PROGRAM NOTES: Jiayan Sun, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Selections from Dix Pièces pittoresque
Born January 18, 1841, Ambert, Puy-de-Dôme, France
Died September 13, 1894, Paris
Emmanuel Chabrier was–despite stubby fingers–a piano prodigy as a child, and he grew up longing to be a composer. But his parents insisted on a “sensible” career, and so Chabrier spent several unhappy decades as a minor clerk in the Ministry of the Interior who dabbled in composition in his spare time. Chabrier is probably best-remembered today for his orchestral rhapsody España, but he also wrote a great deal of music for his own instrument, the piano.
The Pièces pittoresques (“Picturesque Pieces”) date from 1881, when the 40-year-old Chabrier had just abandoned his government job to devote himself to music: he was working as chorus director for the Lamoureux concerts in Paris when he wrote these ten brief piano pieces. Despite the title, it should be understood that Chabrier was not necessarily setting out to paint musical portraits in these ten pieces–their individual titles range from emotional states (“Melancholy”) through musical forms (“Improvisation,” “Scherzo-valse”) to events (“Whirlwind,” “Village Dance”) to the slightly droll (“Pompous Minuet”). These pieces proved so successful that seven years later, in 1888, Chabrier orchestrated four of them to form his Suite pastorale.
This recital presents two of those ten pieces. The fourth movement is titled Sous-bois, which has been variously translated as “Under the Trees” or “Underbrush.” This is a gentle little mood-piece. Chabrier marks the left hand part “with a great sweetness and grace,” and it murmurs quietly throughout–its occasional soft discords are part of the fun. Above this the right hand has a melodic line full of unusual rhythmic fluidity.
The sixth movement of the Pièces pittoresques is an absolutely charming piece titled Idylle. Only a few minutes long, it is built on the simplest of materials: an irresistible main theme, a pulsing staccato accompaniment, and harmonies that shift subtly all the way through. Chabrier’s performance marking for this piece–“With freshness and naiveté”–is perfect, and Idylle charms at every instant, right through the ending, when it winks out in front of us.
Selections from Préludes, Book II
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris
Debussy composed his two books of piano préludes relatively late in life. The first appeared in 1910, and he composed the second book of twelve preludes over the next several years while he was completing one of his most subtle orchestral scores, the ballet Jeux. Book II was published in Paris on April 19, 1913, just six weeks before Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps stood that city on its head.
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 create in sound the character of his subject. So little was he concerned to convey a physical impression that he placed the evocative title of each prelude at its end rather than 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, identified with an idea or image later. In fact, some have gone so far as to say that perhaps Debussy wanted the music to suggest the title.
The twelve préludes of Book II have a dazzling variety of subjects, and Debussy evokes such different locales as Spain, India, England, Egypt, Germany, and–of course–France. This recital offers two of the preludes from Book II. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Balcony Where Moonlight Holds Court) was inspired by tales of India; the last of the preludes to be composed, it features chords at the extreme ends of the keyboard. The final prélude–Feux d’artifice (Fireworks)–brings a festival of fireworks, and the occasion becomes clear at the end: a bit of “La Marseillaise” sneaks in to remind us that these fireworks celebrate July 14–Bastille Day.
Out of Doors, Sz.81
Born March 25, 1881, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary
Died September 26, 1945, New York City
In 1926 Bartók made some changes in the direction of his career, and his music changed as a result. After years of teaching at the Budapest Royal Academy of Music, Bartók decided to resume his career as a virtuoso pianist. He needed music of his own to play on tour, and so–after an interval of some years–he began to compose again for the piano. In 1926 Bartók wrote his First Piano Concerto (it would promptly assault audiences from Frankfurt to New York with its dissonance and percussive piano writing), as well as his Sonata for Piano, Nine Little Pieces, and a collection of five brief movements that he called Out of Doors. Bartók gave the premiere of Out of Doors (at least of several of its movements) at a recital in Budapest on December 8, 1926.
Out of Doors is remarkable music–it is one of Bartók’s most impressive (and difficult) works for the piano, and it shows several unusual influences. Over the preceding several years, Bartók had been editing collections of baroque keyboard music (works by Couperin, Scarlatti, Frescobaldi, and others). Bartók had no interest in the neo-classical movement then in vogue in Europe, but he found himself intrigued by the form of the baroque suite (a collection of movements that might be unrelated) and by the descriptive keyboard music of baroque composers, particularly that of Couperin. He combined the general shape of the baroque suite with his own new interest in the percussive possibilities of the piano to compose Out of Doors, a suite of five concise movements, each with a title and descriptive in intention. This is charming music, but for all its appeal to audiences, it is extraordinarily difficult for the pianist: extended sections are written on three staves, and the music is full of rhythmic and harmonic difficulties. Out of Doors also demands a performer with unusual touch, one who can master the percussive outer movements while creating the full range of color–much of it quite subtle–that Bartók demands in the interior movements.
With Drums and Pipes is a good illustration of Bartók’s percussive writing for piano. Set in a steady 2/4, the music pounds along, its propulsive progress made more pungent by the stinging sound of seconds. Much of this movement is set deep in the piano’s register, and its steady pulse slows only at the end.
