PROGRAM NOTES: An Evening With Peter Serkin and Julia Hsu
Six Etudes in Canon Form, Opus 56
(arr. for piano four-hands by Georges Bizet)
Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany
Robert Schumann was subject to bouts of mental instability, and he suffered one of these in 1845 while living in Leipzig. The composer became convinced that a change would do him good, and in December 1845 he and Clara moved their children and household to Dresden. The change did prove beneficial. Schumann’s mood improved, and that winter he became interested in counterpoint and began to teach it to Clara; she in turn was delighted to discover that she could compose fugues. Inevitably, their thoughts turned to the organ, and during the winter the couple ordered a pedal attachment for their piano–this set of pedals made the piano duplicate the technique (if not the sound) of the organ, and the Schumanns spent that spring practicing organ music on the pedal piano. Schumann then became interested in writing for this instrument, and in April 1846 he composed his Studien für den Pedal-Flügeln, Opus 56. These six contrapuntal “studies” are essentially organ music written for the pedal piano (and they have often been recorded on the organ). Each is a relatively brief canon, and each presents a performer with different technical challenges: canons in different intervals, canons that move between the hands, and so on. At moments these etudes are quite reminiscent of the music of Bach.
It may seem curious, but these quite “German” studies appealed to two young French composers, who arranged them for piano. About 1900 Claude Debussy arranged Schumann’s canonic etudes for two pianos, but even before that Georges Bizet had arranged them for piano four-hands. Bizet, who was quite an accomplished pianist, made these arrangements about 1873, while he was at work on Carmen and only two years before his own death at age 37.
Selections from Jeux d’enfants, Opus 22
Trompette et tambour (Trumpet and Drum)
Les bulles de savon (Soap Bubbles)
La toupee (The Top)
Born October 25, 1838, Paris
Died June 3, 1875, Bougival, France
Bizet composed Jeux d’enfants (“Children’s Games”) in 1871, two years before his arrangement of the Schumann Canonic Etudes. Bizet’s original version consisted of twelve brief pieces for piano four-hands, but he immediately arranged five of these for orchestra, and the orchestral version (sometimes known as Petite Suite) has become better-known than the original version for two pianos.
That is unfortunate, for–deft as the orchestral version is–it misses some of the delicacy of the version for piano four-hands. This music is charming. Bizet offers a series of miniatures depicting the games children play, and he does it with a great deal of humor and delicacy. The music is gentle and melodic, and listeners should have no trouble recognizing the games Bizet is picturing. The writing for the two pianos is graceful and extremely refined, and one of the particular charms of this music is its small scale: many of these pieces have an extremely quiet ending. This recital offers three movements from Jeux d’enfants.
Trompette et tambour (Marche) “Trumpet and Drum” This mock-heroic little march features trumpet fanfares and drum tattoos.
Les bulles de savon (Rondino) “Soap Bubbles” Sparkling bubbles float and swirl brightly in this portrait of a favorite childhood diversion.
La toupie (Impromptu) “The Top” Audiences should have no trouble hearing the spinning top and seeing the giddy pleasures of the children gathered around it.
Sonata in B-flat Major for Piano Four-Hands, K.358
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
There is a remarkable portrait of the Mozart family painted in Salzburg in 1780-81 by Johann Nepomuk de la Croce. It shows Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl seated at the piano playing a duo. Father Leopold hovers anxiously over them, and mother Anna Maria looks down from a portrait on the wall–she had died several years earlier in Paris. It was a last moment of stasis for that family (and even this was contrived). Later in 1781 Wolfgang would break free of the two authority figures in his life–Archbishop Colloredo and his father–and move to Vienna, where he would establish himself as a free-lance composer. The Mozart family would never be whole again.
That portrait, which glosses over the considerable tensions within the family, also reminds us that Wolfgang and Nannerl had established much of their early reputation as child prodigies by playing keyboard duos and that young Wolfgang had written music for them to play together. The Sonata in B-flat Major is one of these works. Audiences should be wary of this sonata’s Koechel number, which suggests that it dates from Mozart’s final years in Salzburg and so must be the work of a mature composer. Actually, this duo-sonata is a much earlier work. It was composed in the spring of 1774, and its listing in the revised Koechel catalog is K.186c, making it contemporaneous with Mozart’s first great symphonies (Nos. 25, 28, and 29), composed when he was just turning 18. Mozart appears to have performed this sonata in both Paris and Vienna, and he published it in Vienna in 1783, two years after moving there.
The Sonata in B-flat Major was composed not to storm the heavens but to provide attractive music that Wolfgang and Nannerl could perform together. The sonata is brief (only about a dozen minutes long), polished, and pleasing, and Mozart was quite right to publish it after he moved to Vienna–there was a ready market of pianists who would be glad to play such music at home. When Mozart and his sister played together, Wolfgang would usually play the Secondo (lower) part, Nannerl the Primo. The duties are nicely balanced in this sonata: the lower part is not relegated to a strictly accompaniment role, and the melodic line flows smoothly between the two pianists. There is even some modest hand-crossing between the parts (de la Croce’s portrait captures such a moment, with Wolfgang’s right hand reaching across to play above Nannerl’s left).
The music itself requires little description. The sonata-form opening Allegro is delicate music, with nice interplay of the two parts; its development section is very brief, and Mozart rounds matters off with a full recapitulation. The Adagio, also in sonata form, gives most of the melodic interest to the Primo while the Secondo provides murmuring accompaniment; Mozart appends a five-measure coda to conclude. The Molto presto, which zips along happily, fully exploits the four-hand medium, both in the crisp ensemble playing and the opportunities for each pianist to take a solo turn.
