Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B-flat Major, Hob. XVI:41
In 1784 Haydn wrote three keyboard sonatas for Princess Marie, the new bride of Prince Nicholas Esterházy, grandson of Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas I. Each is a two- movement work, without a lyrical slow movement, perhaps reflecting the taste of the young Princess for lighter fare.
The second in the set, the Sonata in B-flat, begins in a spirit of pageantry with an emphasis on sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent coy changes in dynamics, indicating clearly that the work was intended for performance on the fortepiano, which had largely replaced the harpsichord by the 1780s.
The female breast is given ample room to heave beneath its stiff lace bodice with the arrival of a restlessly modulating second subject dark with minor-mode colouring and rippling triplet accompaniment. A rich variety of ornamentation in the form of trills and turns maintains a high level of elegance in the melodic flow throughout.
The second movement Allegro di molto strikes a quasi-learned tone with its freely contrapuntal texture of answering phrases and its lively chatter of small leaps in dialogue with smooth runs and churning broken chords, all within the grasp of the delicate hand of a princess. In this movement as well, a minor-mode shadow falls melodramatically over the proceedings, only to be banished by a cheerful reprise of the opening material, tastefully varied at its return.
Kreisleriana Op. 16
Violinist Johannes Kreisler represented, for Robert Schumann, the very essence of the new Romantic spirit in art. This eccentric, hypersensitive character from the fiction of E. T. A. Hoffmann was a cross between Nicolò Paganini and Dr. Who, an enigmatic, emotionally volatile figure committed to plumbing the depths of his creative soul.
Schumann’s tribute to this symbol of creativity in art, his Kreisleriana of 1838, is as wildly inventive and emotionally unstable as the artistic personality it describes. Each of the eight pieces that make up the work comprises contrasting sections that reflect the split in Schumann’s own creative personality, a bipolar duo of mood identities to which he self-consciously gave the names Florestan and Eusebius.
Florestan, Schumann’s passionate, action-oriented side, opens the work Äußerst bewegt (extremely agitated) with a torrential outpouring of emotion that only halts when the introspective daydreamer Eusebius takes over with more tranquil lyrical musings. The pairing is reversed in the following movement, Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very intimate and not too fast), which begins thoughtfully but is twice interrupted by sections of a much more rambunctious character.
Schumann’s inventiveness in creating this series of mood-swing pieces is astonishing. Each is a psychologically compelling portrait of a distinct temperamental state, enriched and made whole by embracing its opposite.
Projecting these portraits is no easy task for the pianist as Schumann’s writing, especially in slower sections, often features a choir of four fully active voices with melodies as likely to rise up from the bass, or to emerge out of the middle of the keyboard, as to sing out from on top. Indeed, the smooth part-writing and polyphonic texture of many sections points to another prominent feature of Schumann’s writing: his great admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Schumann’s desire to give a Bachian solidity of structure to his writing is most evident not only in his four-voice harmonization textures, but also in his use of close three-voice stretto in the 5th movement and fugato in the 7th, not to mention the many extended passages based on a single rhythmic pattern in the manner of a Bach prelude.
But most remarkable in this work is the sense of mystery and unease that it radiates as a result of the pervasive use of rhythmic displacement in the bass, where strong notes often fail to coincide with the strong beats of the bar, in imitation of the unregulated movement of tectonic plates of thought and feeling in the mind of the creative artist.
Anton von Webern
Variations Op. 27
The 12-tone system of composition propagated in the early 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, and employed by his students Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, presents a daunting challenge for audiences accustomed to listening for tunes to hum in the shower and rhythms to inspire a tapping motion in their footwear. The density of intellectual content of this music is far out of proportion with the ability of even seasoned musicians to perceive its organizing principles on a first listening.
And yet, like modernist works of abstract art that pull in the viewer’s attention at a visceral level, 12-tone works such as Webern’s Variations Op. 27 can exercise an unexpected fascination that requires no explanation.
So in listening to this three-movement work, it is merely necessary to be aware of the scale of listening at which the composer wishes to engage his audience, and that scale, in comparison with traditional music in the repertoire, is the minute. This is music for listening with an “aural magnifying glass,” music of pointillist patterns of sound unconnected to scales or keys, the elegance of which lies in the symmetry of its gestures and balance of its tonal patterning.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in A Major, Op. 101
The works of Beethoven’s late period see him writing with a more relaxed approach to form and a wider sound palette, one that in the case of his piano music reaches out to the extreme ends of the keyboard. This is music of an increasingly personal stamp, wilfully pushing towards new expressive horizons with a confidence that virtually defines this composer’s ‘brand’.
His Sonata in A major Op. 101 presents us with two pairs of contrasting movements. Movements 1 and 3 are lyrical and reflective, with little by way of strong profiling in either tonality or rhythm. They seem to flow onward at the pace of personal thought and feeling. Movements 2 and 4 are punchier, driven by the momentum of a large-scale formal plan, with a decisive rhythmic edge and clear tonal outlines at the heart of which lies a yearning for the rigour of serious imitative counterpoint.
The work opens with a movement of great gentleness of expression, almost a meditation, full of rippling pulses rather than strong beats. Its exposition goes by in a single page, more a succession of dream states than a delineation of contrasting ideas, and its development merely seems to intensify rather than challenge the prevailing mood.
The second movement is a bold and forthright march with sharply chiselled dotted rhythms peppered with points of imitation (of a kind that may have inspired the fifth movement of Schumann’s Kreisleriana) and an even more formally contrapuntal trio.
The slow movement is surprisingly short, more an intermezzo than a formally poised exposition of lyrical thoughts. With an air of improvisation it follows a little melodic turn figure through a series of harmonic adventures culminating in a daydreaming cadenza and a reminiscence of the sonata’s opening bars.
An ear-catching flourish of trills leads us into the finale, a sonata movement brimming with exuberance and good-humoured melodies drawn from country life, including an Austrian mountain yodel and a rollicking contradance. Each is presented from the outset with its own imitative echo, preparing us for the full-on fugue that breaks out in the development section. By his use of the extreme low register Beethoven turns the lowest voice in the fugue into a kind of basso buffo from comic opera, humorously out of place in such a learned context.
Four Dances from Czech Dances (Book II)
Bedřich Smetana was among the first composers to promote a distinctly Czech style of music in the 19th century during a period of rising nationalist sentiment in his native Czech homeland. His best-known works are his comic opera The Bartered Bride and the set of six symphonic poems based on themes from Bohemian country life entitled Má Vlast (my homeland).
Smetana was a gifted pianist and composed more for the piano than for any other instrument, with dance music playing an important role in his projection of the Czech national style. His second set of Czech Dances dates from 1879 and are intended to be artful examples of the actual music that might accompany Czech folk dancing.
Medved (The Bear) is a heavily textured stomping piece combining duple and triple metres to paint the lumbering gait of the bear, with a much sweeter middle section that imitates the sounds of the Czech bagpipes.
Hulán (The Lancer) is a slow, tender dance evoking the love of a young girl for her soldier boyfriend. Despite the subdued mood, an underlying current of intense yearning provides the performer with the occasion for flamboyant pianistic display.
Slepička (The Hen) is a vivid portrait of the race of barnyard fowl immortalized by Rameau’s La Poule and the animated film Chicken Run. Smetana’s hen is a busy creature indeed, with a daily agenda full of strutting, clucking and feathery flapping, all to a polka rhythm occasionally put humorously off-stride by unpredictable changes in metre.
Skočná (Hop Dance) is an exhilarating stomping dance for couples that sees its participants whirling each other ever more frenetically around in circles with a joyous, almost madcap abandon.
Donald G. Gíslason 2015