Janáček: Podhádka (“Fairy Tale”)
In 1910, both Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) made musical settings of Russian folk tales. Stravinsky’s famous Firebird ballet for full orchestra was quite literal and became world famous. Janáček’s Fairy Tale, a more general setting for cello and piano, went relatively unnoticed. This statement is not to take away from the mastery and charm of Janáček’s music, but rather to contrast two opposing approaches to similar material. The full title of Janáček’s work was originally “The Tale of Czar Berendey.” When the composer revised the work in 1923, he shortened the title simply to Fairy Tale.
Briefly, the story goes that Czar Berendey is duped into ransoming the soul of his son, Ivan, to Kashchey, Ruler of the Underworld. When Ivan is old enough, his father tells him of his terrible fate, whereupon Ivan sets out, determined to free himself of the curse. Early in his odyssey, he sees a duckling turned into a beautiful maiden, and they instantly fall in love. She turns out to be Marya, the good daughter of Kashchey. In later episodes, Ivan (with Marya’s help) successfully accomplishes two tasks set for him by Kashchey, but Marya is changed into a flower. Ultimately, the couple are rejoined in a happy ending.
In the Fairy Tale, the cello part represents Ivan while the piano speaks for Marya. These symbols are immediately apparent in the first movement, as a fanfare-like cello pizzicato punctuates the gently curving main theme. A canon (imitation) between the instruments perhaps symbolizes the betrothal of the couple. Soon, however, this tender stroking turns into a gallop, possibly signifying Kashchey’s pursuit of the lovers.
Another piano-cello canonic dialogue opens the second movement, but this spiky theme is answered by a more lyrical variant. The fanfare motive from the first movement returns along with other music heard previously.
The most “Russian” sounding part of the Fairy Tale is the main theme of the final movement. One striking feature that occurs in every movement is a sort of “dissolution” at the end, rather than a solid recapitulation and conclusion. As biographer Jaroslav Vogel points out, this “. . . heightens the fairy-tale atmosphere, and the charm is enhanced by Janacek’s ability to enter completely into the spirit of the old Russian epic tales.”
Tailleferre: String Quartet
In 1917, World World War I was still raging throughout Europe, A group of six composers gathered frequently in Paris to discuss progressive aesthetic theory and practice. Included were Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, and Germaine Talleferre.
The progressive-minded Talleferre (1892-1983) was the only female member of Les Six, and here rebellious nature preceded her there. Born with the family name of Taillefesse, she changed it to Tailleferre to spite her father, who refused to support her musical studies. She took piano lessons with her mother, and began to compose short original pieces. These led to her studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where she met the young composers who, with her, would soon constitute Les Six. Her early relationship with them soon led to her association with the artistic crowds in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. There the idea of Les Six was born, unified by their faith in writer Jean Cocteau’s published ideas.
During the 1920s, Tailleferre wrote many of her most important compositions, and she remained reasonably prolific throughout her long life. In addition to the concert hall, she composed several film scores, music or the radio and television, and incidental music for the theater. Her music for piano solo and concertos was especially profuse.
Talleferre composed her only string quartet during 1917-1919 at the height of her involvement with Les Six. She was a student of Milhaud at the time. The conciseness of each movement suggests that the work may have originated as a composition assignment or a competition entry.
The quartet opens with a movement marked Modéré. A short theme is passed around between instruments. Then another, led by the Second Violin receives similar treatment. Led by the First Violin a cascading idea now becomes the focus, and this leads to a short coda (or, wrapping up) of the first movement.
Marked Interméde, the second movement opens in a playful, puckish mood. By contrast, the central section is smooth and closely concentrated on two or three short musical ideas. A variant recap of the first section rounds out the intermediate movement.
A somewhat ferocious mood, marked Très ritmé greets us at the opening of the finale. Then, sudden quietness prevails while the players explore the lower regions of their instruments. This congeals into a surprising solo by the first violin. Shifting into a tremulous pattern, the opening music returns, now transformed in mood and texture. A brief transition leads to a recapitulation of the opening material, which soon dissolves into freer expression and a new section of the movement. Then, taking on a veneer of heroism (Un peu plus lent), the music slips slowly into a hushed ending.
Bloch: Piano Quintet No. 1
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a composer of Swiss origin. His studies and early musical career centered in his native city, Geneva. In 1916, he traveled to the United States as the conductor of a Swiss dance company. When the company suddenly went bankrupt, Bloch was stranded without friends or financial resources. Within a short time, however, he had begun a new career here, at first teaching at the Mannes School of Music, then becoming Director of the Cleveland Institute and later the San Francisco Conservatory.
