PROGRAM NOTES: Nikolay Khozyainov, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Opus 38
Born February 22, 1810, Želazowska Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
Chopin himself was the first to use the term “ballade” to refer to a piano composition, appropriating the name from the literary ballad. He appears to have been most taken with the lyric and dramatic possibilities of the term, for his four ballades fuse melodic writing with intensely dramatic–almost explosive–gestures. After Chopin’s death, Liszt, Grieg, Fauré, and Brahms would compose works for solo piano that they too called ballades.
Formally, Chopin’s ballades most closely resemble the sonata-form movement (an opening idea contrasted with a second theme-group, and the two ideas developed and recapitulated), but the ballades are not strictly in sonata-form, nor was Chopin trying to write sonata-form movements. His ballades are quite free in form, and their thematic development and harmonic progression are sometimes wildly original. All four ballades employ a six-beat meter (either 6/4 or 6/8), and the flowing quality of such a meter is particularly well-suited to the sweeping drama of this music. All four demand a pianist of the greatest skill.
Because of the literary association and the dramatic character of the music, many have been quick to search for extra-musical inspiration for the ballades, believing that such music must represent the attempt to capture actual events in sound. Some have heard the Polish struggle for independence in this music, others the depiction of medieval heroism. Chopin himself discouraged this kind of speculation and asked the listener to take the music on its own terms rather than as a representation of something else.
Chopin dedicated the Ballade in F Major to Robert Schumann. The actual composition of this piece was spread over several years, and Schumann was surprised when the text published in 1840 bore little resemblance to a version Chopin had played for him in 1836. The Ballade in F Major is built on two distinct theme-groups. The gently-rocking opening, marked Andantino, moves along gracefully but is suddenly shouldered aside when the Presto con fuoco explodes to life. These two sections alternate, and the music comes to a close on a quiet fragment of the opening melody.
This set offers three waltzes written at different moments in Chopin’s career. The three waltzes that make up Chopin’s Opus 64 were the last that he published. He composed them in 1846-47 and performed them frequently, both in Paris and in England, during the final two years of his brief life. These sparkling waltzes, which have become some of his best-known music, require little introduction. The second of them, in C-sharp minor, has become famous (even without benefit of a nickname); its popularity springs from the wealth of its thematic ideas, and Chopin concludes nicely by returning not to the opening theme but to the haunting second.
The final work Chopin published during his lifetime was his Cello Sonata, Opus 65, which appeared in 1847. But after his death two years later at age 39 various editors and colleagues collected some of his unpublished works and presented them as his Opus 66 through Opus 74. These works, which the composer had chosen not to publish, sometimes joined together pieces that had been written at quite different times and under quite different circumstances.
Such is the case with the two waltzes that make up Chopin’s Opus 69. The Waltz in A-flat Major was written in September 1835, fourteen years before the composer’s death. That summer, Chopin left Paris and traveled through Germany, where he saw his parents for the last time. At the end of the trip, he went on to Dresden and stayed with the Wodzínski family. In Poland, he had been a school-friend of the family’s three sons, but now he was struck by their sister, Maria, who had just turned 16. She was a remarkable beauty, and just before leaving Dresden Chopin presented her with a parting gift, the Waltz in A-flat Major. As a result, the waltz is sometimes given the nickname “L’adieu.”
The usual form of Chopin’s waltzes is an opening section, a central episode that is usually in a different key, and a return of the opening material. The two waltzes of Opus 69 observe this pattern only generally. The Waltz in A-flat Major opens with the firm waltz rhythm in the left hand, while the right has the more supple main melody. Its middle section, based on firmer rhythms, is quite brief–so brief, in fact, that it passes almost before one knows it. A return of the opening rounds off this waltz.
The Waltz in B Minor dates from 1829, when Chopin was only 19. The smooth opening gives way to a central episode in B major, marked dolce and full of dotted rhythms. Once again, the middle section is over quickly, and Chopin eases his way back to B minor and the opening material.
Theme and Variations in F Major, Opus 19, No. 6
PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
Mention the name Tchaikovsky, and audiences think automatically of sumptuous ballets and dramatic orchestral works. Very few think of Tchaikovsky as the composer of piano music, but in fact he was quite a good pianist, and he composed a great deal of music for solo piano across the span of his career. Among his compositions are a number of collections of short works for piano that he usually published under the French title morceaux: “pieces.”
In the fall of 1873, while he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, the thirty-year-old Tchaikovsky completed a collection of pieces that he titled Six morceaux, Opus 19. These six pieces are not in any way connected and are usually performed individually. The last of them–the longest and most substantial in the set–is a set of twelve variations on a theme Tchaikovsky had composed himself.
The Theme and Variations in F Major is quite a compact piece of music: the theme, twelve variations, and coda pass by in about ten minutes. Tchaikovsky’s fundamental theme consists of an eight-bar chordal statement followed by an eight-bar extension, and the variations follow without pause. Tchaikovsky’s variations are usually melodic (that is, one can hear his original theme throughout all the variations), and they range from big and brilliant, such as the fourth variation, to the gentle: the fifth is marked Andante amoroso. Particularly noteworthy are the ninth, marked Alla mazurka, which offers a delicately-syncopated little dance, and the eleventh, which Tchaikovsky titles Alla Schumann. Robert Schumann was one of Tchaikovsky’s favorite composers, and this Allegro brillante variation–which dances powerfully along its dotted rhythms–is an act of homage to that earlier composer. Tchaikovsky rounds off the set with a Presto coda. Here the original theme is heard above a rush of sixteenth-notes, and Tchaikovsky drives matters to a close on some very brilliant writing marked con molto fuoco: “with much fire.”