A barcarolle is the song of the Venetian gondoliers, and a number of composers–Chopin and Liszt among them–have written keyboard works in this form. Bartók’s Barcarolla preserves the murmuring, rocking sound typical of the form, but his pulse of eighth-notes is enlivened by the fact that he changes meter in almost every measure. Above this, the music shimmers quietly. In Musettes Bartók portrays the bagpipes with whirling dissonances; the bagpipes clatter and wheeze, and tunes emerge from these thick layers of sound.
The most unusual (and impressive) movement in Out of Doors is the fourth, Musiques nocturnes. This is one of the earliest of Bartók’s “night-music” movements, and here he evokes the sounds of nature at night: insects chirp, frogs croak, birds twitter. This movement is written on three staves, and it includes tone clusters that blur the sound, swirls, murmurs, all broken by the occasional peep of a very high note. Out of these subdued night-sounds, simple tunes emerge and sing, and in the closing section Bartók combines these tunes with his opening material. This movement was clearly close to its creator’s heart. He dedicated it to his wife, and nineteen years later, as he lay dying in New York, he composed his Third Piano Concerto and dedicated that to his wife as well–the slow movement of that concerto is exactly this same sort of night-music movement.
Out of the soft close of the fourth movement, the final movement–The Chase–bursts to life. The keyboard style here is very similar to that of the first movement: both pound along vigorously, and here Bartók has the left hand playing steady sixteenths while the right plays octave eighths. The music pounds its way without any relief right to the sudden stop.
Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Opus 45
Born February 22, 1810, Z˙elazowska Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
On the second half of this program, Jiayan Sun performs Chopin’s Preludes, Opus 28. Those preludes, in each of the twenty-four keys, would seem to be Chopin’s final word on this form, but he came back to it one more time. The composer spent the summer of 1841 at Nohant, George Sand’s summer home, and there he wrote this prelude at the request of his publisher Schlesinger, who had specified that it should be short.
The Prelude in C-sharp Minor is at a slow pace (Chopin’s marking is Sostenuto), and the mood is restrained. Its characteristic sound is the steady tread of the eighth-note accompaniment that unfurls continuously beneath the fragmentary melody. While the prelude may nominally be in C-sharp minor, Chopin leaves that key far behind: this music seems to move through a new key in almost every measure, and harmonic instability is the most distinctive feature of this music. Near the end, a “cadenza” leads to a forceful return of the opening material, and the prelude trails into silence on a concluding chord that is–at last–in unequivocal C-sharp minor.
Preludes, Opus 28
As a small boy in Poland, Chopin fell in love with the keyboard music of Bach. Like Beethoven before him (and Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich after him), Chopin was particularly drawn to The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. Haunted by Bach’s achievement, Chopin wished to try something similar, and in 1836, shortly after completing his Études, Opus 25, he began to compose a series of short preludes, but it would take him three years to complete the entire set of 24. In the fall of 1838, Chopin sailed with George Sand to Mallorca, taking with him a number of Bach scores. On the island, living in an abandoned monastery high in a mountain village that was alternately bathed in Mediterranean sunlight and torn by freezing rainstorms, he completed the Preludes in January 1839; they were published in Paris later that year.
While certain scholars have heard echoes of Bach in the Preludes, this is very much the music of Chopin. And while these preludes do proceed through all the major and minor keys, Chopin does not write accompanying fugues, as Bach did: these are not preludes to anything larger, but are complete works in themselves. The entire set of 24 preludes lasts about 45 minutes, so these are concise essays in all the keys, and they encompass an enormous variety of technique, ranging from very easy preludes (played by every amateur pianist on the planet) to numbingly difficult ones, playable by only the most gifted performers. They cover an unusual expressive range as well, from the cheerful sunlight of some to the uneasy darkness of others.
Each prelude exists as an independent work and may be played separately, or the entire cycle may be played at once, revealing a full world of sharply contrasted moods and music. Rather than describing each prelude in detail, it may be best to let listeners discover each for themselves. Some of the best-known preludes are of course those accessible to non-professionals. These include No. 20 in C Minor, inevitably nicknamed “Funeral March” (Chopin despised all such subjective titles and the effort to attach programs to pieces he wished to have considered solely as music). Also in this category are the graceful No. 7 in A Major (only sixteen measures long) and No. 4 in E Minor, which–however over-familiar it has become–remains some of the most expressive music ever written. At the other extreme are such preludes as No. 24 in D Minor, full of bravura brilliance and the Prelude No. 8 in F-sharp Minor, stormy and impulsive music–Chopin’s marking is Molto agitato. The piece is in constant motion throughout, with the driving theme in the left hand as the right accompanies with perpetual swirls of sound. After all this energy, the subdued conclusion is particularly effective. Many have noted Chopin’s unusual use of repeated chords or notes throughout the set: the tolling sound of these chords is used for quite different expressive purposes in No. 15 in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop” by George Sand, to Chopin’s exasperation), in No. 17 in A-flat Major, and in many others.
One of the particular pleasures of a performance of the complete Preludes is not just to hear each individual prelude, some of which pass by in a matter of seconds, but to experience the totality of the world Chopin creates in this set. It is a world of the most dazzling variety, by turns cheerful, dark, lyric, dramatic, friendly, and terrifying, all superbly disciplined within the tight compass of the 24 keys. Bach would have found much of this music strange, but he would instantly have understood Chopin’s achievement in it.