RAMEAU Tambourin
La villageoise
Le rappel des oiseaux from Suite in E Minor, Pièces de clavecin
Les niais de Sologne from Suite in D Major, Pièces de clavecin
Gavotte avec six doubles from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin
DEBUSSY Images, Book I
CHOPIN Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posth.
Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

La villageoise
Le rappel des oiseaux from Suite in E Minor, Pièces de clavecin
Les niais de Sologne from Suite in D Major, Pièces de clavecin
Gavotte avec six doubles from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin

Baptized September 25, 1683, Dijon, France
Died September 12, 1764, Paris

We remember Rameau today as a harpsichordist and theoretician, but he would have been disappointed to learn that. He wished above all else to succeed as a composer of opera, and while he did not write his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, until he was 50, it proved a striking success, and he composed about twenty more over the next two decades. Only a very small number of these are produced today, and Rameau’s modern reputation rests on his harpsichord music. These pieces–short, lively, and beautifully written for the instrument–are often in dance forms, but Rameau also wrote a number of pieces with evocative titles. Some of the latter are descriptive music (he wrote pieces about knitters, chickens, Indians, and so on), and some suggest specific moods (triumph, indifference).

This concert opens with four of Rameau’s descriptive works for keyboard. Tambourin (that title means “drum”) has become one of his most famous compositions. This energetic music tries to evoke the sound of a drum in many ways, from sharp accents to quick mordants. La villageoise (that title means something on the order of “rustic villager”) is in rondo form: the opening melody undergoes a series of variations. Like Messiaen two centuries later, Rameau was attracted to bird-song, and in his Le rappel des oiseaux (the “call” or “recalling of birds”) those birds chirp very busily, their cries decorated with gracenotes. Les niais de Sologne, which translates literally as the “simpletons” or “fools of Sologne,” is another rondo. Audiences may guess at the descriptive intent of this music.

The opening set on this program concludes with a non-descriptive and more extended work, Rameau’s Gavotte avec six doubles. The piece opens with the solemn gavotte, and then Rameau offers a series of what he calls “doubles”–really variations–on that theme. These are sharply varied in terms of speed and expression, and the dignity and grave beauty of this music have made it one of Rameau’s best-known compositions.

Images Book 1

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

In the early years of this century, Debussy’s piano music, already a miracle of subtlety and tone color, took on a new depth and sophistication. It may be possible to find reasons for this in the composer’s life. After years of struggle, Debussy–now in his early forties–had two significant successes: the opera Pelléas et Mélisande was produced in 1902, and La Mer followed three years later. With these achievements behind him–and with a new sense of orchestral sonority derived from composing the opera and La Mer –Debussy returned to composing for piano. He produced the first book of Images in 1905, the second in 1907.

Audiences should both take the title Images seriously and they should ignore it. It is true that some of these six individual pieces have visual titles and seem at first to proceed from the images they suggest. Yet Debussy’s intention here is much more subtle than mere tone-painting. He aims not for literal depiction of the title but for a refined projection of mood, a combination of title, rhythm, and sonority to create an evocative sound-world all its own. Debussy was quite proud of his achievement in this music. When he sent the first set off to his publisher, he wrote: “With no false vanity, I believe that these three pieces are a success and that they will take their place in the literature of the piano, on the left hand of Schumann, or the right hand of Chopin, as you like it.” Few would argue with that claim.

The first book consists of three quite different pieces. Some of Debussy’s finest works were inspired by water, and the first of this set–“Reflections in the Water”–is one of them. The repetition and growing complexity of the chordal melody from the beginning has inevitably been compared to dropping stones into the surface of water and watching the patterns of ripples interweave. The music rises to a shimmering climax and fades into silence on fragments of sound.

At the same time he was writing Images, Debussy was also editing an edition of the opera Les Fêtes de Polymnie by eighteenth-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, and he wrote this movement quite literally as homage to the older composer. Debussy does not quote Rameau but instead writes in a baroque form, the sarabande, as a way of honoring a master whom he revered. A sarabande is an old dance (originally from the sixteenth century), and this one–in G-sharp minor–dances gravely. The abstractly-titled Mouvement is characterized by great rhythmic energy (Debussy marks it Animé); some have heard pre-echoes here of the sort of ostinato-based piano music Stravinsky and Bartók would write a generation later.

Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Opus Posth.

Born February 22, 1810, Zelazowska Wola
Died October 17, 1849, Paris

This set opens with a short work that Chopin chose not to publish, and in fact he never thought of this piece as a nocturne. In 1830, the 21-year-old Chopin wrote a piece for his sister. She was about to learn her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, and to help her he wrote a preparatory piece. He inscribed it to her: “To my sister Ludvika as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto.” The piece was not published during Chopin’s lifetime, and after his death his publisher Julian Fontana, who tried to bring out all of Chopin’s work posthumously, managed to miss it entirely. It was not published until 1875, twenty-six years after Chopin’s death, and only then did it acquire the name nocturne.

For his part, Chopin simply marked this piece Lento con gran’ espressione. It falls into several sections: a four-measure introduction, stark and curiously reminiscent of Beethoven, leads to a statement of the haunting first theme. A second subject, a simple rising figure, gives way to a more rhythmic theme derived from the finale of the Second Piano Concerto. There is no development. Chopin repeats his opening theme, and a quiet coda built on some of those wonderful rhythmic sprays so typical of Chopin leads to a cadence that he marks triple piano.

This music has excited quite different reactions. Chopin’s biographer Herbert Weinstock dismisses it, saying that its themes “are treated with maiming brevity and utter lack of co-ordination.” Whether that statement is true or not hardly matters: this product of Chopin’s youth, one that its creator himself virtually forgot, has become a great favorite of pianists, from the humblest amateurs to the greatest virtuosos.

Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2


This is the second of a set of two nocturnes that Chopin composed in Paris in 1835. The Nocturne in D-flat Major is suffused with the dark and subdued atmosphere we associate with the nocturne. The left hand establishes a steady accompaniment that will continue throughout, while the right hand has the main theme, a flowing and endlessly lyric idea that glides along smoothly (Chopin marks it Lento sostenuto). The music grows more complex and dramatic as it proceeds, and at the climax Chopin first asks that it be con anima, then con forza, and finally appassionato. At the end, the calm of the beginning returns, and the music closes quietly.

Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Opus 58


Chopin wrote the Piano Sonata in B Minor, his last large-scale composition for piano, during the summer of 1844, when he was 34. He composed the sonata at Nohant, the summer estate in central France he shared with the novelist George Sand. That summer represented a last moment of stasis in the composer’s life–over the next several years his relationship with Sand would deteriorate, and his health, long ravaged by tuberculosis, would begin to fail irretrievably. Dedicated to Madame la Comtesse Emilie de Perthuis, a friend and pupil, the Sonata in B Minor was published in 1845. Chopin himself never performed it in public.

Chopin’s sonatas have come in for a hard time from some critics, and this criticism intensifies to the degree that they depart from the formal pattern of the classical piano sonata. But it is far better to take these sonatas on their own terms and recognize that Chopin–like Beethoven before him–was willing to adapt classical forms for his own expressive purposes. The Sonata in B Minor is a big work–its four movements stretch out to nearly half an hour. The opening Allegro maestoso does indeed have a majestic beginning with the first theme plunging downward out of the silence, followed moments later by the gorgeous second subject in D major, marked sostenuto. The movement treats both these ideas but dispenses with a complete recapitulation and closes with a restatement of the second theme. The brief Molto vivace is a scherzo, yet here that form is without the violence it sometimes takes on in Beethoven. This scherzo has a distinctly light touch, with the music flickering and flashing across the keyboard (the right-hand part is particularly demanding). A quiet legato middle section offers a moment of repose before the returning of the opening rush.

Chopin launches the lengthy Largo with sharply-dotted rhythms, over which the main theme–itself dotted and marked cantabile–rises quietly and gracefully. This movement is also in ternary form, with a flowing middle section in E major. The finale–Presto, non tanto- leaps to life with a powerful eight-bar introduction built of octaves before the main theme, correctly marked Agitato, launches this rondo in B minor. Of unsurpassed difficulty, this final movement–one of the greatest in the Chopin sonatas–brings the work to a brilliant close.