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 on 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).
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 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.
Fantasie in C major, Op. 17
Schumann began his career as a composer by writing exclusively for the piano. He wrote for no other instrument until 1840. The measure of his ambition and his sense of mission in this regard may be gauged in his massive Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, which he began in 1836 as a single-movement work inspired by his longing for the young Clara Wieck, his future wife.
The work was soon re-purposed, however, into a three-movement ‘grand sonata’ to be offered to the public with the aim of raising funds for a monument in honour of Beethoven, to be erected in his native city of Bonn. This was a project energetically supported, and substantially underwritten, by Franz Liszt, to whom Schumann’s Fantasy is dedicated. Eventually published in 1839, it makes for a rather strange ‘sonata’ but a meaty, imaginative and poetic ‘fantasy’, its three movements being of widely differing character and emotional content.
The passion of young love is immediately communicated in the first movement’s opening, with its rolling dominant 9th chord, expressively parallel to the composer’s romantic yearning, that never seems to find resolution or rest. A middle section Im Legenden-Ton (In the character of a legend) begins in a subdued manner but before long, it too builds into extravagant outbursts of passion before the opening material returns. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a melodic phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”
The second movement is a patriotically stirring march, worthy of leading the composer’s famous Davidsbund (his imaginary friends in the League of David) into battle against the barbarous hordes of musical philistinism. While a slower interlude provides some lyrical contrast, a pervasive dotted rhythm maintains the martial drum beat through virtually the entire movement. The virtuoso exuberance of the coda, with its wild leaps in opposite directions, stands as a test of pianistic marksmanship unique in the piano literature.
The work concludes with a poetic reverie which is the emotional inverse of the expressively explosive first movement. This final movement stands in awe of all Creation, carried along by the poetic force of its luminous rolling harmonies, intermittently interrupted by snatches of melody that struggle to achieve utterance, then fall back into dreaming. The simple, yet resonant scoring of the piano texture between the two hands masterfully evokes the power of human wonder in moments of exaltation and transcendence. This is Schumann the Poet at his most inspired.
Nachtstücke Op. 23
This collection of four pieces was composed in 1839, at a time in which the composer (never really in the pink of mental health at the best of times) was particularly beset with fears of death. In March of that year, obsessed with thoughts of coffins and funeral processions, he was in the throes of composing a so-called Corpse Fantasy (Leichenfantasie) when a letter arrived which he took as confirmation of his premonitions: his older brother Eduard, head of the family publishing firm, lay dying. The effect of this news on the work in progress can only be imagined, but when it was finished, his intended, Clara Wieck, wisely steered him clear of his initial morbid title in favour of Night Pieces (Nachtstücke), after the well-known collection of dark tales by E. T. A. Hoffman.
These, then, are not nocturnes à la John Field, painting the poetic stillness of the late evening as an intimate setting for lyrical introspection, but enigmatic works evoking the night as a place of dark mystery, abnormal occurrences, and psychological danger.
All four pieces are in rondo form, i.e., they alternate their opening thematic material with a series of contrasting episodes. Schumann had proposed names for the four pieces, which subsequently did not appear in the printed edition, but which are nonetheless suggestive of the imaginative world he wished to evoke.
The first was to be called Trauerzug (funeral procession) but what a strange little funeral march it would be. Hesitating between major and minor, its short, sharp pulses evoke furtive mischief more than dignified commemoration. And its dotted rhythm, characteristic of the famous funeral marches of Beethoven and Chopin, is oddly configured to emphasize the fourth beat of the bar, perhaps to enforce the curious indication oft zurückhaltend (often holding back).
It has been suggested that the descending bass-line motif is taken from the Marche au supplice from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a nightmarish reference to death that puts this piece squarely in the realm of the ghoulish. But could this be a grotesque parody? The idea cannot be excluded, given the relationship between this collection and another work composed in the same year, the distinctly whimsical Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Indeed, the Intermezzo of the Faschingsschwank was originally written for the Nachtstücke, suggesting a certain overlap in intention between the two works.
