Barry Douglas program notes

Barry Douglas program notes 2014-06-27T15:04:59+00:00
BRAHMS Four Pieces for Piano, Opus 119
SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major, D.760 “Wanderer Fantasy”
Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899, No. 3
Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899, No. 4
BRAHMS Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Opus 5

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Four Pieces for Piano, Opus 119


Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg

Died April 3, 1897, Vienna

As he approached his sixtieth birthday, Brahms returned to the instrument of his youth, the piano. The young Brahms–the “heaven-storming Johannes,” as one of his friends described him–had established his early reputation as the composer of dramatic piano works: of his first five published works, three were big-boned piano sonatas, and he next produced a series of extraordinarily difficult sets of virtuoso variations. And then suddenly, at age 32, Brahms
walked away from solo piano music, and–except for some brief pieces in the late 1870s–that separation would last nearly three decades.

When the aging Brahms returned to the instrument of his youth, he was a very different man and a very different composer from the “heaven-storming Johannes” of years before. During the summers of 1892-93, Brahms wrote twenty brief piano pieces and published them in four sets as his Opp. 116-119. While perhaps technically not as demanding as his early piano works, these twenty pieces nevertheless distill a lifetime of experience and technical refinement into very brief spans, and in their focused, inward, and sometimes bleak way they offer some of Brahms’ most personal and moving music. Someone once astutely noted that a cold wind blows through these late piano pieces; Brahms himself described them as “lullabies of my pain.”

Brahms’ Opus 119, published in 1893, consists of three intermezzos and a concluding rhapsody. Most of these brief pieces are in ABA form: a first theme, a countermelody usually in a contrasting tempo and tonality, and a return to the opening material, usually varied on its reappearance. One of the shortest of Brahms’ late piano piece, the Intermezzo in B Minor is also one of the most subtle, particular in matters of rhythm. It opens with chains of
falling thirds that seem to ripple like flashes of iridescence, and before we know it, Brahms has seamlessly transported us into the firmer center section. The return is just as subtle, and the music trails off into silence. In the Intermezzo in E Minor, which Brahms marks Andantino un poco agitato, the pianist’s two hands seem to be chasing each other through the murmuring, rhythmically-fluid opening section. The central episode dances gently (Brahms’ marking is teneramente: “tenderly”); the music gradually makes its way back to the opening material, now varied, and Brahms concludes with a faint whiff of the waltz-melody. The Intermezzo in C Major, marked Grazioso e giocoso (“Graceful and happy”), dances easily on its 6/8 meter. This piece has no true contrasting theme in its center–Brahms simply slows down his opening idea and uses that as the central episode before the return of the theme at its original tempo.

Brahms’ late piano music concludes with the powerful Rhapsody in E-flat Major. Brahms marks this music Allegro risoluto, and resolute it certainly is: the pounding chords from the beginning seem to echo throughout–they intrude even into the grazioso middle section. Instead of having that thunderous opening reappear in its original form, Brahms takes it through a subtle evolution on its return, and–rather than returning to the home key of E-flat major–he drives the music to its (resolute) close in E-flat minor.

Fantasy in C Major, D.760 “Wanderer Fantasy”


Born January 31, 1797, Vienna

Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

In the fall of 1822, Schubert set to work on a new symphony. He completed the first two movements and began a scherzo, but then became interested in writing an extended work for solo piano and set the symphony aside. He completed the piano work in November 1822, and it was published the following February; he never returned to the symphony, and it is known to us today as the “Unfinished Symphony.”

The piano piece has taken the name Wanderer Fantasy, for it is based in part on Schubert’s song Der Wanderer, composed in 1819. The Wanderer Fantasy is in one long movement–about twenty minutes in length–that falls into four sections. While the title “fantasy” may imply a lack of attention to form, exactly the reverse is true here–there are unusual thematic and rhythmic connections between the four sections, so that this music is tightly disciplined throughout. It is also extremely difficult to perform. The Wanderer Fantasy has been called the first of Schubert’s mature compositions for the piano, and in fact it was too difficult even for its creator. Schubert is reported to have given up during a performance of this music and to have stormed away from the piano, exclaiming in frustration: “The devil may play this stuff! I can’t!” The brilliance and difficulty of this music have made it a great favorite of virtuoso pianists. Franz Liszt admired and frequently performed the Wanderer Fantasy, and its cyclic structure of interconnected movements had a strong influence on Liszt’s own music.

The opening provides the basic dactylic pulse that will recur throughout the Fantasy. This steady, pounding rhythm will return in many forms; in this opening section, it repeats frequently, and some of these repetitions are brilliant, generating a vast volume of sound. The second section (there are no pauses between the different sections) quotes a fragment of Schubert’s song Der Wanderer at a very slow tempo and then offers a series of variations on it. Again, these variations grow increasingly brilliant before this section subsides to end quietly. The third section, playful and fast, is built upon a dotted rhythm that now begins to dominate the music–this dancing rhythm will reappear in several other themes in this carefree interlude. The final section brings back the theme that opened the Fantasy, but now that rhythmic figure is treated fugally, and this impressive music powers its way to a dramatic conclusion.

