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by Dr. Luis Dias

Nancy Lee Harper’s concert, hosted by Pro Musica and EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association) – Indian Associates at St Inez church last Sunday evening, lived well up to all expectations. 

The choice of programme commemorated musical milestones of the last year (Felix Mendelssohn’s birth bicentenary and Haydn’s death bicentenary) and this year (birth bicentenary of Chopin and Robert Schumann).  

Goethe famously stated “Music begins where words end”, and this becomes patently clear in Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Wörte). Mendelssohn himself wrote: “Even if, in one or other of them, I had a particular word or words in mind, I would not tell anyone, because the same word means different things to different people.”

Lee Harper began her concert with two of them, Andante tranquillo op. 67 no. 3 in B flat major and Allegro non troppo, op. 38, no. 2 in C minor. The first work had a hymn-like chorale feel to it, while the second has been titled by musicologist Steven Heller as “Lost Happiness”, a sense of smiling through tears.

The programme followed on with the first movement (Allegro moderato) of F. J Haydn’s Sonata in E flat major, no. 51, Hob XVI/38. The sonata, in the Baroque style, but looking forward, was dedicated to the Auenbrugger sisters, who were celebrated fortepianists. Leopold Mozart endorsed this:  “both of them…play extraordinarily well and are a sound quite unlike the una corda to which we are accustomed.” This movement, embellished with Scarlattian mordents, explores foreign keys in its central development, offering a chance for virtuosity in the bridge that links the first and second subject of the recapitulation.

The tour de force of the programme was Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Études, op. 13. It is essentially a theme with a set of twelve variations. The theme was “the composition of an amateur”. Baron von Fricken, an amateur musician, had used in in a Theme with Variations for flute. He was guardian to a woman Ernestine, to whom Schumann had been briefly engaged to earlier. Thus, as in many of Schumann’s compositions, is an autobiographical element interwoven into the genesis of this work.

The pieces are divided so as to emphasize the alternation of more lyrical, melancholy and introvert pages (Eusebius) with those of a more excitable and dynamic nature (Florestan). Florestan and Eusebius personified two essential, opposite and complementary aspects of Schumann’s own personality and his own poetic world.

The final, twelfth, published étude (Finale) is a variation on the theme from the Romance Du stolzes England freue dich (Proud England, rejoice!),  from Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Templer und die Jüdin, which is based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The entire work was dedicated to Schumann’s English friend, the pianist and composer William Sterndale Bennett. Schumann himself thought it unsuitable for public performance and advised his wife Clara not to play it.

In Lee Harper’s capable hands, the wealth and complexity of the colours were brought forth, and the keyboard became an orchestra.

After a ten-minute interval, the time machine transported us to 1912, with Nocturne in D flat major by the Portuguese composer prodigy António Lima Fragoso (1897-1918). Sadly he died aged 21 of pneumonic flu, cutting short a trajectory that would almost certainly have ranked him as his country’s greatest 20th century composer.  He developed a keen interest in the work of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, and indeed this work, written when he was just 15,  does have elements of Debussy in it. It is dreamy, ethereal, and for this writer the gem of the entire programme.

Next came Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 by Chopin. It is the first of four ballades for solo piano, composed in 1835-36 and dedicated to Baron de Stockhausen, Hanoverian ambassador to France. In essence, this too can be looked upon as a Song without Words. Chopin himself is believed to have cited the poet Adam Mickiewicz as an influence. 

This Ballade is associated with ‘Konrad Wallenrod’ (Cortot), a historic legend after the chronicles of Lithuania and Prussia. In this episode Wallenrod boasts at the end of a feast of Moorish revenge upon Spaniards for unwarranted oppression. The Moors took their revenge by showing the Spaniards a false heartiness that allowed them to get physically close to the Spaniards so as to infect them with self-inflicted plague and leprosy. Konrad then tells the guests at the feast, to their perplexity and horror, that he as a Pole, if necessary would likewise blow death to his oppressors with an ill-fated kiss.

Schumann wrote in a letter about the Ballade, “I received a new Ballade from Chopin. It seems to be a work closest to his genius (although not the most ingenious) and I told him that I like it best of all his compositions. After quite a lengthy silence he replied with emphasis, ‘I am happy to hear this since I too like it most and hold it dearest.’”

The work has received some celebrity after it featured (twice) in the film The Pianist, as also in the Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight.

The programme closed with Hungarian Rhapsody no. 8 by Franz Liszt (1811-1886).   Liszt was among the first major composers to collect and use folk music in his compositions. In these rhapsodies, he sought to create what he termed ‘Gypsy Epics’.

In this piece, he does use a melody from the Hungarian folk song Kaka toven kolt a ruca, but also takes a tune by Márk Rózsavölgyi.  The work–nicknamed by some “Capriccio” apparently after its marking of Lento e capriccio– begins with a short, dramatic introduction. The ensuing main theme is slow and melancholy, and draws all sorts of ornamentation. Liszt’s creative genius miraculously recreates on the piano the characteristics of a gypsy band, the plaintive solo violin and the percussive effect of the cimbalom, the Hungarian zither. When the second theme appears midway through, the mood brightens and the music evokes images of a peasant celebration, drawing to a rollicking close with pianistic fireworks.

The encore piece chosen by Lee Harper was Franz Liszt’s transcription of Widmung (Dedication), a love song from Robert Schumann to his beloved wife Clara.  It was written in 1840, the year of their marriage. The lyrics are lovelorn and adoring: “O you my soul, my heart, my ecstasy and yet my pain…. You are the heaven in which I soar. The tomb in which I eternally laid my grief to rest.” As if to underscore his celestial vow of love, he inserts a quote from Schubert’s Ave Maria in the final bars. It was impressively delivered by Lee Harper with an apt sense of romantic poetry. The programme ended as it had begun, amply proving Goethe’s point.

© Luis Dias. All rights reserved

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Herald, Goa, India, on 12 January 2010) 

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