Celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach // Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig 2014

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Up until the 18th century, music was considered a disposable commodity, as composers were constantly writing new music to suit the changing tastes of the times. No one ever thought to revisit old music of past seasons, nor did they think to continue supporting music that had long since fallen out of fashion. Thus, an unusual thing happened in the case of the German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685 and died in 1750, Bach would somehow manage to develop a cult following. His music would continue to be taught, studied, and passed on, for centuries after his style of composition had fallen into obsolution. Thus, when we speak of the classical canon, we always begin with Bach. Because it really did begin with Bach! History owes the hagiography of classical music to this very special phenomenon that happened around Bach and his music.

The defining characteristic of Bach’s music was his mastery of counterpoint, which is an old, Baroque style of composing, in which melodies, or “voices”, are layered one over the other. Bach only ever wrote in counterpoint, and among his most well-known contrapuntal works are his two sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The first, completed in 1722, came with the highly descriptive title:

The Well-tempered Clavier, or preludes and fugues in all the tones and semitones, both with the major third, or ‘Ut, Re, Mi’ and with the minor third or ‘Re, Mi, Fa’. For the use and profit of young musicians who are eager to learn, as well as for the entertainment of those who are already expert in the art

At the time that this first set of preludes and fugues were completed, we had developed what would become our modern tuning system. Instruments were not always tuned the way that we tune them today, and it was in the 18th century that a “well-tempered” way of tuning came into vogue. It was fashionable for composers of the time to write music in every available key, in order to show off the unique properties of the new system. Thus, Bach was simply following the fashion of the time, in completing a set of Preludes and Fugues in all 24 keys.

Bach so enjoyed composing in this form that in 1742 he would complete a second set of Preludes and Fugues. This one came with the much simpler title of “24 Preludes and Fugues.”

Overtime, these two sets of Preludes and Fugues would develop nicknames. One often hears them referred to as WTC I & II, WTC being short for “Well-Tempered Clavier”. Another common nickname refers to the two sets collectively as “The Forty-Eight”.

Das Wohltemperierte Clavier II: BWV 877 by Johann Sebastian Bach

These WTC books were teaching pieces, aims of which involved not only performance technique, but also different types of keyboard composition. BWV 877 was written in the rarest and most uncomfortable keys of d# minor. In the Prelude, Bach is showing us how to write in the style of an Invention, or a composition that involves two voices. In Bach’s Inventions, one can expect to hear melodic ideas passed back and forth between the two voices.

877’s Fugue is a four voice fugue that is modeled entirely around a single melodic idea, known as “the subject”. The subject for this fugue consists of three repeated notes that gradually climb up to the fifth, and then trail back down. The repeated notes at the opening of the subject are what music theorists have called a “hammer head” opening. This is a compositional device that has been used throughout the ages. It is a popular way to begin a melody, because if the listener has missed the first note, s/he still has a second and third chance to catch it. The repetitions serve as a herald, letting the listener know that the melodic idea has entered the scene (once more).

***

Bach composed forty-eight of these Preludes and Fugues, each an exquisite and intricate puzzle piece, so masterfully done. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine how Bach’s music could continue to acquire admirers over time. His manuscripts would reach the hands of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who all studied and admired Bach’s work. They would even reach the hands of the much later Romantics, including those of Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn would become a super fan of Bach’s music. Mendelssohn’s family had acquired a large collection of Bach’s manuscripts, so Mendelssohn himself had access to a wide array of Bach’s work. He developed a profound respect for Bach’s contrapuntal writing, and in the 1830s was inspired to compose some preludes and fugues of his own.

Six Preludes and Fugues for Piano Op. 35, No. 5 by Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues for Piano were composed between the years 1832 and 1837, with the Prelude and Fugue No. 5 completed in 1836 and 1834, respectively. The set was originally conceived as a series of “Etudes and Fugues”, but later became a set of “Preludes and Fugues”.

