Saturday, April 28, 2018

Beethoven - Piano Sonata No. 29 In B-flat Major 'Hammerklavier'

Beethoven composed the 29th piano sonata in 1817-1818, and it was around this time that he began to use his native German language instead of the more traditional Italian for his compositions. The sonata in German was called Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, and although the 28th sonata was the first one to have a German title, this sonata has been known as the Hammerklavier for many years. The literal translation of hammerklavier is hammer keyboard.

The sonata belongs to  Beethoven's third compositional style period, and for many years the difficulties both technically and interpretively prevented it from being played.  Beethoven's piano student Carl Czerny studied all of the sonatas with him and could have played the Hammerklavier, but it was not in a public performance. Pride of place for the first public performance of which there is evidence goes to Franz Liszt who played it in Paris in 1836. Hector Berlioz wrote a review of the performance that said in part:
Liszt has explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him. It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood has shown that he is a pianist of the future.
This sonata is the only one in which Beethoven included beats per minute markings for the metronome, and the discussion is ongoing as to the validity of them. Due to the fast tempos indicated by Beethoven, there have been arguments suggesting that his metronome was in error, or that his deafness prevented him from actually hearing the work at the given tempo, while others say that other works that he left markings for were not excessive, and that he wanted the fast tempos. The question of tempo has lead to performances of about 40 minutes if the metronome markings are followed to performances on the other ends of the scale that are 50 or more minutes. As with any great masterwork, the artistry of the performer determines the value of the interpretation. There are recorded performances from both extremes that are very good, as well as performances that take more of the middle ground that are very good.

The sonata is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro - The opening movement is in sonata form, and has the incredibly fast metronome marking of half note = 138 beats per minute. The music begins with thundering B-flat major chords:
The first theme of the movement is derived from these chords and winds its way for some 34 measures until it comes to the opening B-flat major chords again, but they are only played for a measure until the music shifts to D major, an interval of a third above the home key.  The interval of a third and the relationships that evolve from it are part of the underlying structure of this entire sonata, and impart a different sound to the ear. After a short section of modulation, the second theme in G major begins, a key that is a third lower than the home key of B-flat.  This section continues and makes brief references to other keys along with trills before it leads back to B-flat, and the exposition is repeated. The beginning of the development section has the music transition to E-flat major for an extended section in counterpoint. The ensuing fugato is based on the first subject of the exposition and after a ingenious working through and modulations by descending thirds, the development begins to lead to the recapitulation, but not before it visits the keys of D major and the very odd key of B major. The recapitulation begins with B-flat major chords in the right hand and a descending figure in the left hand. Modulations bring the music to the key of G-flat major before a sudden return of the opening chords appears, this time in B minor. The music segues to the second theme that is now heard in the home key of B-flat major. Moving towards the end of the movement, trills in each hand are heard sandwiched between repeats of material heard earlier. The end of the movement leaves no doubt that it is in the key of B-flat major as it plays fortissimo in whole note octaves.

II. Scherzo: Assai vivace -  Beethoven opens the second movement with a parody of the first subject in the home key of B-flat of the initial movement. The metronome marking for this movement is also very fast, dotted half note = 80:
After the scherzo has its say, the music shifts to B-flat minor for a mysterious trio:
The hands alternate with the theme of the trio and the triplet accompaniment until the meter shifts to 2/4 time, still in the key of B-flat minor, at presto tempo. This short section ends with a cadenza in F major and a bar and a half of what sounds like a chuckle. The scherzo resumes and winds up with a stubborn B natural hammered out in cut time until the scherzo makes a quiet and brief ending.

III. Adagio sostenuto -  The third movement is legendary for its length, poignancy and difficulty. It varies in time of performance, but can take 20 minutes or more with some pianists. It was foreshadowed by Beethoven himself in the 2nd movement of his Piano Sonata No. 7 written 20 years before. It is in sonata form and begins in the key of F-sharp minor. The first bar of the movement was an after thought; Beethoven sent the one measure to his publisher as the manuscript was being prepared for publication and asked that it be used to begin the movement:
After slowly evolving, the first theme segues into the second theme in D major (the relationship of thirds continues in this movement as D major is a third below F-sharp minor). The development section makes free references to the first theme and is quite short. The first theme leads off the recapitulation, and the second theme is heard in the tonic of F-sharp minor. This transforms into F-sharp major, and the second theme is heard again in G major. The key of B minor makes a short appearance before the home key returns. The music goes slowly from minor to major until it comes to rest with a short arpeggiated chord in F-sharp major.

