Variations on an Original Theme in E at major (“Ghost Variations”) WoO 24
In February of 1854, Robert Schumann was in a state of delirium, but a very musical one. He was surrounded by ghosts, he told his wife Clara, ghosts that fed him wonderful music and had occasionally tried to drag him down
to Hell. Despite all this mental clatter – or perhaps because of it – he wrote down a theme offered to him by angelic voices and within a week had begun to compose variations on it. Work on the variations was interrupted, however, when he rushed out of the house half-dressed to throw himself from a bridge into the icy waters of the Rhine, from which he was rescued and returned home. The next day he completed his “Ghost Variations” and shortly afterwards was admitted to a sanatorium, where he died two years later.
The theme of Schumann’s last composition is a richly harmonized hymn that, in its downward-seeking phrases, blends the pious fervour of communal singing with the tenderness of personal re ection. In the first four of his five variations, Schumann leaves the melody remarkably ‘unvaried’, preferring instead to vary its textural setting. The first features a ripple of triplets in the lower voices; the second unfolds as a canon. The third variation adds an insistent rhythmic counterpoint between melody notes while the fourth is set in the minor mode.
It is the fifth variation, composed immediately after Schumann’s suicide attempt, that brings home the fragility of the composer’s psychological state in its wandering melody and harmonically wavering accompaniment: the aural traces of a mental window on the world slowly and peacefully shutting down.
Late Piano Pieces Opp. 117, 118 & 119
Brahms’ late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman – a composer with nothing left to prove.
While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’ musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.
The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117 published in 1892 combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.
The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E at major actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E at minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.
The Intermezzo in B at minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its rst theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first – a typical Brahmsian touch – and the development section dwells expansively on the owing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.
The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at rst in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.
Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces of 1893 are intensely concentrated representatives of the composer’s late period, with all the classic features of his compositional style: motivic density, rippling polyrhythms, an intimate familiarity with the lowest regions of the keyboard, and above all, an ability to create musical textures of heartbreaking lyrical intensity richly marbled with imitative counterpoint. All but the first are in a clear ternary A-B-A form.
The opening Intermezzo in A minor arrives as if in mid-thought, a musical thought of restless harmonic change and heavy melodic sighs riding atop a surging accompaniment that constantly threatens to overwhelm them.
The Intermezzo in A major sounds like a simple, quiet little nocturne but its motivic texture is elaborately in-folded, as its opening phrase eventually yields to a melodically upside-down version of itself and its middle section is woven through with canons.
The Ballade in G minor is the most extroverted of the set. Its heroic and vigorous opening section is contrasted with a gently undulating B section that, despite its tender lyricism, can’t help but dream in its own lyrical way of the opening bars.
In the Intermezzo in F minor a simple repeating triplet figure echoing back and forth between the hands gives rise to canons that play out through the whole texture. Even the poised and elegiac middle section, with its bass notes plumbing the very bottom of the keyboard, unfolds in canonic imitation, just as the opening.
The Romanze in F major sounds vaguely archaic, as its main melody, doubled in the alto and tenor voices, drifts from time to time into the Aeolian mode. Its middle section is a gently rocking berceuse that elaborates melodic fantasy lines over a drone bass.
The Intermezzo in E at minor that closes the set is enigmatic. Proceeding at first in whispers over a rolling carpet of arpeggios originating deep in the bass, it gathers forcefulness in its middle section, revealing in moments of triumphalism the steel hand buried deep within Brahms’ ever-so-velvet pianistic glove.
Brahms’ heterogeneous collection of Four Piano Pieces Op. 119 were his last works for piano and they show him at the top of his form. The first is exquisitely refined and tonally progressive, the second and third infused with the spirit of Viennese dance music, and the fourth a heroic broadside of pianistic bravado.
The Intermezzo in B minor that opens the set presents the ear with chains of falling thirds that create a panoply of possible harmonic interpretations, spinning o multiple expectations for how the dissonances created will be resolved. But this conundrum was the whole point, according to Brahms, who wrote to his friend Clara Schumann that he had written a piece “teeming with dissonances” and that “every measure and every note must sound like a ritardando, as if one wanted to suck the melancholy out of each single one.” The middle section is equally ambiguous, with its rippling dislocations of pulse between the left and right hands.
A nervous stutter of echoing repeated notes marks the opening section of the Intermezzo in E minor, its bar lines obscured by rhythmic activity artfully out of synch with the meter and the harmony. The gentle waltz that inhabits the middle section provides more rhythmic clarity, but this section’s melodic contrast is deceptive, as its voluptuously lilting tune is actually just a variation of the opening.
The Intermezzo in C major is so good-natured, it almost borders on humour, with its dancelike melody set in the mid-range (played by the right-hand thumb throughout) and occasional thrilling ice-cube-down-the-back cascades of arpeggios.
