PROGRAM NOTES: Hélène Grimaud, piano
by Eric Bromberger
The first half of this program consists of eight separate works, each inspired in a different way by water. Water in these pieces may take many forms–it can be mist, rain, oceans, fountains. Some of these pieces were inspired by different locations or settings or legends, each having to do in some way with water. Or the composers may simply have been inspired by water itself–its sound, its feel, its beauty, its evocative power. Water is fundamental to life, and these eight composers–eight very different artists–respond to it in quite different ways.
Born October 24, 1925, Oneglia, Italy
Died May 27, 2003, Rome
Approximate Duration: 2 minutes
Luciano Berio composed his Wasserklavier in 1964, and in its original form the work was for two pianos; Wasserklavier (that title means “Water-Piano”) has a companion piece composed in 1970: Erdenklavier: “Earth- Piano.” Wasserklavier is an extremely brief (26-measure) and concentrated work. Berio’s detailed performance markings give explicit indication of the music’s character: it must be triple piano throughout, and Berio marks the music sempre legatissimo and teneramente e lontano: “tenderly and far away.” Though it is in a specific key (F minor), this music may be regarded as a study in harmonic and textural complexity. It begins gently in 6/8, and at least one critic has made the connection between this quiet opening and the barcarolle, the rocking song of Venetian gondoliers, and identified that connection as the source of the work’s title. Within this quiet beginning, Berio introduces a brief thematic cell that interrupts the harmonic and rhythmic flow. Gradually textures grow thicker, there are wide thematic skips, and the music takes on an unexpected complexity before Wasserklavier resolves quietly on an F-minor scale.
Rain Tree Sketch II
Born October 8, 1930, Tokyo
Died February 20, 1996, Tokyo
Approximate Duration: 4 minutes
Takemitsu was virtually self-taught as a composer. His music–which combines Japanese materials, Western techniques, and an acute ear for instrumental color–is entirely original. Not for Takemitsu is the dramatic, incident-crowded music of the Western symphonic tradition. Instead, he suggests, “We should listen in the way we walk through an ornamental garden.” Certain features distinguish Takemitsu’s music: its wide palette of color, the contrast between what seems a static timelessness and bursts of ecstatic activity reminiscent of Messiaen, the contrast between the sound of the piano’s sharp percussive attack and the subtle decay of that attack, the attention to reverberation (this music requires scrupulous use of all three pedals), and the delicacy of much of his music.
Takemitsu composed Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992, shortly after the death of Olivier Messiaen in April of that year; the work received joint premières in October 1992 in France and Japan. Subtitled In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen, this music seems to take on some of the spirit of that French master: Takemitsu’s opening marking is “Celestially Light,” and he specifies that the central episode is to be “Joyful.”
Barcarolle No. 5 in F-sharp Minor, Opus 66
Born May 12, 1845, Pamiers, France
Died November 4, 1924, Paris
Approximate Duration: 6 minutes
The term barcarolle (“boat-song”) comes from the Italian barcarole, the songs of the Venetian gondoliers. The barcarolle traditionally has some of the relaxed ease of those songs, in which a melody is sung over a rocking accompaniment in a slow 6/8 meter that echoes the motion of the boat across the waves. This agreeable form made its way into the art-music of serious composers across Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century–Chopin composed a Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Mendelssohn included what he called Venetian Boat Songs in several of his sets of Songs without Words, and many other composers provided examples.
French composer Gabriel Fauré was particularly attracted to the barcarolle–he wrote thirteen of them across the span of his career. He completed the fifth of that series on September 18, 1894, a few months after his fiftieth birthday and dedicated it to the wife of his friend Vincent d’Indy. No one coming to this music without knowing its title would guess that it is a barcarolle. Rather than exuding a relaxed ease, this is complex music. Fauré sets it in 9/8 rather than the expected 6/8, but will then write passages in 6/8, and at one point he sets the right hand in 2/4 and the left in 6/8. This is also quite energetic music. Fauré may mark the beginning dolce, but within just a few measures the music has grown to sempre fortissimo, and it spills over with energy throughout–it can be rippling and sparkling one moment, turbulent and dissonant the next, and dissonances will sting from out of these washes of sound. After all this energy, the music grows quiet and vanishes on a gently-arpeggiated chord in F-sharp major.
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France
Died December 28, 1937, Paris
Approximate Duration: 5 minutes
Ravel composed his Jeux d’eau in 1901, when he was still almost unknown. At that time, the 26-year-old composer had gained a slender reputation with a few brief piano pieces– Pavane for a Dead Princess and Habanera–but he was still enrolled in the Paris Conservatory as a student of Fauré and struggling to win that symbol of success for young French composers, the Prix de Rome. Ravel never won that prize, but his Jeux d’eau, one of his most dazzling and original pieces, brought him sudden fame.