IV. Introduzione: Largo, allegro – Fuga: Allegro risoluto -  The abruptness of the end of the previous movement sets trhe stage for the phenomenal introduction of the finale of the sonata. In meticulous notation, Beethoven writes down his mental process of realizing the theme of the fugue that is to follow. With instruction in Italian to subdivide each quarter note into 4 sixteenth notes, and as the metronome marking of one sixteenth note = 76, this movement begins very slowly:
Ideas are presented and rejected; in G-flat major, B-flat major and G-sharp minor. Another episode that reaches fortissimo in A major gives way to trills and a lead-in to the presentation of the subject of a 3-voice fugue in B-flat major:
This may be a fugue, but it is a fugue under Beethoven's terms. While he uses many contrapuntal techniques, they are used with an intensity that is Beethoven's own. The Italian words he used at the beginning of the fugue translate to say Fugue in three voices with some license, he continued to make his own way artistically. 

The first performance below is by Claudio Arrau, one of the great pianists and Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century. His performance takes about 45 minutes, and he does not follow Beethoven's metronome markings. The second performance below is by Stephan Möller, a fine pianist who does take the sonata at Beethoven's metronome markings. His performance takes about 40 minutes. Each performance has its merits, and it is interesting to compare them. 

Claudio Arrau



Stephan Möller 


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Liszt - Fantasy And Fugue On The Theme B-A-C-H For Organ S.260

The piano was central to the musical life of Franz Liszt. He was a virtuoso performer on the instrument from an early age, and his tours of Europe were legendary, and his compositions for piano and orchestra challenged the conservative nature that had crept into music in the middle 19th century. But despite his leadership with Wagner in what was called at the time "New Music", he had an interest in past composers and forms.  He championed works by composers that were unknown to the public at the time, such as the late music of Schubert and the opus 106 piano sonata "Hammerklavier" by Beethoven. He helped create pathways to new modes of expression by having one eye on the future and one on the past.

Although as a composer he is most well known for his music for solo piano and the symphonic poems for orchestra, he also composed in most other genres of music, including works for solo organ. The articleThe Organ Music Of Liszt by musicologist Zoltán Gárdonyi   states that Liszt traveled to Geneva Switzerland in 1836 and improvised on a church organ there.

As a trained pianist, Liszt was not adept at the pedals of the organ to begin with, and perhaps never got really proficient on them. But the manuals of course were a different story. He probably could adjust quite rapidly to the differences in the keyboards of pianos and organs. And there are many differences in the two instruments besides the pedals.

Liszt composed around 40 works for organ with the majority of them being transcriptions of other composer's music as well as his own. But he did compose two masterpieces of the literature for organ. The first was composed in 1850, the Fantasy and Fugue On The Chorale 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera The Prophet. This is a massive work that takes around thirty minutes to perform. The second of Liszt's masterpieces for solo organ was composed ion 1855, the  Fantasy And Fugue On The Theme B-A-C-H.

In the 1840's the Bach revival was in full swing with Felix Mendelssohn continuing to lead the way in exposing the music to audiences. Mendelssohn played some of Bach's organ works at a concert in 1840, and Liszt wrote transcriptions of selected organ works for piano. Liszt's homage to Bach's music is based on the spelling in German musical nomenclature:
Bach himself used this 'Bach motif'' in one of his fugues in his The Art Of Fugue, and there is a long list of composers past and present who have used it.

