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Sonata in A major D574
The adolescent Schubert was a busy young man indeed. Fresh from single-handedly inventing the 19th-century German art song (the Lied) at the tender age of 17, he subsequently developed a teenage crush on the violin which in the space of 18 months moved him to compose no less than 4 sonatas for the instrument, as well as a set of violin duets and two works for violin and orchestra.
These youthful exploits on both the vocal and instrumental fronts are not unconnected. Schubert’s Sonata in A major (1817) takes every opportunity to turn this stringed instrument into a salon vocalist in textures that highlight the violin’s capacity to sing, while not neglecting its other persona as a fleet-footed scampering elf.
The Sonata’s Allegro moderato first movement opens in a relaxed vein with a gently loping piano figure over which the violin breathes out a genial, long-limbed melody that seems never to want to end. A reasonable facsimile of a Beethovenian development section diverts our attention to a bit of knitting that needs doing on the ravelled sleeve of care, but Schubert’s heart really isn’t into confrontation so he returns as soon as possible to the lyric impulse of the opening in a recapitulation that floats blissfully back to the world of song.
Where Schubert more successfully channels Beethoven is in the Presto second movement scherzo, full of irregular phrase lengths, dynamic contrasts and harmonic surprizes, with a jumpy violin part leaping in every which direction. The middle-section trio is, by contrast, coyly chromatic, all eyebrows in its pursuit of melodic nuance.
Schubert surprises us with a moderately paced Andantino third movement instead of the traditional deeply lyrical adagio. Lyrical melody is indeed the initial starting point, but this movement has more on its mind than simple songfulness and plays out much in the way of a dramatic scene between violin and piano.
The Allegro vivace finale returns to the spirit of the scherzo with upward darting piano figures and a restless urge to acrobatics in the violin, all of these high jinks alternating with less frenzied moments of tuneful gaiety.
Sonata for Violin & Piano
The music of Janáček has many wondrously strange qualities. Intimate and yet oddly exotic, it sits stylistically on the border between Eastern and Western Europe. One hears the thrum of the Moravian cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) but filtered through a misty veil of French impressionism. This is music of great terseness and concentration, its emotional intensity deriving from its use of short motives, often repeated, and swift changes of tempo. A frequent device is the three-note “hook-motive” consisting of three notes connected by a short interval followed by a long interval.
Just such a motive provides the principal melodic material for the first movement of this sonata. Presented both in long lyrical quarter notes and brief, aphoristic 32nds, it is woven densely through the fabric of the entire movement in constantly varied form. Notable in the piano part is the vibrating hum of the dulcimer, conveyed in tremolos and gestures reminiscent of that hammered instrument.
The same compositional process of continually varying a short repeated melodic motive is used in the second movement, as well, but to more lyrical ends. In this movement two theme threads of repeated motives are varied in turn, but at a more leisurely pace than in the previous movement. Harp-like piano arpeggios of the utmost delicacy give the central episode an admirable simplicity and charm.
The Allegretto third movement is structured in the A-B-A form of a traditional scherzo, with lively rambunctious music in the A section and a B section of a more sustained lyrical quality. Notable is how the piano still thinks it’s a dulcimer, buzzing away at the opening with a sonority-building left-hand trill and later hammering out its modal melody with a blunt force of attack.
The sonata ends with an Adagio final movement based on the implications of yearning contained in the piano’s opening 4-note phrase. At first reluctant to join in the reverie, the violin lets the piano take the lead, but then gets drawn into the lyrical up-draught and takes over the 4-note phrase as its own to make it soar over an outpouring of throbbing tremolos in the piano. Its fever spent, the movement’s emotional intensity drains away to an enigmatically quiet end.
Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
While Bartók’s ethnomusicological research into Hungarian folk music left an identifiable mark on his own music, he was not writing directly in the folk idiom, but rather in a highly stylized version of that idiom. His melodies are much more complex, and certainly more chromatic than Hungarian folk melodies, and his harmonic structures equally so. This is quite evident in his technically challenging Violin Sonata No. 2, written in 1922.