Most of the music Bloch composed during the 1920s could be termed “neoclassic” That is, music written in Classical Period forms, or music adhering to formal principles (such as balance and proportion) found in Classical Period composers, notably, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. At the same time, Bloch’s own musical style became intensely personal, and consistently so. He completed his Piano Quintet No. 1in 1923.
Tension and drama inform the opening minutes of Bloch’s quintet. In part, this can be attributed to the contrast between the piano’s music and the music for strings. The piano then begins a new “bed” of sound for individual and pairs of strings to etch brief musical statements. This whole passage is a transition to a new theme group, again contrasting piano and strings. Melodies and accompaniments are freely exchanged between strings and piano. These textures are somewhat simplified as the music reaches the epitome of its development. The music becomes declamatory again (as in the opening music), finally tumbling to the conclusion of the movement.
Marked Andante mistico, the central movement begins with the piano offering low-pitched support for sustained fragments of melody exchanged among the strings. This texture now dominates for a substantial period of time until the lower registers of the piano join in the melodic interchange. Strings soon dominate again, offering attractive melodies and duets above the rumbling piano. The whole quintet gradually become more rhapsodic leading to a new section marked misterioso. Former melody fragments return, now supported by steadily rocking rhythms in the piano. Gradually, all the players gel into a rocking rhythm until a climactic moment, when the ensemble gradually re-assembles in an intense quasi-pastoral setting. Again winding down, the music arrives at a restatement of earlier, quieter music. This gradually recedes to a sustained, soft finish.
Allegro energetico reads the tempo marking for the finale. The dance impulse is undeniable, yet the “dancers” seem to stumble often. All this makes for an entertaining movement full of surprises. Mostly unpredictable, the music draws the listener close, waiting for the next surprise. Occasional long-breathed string melodies are stretched across a percussive texture, but they never reach a stable conclusion. Viola and cello struggle to create a melody with some continuity, and soon the other strings join them. Finally, we hear galloping rhythms accompanying the fragmented melody, now shared with the piano. A great variety of rhythms inform the next pages of this movement, ushering in reminiscences of slower, earlier ideas and melodies. A sizeable and even slower, long-breathed melody leads to a quiet, high-pitched ending to the Quintet.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2023. All rights reserved.
Still: Mother and Child from Suite for Violin and Piano
William Grant Still (1895-1978) could be called the Dean of Black American Composers. There is no doubt he was prolific, with close to 200 works in several areas. They include five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets, numerous chamber and other instrumental works, and a variety of vocal and choral music. In his career of over 50 years, he composed music for both the concert hall and for various commercial projects in the media. He was the first Black person to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South. He pioneered the application of Black American musical idioms in serious concert music, and he was the first to have a symphony and an opera performed by major American musical organizations. And these accomplishments only scratch the surface.
Still had the remarkable ability to look at a visual work of art and internally hear music in it. This was the case with his Suite for Violin and Piano composed in 1943. Still has adapted/transcribed his work for several different solo instruments and ensembles. About the suite, Still remarked: “When I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano, I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admire and resolve to try to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.” The three movements are:
- “African Dancer”: Richmond Barthe’s sculpture;
- “Mother and Child”: Sargent Johnson’s portrait; and
- “Gamin’ ”: Augusta Savage’s painting
In the opening segment of “Mother and Child” the accompanied violin presents a long chain of phrases, all starting with the same caressing four-note figure. We hear these at various pitch levels, and each phrase presents the four-note idea multiple times, yet each generating a phrase different in some ways from the previous ones. Together they present a sort of musical sketch. Gradually, the phrases grow longer and in a higher range than at first. At the same time the piano’s chords become more prominent until they are on an equal footing with the violin. By now, their music has become a free rhapsody with frequent appearances of the four-note pattern amidst the constant, flowing violin melody. Unobtrusively, the music returns to its original moderate range. However, now the piano is gaining an equal footing with the violin. Together, they spin out a free melody that builds to the violin’s unaccompanied cadenza. This grows emotionally to the point where the piano re-enters. Now we hear the duo in a free rhapsody. Gradually subsiding emotionally and flowing into a slightly lower range, the violin again takes up the four-note idea, and weaves it into a new, quieter, more intimate mid-range rhapsody. In that calm mood, “Mother and Child” arrives at its peaceful ending.
