Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in A flat, Op. 26
Beethoven begins to move away from the norms of the classical tradition in this unconventional four-movement sonata without a single movement in traditional sonata- allegro form. It opens with a noble, almost ceremonial theme with five variations, all based, to some degree, on the principle of rhythmic displacement. The first variation arpeggiates the theme in different registers, as if played by different members of a chamber ensemble or orchestra. The second staggers the melody and accompaniment between the two hands to create a choppy but propulsive texture of relentless off-beats. A much slower pattern of syncopation between the hands is featured in the minor-mode third variation, which draws dark and grave significance from the theme in the unusual key of A flat minor—perhaps the first time this seven-flatted key signature had ever been used. The syncopation is given a brighter face in the playfully hide-and-seek changes of register in the whimsical 4th variation. The fifth is the most orchestral of all, placing the theme in the alto and surrounding it on both sides with a rich rolling texture of chordal arpeggios and the kind of written out trills that would feature prominently in the late sonatas.
In another break with tradition, Beethoven places the scherzo (stand-in for the classical minuet) second in the four-movement structure and by so doing shifts the centre of gravity in the work to the funeral march that follows. For the moment, though, we hear in this movement the exuberant Beethoven boyishly at play, balancing the skipping short phrases and off-beat sforzando accents of the opening with the smooth long stretches of melody in the trio middle section.
The funeral march third movement, when it comes, is weighty indeed, its significance enlarged by the motto Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe (Funeral march on the death of a hero). The dramatic events of the French Revolution had made heroic death—and the public commemoration of it—the subject of intense fascination in the public imagination and Beethoven joined a number of his contemporaries by appealing to this fascination in his music. Most striking in this march is the orchestral texture of the middle section, with its tremolo drum rolls answered by defiant trumpet retorts. This movement was performed, orchestrally, at Beethoven’s own funeral in 1827.
After this funeral march has done the heavy lifting to make this Grande Sonate live up to its name, it falls to the last movement to walk us home from the funeral in a rondo that Edwin Fischer described as “a gentle autumn rain.” By turns blithely conversational and dramatically forthright, this moto perpetuo rounds out a strikingly original four-movement sonata that by its pianissimo ending reveals itself more concerned with poetry than pomp.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the composer of that other funeral march, Frédéric Chopin, included this sonata in his performing repertoire.
Frédéric Chopin: Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
The idea of free-flowing musical fantasy, unconstrained by pre-conceived formal patterning, was well known to Chopin from an early age. As a boy he would entertain his classmates at his father’s boarding school by improvising at the piano on Polish popular melodies. Liszt, among others, relates how he would do the same at aristocratic social gatherings of the Polish exile community in Paris.
There is reason to believe, then, that his Fantaisie, Op. 49 of 1841 is composed in the spirit of such improvisations, containing as it does nostalgic allusions to many patriotic tunes sung by Poles in the aftermath of the failed insurrection of November 1830 in Warsaw.
Emblematic of the free associative processes at work in the piece is the opening march—a genre little known for emotional or psychological complexity. And yet Chopin imbues it with an aura of mystery, not only from its slow pace and low register on the keyboard, but also from the vaguely tragic echoes that reply to it from above. What begins as the clop-clop of horses’ hooves in a ghostly military parade glides imperceptibly into the lilting pulse of a graceful dance fit for the salon. Similar patterns of free association mark the main sections of the work, which are separated by improvisatory bridge passages featuring a flurry of arpeggiated figuration spanning the keyboard.
The main thematic material passes through musical moods that progress from anxiety to sanguine exuberance, then defiance (expressed in a series of octaves in contrary motion) and finally military triumph (in a more traditional march). These musical associations pivot on either side of a remarkable still point in the middle of the work, its elegaic Lento sostenuto, nostalgically recalled at the closing of the piece in an evocative recitative.
Camille Saint-Saëns (arr. Liszt/Horowitz): Danse macabre
Centuries before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the zombie craze of recent years, legend held that the dead would dance to the infernal tunes of Death himself playing the fiddle. Arising from their graves at the stroke of twelve, they would shake, rattle and roll their skeletal bones through the night until the cock’s crow at dawn sent them scurrying back under their tombstones.