The gypsy improvisational style of playing provides one of the most obvious connections between the music of the rural countryside and his artistic transformation of it in this sonata. There is a willfulness to this music, an amalgam of high seriousness and emotional volatility, conveyed by the many changes in tempo marked in the score, that makes it especially compelling to listen to.
The first movement opens with a single low note on the piano answered by pulsing repetitions on a single note much higher up in the violin that then lead to a series of improvisatory musings. The two performing instruments seem to be staking out separate sound domains for themselves. And indeed the violin in this sonata largely moves in long phrases of wide-ranging melody, with many searingly intense high held notes, while the piano moves in austerely structured chord patterns or percussive attacks. There is really very little musical material that the two instruments share between them although they do appear to be in dialogue, or at least motivated by the same waves of emotional intensity as they travel along.
The second movement, which follows immediately, is on a more regular rhythmic footing. The pulse of the dance animates much this movement, as well as a distinctly acrobatic urge on the part of both instruments as moments of madcap frenzy alternate with pauses for lyrical reflection. After many an exhilarating climax is reached the opening improvisatory musings in the violin return to wind down the momentum of the movement to a point of stillness. In the final bars the instruments retreat to the high and low extremes of the sound spectrum where they began at the sonata’s opening.
Rondo in B minor D 895
The name ‘Schubert’ is not one you would normally associate with virtuoso violin music but his Rondo in B minor, published in 1827 under the title Rondo brillant, makes a fair case for the connection. This work was a display vehicle written especially for the young Czech superstar violinist Josef Slavík (1806-1833), whom Chopin called “a second Paganini.”
Structured in two large parts, it features an introductory Andante followed immediately by an Allegro in sonata-rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), a hybrid of the simple rondo toggling between a fixed refrain and contrasting sections and the sonata, with its play of key relationships and central development section.
The Introduction begins imposingly with the double-dotted rhythms of a Baroque French overture in the piano, answered by a pair of dazzling runs rocketing up to the high register – just to let you know who the star of the show is going to be. With the piano playing the role of orchestral straight man to the violin’s moody poet, more tuneful song-lines emerge to showcase the young fiddler’s finer sensibilities, although they are constantly being interrupted by stern double-dotted warnings from the fatherly piano.
The tension built up from this family drama is relieved when the Allegro gives both instruments common cause in propelling more uniformly rhythmic impulses to the fore. Although titularly in B minor, the main refrain theme of this rondo self-identifies as trans-tonal (the work actually ends in B major), but all such distinctions are rendered moot by the free and easy hand that Schubert uses when applying his modulatory magic.
The peppy dancelike air of the movement takes a military turn in the B theme and even the relatively more relaxed and lyrical C section can’t get a persistent dotted rhythm out of its head. A coda to rival that of any Rossini overture threatens the structural integrity of the roof, bringing the house down in a mad dash to the finish.
Sonatina for violin & piano in A minor D. 385
It humbles me to think, paraphrasing Tom Lehrer, that when Schubert was my age, he had already been dead for several decades. Lest I forget, there are his first three sonatas for violin and piano, which he composed in a sprint of creative friskiness during the spring of 1816, at the tender age of 19. Youthful as these works may be, their naïve charm shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the models left by Mozart, and something of the path being charted by Beethoven, whose work he much admired.
But why, enquiring minds will want to know, are these works known as sonatinas when they have every claim to the more dignified title of sonata? The answer lies in their publication history. In the bohemian margins of Viennese life in which young Franz lived, not every work issuing from his pen found a place in print, at least not during his lifetime. In fact most didn´t. The manuscripts were gradually fed to publishers after his death and it was they, the publishers, who christened them with names suitable to the market of the time. So the works which Schubert himself referred to as his violin sonatas, when published by Anton Diabelli in 1836 as the composer’s Op. 137, were marketed as “Sonatinas” in order to plump up sales in the expanding market for amateur music-making.
The choice of A minor as the key of the second in this set is a nod toward Beethovenian drama. Even more so is the opening texture of half notes against a throbbing left-hand chordal accompaniment, immediately recognizable from the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 14, No. 1. Also dramatically Beethovenian are the widely spaced intervals of the piano´s melodic line, followed by wider, even more daring leaps in the violin. It is not long, however, before Schubert’s characteristic songfulness surfaces in the tuneful second theme, following which a fair bit of fan-fluttering in the piano texture completes the musical material treated in this sonata-form movement. The development section is short and uneventful, the recapitulation without surprizes.
