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Robert Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme in E at 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 re ection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring instead to vary 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 on the world slowly and peacefully shutting down.

Johannes Brahms
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118 & 119

Brahms’ late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman – a composer with nothing left to prove.

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117 published in 1892 combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.

The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E at major actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E at minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.

The Intermezzo in B at minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its rst theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first – a typical Brahmsian touch – and the development section dwells expansively on the owing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.

The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at rst in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.

The opening Intermezzo in A minor arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm them.

The Intermezzo in A major sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded, as its opening phrase eventually yields to a melodically upside-down version of itself and its middle section is woven through with canons.

The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.

In the Intermezzo in F minor a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.

The Romanze in F major sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse that elaborates melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.

The Intermezzo in E at minor that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in moments of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahms’ ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.

Brahms’ heterogeneous collection of Four Piano Pieces Op. 119 were his last works for piano and they show him at the top of his form. The first is exquisitely refined and tonally progressive, the second and third infused with the spirit of Viennese dance music, and the fourth a heroic broadside of pianistic bravado.

The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set presents the ear with chains of falling thirds that create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between the left and right hands.

A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.

The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.

The Rhapsodie in E at major is the longest of Brahms’ late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet figures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of its debonair A at major section. A flamboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece – surprisingly – with a triumphant cadence in E at … minor!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Rondo in A minor K. 511

Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme, is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.

The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fifth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn figure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos- tinged whimpering of chromatic half-steps and the mood of forthright self- assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.

Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale figures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.

The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.

Johann Sebastian Bach Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor BWV 869

The last prelude and fugue in Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier pairs a uniformly patterned prelude with a long fugue based on an extended fugue subject. While it is unusual to have tempo markings in this collection, the Andante marking for the prelude and Largo for the fugue are authentically Bach’s own.

The prelude is in two parts (each repeated) and written in a three-part texture in which two upper voices converse in a friendly imitative dialogue based on two motives (a rising 4th and a descending scale) over a running bass line of 8th notes. In the second half, this imitation is intensified by a diminution of the motives to a pace of 8ths and quarters.

The fugue features a subject in even 8th notes extending over three bars and comprised of two ear-catching motives: broken chords and a series of semitone sigh motives hopping back and forth in tonal space. The other source of melodic invention in the fugue (the countersubject) is more rhythmically varied, and is also used in inversion, i.e., turned upside down – for those listeners who keep track of such things. While this is a four-voice fugue, much of the contrapuntal chatter takes place in only three voices at a time. Only two of the 20 subject entries occur in a full four-voice texture: in the opening exposition and at the very end. This is likely to ensure that the prominent motives of the subject – the broken chord figures and semitone sigh motives – will be easier for the ear to pull out of the texture.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 26 in E- at Major Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”)

In May 1809, Napoleon’s army was parked just outside Vienna and was knocking loudly at the door with a steady bombardment of cannon fire. In this perilous situation Beethoven’s close friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph was forced to flee the Austrian capital. Beethoven’s artistic response to these dramatic events was the Sonata in E at Op. 81a, his only explicitly programmatic piano sonata, published with a German and French title for each of its three movements: “Farewell”, “Absence”, and “Return”.

Explicitly linking the first movement to its “Farewell” titling are the words Le-be wohl (German for “fare thee well”) written in the score over the three melody notes that begin the slow introduction: mi – re – do. This three-note motive, written in two voices, imitates the call of the post-horn and, in the words of Beethoven scholar William Kinderman “summons up the world of carriages”, and thus scenes of departure.

This horn-call will echo through every section of the movement as a leitmotif. When the pleading chromatic phrases of the slow introduction end, issuing into the Allegro main section, this Lebewohl horn motif gets broken up to compose the first theme; it provides material, treble and bass, for the transition; and it appears at the head of the second theme as well – not to mention the development section – which is an auditory house of mirrors with Lebewohl “farewells” bouncing o every wall. Even more ‘developed’ than the development section itself is the extended coda that Sir András Schiff describes as simply “swimming in the Lebewohl motive.”

The short second movement in the minor mode laments the absence of Beethoven’s beloved friend in desolate diminished 7th chords, painful stabbing sforzandos and plangent recitative, alternating with delirious ights of fancy in the major mode that remember happier times as if in a dream.