Though he decided to go with the title of “Preludes”, all of these Preludes retain Etude elements, each focusing on a particular aspect of piano technique. The Fifth Prelude is focused on voicing, or finger independence. It is chordal in texture, with melodic lines embedded in the chords. Sometimes the melody is in the upper portion of the chord, sometimes in the middle, and there is also a moment where the bass is given a melodic solo. Thus, throughout the piece, certain notes/fingers are required to play out more, and this is a special piano technique.

The fugue is a three-voice fugue.. sort of. Mendelssohn adopted elements of contrapuntal technique, but did not following them in a strictly Baroque way. Interestingly, like the subject for Bach’s fugue described above, the subject for Mendelssohn’s Fifth Fugue also features a hammer head opening: it begins with six repeated notes that are followed by a descending scale plus an ascending arpeggio, and ends with a curly tale that spirals upwards in pitch. If it was difficult to miss the entrance of Bach’s subject, missing Mendelssohn’s subject entrance is an impossibility. The head note is repeated six times; seven if one counts the octave appoggiatura that precedes it all.

***

In 1950, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, the inaugural International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition was held in Leipzig, Germany. A well-known Soviet composer of the time, Dmitri Shostakovich, was invited to sit on the judging panel for the competition, and his experience there so inspired him that he decided to write a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues himself, and immediately set out to do so.

Shostakovich’s gumption is something to be admired. When Bach set out to complete his Preludes and Fugues, he took a period of years to compile the pieces, sometimes inserting and transposing other works into the keys that he required. Not so, for Shostakovich. He began composing his set of Preludes and Fugues in October of 1950, and by February of the following year it was complete! All twenty-four!

24 Praludien und Fugen Op. 87, Nr. 15 by Dmitri Schostakowitsch

The 15th Prelude and Fugue is a stark juxtaposition of a “scherzo” Prelude with a sinuous Fugue. By this time, harmonic language had transformed dramatically, and could at times be very dissonant. The fugue is especially cacophonic, and has an uncomfortably nervous quality to it.

***

Thus, we see how Bach’s work has been continuously passed on and studied by centuries of musicians, further inspiring the creation of yet more remarkable works. However, Bach would live to see the style of composition that he so adored and had so mastered — he would live to see Counterpoint grow out of fashion in his lifetime. By the time of Bach’s last job in Leipzig, in 1723, contrapuntal music was already considered “last season’s stuff”. Tastes were moving away from the multi-layered cake of the Baroque towards more Classical sensibilities, where one’s attention would be focused on just one melody, while the rest occupied an accompanimental background. The layers of music that Bach so enjoyed as was so good at composing had become pedantic and unnatural in the ears of a public who began to crave lighter, less complicated fare.

Franzosischen Suiten: BWV 815 by Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach was aware of this shift in taste, and did compose pieces that exhibit aspects of the new style. With the French Suites, Bach made a turn towards a simpler, more popular, more accessible style of composing. Here one finds Bach at perhaps his most lyrical. However, at no point did Bach completely abandon the distinctive element of his style: the fiercely contrapuntal component that is Bach.

110

Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas that cover nearly his entire compositional career. Opus 110 is the penultimate sonata and, as such, is a late work. Late Beethoven is famously and highly inventive, and Op. 110 is no exception.

Sonate Op. 110 by Ludwig van Beethoven

110 is a sonata in three movements:
(1) Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
(2) Allegro molto
(3) Adagio ma non troppo
Recitativo: piu adagio
Andante
Adagio
Meno adagio
Adagio
Adagio ma non troppo
Klagender Gesang: Arioso dolente
Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo
L’istesso tempo di Arioso
Ermattet, klagend: Perdendo le forze, dolente
L’istesso tempo della Fuga, poi a poi di nuovo vivente: Nach und nach wieder auflebend
Meno Allegro. Etwas langsamer
tempo primo

With the tempo sequence alone, Beethoven has already made significant strides away from convention: The Allegro expected in the first movement has given way to a Moderato, and one qualified by “cantabile molto espressivo” at that. The Adagio of the second movement is now an Allegro molto. And the Allegro of the third movement is now a patchwork of Adagios and Allegros, and all shades of tempi in between.

