PROGRAM NOTES: Jeremy Denk, piano
by Eric Bromberger
English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany
Approximate Duration: 18 minutes
Among Bach’s works for keyboard are two sets bearing national titles: French Suites and English Suites. Neither of these titles appears to have originated with Bach himself, and scholars have for two centuries debated their source and meaning. The situation with the English Suites is particularly confusing, for there is nothing specifically “English” about this music. Some have attempted to find similarities between these suites and contemporary English music, while others point to a manuscript in the possession of one of Bach’s sons that is reportedly inscribed “fait pour les anglais.” The one conclusion that can be drawn is that no one knows the significance of the title–it serves as a convenient handle rather than as a name that tells us anything about the music itself.
The six English Suites date from about 1715. Bach, then 30, was still living in Weimar, where he was organist for the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. All six suites are in the same sequence of six movements: an opening Prelude followed by five dance movements. The only variation comes in the fifth movement, where Bach uses a variety of dance forms. Bach launches each of these suites with an animated Prelude, and the Suite in G Minor bursts to life with a Prelude that rushes along its propulsive 3/8 meter. The second movement is an Allemande, which–as its name suggests–is of German origin; this one, delicate and poised, is in binary form and not especially fast. The third movement, a Courante, is faster (that title means “running” in French) and sometimes combines duple and triple meters, though in this case the movement dances along the generous span of its 3/2 meter. The fourth movement is a Sarabande, a slow dance in triple time and of Latin origin. The Sarabande of the Suite in G Minor is remarkable music, stark and sometimes dissonant. Bach follows it with a movement called Les agréments de la même Sarabande; that title suggests that it is an “embellishment” of the Sarabande, and in fact it is a double, a highly-embellished second version of the same movement. The fifth movements of the English Suites vary, for Bach uses a variety of short dance forms here; in the Suite No. 3, he employs a pair of Gavottes. Gavotte I dances lightly, while Gavotte II is a musette, a movement that dances above a constantly-held drone; listeners will recognize this as the most-familiar music of the Suite in G Minor, for it is often heard in arrangements. The sixth and concluding movement of each suite is a Gigue, a quick dance related–as its title suggests–to the jig. This one, in 12/8, is fugal in construction, and Bach inverts its principal theme in the second half.
The Passing Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian from My Lady Nevells Booke of Virginal Music
Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany
Approximate Duration: 18 minutes
One of the first great English composers, William Byrd lived a remarkable life that spanned more than eighty years–born two decades before Shakespeare, he outlived the playwright by almost another decade. Byrd’s life was eventful: he was a devout Roman Catholic at a moment when it was dangerous to be Catholic in England, and though he was under suspicion by the police, he enjoyed the personal protection of Elizabeth I, who granted him the sole right to publish music in London. Byrd trained originally as an organist in Lincoln, but spent much of his career in London, eventually retiring to Essex, where he was involved in a good deal of litigation–he was apparently not a man to walk away from a fight.
Byrd is remembered today primarily for his sacred music–he wrote with equanimity for both Anglican and Catholic services–and for his keyboard music. The keyboard music was probably composed for virginal, a type of small harpsichord with one keyboard and strings running parallel to that keyboard (rather than away from it). Byrd’s most famous keyboard works were collected under the curious title My Ladye Nevells Booke. This collection has a complex history, but it appears to date from 1591, when John Baldwin of Windsor gathered 42 virginal pieces that Byrd had written over the previous decade and had them bound for a “Ladye Nevell.” Her identity has been debated, but evidence suggests that she was Rachel, wife of Sir Edward Nevill, a member of parliament from Windsor.
This music was intended for the enjoyment of skilled amateur performers, and the pieces in My Ladye Nevells Booke take many forms: most are dances, some are descriptive battle pieces (perhaps inspired by Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada three years earlier), and some are arrangements of songs. This program offers The Passing Mesures: the Nynthe Pavian from Lady Nevell’s Book in its original form, a pavane was a stately dance of Italian origin This music carries us back across more than three centuries–as we listen to this pavane, we hear music that the young Shakespeare (still in his twenties and unknown) might have heard as worked on Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.
