Friday, July 28, 2017

Mendelssohn - Rondo Capriccioso For Piano, Opus 14

No one is quite sure when Felix Mendelssohn composed the Rondo Capriccioso, with some musicologists offering up as early as 1824 when he was 15 years old. But there is certainty when it was fully composed and revised, for Mendelssohn put the date of June 13, 1830 on the revision.

Perhaps Mendelssohn revised it for a specific pianist, Delphine von Schauroth, who was from Munich. She was close to Mendelssohn's age, and they had met again when Mendelssohn was passing through Munich during his tour of Europe. They had met earlier in Paris in 1825, and Mendelssohn was quite taken with her. He thought about proposing marriage, but never did.

The Rondo Capriccioso is in two sections:

Andante In E Major - Modern research has determined that this section was added to the original etude in E minor during the revision of 1830.  It begins softly, and the melody is a Song Without Words, a type of piano piece that was one of Mendelssohn's specialties.  It lyrically leads to a segue to the next section.

Presto In E Minor - This second section is also one of Mendelssohn's musical specialties; music that is quick, light and sparkling.  The technical demands on the pianist are not excessive, but there are some rapidly repeating thirds in the right hand that are a challenge to play in tempo with the lightness of touch needed. Material from the opening section returns briefly, and the music shifts to E minor for an ending in thundering alternating octaves. The entire piece lasts a little over six minutes, and was popular throughout the 19th century. it is still played in student recitals as well as by professional pianists as an encore.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alkan - Grande Sonate 'Les quatre âges', Opus 33

Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote his Grand Sonata 'The Four Ages' after he returned to performing in 1844 after a six-year hiatus. The work was published in 1847. Alkan lived in an apartment in Paris, the Square d'Orléans for about ten years and was a neighbor to Chopin. They became close friends, and he became acquainted with many other artists that lived in Paris at the time, including Franz Liszt. 

The work is in 4 movements, with each one portraying the ages of a man. Alkan wrote a preface to the published work where he expressed his intentions with the titles and structure of the sonata:

Much has been said and written about the limits of musical expression. Without adopting such and such a rule, without seeking to answer any of the vast questions raised by this or that system, I shall simply say why I have given such titles to these four parts, and sometimes use quite unusual terms. 
It is not a question here of imitative music, still less music seeking its own justification, the reason for its effect, its value, in an extra musical environment. The first piece is a scherzo, the second an allegro, the third and the fourth an andante and a largo, but each of them corresponds, in my case, to a particular moment of existence, to a particular disposition of the imagination. Why should I not point it out? The musical element will always subsist, and the expression can only gain by it, executing it, without renouncing it, it is inspired by the very idea of ​​the composer. Such a name and a thing seem to clash, taken in a material sense, which, in the intellectual domain, combine perfectly. I believe, then, that I ought to be better understood and better interpreted with these indications, however ambitious they appear at first glance.

Let me, moreover, be permitted to invoke Beethoven's authority. It is well known that towards the end of his career this great man was working on a catalog of his principal works, in which he was to be instructed on what plan, what remembrance, what kind of inspiration the work had been conceived.
I. 20 ans (at 20 years) Très vite' (very fast) - The plan of this sonata is quite unique for the time, as each movement is slower than the previous one, and the sonata opens with the movement with the quickest tempo, a scherzo. This musical portrayal of a twenty year old man begins with spirit and brashness as the music begins in D major, and ends up with a chord in B minor:

A more lyrical theme plays out and the opening material makes another appearance. The lyrical theme returns on chords in the right hand accompanied by arpeggios in the left. A short coda in B major brings the movement to a close.

II. 30 ans (at 30 years) Assez vite (quite fast) -  The next movement is not only the longest  of the sonata, but it contains much of the extreme technical and interpretive difficulties of the work. It is a musical representation of the Faust legend, and is complete with musical representations of Faust, The Devil and Margaurite. There has been discussion among musicians and musicologists as to how this sonata movement may have inspired Franz Liszt in his writing of his Piano Sonata In B Minor. Eight years separate the publication of Alkan's sonata (1847) and Liszt's (1854) so it is possible that Liszt saw the music of Alkan's sonata. But there is no evidence that he did, nor a clue that  Alkan's sonata was ever performed in public until the 1970's.  Alkan gives the tempo designation of Satanically to the beginning of the music, which begins in the rare key of D-sharp minor and represents Faust:
The first section of this movement proceeds in dramatic fashion with rumbling, dashing music until the Devil himself shows up. There is no mistaking who it is, for Alkan marks his entrance in the music. The Devil's theme is in B major, pompous, loud and saunters in a slightly off-kilter rhythm:
The music continues in Mephistophelian bombast until the next character of the story is introduced, the symbol of love in the story, Marguerite, a woman who falls in love with Faust but comes to a bad end through the machinations of the Devil. Marguerite's theme begins in G-sharp minor in music of simple tenderness. (The theme begins in the 4th beat of the 4th bar)
This theme changes to G-sharp major (another rare key) and also turns dramatic. This movement is in sonata form, and now that the three character themes have been introduced in the exposition, Alkan proceeds to play them against each other in a development section of highly dramatic and virtuosic music. The music of the development winds down into huge arpeggios in alternating hands that traverse the length of the keyboard:
But the music does not proceed to the recapitulation just yet. Slowly a four-bar theme marked et aussi lié que possible (as connected as possible) plays in the bass. It is the subject of a fugue that is played out before the recapitulation. This fugue grows until it reaches its limit of eight separate voices spread out over 4 staffs of dauntingly complex music:
Themes return and are transformed as the recapitulation builds to a heady climax in F-sharp major representing victory over evil.