Rhapsodie espagnole, S.254
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany
Liszt composed his Rhapsodie espagnole in 1863, when he was in his early fifties. He had for some time been drawn to the idea of composing piano works based on themes of specific national character, and he used tunes of Hungarian, Russian, Polish, French, German, English, and other origins as the material for these. This “Spanish Rhapsody” is based on two famous themes of ancient Spanish origin, both of them already treated by other important composers: La Folia, which nearly two centuries earlier had formed the ground bass for a set of violin variations by Corelli, and the Jota aragonesa, which Glinka had used for a brilliant orchestral work. Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole opens with a terrific cadenza, then La Folia is heard deep in the left hand and is transformed into music of roof-rattling virtuosity before the quiet statement of the Jota aragonesa. This too is extended brilliantly (much of the writing is in the piano’s ringing high register) before the Rhapsodie closes on a fragment of La Folia.
A generation after Liszt composed this music, the Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni made a tremendous arrangement of Rhapsodie espagnole for piano and orchestra. One of the early performers of the Busoni version was a superb young pianist (and great admirer of Liszt) named Béla Bartók.
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Ravel composed the Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano in 1899, when he was 24, and it became his first significant success. A pavane is an ancient dance of stately character and in duple meter, probably of Italian origin. There is an old custom that during periods of mourning in the Spanish court, a pavane might be danced before the funeral bier. Ravel may have been referring to this custom when he chose the title for this music, though he later admitted choosing it simply because he liked the sound of the words. He is quoted as saying: “Do not attach to the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velazquez at the Spanish court.”
The Pavane opens with the simple but haunting main theme. The piece is in rondo form, with the theme treated in three episodes, developed and harmonized differently each time. Ravel is said to have become tired of the Pavane’s great popularity, and he is known to have insisted that the music be played straight: without sentimentality or undue expression. This did not prevent his making the famous crack–after sitting through a dull performance of the Pavane–to the pianist: “I have written a pavane for a deceased princess, not a deceased pavane for a princess.” In 1910, Ravel orchestrated the Pavane, and the music has become well-known in this version, in which the opening statement is a famous solo for French horn.
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 28
Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
In February 1906 Rachmaninoff resigned his position as conductor at the Bolshoi and moved his family to Dresden. He had won critical praise as a conductor, but the demands of that position prevented him from composing, which was what he really wanted to do. He loved the quiet house he rented in Dresden–it was surrounded by a garden–and he set to work immediately. The next few years were some of his most productive, for they included the composition of his Second Symphony, Isle of the Dead, and Third Piano Concerto. Also from these years came a work that has proven much less familiar, the First Piano Sonata. Rachmaninoff sketched the sonata in January and February 1907 and had it complete on May 14 of that year.
But he was by no means comfortable with his latest creation. To a friend he described his problems with it: “The sonata is certainly wild and interminable. I think it takes about 45 minutes. I was lured into this length by its guiding idea. This is–three contrasting types from a literary work. Of course no program will be indicated, though I begin to think that the sonata would be clearer if the program were revealed. Nobody will ever play this composition, it’s too difficult and long . . . At one time I wanted to make a symphony of this sonata, but this seemed impossible because of the purely pianistic style in which it is written.” The premiere, given in Moscow on October 17, 1908, by Konstantin Igumnov, got a respectful but mystified reaction, and the composer had scarcely any more success when he played the sonata on his recitals during the next several seasons.
Perhaps it may help audiences to know that the “literary work” that inspired this sonata was Goethe’s Faust and that its three movements were apparently inspired in turn by Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Small wonder that the work struck Rachmaninoff as symphonic in character: these are the titles and sequence of the three movements of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, composed in 1857. Rachmaninoff chose not to reveal the inspiration, and this sonata is in no sense programmatic: its three movements should be understood more as character pieces than as pieces that depict specific events.
This is an extremely difficult sonata for the performer, and it generates textures so full and dramatic that Rachmaninoff was right to wonder if it might really be symphonic music. The Allegro moderato alternates tentative figures with fierce outbursts before rushing ahead at the Allegro; its second subject, marked Moderato, is built on repeated notes that emerge from murmuring figurations. This movement, long and technically demanding, drives to a sonorous climax that rides along great waves of sound before the music subsides to recall the second subject and to close quietly, even peacefully. The main idea of the Lento is introduced above rocking triplet accompaniment, and that rhythm will eventually drive this movement to an agitated climax; a striking sequence of descending trills brings the movement to its restrained close. The finale has seemed to some who know of the sonata’s original inspiration to have been inspired by the Flight to Brocken in Goethe’s Faust. It opens with hammered octaves that are marked both fortissimo and marcato and then races ahead; the second subject is a quiet, march-like idea that Rachmaninoff marks “very resolute.” These two ideas alternate throughout the movement, which also features some lyric and haunting melodies. The music accelerates to the close, where Rachmaninoff rounds matters off with a great chordal climax full of the sound of pealing bells and a suitably furious cadence.