The second movement Andante opens with a melody of great dignity and poise. Constructed out of simple note values and expressively ending its phrases with feminine endings, this melody gives the violin ample scope to charm the ear with its singing tone. A contrasting section with more varied harmonic colouring and smaller note values alternates with the opening theme to create a formal structure of balanced repose.
The Menuetto is diminutive in form and emotional range. While formally in a frowning D minor it constantly wants to lean over and smell the roses in F major.
The last movement is the most compositionally intense of the work. Although it opens in the manner of the other movements with a simple singable melody, it soon works itself into a froth of thematic development that lets us know who studied counterpoint, and who didn´t.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata for violin & piano in C minor Op. 30 No. 2
You are always in for a good ride when Beethoven writes in C minor. There is something about this key that brings out his ‘classic’ persona as the composer capable of developing fragmentary, enigmatic utterances into explosions of fist-shaking defiance. And more often than not, he also surprizes us with his grandeur of spirit by offering remarkable displays of lyrical eloquence, and even playful humour, in the same work.
On this score, the Sonata in C minor Op. 30, No. 2 will not disappoint. Its tense and brooding outer movements enclose two much more unbuttoned inner movements that provide repose and distraction from the overarching mood of psychological turmoil. Composed in the spring of 1802 under the composer’s recognition of his increasing deafness, the three sonatas of Op. 30 were published the following year as “Three Sonatas for the Pianoforte with the Accompaniment of Violin.”
This decades-old naming practice points back to a time when free-standing piano sonatas were published with an optional, and relatively easy violin part patched over top to provide increased opportunities for participation in a home-entertainment setting. Beethoven’s violin part, however, is anything but optional or amateur in nature. It dialogues fully and freely with the piano throughout, and the number of double and triple stops in the score indicates clearly that it was composed for the professional violinist. That said, the wide-ranging piano part would have to count as the major contributor to the rich carpet of sound characterizing the work as a whole.
The first movement shows Beethoven playing with his thematic material like a cat playing with a mouse. It opens with a menacing motive that ends with a throw-away gesture. Pauses add to the suspense until the violin takes up this material, with the piano rumbling below. Contrast comes with the second theme, a simple little march of Mozartean stamp that adds a dotted rhythm to the movement’s thematic mix. The exposition is not repeated but, as if by compensation, the recapitulation has an extended coda, an innovation that was to become a hallmark of Beethoven’s expansion of sonata form.
The second movement in ternary form is a study in calm, tranquil lyricism, its middle section exploring slightly more dark, minor-mode territory than its dignified opening theme. Remarkable in this movement is the variety of decorative patterns that Beethoven finds to give a richly textured background to his melodies.
The third movement is an emotionally healthy scherzo in the untroubled key of C major, full of musical wit and compositional surprizes. The grace notes of the opening theme contribute to a skipping, tripping momentum that is quickly subverted by accents on unexpected beats of the bar. The Trio plays humorous havoc with the squareness of its canonic melody by confusing the beat count with off-beat accents in the lead-up to the cadence.
Drama returns in a big way in the sonata-rondo finale. It opens with a rumble and a harmonic hand grenade—an augmented 6th chord—tossed into the air, requiring immediate resolution to the dominant. The intervening refrains are generally less confrontational, rarely rising above the threat-level of wicked merriment, but a furious coda reminds us never to underestimate the enormous reserves of emotional energy this composer has to draw on.
Sonata for viola & piano in F minor Op. 120, No. 1
We owe this sonata to the interest that Brahms had in the clarinet near the end of his life as a result of hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinet of the Meiningen court orchestra. The two sonatas for clarinet or viola that he published in 1895 as his Op. 120 are among the very last works published during his lifetime, revealing his last thoughts on the form of the classical sonata.
The Sonata in F minor is a darkly lyrical work that exploits the low range of the viola. In the course of its four movements it moves from a mood of passionate yearning into steadily brighter emotional territory to end, exceptionally for a minor-key Brahms sonata, with a finale in the major mode.
