Thursday, August 31, 2017

Alkan - Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15

Charles Alkan's set of piano pieces titled Souvenirs: Trois Morceaux Dans le Genre Pathétique, Opus 15  (Three Pieces In The Pathetic Style) was published in 1837. Alkan's music was not generally reviewed in any of the music periodicals of the time outside of his native France, and it is to those French publications that musicologists and researchers must look for any contemporary views of his music. Even those are rather sparse, owing in some part to his reclusive nature in later years. These three pieces are an exception, as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt made their opinions known.

Schumann's review appeared in 1838 in  Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the periodical that he edited and wrote for. Schumann did not like the work at all. Some of the things he wrote concerning it:
One finds oneself... gripped by the lack of art and real life...here we find little more than frailty and vulgarity devoid of imagination. The studies have titles... and are distinguished throughout theior fifty pages by a deluge of notes and a lack of even the slightest indication of performance markings.... We may choose to protect talent when it loses its way, but there has to be some kind of demonstration of musicianship... if even that becomes questionable then we are forced to turn our backs, unmoved.
Very strong words, with even more negativity in the rest of the review.  Schumann was correct about one thing though; there is not a hint of any performance markings in the first edition. No slurs, tempo or dynamic symbols at all.  Alkan dedicated the work to Franz Liszt, who he became acquainted with when they lived in Paris. Whether that had anything to do with the omission of any performing markings isn't known.

The review by Liszt of the work is markedly different than Schumann's. Liszt did take Alkan to task in some of the aspects, but for the most part was happy with the work. That they were dedicated to him probably didn't hurt either:
The caprices of M. Alkan, after reading and re-reading them many times, show themselves to be distinguished compositions...and are likely to... invoke great interest with musicians.
1. Amie-moi (Love me) -  The French word pathétique in the title of this work is usually translated as pathetic, which has a multitude of meanings. When used in musical works, it has the meaning of music which touches the feelings or excites emotions and passions, especially that which awakens tender emotions, such as pity, sorrow, love, etc.  The titles that Alkan gave to each movement give a clue as to the underlying emotions of the music. The first piece begins in the key of seven flates, A-flat minor. It is similar in feeling to the music of Alkan's friend Chopin. The music slowly grows intense as more and more notes pile into measures until the climax is reached. After the climax, the music returns to the opening themes until there is a shift to A-flat major. The piece ends gently with an arpeggio up the keyboard.

2. Le vent (The wind) -  
Written in B minor, this piece opens with a sad melody in the left hand as the righthand plays chromatic runs of notes in simulation of the wind. The hands change roles, and then back again before a central section in D major appears. When the central section is over, chromatic scales for both hands lead up to a varied repeat of the opening material. This was one of Alkan's most well-known pieces for a time, indeed, it was the only piece of Alkan's that was performed with any kind of regularity. The piece continues with an extended trill and chromatic runs in both hands until it ends with a B major chord.

3. Morte (Death) -  Written in E-flat minor, the music opens deep in the bass end of the piano until the ancient Dies Irae hymn is heard. The hymn continues in thick chords and is transformed into a kind of introduction to a slow, sad theme first heard in single notes that become full chords. It grows in intensity until it reaches a short climax, where upon a solemn but persistent B-flat punctuates the theme. The music grows in intensity (and difficulty) and a theme in the major creeps in for a bit. but things go back to impassioned as the ending is relentlessly pursued until a long pause is reached. The Dies Irae returns. The opening of theme of the first piece in the set also returns for a short repeat. A trill in the left hand deep in the bass turns into chromatic runs as in the second piece in the set. The right hand traverses the keyboard slowly as the left handed trill resumes. Two resounding, loud sixteenth note chords end this longest piece of the set, in E-flat minor.

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