Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22
Chopin’s funereal, passacaglia-like Prelude in C minor from his collection of 24 Preludes Op. 28 provides the theme for Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale work for solo piano, his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, completed in 1903. Taking as his point of departure the prelude’s hymn-like harmonies and recurring opening motive (one note up, three notes down), Rachmaninoff creates a vehicle for displaying not only his pianistic prowess, but also his compositional moxie.
In these 22 rather abstract but extraordinarily inventive variations we discover a composer who channels the great pianistic traditions of the 19th century: the Slavic melancholy of Chopin, the march rhythms and poetic introspection of Schumann, the keyboard sparkle of Liszt, and the bass-heavy sound palette of Brahms. To these features Rachmaninoff adds his own penchant for multi-layered textures rippling with counter-melodies and understated imitative counterpoint.
This tendency is evident in the first three variations. Variation 1 features a shockingly spare, single line of melody noodling around the prelude’s harmonic pattern. This same melodic line then serves as the accompaniment figure in Variation 2, and the subject of a canon in Variation 3. Similar groupings of variations linked by common motivic patterns occur throughout, providing a sense of organic development within the work.
The developmental urge gets stronger with each variation, as does the inclination to show that the composer’s counterpoint classes at the Moscow Conservatory were not wasted. Variation 12 is an outright fugue, and Variation 14 a kind of chorale prelude, with Chopin’s theme singing out proudly in the tenor in quadruple note values, like the cantus firmus of a Renaissance mass movement. This variation presents unusual technical challenges, even to a pianist with the hand of a Rachmaninoff (who on a cold day, and without mittens, could stretch a 12th) since it is not always possible to play all of its four widely-spaced voices at the same time without using the nose – an expedient that, in the interest of maintaining decorum, we are counting on Mr. Melnikov to eschew.
Variation 15 is a Schumannesque scherzo that would have been at home in that composer’s Symphonic Études Op. 13. Schumannesque, as well, are the marches of Variation 19 and the triumphant Variation 22 finale that emerges in a C major as bright and sunny as the opening C minor theme was stoic and grim. The thrillingly suspenseful build-up of orchestral-style excitement that precedes this last variation, and the shimmering cascade of keyboard sound that ends it reveal, perhaps, how close in inspiration this work was to Rachmaninoff’s recently completed Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18.
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42
In 1931 Rachmaninoff wrote his last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). This theme was, in fact, a traditional Iberian folk-dance tune, a slow sarabande called La Folia that Corelli had used in his Sonata Op. 5 No. 12 for violin and continuo and that many composers after him had used as well – Vivaldi, Bach and Liszt among them.
Rachmaninoff’s opening statement of the theme is disarmingly simple, emphasizing the pathos inherent in a melody that moves from phrase to phrase in a series of short sighs. On this theme Rachmaninoff actually writes two sets of variations separated by an Intermezzo.
The first set comprises Variations 1-13, which begin by leaving the theme largely recognizable within a changing series of rhythmic guises before breaking free in Variation 5 to explore more punchy and energetic versions of its harmonic patterning. After another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9 momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.
At which point Rachmaninoff offers us a kind of champagne sherbet between courses to cleanse the sonic palette. An Intermezzo unfolds in a free improvisatory style that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of keyboard colour.
Our ears thus refreshed, we begin a second set of variations (14-20), with the theme presented to us once again, only this time lower down on the keyboard, and more richly harmonized. It seems to have aged, this melody, since we heard it last, at the work’s opening. It seems now to evoke the emotions of an aged individual looking back nostalgically on a life fully lived, but almost over.
After a tender daydream in Variation 15 Rachmaninoff returns to the muscular keyboard writing for which he is known. The final variations become increasingly animated, eventually erupting into heaven-storming walls of sound echoing back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.
And yet, Rachmaninoff unexpectedly backs away from the tumultuous ending he seemed to be rushing headlong towards. Instead, he a drifts off into a coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the dramatic low pedal point that points implacably to its end.
Lovers of dark (really dark) chocolate will love the bitter but heroic fatalism of this ending.
