C.P.E. Bach, Würtemberg Sonata No. 1 in A Minor
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s “Württemberg Sonatas” were named after their dedication to Carl Eugen Duke of Württemberg who studied with Bach at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. They were published in 1744. Together with the “Prussian Sonatas” published two years earlier, the “Württemberg Sonatas” are undoubtedly some of the most significant German piano works among the general piano art music of the 18th century, and they clearly stand out from the expressive and playful rococo style of his times.
Concerning the earliest pianos of his time of his time, C. P. E. Bach wrote his impressions in his famous book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments:
The new Forte pianos, when they are resistant and well-made, have many advantages, though their mechanism must be studied carefully and not without difficulty. They do well when played alone and in [ensemble] music not too loud.
Yet he generally preferred the harpsichord for solo keyboard performance.
For the first movement of the A Minor Sonata the music marked Moderato, that is, moderately fast. Yet Bach seemingly contradicts this direction by emphasizing runs and chord outlines in very fast notes. In fact, “figures,” such as chord outlines and scales, dominate the music most of the time. Like a Scarlatti keyboard sonata, this movement is constructed in two halves, each repeated.
The Andante that follows is (in contrast) very sweet and melodic. We
are hearing the “inner” C.P.E. Bach. Although the melody seems to wander at times, the composer is in control, shaping the music by bringing back the opening melody to initiate the middle third of the movement. The final third starts as a quiet meditation, then forte for a declarative ending.
The sonata’s finale, Allegro assai (very fast), restores the energy of the first movement and adds to it some of the melodic values of the middle movement. In form, the finale follows somewhat the binary structure we experienced in the opening movement, thus binding the ideals of both previous essays. Now C.P.E. Bach displays the kind of wit that made Haydn’s finales famous in the next generation.
Brahms, Seven Fantasies, Op. 116
In 1853, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) first met and came under the influence of Robert Schumann. After that, Brahms wrote no more sonatas for solo piano, but rather concentrated on variations and, along the path of Schumann, shorter piano pieces. Toward the end of his life, Brahms once again devoted much attention to the short piano piece. In 1892, he wrote 20 works for the instrument which were published as Opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119, and have been called Brahms’s “children of Autumn.”
Rather than using Schumannesque pictorial titles, Brahms gives his pieces more generic labels, chiefly “Intermezzo” and “Capriccio.” The Intermezzos are usually in a slow or moderate tempo, and their mood is often wistful or nocturnal. The Capriccios, on the other hand, are brilliant concert etudes. In character, they are sometimes bright, sometimes stormy, but always technically demanding. Here is a brief description of the Fantasien, Op. 116:
No. 1, Capriccio: “Defiant and unruly” with heavy octaves and brusque chords, this piece is reminiscent of the “Edward” Ballade and may have been composed earlier than the rest.
No. 2, Intermezzo: A “whimsical” first section contrasts with a lament of “wistful loneliness” in the second. Clara Schumann was particularly fond of this piece.
No. 3. Capriccio: Somewhat austere arpeggios in the outer minor sections give way to a majestic, sweeping central episode in the major mode.
No. 4. Intermezzo: Brahms once considered calling this a “Nocturne.” It is almost a pure improvisation on its opening two ideas.
. No. 5: Intermezzo: “One is positively rocked by it, as in a cradle,” remarked Clara Schumann. Cross-rhythms and overlapping hands are some of the technical difficulties in this deceptively simple-looking piece.
No. 6. Intermezzo: Of all the Brahms Intermezzi, this may be the most typical in mood (graceful, pensive) and one of the simplest in form (A-B-A).
No. 7. Capriccio: To end the set comes a fast, restless movement. Its syncopated middle section, at once tender and fantastic, again pays homage to Robert Schumann,
Brahms’s pianistic mentor.
Tchaikovsky, Dumka in C Minor
(Scenes from a Russian Village) for Piano, Op. 59
Originating in Ukraine, the Dumka became popular with Slavic and Russian composers during the late 19th Century. Notably, the Czech nationalist Dvořák used it as the basis of three works. Russian composers Mussorgsky, Balakirev, and Peter I. Tchaikovaky (1840-1893) were also attracted to its sudden alternations between slow, tragic sections and fast, athletic dances. Tchaikovsky composed his Dumka in 1886 in response to a request from Parisian publisher Félix Mackar. The following year Mackar received a copy of the piece and probably brought about the Dumka’s premiere at a Parisian concert that year.
Tchaikovsky’s opening section may remind us of tragic epic poems. The music wants to tug at our heart-strings. Slow, wandering phrases finally give way to a counterpoint between a reprise of the tragic melody now coupled with a flitting, improvisation-style tune in the piano’s upper range. Coming down to mid-range, dissolving into pure accompaniment supporting the ongoing sorrowful melody.
The first dance section follows, perhaps seeming trivial compared with the first section. Block chords lead to a faster dance and new melodies occupy our attention. One melody in a moderate tempo emerges to seize our attention. Then, pure pianism takes center stage to begin developing some previous musical ideas.
Now we hear a reprise of something familiar, yet it has been re-dressed in dark block chords. Sudden stop! A sparse, sad tune comes, supported only by occasional, choppy, low chords. These dominate now, as the music reaches an abrupt conclusion.
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition
It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .”
“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.
“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.
“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.
“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.
Program notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2020/2022. All rights reserved.