Andante from the Sonata in C major
The Venetian musician Baldassare Galuppi was one of the most successful composers of the 18th century. While his prodigious output of vocal music, comprising more than 100 operas, did not survive in the repertoire, interest in his keyboard music was revived in the last half of the 20th century, with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1965 recording of the Sonata in C major providing an important stimulus for the resurgence.
The Andante first movement of this sonata displays all the major characteristics of Galuppi’s pre-Classical galant style of keyboard writing. It features a naively simple melody bejewelled with ornament supported by a broken-chord accompaniment moving placidly through a series of stock harmonic progressions.
Grace, charm and a childlike simplicity of affect are the principal aesthetic aims of this style, with the steady tick-tock of the Alberti bass suggesting the innocent chiming of a toy music-box.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccata in C minor BWV 911
The toccata originated in the 17th century as a display vehicle that highlighted the “touch” of the keyboard player. It was laid out in a sequence of rhapsodic or improvisatory passages alternating with more learned passages of imitative counterpoint. Bach’s seven toccatas for harpsichord most likely date from his twenties, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player.
To begin his Toccata in C minor BWV 911, Bach takes the measure of his instrument with a pepper spray of 32nd-note runs spanning its entire range from high to low. Soon, however, the ruminative Adagio of imitative counterpoint, full of yearning dissonances and based loosely on the rising harmonic minor scale, lurches pleadingly towards a cadence.
The first fugue is a real toe-tapper, with a subject created almost exclusively out of notes of the C-minor triad. Its countersubject (the melody frequently accompanying it) is by contrast constructed out of octave leaps and scalar runs. Both feature an extraordinary amount of sequential repetition, which as the fugue continues on almost blurs the distinction between subject entries and episodes.
A reminder of the fantasy-laden improvisations that began the work intervenes to cleanse the palate before the fugue continues on with the same subject. But this time Bach, the clever lad, shows off with a countersubject that is mostly an inversion of the previous one.
The second edition of the fugue gets an added boost of rhythmic ginger from the use of figure corte: fleet little melodic nibbles in 32nd notes that ornament the interplay of contrapuntal lines. The work ends with a weighty and solemn reminder of the opening, with the initial pepper spray transformed into a bear spray of keyboard sonority across the entire range of the instrument.
Selected Mazurkas Opp. 30, 67 and 68
Chopin’s mazurkas are stylized imitations of the folk dances of his native Poland and come in a wide variety of moods and tempi, from the melancholy to the exuberant. They contain no actual folk tunes but rather use traditional melodic and rhythmic formulas to evoke the spirit of village life in the Polish countryside.
Characteristic features retained from the original dances include drone tones in the bass, rhythmic emphasis on the second or third beat of the bar, and melodies using a raised fourth scale degree (e.g., F# in C major). The melodies themselves tend to be “modular,” constructed out of repeated units of rhythm and recurring melodic motives. As examples of European “art music,” though, Chopin’s mazurkas are mostly in ternary (ABA) form and often colourfully chromatic.
Chromatic inflection is a prominent melodic characteristic of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 67 No. 4. Its sinewy, winding melody, gentle oom-pah-pah accompaniment and major-mode middle section are reminiscent of the composer’s Waltz in B minor Op. 69 No. 2.
The mysterious Mazurka in C# minor Op. 30 No. 4 is thicker in texture and more heavily scored than most but still light on its feet thanks to a number of teasing rhythmic anomalies. First amongst these is the irregular accent pattern of its two “tambourine shake” figures: a shivering triplet-trill leading to the 2nd beat of one bar followed by a mordent emphasizing the 1st beat of the next. The descending chromatic sequence of parallel 5ths and 7ths leading up to its conclusion must have shocked conservative audiences of the time.
The Mazurka in F major Op. 68 No. 3 is a product of Chopin’s early years, before he arrived in Paris, and must surely count as one of the most naively simple pieces he ever wrote. The uniform chordal texture and repetitive military rhythm of its opening section suggests a patriotic march, perhaps of a village band, while its crude contrasts of tonal colour bespeak the limited harmonic vocabulary of rural music-making. Most clearly folk-like are the drone 5ths of its middle section, supporting a fife-like lydian melody (with sharpened 4th degree) in the treble high above.
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 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 Intermezzo in A Minor Op. 116 No. 2 is reflective but serene, quietly rippling with 2-against-3 polyrhythms. Its harmonic colouring is a bittersweet mix of minor-mode wistfulness and major-mode contentment. A livelier middle section seeks higher ground in the treble register but the sense of yearning only becomes more intense.
A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor Op. 119 No. 2, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and 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# minor Op. 117 No. 3 is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first 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.
The Romanze in F major Op. 118 No. 5 sounds vaguely archaic. Its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode while its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse elaborating melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op. 30
In this short two-movement work from 1903—the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas—we find the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.
A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th and the tripping little rising scale figure that follows it. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable three-hand effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the upper mid-register, surrounded on either side by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic pulsations in the other voices.
The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie and the breathless, ‘panting-puppy’ quality of its playful two-note ‘hiccup’ motives make one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.