As in the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, this slow movement is not self- contained but leads directly into the exuberant celebration of the “Return” in the last movement. Anyone who has returned from a long vacation to be greeted by the tail-wagging enthusiasms of an overly excited household pooch will immediately recognize the sentiments here described.

After an initial outburst of keyboard brilliance, the movement’s first theme is presented in triplets as a ‘pals-y’ duet (appropriately enough) first in the treble, then in the bass. The second theme is more contained and songful but nonetheless rides atop a quivering substrate of bubbling 16ths in the accompaniment. The effortlessly contrapuntal elaborations of the development section are calm by comparison and a dreamily reflective coda tries to savour its good fortune in a similarly blissful state of contentment. But this movement simply can’t restrain its giddiness and ends by ripping up the keyboard in one last explosion of joy.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018


Johann Sebastian Bach

Historical Background

Such was Bach’s mastery of his musical materials that he was often tempted to explore a particular genre or compositional technique in a systematic way by providing a quasi-exhaustive compendium of its possibilities. Fugue, for example, is represented in the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1744), both sets presenting a prelude and fugue in each of the major and minor keys, and in The Art of the Fugue (unfinished at his death), with its 14 fugues and 4 canons all derived from a single theme in D minor.

Similarly encyclopedic in scope and ambition is Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen, published in 1741 and known today as the Goldberg Variations. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century and in it, Bach displays his command of the popular musical styles of his day, the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, and the arcane skill of writing canons at intervals ranging from the unison to the ninth.

The work gets its name from an anecdote told by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) in his 1802 biography of Bach. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, we are told, was a young harpsichordist in the employ of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who frequently resided in Leipzig where Bach was Cantor of the city’s Thomaskirche. Among the young Goldberg’s chores was the task of easing the Count’s insomnia by playing to him from an adjoining room on the many nights when he found himself sleepless. The Count is said to have asked Bach for a contribution to Goldberg’s repertoire of night-watch pieces and the “Goldberg Variations” were born.

Setting aside the dubious compliment of commissioning a work expressly designed to induce sleep, musicologists have raised a collective eyebrow of skepticism at the numerous improbabilities in this account, noting how the title page of the first edition lacks a dedicatory inscription to the Count – in breach of established custom – and the troubling fact that when it first appeared in print, the young Goldberg was a mere stripling of 14.


After publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely neglected in the latter half of the 18th century. And they fared little better in the 19th, although Beethoven appears aware of them when composing his Diabelli Variations and Brahms his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. They entered the 20th century as the privileged domain of the feathery flock of harpsichordists, with Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who first recorded the set in 1933, as Mother Hen to the brood.

In the Golden Age of Pianism before the Second World War, the public was enamoured of big-name pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hoffmann, whose careers were predicated on concert programs filled with expansively emotional, sonorously room-filling works from the Romantic era. The scaled-down, intellectually concentrated sound world of the Goldberg Variations, with their ‘sewing machine’ rhythms, probing explorations of chromatic harmony and awkward hand-crossings, was considered too ‘antiquarian’ and too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire by most pianists. Until June 1955, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist walked into the New York studios of Columbia Records to record his debut album – an album that became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.

What Glenn Gould revealed, in a career bookended by his landmark recordings of the Goldberg Variations, was the emotional richness and feverish excitement that lay hidden in this much-neglected work. Like an art-restorer cleansing the Sistine Chapel of the grime and haze that had built up over centuries, in Gould’s 1955 recording brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and a kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, accomplished by the fingers alone. In his 1981 recording, in which the tempo of each variation is regulated by a “constant rhythmic reference point,” he revealed the intellectual depth of the work, and the breadth of interpretive possibilities that it offers to the performing pianist.

Glenn Gould single-handedly placed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the standard repertoire – and not only of the piano. According to the Goldberg Variations Discography website, since 1955, there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, including versions for organ, string trio, and saxophone quartet. While a performance by a historically informed recorder ensemble would no longer be a novelty, a breathless world has still not heard this work on kazoos or in car commercials. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.

The Aria

The theme that Bach wrote for his variations is in G major, identifiable as a sarabande tendre by its stately rhythmic profile, recurring emphasis on the second beat of bar, and highly expressive style. Floridly ornamented in the French manner, its 32 measures unfold in the traditional two-part form of a dance movement. A 16-bar opening section leads from the tonic (G major) to a concluding cadence in the dominant (D major), and is then repeated. The second 16-bar section, also repeated, begins in the dominant and works its way back to end on a final cadence in the tonic. The repeated sections, both in the aria and in the variations, provide an opportunity for the performer to vary the performance by means of changes in dynamics, articulation, and ornamentation.