The second piece, Kuriose Gesellschaft (curious company) is a study in mood swings, from a composer personally well versed in the phenomenon. It throws together the oddest assortment of modes of expression, from the festive to the lyrically sentimental and the mechanically clownish.
The third piece, Nächtliches Gelage (night revels), bursts with an explosive yearning alternating with, but unrelieved by, episodes of intoxicated but slightly disturbing elation.
In the simple tunefulness of the fourth piece, Rundgesang mit Solostimmen (round with solo voices), we finally arrive at a simpler, less psychologically complex expression of emotion. While the texture of short notes interspersed with rests recalls the furtive steps of the opening ‘march’, the widely spaced arpeggios imply accompaniment by a strummed string instrument such as a guitar or lute, suggesting a more peaceful and intimate setting for these final musical thoughts on the experience of nighttime.
Vers la flamme Op. 72
The aesthetic aims of Scriabin were so expansive as to be hardly containable within the scope of the piano keyboard. As he advanced in years his mystical inclinations narrowed considerably the gap between solo sonata and sonic séance, with his last works showing him at his most manically grandiose. Left unfinished at his death in 1915, for example, is a work called Mysterium for mixed chorus and orchestra, intended to be enacted over the course of a week in the foothills of the Himalayas with the aid of dancers, a light show, and the release of appropriately apocalyptic scents into the air, after which the world was roundly expected to dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.
Meanwhile, back home at the keyboard, pianists attempting to sustain the legacy of his piano music (without the aid of sherpas) have had their hands full dealing with the equally ambitious textures of his late works, with their flamboyant arpeggiations down to the nether regions, eddying swirls of finger fodder in the mid-range, and luminous echoes up in the gods of the high register.
His ‘piano poem’ Vers la flamme (‘Towards the flame’), composed in 1914, is precisely of this stamp. What constitutes ‘melody’ in the piece is virtually limited to the obsessively repeated semitone motif announced at the opening, and present throughout at the top of the texture. The composer’s unique harmonic vocabulary of altered dominant 9th, 11th and 13th chords, spaced in 4ths for maximum resonance, ensures such an abundance of tritones (there seems to be one in virtually every chord) that in the end they all begin to sound like consonances.
According to Vladimir Horowitz, who played for the composer at the age of 11 and became one of the major proponents his music, the title of the work relates to the composer’s conviction that the world as a whole was edging ‘toward the flame’ and would gradually heat up until it erupted into a fiery cosmic conflagration.
“He was crazy, you know,” Horowitz adds, dryly.
Prescient intimations of global warming aside, Scriabin’s incendiary vision is communicated in this piece through a gradual increase in the complexity and animation of the keyboard texture. At its opening, time seems suspended as long-held chords interspersed with rhythmically uncertain phrase fragments obviate any sense of regular pulse. Soon the mid-range begins to oscillate with conspiratorial murmurings as an ominous 5-against-9 rhythm rumbles in the bass. A third and final stage is reached when tongues of flame, in the form of blurry double tremolos, begin to lick the sonic spaces around middle C, leading to a final burst of bright light at the extreme ends of the keyboard.
Sonata No. 4 in F# major Op 30
In this short two-movement work from 1903, the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas, we catch the composer in mid-career, still writing in a tonal framework in which we can feel the pull of the home key, but with chromatic extensions of late-Romantic harmony that point to the atonal works that will arrive before long.
A mood of delicious innocence and delicate refinement of feeling pervades the first movement Andante, which can’t resist lingering again and again over its coy motive of a falling 6th. Noteworthy in this movement is the remarkable ‘three-hand’ effect towards the end, with the main melody singing out brightly in the high mid- register, surrounded by an affectionate chorus of timbral and harmonic helpers in the other voices.
The mood changes to one of buoyant celebration in the last movement, marked Prestissimo volando. Its tone of good-natured bonhomie combined with the breathless, ‘panting puppy’ quality of its playful two-note sigh motives makes one think of Fauré on too much strong coffee.
The piano textures of Chopin are a major influence on this movement. Pianists will recognize the piano writing of the climactic ending of the Ballade in A flat Op. 47 in the corresponding apotheosis of this sonata, in which Scriabin brings back the main melody from the first movement for a final bow.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014