Impromptu in G-flat Major, D.899, No. 3

Impromptu in A-flat Major, D.899, No. 4


Schubert wrote his eight Impromptus for piano during the summer and fall of 1827, just a year before he died, but the two impromptus on this evening’s program were not published until 1857, long after his death. The term “impromptu” lacks a precise meaning. It refers to a short instrumental piece, usually for piano, without specified form–the title suggests music that gives the impression of being improvised on the spot. Many have hailed Schubert as the inventor of the impromptu and the composer who freed piano music from sonata form–they see these pieces as opening the way for the wealth of short piano pieces by composers such as Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and others. Too much has been made of this. Composers earlier than Schubert, including Mozart and Beethoven, had written short piano pieces not in sonata form.

Schubert probably wrote his impromptus in response to a request from his publisher for attractive music for the growing number of amateur musicians with pianos in their homes. The notion that this music is improvised should be quickly discounted–Schubert’s impromptus are very carefully conceived music, set in various forms, including variation, rondo, and minuet.

This recital offers two impromptus. The first, in the unusual key of G-flat major, is built on a quietly-rippling accompaniment over which Schubert spins a long song-like melody. Measure lengths are quite long here (eight quarters per measure) to match the span of Schubert’s expansive and heartfelt melody. Throughout, one hears those effortless modulations that mark his mature music.

No. 4 in A-flat Major is built on a wealth of thematic ideas. The opening theme falls into two parts: first comes a cascade of silvery sixteenth-notes, followed by six chords; Schubert soon introduces a waltz tune in the left hand. In the central section he modulates into C-sharp minor and sets his theme over steadily-pulsing chords before the music makes a smooth transition back to the opening material and concludes brightly.

Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Opus 5


Like so many other nineteenth-century composers, Brahms burst to fame as a virtuoso pianist who happened to compose. But the young composer chose as his model not the recent (and formally innovative) piano music of Liszt and Chopin but the older classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Of Brahms’ first five published works, three were piano sonatas. He completed the last–and finest–of these sonatas in October of 1853, when he was still only 20 years old.

By coincidence, in that same month appeared Robert Schumann’s article on Brahms in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, extravagantly hailing the young composer as one “at whose cradle graces and heroes mounted guard,” a composer who would show the world “wonderful glimpses into the secrets of the spirit-world.” Schumann had seen several of Brahms’ early manuscripts and significantly referred to “sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies.” Schumann had very probably seen an early version of the Sonata in F Minor, for this massive, heroic sonata has struck many observers as being of orchestral proportions, a symphony masquerading as a piano sonata. It is in five movements rather than the expected three, and the young Brahms apparently set out to
wring every bit of sound possible from the piano: the sonata features huge rolled chords, the music races between the highest and lowest ranges of the instrument, and Brahms creates textures so rich in color and sound that virtually every critic who writes about this sonata refers to its “orchestral” sonorities. Schumann may have hailed Brahms as a “young eagle,” but in this sonata the composer comes on like a young lion.

Brahms marks the sonata-form first movement Allegro maestoso, and majestic it certainly is. This powerful, heroic music grows almost entirely out the simple theme-shape announced in the first measure; Brahms marks one of the quiet derivations of this theme fest und bestimmt (“firm and determined”), and that might stand as a marking for the entire movement. In sharp contrast, the Andante is a nocturne, and Brahms prefaces it with a few lines from a poem of Sternau: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” A quiet center section (marked “As gentle and tender as possible”) leads to a return of the opening material and then a stunning coda: over a quiet A-flat pedal, the music gradually rises to a triumphant climax before falling back to end quietly.

The third movement is a lopsided scherzo that leaps across the keyboard; its quiet trio section is entirely chordal. Brahms marks the fourth movement Intermezzo, an unusual movement for a sonata, but even more unusual is his parenthetical subtitle: Rückblick (“Reminiscence”). He brings back the theme from the second movement, but now it is very somber–the gentle love-song has become a funeral march. This is the movement that seems most “orchestral” to the critics, and some claim to hear the sound of timpani, snarling basses, and trumpets as the movement develops dramatically. The finale is a rondo-like movement based on a halting main theme. Along the way, Brahms remembers themes from earlier movements and treats them contrapuntally as the sonata races to its thunderous close.

In his piano music, Brahms turned next to variation form and later to the short pieces he preferred in his mature years, and in these forms he would create some of the greatest music ever written for the piano. But apparently he felt that with the Sonata in F Minor, composed at age 20, he had said all the things he wanted to in piano sonata form. He never wrote another.