The harmonic rhythm of the Aria is deliberately slow – one chord to the bar – which allows for maximum freedom in spinning out a wide variety of variations, since these are based not on the melodic content of the Aria, but rather on its bass-line and underlying harmonies, in the manner of a chaconne.

The Variations

There is a large-scale symmetry in the way that Bach arranges his variations, reflecting that of the Aria itself. First of all, the set is rounded out by a repeat, at its conclusion, of the Aria with which it began. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves, the first half ending on an enigmatic open 5th that concludes the plaintive Variation 15, the second half beginning with a bang on a robust G-major chord that begins the French overture variation, No. 16. (Many a performance will see a pause inserted at this juncture, emphasizing the contrast between the two halves of the work.)

Thirdly, the 30 variations are organized into ten groups of three, each group containing: (1) a dance or genre piece; (2) a virtuoso display piece – bright in mood, and most often featuring a number of hand-crossings; and (3) a two-voice canon, which is to say a round, in which a melody is accompanied by itself, entering a set number of beats after its initial appearance, and beginning a set interval above its initial note. In keeping with Bach’s systematic approach, these canons – spaced out every three variations – begin at the unison and progress to the ninth in Variation 27 (the only canon not accompanied by a running bass line by way of harmonic support). Such a layout ensures variety in the succession of variations, and is aided by the extraordinarily wide range of meters used: 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8, 9/8 etc. There is even one variation, No. 26, in which one hand plays in 3/4 while the other is in 18/16.

The display-oriented virtuoso variations feature two kinds of hand-crossing: the Italian type, à la Scarlatti, in which one hand crosses over and above the other to catch a note perilously distant from its home turf (e.g., Variations 5 and 14); and the French type, à la Couperin, in which the running melodic lines of the two hands cross over each other in the same patch of keyboard terrain, risking a digital derailment of both (e.g., Variations 8 and 11). Usually, the latter are indicated by Bach as being played on both manuals of the harpsichord, but alas! – such an expedient is not available to the struggling pianist.

The inclusion of canon variations helps to mask the recurring regularity of the Aria’s four-bar phrases and ground bass, repeated in various degrees of elaboration in each variation. Moreover, the canons are not always straightforward rounds. Variations 12 and 15 each feature a canon inversus, in which the leading voice is accompanied by itself – turned upside down!

*                      *                      *

The emotional heart of the work comes in Variation 25 in the minor mode, described by Wanda Landowska as the work’s “crown of thorns.” At an Adagio tempo, it is the longest of the set, although it has the same number of measures as the other variations. Its extraordinary expressiveness and aching beauty derives from the combination of its plangent melodic leaps, agonizing chromaticisms and halting syncopations.

After this variation begins a build-up in energy as the work races towards its climax, with sonorous written-out trills invading the inner voices of Variation 28 and hammering fists of chords chopping between the hands in Variation 29. According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with a musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria. Simultaneously playing or singing melodies that fit together harmonically – often songs on distinctly salty, secular themes – was a congenial and witty pastime at Bach family get-togethers. A modern equivalent might be playing Dvorak’s Humoresque in G flat while singing “Way, down upon the Swan-eee River.”

The two overlapping folk tunes that Bach shoe-horns into service over the ground bass of his Aria are the urgent love lyric:

Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her

I have been away from you so long, come here, come here

and the anti-vegetarian anthem:

Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben  Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I would have stayed longer

Coming at the very end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service.

*                      *                      *

It remains only for the Aria to echo once again in our ears, repeated note for note as it was at the beginning. This gesture of return, too, has spiritual echoes that are intuitively felt, but difficult to put into words.

Bach inhabited a world made comprehensible to him by his Lutheran faith, a world in which the divine presence penetrated every piece of Creation. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach paints in sonic form the secular and the sacred world – the secular through the music of popular genres and dance forms, and the divine through canons and the miraculous geometric transforms of their musical themes.

The melodic voice of the Aria, returning once again to our ears, seems small and vulnerable with respect to what had come before, and we with it. In this return to the work’s beginnings, we hear – and share – the humble voice of a pious man before his God.

