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Program Notes: Golda Schultz

Clara Schumann
Liebst du um Schönheit | Warum willst du andre frage | Am Strande | Lorelei

Clara Schumann (née Wieck) was a major figure in nineteenth-century music. As a child prodigy, she toured Europe with her father and teacher Friedrick Wieck, meeting Goethe in Weimar and Paganini in Paris. After her marriage to Robert Schumann in 1840 she balanced her role as super-mom to the eight children she bore with that of an internationally celebrated pianist—while still finding time to compose a considerable number of works for piano and chamber ensemble as well as more than two dozen songs.

Her love marriage to Robert Schumann was the central sustaining element in her emotional life before his death in 1856. Almost all of her songs were composed as Christmas or birthday gifts for her husband, who along with Schubert was a major influence on her compositional style. Like her husband, she wrote accompaniments that included preludes, interludes and postludes to the vocal line, making the piano into a musical commentator with an interest in the poetic text equal to that of the singer.

Their mutual sympathy in compositional style is no better demonstrated than in the joint publication of the song collection featuring their lieder entitled Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling with dual opus numbers (her Op. 12 and his Op. 37), published in 1841. Love’s Spring by the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) was a collection of love poems written during his courtship of Luise Wiethaus, whom he married in 1821. The attraction the newly-married Schumanns must have felt for this collection of poems is obvious.

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Liebst du um Schönheit is the second song in the Schumanns’ joint publication. It poses the question of what is worth looking for when looking for love. Is it mere beauty, or youthfulness, or material wealth?  No, the poet replies, love is its own reward.  The pedal drone and gently rocking figures in the accompaniment are reminiscent of Chopin’s Berceuse but here they stand emblematic of the constancy that characterizes real true love.

The eleventh song in the collection, Warum willst du andre fragen asks how true love can be found and identified. And the answer is always the same: it’s in the eyes where the look of love is always unmistakable. The ‘four-squareness’ of Clara Schumann’s setting, with its uniform four-bar phrases, is offset by a harmonic inventiveness that maintains the listener’s interest from stanza to stanza.

Am Strande (1843), with a text by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) translated by Wilhelm Gerhard (1780-1858), reminds us that Clara Schumann was a piano virtuoso of the first rank. Her piano accompaniment to this lied churns up the keyboard in imitation of the churning sea that separates the lovers of the poem’s text.

Lorelei by poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) tells the tale of a siren-like maiden haunting the banks of the Rhine River who tempts distracted river voyagers to their deaths with her bewitching murmurs. Clara Schumann is reported to have possessed an autographed copy of Schubert’s famous lied Erlkönig, which evidently provided the model for the drumbeat of repeated notes, expressing the anxiety of the scene, in the piano accompaniment of this song.

 

Emilie Mayer
Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen | Du bist wie eine Blume | Erlkönig II

The New Grove describes Emilie Mayer as “the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period” and it is easy to see why. Drawn to the larger compositional forms–which in that period only men were considered capable of mastering—her output includes numerous orchestral works (eight symphonies and four overtures), an opera, dozens of instrumental sonatas, eight string quartets, and numerous solo piano works, as well as nearly 130 songs for solo voice or vocal quartet.

Her talent and skill were honed in studies with some of the leading figures in German music, including song composer Carl Loewe (1796-1869), with whom she studied composition, and theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795-1866), with whom she studied counterpoint and fugue. Her works were widely performed in Europe during her lifetime but suffered eclipse after her death and are only now being re-discovered.

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Wenn der Abendstern die Rosen is a setting of a poem by Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856), the librettist of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe (1823) and playwright of Rosamonde (1823) for which Schubert wrote incidental music. In this poem the female speaker is enticed into passionate thoughts of love at nightfall. The highly decorated vocal line and oom-pah-pah rhythm of the piano accompaniment evokes the style of an opera aria by Bellini.

The bel canto singing style is even more evident in Mayer’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s Du bist wie eine Blume, a poem gushing with tender sentiments of love and longing, communicated by the many sigh motives in the vocal line and the occasional outburst of virtuosic display. The piano accompaniment is more than a discreet witness to the singer’s emotions, and pulses with the excitement of a heartbeat at the word Herz (heart) in the text. Mayer’s expressive use of harmony in this lied is exceptionally refined.

Goethe’s spooky folk ballad Der Erlkönig describes the theft by an alluring nature spirit of the soul of a young boy as he rides through the forest in the arms of his father on horseback. This poem has been set more than 130 times but Emilie Mayer appears to be the only composer to set it twice. Her second setting, composed 30 years after her first, eschews the classic depiction of galloping horse’s hooves to concentrate on the wind whistling through the trees, melodramatically portrayed by creeping minor scales in the bass and anxious tremolo trill figures in the mid-range. Her varied depiction of the four voices in the poem (narrator, boy, father and spirit) is utterly masterful.

 

Rebecca Clarke
Down by the Salley Gardens | The Tiger | Cradle Song | The Seal Man

Rebecca Clarke was a pioneering British composer and professional violist who spent much of her creative life in the United States. She was one of the first female students of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) at the Royal College of Music in London and one of the first female professional orchestral players. Best known for chamber works such as her much-recorded Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921), she also composed 52 songs in a variety of styles throughout her life.

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William Butler Yeats’ poem Down by the Salley Gardens is the lament of an impetuous young man in love with a young woman who bids him to “take love easy.” But he, “being young and foolish,” persists in his ardour and pays the price in emotional pain. The simplicity and folksong-like character of the text is reflected in the sparseness of accompaniment and modal harmonies of Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 setting of this poem.

William Blake’s famous poem Tiger, Tiger stares fascinated in horror at the destructive power residing deep in the unconscious of every living thing that moves, as symbolized by the tiger. Remarkable in Rebecca Clarke’s dark expressionist setting of 1927-1931 is how completely divorced the piano ‘accompaniment’ is from the singer’s questioning persona. The piano is the tiger, ranging menacingly up and down the keyboard, seeming ready to pounce at any moment. Particularly chilling are the piano-tiger’s final growls in the closing bars.

Her treatment of Blake’s Cradle Song from 1929 is very different. Here the texture is quite simple and transparent, dominated by streams of parallel chords in the piano accompaniment, evocative of both the innocence of childhood and a child’s drowsy drifting into sleep.

The Seal Man is drawn from English poet John Masefield’s re-telling of the Celtic myth of the seal creature that takes on human form to lure women to their deaths in the sea. Rebecca Clarke’s setting is vividly dramatic with numerous atmospheric touches such as the ‘wet’ figurations in the piano that open and end the song, framing the action as a ‘sea story’ from start to finish. The vocal line is raw and dramatic, often declaimed without any piano accompaniment at all, but in the end it is the haunting overtones of the piano that devour the listener’s attention, just as the sea swallows up the poor young girl in this eerie tale about the dangers of love.

 

Nadia Boulanger
La mer est plus belle | Prière | Élégie | Cantique

French composer, pianist and conductor Nadia Boulanger studied composition with Gabriel Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire but she is best known as a music educator. Her students have included some of the leading composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti and Astor Piazzola, to name but a few.

She composed works for orchestra and for chamber ensembles, as well as over 30 songs. Her compositional style is similar to that of Debussy in many ways.  Like Debussy, she uses whole-tone or modally-tinged scales and ambiguous but vividly coloristic harmonies in sequences of parallel chords, stabilized by long pedal tones in the bass.

La mer est plus belle by symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) pays tribute to the immense power of the sea, a quality conveyed in the massively sonorous waves of piano sonority Nadia Boulanger sends sweeping over the keyboard, much in the manner of Chopin’s ‘Ocean’ Etude, Op. 25 No. 12.

Henry Bataille (1872-1922) was a very successful French playwright whose plays explored how the instinctive passions of his characters bumped up against the social norms of polite society. His poem Prière is an open-hearted enquiry into the meaning and significance of a personage such as the Virgin Mary. The opening melody’s small range, its recurring leaps of a 5th and the way the melody circles hypnotically around that leapt-to note all recall medieval religious chant, as do the drone tones at the bottom of the piano accompaniment. Passion of an almost operatic intensity erupts in the central section, however, as more vivid tonal colours and thicker textures are applied to support the singer’s expanding emotional awareness.

Albert Samain (1858-1900) was a French symbolist poet much inspired—if that is the right word—by the morbid mentality and dissolute life habits of his fellow poet Charles Baudelaire. Nadia Boulanger’s rather pretty dressing-up of Samain’s darkly nostalgic poem Élégie (the exact meaning of which is anyone’s guess) strikes the listener as typically French in its emphasis on tone colour and what classical parodist Anna Russell called French “wispiness”. Who else could set the phrase Un paradis s’est écroulé (a paradise has come crashing down) so blithely and innocently?

Cantique is a poem that appeared in the second act of the play Soeur Béatrice (1901) by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the author of the play Pelléas et Mélisande which Debussy adapted to create his opera of the same in 1902. The protagonist in this text is a nun meditating on the disappointments of love. Nadia Boulanger’s exquisitely tender melody line and discreet accompaniment of sympathetic chordal harmonies in the piano are utterly ravishing.

 

Kathleen Tagg 
This Be Her Verse
After Philip Larkin | Wedding | Single Bed

Concluding this recital of songs by women about women’s experiences is This Be Her Verse, a new song cycle commissioned by Ms. Schulz from friends she first met when studying at Juilliard in New York.

Her fellow South African Kathleen Tagg is a composer-pianist whose work revolves around issues of identity and interpersonal connection. She has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center but is equally at home in unconventional smaller spaces – a fact that comes across clearly in the cabaret-style intimacy of this new work.

Multi-talented dramatist Lila Palmer is a classically trained soprano with a first-class degree in history from Cambridge University. She knows our city well, having twice been a vocal fellow of the Vancouver International Song Institute. Her first libretto, for the chamber opera Harbour, brought to the stage the experience of Scottish Highlanders displaced by their English overlords.

This Be Her Verse is written in a sparkling tonal idiom, with some interesting reach-into-the-piano effects in the keyboard accompaniment. Limelight Magazine notes that this song cycle “explores a very contemporary version of womanhood, with the centrepiece, Wedding, incorporating COVID in its premise.”

But The Guardian probably sums it up best in describing these new songs as “deft, upbeat, sharp and true, a celebration of the single bed and clean sheets.”

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Steven Osborne

Franz Schubert
Impromptu No. 1 in F minor  D. 935

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 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.

Schubert was a pianist, but he was not a touring virtuoso. His audiences were small, familiar, and local, and pieces such as his Impromptus Op. 142 reflect especially well the social setting for which they were composed. One hears in them the sounds of Viennese popular music, dance music in particular, and occasionally the close-position chordal textures of recreational part-singing.

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The Impromptu in F minor Op. 142, No. 1 is a simple A-B-A-B-A rondo with a mock-stern ‘Beethovenian’ introduction featuring jagged melodic gestures and cadences that promise weighty things to come. But instead, we are led into a Schubertian world of gentle pathos and delicate sentiment, framed in the kinds of buoyant, fluttering keyboard textures that tended to ‘speak’ well on the light-actioned Viennese piano of Schubert’s day. A subsequent theme in repeated chords evokes the lilting rhythms of music in the Austrian capital.

The texture of Schubert’s B-section is utterly enchanting. He uses rippling arpeggios to create a purling stream of piano sonority in the mid-range of the keyboard, across which velvety dreaming voices in the treble exchange loving phrases with tender baritone echoes in the bass, undergoing wondrous modulation-induced changes in tone colour as they go.

 

George Crumb
Processional

American composer George Crumb is known for his haunting, mystical, almost surrealist scores that explore unusual instrumental timbres. Crumb’s Processional (1983) focuses our attention on incremental changes in tone colour by laying down a constant patter of eighth notes, configured as dense tone clusters, within which a six-note descending melodic line emerges as a principal motive.

The harmonic language is ambiguous, sometimes appearing to be based on the whole-tone scale, at other times traditionally tonal or modal. Like many of Crumb’s works, the piece unfolds at a low dynamic level (beginning and ending ppp) and its constant pulsing in a sonic space densely saturated with overtones has the hypnotic effect of suspending our sense of time.