SCOTT JOPLIN/SCOTT HAYDEN
Approximate Duration: 22 minutes
Antonín Dvořák said that American “classical” music would develop out of African-American music and the music of Native American tribes, and the music Dvořák himself wrote in this country shows both those influences. But it was Afro-American music that became the more powerful force in American–and European–music. Near the end of the nineteenth century, while Dvořák was still active in New York City, Afro-American pianists developed a style of piano music based on a sharply-syncopated melody in the right hand over steady accompaniment in the left. The syncopated (hence, “ragged”) right-hand rhythm earned this style the name “ragtime,” and in the hands of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and others ragtime became a popular feature of American musical life (Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag of 1899 sold a million copies). The style remained popular until about World War I, when it was supplanted by jazz. Ragtime influenced composers on both sides of the Atlantic (Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk is an example), and on this program Jeremy Denk offers a selection of ragtime pieces– and pieces influenced by ragtime–composed over the last century by American and European composers.
The set opens with one of the most popular recent examples, the Graceful Ghost Rag, composed in 1970 by WILLIAM BOLCOM (b. 1938). Bolcom has been a powerful advocate of music from the ragtime era, not only piano music but also popular songs of that period. The Graceful Ghost Rag offers the best possible introduction to ragtime music: Bolcom marks the opening both cantabile and smoothly, and this evocative music sings a wistful song that is enlivened by its sunnier central episode.
SCOTT HAYDEN (1882-1915) was related by marriage to SCOTT JOPLIN (1867/8-1917), and they collaborated on four rags, though the Sunflower Slow Drag appears to be primarily the work of Hayden. This quintessentially “happy” music dates from 1901.
F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920’s “the Jazz Era,” and in the years after the war jazz elements began to appear in the music of European composers. PAUL HINDEMITH (1895- 1963) composed his Suite: “1922,” during the difficult years of the Weimar Republic, and many have detected a bitter tone in this five-movement suite based largely on dance forms. The last movement is titled Ragtime, though this furious music lacks the steady left-hand accompaniment we associate with the form. Hindemith’s quite specific performance instructions for this movement set the mood. He instructs the pianist: “Play this piece very wildly but always strictly in time, like a machine” and further specifies that the performer should “regard the piano here as an interesting percussion instrument.”
Always keenly attuned to new developments in music, IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) became aware of ragtime and jazz during World War I: in 1918 he included a Ragtime movement in his L’histoire du soldat and also composed a Ragtime for Eleven Instruments. The following year Stravinsky composed a short work that he titled Piano-Rag- Music, dedicating it to Artur Rubinstein (who never played it). Piano-Rag-Music is not in the steady duple meter of most ragtime, and the most remarkable thing about this music is Stravinsky’s metric freedom: he changes meter constantly, and long passages are without any bar-lines at all. The composer’s performance instruction is succinct: trés fort (“very strong”).
CHARLES IVES (1874-1954) knew ragtime long before Stravinsky: he heard it in the theaters and clubs of New York City as it was being created. Ives was unsure about ragtime. He wrote: “Ragtime has its possibilities . . . Perhaps we know it now as an ore before it has been refined into a product. It may be one of nature’s ways of giving art new material.” But he was willing to mine this ore, and ragtime elements appear in a number of his works. In 1902 he composed Four Ragtime Dances, scoring them first for small orchestra and later for piano. Both Nos. 3 and 4 are marked Allegro, both feature complex textures through which the characteristic syncopated rhythms can be heard, and both incorporate snatches of the popular melodies Ives heard around him at the turn of the century.
CONLON NANCARROW (1912-1997) studied with Sessions, Piston, and Slonimsky, then joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Returning to the United States after the Loyalist defeat, Nancarrow–who had joined the Communist Party in 1934–faced the loss of his visa because of his political affiliations, and so he moved to Mexico City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Before his departure, Nancarrow had become fascinated with complex rhythms, and this led him to an unusual musical decision: he composed almost exclusively for player piano, on which he could achieve a level of rhythmic complexity and accuracy impossible with mortal performers. Nancarrow once said that “ever since I’d been writing music I was dreaming of getting rid of the performers.”