Donald G. Gíslason 2018

Program notes: Sir András Schiff

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata No. 60 in C major Hob. XV1:50

Haydn’s last three piano sonatas, Nos. 60 to 62 (Hob. XVI:50-52), were written during the composer’s second trip to London of 1794-1795. All three were composed with a specific dedicatee in mind: the female keyboard virtuoso Therese Jansen Bartolozzi (1770-1843), a student of Clementi whom Haydn had met and befriended while in England. They were also written for the distinctive qualities of the English fortepiano, more powerful in sound and wider in range than the delicate Viennese pianos which Haydn had been accustomed to playing.

In his Sonata in C, classed by Lázló Somfai as a concert sonata or grand sonata, Haydn takes advantage of the capabilities of this instrument in a score rich in punchy arpeggiated chords, sudden changes of dynamics, brilliant running passages and eerie pedal effects meant to make it a memorable ‘performing’ piece. Not missing, of course, is Haydn’s famously dry brand of humour, so different from the more slapstick ‘macho’ mirth of his student Beethoven. The humour in these sonatas is perfectly shrink-wrapped around the persona of the female performer, half Maggie Smith, half Lucille Ball.

The work begins with a series of dainty short hops in the right hand, nothing you couldn’t manage even in a long skirt, but then comes the first ‘gag’ of the piece. The hops get larger, and funnier, especially when they begin to cover the awkward interval of a 7th (as if trying for an octave, but just missing it by one note), followed by a pleading series of two-note phrases. The bass, of course, is having none of it. Like a distracted husband reading his newspaper at the breakfast table, the left hand just keeps repeating the same octave leap on C, as if to say: “Yes, dear. Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.”

Nonetheless, a few brisk arpeggiated chords later and the movement is off to the races, repeating the same series of comic hops it opened with, but now with new frilly ornaments, in the first of a series of endless variations that will decorate this theme throughout. For this is another one of Haydn’s celebrated monothematic movements, in which he dispenses with secondary themes in order to concentrate on presenting a single theme, over and over, in a constant variety of different textures and new harmonic guises. Notable pianistic effects in this movement include the dark and mysterious indication “open pedal” in the development section, and a hand-crossing double trill in the recapitulation.

The second movement Adagio is a classic Italian cantabile, with a simple melody rhapsodically enveloped by a myriad of gorgeous ornamental figurations right from the very start. While the general mood is one of serene contentment and poised lyrical reflection, Haydn includes a few moments of harmonic surprise and pianistic sparkle to drop an ice-cube down the backs of those whose eyelids might droop.

The unusually brief last movement is a masterpiece of irregular phrase lengths, comic pauses and harmonic wrong turns as its naively upbeat and jovial melody keeps trying to cadence but constantly ends up making a wrong turn.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in E major Op. 109

Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, exist in a world of their own, governed only by the formal rules they themselves invent for their own unfolding. The Sonata in E major Op. 109, despite its three-movement structure, may be thought of in two halves. First comes a complementary pair of emotionally contrasting movements, both in sonata form, played together without a pause, the first a dreamy star-gazing fantasy in moderate tempo, the second a frighteningly focussed agitato of nightmarish intensity. The emotional volatility of these two movements is balanced and resolved by the poised and serene set of variations which serves as the sonata’s finale. These variations are based on a melody of such quiet dignity that they virtually erase all memory of the emotional wanderings of the previous movements.

The compression of form of which Beethoven is capable in his late works is evident in the first movement, the exposition of which is complete in a mere 16 bars. It opens with a melody buried within a delicate tracery of broken chord figuration that flutters innocently as if floating suspended in the air. It has barely breathed out its first two phrases and is moving to cadence, when it is interrupted by a disorienting diminished seventh chord that leads nonetheless to a lovingly lyrical duet, adagio espressivo, between left and right hand. But this second theme only has time to sing out a few bars itself before breaking out, cadenza-like, into a keyboard-spanning series of rapturous arpeggios and scale figures. And then the exposition is over, on the first page of the score. The development deals exclusively with the broken chord figuration but with the melody line more clearly exposed, and builds to a climax for the return of the opening material, presented this time with the hands at the extreme ends of the keyboard, after which a coda extends the dreamlike reverie.