Liszt begins the work with the motif in a solo for pedals:
The first part of the work is a fantasy with wide ranging tonalities that leads into the fugue which begins in the pedals. The fugue works through a few entrances of  the subject and then becomes a more free working out of ideas and motives until the subject returns in a more agitated form.  A section of trills for the pedals leads back to a fragment of the subject. After a short section marked maestoso, the Bach motif is heard again  in octaves in the pedal with shifting harmonies in the keyboards. This seems to be leading up to a grand finish, but instead they lead into a few bars in a more hushed tone that add a sense of mystery. This spell is broken by the final bars in fortissimo that modulate to the end chord in B-flat major. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Chopin - 24 Preludes, Opus 28

The  opus 28 preludes by Chopin were first published in 1839, a date that coincides with the winter of  1838-1839 in which he spent inMajorca with George Sand and her children. This has led some to believe that Chopin wrote the preludes in Majorca over that winter, but while some of theme were no doubt written then, there is evidence that some of the preludes were begun as early as 1831.  Each of the 24 major and minor keys are represented by a prelude. Some of them are quite short, with the longest lasting under 6 minutes.

Contemporary critics and musicians were somewhat baffled by the preludes, as illustrated by the words written by Robert Schumann:
The Preludes are strange pieces. I confess I had imagined them differently, to be designed in a grand style like the Etudes. But almost the opposite is true. They are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, eagle wings, a wild motley of pieces. But each piece, written in a fine, pearly hand, shows: 'Frederick Chopin wrote it.' One recognizes him in the pauses by the passionate breathing. He is and remains the boldest and proudest poetic mind of the time. The collection also contains the morbid, the feverish, the repellent. may each search what suits him; only the philistine stay away!
 No. 1  In C Major - Agitato - Chopin studied the set of preludes and fugues The Well -Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the opus 28 set was in some ways inspired by it. But Chopin made his own way artistically in his set. This first prelude shows a vague similarity in that it is in the key of C major and acts as a type of introduction to the set. But from the start, Chopin's set shows a marked difference in mood and approach. This prelude is short and rhythmically complex, and just as the listener's ear begins to discern distinct voices within the music, it is over:

No. 2  In A Minor - Lento - One of the peculiarities of the set was in Chopin's use of the term prelude. The name implies that a prelude comes before something else, as in Bach's prelude and fugue pairs. Chopin's preludes introduce nothing. They are entities unto themselves. When they are played as a set however, each prelude does lead to something; another prelude of varying distinction. The second prelude is brooding, melancholy, and full of dissonances in marked contrast to the opening prelude:
The melody as such is repeated in different pitches and accompaniment until the bleakness of the end.

No. 3  In G Major - Vivace - The mood shifts to brightness with the 3rd prelude. It begins with a widely spaced figure in the left hand that continues in a few differing harmonies, but stays in the home key of G major for the most part:
Chopin also makes his own way in key progression of the preludes. Unlike Bach who progressed chromatically and alternating major with minor, Chopin progresses on the circle of fifths alternating major and minor.

No. 4  In E Minor - Largo - A prelude that looks very simple on paper. A single voice in the right hand has the melody while block chords are played in the left. But simple does not always equate to easy. To bring out the descending bass line while keeping the right hand melody singing its intense song is not an easy task to do:

No. 5  In D Major - Molto allegro - A one-page prelude that has sixteenth notes moving throughout in an accompaniment while an eighth note theme appears within the accompaniment as shown by the notation. A quite rhythmically complex prelude:

No. 6  In B Minor - Lento assai - This sad prelude has the melody in the left hand that is reminiscent of the cello, with a repeating accompaniment in the right:

No. 7  In A Major - Andantino - A wisp of a prelude that is only 16 bars long, this is a miniature mazurka, a dance of Chopin's native Poland. It provides a short period of respite before the onslaught of the next prelude:

No. 8  In F-sharp Minor - Molto agitato - A most challenging prelude, one of the most difficult technically in the set. Scholarship has this as one of the earliest written preludes in 1831, around the same time as the first set of opus 10 etudes:
A dotted rhythm melody in the low part of the right hand plays against eight sixteenth notes in the same hand, while the left hand plays a sixteenth triplet-eighth note accompaniment for the entire piece. The harmonic structure is no less complex as it modulates to remote keys of E-flat minor and others.