The apotheosis-style ending of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Op. 47 provides the model for the final section of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the first movement’s delicate, tentative opening theme reframed as the object of throbbing jubilation in a triumphant display of pianistic fireworks.
Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs
Une Barque sur l’Océan paints the image of a boat floating and gently rocking on the ocean waves. Ravel opens his depiction with a three-layered soundscape. A rich carpet of arpeggios sweeping up and down in the left hand suggests the action of the waves, while a chiming sequence of open intervals in the upper register outlines the vast expanse of the sea. Meanwhile, an unpredictable third voice emerges clearly but irregularly from the mid-range. Ravel uses virtually the entire range of keyboard colours in this scintillating depiction of the sea as a gentle giant cradling mankind in its embrace.
Sonata Op. 1
The tonal system in use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from Bach to Tchaikovsky, was predicated on the understanding that pieces would be in a home key, a key from which they would depart, and to which they would return at the end—in a way “that will bring us – back to – doh,” to quote child-minding music theorist Julie Andrews. And it was furthermore understood that harmony would result from the interaction of chords constructed, at a minimum, from a root, a third and a fifth.
The break-up of this understanding was presided over at the beginning of the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, aided and abetted by his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Of the three of them, it was Alban Berg who most felt the tug of Late Romanticism’s emotional rhetoric. This is most evident in his graduation exercise for Schoenberg, the Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910, a work described by Glenn Gould as “expansive, pessimistic and unquestionably ecstatic.”
This sonata’s link with music of the past is most evident in its formal design. It comprises a single sonata-form movement in the traditional layout of exposition (repeated), development and recapitulation. However, its principal melodic motives, presented in its two opening bars, are distinctly modern. These include (a) the intervals of a perfect 4th and a tritone, announced in the opening bar in a dotted rhythm, and (b) a sequence of falling thirds in the following bar. Appreciating the development of these motives in a densely contrapuntal texture of competing melodies and echoing imitations is one of the main challenges this work presents to listeners accustomed to, shall we say, ‘lighter fare’.
And yet the overall pattern of musical gesture remains strangely familiar. The music is doled out in distinct phrases, some arranged in repeating sequences with expansive swells of ecstatic emotion, just as in the music of Scriabin. As to the overall architecture of the work, the listener is left in no doubt as to where the climax of the piece is. It’s in the middle of the development section, with the dynamic marking ffff (quadruple forte) being the dead-give-away clue.
What may at first be off-putting is the dissonant harmonic vocabulary, but even here the composer keeps one foot in the chromatic practices of Late Romanticism, in the unresolved harmonic yearnings of Wagner in particular. The overall impression created by this sonata, then, is of 19th-century musical emotions expressed in the bold new harmonic rhetoric of the 20th century, a Romantic picture viewed in a cracked mirror, an old watch picked out of the clear waters of a lake, encrusted with barnacles but still ticking.
Catalan composer Federico Mompou described himself as “a man of few words and music of few notes.” Best known as a miniaturist, he was much influenced by French impressionism and developed an intimate and subdued style that owes much to the shy, discreet charm of Fauré, the spare textures and repetitive accompaniments of Erik Satie.
The very Satie-like Secreto comes from Mompou’s first set of piano pieces entitled Impresiones intimas (1911-1914) and displays what pianist Arkady Volodos describes as his “Zen spirit,” a meditative musical aesthetic that treasures silence as much as sound.
Sonata No. 5 in F# major Op. 53
Early in his career Alexander Scriabin was known as “the Russian Chopin.” As he developed as a composer, however, he moved away from the Romantic style of Chopin to embrace a more mystical, ecstatic conception of music, becoming the first real “crazy man” of classical music. His aesthetic aims were in fact so expansive as to hardly fit within the scope of piano music, and as he advanced in years his solo sonatas became more and more like seances, channelling mystical forces through the fingers of the pianist.
Long before the arrival of LSD and Dr. Timothy Leary, Scriabin established “trippy-ness” as an aesthetic goal in his music. And in his first single-movement sonata, the Sonata No. 5 in F# major from 1907, we catch him tripping in mid-flight.
The first thing to know as you fasten your seat-belts to hear this work is that it displays an extreme volatility of moods that represent the ever-changing cosmic forces that Scriabin feels moving through him as he composes. Listening to some of the slower, more vaporous passages, you get the eerie feeling that you’re walking around in a trance, as he repeats the same simple motive—a third rocking back and forth—over and over again.
Another mood that strikes the composer in this sonata is a kind of jumpy excitement, a prelude to the extravagant gesture of ecstasy that will overtake him before this work is finished. This sense of mounting excitement is conveyed in the way that successive passages keep leaping up to a higher register as they repeat. In this way, Scriabin uses the registers of the keyboard to create his own Stairway to Heaven.
But the most memorable mood of all in this sonata is Scriabin’s portrayal of a kind of languid voluptuousness, created by his unique harmonic vocabulary of chromatically altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for added resonance. These spacious chords allow him to spread a lush carpet of sonorities over a wide swath of the keyboard, and it is their perfumed overtones floating mystically in the air that paint the altered psychological state he wishes to evoke.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020