The expansive mood of rhapsodic wonder is brought quickly down to earth, however, when E major changes to E minor and the second movement, marked Prestissimo, stomps defiantly into the ear. This is no scherzo: there is no trio, no contrast of mood. The development section may murmur sullenly, but this is only a momentary lull before the defiant tone of the opening, flickering with menace, returns to close the movement in the same uncompromising spirit in which it began. Remarkable in this movement is the way in which Beethoven manages to express such extremes of emotional violence within a texture so starkly ruled by the strictures of imitative counterpoint.

This is not a coincidence. The musical spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach has been hovering over this sonata since it began. The broken chord figuration of the opening movement looks back to similar homogeneously ‘patterned’ textures in the preludes of Bach, and the movement’s cadenza-like exaltations of arpeggios find their correlative in similar outbursts of spiritual bravura in Bach’s organ toccatas. More explicit reference is made in the second movement, which is shot through with canons and passages in double counterpoint. And now, in the concluding movement, we encounter a variation melody characterized by an almost religious serenity, with the rhythmic imprint of the sarabande (emphasizing the second beat of the bar), and harmonized with the melodically-conceived bass line of a four-part Lutheran chorale.

Beethoven is not attempting to rehabilitate the outdated styles and procedures of the Baroque, but rather enriching the music of his own time with the density of musical thought typical of that bygone
era. And as Sir András has so aptly pointed out in his Wigmore Hall lecture on this sonata, it would be difficult to think that Beethoven was not inspired by the example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when constructing his own for this sonata finale. The recall of the simple, unadorned theme at the end of Beethoven’s sonata has the same commemorative resonance as this same gesture at the end of the Goldbergs. Not to mention the textures of many of the variations that parallel those found in Bach’s famous set.

The first variation is not one of them, however. There is no hint of contrapuntal interest in this Italian opera aria for keyboard, marked molto espressivo, with its elegantly expressive melody and clear bass-and-chord left-hand accompaniment. Variation 2 lightens the texture with a hocket-style alternation of the hands that presents the harmonic and melodic outlines of the theme in interlocking 16th-note flashes of sound, similar to the texture of the Goldberg variation 20 and the second variation of Beethoven’s own sonata of Op. 26 (first movement).

The yeast of Baroque ferment comes overtly to the surface in Variation 3, a vigorous exercise in double counterpoint, with the right and left hands regularly swapping melodies in the course of presenting the theme. Variation 4 moves the time signature to 9/8 for a change of pace to present a full four-voice texture of imitation, much in the style of Goldberg variation 3. The contrapuntal impulse emerges even more clearly in the more strictly structured imitative texture of Variation 5, richly suggestive of similar textures in Goldberg variations 18 and 22.

Beethoven’s own synthesis of old and new emerges in the final variation, which moves from a simple chordal statement of the theme to a gradual accumulation of rhythmic energy that finally emerges into a texture of whirling trills and flecks of melody flickering in the high register, before a simple re-statement of the original theme ends the sonata in a mood of spiritual peace.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C major K.545

There is a reason most piano students know this sonata. It is listed in Mozart’s own personal catalogue of his works as being für Anfänger (for beginners) and its unpretentious texture of scales, broken chords and Alberti basses, not to mention the choice of the simplest possible key (C major, with no black keys), seem to confirm Mozart’s intention to write a small-scale piece that would be ideal for teaching the musical novice the basic building blocks of keyboard technique.

But because this is Mozart (and not Czerny) the level of musical sophistication in this sonata is noteworthy. The first movement opens with a melody of the utmost simplicity, its outlines based on the three notes of the major chord, which issues into a series of rising and falling runs. These runs, however, cleverly mask the fact that the opening theme and the transition to the second theme are merged together, so that the second theme area, in G major, seems to arrive in the most natural manner possible. This more perky theme leads to a series of harmonic sequences in broken chords which summon up general agreement that a cadence would now be in order and the cadencing pattern chosen is one from which a closing thematic motive in rocking arpeggios emerges to end the exposition.

Nothing to wonder at, one might suppose, unless of course you happen to notice that the second theme is constructed by inverting the melodic outline of the the first, and that the closing theme is merely a rearrangement of the notes in the broken-chord sequences that preceded it. No, nothing to notice here.

