Thursday, 15 November 2012

Programme Notes Nov '12

Lieder ohne Worte, Book 1, opus 19b      Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

1. Andante con moto;   2. Andante espressivo;  3. Molto Allegro e vivace;

4. Moderato; 5. Piano agitato;  6. Venetianisches Gondellied (Andante sostenuto).

This, the first of 8 volumes of short piano pieces, was published in 1832 without the title "Songs without Words ", but its companion (opus 19a) was a set of six songs with words. The famous soubriquet may have originated with Felix's older sister Fanny (who also wrote similar pieces). The 6 pieces in Book 1 were composed between 1829 and 1830 by the 20 year-old; 4 years after the magnificent octet and Midsummer night's dream overture. (In 1829 Mendelssohn also conducted the first performance of the 'St. Matthew Passion' since Bach's death, and made his concert debut in London.) These short tuneful pieces became very popular with the piano-playing public, and the concept of Songs without Words was adopted by other composers. (Alkan produced 5 books of "Chants", each ending with a barcarolle in further homage to Mendelssohn.) These pieces were not meant to suggest words; the music (as Mendelssohn explained) is not too ambiguous for words, but too precise; they resemble songs musically in having a strong melody presented over a (usually) rippling accompaniment.

Estampes ('Prints') L.100 —— Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)

i. Pagodes;  ii. Soirée dans Grenade ;  iii. Jardins sous la pluie

Estampes is French for 'Prints' — as in 'Japanese prints'.  These, in Japan, fell so far out of fashion as to serve as wrapping paper for the export of other goods to Europe, but on arrival in France excited artists to a craze of Japonisme. Critics have described Debussy as an impressionist composer, and, though he disliked the term being applied to him, it is hard to avoid when he gives titles like Pagodas and Gardens in the Rain to short piano pieces. If he is not explicitly imitating the sound of rain, perhaps he is evoking the mood or "impression". These Estampes (number 100 in Lesure's chronological catalogue of 141 works) were written in 1903, in the middle of Debussy's middle period; after his successful opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and before La mer and Images. While his private life remained outrageously Bohemian (his deserted wife attempted suicide in 1904), his musical style was maturing; his abandonment of classical harmonic rules and invention of new juxtapositions of notes are distincive features that simultaneously attract his admirers and repel the others. (Steinway's 'sostenuto' (or 'sostenente') pedal suspends only those dampers that are raised when the pedal is pressed. The effect is far subtler than the muddy blur achieved with the sustaining pedal, even when 'half-pedalling'.)

 

Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante (opus 22)    Frederyk Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Chopin's short life almost exactly overlapped that of Mendelssohn. He left Warsaw in 1830 to seek fame, carrying with him some Polish soil in a silver cup, but was outraged in 1831 at the Russian invasion, and never returned. Though his father was French, Frederyk never spoke French fluently, and wrote his diary in Polish. After Chopin's death his sister carried his heart back to Poland. The Andante Spianato in G major (spianato means smoothly) was composed in 1830 while Chopin was still at Warsaw Conservatoire. Its intense sadness is broken by a chordal section, almost recovers, but ends on gentle chords. The grande polonaise brillante (in E major), was also begun in Warsaw in 1830 though finished in Vienna in 1831. It was an entirely separate piece, in a different key, and is for piano and orchestra. (The polonaise is by way of being Poland's national dance; formal, strutting, pompous, it was traditionally the opening dance in student balls.) Three years later, in Paris, Chopin played the Andante Spianato as a piano introduction to the Grande Polonaise. In1836 both were arranged for string quartet, and only in 1838 was today's piano arrangement of the combined piece made.

 

Sonata in A major, (D. 959) —— Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

i. Allegro; ii. Andantino; iii. Scherzo (Allegro vivace); iv.Rondo (Allegretto)

This is Schubert's second last piano sonata, or so it would seem from the Deutsch catalogue. In 1828, besides working on the string quintet, the Swanengesang songs, and a Mass, Schubert was writing 3 piano sonatas simultaneously; in C minor, B major, and this one in A major. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schubert's_last_sonatas for a very full analysis of Schubert's 3 last sonatas.) For more than a century the consensus seems to have been that Schubert's formal sonatas were not his best piano works. Schubert offered them to Probst who turned them down and it was Diabelli who first published them in 1839. In this A major sonata both the outer two movements are unusually long at 15 minutes and 11 minutes respectively. Though Schumann (in 1840) coined the phrase "heavenly length" as a compliment, Tovey in the nineteen thirties criticised precisely their length and spoke of  "mere repetition". Here, the finale perfectly illustrates Schumann's point, for the wonderful melody is welcomed with the same joy every time it returns. But repetition and "heavenly length"  are clearly part of Schubert's intention. Throughout the work, recognition of the many recurring elements is very rewarding. For one example (though there are very many), the crashing chords of the opening are remembered at the climax of the slow movement; and the work ends where it began, with those same fierce chords; perhaps tying the work into a unity, or perhaps an invitation to go round again, like the pins on a barrel organ.

 

L. Cawstein
cawstein@gmail.com

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