Crumb describes the work as “concerned with the prismatic effect of subtle changes of harmonic colour and frequent modulation”, while contemporary music specialist Jeffrey Jacob describes the work as follows: “The basis of the piece is a series of repeated chords which very gradually move toward or away from major climaxes. The mesmerizing effect of the chordal repetition is countered by the rising and falling dynamics.”

 

Claude Debussy
Étude retrouvée
Douze Études  Livre II

It might appear surprising that a composer such as Debussy should deign to write piano études, a genre associated since the time of Czerny with musical monotony, and since the time of Liszt with Napoleonic-level narcissism and circus-inspired showmanship. Debussy’s personal aesthetic emphasized imaginative refinement more than mechanical perfection, and his public persona was light-years removed from the exhibitionist egotism of the Romantic-era virtuoso.

So, his Douze Études (1915) are more than mere push-up punishment at pianistic boot camp, the aim of which is to build endurance for when it might be needed in ‘real’ music. Each is a musical tone poem testing a new kind of pianism, based on fingertip sensitivity and finely filtered pedalling. Each poses problems of sonority and texture that mere digital dexterity alone is insufficient to solve. And each, in the end, challenges the pianist to hit that sweet spot to which all French music tends—charm.

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Debussy’s Étude retrouvée was ‘found’ (hence the title) amongst the composer’s papers in 1977 and it appears to be a 13th étude which the composer decided not to include in his published set of 12. The chief technical difficulty addressed is that of bringing out scattered fragments of lyrical melody floating atop an absolute riot of shimmering multi-octave arpeggio figurations that at times involve both hands simultaneously.

The second book of Debussy’s Douze Études begins with Étude 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques, a perpetual motion study of playful character featuring a squirrelly right-hand scurrying in small 4-note chromatic groupings. Out of this sound-swirl, brief snatches of smooth diatonic melody emerge in the left hand. Unfolding in a constant purr at low volume, it mimics the sensation of changing dynamic levels by means of changes in register and changes in the number of voices active in the texture. Remarkable (for an étude) is the way the piece combines brilliance with lyricism.

Étude 8 Pour les agréments (ornaments) has, in the words of Debussy, “the form of a Barcarolle on a rather Italian sea.” And indeed there is a kind of ‘watery’ feel to the texture, at times reminiscent of the composer’s L’Isle joyeuse. The ‘ornaments’ with which this étude’s melodic content are encrusted are not just your regular mordents and trills but mostly chordal arpeggios that delicately rain down on their melody notes like sprinklings of sonic mist.

Étude 9 Pour les notes répétées is marked scherzando, a mood created not only by its effervescent texture of peppery repeated notes but also by its scampering melodies and quixotic stop-and-go changes of mood, all at a piano dynamic level.

Étude 10 Pour les sonorités opposées gets to the heart of the Debussyan sound world. This is an étude more for the ear and pedal-foot than for the fingers, featuring multi-layered sonorities spaced out over as much as five octaves, rich in dark pedal tones low down in the bass to be balanced against iridescent tonal accents high up in the treble and murmuring melodies emerging out of the mid-range.

Étude 11 Pour les arpèges composés is a study in delicacy of touch and subtly nuanced shades of tone-colouring at widely varying dynamic levels. Its tracery of ‘composite arpeggios’ (multi-octave chord patterns with added tones) is written as grace notes enveloping simple melodic fragments found floating amid the tonal ripples and timbral sparkle.

Bold, exuberant and flashy, Étude 12 Pour les accords (chords) seems to be simply screaming with exclamation points. It has been called “a barbarous dance” and indeed it has no shortage of élan with its beastly difficult pattern of wild leaps in opposite directions playing out counter-metrically in duple groups across its triple-metre bar lines. A radically relaxed middle section almost makes you forget what all the excitement was about until the springboard rhythms of the opening slyly work their way back into the texture to end this gymnastic étude as acrobatically as it began.

 

Franz Schubert
Sonata in B-flat major  D. 960

Schubert’s last piano sonata, written in 1828 a scant few months before his death, exemplifies in one single work the full range of his gifts as lyric melodist, serious musical dramatist, and refined exponent of the light, dance-besotted musical style of Vienna.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is typically generous in its bounty of themes. It opens with a softly whispered melody, humbly small in range and accompanied by a repeated pedal tone in the left hand, like a pulsing human heartbeat. This opening theme has a sweet yearning quality that gives it an ineffable, almost nostalgic charm, urging it to burst more fully into song, which it soon does. A second theme introduces a tentative note of worry, but Schubert’s constant harmonic wavering between the major and minor modes prevents the emotional tone from becoming downcast. A third theme of a triadic stamp scampers over the full range of the keyboard, in both hands, to re-establish a more directly buoyant emotional tone, disturbed only by a recurring low trill in the left hand that acts as a sectional marker within the movement. The development is where all the drama lies, as Schubert passes his melodic material through a harmonic colour wheel, building to an intense climax that acts as a rare moment of sonic emphasis in the centre of what is, essentially, a movement of delicate shades of nuance.

Much more starkly dramatic is the Andante sostenuto slow movement which features an introspective melody in the mid-range of the keyboard, surrounded by sonic ‘echoes’, both above and below, implying that this lonely plaintive voice is pleading its mournful case in a vast, but empty enclosure. It is hard not to think of the more militant middle section as an attempt to take heart, an attempt that inevitably fails as the opening mood returns to conclude the movement.

The third movement scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza, is indeed ‘delicate’ if judged by the standards of Beethoven’s ‘rough-house’ humour. More typically Viennese in its subtlety, it generates good-natured humour from its frequent changes of register and twinkling grace notes. A steady interchange of material between the hands creates the impression of a dialogue between two real musical ‘characters’. The contrasting trio in the minor mode is much more sedate, sitting in the middle of the keyboard and shifting its weight around in gentle syncopations.

Still in a humorous frame of mind, Schubert begins his rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with a mock ‘mistake’. Starting off in the minor mode, he then ‘remembers’ that he wants to be in a major key and makes a mid-course correction at the end of the first phrase. This joke of changing dramatic masks from the serious to the comedic is played out frequently during the movement, with intervening episodes of songful respite in between. This is a finale filled with congenial joking of the most sophisticated kind, created by a true Viennese pianistic ‘sit-down comic’.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Daniel Hsu

Robert Schumann
Kinderszenen  Op. 15

The character piece, a short work expressing a single mood or illustrating an idea suggested by its titling, was a typical product of the Romantic era, and Robert Schumann was a major contributor to the genre. In 1838 he composed 30 such works, publishing 13 of them in a collection that he called Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood).

Explaining the title in a letter to his future wife Clara he wrote:

Perhaps it was an echo of what you once said to me, that ‘Sometimes I seemed like a child’ … You will enjoy them—though you will have to forget you are a virtuoso.

And indeed the childlike simplicity and artlessness of these pieces is their main alluring feature. Schumann’s Kinderszenen were not written for children, but rather for adults about children. They are imbued with a nostalgia for a time of life that in many ways represents the Romantic imagination itself, with its wide-eyed sense of wonder, its lack of preconceptions and acceptance of new experiences, its intuitive affinity with an inborn human nature lying beneath the acquired behaviours of ‘civilized’ adult life.

Here we find the poetic spirit of Schumann’s compositional style in its purest unmediated form, without the framing artifice of literary devices such as the masked balls of the Papillons Op. 2 and Carnaval Op. 9 or the fictional League of David of the Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6. Schumann here is speaking through the voice of the universal childhood of every listener—which perhaps may explain why this was the first of his keyboard cycles to enjoy popular success.

Most of the pieces in this collection are in a kind of miniature three-part (ABA) form. Their melodies sit in the mid-range of the keyboard—the range of the human voice—and very few rise above a piano dynamic level, giving them a special kind of intimacy.

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Anyone who has entertained the pleasant thought of getting on a plane and travelling somewhere far away will identify with the daydreaming mood of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign lands and peoples). The melodic profile of its opening notes, a rising 6th and a four-note falling figure (B-G-F#-E-D), appears in several subsequent pieces as well, acting as a unifying motive for the cycle as a whole. Schumann’s rippling arpeggiations in the mid-register and wide chord spacings in the left-hand accompaniment create an understated but quietly sonorous backdrop for this piece’s carefree and eminently hummable melody.

In the perky dotted rhythms of Curiose Gedichte (A curious story) we hear Schumann’s eternal fascination with turning every stirring emotion into some kind of a march. But into the bargain we also get pleasing little snatches of imitation and a multi-layered texture with many moving parts, especially active in the middle and lower voices.

The scene illustrated in Hasche-Mann (Catch me if you can) is as pictorial as keyboard music gets, with children musically portrayed as racing around in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, each ‘tag’ being indicated by a sudden sforzando on the keyboard.

Bittendes Kind (The pleading child) is full of coy questions and many a phrase that ends with a rising, questioning intonation. But are the questions answered? The last chord, a dominant 7th (with the 7th on top), leaves the issue hanging in the air.

Glückes genug (Happy enough) is a charming duet between left- and right-hand voices in close imitation—making the point that ‘chumminess’ is indistinguishable from happiness for a young child.

More march-like dotted rhythms greet us in Wichtige Begebenheit (An important event). But the repetition of the same phrase over and over again in various transpositions evokes the naïveté of a mock-serious parade of toddler soldiers with wooden swords and moustaches painted on with Magic Marker.

Träumerei (Reverie) is arguably Schumann’s best-known composition, made justly famous as an encore piece by pianist Vladimir Horowitz and even sung in a choral version at the annual May 9th Victory Day commemoration of Russia’s war dead. Its sequence of introspective moments is carried forward from thought to daydreaming thought by repeated re-harmonizations of the opening melodic phrase that never seem to tire in the ear.

Biedermeier coziness and contentment is the theme of Am Camin (At the fireplace), conveyed by its unpretentious melody and the gentle, cushiony off-beat pulses of its accompaniment.

The accenting of the last beat of every bar in the Ritter von Steckenpferd (Hobbyhorse knight) marks the hoof-fall and play-gallop of a young would-be warrior charging about his playroom.

The title of the following piece, Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious) is curiously vague. Every note of its serene right-hand melody, from start to finish, sings out on the off-beats, a 16th note out of phase with a metrically regular left-hand accompaniment of widely-spaced chordal arpeggiations.

Fürchtenmachen (Catching a fright) alternates passages of innocent thoughtfulness with episodes of frenetic panic and confused anxiety, a cautionary warning to the wandering child in us all that “if you go out in the woods at night, you’re in for a big surprise.”

After all this excitement, it starts getting towards nap-time for our Kind im Einschlummern (Child falling asleep) lulled into slumber by the hypnotic drowsy-making repetition of the same small motive, over and over. In a brilliant poetic touch, Schumann allows us to witness the moment that deep sleep finally arrives, when this piece in E minor ends on an A minor chord, without a final cadence.

Finally, we withdraw from the poetic world of childhood, to enter the adult mind of the poet who has been imagining it for us. Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks) is a soliloquy of tender reflections offered up in broken phrases and plaintive recitative, an elegy reminding us, as did Wordsworth, that “the child is father of the man.”

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major  Op. 110

Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its musical ideas and the directness with which they are expressed. The most obvious late-period features of this work are an extremely wide keyboard range and a melding of slow movement and finale into a continuous musico-dramatic unit.

The first movement, marked con amabilità (likably), opens with a tune one could well imagine accompanying a thoughtful walk in the forest. Simple as it is, it moves to become simpler still, passing into a songful melody-and-accompaniment texture before evaporating into a delicate pattern of harmonic lacework luxuriantly caressing the keyboard over a space of four octaves. It is this gracious pattern of figuration, almost Romantic in its warmth of tone and celebration of keyboard colouring, that most attracts the ear in this movement. Its complete absence from the central development section is amply compensated for when it rises richly up from the bass to inaugurate the return of the main theme in the recapitulation.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most jocular scherzi. Its main section is based on two popular tunes of the time: the feline nativity ode Unsa Kätz häd Katz’ln g’habt (Our cat has had kittens) and the anti-hygienic anthem Ich bin liederlich, du bist liederlich (I’m so slovenly, you’re so slovenly). Inspired thus in equal measure by the reproductive capacity of household pets and the haphazard grooming habits of the Austrian male, Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses and other raw signifiers of loutish humour. The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents.