We see the economy of Brahms’ musical thought at the very beginning of the first movement. While the wide-ranging melody presented by the viola in bar 5 is the apparent main theme of the movement, it is the opening motive, the first four notes of the short piano introduction of bars 1-4, that dominates musical discussion from start to finish. This simple motive is still echoing in the ear at the end of the coda, marked Sostenuto ed espressivo.
The mood of calm reflection continues into the second movement, Andante un poco adagio. Apart from the opening poco forte there are only two more bars of forte in the entire movement, which is dominated by the markings piano, dolce, espressivo and pianissimo. Remarkable in this movement is the thinly textured piano part, a scoring that allows the viola to sing out melodically throughout. This is especially important when the opening melody is repeated later on in the lowest range of the instrument.
The Allegretto grazioso third movement sees Brahms at his most grandfatherly in an affectionate intermezzo that can’t help but tip occasionally into a lilting Austrian Ländler. Even the darkish implications of its minor-mode middle section are lightened by the syncopated ‘rain-drop’ texture in the piano.
The bright mood so far established is given a firmer rhythmic base in the fourth movement, a rondo in the eye-brow-raising key of F major (for a sonata that began so seriously in F minor). The three bell-like repeated notes announced at its opening pop up everywhere in this exuberant finale, which is flecked by quicksilver changes of harmonic colour and joyously chummy exchanges between the two instruments.
Notes by Donald G. Gíslason, Ph.D.
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.
Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise
The art songs of Franz Schubert lie at the foundation of the lied genre itself, and at the pinnacle of Schubert’s lieder output stands Die Winterreise, a song cycle remarkable for its vivid musical portraits of the human heart smarting from the pains of love lost, and stoically resigned to the approach of death.
Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, it sets to music a selection of poems by Wilhelm Müller published in 1823 and 1824 under the title Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn-Player. Unlike the composer’s previous song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (set to texts by the same poet), Winterreise presents more of a slide show than a plot, as all of the important action has taken place before the narration begins. The narrator- singer is heard in conversation with his own heart, by turns reflective, questioning, ironic, and finally resigned. In this speculative frame of mind, he drifts fluidly between the world of his dreams and the bitter reality he faces.
At issue is a love affair gone wrong. The wanderer’s beloved has broken off their relationship to marry a richer man, leaving him despairing and alone with his thoughts, which travel through dark territory as he traverses village and country settings after leaving her house.
The work was composed in two separate parts in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, making the terminal illness from which he was suffering one obvious point of reference. But the poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a presentation of moods, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.
The cast of characters with whom the narrator interacts are elements of the natural landscape (sun, wind, trees and leaves, flowers, rivers and snow, crows and ravens), elements that form symbolic company for his journey. Schubert’s achievement in setting these poems is to give musical life to these images, not only in the contours of the singer’s melody, but especially in the pictorial vividness of the piano score. The piano serves as more than mere accompaniment: it often acts out the role of the external surroundings through which the singer travels.
And yet a paradox pervades this piano score. It is both richly allusive and unusually austere. Benjamin Britten, in discussing Schubert’s artistry, outlines the performers’ challenge in these terms:
One of the most alarming things I always find, when performing this work, is that there is actually so little on the page. He gets the most extraordinary moods and atmospheres with so few notes. And there aren’t any gloriously wishy-washy arpeggios to help you. You’ve got to create the mood by these few chords. He leaves it all very much up to the performers.
GUTE NACHT (Good Night)
“A stranger I came, a stranger I depart.” Beginning his lonely journey at a walking pace, our wanderer bids farewell to the house of his beloved, slipping off into the night accompanied only by the shadow of the moon. “Love wanders willingly,” he notes, with irony.
DIE WETTERFAHNE (The Weathervane)
The piano imitates a weathervane spinning atop his beloved’s house as the singer wonders about those inside. Do their affections also change with the wind? Why should they care about him, when their daughter is marrying a rich man?
GEFRORNE TRÄNEN (Frozen Tears)
To the drip-drip sounds of the piano, he asks how his tears can have frozen to his cheek so soon. They were hot enough to melt ice when they poured from his heart. Alternating major & minor harmonies evoke both the warmth of feeling and the chill in the air of this scene.
