Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
Bach’s keyboard suites are a remarkable amalgam of the florid keyboard idiom of the French, the lyrical gift for vocal melody of the Italians, and the sober contrapuntal rigour of his fellow Germans. The suites which posthumously (and illogically) came to be labelled “English” were composed sometime before 1720 and are thought to be his earliest keyboard dances.
In imitation of French practice, Bach begins his third suite in the set with a Prelude, but written in the style of an Italian concerto grosso, with motoric rhythms driving relentlessly forward in a non-stop rush of 16th notes, during which the opening pecking motif not infrequently pops its head above the fray.
A more conversational tone is offered in the following Allemande with left and right hand trading the same material back and forth, thematically inverted in the second half. The Courante is a marvel of contrapuntal bravura, with its three self-confident voices pursuing independent melodic objectives while the underlying rhythmic pulse often “goes duple” on its nominally triple 3/2 time signature.
The rhythmically stark but harmonically rich outlines of the Sarabande are simply made for ornamental in-fill and Bach provides his own ornamented version for each half of this intense, but sombre interlude. As galanteries, the optional dances inserted between sarabande and gigue, Bach offers a major-minor pairing of gavottes, the most rhythmically dancelike pieces in the set. A quietly droning Gavotte II in the major mode is sandwiched between twin renditions of the merrily twinkling Gavotte I in the minor, while the Gigue finale serves up a toe-tapping two-voice fugue that, like the Allemande, turns its theme on its head for the second half.
Ninth Pavan and Galliard from Lady Nevell’s Book
Western music’s first great genius of keyboard music was the English court musician William Byrd. It was he who first established the idea of a rhythmically regular, harmonically-based contrapuntal keyboard idiom that the Baroque era went on to adopt as its own. The collection of his best early pieces, copied in manuscript for the music-loving Lady Nevell in 1591, is a compendium of the major genres of instrumental music of his day and includes a number of dances in the traditional pairing of pavane and galliard.
The pavane was a solemn, snooty, and minimally aerobic processional dance in duple time, unlikely to require a lathering of deodorant amongst even its most fanatical practitioners, while the more athletic galliard in triple metre was quite the stuff of sweatbands and lululemon stretch pants: all leaps, jumps and hops.
Byrd structures his Ninth Pavan and Galliard as a set of variations on the bass line and implied harmonies of the well-known Italian dance, the passamezzo, hence its anglicized moniker “Passing Measures”.
THE MUSIC OF RAGTIME
In the late 1890s a new genre of piano music arose in the United States that combined the syncopations of African-American dance music with the formal proportions, orthodox harmonies, and rhythmic beat of a John Philip Sousa march. The almost comical pairing of a chuckling right-hand melody constantly bobbing in and out of synch with a straight-up oom-pah beat in the left produced a delightfully off-kilter, ‘ragged’ sense rhythm that gave the new genre its name: ragtime.
Being essentially a written genre, fully composed in score and distributed in sheet music, ragtime thrived in the period before the arrival of radio broadcasting. Gradually supplanted after WWI by a more improvised style of jazz, it experienced various nostalgic revivals, most prominently in the 1970s when Marvin Hamlisch’s score to the hit film The Sting (1973) re-popularized the music of Scott Joplin.
Stravinsky’s quirky-jerky Piano Rag Music (1919) is more cubist in inspiration, presenting characteristic fragments of the ragtime genre (syncopation, stride bass) in a succession of modular blocks with irregular metres and jagged angular melodic gestures until it settles down into an eerie ostinato-fuelled impression of a broken music-box. This is Picasso’s grand piano descending a staircase.
“You want syncopation? You can’t handle syncopation!” is what Paul Hindemith seems to be saying in his thuggishly muscular Ragtime, the last movement of his Suite 1922 composed in—well, guess the year. Creating a rat-a-tat sound-world that foretells the tumultuous final pages of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1951), he suits up the ragtime genre as Robocop-on-Red-Bull, instructing the performer to “play this piece wildly, but always very strictly in rhythm, like a machine.” Be prepared to take cover.
Sunflower Slow Drag (1901) is a collaboration between Scott Joplin and his younger contemporary (and in-law) Scott Hayden. It displays many of the features of the classic piano rag, with a four-bar introduction and a syncopated melodic line alternating octaves and single notes, driven relentlessly onward by colourful chromatic inflections in the harmonic texture.
Conlon Nancarrow’s favourite musical structure was the canon, a fancy word for a round (think: Frère Jacques, Row, row, row your boat). He was especially fond of prolation canons, in which identical melodies run at different speeds, as in the second of his Canons for Ursula written in 1988 for the American pianist Ursula Oppens (b. 1944).
The 379 bars of this canon feature two voices percolating along at speeds in the ratio of 5:7 (this is not a piece for the math- challenged musician). The left hand enters first, at the “5” speed, followed by the right hand 69 bars later at a slightly peppier “7” rate of progress, dropping out 39 bars before the end, so that in this Pythagorean version of Aesop’s Tale of the Tortoise & the Hare, the hare wins, hands down.