No. 9  In E Major - Largo - A very slow prelude with a bass line almost as important as the melody in the right hand. The right hand melody is entrusted mostly to the little finger of that hand and must be more pronounced than the accompaniment in the lower right hand:

No. 10 In C-sharp Minor - Molto allegro - This odd prelude is quite short and consists of  a few runs down the keyboard in the right hand with arpeggiated chords spanning a tenth in the left hand:

No. 11 In B Major - Vivace -  although written in 6/8 time, this prelude drifts into short sections of 3/4 time, which is  hemiola. This gives a hesitant, not quite right rhythmic feeling to this prelude, something which Chopin was fond of:
No. 12 In G-sharp Minor - Presto - The two-note slurs in the right hand along with the tempo make this prelude one of the difficult ones. The impression I get from this prelude is a great struggle, an effect that Chopin might well have had in mind:

No. 13 In F-sharp Major - Lento - This prelude is a mini-nocturne, with a deceptively simple rolling bass in the left hand and melody in the right. There is a section a little over half way through the piece where the accompaniment changes and the melody gets more pensive, but overall the mood remains tender. The dynamic range is marked piano at the beginning, with a sensitive performance keeping the dynamic range within subtle shades of it:

No. 14 In E-flat Minor - Allegro - This prelude is marked to be played pesante (heavy). With the hands playing the same notes an octave apart, it may seem at first like a finger exercise, but the raising and lowering of pitch and volume as well as the unpredictability of what's coming next goes beyond finger work. There is difficulty in determining any definite melody. The mood of the piece is just as indefinite. This isi one of the most enigmatic of the preludes:

No. 15 In D-flat Major - Sustenuto 'Raindrop' - The longest in duration of all the preludes, this one is also the most well known single prelude of the set. The name of 'raindrop' was given to it either by Chopin's lover George Sands, or the pianist/conductor Hans von Bülow. There are a few sets of nicknames by performers for all the preludes, (including von Bülow's) by way of interpreting their individual mood. Chopin himself only put a name to one of his works, that being the slow movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ Minor, Op. 35, the famous Funeral March.

The prelude begins with a bitter sweet melody in D-flat Major. Many times the major mode in music denotes a certain mood, but with Chopin the mood between major and minor could be blurred. An A-flat 'rainsrop' repeats and is the reason for the nickname.:
In the contrasting middle section in C-sharp Minor (the enharmonic equivalent of D-flat Minor was used to make the music easier to read) the 'rainsdrop has enharmonically changed to G-sharp as the left hand brings forth chords in a steady progression in volume until the eruption of a climax with the left hand in octaves with the raindrops also in octaves plus inner voices. This section is repeated, and after a section of transition the opening of the prelude returns with some minor changes.  The A-flat continues right up to the quiet ending of one of Chopin's most demanding and well-known works.

No. 16 In B-flat Minor - Presto con fuoco - The prelude begins with six startling chords that bring the listener to attention for what follows. And what follows is music of immense difficulty. The right hand plays runs that are not conventional scales or arpeggios, but unconventional configurations of intervals, accidentals and snatches of scales while the left hand part is no less difficult due to the leaps required from octaves to chords. All of it to be played at an incredibly fast tempo that can seem like chaos ensues.  But that is an illusion of this very difficult prelude. Chopin was no proponent of chaos in music:

No. 17 A-flat Major - Allegretto - A very melodic prelude not given to any overt virtuoso display. When the main section is repeated, there are recurring low notes in the bass that are reminiscent of a bell that accompany the music to the end:

No. 18 In F Minor - Molto allegro - This prelude may be thought of as a spiritual brother in mood to the 14th prelude as this one snarls and snaps its way through less than a minute of dissonance, runs and sections where the hands play in unison an octave apart.  Four bars from the end, each hand plays a trill that is followed by sixteenth note staccato triplets that are spit out with great vehemence before the final chords:
No. 19 In E-flat Major - Vivace - This prelude is designated to be played semper legato, an incredibly difficult thing to do considering the leaping triplets (up to 2 octaves) both hands must make throughout. And this is to be done at a low dynamic and rapid tempo as well. Very poetic music in the guise of great difficulty:

No. 20 In C Minor - Largo - Thick chords give the impression of a funeral march to this shortest by number of bars (only nine) of all the preludes. Not a particularly difficult one technically, it does require richness of tone, especially in the fortissimo sections as well as an ability to balance chords so the melody is heard:

No. 21 In B-flat Major - Cantabile - A simple melody begins this prelude with a steady two-part accompaniment:
After the opening there is a section that gives the impression of G-flat major that creates a marked contrast. The mood of the piece, as with many of the preludes, has more than one possibility. This has lead to many different interpretations by pianists, and has helped to keep the opus 28 preludes in the repertoire for so many years.

No. 22 In G Minor - Molto agitato - A fiery, tempestuous prelude that has the melody in octaves in the left hand with the right hand answering in chords. Rapid in tempo, it is all too easy to pound the music out of the piano. Struggling in mood and impatient by nature, there is little if any resolution within the ending:

No. 23 In F Major - Moderato - As previously stated, there is no evidence that Chopin intended opus 28 to be played as a set at one sitting. But this prelude does shows how he composed preludes of contrast that followed one another. This 23rd prelude sits between two passionate preludes and avoids drama with a benign melody that plays out in the bass as the right hand passes up and down the keyboard. The addition of an E-flat to the arpeggiated F major chord in the next to the last measure is kind of a mystery. it implies a modulation to B-flat major, but there is no modulation. The note is accented and is clearly intended to be there. To what specific purpose has been open to conjecture:

No. 24 In D Minor - Allegro appassionato - The final prelude of the set is a wild, impassioned virtuosic piece that has a widely spaced accompaniment in the left hand while the right hand plays arpeggios up and down the keyboard, chromatic triplet thirds, and a buildup of near chaos that at the end descends from the top of the keyboard to three low D's hammered out in the left hand:



Friday, December 8, 2017

Haydn - Piano Sonata No. 53 In E Minor Hob. XVI/34

Only the later keyboard sonatas of Joseph Haydn were for piano, as the earliest ones were for harpsichord. Some of the middle sonatas were for harpsichord or piano, at the performers discretion.  But the transition from harpsichord to piano was inevitable, as the piano was capable of a much wider dynamic range, variety of tone color, and expression.

Haydn lived through a time of transition of forms of music as well. What modern listeners would call a sonata was derived from various multi-movement works of the Baroque era. Haydn himself did not begin to call his keyboard sonatas by that term until 1771. His early works were called partitas or divertimenti. Haydn was also influential in the development of the forms of the string quartet and symphony.

There are two numbering systems primarily used for the keyboard sonatas. The oldest is the one created Anthony van Hoboken, the other by H. C. Robbins Landon. The Hoboken system is categorized by genre, thus all of the keyboard sonatas fall under the heading of Hob. XVI. The Landon system was based on chronological order as much as possible, and is under the heading of L. Thus the sonata in this post is Hob. XVI/34 in the Hoboken system and L.53 in the Landon system. To add to the confusion, Landon lists 62 sonatas, but not all of them are extant while some are spurious.  Hoboken also has a total of 62 sonatas (including the lost ones), but his numbering system only goes as high as 52. He gives alternate numbers and letters to the lost or spurious ones. Many times, both numbers are given for a sonata in an effort to securely identify it.

The sonata is in three movements:

I. Presto - The first movement begins with a theme in the home key:
This theme goes through a short development and leads to the second theme in G major. This theme is in 5-bar phrases, and after 15 bars the exposition is repeated. The development section begins with the first theme, now in E major and transformed into one 5-bar phrase. After this theme is developed, the second theme is likewise, and leads to the recapitulation of the first theme. The second theme returns, now also in the home key of E minor. As is customary, (a holdover from the binary beginnings of sonata form) the entire second section of development and recapitulation is repeated.

II. Adagio - This slow movement in G major has the right hand playing a decorated melody with a simple accompaniment in the left hand:
Haydn varies the melody until the movement segues directly to the finale, something that happens infrequently in Haydn's sonatas.

