LISZT Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S.171
SCHUMANN Carnaval, Opus 9
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109
DEBUSSY Selections from Préludes, Book I
BALAKIREV Islamey, Opus 18


Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S.171

Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany

In 1848, just before he took up the position of music director in Weimar, Franz Liszt composed a series of piano works in forms that had already been identified with Chopin; these include ballades, polonaises, a berceuse, mazurkas, and waltzes. Chopin and Liszt had been good friends for years, and at this time Chopin was gravely ill–he would die the following year, and Liszt’s works may perhaps be understood as an act of homage.

The Ballade No. 2 in B Minor is in a form that Chopin had made famous; Liszt’s Ballade preserves the spirit though not the form of Chopin’s ballades. It opens with a foreboding introduction, full of ominous chromatic rumblings in the left hand, and this gives way to a brief lyric episode. Liszt then does a curious thing, repeating the entire first section, but now in the key of B-flat minor, before launching into the main body of the piece, marked Allegro deciso and driven along great fanfares. In his study of Liszt’s music, Sacheverell Sitwell describes this section as “concerned, as it were, less with personal sufferings than with great happenings on the epical scale, barbarian invasions, cities in flames–tragedies of public, more than private, import.” Something of the varied character of this music may be seen in Liszt’s performance markings, which span a huge range, from tempetuoso to delicatamente. The music eventually drives to a thunderous climax marked grandioso, then falls away to conclude on the lyric music of the opening section.

Carnaval, Opus 9

Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany

In 1834, when Schumann was a young piano student living with his teacher Friedrich Wieck and Wieck’s fifteen-year-old daughter Clara, another piano student–seventeen-year-old Ernestine von Fricken–became a member of the household. Though he had been infatuated with Clara for some time, Schumann promptly fell in love with Ernestine, and the two were secretly engaged. Over the next year–and under the spell of the two young women–Schumann wrote Carnaval, his first major success and one of his most engaging works.

Carnaval is a collection of twenty-one brief pieces, each with a title. Schumann subtitled the work Scenes mignonnes sur quatre notes (“Miniature scenes on four notes”), and the four notes are A-S-C-H (S is Eb in German notation; H is B). The city of Asch was Ernestine’s hometown, and Schumann was delighted to learn that those four letters were also the letters of his surname with musical equivalents–to his love-fired imagination, this was a significant coincidence. Of the pieces in Carnaval, all but two are based on some sequence of the four notes A-Eb-C-B. Partway through the score, in fact, Schumann includes–under the title Sphinxes–the three sequences of the notes he used. He intended that these should not be played, though some pianists do include them in performance.

But it is not just the ingenious variations on these four notes that make Carnaval so distinctive. The title itself is important, for Schumann saw this sequence of twenty-one pieces as a true carnival, a masked ball based loosely on the idea of the commedia dell arte. As the listener moves through this ball, faces swirl past. Some are stock characters from the commedia dell arte such as Pierrot, Arlequin, and Pantalon and Colombine, but many are ingenious portraits of people around Schumann: Chopin, Paganini, several of Schumann himself, the two women in his life, and his friends.

A quick survey reveals the outlines of Carnaval but cannot begin to suggest the sparkling ingenuity of the music itself. A jaunty Préambule leads to the stock figures Pierrot (who stumbles engagingly) and the harlequin. A graceful waltz leads to two self-portraits: Eusebius presents the quiet, contemplative side of Schumann; Florestan is his impetuous, fiery side. Chiarina is a portrait of Clara Wieck, and Estrella depicts Ernestine von Fricken. Further dances follow, and the finale– The March of the Band of David against the Philistines–humorously portrays the triumph of Schumann and his progressive associates over musical philistines, who are depicted by the old German tune “The Grandfather-Waltz.”

Schumann’s secret engagement to Ernestine soon collapsed, and he married Clara five years after completing Carnaval. Ernestine passed quietly out of history, her major contribution having been to serve as the inspiration for this engaging music.

Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The years 1813-1821 were exceptionally trying for Beethoven. Not only was he having financial difficulties, but this was also the period of his bitter legal struggle for custody of his nephew Karl. Under these stresses, and with the added burden of ill health, Beethoven virtually ceased composing. Where the previous two decades had seen a great outpouring of music, now his creative powers flickered and were nearly extinguished; in 1817, for example, he composed almost nothing. To be sure, there was an occasional major work–the Hammerklavier Sonata occupied him throughout all of 1818–but it was not until 1820 that he put his troubles, both personal and creative, behind him and was able to marshal new energy as a composer.

When this energy returned, Beethoven took on several massive new projects, beginning work on the Missa Solemnis and making sketches for the Ninth Symphony. And by the end of May 1820 he had promised to write three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger. Although Beethoven claimed that he wrote these three sonatas–his final piano sonatas–“in one breath,” their composition was actually spread out over a longer period than he expected when he committed himself to write them–he completed the Sonata in E Major immediately, but ill health postponed the other two.

