PROGRAM NOTES: Paul Lewis, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Four Ballades, Opus 10 (1854)
No. 1 in D Minor
No. 2 in D Major
No. 3 in B Minor
No. 4 B Major
Born May 7, 1833, Hamburg
Died April 3, 1897, Vienna
Originally, a ballad was a literary rather than a musical form, and while ballades were often sung to a dramatic narrative text, that term has no precise musical meaning. But a number of composers have been drawn to that title, perhaps because of the ballad’s association with dramatic events and poetic tale-telling. Chopin was the first to adopt the title (and his four Ballades include some of his greatest music), but other composers have used it as well: Liszt, Franck, Grieg, Fauré, Barber, and others have written short pieces they titled ballade.
In the summer of 1854 Johannes Brahms wrote four short piano pieces that he called ballades. This was a very intense time for Brahms. He was very young–21–and only a few months earlier had come a catastrophe: his friend and mentor Robert Schumann had attempted suicide and was now committed to an asylum. Brahms was steadfast in his aid to the Schumann family, helping to support and organize the shattered household, visiting Robert in the asylum, and consoling Clara. And at a deeper level, Brahms was wrestling with a private demon: the collision between his own youthful love for Clara and his unwavering support for her husband.
It was under these conditions that Brahms wrote the Four Ballades. Brahms would never wear his heart on his sleeve, so we should not look for autobiographical meaning in this music, but there is no question that these are four very intense pieces. The first–and most famous–of them blurs the meaning of the title even further because this ballade is in fact based on a literary ballad. Brahms had been intrigued by the old Scottish ballad Edward, which he had first encountered in Herder’s translation, and on the first page of the music he made the connection clear: “After the Scottish ballad Edward.” That ballad tells a dark tale: young Edward comes home from the hunt with bloody hands and laments that he has killed his falcon, but it soon becomes clear that he has killed his father (and in some versions had done so at the instigation of his mother). There is evidence Brahms originally planned this music as a song (the rhythm of Brahms’ opening section matches the language of the ballad in both the Scottish and in Herder’s German translation), but he eventually completed it as a piano piece. This music has been much admired, and Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer hears a “tragic power” in it. The opening section alternates two somber chordal themes. These explode in the violent middle section, marked Allegro, and the return of the quiet opening material is unsettled by the triplets that now murmur deep in the pianist’s left hand.
The second ballade, marked Andante, is inevitably referred to as a “lullaby,” and its gentle song is softly blurred by the syncopated accompaniment–Brahms’ marking is espressivo e dolce. But this piece is not in simple ternary form, and suddenly pounding chords push the music in entirely new directions, which include a section encrusted with grace notes. Finally the opening material does return, but it has grown more complex as its winds its way into silence.
Brahms marked the third ballade Intermezzo, but it is in fact a scherzo, marked Allegro and flashing unevenly along a 6/8 meter. The chordal trio section bears some relation to the scherzo theme itself, and the actual return of that theme is quite impressive: Brahms insists on a dynamic of triple piano, and this mercurial movement almost whispers its way to the close.
Critics hear the influence of Schumann in the long final ballade, marked Andante con moto. Again, Brahms’ structure is original. The flowing opening section gives way to a murmuring episode that the composer marks Col intimissimo sentimento, but over the final pages Brahms begins to fuse elements of these two different kinds of music. These alternate, dovetail, and finally blur together.
Piano Sonata in B Major, D.575 (1817)
Allegro ma non troppo
Born January 30, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
In the fall of 1816, nineteen-year-old Franz Schubert moved out of the family home, where he was irksomely employed helping his schoolteacher father, and took a private apartment. This was part of his effort to declare independence and to try to support himself as a freelance composer. Over the course of the following year, Schubert completed six piano sonatas and began several others. It was perfectly logical that a young composer wishing to support himself should turn to piano music, for there was a growing market for such music among the growing middle class in Vienna. But these efforts at independence came to nothing: none of these sonatas was published during Schubert’s lifetime (some of this music did not appear until the twentieth century), and the composer’s youthful attempt to achieve financial independence ended in failure. In the fall of 1817 Schubert had to move back in with his family and resume his chores as an elementary teacher.
The Sonata in B Major, composed in August 1817, was the last of this group of sonatas, and it was not published until 1846, eighteen years after Schubert’s death. The sonatas of 1817 are seldom heard today, but the Sonata in B Major is regarded as the most successful of the set–Schubert’s biographer John Reed hears in it a “characteristic vein of dynamic and optimistic lyricism.”