The sonata concludes with a wonderfully vivid piece of musical theatre, rife with dramatic contrasts and unusual turning points in the musical action. Combining the traditional lyrical slow movement and triumphant finale, it opens with an evocation of the opera stage: a lonely solo voice pleads its case in a halting recitative and then continues in an affecting lament of considerable intimacy over soothing & sympathetic triplet pulsations, set in the troubled key of A flat minor.

But then, like a ray of Enlightenment sunshine announcing the triumph of Reason over Emotion, a three-voice fugue steps onto the stage, replacing the little sigh motives and rhythmic hesitations of the previous section with quietly confident, evenly spaced 4ths and 3rds, the same intervals used in the opening bars of the first movement.

All this Baroque counterpoint fails, however, to ward off a relapse into pathos as the heart-rending arioso returns, even more plangently whimpering than before, until Beethoven astonishes us with the ultimate coup de théâtre. In what could only be construed as a musical representation of strengthening psychological resolve, we hear the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme, now presented in inversion. A new mood of quiet triumph and victorious liberation spills over into increasingly elaborate fugal lacework until even the fugal pretense is dropped and the sonata concludes in a glorious songful strain of rejoicing expressed over five octaves of the keyboard.

 

Franz Liszt
Sonata in B minor  S. 178

“This is nothing but sheer racket … it’s really awful,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor Sonata, dedicated to her husband Robert. The pre-eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick couldn’t have agreed more. Blending high dudgeon with feigned condolence, he scornfully sneered: “whoever has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help.” Suffice it to say, Liszt’s piano sonata was not welcomed into the canon with open arms, but something more akin to raised pitchforks.

The problem may well have been that in writing this sonata, completed in 1853, Liszt was going ‘against brand’. Long known for his programmatic works—each with a story to tell, and thus a built-in framework for interpretation—Liszt had shocked many in the musical world by composing a piece of absolute music, a work based purely on the interplay of abstract musical ideas. His Sonata in B Minor came across as an impenetrably dense musical hairball of intertwined motives, in a single-movement format that seemed to combine the characteristics of both a sonata-form movement (exposition, development, recapitulation) and the four-movement layout of a complete sonata (sonata allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale). In this he was undoubtedly influenced by Schubert, whose Wanderer Fantasy with a similar unified design he had recently arranged in a version for piano and orchestra.

Binding Liszt’s sonata together is the process of thematic transformation, i.e., changing the character of musical themes while retaining their essential identity, their melodic outline. The multiple personalities of the idée fixe theme in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is an early example, and Wagner’s use of leitmotif is a later development of the same technique. So, to follow what Liszt is doing in this sonata, you need to follow the four major themes he is shape-shifting as it proceeds.

The first three are spelled out on the first page of the score. The work opens with a pair of slow, descending scales of an exotic stamp. Then comes a forthright theme hammered out in double octaves beginning with a bold downward leap and ending with a diminished 7th arpeggio. Finally, the bass gruffly growls out a rascally little motive down low, rife with repeated notes.

The transformations begin immediately as these three themes spawn passage after varied passage of keyboard textures, all motivically interlinked, until a solemn, chorale-like fourth theme of slowly rising melody notes arrives over a pulsing carpet of sonorous chordal harmonies to complete the line-up.

In the course of this sonata the list of ‘transformations’ seems limitless. The gruff growling theme of repeated notes is transformed, among other things, into a dreamily delicious, Liebestraum-like lyrical melody in the ‘slow movement’ section. The bold theme in double octaves is tamed and brought to heel as the subject of an extended fugato in the following ‘scherzo’. And the chorale-like theme abandons its dignified ‘churchy’ solemnity and acquires major rhetorical muscle, elbowing its way into your eardrums as an important protagonist in the piece. Meanwhile, the slow descending scales that opened the work recur as boundary markers delineating major sectional divisions.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata is now recognized as one of the most important keyboard compositions of the 19th century, and the very complexity of its structuring—the quality that caused so much antipathy at its first publication—is now the chief reason it is so widely admired.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Nicolas Altstaedt

Henri Dutilleux
Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher

Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906-1999), founder of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, was an immensely important figure in 20th-century music. With a family fortune based on a controlling share of the Hoffman-LaRoche pharmaceutical empire, he commissioned works from some of the century’s greatest composers. These commissioned works include Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.

In 1976 Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich set about to celebrate Sacher’s 70th birthday by commissioning new works for solo cello from 12 of the Western world’s leading composers: Conrad Beck, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Wolfgang Fortner, Alberto Ginastera, Cristóbal Halffter, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Klaus Huber, Witold Lutosławski … and Henri Dutilleux.

Each piece was to use the dedicatee’s name spelled out ‘musically’, i.e., with each letter representing a musical pitch – Es being the German notation of E flat, H being B natural and R (re in the language of solfège) as D. The spelled out musical motive to be used was therefore:  E flat-A-C-B flat-E-D.

In his works Dutilleux had a tendency not to introduce his thematic material in complete form right away but rather to slowly unveil it, as he does at the opening of the first movement of his Trois strophes. First we hear E flat, then E flat-A, then E flat-A-C-B natural, and then finally the entire series of pitches making up the ‘musical spelling’ of the name Sacher. He also likes to ‘anchor’ his musical gestures around stable recurring pitches, from which his gestures depart and to which they constantly return, as is the case in this movement with the augmented 5th B flat – F# at the bottom of the cello’s pitch range. (The cello’s normal range extends down only to low C, but for this work Dutilleux has the instrument tuned down to low B flat.) Near the end of this movement he introduces a short quotation in quivering 32nd-note double-stop tremolo from Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, yet another work commissioned by Sacher.

The second movement, marked Andante sostenuto, explores the rich low register of the cello, but for most of its duration only hints obliquely at the intervals making up the musical spelling of Sacher’s name, which is revealed in six bold strokes just before the end.

This musical cryptogram also inspires the Vivace last movement, but it is buried in the intervals of the whirling pattern of triplet 16ths of the opening and in various transpositions and transformations of these pitches throughout.

While the pitches corresponding to the name Sacher may be the point of departure for this work, Dutilleux’s real ‘subject’ in these three movements is the resonance of the cello itself, and the range of possible ways for summoning it up and manipulating it.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach
Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor  BWV 1011

The six cello suites were written between 1717 and 1723, when Bach was employed as Kapellmeister to the music-loving Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. But after Bach’s death, they seemed to have gone underground, passed from hand to hand among musicians of an antiquarian bent until the first printed editions began to appear in the 1820s. But even during the 19th century they were viewed more as studies for practice in the studio rather than masterpieces for performance in the concert hall.

All that changed in the 1930s as a result of the pioneering work of one man, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who did for the Bach Cello Suites what Glenn Gould did for the Goldberg Variations. Intrigued by a 19th-century edition he found in a thrift shop in Barcelona, Casals began performing them in public and by 1939 had produced the first complete recording of the whole set.

From this point on the Bach Cello Suites joined the repertoire of cellists around the world, leading to another milestone in their history: Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the complete set that won him a Grammy Award in 1986.

*                      *                      *

The Baroque suite, a collection of dances from across Europe all in the same key, was normally comprised of the moderately-paced German allemande, the more animated French courante, the slow and stately Spanish sarabande, and the leap-loving English jig, or to use its posh French name, gigue. All of the dances are in two-part binary form, with each part played twice. Harmonically, the first part moves from the home key to end in the dominant, with the second part moving back to cadence in the home key again.

Optional dances were often inserted to ease the transition between the normally grave sarabande and the frequently raucous gigue. These included the courtly minuet, the hot-trotting gavotte, and the heartbeat-quickening bourrée. They often occurred in contrasting pairs, with the first minuet, gavotte or bourrée being played again (without repeats) after the second, to give a rounded A-B-A form to the whole. Many suites also began with a prelude, meant to establish the key in listener’s ear, and to allow the performer to warm up his fingers by playing passagework in a stable rhythmic pattern.

*                      *                      *

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor BWV 1011 is somewhat unusual in having its Prelude in the form of a French overture, i.e. with a slow, pompous and dead serious opening section constructed in phrases that lurch forward in dotted rhythms, followed by a quick section with a fugal texture. Bach’s opening section establishes a mood of gravitas with its triple- and quadruple stops on many of the section’s downbeats. But as for the ‘fugue’ meant to follow, how to write polyphonic music on a single-line instrument? Bach solves this problem by writing such a bouncy, well-balanced and catchy fugue subject that listeners end up ‘hearing’ the other voices in their head.

This is the Central-Bank magic of quantitative easing applied to harmonic voice-leading. It’s the fluttering veils of Gypsy Rose Lee suggesting far more than the eyes of her audience are actually seeing. And Bach was an unsurpassed master at this compositional sleight-of-hand.

The Courante employs the same multiple-stop emphasis on downbeats as in the Prelude, but the effect is more dance-like because instead of dotted rhythms this movement uses ‘running’ notes, as its name implies, to keep things moving between points of rhythmic emphasis.

The emotional heart of this suite is its Sarabande, which contains no multiple-stop chords at all, just a steady stream of 8th notes in a single melodic line roving restlessly over more than two octaves of sonic space. While its rhythmic surface is flat, the great leaps and many sighing phrases in its melodic line create a state of continuous harmonic tension as implied dissonances hang in the air, to be resolved only in the final cadence arrived at in each section. This is the art of saying much by saying little. The stark beauty of this movement and its indomitable will to move forward, step by step, no matter the pain, made it the work chosen by Yo-Yo Ma to play on September 11, 2002, at the first anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, as the names of the dead being honoured were read out, one by one.

The two strong upbeats leading into the following Gavotte establish us firmly back on the rough rhythmic terrain of country dancing. In this and the following triplet-obsessed Gavotte II, a constant 1-2, 1-2 pulse makes counting easy, and toe-tapping inevitable.

The concluding Gigue, with its leap-friendly dotted rhythms, agreeably balanced phrases and easy-to-follow repetitive sequences of melody and harmony, ends the suite in a mood of unbridled merriment, despite the ‘serious’ key of C minor in which it is written.

 

Zoltán Kodály
Sonata in B minor for solo cello  Op. 8

“In twenty-five years no cellist will be accepted into the world of cellists who does not play my piece,” boldly declared Zoltán Kodály of his Cello Sonata in B minor Op. 8. And he was right. When composed in 1915 this work represented the most important contribution to the solo cello literature since the Bach cello suites of the early 18th century. But because of its extraordinary technical difficulty and innovative musical language, it struggled to find an audience until Hungarian cellist János Starker (1924-2013) recorded it in 1939, winning a Grand Prix du Disque for his efforts. And as its fame grew, he went on to record it again – three more times.

The sonata’s roots lie deep in Hungarian folk music, which Kodály had studied in his travels through the Hungarian countryside with Béla Bartók in 1908. Specifically, the Sonata inhabits the sound world of the Hungarian folk lament, with which it shares the same improvisatory feel, parlando rubato (free reciting) performance style, and downward-seeking melodies. Its harmonies are non-functional but rather modal, with a preference for the pentatonic scale. And yet Kodály manages to fit these non-standard features into the formal structures of traditional Western-European art music.

This is a powerful piece, a piece that grabs you by the throat and impresses itself on you. The reason is easy to see. As Kodály says: “What musical features are characteristic of Hungarian music? In general, it is active rather than passive, an expression of will rather than emotion. Aimless grieving and tears of merriment do not appear in our music. Even the Székely [region] laments radiate resolute energy.”

This resolute energy is on full display as the work opens. It begins with two quadruple-stop B minor chords, followed by a defiant theme in a sarabande rhythm, heavily weighted on the second beat of the bar. Motivic elements announced in these opening bars will permeate the movement. The sonata’s second theme is much quieter and features a recurring murmur of neighbour notes that continually shadow its melody lines. The development deals almost exclusively with the first theme and climaxes in an orgy of trills, leading to a recapitulation which, by compensation, deals mostly with the second theme. Each section in this movement clearly opens with quadruple-stop chords, giving a degree of formal clarity to the whole.

The second movement Adagio comes closest in this sonata to imitating the sound of the human voice. Beginning its low lament deep at the bottom of the instrument’s register it is soon accompanied by the echoing ornate melody of a shepherd’s pipe and a plucked low drone, as if from a lyre, that acts as an anchoring pitch for much of the movement. Playing both arco and pizzicato at the same time, the cello imitates a solo voice in company with a fitful instrumental accompaniment. The emotional outpouring reaches a height of improvisatory frenzy in a middle section rife with quivering tremolos and rapidly accelerating figurations, before returning to the darkly contemplative mood of its opening bars.