Stunned by the loss of his love, he searches frantically for any piece of green grass beneath the snow to remind him of happier times. But all is dead around, like his frozen heart. The agitated piano accompaniment portrays his inner turmoil, while the avoidance of cadence at the end paints his inability to let her memory go.
DER LINDENBAUM (The Linden Tree)
As a chill wind blows in the fluttering piano accompani- ment, he passes by a tree into which he once carved words of love. Once the emblem of his happiness, it now offers him eternal rest beneath its branches. The simple tuneful- ness of this melody has made it into a well-known German folksong, Am Brunnen vor dem Tore.
WASSERFLUT (Flood Water)
He muses on how the snow will absorb his tears, then thaw in the spring and flow with them into the stream. The flow of this stream will feel their warmth once again as it passes his beloved’s house.
AUF DEM FLUSSE (On the River)
The ice covering the river, on which he has carved the story of his love affair, is like his heart: it rages with a torrent beneath. Near the end, the piano pulses with signs of his inner torment.
RÜCKBLICK (Looking Backward)
Pursued by crows as he breathlessly escapes, the wanderer casts a nostalgic glance back at the town he is leaving, once so pleasant to his memory. And looking back, he still longs to stand in front of her house once again.
IRRLICHT (Will o’ the Wisp)
The flickering light of a will o’ the wisp, imitated in the piano part, leads him astray into a mountain chasm. He has no worries, though, for as rivers lead to the sea, so human miseries, like the will o’ the wisp, are but a game, all leading to the grave.
Pausing from the fatigue of his journey, he shelters in a little hut, but this bodily respite from the cold and wind only allows him to feel more keenly the burning sting of jealousy in his heart.
FRÜHLINGSTRAUM (Dream of Spring)
Lost in a happy dream of springtime, our traveller is awakened by the rooster’s call and the shrieking of crows. Drifting between a dream state and harsh reality, he longs to feel once again the warmth of love. The piano score paints in turn the sudden shrieks of birds and the torpor of his drowsy eyelids.
He travels on his way, lonely as a cloud drifting over the tops of the trees. The stillness in the air, the brightness of the scene, are no help to his pain. When storms raged he was less miserable than this.
DIE POST (The Post)
The gallop of horses’ hooves and the triadic call of the posthorn sets the second half of the song cycle in motion as our wanderer’s heart leaps with the arrival of the mail coach. Does it bring a letter from her?
DER GREISE KOPF (The Old Man’s Head)
The frost on his head has made him look like an old man, a welcome thought. Then horror sets in as he realizes he is still young, with so very far yet to travel to the grave. The sparseness of the piano part creates a chilling stillness as sonic backdrop to these dark thoughts.
DIE KRÄHE (The Crow)
Circling overhead, a crow, wonderfully imitated by the piano, has been following the wanderer. Is it waiting to feast on his carcass? Will this crow, unlike his beloved, stay with him till he dies?
LETZTE HOFFNUNG (Last Hope)
The traveller identifies with a lone leaf hanging on a barren tree, waiting to fall. If it falls, so too do his hopes fall to their grave. The piano paints a vivid picture of leaves falling all around him.
IM DORFE (In the Village)
As he passes through a village, dogs growl at him, rattling their chains. Everyone is in their beds, dreaming. Why should he stay with these dreamers, when his own dreams are all over?
DER STÜRMISCHE MORGEN (The Stormy Morning)
With the courage of desperation, the traveller faces an early morning storm that tears the heavens apart. Raging in the cold of winter, it is the very image of his own heart.
He sees a light dancing in the distance, which might be a warm house with a loving soul inside. In the dream world he inhabits, even an illusion brings him some comfort.
DER WEGWEISER (The Sign Post)
Avoiding the busy byways, he heads for wild and desolate places, ignoring every sign post but one: the one leading him to a place from which no one returns.
DAS WIRTSHAUS (The Inn)
A liturgical solemnity pervades the scene as the traveller stops at a cemetery filled with garland-bedecked graves that beckon him like a welcoming inn. All its rooms, however, are taken and he is turned away, so he resolutely resigns himself to continue on his journey.
