Sonata in E flat, Op.81a, ‘Les Adieux’ – Ludwig van Beethoven
– Das Lebewohl (The Farewell) – Adagio 1770-1827
– Abwesenheit (The Absence) – Andante Espressivo
– Das Wiedersehen (The Return) – Vivacissimamente
This piano sonata was written in the years 1809 and 1810. Beethoven’s admiration of the ideals of the French Revolution had once found its logical embodiment in Napoleon. The composer however quickly grew disenchanted after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor (1804), and angrily withdrew the dedication of his Third Symphony. In 1809, Napoleon stormed Beethoven’s city Vienna. Beethoven had to protect his already-impaired hearing from the artillery din, under pillows, in the basement. Furthermore, his student, friend and patron Archduke Rudolph had to flee, leaving Beethoven bereft. Op. 81 a, arguably his only truly programmatic work, depicts his friend’s departure, Beethoven’s feelings on his absence, and the Archduke’s return to Vienna. The published dedication (1811) reads: “On the departure of his Imperial Highness, for the Archduke Rudolph, in admiration”.
The titles of the three movements are Beethoven’s own (he refused to allow French titles). The descending three-note motif (reminiscent of “Three Blind Mice”) at the beginning of the first movement evokes a horn call, a compositional device often used to indicate farewell. Beethoven inscribed the syllables “Le-be-wohl” over the notes, to remove any shred of doubt. The quasi-improvisatory second movement underscores his feelings of solitude, while the last movement is a whirlwind of celebratory ecstasy.
ABEGG Variations, Op.1 Robert Schumann
Thema (Animato) 1810-1856
– 3 Variations
– Finale alla Fantasia (Vivace)
Like many other composers (Bach and Elgar come to mind), Robert Schumann loved to insert musical cryptograms into his compositions. It is certainly the case in this, his first-ever published work. Intrigued that friends in Heidelberg and Mannheim shared the surname Abegg, capable of translation into music (A, B, E & G in German notation are the notes A, B flat, E and G), he composed a set of variations on a theme derived from the notes A-B-E-G-G. Schumann initially had the forces of piano and orchestra in mind, but the work eventually emerged for piano solo. The dedication to the fictitious ‘Mademoiselle Pauline Comtesse d’Abegg’ is believed to conceal the identity of one Meta Abegg, an attractive dancing partner he met at a Mannheim ball. The theme, in waltz tempo, is straightforward, but the three delightful variations with their rapid passage work, syncopated rhythms, and rapid triplet figures showcase Schumann the composer and the pianist. The subsequent Cantabile and Finale could be regarded as variations in their own right. The theme notes return in the form of a suspended chord in the middle of the finale, only to be engulfed and swept away toward a light-hearted ending.
Prélude in B major, Op.11 no.11 Alexander Scriabin
Etude in D sharp minor, Op.8 no.12
Scriabin was a great admirer of Chopin, and his 24 Préludes (Op.11), written between 1888 and 1896 were a form of tribute to Chopin’s own set of 24 (Op. 28), with corresponding préludes written in the same keys and of similar durations. This example, in B major (Op.11, no. 11) is a particularly Chopinesque miniature, and well deserves the descriptions “perfumed” and “crystalline” that Scriabin used for his own pianism.
Étude in D sharp minor, Op.8, no. 12 was composed in the same period (1894), and underscores the huge influence of Chopin at this point in the young Scriabin’s life. A particular favourite of Vladimir Horowitz, it is a pianistic showpiece, with its treacherous stretches, jumps, repetitive chords and octaves.
Ballade in G minor, Op.23 no.1 Frederic Chopin
Etude in A flat major, Op.25 no.1, ‘Aeolian Harp’
The Ballade in G minor, a one-movement work for piano composed in 1835-36, is the first in a set of four, inspired by the poetry of compatriot Adam Mickiewicz. Usually associated with French poetry, Chopin was the first to use the term Ballade as a musical form of composition. The ever-discerning Schumann recognised the merit in this work immediately: “It seems to be a work closest to his genius…I like it best of his compositions”. On hearing this Chopin is believed to have sent a reply: “I am happy to hear this since I too like it most and hold it dearest”. It has achieved cinematic fame, in Gaslight, and more recently in The Pianist.
The Aeolian Harp Étude gets its nickname from Schumann’s description of the work on account of the continuous flow of arpeggios (broken chords). It is also known as “the Shepherd Boy”, from Chopin’s comment to a pupil to imagine a shepherd boy sheltering from a storm in a grotto while playing a simple melody on his flute. Chopin elegantly elevates the étude from a pedagogical medium to a deeply expressive concert genre.
Alborada del Gracioso, no.4 from ‘Miroirs’ Maurice Ravel
Miroirs (Reflections) is a piano suite in five movements written by Ravel in 1904-05. It was composed as a tribute to “Les Apaches”, a group of poets, thinkers and musicians that Ravel had become a part of a few years earlier. Apaches was the name given to the group by pianist Ricardo Viñes, a reference to their “artistic outcast” status. Viñes would later premiere the work.
“Alborada del Gracioso” (Morning Song of a Jester) is the fourth movement from Miroirs. Ravel’s student and biographer Alexis Roland-Manuel summarises it succinctly: a piece “in which dry and biting virtuosity is contrasted, Spanish-wise, with the swooning flow of the melodic line which interrupts the angry buzzing of guitars”. Ravel would go on to orchestrate this movement, and it is a concert staple in both avatars.
Reflets dans l’eau Claude Debussy
(Reflections in the Water), no.1 from ‘Images’, Book 1 1862-1918
In 1905, Debussy vacationed at Eastbourne, on England’s south coast. Here he completed a set of three Images for piano, of which Reflets dans l‘eau is the first. He was immensely pleased with them: “Without false modesty, I think they work really well and will take their place in piano literature either to Schumann’s right, or Chopin’s left”. It is characteristic of the French Impressionist music of its time, with its ambiguous harmonies in rapid flux, suggesting beautifully the idea of water in turbulence; ever flowing, never still. Programme imagery at its very best.
Paganini Etude no.3, ‘La Campanella’ Franz Liszt
Although Liszt was himself a virtuoso of his instrument, the great violinist Niccolò Paginini was by far the foremost virtuoso of that era. Liszt first heard Paganini play in Paris in 1831, and was electrified. It would change the way Liszt composed or performed thereafter, and was the beginning of a lifelong admiration. The innovator Érard had developed for Liszt a piano with “double-escapement” action, which made rapid note-repetition easy. Liszt found the perfect opportunity to the novel mechanism in this work, written in 1838 and revised in 1851. It is the third of a set of six études (Études d’exécution transcendentes d’après Paganini), and the only one not that is not a transcription of Paginini’s Violin Caprices. La Campanella (The Handbell, or Little Bell), is the theme of the last movement of Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto, a rondo which cleverly uses violin harmonics to onomatopoeic bell-like effect. Liszt transforms this theme into a path-breaking study in rapid-fire note reiteration, demanding extreme dexterity and accuracy of the performer. Often hammered out as a showstopper, it actually is an étude in quiet playing, bordering on the spiritual.
© Luis Dias 2011