Bartok: Contrasts, Sz.111
Possibly the best known feature of the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is its relationship to Hungarian folk music. The connection goes back to Bartók’s earliest years as a professional musician — the first decade of the 20th century. He and his colleague Zoltán Kodály conclusively disproved Franz Liszt’s faulty theory that Gypsy music was the true music of Hungary.
Eventually, Bartók’s personal style of composition entirely absorbed the essence of Hungarian folk music; many of his themes were actually synthesized folk melodies. Several themes such as these can be found in Contrasts, commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman at the suggestion of Hungarian violinist Jozsef Szigeti. Composed in 1938, the work provides the only appearance of a woodwind instrument in the chamber music of Bartók.
Originally, there were to be only two movements, the lively “Verbunkos” (Recruiting Dance) and “Sebes” (Fast). After the premiere in 1939, the slow interlude, “Pihenő” (Relaxation) was inserted in between. In finished form, Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók recorded the Contrasts in 1940 (and ultimately transferred to CD).
The style of this work is characterized by both Hungarian and Bulgarian dance rhythms found chiefly in the fast movements. In the second movement, an unusual sonority called a “tritone” is used extensively. For this feature, the violinist must retune his instrument or employ another violin tuned in tritones.
The writing emphasizes the clarinet and violin. Although the piano seldom competes with these, it intensifies the atmosphere in a way that places it beyond mere accompaniment.
Biographer/analyst Halsey Stevens offers these words to illuminate the instrumental functions in Bartók’s Contrasts:
They share the duties and the rewards of the composition quite evenly. The statement of themes is alternated between them, in the manipulation of them, now one, now the other, is given the spotlight. The clarinet has a cadenza in the Verbunkos, the violin one in the Sebes. Around them the piano provides the frame which intensifies the landscape without calling attention to itself. . . . The piano remains an instrument of percussion, the clarinet a blown air-column, the violin a set of bowed and plucked strings with a resonator; and it is only by a deft manipulation of relative weight that the illusion of ensemble is reached.
Between the slow dance and the fast one that constitute the outer movements, the relaxation of the Pihenő has been felicitously compared to the concentric circles which spread out from the point at which a pebble is dropped into the water. The languid phrases of the violin and clarinet, opposing each other mirrorwise, are marked by faint ripples in the piano. Presently the undulation is intensified and then subsides, while the piano follows . . . .
Beethoven: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 38
For Ravel, it was Bolero; for Rachmaninoff, it was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor; and for Beethoven, it was the Septet in E-flat Major. Each of these composers had one composition that became so immensely popular as to obscure works that the composer considered more important. Eventually, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) grew so sick of hearing his Septet that, in the words of his student Carl Czerny, he could not endure his Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received. Beethoven began work on the Septet in 1799, and it premiered on April 2, 1800 along with his First Symphony. Its success was immediate and long-lasting.
The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass, but Beethoven later arranged it for a clarinet-violin-piano trio (Op. 38). Dozens of other different arrangements also soon appeared. Together, these generated what musicologist Paul Nettl described as one thousand performances.
The six-movement Trio follows the tradition of the Classical divertimento, a blend of suite and sonata cycle. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn in this work is obvious from the opening Adagio that leads to a sonata-allegro main movement. Here, Beethoven shows us he is his own man by presenting an unusual eleven-measure main theme. The work’s reputation for beauty rests mainly on the Adagio cantabile movement. There is an unresolved controversy whether Beethoven borrowed the Rhenish folk song, Ach Schiffer, lieber Schiffer for his main theme. As a song, it first appeared in print in 1838, and it is possible that, like some tunes by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s melody was original and so well-known as to become part of the urban folk repertoire. For the Tempo di Menuetto, Beethoven borrowed a theme from his own Piano Sonata in G Major, written in 1792 and later published as Op. 49, no. 2. The Trio section, however, is entirely new.
The fourth movement, variations on an Andante theme, gives us different color combinations (some surprising) within the group. Most characteristic of Beethoven are the minor-mode Variation IV and the coda, which takes some unexpected turns. A fast Scherzo movement balances the previous minuet. Its waltz-like Trio briefly spotlights the cello.