I

Though the first movement is no longer an Allegro, it does still follow Sonata-Allegro form: There is a Theme A, followed by a Theme B, then some developmentary material, then Theme A and Theme B come back – just like a Sonata-Allegro form is supposed to. Yet, Beethoven still manages to turn our expectations. The piece does indeed begin with a Theme A, but it is a bi-partite Theme A, with a brief, introductory A-1 in m 1-4 and, later, a more substantial A-2 in m 5-11. Notice that Theme A as a whole (and even in its partitions) is a somewhat awkward balance of approximately 11 measures of music – a far cry from the classic four- and eight-bar phraseology of the time.

One reaches transitional material at m 12, with Theme B emerging in the dominant at m 28, but it, like Theme A, is strangely imbalanced, lasting a mere and rather odd three measures. Beethoven then takes ten measures to close the Exposition. These odd numbered proportions give the music a somewhat uncomfortable feeling, a strangely and often overlooked aspect of this movement – perhaps because the lyricism and harmonic potency that Beethoven draws forth and infuses into the thematic material are so alluring, that you don’t notice that inkling of an unsettled feeling, murmuring in your stomach.

While these awkward proportions of the Exposition are certainly an interesting aspect of the movement, I think that what Beethoven does next is actually what is truly special about the piece. The Development, beginning at m 40, cycles through the submediant, subdominant, and supertonic, and perhaps some other harmonies in between that are not so easily identified, but it does so using the A-1 material from the opening of the piece. The entire Development is simply A-1 repeated a total of eight times. (Finally, we get some balance in the phraseology.) Then the Recapitulation comes in at m 56.

Now, because the Development is making extensive and repetitious use of A-1, the Recapitulation, which is normally heralded by the return of Theme A, with A-1 in the tonic, ends up actually fading into existence; very simply and organically emerging from the Development. Thus, without knowing it, Beethoven has already taken you back Home. Additionally, where A-2 returns, the harmony shifts to the subdominant and, then, upon reaching the transition material, to #V. The key signature of four flats is momentarily supplanted with four sharps and we learn that, in Beethoven’s world, modulation does not end with the Development.

^These are two very fantastical elements to this movement – The almost inconsequential emergence of the Recapitulation, and the continued modulations to even further foreign keys are stunning compositional devices that Beethoven has tinkered into existence. Fortunately, the insanity does not continue indefinitely, and Beethoven does later bring us back to the tonic for the return of Theme B, and we do close the piece in the same key that we started.

II

It has become legendary that the second movement is inspired by German folk songs. A. B. Marx, a contemporary of Beethoven’s, wrote a book on Beethoven’s sonatas, and, when he got to Op 110, plainly stated that Beethoven drew from Ich bin luderlich, or I am dissolute, for a melody used in the movement. Later, the more contemporary, 20th century writer, Martin Cooper would find, also, Unsa katz had katzln ghabt, or Our cat did kittens have, in the first measures of the movement. I would caution that these attributions are conjectures and not fact, as there is no evidence that Beethoven actually modeled his melodies on these songs, though it does appear that he was definitely familiar with at least “the cats”. But there is one good thing about these alleged resemblances coming to light, for the lyrics, when inserted into the music, do serve to highlight the humorousness of this movement. Because this second movement is a terribly funny movement:

Ou-r cat did kittens have,
THREE AND SIX-TY DID SHE HAVE!
Ou-r cat did kittens have,
THREE AND SIX-TY DID SHE HAVE!

THREE AND SIX-TY,
THREE AND SIX-TY,
THREE AND SIX-TY DID SHE HAVE!

