PROGRAM NOTES: Garrick Ohlsson, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 110 (1821)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna
The years 1813 through 1820 were exceptionally difficult for Beethoven, who virtually stopped composing in these years. There were several reasons for this: his deafness was now nearly complete, he suffered periods of poor health, and much of his energy was consumed with his struggle for legal custody of his nephew Karl. And–perhaps most important–he had reached a creative impasse brought on by the exhaustion of his Heroic Style. Where the previous two decades had seen a great outpouring of music, now his creative powers flickered and were nearly extinguished. Not until 1820 was he able to put his troubles, both personal and creative, behind him and marshal his energy as a composer. At the end of May 1820 he committed himself to writing three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger; these would be Beethoven’s final sonatas. Although he claimed he wrote them “in one breath,” their composition was actually spread out over a longer period than he expected when he agreed to write them.
The Sonata in A-flat Major, completed in December 1821, shows some of the most original touches in a group of sonatas that are all distinguished for their originality. The first movement, Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, is remarkable for its lovely and continuous lyricism. Beethoven notes that the opening is to be played con amabilità, and that spirit hovers over the entire movement. The essentially lyric quality of this movement is underlined by the fact that the second theme grows immediately out of the first: the opening idea has barely been stated when the second seems to rise directly out of it. By contrast, the bluff Allegro molto is rough and ready: it is a scherzo with a brief trio section full of energy and rhythmic surprises.
The long final movement is of complex structure: it performs the function of both adagio and finale, yet even these elements are intermixed with great originality. The main theme of the Adagio, marked Arioso dolente, arches painfully over a steady chordal accompaniment before Beethoven introduces a fugue marked Allegro, ma non troppo. After a brief working-out, the fugue comes to a halt and the Arioso theme returns. This time, however, Beethoven has marked it Ermattet, klagend (exhausted, grieving), and here the music seems almost choked and struggling to move. Yet gradually the music gathers strength and the fugue returns, but this time Beethoven has inverted the theme and builds the fugue on this inversion. The sonata ends with a great rush upward across five octaves to the triumphant final chord.
Fantasy in C Major, D.760, “Wanderer Fantasy” (1822)
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
In the fall of 1822, Schubert set to work on a new symphony. He completed the first two movements and began a scherzo, but then became interested in writing an extended work for solo piano and set the symphony aside. He completed the piano work in November 1822, and it was published the following February; he never returned to the symphony, and it is known to us today as the “Unfinished Symphony.”
The piano piece has taken the name Wanderer Fantasy, for it is based in part on Schubert’s song Der Wanderer, composed in 1819. The Wanderer Fantasy is in one long movement–about twenty minutes in length–that falls into four sections. While the title “fantasy” may imply a lack of attention to form, exactly the reverse is true here–there are unusual thematic and rhythmic connections between the four sections, so that this music is tightly disciplined throughout. It is also extremely difficult to perform. The Wanderer Fantasy has been called the first of Schubert’s mature compositions for the piano, and in fact it was too difficult even for its creator. Schubert is reported to have given up during a performance of this music and to have stormed away from the piano, exclaiming in frustration: “The devil may play this stuff! I can’t!” The brilliance and difficulty of this music have made it a great favorite of virtuoso pianists. Franz Liszt admired and frequently performed the Wanderer Fantasy, and its cyclic structure of interconnected movements had a strong influence on Liszt’s own music.
The opening provides the basic dactylic pulse that will recur throughout the Fantasy. This steady, pounding rhythm will return in many forms; in this opening section, it repeats frequently, and some of these repetitions are brilliant, generating a vast volume of sound. The second section (there are no pauses between the different sections) quotes a fragment of Schubert’s song Der Wanderer at a very slow tempo and then offers a series of variations on it. Again, these variations grow increasingly brilliant before this section subsides to end quietly. The third section, playful and fast, is built upon a dotted rhythm that now begins to dominate the music–this dancing rhythm will reappear in several other themes in this carefree interlude. The final section brings back the theme that opened the Fantasy, but now that rhythmic figure is treated fugally, and this impressive music powers its way to a dramatic conclusion.
Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Opus 54 (1842)
Born February 22, 1810, Żelazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
Though the term had been used earlier, it was Haydn who conceived of the scherzo in its modern sense. In 1781, he called the third movement of some of his string quartets a “scherzo.” What had been the old minuet-and-trio movement now became a scherzo (and trio), and Haydn’s choice of that name indicated that he wanted more speed and liveliness. Beethoven took this evolution one step further: his scherzos, usually built on very short rhythmic units, explode with violent energy and with enough comic touches to remind us that scherzo is the Italian word for joke.
In his four scherzos, Chopin does not copy the forms of Haydn or Beethoven, but adapts the general shape of the classical-period scherzo for his own purposes. He keeps the quick tempo, the 3/4 meter, and (usually) the ABA form of the earlier scherzo, but makes no attempt at humor–the emphasis in this music is on brilliant, exciting music for the piano. The general form of the Chopin scherzo is an opening section based on contrasted themes, followed by a middle section (Chopin does not call this a trio) in a different key and character; the scherzo concludes with the return of the opening material, now slightly abridged.
Chopin’s Scherzo in E Major, his final work in this form, was composed in 1842 and is suffused with a spirit more relaxed than one generally associates with the scherzo–it is full of sunny, almost rhapsodic music. It is also his longest, and the entire scherzo is to some extent unified around its first five notes, which will reappear throughout in a variety of guises. Particularly striking is the central episode in C-sharp minor, in which a flowing melody moves along easily over a rocking accompaniment. The return of the opening material is extended, and the final pages are brilliant.
Étude, Opus 25, No. 5 in E Minor (1837)
Étude, Opus 25, No. 6 in G-sharp Minor (1837)
While still a teenager in Warsaw, Chopin heard a performance of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for Solo Violin and was astonished–as were so many other musicians of that era–by what the Italian composer had achieved in this music. Here were extraordinarily complex works for the violin that presented specific technical problems for the performer yet managed to be exciting and engaging music at the same time. Chopin resolved to write something similar for the piano, and over the next few years, a difficult time for the composer, he did just that.
The Twelve Études of Chopin’s Opus 25 date from 1839, when the composer was living in Paris. The Études should be understood first as teaching pieces. Written for Chopin’s students, this brief studies present different kinds of pianistic problems, ranging from the most finger-breaking virtuoso hurdles to the ability to sustain a long melodic line. Along the way, however, they offer breathtaking music that delights general audiences while it challenges pianists. The two études of Opus 25 on this program create specific technical problems for the pianist: No. 5 in E Minor is in Lombard rhythms (dotted rhythms with the short note coming first), while No. 6 in G-sharp Minor is in thirds.
Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48, No. 1 (1841)
Chopin wrote the dramatic Nocturne in C Minor in 1841, when he was 31 years old and living in Paris. The title “nocturne,” with its suggestion of a restrained and subdued atmosphere, might seem inappropriate for the Nocturne in C Minor, which moves from a quiet beginning to an almost frenzied climax. The understated beginning (Chopin marks it mezza voce: “middle voice”) soon introduces widely-spaced chords in the left-hand accompaniment, and these in turn give way to rolled chords and then to thunderous octave runs; these runs–four octaves deep–require the utmost power from a performer, and the chordal theme emerges almost in passing. Chopin drives the music to a huge climax full of rhythmic complexity–the closing section consistently sets three against four–until suddenly the fury subsides and the music concludes on three quiet C-minor chords.
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23 (1831)
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 began work on the Ballade in G Minor in 1831 in Vienna and completed it four years later in Paris. A portentous seven-bar introduction of uncertain tonality gives way to the opening episode, a waltz-like theme in G minor. The second theme is much more dramatic but–curiously–is related to the waltz theme. This second theme undergoes a brilliant development, though this ballade lacks the recapitulation that would be expected at this point in a sonata-form movement. Instead, Chopin brings back the waltz theme briefly before launching into the coda, appropriately marked Presto con fuoco.