III. Molto vivace - Marked by the word innocentemente (innocently), the final movement begins briskly with a theme in E minor that is accompanied by an Alberti bass in the left hand:
Haydn varies this material between repeats of the theme.  Unlike Mozart whose music could be a never ending stream of new melodies, Haydn could make the most of basic material heard at the beginning of a movement.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 19 - 24

After years of being copied out and passed from musician to musician, Bach's Well Tempered Clavier was published in 1801, almost 100 years later than the manuscript for Book One that is dated 1722. The influence the collection has had on music, musicians and composers since then is immeasurable

Modern times have not lessened its importance to the music lover and musician. They are useful as etudes for the building of a solid keyboard technique, as well as models of the diversity and creativity of fugal form, and examples of the various styles of keyboard music during Bach's era. The set of preludes and fugues holds beauties and difficulties in equal measure. And as the original musical text carries very few tempo designations, articulation and dynamic markings, various editors throughout its publishing histories have added all kinds of guides for the performer which can shed tremendous insight into how Bach's music was perceived in previous generations. And the original text as written by Bach gives the modern performer an opportunity of using their interpretive skills to bring forth a musical performance. And Bach's music can handle much in the way of interpretive variances, as long as the spirit and style of the music is allowed to come forth.

The final six preludes and fugues of the first set continues in the variety that Bach established in the previous ones.

Prelude and Fugue No. 19 In A Major, BWV 864 - It isn't long into this prelude until the listener realizes that the opening bars are actually a subject. This prelude is in fact a fugue itself, a prelude fugue that leads to a fugue.
The fugue is in three voices and the subject begins with a single note that is stranded for three eighth - note rests until the continuation of the subject. This is a little startling to anyone expecting a more common type of subject, but Bach was anything but common and could be quite innovative within his contrapuntal style.

Prelude and Fugue No. 20 In A Minor, BWV 865 - This prelude is in the style of a two part invention,
The 4-voiced fugue has a subject that is three measures long. The first statement of the subject is in the alto voice, and is followed directly by the repeating of the subject in the soprano, bass and tenor voices respectively. The fugue is worked out with many partial repeats as well as other contrapuntal devices, thus lending interest to one of the longer fugues in the book.

Prelude and Fugue No. 21 In B-flat Major, BWV 866 - A stunning example of what early keyboardists would do when they sat down to play. They would loosen up their fingers, get a feel for the instrument they were playing on, and check the acoustics of the room they were in by running up and down the keyboard in scales, arpeggios, broken chords and cadences. This prelude has all of that as the key of B-flat major (with some appearances of other keys) is shown off by the player.
The 3-voices fugue begins with one of Bach's most catchy subjects, one that is 4 bars long. The subject is played through all 3 voices before any development begins. The subject itself goes through very little change throughout.

Prelude and Fugue No. 22 In B-flat Minor, BWV 867 - A prelude that is defined just as much by a two sixteenth notes followed by 3 eighth note rhythm scheme as by any melody, which gives it a feeling of gentle movement.

The fugue is in 5 voices, and as the voices enter one after the other, tension steadily grows along with the complexity. Nonetheless, the tension created is mild as the overall feeling of this fugue is one of calmly unwinding the music until the final ending in the major.


Prelude and Fugue No. 23 In B major, BWV 868 - This prelude is almost entirely made up of repetitions of the sixteenth rest and seven sixteenth notes heard at the beginning in the right hand. This motive makes its way through three different voices.


The fugue is in 4 voices.


Prelude and Fugue No. 24 In B minor, BWV 869 - The key pattern of the Well Tempered Clavier begins with C major, and by alternating with major and minor keys chromatically, ends in B minor. The complexity as well as length of the material meets its culmination with this final entry of Book One. The prelude has a steady walking bass consisting of eighth notes while the right hand comments and embellishes as it goes. There is a sense of calmness throughout the prelude.

The final fugue is in 4 voices with a subject that is two bars long. It leisurely unwinds as the voices weave in and out creating a texture that while complex, makes profound musical sense in a purely aural sense, as do many of the preludes and fugues in this collection.

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