In the sixth movement, Beethoven follows the funeral-march opening with a bustling, Haydnesque finale. One unusual feature is the piano cadenza (written out) that precedes the recapitulation. The coda, likewise, emphasizes the piano for a shimmering ending guaranteed to bring down the house.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021/2022
All rights reserved
Shostakovich/Auerbach: 24 Preludes for Piano, Op. 34
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1979) composed his Twenty-four Preludes for piano between December 1932 and March 1933. The work emulated The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in the idea of 24 keyboard preludes covering each of the major and minor keys.*
The 26-year-old Shostakovich infused his preludes with a broad palette of emotions and gestures. Some of the preludes maintain one consistent emotion (or attitude) throughout. Others may unexpectedly change emotional expression suddenly.
These sharp turns were to become hallmarks of Shostakovich’s style, and in some ways they mirrored his life under the Communist regime. For example, frequently, he and other prominent Russian composers were periodically denounced by the government’s news services for some (usually imagined) infraction of governmental fine-arts policy. The most (in-)famous of these was his 1948 censure (alongside Prokofiev and others) for “formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies” — whatever the authorities imagined those to be. At other times, just as predictably, he would be lauded, often receiving some honor or prize. One of his highest honors was an appointment to membership in the Supreme Soviet in 1962.
The Preludes are short essays. However, they also became the proving ground for content that we can hear in Shostakovich’s mature symphonies, concertos, and chamber works.
*Shostakovich differed from Bach in the matter of organization, that is, the order of keys — major and minor. The First Prelude (and Fugue) in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I) is in the key of C major and so is that of Shostakovich’s first Prelude. However, Bach then follows each major key with its parallel minor (e.g., C Major and C minor). He then proceeds to the next higher key on the keyboard, (C-sharp Major and C-sharp Minor, etc.), completing the whole series in the key of B Minor.
Shostakovich organized his 24 Preludes by following each major key with its relative minor key, that is, the minor key with the same number of sharps or flats required to play correctly in that key (e.g., C Major and A Minor — no sharps or flats). Then, he proceeds to the pair of keys requiring one sharp: G Major and E Minor. The next pair requires two sharps (D Major and B Minor), etc. Following the six-sharp pair, the composer switches to six flats (E-flat minor) for Preludes no. 15 and 16, then works his way back to one flat (F Major and D minor) for Preludes 23 and 24. Another point of interest is that Bach composed a sequel: the WTC (Book II), and Shostakovich composed his sequel, 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op. 87, in 1950-51.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
About Lera Auerbach (arranger of the Shostakovich Preludes heard today)
A renaissance artist for modern times, Lera Auerbach is a widely recognized conductor, pianist, and composer. She is also a published poet and an exhibited visual artist. All of her work is interconnected as part of a cohesive and comprehensive artistic worldview.
Lera Auerbach has become one of today’s most sought after and exciting creative voices. Her performances and music are featured in the world’s leading stages – from Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Royal Albert Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
Auerbach is equally prolific in literature and the visual arts. She incorporates these forms into her professional creative process, often simultaneously expressing ideas visually, in words, and through music. She has published three books of poetry in Russian, and her first English-language book, Excess of Being – in which she explores the rare form of aphorisms. Her next book, an illustrated work for children, A is for Oboe, will be published by Penguin Random House in the fall of 2021. Auerbach has been drawing and painting all her life as part of her creative process. Her visual art is exhibited regularly, included in private collections, and is represented by leading galleries.
Lera Auerbach holds multiple degrees from the Juilliard School in New York and Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, selected her in 2007 as a Young Global Leader and since 2014 she serves as a Cultural Leader. Internationale Musikverlage Hans Sikorski publishes her work, and recordings are available on Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Alpha Classics, BIS, Cedille, and many other labels.
Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147
Shostakovich was a pianist, not a string player. Yet he clearly valued above all that vocal quality in string instruments that allowed them to stand as surrogates for the composer’s personal voice in quartet, concerto, or sonata, evoking public debate or private soliloquy.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the 20th century’s musical geniuses and probably the most successful Russian composer of the Stalin era. Yes, he had occasional doctrinal scuffles with the Communist regime (which alternately praised or condemned him). Yet he nonetheless became quite prolific, composing 9 operas, 40 film scores, 15 symphonies, and 15 string quartets.
He was a “workaholic,” composing the Viola Sonata’s first two movements in ten days during early July 1975 and the third in two days later that month. Soon after that, he entered the hospital. Evidently, everyone knew this would be the composer’s final hospitalization. So, his publisher rushed the sonata’s typesetting, and on August 9, 1975, the day of his death, the composer was proof-reading his final work.