III. 40 ans (at 40 years) Lentement (slowly) - The incredible demands of the previous movement, both technically and musically, are countered in the third movement by music that is more mellow and lyrical.The movement has the subtitle Un heureux ménage (A happy household). The life of a man surrounded by his family, with sections that depict children and evening prayers are included:

IV. 50 ans (at 50 years) Extrêmement lent (extremely slow) - The year after this sonata was published was 1848, the year that revolutions occurred in many countries in Europe, including France. Paris was in turmoil as the February Revolution in France began to undo the constitutional monarchy in favor of what became the 2nd Republic. In the chaos of change, Alkan was passed over for the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. Due to intrigues and politics, a minor musician got the job instead, with Alkan becoming bitter over the loss of the position. The revolution also took its toll on any publicity Alkan's sonata may have gotten, and the work itself was unique in form and technically difficult, which also didn't help it any.

Subtitled Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound), Alkan includes on the title page of the movement some lines from the ancient Greek play about the Titan Prometheus that was condemned to suffer eternally for bringing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. This version of the myth is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus. Alkan quotes lines 750-754, 1051 and 1091, words that mirror the Romantic era excesses of personal emotions:
 Ah, you would hardly bear my agonies to whom it is not foredoomed to die; for death would have freed me from my sufferings. Do what he will, me he shall never bring to death. You see the wrongs I suffer!
The myth has Prometheus chained to a rock, and an eagle eats his liver. Every day his liver grows back and he has to suffer the torment of the eagle eating it again.

This myth and the lines from the Greek play set the stage for a man at fifty years of age, a life that consists of waiting for death. The movement begins with ominous rumblings:

 The movement is in the key of G-sharp minor, a key far removed from the key of D major that began the sonata. The mood of somber resignation of death seldom lifts from the music as it restlessly plods on until the closing bars that rise in volume and intensity, only to give out in the final bar that is played pianissimo.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chausson - Piano Trio In G Minor, Opus 3

Ernest Chausson had a range of talents besides music. Through the urgings of his father, he completed his law degree and was appointed as a barrister to the court of appeals, but he was more interested in drawing, writing, and music. While he contemplated which way his life would go, he wrote a novel and spent time with his artist friends. He composed music as well, and played the piano as soloist and duet partner, and finally took private music lessons with Jules Massenet, an expense his wealthy family could easily afford. After these private lessons he enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1879.  His attempt to enter the Prix de Rome competition in 1881 met with failure, which led to him ending his studies at the Conservatoire and with Massenet at the end of the term.

After he left the Conservatoire he composed the piano trio which shows the influence Cesar Franck had on him even before he studied with him. The trio is in 4 movements:

I. Pas trop lent - Animé -  The first movement begins with an introduction that introduces dark themes that reappear in other movements. The remainder of the first movement itself contains fragments of the themes heard in the introduction. Chausson modulates his material widely throughout the exposition section. The end of the movement has dramatic restatements of an opening rhythmic motive of two eighth notes and a quarter note that alternate with more lyrical material. The rhythmic motive ends the movement.

II. Vite - The piano maintains its role as provocateur in this short scherzo as it scampers about while the two stringed instruments try to resist its influence. The structure is not in usual scherzo form, but is more of a set of sparkling themes that contrast with other more lyrical themes. It hardly has time for great profundity as it makes its way to its end.

III. Assez lent - This movement begins with a theme heard in the introduction of the first movement. The tempo is slower, and after the theme is stated it is changed and developed until another theme that is more lyrical is heard. The movement unwinds at a leisurely pace and is both sad and passionate in turn. There is much modulation in music that seems to slow down the sense of time as it continues. Traces of Wagner's influence on Chausson can be heard as well as Frank's, and the music ends in quiet repose.

IV. Animé - The final movement begins with a waltz that is far removed from the minor key music that has preceded it. Motives previously heard work their way back into the texture and by the end of the movement the mood has returned to the bleak minor key mood of the opening. With a grand piano run, the work ends fortissimo in G minor.