The third movement Allegro molto vivace is a major test of endurance for the performer. It contains some of the most challenging technical passages in the cello repertoire as the instrument is called upon to imitate a wide range of folk instruments, from the jangling timbre of the cimbalom or hammered dulcimer, to the bagpipes (with drone 5ths in the bass), and plucked instruments such as the lyre. Unfolding as a series of textural variations, it alludes strongly to the repertoire of verbunkos melodies, played by gypsy bands in the 19th century to accompany town recruitment drives into the army. And the ‘flashiness’ of gypsy fiddling is everywhere apparent in variation after variation as this movement drives to its frenetic conclusion.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Danish String Quartet II

Franz Schubert
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor D. 810 (Death and the Maiden)

Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet is a sombre work, with all four of its movements set in a minor key. It takes its name from the composer’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) that provides the theme for the quartet’s slow movement, a set of variations. The poem’s depiction of Death coming to claim a young life may well have had personal resonance for the 27-year-old Schubert, since in 1824, when this quartet was written, symptoms of the disease that would kill him four years later had already begun to appear.

Despite the despairing backstory, or perhaps because of it, the first movement of this quartet is unusually muscular in its scoring, thick with double-stop accompaniment patterns and punchy triple- and quadruple-stop chords at important cadences. This orchestral quality is evident from the startling salvo of string sound that opens the work, comparable in its dramatic abruptness to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fanfare-like call to attention announces the serious tone of the movement while at the same time introducing the descending triplet figure that will be the principal motive of its first theme, presented immediately following. The other important motive dominating the movement arrives in the work’s second theme: a small grouping of notes ending in a lilting dotted rhythm, lovingly offered up in thirds, Viennese-style.

Schubert’s treatment of these two motives in this movement displays his more ‘relaxed’ notion of the structural principles underlying classical sonata form. While composers in the era of Mozart and Haydn considered their key choices and modulation patterns to be the harmonic pillars and load-bearing walls of a sonata-form movement’s musical architecture, Schubert, by contrast, was more interested in interior decorating than structural engineering. Rejecting sonata form’s traditional concentration on just two tonal centres – the home key presented at the outset and its alternate, presented in the second theme – he preferred to spin his tonal colour wheel more freely so as to choose just the right tonal accent for this little motive here, and the right tonal shade to paint that broad thematic space there.

While not ignoring the form’s three-part division into exposition, development and recapitulation, Schubert lets this pattern out at the seams to create a more vibrant palette of harmonic possibilities. The tonal drama that interests him happens at a moment-by-moment pace, riding forward on waves of harmonic colour. The triplets that appear so portentous as the movement opens, when cast in different tonal colours, become a daisy-sniffing, walk-in-the-park hummable tune. And the lilting dotted-rhythm motive, so gracious at its first appearance, becomes worrisome when constantly repeated in the minor mode.

Schubert’s treatment of his musical material in the following slow movement is much more regular and formally proportioned. The theme for this movement’s set of variations is in two parts, each repeated. The first is a direct quotation of the piano introduction to the Death and the Maiden lied, with its plodding funeral-march rhythm and mournful repetition of melody notes evoking the sorrow that death brings. The second part maintains the processional rhythm but is more hopeful, ending in the major mode to reflect the lied text’s depiction of death as the Great Comforter. Most of the variations decorate the theme with an elegant application of melodic embroidery in the first violin. But the third variation breaks this pattern with its frightening acceleration of the theme’s processional rhythm, a pacing that some have compared to the galloping of Death’s horse.

The Allegro molto scherzo is of a rough Beethovenian stamp, predicated on the play of small, repeated motives, frequent syncopations, and sudden contrasts between piano and forte. Its Trio middle section is a gently swaying Ländler that counts as one of the few moments of sustained lyrical repose in this quartet.

The rondo finale, marked Presto, is a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory emotional states. Alternating between the driving vehemence of its tarantella refrain in the minor mode and the almost celebratory spirit of its major-mode episodes, this movement is bound together by its boundless energy alone, an energy that seems to transcend major-minor distinctions. Witness its whirlwind coda, that clearly signals an intention to end the work in the major mode, only to switch back to the minor for its last hurrah, yet with no loss of breathless exuberance.

 

Lotta Wennäkoski
Pige

Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski began her musical education studying violin in Budapest before taking up studies in composition, first at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and then at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, studying under composer Louis Andriessen.

Having begun her career writing scores for short films and for radio plays, her compositional instincts tend towards the picturesque and the accessible, with textures immediately understandable in terms of musical gesture. She is the diametrical opposite of a ‘brutalist’ composer, preferring to lure rather than berate the listener and she has even been called a ‘lyricist’ amongst contemporary composers.

While she enjoys an international reputation, having received commissions from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen as well as from the BBC Symphony, she also likes to perform at daycare centres, singing songs with the children and explaining to them the language of modern music.

As a composer of both string music and songs, she is uniquely qualified to compose a work responding to Schubert’s lied Death and the Maiden, especially since many of her compositions for voice deal with issues affecting women. Among these are her song cycle Naisen rakkautta ja elämää (The Love and Life of a Woman) from 2003, based on Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben song collection, and her recent opera project, Regine (2021), about the wife of Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard.

She describes herself as a timbral composer, with a fascination for changes in tone colour. Slip-slidey glissandi are a recurring feature in her string scores and her music often has a strong sense of pulse, communicated in ostinato patterns, against the background of which melodic fragments poke out on the surface of the texture.

Most importantly, her music is fundamentally optimistic in outlook: “I belong”, she says, “to a generation of composers who see the outside world as an opportunity rather than as a threat.”

Composer’s remarks:

Something fierce, something soundless, so have I written in my notebook when planning the string quartet Pige. It has been an inspiring task to write a work to be paired with the Death and the Maiden quartet by Franz Schubert. The “Doppelgänger” idea was greatly feeding my imagination from the very beginning. It’s also been an honour to write music for the hugely expressive musicians of the Danish String Quartet.

The first movement Vorüber, ach, vorüber! is based on the first half of Schubert’s lied that lies behind his Death and the Maiden quartet. This “maiden’s song” has not found its way to his string quartet, so I wanted to use its material in mine. The second movement Daktylus borrows its idea from the haunting pulse of Schubert’s chant of Death. Something fierce and something soundless can be heard here – along with other aspects to the dactyl rhythm.

Schubert’s quartet is wonderful music and of course an unmissable boulder, and “death and the maiden” is a tempting and gloomy motif in art history. On the other hand, I just couldn’t help seeing the motif also as the never-ending image of a dirty old man desiring the young female body… The third movement thus turns its gaze to the girl herself. Pigen og scrapbogen, “The Girl and the Scrapbook”, is joyful textural music – compiled of fragments and freely handled quotations that might spring to mind when thinking of a vital girl’s life.

Pige is Danish for girl. I wish to thank the Danish String Quartet and the co-commissioners for the opportunity to write this music.

Lotta Wennäkoski, March 2022

 

Franz Schubert
Death and the Maiden
(arr. Danish String Quartet)

Schubert’s lied Der Tod und das Mädchen (1817) is a setting of a two-stanza poem by German poet Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). Like Schubert’s previous lied Der Erlkönig (1815), it features an emotionally dramatic, high-stakes conversation about a coming death, but in this lied the Grim Reaper himself takes part in the conversation, in person.

While he is not the first to speak, his presence is strongly intimated in the opening 8-bar slow introduction, whispered out pianissimo in the monotonous TUM tum-tum rhythm of a funeral march, impassive and virtually devoid of melody, evoking the silence and stillness of the grave. This introduction, which provided the theme for the 3rd movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, is itself a kind of musical Doppelgänger, echoing another dramatic scene of death foretold – in the same droning monotone, the same key of D minor, and in a virtually identical rhythm – when the Commendatore arrives to escort Don Giovanni down to Hell in the last act of Mozart’s opera of 1787.

The voice of the maiden enters in bar 9. She pleads with Death to let her go, as if he were some kind of lecherous elderly suitor making inappropriate advances to her.

In the lied, her melody line rises gradually in pitch to underline her growing sense of concern:

Pass by, oh pass by!
Go, you wild skeleton-man!
I’m still young! Go, then,
And touch me not
And touch me not.

The second stanza gives Death’s cunning, seductive and bittersweet reply:

Give me your hand, you lovely tender thing!
I am your friend, I’m not here to make you suffer.
Don’t be afraid. I’m not a wild man.
You’ll sleep gently in my arms.

The lied ends with the return of the introduction as a postlude in the major mode, its steady unchanging rhythm transformed from a portent of death into a gentle consoling lullaby.

The intertwining of love and death, brought to the stage earlier in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and later in the Liebestod of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is expressed with elegant simplicity in this short German lied by Schubert.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Jakub Józef Orliński

J.J. Fux
Non t’amo per il ciel from Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario

Johann Joseph Fux was an early-18th-century Austrian court composer of the first rank, best known by musicians today for his widely studied treatise on Renaissance counterpoint entitled Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). The Hapsburg court in Vienna was the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, secular protector-in-chief of the Roman Catholic Church, so Fux’s duties centred on writing music to be performed in the Imperial Chapel for important events in the church calendar.

Fux’s Good Friday oratorio Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario (The font of salvation, opened by the grace of Calvary) was composed in 1716. In its first act the grateful musings of the repentant sinner are evoked in the aria Non t’amo per il ciel, with a mawkishly pious text that speaks (most curiously, to modern ears) of dutiful submission and fearful love – a state of mind and attitudinal posture no doubt heartily endorsed by the Austrian Emperor for adoption by his loyal subjects.

Proceeding at a dignified “Pachebel’s-Canon-ish” pace to depict calm unshakeable faith, it unfolds in the manner of a stately Handelian da capo aria in two verses, with lavish embellishments applied to the repeat of the first verse by the singer in the closing section.

Glorious long-held notes and melismatic extensions of vowels point to Fux’s skill in writing in the Italian style, a style that emphasizes beauty of tone colour, graceful flowing melodic lines, and loving cadential ornaments at phrase ends.

 

Henry Purcell
Selected songs

Henry Purcell worked in the early part of his career under the patronage of the last two Stuart kings of England, Charles I (r. 1660-1685) and James II (r. 1685-1688). But when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Purcell turned increasingly to the theatre, writing incidental music for stage plays and major musical numbers for the semi-operas popular in the period.

The semi-opera was a distinctly English genre of theatrical entertainment that flourished in England between 1670 and 1710. It responded to the English public’s distaste for Italian opera, especially its far-fetched plots, told in a foreign language, with a thick layer of musical ‘lasagna’ coating every syllable of the text from start to finish. The English preferred lighter fare. Their musical stage entertainment came in the form of adaptations of well-known plays with a spoken text performed by professional actors and musical numbers performed by professional singers, much in the way that dance numbers were inserted into early French opera.

These musical insertions, often in the form of an allegorical masque or a play-within-a-play, might allude to, or simply provide a distraction from, the main action of the drama. And Purcell was a consummate creator of such scenes, many of them composed in collaboration with the renowned Restoration poet John Dryden (1631-1700). His command of counterpoint and ability to create dancelike melodies that preserve the rhythms and energy of English prose have given these pieces a life outside the theatre and made them effective concert pieces still popular today.

Music for a while comes from John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex, staged in 1692 with incidental music by Purcell. This luxuriantly leisurely tune would surely have provided its listeners in the audience with welcome emotional relief from the bloody doings being enacted on stage, including Oedipus’ own brooch-stabbing de-oculation in the final act. Like the famous aria When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), this song is built on a ground bass consisting of a three-bar melodic pattern at the bottom of the texture that repeats throughout. Worthy of note is Purcell’s wonderfully speech-like setting of the first word in the text: Mu-u-u-sic.

Fairest Isle and the Cold Song both come from Purcell’s most successful semi-opera, King Arthur, performed at the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1791. Fairest Isle is sung as part of a masque conjured by the magician Merlin near the end of the work in which the future greatness of the British nation is foretold. This buoyant minuet-song with its patriotic text eventually became a national favourite to rank with Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia of 1742.