Allegro in A Minor for Piano Four-Hands, D.947 “Lebensstürme”
Rondo in A Major for Piano Four-Hands, D.951
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Schubert’s final year has become the stuff of legend. He turned 31 in January 1828, and from the next ten months came a succession of masterpieces: the premières of the Trio in E-flat Major and Fantasy for Violin and Piano, the completion of the “Great” Symphony in C Major, the String Quintet, the three final piano sonatas, the songs of the Schwanengesang cycle, and the song Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. It has become customary to refer to this music–music of an extraordinary new depth and intensity–as “late Schubert,” though Donald Francis Tovey reminds us that since we are dealing with a composer who died at 31, all Schubert is “early Schubert.” The headstone of Schubert’s grave in Vienna suggests how much we have lost: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes.”
In the succession of masterworks from that remarkable year, it is easy to overlook the fact that Schubert spent the spring of 1828 writing for piano four-hands. From April came the Fantasy in F Minor (one of the greatest works written for this genre), from May the Allegro in A Minor, and from June the Rondo in A Major. Music for piano four-hands generally had a “social” function–it was intended for talented amateurs to play at home. Of course it could transcend that aim–the Fantasy is a masterpiece–but it was usually music written for the enjoyment of both performer and listener. That said, it should be noted that the two duos on this program demand first-rate performers.
The Allegro in A Minor (Schubert’s marking is actually Allegro ma non troppo) was not published until twelve years after his death. When Anton Diabelli published this music in Vienna in 1840, he gave it the nickname “Lebensstürme” (“The Storms of Life”), a title Schubert never heard nor imagined. While the nickname may not be authentic, it does hint at the dramatic scope of this music. Many have heard orchestral sonorities here, and in fact this music has been orchestrated and performed in that version.
The Allegro in A Minor is in sonata form, but this is the extended and subtle sonata form Schubert had evolved in his final years. His “themes” are actually groups of contrasted ideas rather than simple melodies, and his harmonic language can be daring. The opening sounds fierce, like a strident trumpet call (one understands why some hear “orchestral” sonorities here), but this sharp declaration quickly leads to a quiet, chromatic melody. The arrival of the second theme-group brings a moment of pure magic. The music slows, grows quiet, and the second piano descends to a softly-pulsing accompaniment deep in the left hand. Over this, the first piano sings the chorale-like second subject in the unexpected key of A-flat minor. This is very quietly presented (the marking here is triple piano), and Schubert’s modulations even within the first statement are effortlessly expressive. And, characteristically, this second group concludes with a completely different figure, a shower of sparkling triplet runs. The development is powerful and extended, with some very complex counterpoint between the two performers, and Schubert eventually drives this Allegro to two concluding chords entirely worthy of all the energy that has preceded them.
The Rondo in A Major is quite different–this is endlessly agreeable music. About ten minutes long, it maintains an air of serene amiability throughout. The entire work proceeds at one fundamental tempo, and it is a moderate pace: Allegretto quasi andantino. Schubert’s title has prompted some discussion, for while the piece may be a rondo, it is simultaneously in sonata form: it presents several themes, “develops” them, and concludes with a reprise and a quiet coda. Yet this is a sonata-structure without conflict or drama, and the understated conclusion is altogether typical.
Hungarian Dances for Piano Four-Hands
No. 8 in A Minor
No. 9 in E Minor
No. 11 in D Minor
No. 12 in D Minor
No. 18 in D Major
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Brahms had a life-long fascination with Hungarian music, which for him meant gypsy music. As a boy in Hamburg, he first encountered it from the refugees fleeing revolutions in Hungary for a new life in America, and he was introduced to gypsy fiddle tunes at the age of 20 while on tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi (it was on that tour that Brahms began his lifelong collection of Hungarian folk-tunes). Over a period of years, he wrote a number of what he called Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands and played them for (and with) his friends. He published ten of these in 1869 and another eleven in 1880, and they proved a huge success. There was a ready market for this sort of music that could be played at home by talented amateurs, and these fiery, fun pieces carried Brahms’ name around the world (they also inspired the Slavonic Dances of his friend Antonin Dvořák)
In the Hungarian Dances, Brahms took csardas tunes and–preserving their themes and characteristic freedom–wrote his own music based on them. To his publisher, Brahms described these dances as “genuine gypsy children, which I did not beget, but merely brought up with bread and milk.” It has been pointed out, however, that Brahms did not begin with authentic peasant tunes (which Bartók and Kodály would track down in the twentieth century), but with those tunes as they had been spiffed-up for popular consumption by the “gypsy” bands that played in the cafés and on the streetcorners of Vienna. Brahms would not have cared about authenticity. He loved these tunes–with their fiery melodies, quick shifts of mood, and rhythmic freedom–and he successfully assimilated that style, particularly its atmosphere of wild gypsy fiddling (in fact, he assimilated it so successfully that several of the Hungarian Dances are based on “gypsy” tunes that he composed himself).
This concert concludes with four of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, and one of these–No. 11 in D Minor–was composed by Brahms himself (that is, he based it on his own themes rather than Hungarian material). Program notes for these dances would be a form of intellectual overkill. Sit back, enjoy this fiery music, and sense why Brahms loved it as much as he did.