The development immediately takes up the rocking arpeggio figure and goes minor with it, to provoke the appropriate level of eyebrow-knitting concentration that a good, roiling development section is wont to inspire. Advanced beginners in the class will no doubt notice that the recapitulation begins in the subdominant (F major) instead of the C major tonic. But is it such a bad thing to give students a little practice in a different scale pattern, one requiring their 4th finger to hit a
B flat on the way up, as well as on the way down? Pedagogical minds with hearts that beat for the general welfare of their pupils think not.

The second movement Andante is a three-part song with a development section in the middle, all ticking along over the steady rhythmic guidance of an Alberti bass in the left hand throughout. It seems gifted with an endless supply of variations for the scant few melodic and rhythmic patterns that characterize its theme, the triadic outline and dotted rhythm of which (just between us) make it a sibling to the second theme of the first movement. The middle section, which is more like the B section of a Baroque da capo aria than a real sonata-form development, dips into the shade of the minor mode to mull over a few more serious thoughts but fails to stay there long and the sunshine of the major mode soon returns to end things off with a rosy- cheeked smile.

The last movement, a miniature rondo of diminutive proportions, features a symmetrically structured playful theme alternating with two intervening episodes. As is common in Mozart, the episodes are not entirely contrasting in thematic material as the little imitative hops of the opening theme seem to keep poking their heads in the door at every opportunity.

Franz Schubert
Sonata in C minor D. 958

In September 1828, as Schubert lay suffering the debilitating effects of the tertiary syphilis that would fell him only two months later, he managed a feat of compositional prowess that speaks to the steely will that coexisted with the delicacy of sentiment in the personality of this Viennese composer of distinctly bohemian habits of life. The 130 manuscript pages of his monumental three last piano sonatas, the Sonatas in C minor, A major and B flat major (D. 958-960) were all produced within this single month.

The Sonata in C minor D. 958 is undoubtedly one of his most serious works, for which he chose the key associated with so many of the greatest achievements of his idol Beethoven, at whose funeral he had served
as a pallbearer the previous year. C minor is the key of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the Symphony No. 5 and the great Piano Sonata Op. 111, as well as the 32 Variations in C minor from which the defiant opening subject of this sonata is quite obviously derived. But while Beethoven’s mind bent ever towards compactness and density in musical expression, it was Schubert’s gift to stretch, extend and elaborate his musical material in a poetic search for its inner psychological meaning.

This he does with telling effect when he transitions the uncompromising stance and abrupt rhetoric of the sonata’s opening pronouncements into less heroic territory to prepare for his lyrical second subject in E flat major. Here is where Schubert’s ability to ‘orchestrate’ on the piano is most evident. The repeated pedal tone in this simply harmonized melody, at first confined to the alto, soon shines out in the treble like a beacon of hope over all that passes on beneath it. But E flat major soon turns to E flat minor in a sprightly and slightly wicked variant of this theme.

The development begins in an expansively modulatory frame of mind, ranging widely through various keys until its interest settles on a distinctly un-settling voice of small range and ominous import in the bass, that ruminates and builds, marked with the rhythmic stamp of the opening chords to prepare for the recapitulation. This motive recurs again in the coda, emerging into the light of day in treble octaves that carry its worrisome preoccupations to the final bars of the movement.

The second movement is one of the few genuine adagios that Schubert wrote, given as he was to more moderate- tempo slow movements. It unfolds in a 5-part scheme of alternating themes in an A-B-A-B-A pattern. These themes are of opposing emotional valence, however, the first exuding elegiac tranquillity, the second more disquieting in its deliberations. Each is elaborated in a series of different textures, which only increases the emotional distance between them when they are juxtaposed in this way. The Adagio of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata seemed to have been an inspiring point of reference in the elaboration of this movement.

The restless Menuetto that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. Dance-inspired enjoyment seems impossible to achieve as each successive idea is undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in irregular phrase lengths, as a small deviation into the minor mode, or in mysterious pauses, as if the flow of emotion were cut off in mid-thought.

The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale. Here the spirit of the dance is undoubtedly present in the tarantella rhythm of its opening theme, but merriment is elusive in this curiously thrilling, but strangely ominous rondo with the developmental features of the sonata. Much of its rhythmic energy is more suggestive of a night ride on horseback, of the sort memorialized in Schubert’s famous Erlkönig, and no more so than in the brilliantly effective passage of cross-hand writing in which short bursts of melodic ideas are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.

Donald G. Gíslason © 2015