Ludwig van Beethoven
11 Bagatelles Op. 119
Beethoven’s Op. 119 is a catch-all collection of pieces written without any preconceived formal plan for the enjoyment of amateur piano enthusiasts. The last five were published first as a contribution to a pedagogical publication called the Wiener Piano-Forte Schule (1821), with the first six added to that set for a separate publication in 1823.
The popular market into which they were lightly tossed may account for the dance-like pieces in the set: No. 1 is a minuet, No. 3 an allemande and No. 9 a frenetic little waltz. Some of the two-voice writing in these pieces has an archaic, baroque feel to it, especially in the florid ornamentation of No. 5.
Beethoven may not have always had the amateur performer in mind, however, given the technical challenges written into some of these short “Kleinigkeiten” (trifles), as he called them in German. Some feature sustained passages of awkward hand-crossings (Nos. 2 and 7) and casually inserted left-hand trills. No. 7 even demands the pianist to play sustained trills and a separate melody line, all in the same hand – a texture found in the composer’s most advanced piano works, such as the Sonata in C minor Op. 111. Others, like No. 8, are harmonically adventurous in a manner that anticipates the character pieces of Schumann.
It is obvious that Beethoven granted himself free rein in composing these pieces, and the prize for eccentricity goes to the laconic Bagatelle No. 10. In its short frantic 13 bars of staggered left- and right-hand entries, it pants away like a family dog leaping up at the dinner table for treats.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E flat Hob. XVI:49
This sonata was dedicated to Maria Anna von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nicholas Esterhazy’s personal physician at the Esterhazy court, where Haydn was employed. From their correspondence, it appears that Haydn was carrying on something of a dalliance with her and this sonata, composed between 1789 and 1790, seems designed to address both her feminine sensibility and her considerable skills as an amateur pianist.
And yet there is a Beethovenian directness to the way that the first movement’s thematic material is thrown out in bitesized bits, similar to the brusque opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, Op. 2 No. 3. Haydn does us a favour here by isolating these short motivic units – two snappy questions and a lyrical reply – because virtually the entire range of ideas explored in this movement derives from them.
When Haydn got an idea in his head, he liked to run with it as far as he could go. So many of this sonata’s movements are monothematic, their nominally contrasting themes all variations on a small sequence of motives declared at the outset. In this sonata movement, the mere rhythm of the ‘lyrical reply’ – dum-dum-dum DUM – becomes an important motivic element throughout, and in fact, in its stripped down form becomes the obsession of the development section.
The Andante cantabile second movement is in a simple A-B-A formal layout, with its A section a poised and perky slow melody dolled up from the get-go with frilly ornaments of a distinctly feminine stamp. Its B section takes the melodic curve of the opening bar of the movement and plunges it dramatically into the minor mode, with a visual drama created, as well, by the many hand- crossings effected by the left hand.
The finale combines the repeating refrain and contrasting episodes of a rondo with the minuet structure featuring a contrasting trio (hinted at in its Italian indication Tempo di minuetto). The breezy whistling-in-the-wind quality of the opening tune has a folk-like simplicity about it, reinforced by its drone bass. But Haydn widens the range of theatrical roles that his dedicatee-performer can play when, halfway through the movement, he casts this blithe little tune into the minor mode.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32
The jovial, witty and ever-cheerful ‘Papa’ Haydn writing in a minor key? What brought that on?
The 1770s, when Haydn’s Sonata in B minor was composed, was the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in German culture, an age when aberrant emotions were all the rage in music; and what better tonal avouring than the minor mode to convey these emotions? Composers such as C. P. E. Bach rode this cultural wave with enthusiasm, writing works that elicited powerful, sometimes worrisome, emotions by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps and poignant harmonies of the type that minor keys were especially adept at providing.
It is also important to note that the 1770s was the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you find in the first movement, especially, is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.
This cross-over period between harpsichord and fortepiano plays out in the nature of the first movement’s two contrasting themes. The first is austere and slightly mysterious, amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style mordents on its opening melody notes. The second churns away in constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious Sturm und Drang tone that pervades this movement.
In place of a lyrical slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio – but where is the emotional drama in that? Haydn has a plan. His minuet and trio feature thematic material as dramatically contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps everywhere, one as large as a 14th. The trio, normally con gured as sugary relief from the sti formality of courtly dance ritual, is daringly in the minor mode, set low, and grinds grimly away in constant 16th-note motion.
Haydn wouldn’t be Haydn if he didn’t send you away with a toe-tapping finale and such a movement ends this sonata. To that end, Haydn’s go-to rhythmic device is repeated notes, and this nale chatters on constantly at an 8th-note patter, interrupted at random, it would seem, by surprising silences and dramatic pauses – as if to allow the performer to turn sideways and wink at his audience.
Vier Klavierstücke Op. 119
Brahms’s last works for the piano were a set of Four Keyboard Pieces, Op.119. Like the previous short piano pieces of Opp. 116, 117 and 118, they are complex, dense and deeply introspective works, full of rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities but by no means obscure. They are works to be savoured for Brahms’s mastery of compositional technique and for the bountiful wellspring of Viennese sentiment and charm that animates them from within.
Written with complete disregard for the kinds of piano textures considered normal in the late 19th century, the piano pieces of Op. 119 explore new possibilities in harmonic and rhythmic practice, as well. Harmonic changes frequently occur on weak beats, and metrical regularity is often attenuated by harmony notes held over from the previous bar.
The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set is a prime example. Its glacially descending arpeggios in chains of falling thirds 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 left and right hand.
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 Rhapsody in E at major is the longest of Brahms’s 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 gures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of a debonaire A at major section in the classic style of late-19th-century salon music. A amboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece, surprisingly, with a triumphant cadence in E at minor.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017