American composer William Bolcom’s touchingly intimate Graceful Ghost Rag (1971) was written in memory of his father. With its unusual minor-key colouring and Brahmsian moderation of pace, it achieves an aching poignancy in a genre generally known for its upbeat mood and restless rhythmic bustle.
Donald Lambert was among the finest exponents of Harlem stride piano, with a southpaw savvy that left his fellow musicians agape in admiration. His uniquely personal 1941 arrangement of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser accomplishes the impossible. It manages to replace that swelling in the breast, that urge to stand up and salute the flag that Wagner’s stirring anthem seldom fails to inspire, with the contrary urge to sit down, loosen your collar, and order a cocktail. There’s a reason why this piece comes just before the intermission.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Fantasia in C Major Hob. XVII:4
Haydn’s C major Fantasia (1789) is not only one of his most virtuosic piano works— with its runs in double thirds, octave glissandi, and volleys of Wimbledon-speed hand-crossings between registers—it is also one of his wittiest, as well. When not arpeggiating its way across vast swathes of the keyboard, it divides its time between a bouncy repeated-note motive as a first theme and a second thematic idea in cheery horn-fifths.
Structured as either a ‘rondo-ish’ sonata or a ‘sonata-ish’ rondo, it upsets formal expectations at every turn with quick dives down the rabbit hole into unexpected keys followed by surreptitious chromatic creepings back up to tonal ground zero. Its sudden and rapid changes of dynamics between forte and piano are the perfect dramatic foil for the work’s almost laughably long pauses, during which pianists of whatever degree of comedic gift will have only sidelong glances and Kabuki eyebrow theatre with which to keep their audiences enthralled.
Carnaval Op. 9
Robert Schumann’s kaleidoscopic mini-drama of scenes from a masked ball, composed in 1834, features a colourful cast of the real and imagined characters that dominated his personal and artistic life. There are stock characters from Commedia dell’ arte (Pierrot, Harlequin, Pantalone, Columbine), his two love-interests (Ernestine von Fricken & Clara Wieck), fellow musicians (Chopin & Paganini), and even the two sides of his own split personality (dreamy Eusebius & extrovert Florestan). Completing the line-up is the patriotic marching band of the Davidsbund (League of David), the youthful defenders of ‘real art’ and sworn enemies of fossilized musical culture.
Cleverly woven into the score are cryptographic clues equating alphabetic letters with the names of musical notes (in German notation). Thus Asch (Ernestine’s home town) is spelt out in the pitches A-Eb-C-B, and the composer’s own name, S-C-H-um-A- nn is represented by Eb-C-B-A.
As we enter the ballroom we hear the Préambule’s proud fanfare, followed by the sounds of bustling guests, fragmentary waltzes, and the breathless excitement of the masked revellers. The first character we meet is Pierrot, the sad clown. His downcast mood is rendered in chromatic wanderings regularly interrupted by a jolting three-note figure as he perhaps keeps stubbing his toe. The nimble Arlequin (Harlequin) then enters with a display of ac- robatic leaps and comic tumbles until the time comes for the first waltz, a Valse noble, grandiloquent and gracious by turns.
But who is that standing off in the corner? It’s Eusebius, languorously musing to himself—until his flip-side, the passionately sociable Florestan, emerges talking a mile a minute of this and that, ever the charmer. A Coquette flirts into view, her fan all a-flutter, tossing her head back as she fills the room with coy laughter. Ah, now a suitor has pulled her aside with his Réplique (reply) to her provocative glances, pleading his amorous attentions against the backdrop of her silvery laugh.
Meanwhile the Papillons (butterflies, i.e., revellers) are whirling about the room at breakneck speed. Even the letters ASCH— SCHA begin to dance out their cryptic messages, until Chiarina (Clara) strides imperiously into view with a grave and haughty waltz. Chopin takes to the keyboard to restore calm with an achingly poetic melody over swimming arpeggios, but then Estrella (Ernestine) makes her entrance, setting the room a-boil once again. The heart of every swain is now set beating at the thought of winning her Reconnaissance (acknowledgement).
But what’s this? The lecherous old Pantalon and Columbine, Pierrot’s girlfriend, are playing out a comic scene. Why is he chasing her around that table? No matter, a seductive Valse allemande (German waltz) draws everyone to the dance floor, interrupted briefly by Paganini who offers an impromptu display of his dazzling pizzicato technique before the waltz returns. Meanwhile, sitting apart, a suitor whispers his intimate Aveu (confession of love) to a young woman, who very much likes what she is hearing.
Whew! What a press of people. Time for a Promenade out in the garden for a bit of people-watching amid the curious who stroll and the stand-offish who strut. But a commotion breaks out during a Pause in the dancing. In comes the paramilitary youth wing of the League of David in a Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins, to the spluttering dismay of the Old Fogey faction, stung at being labelled “Philistines”. They quickly get the orchestra’s bass players to strike up the dusty old Grandfather’s Dance that traditionally ends such festivities—a tune simultaneously being parodied by these impudent youngsters in the treble—but to no avail. The upstarts want the ball to end musically as it began, with the music of the Préambule, and they get their way, triumphant to the end.
Donald G. Gislason 2015