The sonata is in four fairly compact movements. The opening Allegro ma non troppo depends heavily on dotted rhythms in both its themes. Already evident in this movement is Schubert’s fluid sense of harmonic freedom: though the movement is set in the unusual key of B major, soon he is in the remote key of G major, and even here he is flirting with G minor. This all makes for a great range of expression within the generally amiable spirit of this sonata-form movement. Schubert moves to E major for the Andante, based on a noble chordal melody that continues to make use of dotted rhythms. Along the way come such unexpected features as rolled chords, hammered left-hand octaves, and sharp dynamic contrasts. Schubert calls the third movement a Scherzo but marks it Allegretto; this is very attractive music indeed, with its graceful outer sections and flowing trio. By contrast, the concluding Allegro giusto, in sonata form, powers along a vigorous 3/8 meter. Schubert either hammers out this meter or allows it to flow easily, as he does in the second subject, marked dolce, and the movement sails along gracefully to its (rather sudden) close.
Three Intermezzi, Opus 117 (1892)
No. 1 in E-flat Major: Andante moderato
No. 2 in B-flat Minor: Andante non troppo e con molto espressione
No. 3 in C-sharp Minor: Andante con moto
Brahms’ piano music figures curiously in his career. He burst to prominence as a young pianist-composer (hailed by Robert Schumann as a “young eagle”), and most of his early music was for piano, including huge-scaled sonatas and complex sets of variations. But at age 30 he seemed to forget about the piano, turning instead to chamber and vocal works and later to symphonic music. He waited fifteen years and wrote eight short piano pieces, then waited another thirteen years before he returned to the piano one final time, composing late in life four collections of piano pieces: Opp. 116, 117, 118, and 119.
The twenty pieces that make up these four final sets are all very brief (they may accurately be described as miniatures) and are in ABA form: a first theme, a countermelody–usually in a contrasting tempo and key, and a return of the opening material, now slightly varied. This is intensely personal music, as if Brahms were distilling a lifetime of experience and technical refinement into these brief pieces as he returned one last time to his own instrument.
He wrote the Three Intermezzi of his Opus 117 during the summer of 1892, spent at his favorite summer retreat, Bad Ischl, in the Alps near Salzburg. Brahms’ titles for his piano pieces were sometimes a little loose, but for him the term “intermezzo” seemed to imply music of a quiet, almost introspective nature. It is a cliché to call Brahms’ late music “autumnal,” but there is something darker still about these three intermezzi: they are spare, haunting, moving–almost bleak. Brahms himself called them “lullabies of my pain.”
The first intermezzo in fact is a lullaby. At the top of the music Brahms wrote two lines of a German translation of the old Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament:
Balou, my boy, lye still and sleep,
it grieves me sore to hear thee weep.
The calm outer section (Brahms marks it “sweet, simple”) gives way to a more agitated middle episode in E-flat minor before the return of the opening material and the quiet close. The second intermezzo (Brahms stresses that he wants it played con molta espressione) hides its theme inside a quiet cascade of arpeggios–only gradually does the ear make out the long line of melody within this flow. The outer section offers some of the most wistful music Brahms ever wrote, and the mood changes little in the middle section: Brahms’ biographer Karl Geiringer suggests that this music portrays a “man as he stands with the bleak, gusty autumn wind eddying round him.” The final intermezzo opens with the ominous tread of the quiet main theme in C-sharp minor octaves. It has been compared to a funeral march, and the more animated middle section lightens the mood only briefly before the return of opening theme, now skillfully set as a middle voice within a complex harmony.
Verbal description does these three pieces no justice. This quiet and somber music may well be dark. It is also endlessly beautiful.
Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata, S.161/7 (1839)
Born October 22, 1811, Raiding
Died July 31, 1886, Bayreuth
Après une lecture du Dante was published as the seventh (and final) piece of the second book of Années de pèlerinage. Liszt borrowed that elaborate title from a poem by Victor Hugo and appended his own description fantasia quasi sonata; the work is sometimes known as the Dante Sonata. Written in 1839, it was apparently very difficult for Liszt: Marie d’Agoult wrote to a friend to say that its composition “was sending him to the very devil.” Certainly the topic gripped Liszt, for it here inspires some of his most vivid tone-painting.
The Dante Sonata opens with powerful descending octaves meant to depict the entry into hell and doubtless inspired by the line “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Liszt underlines this association by having the octaves descend on the interval of a tritone. This unsettling interval (a diminished fifth) has been associated for centuries with the devil: its unresolved dissonance was referred to as the diabolus in musica, and its use was forbidden in some circles. Here that ominous sound makes an ideal accompaniment for our descent into hell, and soon we are plunged into the torment of the damned on music that Liszt marks lamentoso. Liszt biographer Alan Walker notes that one of Liszt’s students–on information provided by the composer–copied the following lines from Inferno into his own score at this point:
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering. Strange tongues,
Horrible cries, words of pain,
Tones of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swelled the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that for ever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stained,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.
Consolation comes with the singing and serene second subject (perhaps a vision of heaven from out of the pit of hell), though Walker points out that this is ingeniously derived from the horrifying lamentation theme. Liszt then extends both these ideas through some furious development–the work is not so much in the sonata form that its title implies as a sort of free expansion of the fundamental themes. There are moments of radiant calm along the way, but finally Liszt drives the Dante Sonata to a dramatic and sonorous close.