This music is at once both a connection with the past and a departure toward the future. The connection with the past may at first seem an unlikely one: Franz Liszt. In 1877, while living in Rome, Liszt had composed a brief piano piece called Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este (heard later on this program), a depiction of the play of the water in the fountain of the estate where he was living. Ravel borrowed both the general conception of Liszt’s music and the first part of his title when he wrote Jeux d’eau (“Play of the Water”), but he achieved a range of sparkling color from the piano that Liszt never dreamed of.
In the score, Ravel prefaced the music with a quote from Henri de Regnier: “The river god laughs at the water as it caresses him.” One should take this as a general suggestion of spirit rather than as something the music sets out to depict literally–Ravel himself said that Jeux d’eau was “inspired by the bubbling of water and the musical sounds of fountains, waterfalls, and brooks.” In this music he achieves an enormous range of sounds that evoke sparkling waters: the very opening (which sounds bell-like because Ravel keeps it in the piano’s ringing high register) suggests a completely new soundworld from the piano, and Ravel contrasts this with a variety of sonorities, from delicate tracery cascading downward to thundering music that sweeps across the keyboard.
Born May 29, 1860, Camprodón, Lérida, Spain
Died May 18, 1909, Cambo-les-Bains, France
Approximate Duration: 10 minutes
We remember Albeniz primarily for the music inspired by his homeland, and the work that most completely embodies Albéniz’s use of Spanish materials is his masterpiece, the suite Iberia. Iberia consists of four books of three pieces each, which were composed during the final years of his life, 1905- 09. These twelve pieces have been described as a collection of evocations of Spain and its atmosphere, music, and sounds (so successful has this music proven that some observers claim that this music evokes for them even the characteristic smells of Spain). Albéniz wrote Iberia during his final illness, when he was living in France, and in a touching way these pieces truly are evocations of a music and a world Albeniz remembered from his boyhood.
Almería, the second piece in Book II, was inspired by the city of that name, built on the Mediterranean coast during the Muslim occupation of southern Spain. Almería is famous for its fortress, its beautiful setting, and its hot temperatures. Albéniz’s evocation of the city is in ternary form, with the central chordal section giving way to an expansive return of the opening material.
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este S.163/4
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding, Austria
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth, Germany
Approximate Duration: 7 minutes
Liszt gave up the post of kapellmeister in Weimar in 1859 and moved the following year to Rome, where he took minor orders in the Catholic Church and lived for part of each year in the Villa d’Este in Rome. The Villa d’Este is a handsome sixteenth-century villa built on a steep hillside in Tivoli and famous for its gardens and particularly for its fountains, which are of many different and elaborate designs and which stretch down the hillside. By the time Liszt lived there, the Villa had fallen into disrepair (it has since been renovated), but the fountains and gardens were intact, and they made a profound impression on the composer.
Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (“Play of the Waters at the Villa d’Este”) is a musical evocation of one of the sparkling fountains on the estate. This shimmering music would have a powerful influence a generation later on two young French composers who would write a great deal of similar “water” music: Debussy and Ravel. Liszt’s portrait of sunlight sparkling off the waters of the fountain seems pure impressionism: the swirling beginning gives way to more lyric ideas in the middle section. In the score at this point Liszt includes a quote from St. John: “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I give him shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.”
Andante from In the Mists
Born July 3, 1854, Hukvaldy, Czech Republic
Died August 12, 1928, Ostravia, Czech Republic
Approximate Duration: 3 minutes
Janáček composed In the Mists in 1912, when he was 58 years old and serving as director of the Organ School in Brno. As a composer he was virtually unknown: a regional production of his opera Jenůfa in 1904 had brought him a brief moment of notice, but now he seemed doomed to live out his days as a provincial musician. Success would come to Janáček a decade later, but when he wrote In the Mists, Janáček could have no inkling of this: he was nearing retirement, he was unknown, he was trapped in an unhappy marriage, and he feared that this would be his fate.
Some of Janáček’s biographers believe that the title In the Mists is autobiographical and that it refers to Janáček’s belief that–as a composer–he was lost “in the mist.” Janáček had a fondness for enigmatic titles, and we need to be careful not to read significance into a situation where it may not belong, but that suggestion is intriguing.
In the Mists is a suite of four brief movements. The mood here is neither bitter nor angry, but all four movements are tinged with a measure of melancholy. All four are in a general ternary form: an opening statement, a central episode in a different mood or tempo, and return (sometimes modified) to the opening material. But this music conforms to no set form, and the individual movements are episodic, mercurial in their short themes, repeated phrases, and quick changes of mood and color. This recital offers only the opening Andante, and one might note how beautifully it establishes the subdued mood of the entire work.