The Cold Song is an astonishing example of the pictorial vividness with which Purcell could invest his music. It comes from the so-called Frost Scene in the third act and as its name implies, it paints the bone-chilling effects of a Winnipeg-style winter on some of the inhabitants of King Arthur’s Britain. Just like the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons, a steady pulse of 8th notes in the accompaniment paints the nippiness of the winter wind to set up the dramatic entrance of the vocal line, which quivers and shivers up and down in synch with the accompaniment, chillingly intense and relentlessly chromatic in its tonal wanderings.

Strike the viol is from Purcell’s birthday ode to Queen Mary entitled Come Ye Sons of Art (1694). Here again Purcell uses a ground bass, eight bars in length, modulating from minor to major. In the text, a number of musical instruments are exhorted to sing and play in joyous celebration of their “patroness” (i.e. Queen Mary). Their unbounded delight in the occasion breaks out with a long melisma on the word “cheerful”.

Your awful voice I hear is from a masque inserted into a 1695 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This being a story of shipwrecks and miraculous sea-changes, musical numbers referencing the weather and the aquatic environment form natural musical side-panels to the main dramatic action. In this air the mythological figure Aeolus, representing the wind, sings to his lord Neptune, “brother to Jove and monarch of the sea.” While the fugal counterpoint that permeates this setting would not be unusual in a piece by Purcell, scholars have cast doubt on his authorship because of the song’s overtly Italianate style of writing.

The poem If music be the food of love, by the would-be poet Col. Henry Heveningham MP (1651-1700), borrows the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and then takes its meaning in an entirely different direction. While Shakespeare’s Duke Orsini hopes to gorge on a feast of music to sate and thus quell the yearnings of his lovesickness, randy old Col. Henry has quite the opposite intention: to spur on the lust for sexual conquest through seduction. And in typical Restoration style his poem contains many a panting phrase and ‘wink-wink-know-whadda-mean’ double entendre.

Purcell made three settings of this poem and we are gratified to know that Mr. Orliński chooses to sing the outrageously florid 3rd version of 1695, with its many contrasts of dramatic semi-recitative and pictorial melismatic melody. Purcell’s warbling word-painting on the syllables of jo-o-oy and ple-e-ea-sure represent musical peacock-preening of the first order.

 

Henryk Czyż
Pożegnania (Farewells)

Henryk Czyż was a Polish conductor and composer known for championing the music of his Polish contemporaries, especially Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), whose St Luke Passion and The Devils from Loudun received their first performances under his baton.

His song cycle Pożegnania (Farewells), a setting of three poems by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), dates from 1948 and was originally written for the bass voice. In this work Czyż uses the Scriabinesque harmonic vocabulary of late Romanticism to create dramatic settings with a direct emotional appeal, emphasizing sustained lyrical melody in the vocal line and accompaniments closely wrapped round the singer’s voice.

Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet, displays in these poems his ability to convey powerful complex emotions that combine psychological opposites. In Kochałem Panią, a Polish translation of his famous poem Я вас любил (I loved you once), it is the opposition between a former lover’s disappointment and his generosity of spirit. In Na wzgórzach Gruzji (Over the hills of Georgia) the poet feels “both sorrowful and light-hearted.”  And in Ostatni raz (For the last time) his thoughts of love arrive “with anguished, bashful tenderness.”

 

Mieczysław Karłowicz
Selected songs

Mieczysław Karłowicz is often cited as a leading proponent of the ideals of the Young Poland movement (1890-1918) which sought to forge a distinctly Polish personality in the arts by assimilating new modernist trends into national traditions. As a literary movement it embraced the fin-de-siècle attraction to decadence and a generally dark view of human existence.

The songs composed by Karłowicz in his student years between 1895 and 1896 reflect well the bleakness of this worldview. Many of them are set to melancholy poetic texts by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1865-1940), a leading poet of the Young Poland movement.

Karłowicz’s harmonic language is an extension of that used by Chopin, whom he revered, and heavily influenced by the morose emotionalism of Tchaikovsky as represented in his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony No. 6. His attraction to the music of Wagner, especially to Tristan und Isolde, is evident in his frequent use of tonally ambiguous harmonies (German sixth chords, augmented triads) to express the kind of infinite yearning evoked in Wagner’s Tristan. This slippery chromaticism well suits the Wagnerian themes of love and death that radiate out from Przerwa-Tetmajer’s poems in lines such as: These words flowing toward me / Are like a prayer at my coffin. / And in the heart of death they make me thrill.

Dark as these poetic texts are, the luscious harmonic richness of Karłowicz’s textures allows us to enjoy a strangely ‘decadent’ pleasure when hearing them sung.

 

Stanisław Moniuszko
Selected songs

Stanisław Moniuszko was the leading composer of Polish opera in the 19th century. But apart from his more than 20 operas and operettas, he also wrote a good 360 songs for domestic use issued in several sets entitled Śpiewnik domowy (‘Home Songbook’) beginning in 1843.

His musical language is essentially conservative, and a strong vein of Polish nationalism runs through his work, often expressed in melodies that sound like Polish folk songs and rhythms borrowed from Polish dances such as the polonaise, mazurka and krakowiak.

Moniuszko’s gift for soulful lyrical melody is on full display in Łza (The Tear), a strophic song of lament from the last Home Songbook, published posthumously in 1876, four years after the composer’s death. Its melancholy message of loss and the pain of remembrance finds expression in the song’s falling musical lines and painful dissonances in the piano accompaniment.

Prząśniczka (The Spinning Girl) comes from the third edition of Moniuszko’s Home Songbook (1851). It paints a scene of parting between young lovers, one of whom, like Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, is busy at her spinning wheel. Highly dramatic in form, it begins with a slow introduction that sets up the entry of the whirling spinning wheel motif in the piano accompaniment. This signals a new point of view on the story, as scraps of folk-song melody ironically imply that the girl’s affections can turn as fast as her spinning wheel.

 

George Frideric Handel
Alleluia, Amen in D minor  HWV 269

There is a mystery concerning the two dozen or so virtuoso arias on the words “Alleluia and “Amen” that Handel wrote over a period of more than 20 years beginning in the 1720s. No one knows, you see, why he wrote them. They are far too elaborate for use in public church services, so it has been proposed that they were intended for private devotional use.

Intended as contemplative vocal meditations on personal religious faith, they are nevertheless outstanding display vehicles for the singer’s voice. Structured as a da capo aria, the Alleluia and Amen in D minor HWV 269 features long held notes to showcase the tone colour of the singer’s voice, extended melismatic passages in 16ths to display breath control, and trills aplenty in the melodic line to show off the singer’s vocal technique and agility.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata No. 14 in C minor  K. 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Given that the Fantasia was composed many months after the sonata, scholars are divided as to whether this was Mozart’s intention or simply a clever marketing ploy on the part of his Viennese publisher. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany called the Mannheim rocket while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 1 in F minor  Op. 2 No. 1

The first of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas was an audacious debut for the young composer in 1795. Markedly Mozartean in its external forms, and unmistakably Haydnesque in its procedures of motivic development, it is even more boldly Beethovenian in the way it uses both form and procedure to express a new spirit of individualism that will dominate serious musical culture in the coming Romantic era.

The high seriousness of Beethoven’s approach to the sonata is apparent everywhere. At a time when piano sonatas were normally written in three movements, Beethoven writes four, adding an extra minuet movement normally reserved for the more serious forms of symphony and string quartet. And at a time when sonatas were mostly aimed at amateur musicians looking for cheerful entertainment, Beethoven thumbs his nose at the popular market by writing a moody, angst-ridden sonata, above-average in difficulty, in an eccentric hard-to-read minor key with four flats. Topping it all off, there is an aggressive, slightly anti-social edge to the outer movements, both set in “punchy” cut time, with two beats to the bar.

The core motivic material on which the Molto allegro first movement is based is given in the first 8 bars. And in typical Beethoven style this first “theme” is not really a melody but rather a series of related small phrases accelerating in intensity to a mini-climax, followed by a pause for theatrical effect. Two important motives are hammered into the ear by dint of frequent repetition, both popularized by the music of the Mannheim Orchestra earlier in the century, and much used by Mozart, among other composers.

First there is an ascending arpeggio figure, or Mannheim rocket (featured in Mozart’s C minor Sonata K. 457, and in his Symphonies No. 25 and 40, both in G minor) which is then crowned by a short twiddle in triplet 16ths, an example of the famous Mannheim bird-call. These two motives will dominate the entire movement, with the rocket figure, in inverted form, even structuring the movement’s 2nd theme. This use of the same musical material in both first and second themes must have brought a smile to the face of Beethoven’s teacher, the monothematically-inclined Haydn, to whom the three sonatas of Op. 2 were dedicated, and who was sitting in the room when Beethoven first performed these works in public in 1796.

The development section does little to calm things down after this dramatic exposition and drums up as much excitement through its constantly thrumming tremolo accompaniments as from its obsession with the minor-mode colouring of the movement’s second theme. After an economically short recapitulation the movement ends with a machine gun rat-a-tat of angry chords, a kind of “So there!” gesture so rudely abrupt, it’s as if Beethoven had thrown down his cards in anger, pounded his fists on the card table and stomped out of the room.

Ludwig is on his best behaviour, however, in the very Mozartean Adagio with its simple serene melodies lavishly ornamented with opera-style decorative embellishments. Structured in a truncated sonata form (without a development section) this movement offers the listener the only overtly “pretty” music in the whole sonata and its dramatic action centres around the many decorative ways in which its melodic material can be tastefully dressed up.

Moody moves and shady goings-on return in the following Allegretto that features a minuet tune in the minor mode pieced together, like the opening of the first movement, from repeated melodic fragments of a slightly anxious character. The convulsive momentum generated by these short repeated ‘hiccup’ motives is disturbing in a dance movement, an effect that the smooth two-part counterpoint of the major-mode Trio section does its best to counteract.

The last movement of a classical sonata was expected to be the lightest, a kind of musical “dessert” after all the emotional heavy lifting of previous movements was over and done with. Not so with Beethoven, whose tendency to create end-weighted multi-movement works would only increase as his career advanced.

Beethoven’s finale in this sonata is what András Schiff calls a “riding movement, similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig.” It opens with a heavy, fierce and almost pitch-less knock-on-the-door motive in the right hand over a roiling accompaniment of furiously bubbling arpeggiated chords in the left hand. This is full-contact piano music, played with the arms as much as the fingers. It requires a radically different approach to the keyboard, one far removed from the sedate posture and finger-focused performing style used in playing Mozart.

The mood is not all Sturm und Drang, however. Perhaps to compensate for all the dyspeptic turmoil of the exposition, Beethoven provides emotional contrast – and breaks with tradition – by introducing a completely new theme at the beginning of the development section, a pleasantly poised theme of a relaxed character, the sort of thing you could easily find yourself humming in the shower. But you just know it can’t last and the impetuous knock-knock motive gradually insinuates itself back into the proceedings and takes over, driving with unstoppable momentum to the recapitulation, which ends even more abruptly than the first movement.

This is a sonata that must have left its first listeners breathless, some in admiration, others in exasperation. The so-called classical style, developed in Vienna between the years 1770 and 1800, may well have had Mozart as its architect, and Haydn to install the furniture, but as this sonata shows, Beethoven was its poltergeist, moving objects around the room without permission.

 

Sofia Gubaidulina
Chaconne

Sofia Gubaidulina (pronounced “goo-buy-DOO-lee-nah”) is a composer of deep spiritual commitments who believes that religion and music are simply two different dialects of the same fundamental human language. At the heart of her compositional practice is her admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose grounding in religious faith she shares and whose musical procedures she often incorporates into her own compositions.

Her music is intensely contrapuntal and highly chromatic, with diatonic harmonies appearing like oases of spiritual comfort in a tonal world riven with conflict. Dissonance is ever-present, but sonorities are so widely spaced out on the keyboard that rhythmic patterning and the interplay of melodic lines more easily capture the ear’s attention than the clash of pitches.

Her Chaconne of 1962 is structured as a series of variations on an 8-bar theme presented in the crashing chords of the work’s dramatic opening. From a distance of five octaves apart, these bold handfuls move slowly and majestically toward the centre of the keyboard, spilling as they go the motivic material on which the following variations will be based.

