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PROGRAM NOTES: An Evening With Marc-André Hamelin

Piano Sonata in B Minor, S.178

FRANZ LISZT
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Hungary
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth

Liszt wrote his Sonata in B Minor in 1852-3 and dedicated it to Robert Schumann. The first public performance took place four years later in Berlin in 1857, when it was played by Liszt’s son-in-law Hans von Bülow. The Sonata in B Minor is in all senses of the word a revolutionary work, for Liszt sets aside previous notions of sonata form and looks ahead to a new vision of what such a form might be. Schumann himself, then in serious mental decline, reportedly never heard the piece but could not have been especially comfortable with the dedication of a piece of music that flew so directly in the face of his own sense of what a sonata should be. Another figure in nineteenth century music, however, reacted rapturously: Wagner wrote to Liszt to say, “The Sonata is beautiful beyond any conception, great, pleasing, profound and noble–it is sublime, just as you are yourself.”

The most immediately distinctive feature of the sonata is that it is in one movement instead of the traditional three. Beyond this, it is built not on long and distinct melodic themes but on short phrases. These phrases undergo a gradual but extensive development–a process Liszt called “the transformation of themes”–and are often made to perform quite varied functions as they undergo these transformations. Despite the one-movement structure, Liszt achieves something of the effect of the traditional three-movement form by giving the sonata a general fast-slow-fast shape. The entire sonata is built on just four brief theme-phrases: the slowly-descending scale heard at the very beginning; the leaping theme in octaves at the Allegro; a powerful theme over repeated eighth-notes marked Grandioso; and a lyric fourth phrase marked cantando espressivo, itself an expanded version of the martial repeated notes of the opening.

The Sonata in B Minor is extremely dramatic music, so dramatic that many guessed that it must have a program, as so much of Liszt’s music does. But Liszt insisted that this is not descriptive or programmatic music. He wanted his sonata accepted as a piece of “pure music,” to be heard and understood for itself.

Piano Trio in A Minor, Opus 50

PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

Nikolai Rubinstein, brother of the pianist Anton Rubinstein, had hired Tchaikovsky to teach composition at the Moscow Conservatory and later encouraged him as a composer, conducting and championing his music. When Nikolai died on March 23, 1881, at the age of 46, Tchaikovsky resolved to write a work in his memory, but it was difficult for him to choose the form for such a piece. Nikolai had been a pianist, but a piano concerto did not seem a proper memorial piece. Tchaikovsky disliked the combination of piano and strings in chamber music but eventually overcame this aversion to write the Trio in A Minor as the memorial to Rubinstein; it was the only time Tchaikovsky used a piano in his chamber music. He began work on the trio in December 1881 while living in Rome and completed the score on February 9, 1882. The manuscript is inscribed: “In memory of a Great Artist.”

A particular memory came back to Tchaikovsky as he worked on this music: in 1873, after the première of Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden (which had been conducted by Rubinstein), faculty members from the Moscow Conservatory had gone on a picnic in the sunny, blossom-covered countryside. Here they were surrounded by curious peasants, and the gregarious Rubinstein quickly made friends and had the peasants singing and dancing. As he set to work on the trio, Tchaikovsky remembered how much Rubinstein had liked one of these songs.

The trio as completed has a very unusual form: it is in two massive movements that last a total of almost 50 minutes. The first movement in particular has proven baffling to critics, who have been unable to decide whether it is in sonata or rondo form. It is built on two sharply contrasted themes: the cello’s somber opening melody–which Tchaikovsky marks molto espressivo–and a vigorous falling theme for solo piano, marked Allegro giusto. Tchaikovsky alternates these themes through this dramatic movement, which closes with a quiet restatement of the cello’s opening theme, now played in octaves by the piano.

The second movement is a huge set of variations. The theme of these variations is the peasant melody Rubinstein had liked so much on the picnic in 1873, and Tchaikovsky puts this simple tune through eleven quite different variations. Particularly striking are the fifth, in which the piano’s high notes seem to echo the sound of sleigh bells; the sixth, a waltz introduced by the cello; the eighth, a powerful fugue; and the tenth, a mazurka introduced by the piano. So individual and dramatic are these variations that several critics instantly assumed that each must depict an incident from Rubinstein’s life and set about guessing what each variation was “about.” Tchaikovsky was dumbfounded when this was reported to him; to a friend he wrote: “How amusing! To compose music without the slightest desire to represent something and suddenly to discover that it represents this or that, it is what Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme must have felt when he learnt that he had been speaking in prose all his life.”

The trio concludes with a final variation so huge that many have considered it a separate movement. It comes to a somber end: Tchaikovsky marks the final page Lugubre (“lugubrious”), and over a funeral march in the piano come fragments of the cello’s theme from the very beginning of the first movement, now marked piangendo: “weeping.” This theme gradually dissolves, and the piano marches into silence.

meridia