La cathédrale engloutie
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris
Approximate Duration: 6 minutes
Debussy composed his first book of twelve Preludes very quickly, between December 1909 and February 1910. Though he has been inescapably tagged an “impressionist,” Debussy disliked that term. He would have argued that he was not trying to present a physical impression of something but instead trying to re-create in sound the character of his subject. So little was he concerned to convey a physical impression that he carefully placed the evocative title of each prelude at its end rather than its beginning: he did not wish to have an audience (or performer) fit the music into a preconceived mental set but rather wanted the music heard for itself first, then identified with an idea or image later. Some scholars, in fact, have gone so far as to say that perhaps Debussy wanted the music to suggest the title.
La cathédrale engloutie (“The Engulfed Cathedral”), however, does seem to offer a kind of tone-painting. It was inspired by the ancient Breton legend of the town of Ys, which had been submerged and would rise from out of the sea one day each year. The prelude begins with the sound of tolling bells, a distant chorale is heard, and gradually the cathedral rises magnificently out of the sea, sparkling and majestic in the sunlight, then gradually sinks back into the depths.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Opus 2
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 26 minutes
In his famous article in the October 1854 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that hailed Brahms as “a young eagle,” Robert Schumann described the effect of watching the young man play his music: “Sitting at the piano he began to disclose wonderful regions to us. We were drawn into even more enchanting spheres. Besides, he is a player of genius who can make of the piano an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices. There were sonatas, veiled symphonies rather…” Schumann helped Brahms publish these sonatas, and the young man was astonished by the experience of seeing his own music in print–and by his sudden respectability. To Schumann he wrote: “I still cannot accustom myself to seeing these guileless children of nature in their smart new clothes.”
For the first of his works to be published, Brahms chose the two piano sonatas he had played for the Schumann family; both had been composed while he was still a few months short of his twentieth birthday. Published as his Opus 2, the Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor was actually the first to be composed: Brahms had written it in November 1852. This is a big-boned and dramatic piece of music–at moments it feels very much like “a veiled symphony”–and throughout its span one feels the young composer attempting to constrain his own impetuous and spirited music within the frame of the piano sonata as handed down by Beethoven. The result can feel like a hybrid: this sonata gives the impression of wildness, of a free and rhapsodic spirit caught almost unwillingly within classical form. This is also a very unusual piano sonata, and one of its most distinctive features is the young composer’s effort to unify it around one controlling theme-shape.
This shape appears at the beginning of the second movement, marked Andante con espressione. Brahms in fact composed this movement first, and it may be useful to begin a discussion of this violent sonata with this gentle theme. Brahms drew the shape of the theme from the song Mir ist Leide by the Minnesinger Kraft von Toggenberg; in the song, this theme sets the words: “It makes me sad, that winter has bared the wood and heath.” Brahms uses this theme as the basis of a variation movement: he offers three variations, the last of which grows into a huge extension of the melody (Brahms marks it con molt’ agitazione) before fading to the quiet close. But the interesting thing is that Brahms then takes the initial four notes of this theme and uses them as the basis for the dramatic opening gesture of the first movement and for the main theme of the third movement, a scherzo: he works outward from the slow movement as he builds the rest of this sonata.
A quick tour of that sonata: the opening movement is extremely dramatic, with hammered octaves and much chordal writing. It proceeds almost unremittingly to its powerful coda and then closes (surprisingly) with two quiet chords. The slow movement follows, leading without pause into the scherzo, which is in many respects the most attractive of the four movements. Its basic theme-shape is drawn directly from the melodic theme of the slow movement; here it rushes nimbly along a 6/8 meter. The trio section–quite long–is also impressive: the mood changes sharply here as the music dances with an unexpected elegance, then makes a dark and dissonant return to the opening section. The last movement shows similar imagination. It opens with a long introduction–full of swirls, trills, and runs–before launching into the main section, a smoothly-flowing Allegro non troppo e rubato. Some of the opening movement’s explosive manner returns here, but at the end Brahms springs another surprise: the movement’s florid introduction now returns, and the sonata spirals to its close in a great shower of arabesques and delicate runs.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Of Brahms’ first five opus numbers, three are massive piano sonatas, all of them complete by the time he was twenty, and while he lived for another 44 years, he never wrote another piano sonata. Apparently he found the form too confining for the kind of piano music he wanted to write. When the Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor was published–and appeared in its “smart new clothes”–Brahms dedicated it to Clara Schumann, whom he had not yet met when he composed it.