Framed within a chromatic idiom, typical Baroque procedures abound, including chattering toccata textures, fugal imitation, theme augmentation, inversion and stretto, as well as pedal tones and ostinato figures. Rhythmic acceleration propels the work forward, reaching a climax of intensity that leads to a massively monumental return of the opening theme. Its final point made, the work ends by fading into a soft blurry tonal sunset deep in the bass register of the keyboard.

 

Eleanor Alberga
Cwicseolfor

Eleanor Alberga OBE is a British composer of Jamaican origin, known for her work with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and for commissions from the BBC Proms and The Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She writes clearly structured works that often feature repeated rhythmic patterns which lend her textures a powerful rhythmic drive.

Her one-movement Cwicseolfor for piano was commissioned by the Barbican Centre London and the European Concert Hall Organisation in collaboration with B:Music and was written especially for Isata Kanneh-Mason.

The composer tells us the following about her new composition:

Cwicseolfor is the ancient spelling of quicksilver; itself the word for the element mercury. This word in its old English spelling is to be found in reference to the alchemy of those times.

As a child, I remember being fascinated with watching mercury in a container; how it didn’t adhere to anything and moved and changed direction rapidly. There was also an almost unbelievable brilliance on the surface of this stuff. Anyone who has seen this will know exactly what I mean. (Little wonder that in so many cultures and over many centuries mercury has been seen as having transformative qualities.)

Cwicseolfor is about that experience and the piece mimics the qualities of unrealistic shine, non-adherence and rapid changes of pace and direction. For the player it is virtuosic – always changing in mood, tempo and variation of material.

I suppose the alchemy lies in transforming my childhood experience into a piece of music.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff 
Excerpts from Études-Tableaux  Op. 39

Rachmaninoff wrote two sets of Études-Tableaux, a new genre of his own invention that combines programmatic ‘pictorial’ elements with the study of a particular technical problem. The Op. 39 set are much darker in tone than the earlier set of Op. 33, with eight of the nine études being in a minor key. Written in 1917, they are the last works written by Rachmaninoff before he fled Russia with his family to escape the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

Rachmaninoff’s massive mitt of a hand, that could easily stretch a 12th, gave him magisterial control over the keyboard and the freedom to create complex textures blooming with countermelodies and a wealth of decorative ornament.  The challenge that these Études-Tableaux present to the performing pianist is to bring out an overarching melodic line set amid thickly padded harmonic textures and a dazzling haze of ornamental filigree.

No. 1 in C minor surges up and down the keyboard in dark swirls of right-hand triplet 16ths, vaulting from one state of harmonic crisis to the next, accompanied by the ominous urgings of syncopated octaves in the left hand’s bass line.

The ‘tableau’ of No. 2 in A minor, we are told by Rachmaninoff himself, is that of seagulls and the sea.  The lapping of waves is evoked by gently swaying triplets in the left hand while the free soaring of seagulls in the open air is imagined in the open fifths of the duple-rhythm melody hovering above it. A hint of eternal sadness radiates out from the left-hand accompaniment, which time and again echoes the opening notes of the plainchant tune Dies irae (Day of wrath) from the Roman-rite mass for the dead.

No. 4 in B minor is a dancelike toccata of unstoppable forward momentum with many changes of metre and a general air of rhythmic willfulness. This is travelling music and its recurring patterns of peppery repeated notes suggests the bright merry tinkling of sleigh bells on an exhilarating ride over fields of snow.

The sombre and stormy No. 5 in E flat minor is cast in the darkest of tonal colours, heavily weighted to the bottom half of the keyboard. Heroic in scale, it tests the power of the pianist’s right-hand pinky finger to belt out its sombre melody against a rumbling onslaught of tonal resonance from below.

No. 6 in A minor, according to Rachmaninoff, paints a picture of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” and it’s not hard to sort out who is who in the vividly contrasting textures of this piece. It begins with several menacing snarls deep in the bass, each concluding with the jaw-snap of sharp teeth, followed immediately in the upper register by the fretful chatter of a frightened flight from danger. This is an unrelenting chase scene, nightmarish in its intensity.  Did Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf? Listen for the ending to find out.

 

Frédéric Chopin
Ballade in F major  Op. 38

Chopin’s four Ballades are the first known works written for piano under this name, a name likely meant to summon up associations with traditional folk tales recounted in a popular storytelling style. Formally, the ballades bear some relationship to sonata form, with contrasting first and second themes in different keys. Unlike sonata form, however, they are massively end-weighted: the story they tell increases in dramatic intensity as it goes along, culminating in either a grand apotheosis or in a bravura coda that storms to its conclusion in a whirl of fiery figuration.

The Ballade in F major Op. 38 contains some of sweetest and some of the most violent music that Chopin ever composed. It is a work of extreme contrasts, between moods, between key centres, and between major and minor tonalities.

This Ballade is both a daydream and a nightmare. It opens with a daydream, a soft sleepy-time tune of the utmost innocence, almost drowsy-making with its many chiming repetitions of single notes and short phrases, its drone passages with an unchanging bass note, and its constant iambic pulse of short-long rhythms. The tonal colouring is diatonic but not monotone, and a faint hint of A-minor sadness drifts through the reverie’s central section. But it soon gets wished away and the mood returns to that of rustic bliss, made sweetly musical in the ‘pastoral’ key of F major.

That ‘A-minor sadness,’ though was a foreboding of things to come. For just as the eyelids begin to droop lower and lower there comes a terrifying jump-scare when splintering shards of sonic glass come crashing down like an exploding stained-glass window from the high treble, to be met with bold, angry gestures of defiance mounting up from the bass, all of it in a nightmarish…A minor.

In what follows these two themes – the lilting diatonic F major lullaby and the lurching, chromatic-inflected A minor outburst – begin to interact, each taking on features of the other as the outburst theme adopts the lullaby’s iambic rhythms and the lullaby muses to itself in ever more chromatic directions.

In the end, though, the incendiary coda, with its demonic but almost celebratory glinting of chromatic glee, makes clear just who came out on top from these encounters.  The final bars are filled with a wrenching pathos as the lilting pastoral lullaby theme is heard softly lamenting its downcast fate…in A minor.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Castalian String Quartet

Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in D minor  Op. 76 No. 2  (“Fifths”)

Haydn is known as the father of the string quartet for his leading role in transforming the genre from its origins as light entertainment into a vehicle for serious composition, worthy of standing beside the instrumental sonata and the orchestral symphony.

His earliest quartets were divertimento-like, comprised of five movements (two of which were minuets) and were written in Rococo style with an eye towards simplicity, grace and elegance. These were carefree works with simple textures and uncomplicated formal designs and were aimed at amateur musicians of moderate ability.

Beginning with Haydn’s Op. 9 quartets of 1770, however, a different type of quartet begins to emerge, laid out in just four movements, each distinct in character and mood. And the transformation is complete with the publication of his Op. 20 quartets in 1772. These are technically demanding works based on the relentless pursuit of motivic development, bristling with learned counterpoint and even fugues. They require players alert to the cross-chatter of lively ensemble playing, in textures that represent, as Goethe was famously to remark, an intelligent conversation between four individuals.

The string quartet had become, in the words of Haydn scholars Floyd and Margaret Grave, “an exemplary genre for connoisseurs.”

*                      *                      *

In the six quartets of Op. 76, completed in 1797, we catch Haydn near the end of his career and at the height of his powers, during the period in which he was also composing his oratorio The Creation. The second quartet in the set, in D minor, is remarkable for the extreme contrasts of mood that characterize its four movements, which alternate between high seriousness and playful contentment.

The work opens in eyebrow-knitting earnestness with a falling-fifth motive in the 1st violin that gives the quartet its nickname (“Fifths”), accompanied by a hand-wringing patter of anxious 8th notes in the other instruments. These two motivic elements – half-note fifths set against 8th-note counter-play – will constitute virtually the entire motivic material from which Haydn’s fashions this movement, with the half-note fifth motive playing the leading role throughout. It even chaperones the second theme, meant to contrast with it. It seems to be always in circulation somewhere in the texture, getting passed around between the instruments like a decanter of sherry between gentlemen in dinner jackets smoking cigars. In the development section there is hardly a single bar without this motive in some voice or other, either straight-up, inverted, in stretto, or in diminution.  Needless to say, this quartet was aptly named.

The Andante più tosto allegretto that follows is a kind of variation movement – but then again, everything in Haydn seems to be a “variation” because of his mono-thematic mindset: using the same motives over and over again in different guises throughout a single movement. Here he seems to wink slyly back at the first movement by running its “falling interval” motive into the ground through constant repetition. The melody line features simple falling fifths, filled-in chordal fifths, and fifths filled in with runs. In the end, though, it is the constant tick-tock in the first violin of falling thirds that makes the whole movement sound like a kind of grandfather clock, coyly aided and abetted by a dainty pizzicato accompaniment in the other instruments.

This is Haydn’s dry humour at its most arch.

The Menuetto is even more eccentric still. Sometimes called the Hexenmenuett (Witch’s Minuet), it opens with an austere, bare-bones two-voice canon between upper and lower voices in D minor.  This is followed by a trio that begins on a series of repeated notes on the pitch D, sort of implying D minor from the previous section – but no! A lusty full-throated D major chord suddenly bursts into our ears in the same repeated-note pattern to resolve the ambiguity.

Haydn is known to have burst out laughing at his own musical jokes when listening to his string quartets performed by others. This movement may well have been one of his real knee-slappers.

Haydn ends this quartet with a short snappy finale which, like many of Haydn’s finales, has a rural dance flavour to it, with drone tones aplenty and the first violin playing village fiddler throughout. It opens with a bustling little theme that seems to be urgently chasing its own tail but then after 8 bars comically stops dead in its tracks under a goose-egg fermata as if cross-eyed in confusion. The recurring motive of a pick-up 8th note, characteristic of both the first and second themes, provides continuing onward momentum while repeated notes keep the listener’s toes tapping and some acrobatic wild leaps in the first violin keep the circus atmosphere alive. This is a movement full of personality and while written in D minor, it actually spends most of its time in the major mode, ending in an exuberant flurry of D major figuration.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn
String Quartet in E-flat Major

In her youth Fanny Mendelssohn revealed a musical talent just as precocious as that of her younger brother Felix. Both received the same rigorous musical training: keyboard instruction from pianist Ludwig Berger (1777-1839), a student of Muzio Clementi, and lessons in counterpoint and composition from composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832). In 1824, Zelter noted in a letter to his friend Goethe that Fanny, barely 19 years of age, had already composed no less than 32 fugues.

But while Felix might be free to pursue a musical career, Fanny, as the daughter of a well-to-do family of high social standing, was not.  Her path in life, according to the social conventions of the time, was to be a wife and mother, a role she fulfilled when in 1829 she married, in a love match, the court painter Wilhelm Hensel (1795-1861). With the support of her husband, though, she continued to compose throughout her life, producing over 125 piano pieces and 250 lieder, as well as various chamber works. But nevertheless, many of her early compositions (including one of Queen Victoria’s favourite songs) had to be published under her brother’s name, and the vast majority of her almost 450 completed works remained unpublished during her lifetime.

Frau Fanny Hensel née Mendelssohn did, however, have a private musical career, continuing to take part in the Sunday musicale concerts that had been held weekly in the Mendelssohn family’s elegant Berlin home since 1823 with audiences of up to 200 guests. A list of composers she programmed for these concerts in the period from 1833 until her death from a stroke in 1847 reveals much about her musical ideals and the models she used in her own compositions. Topping the list were 40 works by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, followed by Beethoven (38), Bach (16), and Mozart (13).  Her admiration for these composers is easily discernible in her String Quartet in E flat major written in 1834, which may well count as the first quartet by a female composer in the Western canon.

*                      *                      *

Based on a piano sonata started five years earlier and written largely in the Mendelssohnian style of Romantic-tinged classicism, this four-movement work presents some interesting anomalies. The first of these is the choice of an Adagio for its opening movement, a deviation from classical decorum that raised an eyebrow of disapproval in her brother Felix, but which might have been inspired by the example of a similar slow opening movement in Beethoven’s late String Quartet in C# minor Op. 131.  Similar, as well, to this Beethoven quartet movement is the concentrated emphasis on imitative counterpoint, testifying to what the New Grove Dictionary refers to as the composer’s “Bachian proclivities.” The movement unfolds rhapsodically as a free fantasy that ruminates fervently and at length over its opening phrase, a downward melodic gesture ending with a sigh motive.