I am slovenly,
You are slovenly,
We are all of us slo-ven-ly.

I am slovenly,
You are slovenly,
All of us are slo-ven-ly . . .

III

By the tempo indications alone, it is clear that the third movement is the most complex and unusual of the set. Structurally, it is a patchwork of six sections of material in the following order: Introductory Recitative – Arioso – Fugue – Arioso – Fugue – Coda. The extra concentration of instructions serve to highlight the variability of the movement’s affections, which vacillate wildly between deepest depression to greatest joy.

Curiously, beginning with the first Arioso section, German instructions make a special appearance, in addition to the Italian. The first Arioso asks for Klagender Gesang, Arioso dolente, or Complaintive Singing, painful Song. The second Arioso is even more deeply felt: Ermattet, klagend and Perdendo le forze, dolenteExhausted, complaintive, Lost hope. It may be worth noting that Beethoven had a difficult year when he wrote this – Opus 110 was composed in 1821, which was, for Beethoven, a year much consumed with severe health problems that nearly put a halt to his productivity. Perhaps some of that difficulty found its way into this final movement of Op 110. The Arioso portions certainly sound like Beethoven is dying – they are perhaps the most raw and painful music ever to have been written. . .

We often talk of how Chopin was the poet of the piano, but I think that Beethoven had his poetic moments as well, and this is one of them.

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up

Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Teil I: Preludium & Fuga IV, BWV 849 by Johann Sebastian Bach

A fugue is based on a short melody, which is stated at the beginning by one voice alone, then followed by other voices in close succession. The short melody, or subject, reappears throughout the piece in all voices and may be developed through augmentation, diminution, inversion, and stretto.

Perhaps the greatest Fugue-ist was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). From the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s Fugue in c# has the special distinction of featuring five voices, and not just one distinguishing melody, but two: the first is the subject presented at the opening of the piece; the second is a countersubject that emerges later, featuring a distinctive “hammer” head. Reappearances of the countersubject are often treated in stretto, with a hyper-stretto beginning at m. 92 that is very difficult to pull off.

Prelude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18: Lento, Allegretto ma non troppo by Cesar Franck

The fugue of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variation features three voices on a substantial subject whose head is later transformed into tolling bells, which are then further compressed into a deliberate march, leading to the end. There is significant use of stretto, with a hyper-stretto appearing in mm. 52-58 that is very difficult to pull off.

^

These pieces were not written for the piano. Bach’s keyboard was the harpsichord and clavichord, and it was on these early pianos that the Well-Tempered Clavier and all the other Bach works that are now played on the piano were conceived. Franck’s Op. 18 was written for organ.

It is true that something is lost by not hearing a performance of Bach’s keyboard music on a historic keyboard, or by not hearing Franck’s organ music on the instrument for which it was intended. However, for Bach, and especially his fugal works, the piano only serves to contribute to the appreciation of his music. Though the harpsichord has excellent precision and clarity, the modern piano emerged and eclipsed it for a reason, for the harpsichord’s sound quality is limited by a monotonous and unsustainable tone that many have tried to work around through the addition of second manuals and the use of arpeggiated tricks of the trade. Bach’s fugues are tiresome to hear on the harpsichord — it is very difficult to hear all the subject entrances, especially those occurring in the inner voices, and those nearly inextricably intertwined with others in the same register. On the piano, one can choose to bring voices out through dynamic shading. Thus, the compositional intricacies of Bach’s counterpoint can be far better appreciated on the piano than they ever could have been on the harpsichord.

As for Franck, this is more a case of available instrumentation – I have no organ. Actually, the fascinating thing about Franck’s Op. 18 is that it was originally originally conceived as a keyboard duo, for harmonium and piano. This duo was then transcribed for organ, and that is generally how we think of it, as a piece for organ. It is from the organ transcription that came the transcription for piano. So, truly, it is not that I am lacking an organ, but that I have no harmonium. Though, perhaps I should have searched for a harmoniumist and we could have performed the true original together, as the composition does lose quite a bit once it has reached the end of this transcription chain. See below for a wonderful example of the original original.

