the most extreme technical challenges of Bartók’s entire piano output.
Fantasie in C major Op. 17
Schumann’s love life and his admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven interacted in a curious way in the composition of his C major Fantasie Op. 17, his largest and perhaps greatest work for solo piano. In 1836 the path of true love was not running smooth for young Robert as he pined in vain for his beloved Clara, the teenaged daughter of his teacher Friedrich Wieck. The Fantasie’s first movement was composed under the stimulus of these strong emotions and expresses them in a spontaneous flow of soaring melodies and swirling rhapsodic accompaniments that only finds temporary respite in its mysterious middle section Im Legenden-Ton (‘in the character of a legend’).
That same year a civic project was launched to raise a memorial to Beethoven in Bonn, the city of his birth, and Schumann offered to raise funds with the publication of a ‘grand sonata’ in three movements. The tribute to Beethoven may well have been conceived before the first movement was completed, however, as its Adagio coda features a melodic quote from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which could easily have been intended for Clara: “Take, then, these songs [which I have sung for you].”
The second movement is a stirring march of nostril-flaring patriotic fervour that alternates, in rondo fashion, its forthright opening theme with contrasting material in a pervasive dotted rhythm. This movement’s coda features a sustained sequence of hair-raising leaps in opposite directions that test the pianist’s nerves and virtuoso credentials.
The last movement is a poetic reverie that drifts between the gentle unfolding of evocative harmonies murmuring with intimations of melody in the inner voices and more openly songful patches that create their own swells of passionate climax and subsiding emotion.
Schumann’s three-movement ‘sonata’ was eventually published in 1839 under the title “Phantasie” and the monument to Beethoven in Bonn was indeed built, thanks to a generous top-up of funds on the part of Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s work is dedicated. The unveiling took place in 1845, with Queen Victoria, no less, in attendance.
Donald G. Gíslason 2019
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
Six Sonatas K 491 – K 454 – K 239 – K 466 – K 342 – K 146
The 550-odd sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps the most successful works to migrate from the harpsichord to the modern grand piano. Their transparent texture of simple two- and three-part keyboard writing has one foot in the imitative counterpoint of the Baroque while anticipating the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart in their clarity of phrase structure and harmonic simplicity. Especially appealing to modern performers is their pungently flavourful evocations of the popular folk music of the Iberian peninsula, where Scarlatti worked at the royal courts of Spain and Portugal.
A frequent pattern in these works is for technically challenging figurations in the right hand to be repeated in the left, so their value as teaching pieces was recognized early. They were, in fact, first published under the title Esercizi. Their survival in the modern repertoire no doubt derives from the flurries of repeated notes and register-spanning arpeggios that make them such effective vehicles for pianistic display.
The Scarlatti sonatas are typically in binary form, with a first half ending in the dominant and a second half that works its way back from the dominant to the home tonality. They are now referenced by means of the Kirkpatrick (K) numbers assigned to them by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, replacing the less chronologically precise Longo (L) numbers of Alessandro Longo’s first complete edition of 1906.
The sounds of court life come alive in the ceremonial fanfares of trumpets and volleys of brass choirs in the Sonata in D major K 491, with its simple repeated phrases and stomping cadence patterns enhanced with big cadential trills.
A similar ceremonial atmosphere reigns in the repeated-note drum beat of the Sonata in G major K 454 – until it erupts into exuberant multi-octave runs and frothy patterns of keyboard effervescence.
The clicks of castanets are heard in the snappy rhythms of the ever-so-Spanish Sonata in F minor K 239 while the following sonata in the same key (K 466) strikes a more wistful poetic mood with its plaintive whimpering phrases of complaint and heart-breaking cadential harmonies.
The Sonata in A major K 342 chases its own tail with scurrying patterns of scale patterns that only rarely stop to catch their breath.
The final work in the set, the Sonata in G major K 146, balances elegantly trilled scraps of melody with diving arpeggio gestures that suggest the brash strokes of the flamenco guitarist.
The Italian composer Luciano Berio had a gift for aphorism, for saying much and suggesting more in a brief span of time. His Six Encores written between 1965 and 1990 represent well Berio’s fascination with the piano as an instrument that generates pure sound rather than harmony or polyphony. Each piece demonstrates a single process at work, the unfolding of a single formal principle. The first two pieces in the set, for example, are concerned with the resonance that lingers when a piano key is played and not released.
The delicacy of Brin (French for “wisp, strand”) can be intuited from its name. A single, colourfully chromatic chord played at the very end contains all the notes “wispily” spun out before it arrives, the “strands” out of which it is slowly being put together. The pedalling here is watery, the mood reflective and sentimental, in keeping with Berio’s dedication of this piece to a friend who died at the age of 20, commemorated in the chiming of a high B-natural, the highest note in the piece, which occurs exactly 20 times.