The Allegretto that follows is very much in the vein of her brother’s Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo: fleet and acrobatic, but with a scurrying middle-section fugato like the scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The third-movement Romanze is the emotional heart of the quartet, remarkable for its extraordinarily wide expressive range and creepy-crawly chromatic harmonies. It begins tenderly with a gently pulsing carpet of repeated notes that blossoms into a shy, wistful and slightly plaintive melody of small range contrasted immediately after with wide melodic leaps reminiscent of the two-voice single-line melodies found in Bach. These simple thematic elements, however, soon don their Wellington boots to huff and puff through a heavy developmental section of churning 16th-note passages echoing with passionate intensity through tonal space until the demure mood of the opening returns to close the movement as it began.

Now it is at just this point in the proceedings that listeners with perfect pitch might start to wonder just where the “E flat” in this “String Quartet in E flat” was planning on making an appearance, because up to this point the work seems to be spending almost all of its time anywhere but in E flat major. In fact Felix Mendelssohn noted in a letter to his sister that the first two movements are “not in any particular key” whatsoever and was all “Don’t get me started” when discussing the key scheme of the third movement.

We can feel confident, however, that his worst fears were allayed by the rock-solid harmonic foundation on which his sister constructed the concluding movement. This finale is in a regular-as-rain sonata form with an exposition moving from a tonic E flat to its dominant, a massive development section with no awkward surprises, and a small but tidy little recapitulation to tie a neat formal bow around the whole package. The reason for this sudden falling-in-line on the harmonic front is that the expressive effect of the movement has little to do with its harmonic design but is predicated entirely on its unstoppable forward momentum.

It opens with a flurry of whirlwind figuration, derived perhaps from the Presto finale of Felix’s Fantasy in F# Op. 28, or possibly inspired by the finale of Mozart’s Sonata in F major K. 332.  And the 16th-note motion initiated at the outset rarely stops to catch its breath throughout, even acting as a kind of Peloton running strip underneath the more lyrical second theme. The development section features some impassioned Beethovenian counterpoint between starkly contrasting thematic ideas and the whole movement goes by like a blur.

 

Franz Schubert
String Quartet in G major  D 887

When faced with a string quartet lasting two full periods of National League hockey, one inevitably wonders whether Schubert’s mimeographic profusion of ideas should be qualified as “heavenly length” or “earthly tedium”. The man does seem to go on, and on, and on.

No less a scholarly titan than German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has proposed that Schubert operates according to a different sense of psychological time. Some of his colleagues stress the trance-like quality of Schubert’s musical thinking, likening him to a musical somnambulist who bids us enter an enchanted world of dreams and night-wandering. Others, while encouraged by how much sleep Schubert seems to be getting, bemoan nevertheless the way in which his practice of “open-ended variation” betrays the tradition of concise formal argument established by Mozart and Haydn, and deflates the expectation of propulsive forward drive created by Beethoven.

Fortunately, Schubert’s String Quartet in G major—his last, written in 1826—silences all critics, rendering moot their musings as to whether it is Schubert, or his listeners, who have the greater claim to the ministrations of Morpheus.

This quartet is an arresting work that, for all its length, constantly engages the listener directly and viscerally. It is an ambitious quartet that lives in an enlarged sound world of symphonic dimensions, particularly orchestral in its use of tremolo, and replete with tutti quadruple stops that add an aggressive edge to its musical rhetoric.

Schubert lays on the tremolo with a liberal hand, either to beef up the ‘sound-weight’ of the instruments into an imitation of an orchestral tutti, to add a touch of hushed tenderness or an air of deepening mystery, or simply to render long-held notes more sonically pliable and expand their range of expressive effect. Equally ear-catching are the many sudden dramatic changes in dynamics (a Beethoven trademark) and the acrobatic pitch range within which the instruments sometimes move at rocket speed.

The first movement Allegro molto moderato opens with a major chord that swells in sound over two bars to emerge shockingly like a primal scream—in the minor! No lack of drama here. What follows combines the emphatic pomp of a Baroque French overture with the suspenseful ‘hinting-at-things-to-come’ of a sonata movement’s slow introduction. The first theme, when it arrives, mixes great leaps with jagged dotted rhythms over a slowly descending bass-line, continuing the tone of epic grandeur announced at the outset. The lilting second theme could not be more contrasting. Shy and intimate in mood, it rocks back and forth within the smallest possible range, doing everything it can to de-emphasize the first beat of the bar. While the development section is tumultuous and intense, the movement’s two themes start duking it out long before that, interrupting each other, even in the exposition, in a continuous alternation of tranquil lilt and surging protest that plays out through the movement in the flickering shadows of frequent changes between major and minor modes.

The Andante un poco moto is charged with mystery and suspense. It begins innocently enough with the cello singing out a simple hummable tune in its tenor register. This is a melody that proceeds at a drowsy ‘sleepwalking’ pace, its eerie stillness reinforced by gentle reminders in the accompaniment of its opening melodic leap and by the stabilizing presence of pedal tones in the harmony. But ever and again it plunges into high drama when the jagged dotted rhythms of the first movement return, unleashing ‘horror-film’ tremolos that vibrate with a sense of fear and foreboding. These two moods – the eerie dream and the nightmare – alternate throughout the movement until the night-wandering melody ends up back under the covers in the warm embrace of a major chord in its final bars.

The Allegro vivace scherzo that follows goes off like an alarm clock with volleys of rapid-fire repeated notes that vibrate with nervous energy in the minor mode, ricocheting through every register of the quartet’s range until relieved by the calming entrance of the central Trio section, a slow gentle Viennese waltz with a rustic drone in the bass.

High-contrast drama, often verging on comedy, returns in the Allegro assai finale, a perpetual-motion sonata-rondo of kaleidoscopic moods. It opens with a hearty foot-stomping, knee-slapping tarantella theme with a type of gypsy-style merriment characterized by quicksilver changes between major and minor tone colourings. And its second theme is an utterly outrageous parody of a Rossini patter aria.

Schubert, too long you say? This is one Schubert movement that is so much fun, you wish it would go on forever.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2022

 

Program Notes: Augustin Hadelich

Johann Sebastian Bach
Partita No. 3 in E major  BWV 1006

If polyphonic music was not meant to be played on the violin, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t get the e-mail. His Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin BWV 1001-1006 of 1720 reveal clearly the scope of his ambition in this regard. The six works in the collection are admired today not just for their ingenious exploitation of the multi-voice capabilities of the instrument, but also for their skillfully constructed melodic lines that sit idiomatically on the fingerboard.

Keeping the listener from nodding off meant writing musical lines that constantly engaged the ear in new ways, mixing it up with scale figures that alternate with broken chords, passages on the lowest strings trading off with melodic climaxes high up on the fingerboard, and above all with salty dissonances finding resolution in satisfying cadences.

The partita, in late Baroque parlance, was just another name for a dance suite, a multi-movement work made up of the four canonical dance forms—allemande, courante, sarabande & gigue—with the occasional addition of a prelude at the beginning and optional fancier dances called galanteries (minuets, bourées, gavottes) sandwiched in the middle, right before the zinger finale, the gigue.

The dances would be two parts, each repeated, with ornamentation added at the player’s discretion the second time round. Needless to say, these are not pieces meant to accompany actual dancing. They are imaginative recreations of dance genres that reproduce the general character and identifying rhythmic signature of each.

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Bach’s Partita No. 3 in the ‘bright’ key of E major – E being the top string on the violin – is an exceptionally cheery collection of dance pieces. In composing the line-up, Bach keeps the gigue finale but chucks out the allemande, courante and sarabande of tradition and instead gives pride of place to the faster, more rhythmically buoyant galanterie dances.

But to open the suite he adds a glittering Preludio that begins with a celebratory fanfare on the E major triad tumbling down two octaves in rhythmic figuration to capture our attention. What follows is a moto perpetuo of continuous 16th-note motion bobbing and weaving through a succession of related keys, keeping our ears alert with unpredictable phrase lengths, perky syncopations and captivating violin idioms such as bariolage (a succession of notes played on alternating adjacent strings, one stopped, the other open).

Bach obviously liked his handiwork in composing this piece, as he twice re-used it in fully harmonized settings for organ and chamber instruments, the version known as Sinfonia to Cantata No. 29 later becoming Track 1 on the epoch-making Moog synthesizer album entitled Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos.

After this bouncy beginning comes a contrasting movement, the slow and majestic Loure, a dance form rarely seen in Bach, although the Fifth French Suite has one.  This dance is characterized by a gentle lilt and heavy emphasis on the first beat of the bar, facilitated by a quarter-note-eighth-note upbeat. Often called a “slow gigue,” it kicks up its heels as if swimming in molasses.

Also rare is the form in which Bach presents the following Gavotte, namely en rondeau. The rondo pattern, consisting of an opening refrain theme alternating with intervening episodes, was later to become the standard format for sonata finales in the Classical era but here Bach uses it to structure his gavotte. One of the ‘lustier’ dances in the suite, the gavotte was danced with a lifted step and a skipping forward motion, embodied musically in a characteristic half-bar upbeat and short-short-long rhythm. Both the Preludio and this Gavotte en rondeau have become crowd-pleasers and are often played as independent pieces.

Daintier and danced with a more delicate ‘shuffling’ gait is the Minuet and Bach gives us two in a matched pair. When galanteries come in pairs like this, tradition says that the first will be repeated after playing the second, to round out the group into a nicely symmetrical A-B-A pattern. And here, as often occurs, the second minuet is of a pastoral character, indicated by its drone figure.

The most boisterous member of the set is the Bourée, a dance that begins with a quarter-note upbeat and features a fair amount of syncopation, especially in the opening phrase – which makes the underlying rhythm a bit hard to parse on a non-percussive instrument like the violin. This is soon compensated for in what follows, however, as symmetrical repeated phrases are sounded out first forte and then piano, in an echo pattern.

The Partita ends with Gigue in the Italian style, which is to say a hop-filled romp with plenty of harmonic and melodic sequences centred around chordal figuration. The quasi-moto-perpetuo feel of this finale makes for a balanced ending to a suite that began in just the same way.

 

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Blue/s Forms

While the name of the Black American pianist, composer and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson might not be a household name, he is well worth remembering for his remarkable musicianship and accomplishments in a wide range of musical endeavours.

Born in New York in 1932, his mother named him after the Afro-British composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who in turn had been named after the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Educated at NYU, the Manhattan School of Music and Princeton University, Perkinson composed instrumental and vocal music, as well ballet and film scores, but refused to be pigeon-holed as a composer of ‘serious’ music. Jazz and popular music engaged him equally and he wrote arrangements for Harry Belafonte and Marvin Gaye, performing as well as a jazz pianist in the Max Roach Quartet.

Blue/s Forms (1972) for solo violin is dedicated to violinist Sanford Allen (b. 1939), the first African-American violinist hired by the New York Philharmonic, who premiered the work at Carnegie Hall. The work is in three movements and plays on the idea of the “blue” notes – the flat 3rd and flat 7th degrees of the scale – used in jazz.

This play on major and minor intervals is evident right from the start in the arresting opening of the first movement entitled Plain Blue/s, with its slip-sliding double-stops and soulful swing. Just as ‘blue’ and even more soulful is the meditative and painfully lyrical second movement, Just Blue/s. The concluding movement, Jettin’ Blue/s, channels Paganini through the rollicking musical personality of the country fiddler.

 

Eugène Ysaÿe
Sonata No. 2  Op. 27 No. 2 (“Obsession”)

Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe stands as a bridge figure between the late Romantic era of virtuoso violinists such as Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski (he studied with both of them) and twentieth-century composers such as Debussy, whom he championed. Much loved by violinists and composers alike, he pushed the technique of the violin to new heights, while at the same time promoting a style of playing that was perfectly idiomatic for his instrument. He was, in short, the violinist’s violinist and the respect accorded to him by composers is indicated by the number of important works dedicated to him: the César Franck Sonata (a wedding present for Ysaÿe), Chausson’s Poème, and string quartets by Debussy, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Ysaÿe is said to have been inspired to write his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin Op. 27 after hearing a concert by the violinist Josef Szigeti in 1923. Each sonata in the series was written in honour of the contemporary violinists he knew.  The second in the set, the Sonata in A minor, is dedicated to the French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880–1953) and bears the nickname “Obsession” (given by the composer himself) for its repeated quotations, in all four movements, of the ominous Dies irae (Day of Wrath) chant from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, giving the sonata as a whole an aura of supernatural spookiness and an undercurrent of ghoulish intrigue.

