PROGRAM: Jeremy Denk

PROGRAM: Jeremy Denk 2014-06-27T15:04:59+00:00

Click here to view the complete March 2017 – May 2017 2017 Program Book

PROGRAM NOTES: Jeremy Denk, piano

by Eric Bromberger

English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808


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 Ladye 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.


Works by








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: 44 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.