Continuum by Gyorgy Ligeti

Though the piano has definitely eclipsed the harpsichord, that has not stopped contemporary composers from “going back” and writing specifically for the plectra-rich predecessor.

Ligeti’s Continuum was written expressly with the special acoustics of the harpsichord in mind. Though the harpsichord can be hindered by its monotony and lack of sustaining tone, Ligeti took advantage of its light touch and lack of dampers to write a piece that is meant to give the impression of a Continuum. The modern piano having entirely the opposite qualities – dynamic responsiveness, a sustaining tone, heavy touch, and dampers – makes it especially ill-suited to a performance of this piece. But, again, I lack the appropriate instrumentation. However I do have a piano, and so I play a bastardized version of Ligeti’s Continuum. On the piano it becomes an entirely different creature, completely foreign to the original intentions of the composer. This is stretching appropriate performance practice beyond its limits, but I just don’t care. I want to play it, and so I shall.

The Passion of the Sonate

Sonate by Franz Liszt

The first sonatas where simply pieces to played, or instrumental music, and were identified as such to differentiate them from music to be sung. In the 17th century, the beginnings of the Classical sonata emerge, where pieces that alternate fast and slow movements are referred to as “sonatas”. In the Baroque era, a symmetrical version of the sonata develops, with movements following an Allegro-Adagio-Dance-Adagio-Allegro scheme. By the Viennese Classical sonata, the symmetry becomes skewed to an Allegro-Adagio-Scherzo/Minuet-Allegro progression. Then Liszt continues to convolute the concept by calling his squashed monstrosity, simply, “Sonate”.

Like sonatas of the past, Liszt’s Sonate does have fast and slow parts. It also does bear resemblance to first movement sonata form, or sonata-allegro form, whose outline includes an Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation. Yet the fast and slow parts of Liszt’s Sonate cannot be divided into movements as typical of the past, for the progression of each “movement” is not substantial enough for each to be able to stand alone as a true movement should. However, the Exposition and Recapitulation typical of the sonata-allegro genre is squarely found within the work, and thus its ties to sonata form are as incontrovertible as its title.

The piece opens with a slow, Introit-like pre-introduction, wherein an Introit motive is presented twice; the following, brief Introduction presents two more motives in quick succession while winding up to an Allegro, or what has been referred to as the beginning of the Exposition, where the two Introductory motives are hybridized, the Introit motive returns, and a new Grandioso motive is presented; there follows a slower section, which presents the Introductory motives in a more lyrical light; it then becomes Allegro once more, with lots of Introductory motives, sometimes buried sometimes not, at once grand, at another indignant, then again vivamente, etcetcetc – the Introit motive makes its appearance again, and the Grandioso motive, this time dressed up in a pesante costume, closes the set; the next slower section is a transition into another slower section that can be thought of as the beginning of a Development, though developmental procedures surely have already been put to use long before; and so on.

This piecemeal quality and exhaustive use of transformation are what make the Sonata so difficult to follow and so maddening to analyze. Indeed, it does not help that the primary mode of construction is transformation. The Introductory motives, Introit motive, and so on are constantly being reprised in many different guises. Furthermore, though there are clearly numerous motives, each bears uncanny resemblance to one another. To illustrate: the Introit motive begins with repeated notes and follows with a leap, a dotted rhythm, and a descending line. The first introductory motive follows a similar contour: repeated notes, leap, dotted rhythm, descending line. The second introductory motive is maybe less similar but still includes: repeated notes, a leap, and the beginnings of a descending line. Further muddling comprehension is Liszt’s choice to layer, overlap, and hybridize all of his motives, the primary Expository motive leading the charge with its theme of hybrid, layered fragments.