The Rhapsodie in E at major is the longest of Brahms’ late pieces, a vast panorama of moods that opens heroically with a muscular march, emphatic and forthright in rhythm but irregularly structured in ‘Hungarian-style’ 5-bar phrases. Its middle section alternates between pulsing triplet figures in a worrisome C minor and the cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness of its debonair A at major section. A flamboyant gypsy-style coda ends the piece – surprisingly – with a triumphant cadence in E at … minor!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Rondo in A minor K. 511
Within the diminutive confines of this little five-part rondo, with its lilting but melancholy siciliano theme, is a miniature masterpiece of motivic concentration and emotional rhetoric.
The principal motives at issue in the large-scale working out of the piece are revealed in the melodic construction of its opening phrase: the fifth degree of the scale, ornamented by a chromatic turn figure, drops to the tonic (home note of the key), then rises back up by chromatic half-steps the same distance as it fell before being swept towards a half-cadence by a full-octave scale in the purest melodic minor mode. This contrast between the pleading, pathos- tinged whimpering of chromatic half-steps and the mood of forthright self- assurance evoked by the diatonic scale is played out in the rondo’s successive alternations of refrain and episode.
Both episodes (the contrasting B and C sections of the A-B-A-C-A form) are in the major mode and begin in an optimistic, psychologically healthy frame of mind. Before long, however, the mood of each is progressively undermined by the increasing prevalence of chromatic scale figures in the texture, a Wagnerian leitmotiv (before its time) that seems to be calling back the opening refrain in the minor mode.
The opening ornamental turn figure haunts this piece at many levels. It occurs almost 50 times as a melodic embellishment, but it also permeates many of the melodic gestures in larger note values, most notably in the rolling left-hand figures at the work’s close.
Johann Sebastian Bach Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor BWV 869
The last prelude and fugue in Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier pairs a uniformly patterned prelude with a long fugue based on an extended fugue subject. While it is unusual to have tempo markings in this collection, the Andante marking for the prelude and Largo for the fugue are authentically Bach’s own.
The prelude is in two parts (each repeated) and written in a three-part texture in which two upper voices converse in a friendly imitative dialogue based on two motives (a rising 4th and a descending scale) over a running bass line of 8th notes. In the second half, this imitation is intensified by a diminution of the motives to a pace of 8ths and quarters.
The fugue features a subject in even 8th notes extending over three bars and comprised of two ear-catching motives: broken chords and a series of semitone sigh motives hopping back and forth in tonal space. The other source of melodic invention in the fugue (the countersubject) is more rhythmically varied, and is also used in inversion, i.e., turned upside down – for those listeners who keep track of such things. While this is a four-voice fugue, much of the contrapuntal chatter takes place in only three voices at a time. Only two of the 20 subject entries occur in a full four-voice texture: in the opening exposition and at the very end. This is likely to ensure that the prominent motives of the subject – the broken chord figures and semitone sigh motives – will be easier for the ear to pull out of the texture.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 26 in E- at Major Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”)
In May 1809, Napoleon’s army was parked just outside Vienna and was knocking loudly at the door with a steady bombardment of cannon fire. In this perilous situation Beethoven’s close friend and patron the Archduke Rudolph was forced to flee the Austrian capital. Beethoven’s artistic response to these dramatic events was the Sonata in E at Op. 81a, his only explicitly programmatic piano sonata, published with a German and French title for each of its three movements: “Farewell”, “Absence”, and “Return”.
Explicitly linking the first movement to its “Farewell” titling are the words Le-be wohl (German for “fare thee well”) written in the score over the three melody notes that begin the slow introduction: mi – re – do. This three-note motive, written in two voices, imitates the call of the post-horn and, in the words of Beethoven scholar William Kinderman “summons up the world of carriages”, and thus scenes of departure.
This horn-call will echo through every section of the movement as a leitmotif. When the pleading chromatic phrases of the slow introduction end, issuing into the Allegro main section, this Lebewohl horn motif gets broken up to compose the first theme; it provides material, treble and bass, for the transition; and it appears at the head of the second theme as well – not to mention the development section – which is an auditory house of mirrors with Lebewohl “farewells” bouncing o every wall. Even more ‘developed’ than the development section itself is the extended coda that Sir András Schiff describes as simply “swimming in the Lebewohl motive.”
The short second movement in the minor mode laments the absence of Beethoven’s beloved friend in desolate diminished 7th chords, painful stabbing sforzandos and plangent recitative, alternating with delirious ights of fancy in the major mode that remember happier times as if in a dream.
As in the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, this slow movement is not self- contained but leads directly into the exuberant celebration of the “Return” in the last movement. Anyone who has returned from a long vacation to be greeted by the tail-wagging enthusiasms of an overly excited household pooch will immediately recognize the sentiments here described.
After an initial outburst of keyboard brilliance, the movement’s first theme is presented in triplets as a ‘pals-y’ duet (appropriately enough) first in the treble, then in the bass. The second theme is more contained and songful but nonetheless rides atop a quivering substrate of bubbling 16ths in the accompaniment. The effortlessly contrapuntal elaborations of the development section are calm by comparison and a dreamily reflective coda tries to savour its good fortune in a similarly blissful state of contentment. But this movement simply can’t restrain its giddiness and ends by ripping up the keyboard in one last explosion of joy.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018