In Leaf the overtones of notes held down cast a haze over the fistfuls of tone clusters punched out staccato. This and the preceding Brin, in the kaleidoscopic variety of viewpoints from which they present the same small amount of tonal material, have been compared to a “sound mobile” twisting in the air, to be taken in from all sides.
The four remaining pieces view the piano as a means of evoking the qualities of the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – and are named to associate each element with the keyboard (Klavier) of the instrument.
Wasserklavier is devoted to water and has been called “a loving forgery.” It re-imagines the Brahms Intermezzo in B flat minor Op. 117 No. 2 and the Schubert Impromptu in F minor Op. 142 No. 1 by passing their motivic components through a “refracted” contemporary lens. The descending 2nds of the Brahms Intermezzo, in particular, seem to come at the ear as if from a kind of fun-house distorting mirror.
Erdenklavier evokes the solidity of the earth with ringing open intervals – 4ths and 5ths – in a single line of melody featuring notes struck at widely differing dynamic levels and pedalled so as to last different amounts of time.
Luftklavier paints the air, a medium vibrating with energy, thanks to a colourful ostinato in the mid-range against which isolated pitches play in the wind on either side. The persistent fluttering tremolos in the score are reminiscent of Debussy while the rat-tat-tat of repeated notes recall Prokofieff’s Toccata Op. 11.
The last in the series of “elemental” pieces, Feuerklavier, rivals Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme in its tremolo-crazed depiction of the unpredictable patterns of flickering flames as they lick the air.
Sonata in B flat major D 960
It would be wrong to judge Schubert by the standards set by Beethoven, who represented the logical extension of an outgoing rationalist Classical age. Schubert represented the intuited beginning of a new Romantic age, an age in which formal models, previously held together by patterns of key relationships and motivic manipulation, would find coherence in a new kind of structural glue based on the psychological drama of personal experience.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Schubert’s approach to the Classical era’s pre-eminent formal structure, the sonata. Like a good tailor adjusting an old suit, he lets out the seams of strict sonata form to allow it to breathe with the new lyrical air of his age. Concision and argumentative density are replaced with timeless daydreaming and lyrical breadth. Schubert’s sonata movements often contain three major themes instead of the standard two, arrived at and departed from by way of unexpected, sometimes startling modulatory surprizes. By this means he blunted the expectation that a sonata-form movement would be about resolving large-scale tonal tensions. Rather, he directed the listener’s attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of melodic contours and harmonic colours. And yet even these moments are frequently punctuated by thoughtful pauses. In the end, what Schubert aims to create is a balanced and satisfying collection of lyrical experiences within the formal markers of the traditional sonata: exposition, development, and recapitulation.
Given these lyrical aims, it should not be surprizing that he favoured moderate tempos such as the Molto moderato of the first movement of his Sonata in B flat D 960, a work composed just months before his death in 1828. Its opening theme features a peaceful melody, with a hint of pathos in its second strain, supported by a simple pulsing accompaniment and ending with a mysterious trill at the bottom of the keyboard. This trill will be an important structural marker in the movement, repeated (loudly) at the first ending of the exposition and just before the start of the recapitulation.
A second theme of a more serious cast and a third of hopping broken chords round out the exposition, each passing fluidly between the major and minor modes like a tonal dual citizen, mirroring the dual modes of sweet yearning and inner anxiety that characterize the composer’s ‘outsider’ persona generally in works such as Die Winterreise. Major becomes minor and minor major as well in the development, which maintains the initial pulse of the opening as it builds to a fierce climax.
The second movement Andante sostenuto is surreal in its starkly spare texture of layered sonorities, featuring a somber but halting melody in the mid-range surrounded on both sides by a rocking accompaniment figure that quietly resounds like the echo inside a stone tomb. Only Schubert could create such a melody, one that combines sad elegy with tender reminiscence and pleading prayer, relieved only by the nostalgic strains of the movement’s songful middle section.
The third movement scherzo is surprizingly smooth-flowing in a genre known for its mischievous wit, but mixes it up with twinkling echo effects in the high register and exchanges of melodic material between treble and bass. The trio is more sombre and contained, expressing its personality more through syncopations, sudden accents, and major-minor ambiguities than through wide-ranging scamper and exuberance.
One might actually think that some of the lightness of mood from the previous movement had influenced the start of the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which keeps wanting to start in the ‘wrong’ key (C minor, for a movement in B flat), but quickly sorts itself out to offer us one of Schubert’s most unbuttoned, ‘bunnies-hopping-in-a-box’ merry themes. And more still await us as a gloriously songful melody takes over, only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatically forceful new motive in a dotted rhythm that charges in, like a SWAT team breaking down the door of an evil-doer’s lair. But it was all a misunderstanding, of course, and these threatening minor-mode motives are soon dropped in favour of an almost parodistic variant of the same material in the major mode, something that kindergarten children might skip to at recess. The force of Schubert’s imagination ensures that this last movement of his last sonata is as vivid and riotous a ride through the rondo genre as that of his Erlkönig “through night and wind.”
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