In this way, the initial reactions to the piece continue to ring true today. Clara Schumann called it “merely a blind noise – no healthy ideas anymore, everything confused” – and who could blame her. But it wouldn’t be until a century later that an explanation for this confusion would come to light. Claudio Arrau contributed Some Final Thoughts to the facsimile edition of Liszt’s Sonate, and in them proclaimed “Completely new . . . is the method of motivic work: the entire sonata is developed from one single motive,” an assessment that, perhaps, has since not received enough credit and attention. Each motive has elements shared by all the others – they do appear to all be transformations of each other. Given that the motives do too closely resemble one another, it is not difficult to imagine Liszt culling thirty-five pages of magnificent spectacle all from a single idea; one could even speculate that, possibly, the original motive never once makes its appearance!

***

Abstract or absolute music was an idea coined by the Romantic philosophers, Tieck, Herder, Wackenroder, et al. If anything is abstract music, surely this must is be it. This alone out of Liszt’s entire compositional output is the piece that Liszt spoke little of a program and gave plainly the title, “Sonate”. Though Liszt did not believe that true abstract music was possible, because it is not possible for music to have zero external references, could it not be that the Sonate is simply impossible to describe? Does not the evidence of such a wide variety of interpretations – Faust, Paradise lost, the Fall of Man, etc – suggest that there is not one true meaning? Perhaps Liszt bestowed an abstract title on what is truly an abstractly conceived piece. The Sonate is not about anything, or, if it is, you don’t know how to describe it exactly, though many have tried. It could be a like a Chopin Ballade – a nonlinear story, piecemeal, patchwork – but it is not even that literal. It could not be titled anything else, and a programme would only detract from its ambitiousness. It is impossible to put your finger on the je ne sais quois of the piece and that is what makes it so spectacular.

Love Save Japan

In dedication to the survivors of the Sendai earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crises of 2011, because it was at that time that I began work on the following program, which subsequently, unexpectedly, and fittingly served as a comfort during the aftermath of the apocalyptic shock.

The Ballade is a narrative piece that is highly evocative but tells a story in a non-linear and unconventional way. Frederic Chopin composed four Ballades, and my two favorites are the second and the fourth.

Ballade No. 2, Op. 38 by Frederic Chopin

The Second Ballade carries a dedication to Robert Schumann, which I suspect is a significant attribution. Though it is typically viewed as a return for Robert’s dedication of Kreisleriana to Chopin, I would not be surprised if Chopin was subtly and intentionally presenting a piece that complemented his colleague’s personality. The Ballade No. 2 oscillates between two extremes of thematic affection, in similar fashion to Robert’s self-professed dual personalities, Florestan and Eusebius. Chopin would have been aware of these two personalities through Schumann’s other composition, Carnaval, in which, incidentally, Chopin also appears, but the extent of Chopin’s familiarity with Schumann’s schizophrenia is difficult to say. Regardless, the connection between Chopin’s dedication of the Second Ballade and Robert’s actual personality is an exceptionally apt one, and extraordinarily serendipitous at the least.

The Second Ballade trades back and forth between a simpatico pastoral theme and a fiery, almost angry second theme. In the end, the angry theme seems to have disturbed the calm of the countryside, as the pastoral theme returns one final time to close the piece in a tragic minor key. Thus the story to the Second Ballade appears to have an unhappy ending.

This melancholic tinge is a common thread in Chopin’s compositions, and was described by Chopin himself as embodying a particular Polish word, “zal.” Difficult to translate, Polish-English dictionaries agree on these possible meanings: regret, grief, compassion, pity; it can even take on sharper tones of resentment, complaint, grudge.

Zal was present in much of the artwork coming out of Poland at the time. The poetry of Chopin’s contemporary and compatriot, Adam Mickiewicz, also resonates with this forlorn quality.