Preludes for Piano Book 2
Debussy was the composer who freed Western music from the claustrophobic confines of “functional” harmony, the set of rules that for 300 years had governed which chords fit best with which others according to how well their bass notes got along. In Debussy’s world, the scale degrees named in the famous musical mnemonic by pediatric educator Julie Andrews (“Do, a deer, a female deer”) were of little import. What mattered to Debussy was the colour of each chord and the fleeting impressions that harmonic hues and shading could evoke in the mind of the imaginative listener.
Few works sum up Debussy’s practice in this regard more than his two sets of preludes composed between 1909 and 1913. The second set, like the first, features 12 short pieces, each with a descriptive title. These titles Debussy insisted on having printed, in parentheses, at the end of each piece rather than at the beginning, as if each were the whispered answer to a puzzle. Needless to say, this is music of infinite subtlety, much of it built up out of pianissimo murmurs swimming freely in a watery, finely pedalled haze of blurry piano tone out of which strands of melody occasionally float by the ear before disappearing off to the sonic horizon.
Brouillards (Fog) gives a better description of atmospheric conditions than any TV weatherman could provide, its streams of parallel chords in a polytonal buzz of overlapping sonorities evoking the diaphanous fabric of seasonal mists.
Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) offers a picture of autumnal stillness, interrupted from time to time by the odd spate of falling leaves drifting gently down to earth.
La puerta del vino (The Gate of Wine) was inspired by a postcard of a gate in the Alhambra Palace sent to Debussy by Manuel Da Falla. It features a pervasive habañera rhythm, imitations of guitar strumming, and elements of flamenco singing in its description of Spanish life.
A book given to Debussy’s daughter, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, was the inspiration for Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) in which the airy elves of legend and fable put on their dancing shoes to float, flutter and hover like hummingbirds to the trills and tremolos electrifying the air of their sylvan surroundings.
In Bruyères (Heather) we find ourselves out on the moors of the Scottish countryside. Light touches of the pentatonic scale give this prelude its rustic feel, along with the evocative calls of a distant shepherd’s flute.
Debussy displays his sly wit and talent for mimicry in an affectionate portrait of the American comedian Edward Lavine, known to his public as General Lavine – eccentric. Lavine was apparently something of a clown, known for his comic impersonations of a wooden puppet and for playing the piano with his toes. Debussy puts the General’s strutting cakewalk theme comically in the bass, accompanied by by many vaudeville-style ba-duh-BOOM! drum-and-cymbal strokes.
Moonlight is the subject of La terrace des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace for moonlight audiences), conveyed through shimmering, softly glinting harmonies and the use of extreme registers to express the vast expanses lit up by the moon.
Ondine is a water sprite who tempts fishermen to enjoy her company in the depths of rivers and lakes. This prelude conveys her quick darting movements through the splashes of spray she churns up, as well as hinting at the danger lying in wait for the innocent fly-caster.
Homage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. is a humorous musical portrait of Samuel Pickwick Esq. (Perpetual President, Member of the Pickwick Club), the central character in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick’s numerous quaint character traits are given a thorough going over in the many witty details of this piece, chief among them his pomposity, expressed in the opening quotation from God Save the Queen.
A Canope is a canopic jar, the recipient in which the internal organs of mummified individuals was held. The thought of this ancient object prompts a meditation on the death of an exotic civilization, evoked in the dead quiet of a ancient tomb.
Les tierces alternées (Alternating thirds) is the only prelude in the set without an extramusical title. Passing between meditative and toccata-like sections, this piece is written entirely in thirds alternating between the hands and foreshadows the arrival of Debussy’s piano études of 1915.
More virtuosic still is Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), set at a Bastille Day celebration slyly referenced in the distant strain of La Marseillaise heard in the closing bars. Whether you like Roman candles, spinning pinwheels, or exploding cannonballs of multi-coloured glitter, Debussy keeps you dazzled by sending the pianist off to light wicks at both ends of the keyboard.
Donald G. Gíslason 2016