Such is the scene of the Danse macabre of Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1874. Originally a tone poem for orchestra, the work quickly became available in any number of transcriptions and arrangements—including one, surprisingly, for church organ.
Pictorially vivid, learnedly constructed, and transparently textured, it bears all the marks of the French musical imagination. Pictorial touches within the score include the tolling of the midnight bell, represented by the 12 repeated half-notes on D that open the piece. This is followed by the playful, rocking motif of the “Devil’s interval” (tritone) symbolizing Death’s fiddle. The work’s middle section includes a fugato (easily imagined as a round dance) and concludes with the musical representation of the cock’s crowing at dawn to bring an end to the devilish merriment.
Liszt’s attraction to the work is not hard to understand. He was well-known for his virtuoso transcriptions of opera classics such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bellini’s Norma and the toxic mix of religion and death had already infused such works as his own Totentanz for piano and orchestra, as well as piano solo pieces such as Funerailles. This transcription is a tour de force of rumbling tremolos in the bass, kaleidoscopic passagework in the treble and flying octaves throughout.
Vladimir Horowitz, no mean transcriber himself, freely altered Liszt’s arrangement of the Saint-Saens work, thickening some passages to add greater resonance, thinning out others to make them “speak” more effectively on the modern piano, and even adding extra bars to the score, starting with the misty cadenza that immediately follows the tolling of the midnight bells at the work’s opening.
The Danse macabre that results is thus a refracting prism of the picturesque, virtuoso and pianistic contributions of three great exponents of the Romantic tradition in music.
Franz Schubert: Impromptus Op. 90, Nos. 2 & 3
The impromptu is just one of a number of small-scale instrumental genres arising in the early 19th century, known under the collective title of character pieces. Cultivated by composers in the emerging Romantic movement, these pieces presented a simple musical idea in an intimate lyrical style with the aim of evoking a particular mood or moment of personal reflection, spontaneously experienced and communicated.
The typical construction was a simple three-part form (A-B-A), with a middle section that contrasts in mood or emotional intensity with the outer sections. The eight impromptus that Schubert composed in late 1827 are classic examples of the genre, and indeed are the first pieces bearing the name impromptu to establish themselves permanently in the repertoire.
The Impromptu in G flat, Op. 90, No. 3 presents a lyrical vocal melody over melt-in-your-mouth harmonies laid out in a gentle but ever-moving accompaniment pattern that perfectly paints the fluttering of the human heart.
A much wider emotional range is explored in the Impromptu in E flat, Op. 90, No. 2, which contrasts the carefree mood of its opening running scale passages with a more emphatic middle section dominated by vigorous emotional outbursts. Recent developments in the design of the Viennese piano made possible the extreme range of the right-hand scalar passages, which Schubert exploits to create thrilling crescendos in the high register.
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Ravel’s depiction of three poems from the collection by French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand strikes terror into the hearts of pianists and listeners alike. Its audience enters a dark but lucid dream world of the magical, the macabre, and the grotesque while the performer confronts pianistic challenges unique in the repertoire of his instrument.
Written expressly to be, in the words of the composer, “more difficult than Islamey” by Balakirev, Ravel’s 1908 masterpiece bristles with the kinds of pianistic difficulties only the Impressionists could create: fleet patterns of figuration across the full range of the keyboard interspersed with colorful but dense tone structures that must be parsed, at a lightning pace, with extreme delicacy of pedaling and with infinitely fine gradations of dynamics.
Ondine is a mermaid who whispers her message of seduction into the ear of a mortal man, trying to tempt him to join her in her shimmering watery world. When he confesses that he is married already, she disappears in a burst of laughter and brilliant splashes of scattered water.
Le Gibet paints the picture of a man hanging from the scaffold, the slight swaying of his body grimly imitated throughout by the implacable ringing of a repeated B-flat in the mid-range of the keyboard as the sifted sonorities of surrounding chord streams evoke the setting sun.
Scarbo is a dwarfish evil imp that flits about the room terrifying a man in his bed. It buzzes in dark corners and dances menacingly in and out of the shadows until, like the flame of a burning candle, it vaporizes into the air and its presence is extinguished.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.