The Pilgrim, from Sonnets from the Crimea by Adam Mickiewicz

Below me half a world I see outspread;
Above, blue heaven; around, peaks of snow;
And yet the happy pulse of life is slow,
I dream of distant places, pleasures dead.
The woods of Lithuania I would tread
Where happy-throated birds sing songs I know;
Above the trembling marshland I would go
Where chill-winged curlews dip and call o’er head.
A tragic, lonely terror grips my heart,
A longing for some peaceful, gentle place,
And memories of youthful love I trace.
Unto my childhood home I long to start,
And yet if all the leaves my name could cry
She would not pause nor heed as she passed by.

Translated by Edna Worthley Underwood

Chopin and Schumann met on a number of occasions and on one such occasion Chopin is reported to have indicated that his Ballades were inspired by some poems of Mickiewicz. It is easy to see the zal that is shared between the works of these two Polish artists.

Ballade No. 4, Op. 52 by Frederic Chopin

The Ballade No. 4 is infused with zal, from the opening, tolling bell-chimes through the final, grim and grave chords. Normally, there is a sophisticated harmonic explanation for the melancholic quality of Chopin’s music, but one cannot turn to harmony to explain how Chopin manages to draw an extraordinary plaintiveness from the simplicity of the opening octaves that set the tone for the piece.

The Second and Fourth Ballade share some compositional devices that make me think that they are related somehow. Toward the end of the Second Ballade one finds the quavering motive that is given prominence in the opening theme of the Fourth Ballade, and the Fourth Ballade takes a moment to visit the countryside in a pastoral episode in the middle of its story. However, there is a sophistication to the Fourth Ballade that is not in the Second. The Fourth Ballade is a special and unusual piece in that its climactic moment is not a grand and elaborate bravura episode. To the contrary, the point of the Ballade No. 4 is two measures of the most beautiful harmonic writing that render a magnificent instance of epiphanic introspection, which then lead to a fantastic and extended denouement.

Wed, from Memory Pieces by David Lang

David Lang wrote a set of Memory Pieces in memory of important people in his life that he’s lost. Wed was written in memory of his artist friend Kate Ericson, who, as she lay dying, married her companion and partner in artistic collaboration, Mel Ziegler. I’m not sure that Wed has zal, but it is infused with a mixed and very complex feeling. If it is telling a story, it is more in the form of remembrances than occurrences happening in real time. They are, fittingly, memories.

David didn’t write a ritardando or fermata at the end of the piece, and I’m sure he could have if he had wanted it to die away gradually. Instead, the piece ends rather abruptly. There is a similar, sudden ending in the middle of the Second Ballade that is soon revealed to be a mere pause in the action as the music resumes but moments later. But for Wed, the music does not resume. With the final pair of half notes, David seems to be portraying the final breath of life. Death is a “poof” moment. As Professor Slughorn says in the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “That’s life, I suppose. You go along and then, suddenly: Poof!” The piece can only end abruptly. “Poof” – and she’s gone.

Ein leiser Ton gezogen

Phantasie Op. 17 by Robert Schumann

Many analyses of Schumann’s Op. 17 tend to focus a disproportionate amount of attention on the Beethovenian aspects of the work: its one-time packaging as a “Sonata for Beethoven” and its purported quotations of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte. However, by viewing the Beethoven influences as more cursory to the inspiration behind it, one comes to a much richer reading of its content. I believe the greater influence on the work is Clara Wieck, and not only in the first movement, which letters between Robert and Clara verify, but also in the second and the third.  

Composition of the Phantasie began in 1836 and was completed, and published, in 1839. Many influences contributed to the development of the work, though none perhaps as great as Clara Wieck. Robert had been taking piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck, and fell in love with Friedrich’s daughter, Clara. Friedrich objected to the match and made efforts to keep the two apart. It was during this time that the Phantasie took shape.

