Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32
It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.
The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.
The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.
In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.
The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.
Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35
Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.
The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.
A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective, plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.
The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.
No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.
Consolation No. 3 in D at major
Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.
This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.
The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.
Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.
But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.
For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42
Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.
Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.
The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations 5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.
At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.
And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.
This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.
How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.
There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017