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 that 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 fugues 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.”
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.