The piece is written in three movements. In a letter to Clara, Robert wrote that “the first movement is a deep lament about you.” I think it is not only a deep lament about Clara, but also an expression of the frustrations that Robert was feeling with Friedrich, who was making their relationship very difficult. For example, portions of the piece seem to evoke voices in argument, as if representative of the angry exchanges that Robert and Friedrich were known to have. The movement even begins with a seething accompaniment, percolating with a tension that is more evocative of Robert’s feelings toward Friedrich than towards Clara. Yet there are softer moments that surely must be about Clara alone, in which the “ein leiser ton,” as it is inscribed in the manuscript, is given special prominence. And so, I dub the first movement of the Phantasie: “Clara, how I love you (but darn that dad of yours).”

The second movement is typically referred to as the Triumphant March, because of the use of a dotted, march-like rhythm, and because of its grand nature. However, in this example the dotted figure begins with a weak upbeat (short-long, short-long, short-long) as opposed to a strong downbeat (long-short, long-short, long). As a result, the dotted rhythm reads more as a series of skips as opposed to a series of marches, as if Robert were skipping for joy, for the love of his life. And he skips non-stop: skipping to transforming themes, stretching and repackaging the short-long rhythmic figure. Thus it would seem that the movement does not express the steeling of one who is marching into battle, but rather the overflowing of ecstasy of one who is in love. And so, I dub the second movement of the Phantasie: “Robert skipping for joy, for Clara.”

The third movement is a very tender and affectionate movement; I like to think of it as Robert’s love song for Clara. Robert wrote many actual love songs for Clara, but this is the piano love song. It is written in a Rondo form, in the pattern of ABCABA, with introductory and closing sections. Here is a more detailed description of the form (click to enlarge):

The opening arpeggiations set the tone for the movement, which is very heartfelt and adoring. And so, I dub the third movement of the Phantasie: “Robert’s love song for Clara.”

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In 1839, Robert would approach Friedrich for Clara’s hand in marriage; Clara was not yet of age and their union would require Friedrich’s consent. Friedrich refused, and an epic legal dispute ensued.

In 1840, Robert and Clara finally secured a marriage license, just prior to Clara’s 21st birthday. Thus, it appears that the two could have avoided a difficult and extended court battle had they simply waited until Clara had turned 21 before pursuing marriage, since it took them nearly as long to make it official anyway. But, had they waited, we may not have been gifted with such a beautifully ardent piece of music.

Op. 118, No. 2: Intermezzo by Johannes Brahms

Thirteen years later, the Schumanns would meet a young Johannes Brahms, who, at the time, was just twenty years old. The couple was very impressed with Johannes and took it upon themselves to help him in his career. At the time, Robert was better known as a writer and editor for a music journal — so he wrote a glowing article on Brahms, hailing him as the next big thing, and introduced Brahms to all the important people in town. Clara was actually more well-known than her husband — she was an internationally renowned concert pianist — and she programmed Brahms’ work in her concert tours. It is in this way that the Schumanns helped to make Brahms the man we know today.

Unfortunately, within a year of meeting Brahms, Robert’s mental health deteriorated. Robert was known to have complained of a ringing in his ears, and perhaps had developed tinnitus to such an aggravating degree that it was driving him mad. He would commit himself to a mental health asylum where he would spend the remainder of his days until passing. The Schumanns and Brahms had become such fast friends that the young Johannes, at just twenty years of age, practically took it upon himself to act as head of household from then on.

It is rumored that at this time Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms may have developed a romantic relationship. These rumors are probably fueled by the fact that the two wrote many letters to each other, which they later decided to burn. We do not know what was in those letters, nor why they decided to burn them, and so the rumors go a-flyin’!

Later in life, Brahms would write his Op. 118 set of pieces. They carry a dedication to Clara, and I suspect the second of the set reveals what written documents have not been able to prove. Op. 118, No. 2 is a particularly loving piece. I think it is Brahms’ love song to Clara.. and the hint of tragedy in the piece indicates that perhaps it was to be an unrequited love.