In the first movement, the most important thing to notice is that Shostakovich was composing in “free atonality.” that is, in no traditional key. We hear this in the viola’s pizzicato introduction, which is joined by the piano, playing “plucky” notes in counterpoint to the viola. The music broadens, and, on an equal footing, viola and piano present a lengthy dramatic outburst. The texture changes when the viola etches out melodies in tremolo (rapid, repeated bowing on each note) in a long statement. Eventually, the music turns back to an echo of the movement’s opening, ending in a calm mood.
As a “cure” for the first movement’s seriousness, the central movement is a true scherzo (“joke”). It is a comic fast waltz, but frequently turns into a raucous march. If the first movement was often atonal (in no particular key), the scherzo counterbalances it in several places by placing the viola in one key and the piano in another key: “bi-tonality” for comic effect. In the central section, viola and piano reverse jobs: the piano hammers out a melody while the viola attempts an accompaniment as loud as the piano. This exchange recurs in the reprise of fragments from the first section. Eventually, the individual functions of melody and accompaniment become blurred, and a return of the comic march does not help. The ending comically leaves these matters unresolved.
With the third movement, Adagio, we arrive at the sonata’s poignant center of gravity. It begins with an unaccompanied cantilena from the viola. When the piano enters (also unaccompanied), we may “get” the music’s true direction. According to Fjodor Druzhinin, the Sonata’s dedicatee, Shostakovich composed this movement in memory of Beethoven. Now the piano proves it with the repeated three-note pattern closely reminiscent of the opening of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (Op. 27, no. 2). This three-note figure will recur many times in the course of the Adagio, always in the piano (Beethoven’s instrument). As the movement progresses, we hear a further reference to that famous, touching piece of music: a repeated note (dah-dee-daaah). The Adagio’s steady flow is later interrupted only by a declamatory cadenza from the viola (unaccompanied), but the piano joins in again. Gradually, the composer leads us thunderously back to a “Moonlight” piano accompaniment to support a flowing viola line. During the final minute, the viola-piano dialogue unravels softly. Thus, we have the touching ending of the Viola Sonata — and of the beloved composer’s life.
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67
The E Minor Piano Trio by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) belongs to the same period as his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the Eighth Quartet. These works share not only a World War II genesis but certain emotional characteristics as well. Anxiety, tension, and tragedy are moods associated with wartime, which critics have also identified in these works.
The Piano Trio has, in addition, a more personal side. In February 1944, the composer’s very close friend Ivan Sollertinsky died suddenly of a heart attack. Within days, Shostakovich began composing the Piano Trio No. 2, dedicating it to the memory of Sollertinsky. Between that time and early August, when he completed the second movement, Russian troops had liberated Nazi death camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Majdanek. The shattering reality of the Holocaust began to be revealed with that news, and Shostakovich, who had been extremely sympathetic toward Soviet Jews since at least the late 1930s, was deeply grieved.
Thus, the tragic significance of the piano trio took a turn at the midpoint, becoming an elegy for the murdered Jews of the Holocaust. Shostakovich consciously emulated Jewish style music in the trio, especially the final movement. When the work was premiered in November 1944 (with the composer at the piano), the audience was profoundly moved. One listener reported, “The music left a devastating impression. People cried openly. By audience demand, the last ‘Jewish’ part of the Trio had to be repeated.”
At the opening of the work, the violin and cello parts play in exchanged ranges, producing an unusual tone quality. Each voices an elegiac, modal theme. The piano’s low entry with the theme leads to discussion among the instruments, which evolves into a second section containing more energetic material. Some of this is cheerful — often to the point of banality. The movement winds down to a quiet ending.
The second movement is a scherzo with all the verve and stomping of a Beethoven work. Violin and cello often chase each other, but cooperating closely at other times, with the piano set off aurally. The movement shows, harmonically, the “classical” side of the composer’s aesthetic palette.
Heavy piano chords at the opening of the third movement immediately cast a funereal mood. A taut, emotional dialogue between violin and cello follows, set against the somber background of chords from the piano. Shostakovich here gives the listener a glimpse into the wrenching agony he was feeling.
The finale follows directly, carrying the listener into the trio’s famous “Jewish” theme. About Jewish music, Shostakovich said:
I think, if we speak of musical impressions, that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it; it is multifaceted; it can appear to be happy while it is tragic. It is almost always laughter through tears.