The Vivace, ma non troppo of the Sonata in E Major opens with a smoothly-flowing theme that is brought to a sudden halt after only nine bars, and Beethoven introduces his second subject at a much slower tempo: Adagio espressivo. But after only eight measure at the slower tempo, he returns to his opening theme and tempo. The entire movement is based not on the traditional exposition and development of themes of the classical sonata movement but on the contrast between these two radically different tempos. Also remarkable is this movement’s concision: it lasts barely four minutes.

The Prestissimo that follows is somewhat more traditional–it is a scherzo in sonata form, full of the familiar Beethovenian power, with explosive accents and a rugged second theme. But once again, the surprise is how focused the music is: this movement lasts two minutes.

It was often characteristic of the music Beethoven’s heroic period that the first movements carried the emotional weight, as did the opening movements of the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony. But in the Sonata in E Major, the opening two movements combined last barely six minutes, not even half the length of the final movement, and this final movement ultimately becomes the emotional center of the sonata.

The Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo is a theme and six variations, followed by a repetition of the opening theme. The form is not remarkable, but the variations themselves are. In his youth Beethoven had made much of his reputation as a virtuoso pianist, and one of his specialties had been the ability to sit at the keyboard and extemporize variations on a given theme. The variation form as he developed it in his late period is much different from the virtuoso variations he had written in his youth. This set of variations is not so much a decoration of the original theme as it is a sustained organic growth in which each variation seems to develop from what has gone before. The theme itself is of the greatest dignity, and to Beethoven’s marking in Italian–molto cantabile ed espressivo–he further specifies in German Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung: “Singing with the deepest feeling.” Curiously, Beethoven never changes keys in this movement–the theme and all six variations remain in E major–and despite the wealth of invention and the contrasts generated by the different variations, the mood remains one of the most rapt expressiveness, perfectly summarized by the restatement of the original theme at the sonata’s close.

The Sonata in E Major is dedicated to Maximiliana Brentano, the daughter of Antonie Brentano, whom recent scholarship has identified as Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved.”

Selections from Préludes, Book I

Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Died March 25, 1918, Paris

Debussy composed his first book of twelve Préludes very quickly, between December 1909 and February 1910. These are not préludes to something else but are independent piano pieces, each with its own atmosphere and character. Though he has been inescapably tagged an “impressionist,” Debussy disliked that term. He would have argued that he was not trying to present a physical impression of something but instead trying to re-create in sound the character of his subject. So little was he concerned to convey a physical impression that he carefully placed the evocative title of each prélude at its end rather than its beginning: he did not wish to have an audience (or performer) fit the music into a preconceived mental set but rather wanted the music heard for itself first, then identified with an idea or image later. Some scholars, in fact, have gone so far as to say that perhaps Debussy wanted the music to suggest the title.

The Préludes of Book I were inspired by a range of places, images, and topics. Some evoke natural settings, such as a desolate snowy landscape (Des pas sur la neige), warm evening breezes (“Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir”), and the mountains of Italy (Les collines d’Anacapri). This selection concludes with one of Debussy’s most famous piano pieces, his depiction of the legend of an engulfed cathedral that rises out of the sea one day each year, La cathédral engloutie.

Debussy did not feel that the twelve Préludes of Book I had to be performed as a set, and he played smaller groups of them in recital. Listeners should take them as individual evocations–in sound and rhythm–of fleeting impressions. In the process, they also manage to be terrific piano music.

Islamey , Opus 18

Born January 2, 1837, Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia
Died May 29, 1910, St. Petersburg

From Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, the Far East has exercised a strong imaginative pull on Russian composers, and Mily Balakirev’s famous piano showpiece breathes that same exotic atmosphere. Balakirev wrote this brief but fiery composition, which he subtitled “Oriental Fantasy,” during the late summer of 1869, when he was 32. Islamey has become famous not just for its exotic color and excitement but also because it is so difficult for the performer. The music sends the pianist flying across the complete range of the keyboard, employs gigantic chordal melodies that require huge hands, and goes at a dizzying speed. In fact, when Ravel set out to write his own stupefyingly difficult Gaspard de la nuit in 1908, he said that his intention was to write a piece that would be more difficult than Islamey. Islamey may have become famous as a virtuoso piano piece, but Balakirev himself regarded it as a preliminary sketch for a symphonic work. Its thunderous passagework and bright colors make it an ideal candidate for orchestration, and it was in fact orchestrated by the Italian composer Alfredo Casella in 1907.

Islamey begins with a great rush of notes (the meter is 12/16), and this opening idea is treated almost obsessively, repeating constantly and growing more complex as it does. The middle section, marked Andantino espressivo and set in a gently-rocking 6/8, builds to a climax full of runs and massive chords. The opening material returns, and Balakirev propels Islamey to its close with a brilliant coda marked Presto furioso.

Balakirev was by all accounts a first-rate pianist, but even its creator found Islamey too difficult to perform. The première was given by the dedicatee, Nikolay Rubinstein (brother of Anton), on December 12, 1869. Over thirty years later, Balakirev came back to this music and revised it; this version, completed in 1902, is the one usually heard today.