Ludwig van Beethoven
32 Variations in C minor WoO 80
The theme that Beethoven chose for his 32 Variations in C minor (1806) has a Baroque feel to it, with its chaconne-like harmonic pattern in the left hand and sarabande-like second-beat emphasis in the right. This theme, however, is far from the characterless blank canvas that Baroque composers were wont to lay down as the foundation for their compositional e orts. Within its 8 bars lurks a mini-drama of a distinctly Beethovenian stamp, a drama of struggle, crisis, and resolution that is reproduced in each of the 32 variations that follow.
The left-hand harmonic pattern is built upon a bass line that descends by semitones, one chord to the bar, severe and implacable, like the decrees of Fate. Opposed to this is a courageously heroic right hand that reacts to these alarming developments and by dint of amboyant run-ups struggles to escape in the opposite direction, falling back each time, but inching up a semitone higher with every attempt. Finally, a crisis is reached when both hands land together, sforzando, on a massive F-minor chord (4 notes in each hand), the climactic effect of this is magnified by a stunned silence in the empty first beat of the next bar. Interrupting this silence, both hands then join together
in unison to effect a whimpering cadence, their tails between their legs, chastened for their e orts.
The first 31 variations each t tightly within the 8-bar pattern of the original theme, structuring their transformations on the general harmonic pattern, the melodic outline, the rhythmic o set of the right-hand entry in the original. Successive variations are often grouped together by the use of similar elements in each: arpeggios in Var. 1 to 3, swirling accompaniment figures in Var. 10 & 11, a switch to C major in Variations 12 to 16, low dynamic range in Var. 23 to 25, pervasive double thirds in Var. 26 & 27.
Variation 31 marks a literal return to the falling intervals and run-up scales of the original theme’s right-hand statements, against a swirl of left- hand figuration that the final variation takes up in both hands to usher in Beethoven’s final emphatic thoughts on this theme in an extended peroration that even includes the original theme’s humble ending.
Sonata in C minor D 958
Beethoven cast a long shadow over Schubert. Of the three last sonatas that Schubert wrote in September 1828, just a few months before his death, it is the Sonata in C minor which most reveals his ‘Beethovenian’ side. Among the Beethovenian traits of this sonata are its choice of key, synonymous with Beethoven’s most turbulent musical thoughts, and the many hints that Schubert drops throughout the work to indicate just how familiar he was with Beethoven’s instrumental style.
The opening of the rst movement Allegro is the most evident of these, modeled clearly after the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor in its meter, rhythm, harmonic pattern, and thematic outline. Schubert manages to evade the tragic implications of his punchy C minor theme, however, by nonchalantly slipping into the major mode in the transition to his angelic 2nd theme in E at, with its bell-like upper-voice pedal notes ringing sweetly in the ear. But serious drama does inhabit the development section, especially its latter half built upon a mysterious neighbour-note motion in the bass gnawing away at the nerves while chromatic scales heedlessly trickle down from above until the aggressive one-two punches of the opening theme gradually surface to announce the recapitulation.
The Adagio second movement owes much to the Adagio molto second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 in its solemn pace (a rarity in Schubert slow movements), the halting expressive demeanour of its opening, and its style of melodic decoration. The influence of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata Op. 13 can also be felt in a number of its accompaniment patterns. The movement is structured in 5 alternating sections of lyrical repose and emotional turmoil, the latter sections marked by the prominent use of octaves, either anxiously pulsing in triplets or strutting about in a fractious display of contrapuntal discord.
The restless Menuetto & trio that follows evokes little of the light-hearted mood of the dance, though it lacks neither elegance nor grace. It appears strangely conflicted, in fact, as to whether it actually wants to be a dance at all. Sustained lyrical merriment seems impossible as each successive idea seems undermined by a flickering doubt, expressed in its highly irregular phrase lengths and occasional deviations into the minor mode, while its mysterious pauses imply a flow of emotion cut o in mid-thought.
The sheer size of the last movement Allegro indicates the weight which Schubert intended to give this finale, a stylistic sibling to the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E at Op. 31 No. 3. 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 a sonata-form movement. 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 motives are tossed from the high to the low register while the pounding pulse of horse hooves is maintained in the middle of the keyboard.