However, here the melody’s treatment is eerie, possibly even menacing, as in a danse macabre. This may have been prompted by a story the composer received of SS guards making their victims dance beside their own graves. A series of variants on the theme proceeds, punctuated by sardonic cadences and some new material also informed by Jewish musical tradition. About the halfway point, the dance reaches a crazed pitch, only to be released in a passionate outpouring. A brief but lush development follows, capped by a return of the Jewish theme in the piano. The elegiac chords from the third movement now return, combined with bits of the Jewish theme, to form a coda that lays the E Minor Piano Trio peacefully to rest.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2022
All rights reserved
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.
Wallen: Five Postcards
Errollyn Wallen – “renaissance woman of contemporary British music” (The Observer) – is as respected as a singer-songwriter of pop influenced songs as she is a composer of contemporary new music. The motto of Errollyn’s Ensemble X, ‘we don’t break down barriers in music… we don’t see any,’ reflects her genuine, free-spirited approach. Commissions have ranged from the BBC to the Royal Opera House, for BBC’s The Last Night of the Proms (2020), the London Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Ballet and most recently, the pop band Clean Bandit. Her most recent EP Peace on Earth was released by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Errollyn has won numerous awards for her music including the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music. In 2007 she was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire and in 2020 awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, both for services to music. “Five Postcards” was commissioned in 2010 by the Miller-Porfiris Duo. The third movement is based on Errollyn’s song “Off the Map.”
Schickele: Little Suite for Autumn
On more than one occasion, while visiting my alma mater, Swarthmore College,my lodgings have been the home of Gil and Mary Stott, and a homier home is hard to imagine. The Little Suite for Autumn was written as a “thank you” present – bread-and-butter notes, if you will – after one such visit in October, 1979. A lot of music, writing, art and cooking has gone on in that house; neither one of them is lazy, so I thought I’d let Gil (violin) and Mary (viola) work a little (or at least play a little) for my thanks.
Commissioned by Chee-Yun and Spoleto USA, Arches was premiered by Chee-Yun at Seoul Arts Center, Seoul Korea in October 2000. In its alternation between “caprices” and “arias”, the work moves between the poles of virtuosity and lyricism throughout. The title was suggested by the symmetrical form of the piece (Caprice—Aria—Caprice—Aria—Caprice) and by the key scheme which supports this symmetry and the many arch-like figures that arise. The only pause in the work occurs after the first Caprice.
strauss: Piano Quartet, Op. 13
The major orchestral music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was concentrated early but revived throughout his career, and his concertos came both early and late. Strauss’s chamber music, however, was sparse with only four major works, all composed before the 1890s: a string quartet, a cello sonata, a violin sonata, and the Piano Quartet. The Piano Quartet owed much to Brahms’s piano quartets, yet it ranks high in Strauss’s complete catalogue. Composed in 1885, the Quartet took shape the year in which he met Alexander Ritter (composer and violinist), who endeavored to convince Strauss to pursue a compositional style in keeping with Wagner and Liszt (rather than Schumann and Mendelssohn).
Deceptively quiet, the short musical introduction suddenly explodes into the first movement’s exposition. Now, energetic themes vie with sentimental or playful ones, building to restatements of the first theme and others, finally quieting before a reappearance of the exposition, which spills into a full development. Here, drama and playfulness vie for our favor, then flow together in support of thematic growth and sentimental recall of themes. Seamlessly, Strauss recapitulates his thematic material in the final minutes, which effectively sew up his musical message, ending with a majestic, pounding flourish.
Scherzo: Presto marks the start of a musically athletic movement. Here Strauss has not forgotten Mendelssohn at all. Particularly in the piano part, we hear echoes of pixies and fairies reflecting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music proceeds just as “pixelated,” continuing the rapid tempo and lightly jabbing notes. Following a brief transition, strings come to the fore, and the more lyrical central section proceeds. Led by the violin, each instrument takes a turn presenting a short phrase. Strauss hints that he is winding thing up, as he returns to the rollicking mood of the first section. Brief snippets soon take form recalling earlier ideas, and the music concludes with a smart flourish.
The beginning of the Andante may remind us of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. First the piano, then individual strings, play fragmentary, heart-breaking phrases. Again, the piano leads the ensemble into some fragmentary ideas that expand now into a full melody. A rhapsodic new stating point introduces a development that mixes and alternates prior ideas, finally reaching the movement’s apotheosis and fragmentary coda ending.
All the preceding points to what? — the Vivace Finale. Fragmentary yet driven, the music excites and entrances. Dynamically forceful, the opening section eventually gives way to a melodic general developmental discussion among all the instruments. The piano now takes the spotlight, momentarily, then invites all the strings to joint in the final coda, which tops all with its brilliance.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink 2021
All rights reserved