A plucky spirit overtakes him, as he dispels defeatism to face wind and weather, feeling like a god on earth. Major and minor tonalities embody the difficulties he faces and the courage he uses to face them.
DIE NEBENSONNEN (The Sun Dogs)
He sees three suns in the sky, and stares at them. He, too, had three suns once, but having lost the two he cherished most (her eyes), he now has only one, and he wishes that would go dark, too.
DER LEIERMANN (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)
A drone in the piano announces the forlorn figure of an old organ-grinder playing with numb fingers, barefoot in the cold, his begging plate lying empty as dogs growl at him. This is the only human being the traveller meets on his winter journey. Shall he go with this strange man? Will the organ-grinder play his songs?
Notes by Donald Gislason.
Leoš Janáček: In the Mists
Janáček’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. Equally folk-like 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 as heard through Czech ears.
The Andante sets the tone of introspection with its dreamlike repetitions 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 its melancholy opening theme.
The varied repetition of a four-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, and then ends exactly as it begins.
The fourth movement, Presto, with its many changes of meter, 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.
Franz Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 935 (Op. 142)
Schubert wrote these four works, along with another group of four impromptus (D. 899/Op. 90) in 1827. Only two were published in the short period Schubert still had to live. The four that finally appeared as Op. 142 were published in 1838 by Diabelli, who entitled these pieces “Impromptus.”
The word “impromptu” belies the true construction of the works, for they are not improvisations at all, nor are they spur of the moment conceptions. Rather, the word is intended to evoke the idea that the music originated in a casual manner, and that it was born of poetic fantasy in the composer’s mind. Each of the impromptus explores a particular mood of tonal poetry, that mood being defined at the outset.
The somewhat elusive structure of the first impromptu combines elements of sonata and rondo. There is a wide range of moods, from the sombre melancholy of the opening to some highly excitable passages later on. Schubert’s characteristic fluctuations between major and minor tonalities are also much in evidence.
The second is designed as a simple Minuet and Trio. The music strongly recalls the mood, tempo, melodic outline and harmonic progressions of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26 in the same key (A flat major).
The third impromptu is a theme with five variations. Schubert borrowed this wonderfully idyllic, ingratiating theme from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern, where it introduces the scene of Rosamunde tending her flocks in Act IV. He also used a close variant of it in his String Quartet in A minor (D. 804).
The final impromptu, with its slightly ironic air, delights principally through rhythmic playfulness, a dancelike spirit and brilliant passage work. Towards the end, a note of veiled mystery creeps in, but this resolves into a furious rush to the finish, culminating in a swoop down to the lowest note (F) on Schubert’s piano.
Robert Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
The Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) dates from 1837, when the composer was 27. In its first edition, it was published with the title “Florestan and Eusebius,” referring to the two fictional characters, members of the “League of David”, who are actually only opposing facets of Schumann’s alter ego, the former representing his extroverted, exuberant side, the latter his quiet, meditative side. The “Davidsbund” itself, purely a product of Schumannn’s fertile romantic imagination but fashioned after the Old Testament figure, represented the proud, musical pioneers who went forth to do battle (with pens and notes, not swords and slingshots) against philistines and ultra-conservative composers of the day. All but number 16 bear an initial at the end, indicating whether it was inspired by Florestan, Eusebius or the two together.
The spirit of the dance infuses the entire eighteen-piece set in one way or another. Mazurka, waltz, polka, tarantella, Ländler, and other dance forms are either obviously or subtly transformed in these mood pieces, which are by turns joyous, eccentric, reflective, lively, agitated, and whimsical. The opening gesture, which is used as a sort of motto throughout, comes from a mazurka by Schumann’s fiancée, Clara Wieck.
The pianist-scholar Charles Rosen offers this insightful observation about the music: “The meaning of the Davidsbündlertänze cannot be put into words, of course, but it comes closer to words than any other piece of music that I know. With its combination of memory and nostalgia, humour and willfulness… the work seems to hint at something hidden within it, intended for us to guess at and not to find. It is, in any case, the reticent Eusebius that has the last word.”
Program notes by Donald Gislason & Robert Markow, 2013.