Nancarrow’s rhythmic complexity fascinated other musicians (Copland commented: “You have to hear it to believe it”), and there have been a handful of pianists willing to master the complexities of music originally conceived for a mechanical player. Late in his long life, Nancarrow began once again to write for live performers: in 1988–when he was 76–Nancarrow composed a set of three canons for piano for Ursula Oppens, and Jeremy Denk performs one of these on the present recital.
DONALD LAMBERT (1904-1962) was a jazz stride pianist. The term “stride” refers to the wide leaps required from the pianist’s left hand (thus, “stride”), while the right hand has the melody. Lambert was active largely in the 1920s and 1930s. The present piece, perhaps his most famous work, uses the “Pilgrims Chorus” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser as its starting point. Lambert offers a brief statement of the theme of that chorus (though one already slightly squared-off), then proceeds into a virtuoso piano piece based on that theme. Part of the fun of this piece is watching the pianist’s left hand, but the right has an absolutely exhilarating romp, through which the chorus of Wagner’s pilgrims can occasionally be heard. Those interested in this music should know that Lambert himself made a terrific recording in 1941.
Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 22 minutes
Schubert’s final year was dreadful. Ill for years, he went into steady decline in 1828 and died in November at 31. Yet from those last months came a steady stream of masterpieces, and few of the achievements of that miraculous, agonizing year seem more remarkable than the composition of three large-scale piano sonatas in the month of September, barely eight weeks before his death. In the years following Schubert’s death, many of the works from this final year were recognized as the masterpieces they are, but the three piano sonatas made their way much more slowly. When they appeared in 1838, a decade after Schubert’s death, the publisher dedicated them to Schumann, one of Schubert’s greatest admirers, but even Schumann confessed mystification, noting with a kind of dismayed condescension that “Always musical and rich in songlike themes, these pieces ripple on, page after page . . .” Even as late as 1949, Schubert’s adoring biographer Robert Haven Schauffler could rate them “considerably below the level of the last symphonies and quartets, the String Quintet, and the best songs.” It took Artur Schnabel’s championing these sonatas to rescue them from obscurity, and today the last of them, the Sonata in B-flat Major, has become one of the best-loved of all piano sonatas: the current catalog lists over forty recordings.
It is dangerous to assume that a composer’s final works must be haunted–as were Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s–by premonitions of death. And in fact, Schubert’s final works do not agonize in the way the Mahler Tenth or Shostakovich Fourteenth Symphonies do. But it remains true that as Schubert’s condition worsened across the span of that final year, his music took on a depth and poignance rare in his works. And it is hard not to hear in the beginning of the Sonata in B-flat Major a direct premonition of mortality. The Molto moderato begins simply with a flowing chordal melody of unusual expressiveness. But in the eighth measure comes a discordant trill deep in the left hand, and the music glides to a complete stop. The silence that follows–Schubert marks it with a fermata to be sure that it is prolonged–is one of the few genuinely terrifying moments in music. It is as if a moment of freezing terror has crept into this flow of gentle song. Out of the silence the theme resumes. Again the deep trill intrudes, but this time the music rides over it and continues. Claudio Arrau has spoken of this movement as one written “in the proximity of death,” and while this music is never tortured, it is some of the most expressive Schubert ever wrote. This is a long movement, full of the harmonic freedom that marks Schubert’s best music; it ends quietly in B-flat major with a chorale-like restatement of the main theme.
The Andante sostenuto is as moving as the first movement. The somber opening melody, in the unexpected key of C-sharp minor, proceeds darkly in the right hand, while the left hand offers an unusual accompaniment that skips–almost dances–through a four-octave range, reaching up above the right hand’s melody. The middle section is of a nobility that might almost be called Brahmsian, were that not absurd; perhaps it suggests why, a half-century later, Brahms admired Schubert’s music so much. By contrast, the quicksilvery Scherzo flashes across the keyboard with a main theme that moves easily between the pianist’s hands; at times the rhythms and easy flow make this seem more like a waltz than a scherzo. Schubert specifies that it should be played con delicatezza, and certainly its smooth modulations between A major and B-flat major are accomplished most delicately; the brief trio is enlivened by off-the-beat accents. The finale– Allegro, ma non troppo–dances along its two main ideas. The writing is brilliant and once again full of harmonic surprises, but in the midst of all this sparkle one hears a wistfulness, an expressive depth that stays to haunt the mind long after the music has ended.