Goyescas No. 1 ‘Los Requiebros’
The immensely gifted Spanish pianist and composer Enrique Granados expressed his admiration for the starkly emotional canvasses and etchings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) in a suite of evocative piano pieces that he called Goyescas (1911). The work’s subtitle, Los Majos Enamorados, indicates an intention to depict the amorous adventures of the lower classes of Spanish society, the courting rituals and social interactions of the swains (majos) and the maids (majas) inhabiting the working class neighbourhoods of Madrid in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The first piece in the set, Requiebros ( irtatious compliments), begins with the tale of a pick-up line and its reception. A guitar-like ourish opens the piece with the 8-syllable rhythm of the jota, a form of Spanish popular music danced and sung to the accompaniment of castanets. These latter are picturesquely represented in the score by means of twinkling mordents, snappy triplet figures, and scurrying inner voices, the throw-away character of which figures among the major technical challenges of this piece. Tempo changes of a stop-and-start character mark the various stages of the negotiation, but the sumptuous tonal banquet offered on the last page of the score leaves listeners in no doubt whatsoever as to how rapturously the flattering initiatives referred to in the title were welcomed.
Vallée d’Obermann from Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse)
Étienne Pivert de Sénancour’s novel Oberman (with one ‘n’) was not well received at its publication in 1804. So forcefully, however, did it resonate with the emerging æsthetic preoccupations of the age that three decades later it was a ‘must-read’ in Parisian literary circles, its eponymous central character virtually a watchword for the Romantic sensibility in art. Set in a picturesque valley in Switzerland, it tells the story of a young man enthralled, but at the same time overwhelmed and confused, by his encounters with Nature and the feelings of longing that they engender in him. Helpless to relieve this eternal yearning, he settles on a life of utter simplicity in an attempt to escape the inner struggle and torment of his emotional life.
Liszt’s own travels through Switzerland in the late 1830s inspired his Vallée d’Obermann (with two n’s), first published in 1842 and later included, in a revised version, in the first of his piano suites entitled Années de Pèlerinage I (Suisse) published in 1855. Overtly literary in conception, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann pays tribute to its famous forbear in a type of musical construction that sees its principal theme, a descending scale figure, suffer harmonic and chromatic transformations that parallel the emotional turmoil experienced by Sénancour’s sensitive young hero. This descending scale figure, announced in the left hand as the work opens, permeates every page of the score.
In the first of the work’s three parts it evokes in its chromatic wanderings the listlessness and ennui that the hero’s emotional exhaustion has produced in him. A more developmental middle section begins in an angelic vein to recall how naively and simply his travails began. Here the chromatic inflections of the theme are interpreted a affectionately, in a spirit of songful contentment, but trouble appears on the horizon as the mood is interrupted by a tumultuous passage in tremolo recitative, with octaves flying hither and yon like the mad fury of a caged animal.
The most miraculous transformation of all comes in the final section, when Liszt’s descending scale motive emerges harmonized as a melody of comforting warmth and welcome consolation that builds, strengthened by the courage of its convictions, to an exalting climax.
Throughout the work, however, dense, gritty dissonances, weakly resolved, bear witness to the intensity of the emotional struggle being portrayed and the work ends, almost bitterly, on one of these.
Rhapsodie Espagnole S 254
Inspired by a trip to Spain in the winter of 1844-1845, Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole embodies his unique genius for creating brilliantly effective piano textures and demonstrates the kinds of musical gestures that made his stage presence so compelling to audiences.
The work opens in high drama, with deep rumblings in the bass issuing into sweeping arpeggios up to the high register where the angelic strumming of celestial harps prepares us for a musical feast of divine inspiration. Liszt begins with the traditional Folies d’Espagne tune, which Rachmaninoff also used in his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. First presented with stark simplicity low down in the bass, like an old man mumbling to himself on a country road, the tune gradually gathers momentum in a series of increasingly animated variations until its elaboration extends over the entire range of the keyboard.
But then, at the peak of all this exuberance, Liszt interrupts the proceedings with a ‘music-box’ effect in the high register, chiming out a playful and childlike jota aragonesa, the popular character of which is reinforced by drone tones in the mid-range. Succeeding variations continue to dazzle and astonish until a tender recitative provides a sentimental pause for lyrical reflection.
His nostrils now flaring widely, Liszt cracks his knuckles to unleash a muscular apotheosis of his two main themes in a concentrated display of bravura that may have you reaching for your opera glasses to verify just how many arms the pianist is using, and how many fingers are attached to each.
Protective headgear is recommended, as chips of ceiling stucco may begin to fall before this piece’s final chords thunder through the hall.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017