The opening Prelude begins with a direct quote from the opening of Bach’s Partita No. 3 followed immediately by a grotesque parody of this same opening, marked brutalement in the score. The Bach Preludio was Thibaud’s favourite warm-up piece and Ysaÿe may well be having a laugh at his friend’s expense in this shocking opening sequence. As much as this movement is a homage to Bach, it soon has to deal with the intrusive presence in its rush of moto perpetuo 16th notes with the sombre Dies irae tune, elbowing its way into the ear between cheery quotes from the Bach Partita.

The Malinconia that follows, as its name suggests, is a two-voice lament, played in the rhythm of a sicilienne con sordino (with a mute), an unusual indication in a sonata movement. The Dies irae theme only appears at the very end, over a dreary drone tone, like a sombre warning of death.

The chant tune is very present, though, from the very beginning of the third movement Danse des ombres (Dance of the shadows) in the sarabande theme played pizzicato at the opening. This theme spawns six variations of increasing complexity and animation until the opening theme returns, played arco in majestic multiple-stops, to close the movement.

The finale, entitled Les Furies, then bursts out in alternating fits of passionate multiple-stop declamation and ghostly haunting renditions, sul ponticello, of the Dies irae theme to bring this sonata to a conclusion in a mood of demonic defiance.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach 
Partita No. 2 in D minor  BWV 1004

Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin is a work of imposing gravity, a work astonishing as much for the inventiveness of its small-scale figuration as for the brilliance of its architectural construction.

As a dance suite, it sits in diametrical contrast to the galenterie-focused Partita No. 3 in E major in having among its dance movements nothing but the four canonical types – allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. But usurping the last word usually accorded to the gigue, it adds a majestic chaconne that exceeds in length all four of them together, making this dance suite, as a whole, heavily end-weighted in its aesthetic momentum.

This tilt towards the final movement comes largely through the way in which the dances preceding it are composed. It’s as if they are all waiting for the finale, expecting its arrival, giving hints along the way that something big is about to happen. Taken together, they are like a long intake of breath that finally gets released in the Chaconne.

The premonitions in this build-up are many and varied. While the suite’s allemande, courante and gigue each have their own character – evenly-paced, flowing and jumpy, respectively – they all follow a similar harmonic layout, somewhat effacing their individuality as independent pieces. They modulate to the same keys, in the same order, as if they were just melodic variations on the same harmonic pattern – as in a chaconne. And all three overwhelmingly consist of single melodic lines, further diminishing their sound impact in comparison to the bold thunderclap that strikes the ear in the opening bars of the finale.

The problem of creating full harmonies in a single-line texture is addressed by Bach by his use of the style brisé (“broken style”) typical of 17th-century French lute music, a style of writing in which chordal progressions are “broken up” into irregular and unpredictable patterns of arpeggios and running notes. In such a texture the ear is constantly engaged in the process of ‘re-composing’ this expanded version of the underlying harmonic and melodic patterns into something simpler. The profusion of notes created also offers greater opportunity for expressive nuance in performance.

Not all of the dance movements, though, are composed in this way. The third dance movement prophetically announces the finale (a) in its genre, a sarabande, like the chaconne, with emphasis on the second beat of the bar; (b) in its texture, rife with multiple-stops; and (c) in its melodic material, some of which anticipates the same figuration in the finale.

When the Chaconne does arrive, it comes in the form of a sarabande variée comprised of 64 variations on a four-bar harmonic pattern presented at the outset, the harmonies determined by a repeating bass line. There are 33 variations in the minor mode, 19 in the major, the arrival of which marks a dramatic change in mood, and then finally 12 more in the minor, giving the work a rough three-part design.

The extreme variety of textures and moods that Bach manages to create out of this simple 4-bar pattern is the reason for its exalted status within the classical canon. Among the many ways he finds to say the same thing over and over again, harmonically speaking, are: varying the note durations, from half notes down to 32nds; alternating simple scalar patterns with chromatic variations on them; unpredictable melodic lines in style brisé contrasted with clearly patterned sequential repetitions; tightly focused melodies in a small range alternating with wide-ranging spans of arpeggiation and running notes; single-line melodies alternating with two-voice textures; echoing call-and-response patterns between contrasting registers; single melodic lines that gradually evolve into chordal figurations whipping across all four strings in a continuous pattern of rocking arpeggios; and various sonic ‘tics’ (in popular music they would be called “hooks”) such as bell-like notes repeating through the texture in various registers.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

Program Notes: Juho Pohjonen

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasy in C minor  K 475

The year 1785 was a good one for Mozart. In the words of musicologist John Irving, he had become something of a ‘hot property’ in Vienna, enjoying considerable success both as a published composer and as a performing musician. But Mozart had also acquired a reputation as a gifted improviser, if we are to believe the swooning testimony of Johann Friedrich Schink in his Literarische Fragmente of 1785:

And his improvisations, what a wealth of ideas! What variety! What contrasts in passionate sounds! One swims away with him unresistingly on the stream of his emotions.

One notable occasion at which the ecstatic Schink might have needed his swim trunks and inner tube was a benefit concert which took place on 15 December 1785 at one of Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Mozart had become a Mason the previous year and for this concert contributed a cantata as well as a piano concerto, and for the grand finale of the evening held forth with his own ‘fantasias,’ i.e., improvisations.

Was it by coincidence that, just the week before, an advertisement had appeared in the Wiener Zeitung announcing the publication by Viennese publishing house Artaria of Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor (K. 475) paired with a keyboard sonata in the same key (K. 457), or was it merely clever marketing?

This original pairing of fantasy and sonata in the same publication has led many pianists to perform the two works together as a single unit, the fantasy serving as an elaborate ‘slow introduction’ to the sonata. The young Beethoven may have thought the pairing aesthetically effective when he composed his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 in 1798. Apart from the shared key, the Pathétique shares many characteristics with the fantasy-sonata publication, its fp opening followed by a sigh motive being only the most obvious.

Then again, the original joint publication might simply have been for commercial convenience, since the two works were composed a good half-year apart, and Mozart is known to have performed the fantasy as an independent work. Indeed, the Fantasy seems to have had an unusually high profile in the decade after its publication, spawning pirate editions in Mannheim and Berlin, and even making a cameo appearance in contemporary literature when performed by a character in Wilhelm Heinse’s experimental novel Hildegard von Hohenthal (1795).

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Mozart’s Fantasy is comprised of six sections of contrasting character, alternating between deeply expressive, modulating passages and more harmonically stable sections of melody and accompaniment that would be perfectly at home in any sonata movement. Remarkable in this work is the unusual vehemence of expression in the two central modulating sections. The first of these, with its jangling tremolos of alarm in the treble, would not be out of place accompanying a silent movie in which a young girl is being tied to the railroad tracks. The emotional intensity of the ‘escape operas’ of the 1790s was evidently already on the horizon. Remarkable as well is how Mozart exploits the full range of the keyboard in the cadenza-like sections, especially the deep bass register. Indeed, passages occur in which both hands play below middle C.

Despite its harmonic wanderings to remote key centres, the final section of this work is in a solid C minor, providing a degree of symmetry to balance the wild turbulence that characterizes its emotional trajectory.

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in C minor  K 457

In 1785 Mozart’s Sonata in C minor was published together with the composer’s Fantasia in C minor as a single opus, with the Fantasia forming a kind of introductory ‘prelude’ to the sonata. Scholars are divided as to whether or not this was Mozart’s intention. Certainly, the common key of C minor and a shared fondness for heightened musical drama link the two works. Not to mention how the practice of combining an improvisatory movement with a more formally rigorous one has traditional roots in the Baroque pairing of fantasy and fugue.

And yet this three-movement sonata is entirely capable of standing on its own. It is a small sonata with big ideas: operatic in its wide range of emotions, orchestral in many of its effects (especially its imitation of alternating orchestral ‘choirs’ of instruments), and pianistic in its unabashed display of quasi-virtuosic keyboard techniques, all of which have been cited as possible influences on – and perhaps even models for – some of the early sonatas of Beethoven in a minor key.

*                      *                      *

The work opens with an imperious fanfare: an arpeggio rising dramatically over more than an octave. This abrupt gesture looks back to a similar instrumental effect, associated with mid-18th-century orchestras in south-west Germany, called the “Mannheim rocket” while at the same time looking forward to a similar opening in Beethoven’s first piano sonata, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2 No. 1.

Cowering in the upper register of the keyboard where this fanfare left off is a timid little answer full of plaintive sighs. A subsequent repeat of this Punch & Judy show establishes from the outset the wide emotional range that this sonata will claim for itself. Indeed, off-beat accents and abrupt juxtapositions of loud and soft are recurring features of the movement, features that may have given Beethoven ideas to follow up on.

The movement’s second theme, singing out in the major mode atop a burbling Alberti bass is more sociable, with hand-crossing replies echoing up from the bass. But even this theme is not immune to unexpected interruptions. One of the most dramatic is a passage of broken-chord figuration that extends from the bottom to the very top of the fortepiano keyboard of Mozart’s time, an indication that this movement may have been written for the composer’s personal use, with his own hand in mind. He was known to be a bit of a show-off at times, we hear.

The second-movement Adagio is no less spectacular in its own way. It is a study in melodic ornamentation and remarkable for the myriad possibilities that Mozart finds to decorate its simple melodic structures, structured around chord tones that sit on top of an audaciously rudimentary harmonic undergirding. Slow movements are not normally the place for virtuoso fireworks, but included in the decorative detail of this slow movement are breathtaking ecstatic runs spanning more than three octaves that astonish the ear.

The Allegro assai finale is a rondo that returns to the restless mood of the first movement, typified by the confrontational manner in which its opening refrain melody is structured. It begins piano with a series of suspensions that evoke a feeling of whimpering pathos, but then turns on a dime to become aggressive and insistent, with shoulder-poking repeated notes ringing out forte in a foretaste of the rondo refrain from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Even the coquettish quality of this rondo’s interludes cannot mask the troubled atmosphere evoked by its many sudden changes in dynamics and the searching quality of its numerous dramatic pauses. This is Mozart at his most ‘Beethovenian’.

 

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata No. 6 in A major Op. 82

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 is the first of the three “War Sonatas” (Nos. 6, 7, and 8) written between 1939 and 1944 while the Soviet Union was at war with Nazi Germany. The Sixth Sonata was completed in 1940 and demonstrates well the obsessive rhythmic drive, percussive attack, and dissonance-encrusted harmonies that characterize Prokofiev’s style of piano-writing. The work comprises four movements which, given the extreme modernity of their musical language, are laid out in a surprisingly traditional pattern: sonata-form first movement, second movement scherzo, slow third movement, and rondo finale.

The sonata opens with an arresting ‘motto’ that descends three scale steps, first as a major 3rd and then a minor 3rd, changing C natural to C#.  This creates a brilliantly colourful bitonal effect that, even if it weren’t stutteringly repeated almost 40 times in the course of the exposition, would be memorable. A more tranquil second subject offers a contrasting vision of where things are going, but both are put through the wringer in a development section peppered with repeated notes before the opening motto returns in a recapitulation of brutal directness enacted over a keyboard range of more than six octaves.

The Allegretto second movement has been called a “quick march” and with a dependable four staccato beats to the bar its metrical regularity comes as a welcome relief after the chaotic events of the first movement. Its espressivo middle section adds a more expansive note of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. This movement ends almost humorously as its colourful harmonic pulses veer into port just at the last moment, in the very last bar.

The slow waltz Tempo di valzer lentissimo, while lacking any real Viennese sense of lilt, has a wonderful vulnerability about it that is quite touching despite, or perhaps because of, the searching quality of its constantly shifting inner voices, even in the more turbulent middle section.

The work closes, like the other two War Sonatas, with a toccata of breathless drive that scampers playfully between tonal centres like it owned them all. It becomes increasingly haunted, however, by the thematic ghosts of the first movement and ends firmly in the grip of the opening motto.

 

Donald Gíslason 2021

 

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