PROGRAM NOTES: Seong-Jin Cho, piano
by Eric Bromberger
Piano Sonata, Opus 1
Born February 9, 1885, Vienna
Died December 24, 1935, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 12 minutes
In the fall of 1904, Alban Berg–nineteen years old– appeared on the doorstep of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna with a portfolio of youthful compositions. He was answering Schoenberg’s newspaper advertisement for composition students, and that fall the older composer accepted Berg and another young man named Anton Webern as private students. Berg would remain a student of Schoenberg for the next six years, and the music he composed under Schoenberg’s guidance during the first decade of the century shows a steady growth in assurance and sophistication. Yet these first efforts–the Seven Early Songs, the Piano Sonata, and the String Quartet–are in some measure all transitional works: they show signs of Berg’s future direction (particularly in their motivic concentration), yet all three works remain firmly anchored in the late-romantic idiom of the turn of the century.
Berg’s Piano Sonata is very much a transitional work. He began it in the summer of 1907, after three years of study with Schoenberg, and completed it the following summer. The sonata is only one movement long, though Berg’s original plan had been to compose a piano sonata in traditional threemovement form. Having completed what was to be the first movement of that sonata, Berg found that he could make no headway on the second and third movements, and Schoenberg suggested that the young composer should regard the work as complete in its one-movement form. Berg felt satisfied enough with this music to consider it his Opus 1, and it was published by Universal Edition in 1910. The first public performance took place in Vienna on April 24, 1911.
Listeners may be struck by just how traditional this movement is, for it conforms in many ways to the form of the classical piano sonata. While it is written with a great deal of harmonic freedom, it has a home key and even a key signature (B minor), and Berg honors classical form to the extent of offering a repeat of the exposition. The remarkable thing about this music is Berg’s ability to generate an entire structure out of tiny motivic fragments, most of which are presented in the opening measures. These are expanded into a full sonata-form structure, recapitulated, and brought to a quiet–and emotionally-satisfying–close in unequivocal B minor. Berg notates this music with scrupulous care, with tempo fluctuations and dynamic gradations registered quite precisely. This is wide-ranging music in many senses: the writing spans almost the entire width of the keyboard, and its dynamic compass stretches from triple forte to triple piano.
Piano Sonata in C Minor, D.958
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 31 minutes
The year 1828 was both a miracle and a disaster for Schubert. The miracle lay in the level of his creativity: he completed his “Great” Symphony in C Major and several works for piano duet during the winter and spring, the Mass in E-flat Major over the summer, three piano sonatas in September, and the Cello Quintet in October. The disaster, of course, was his health. Never fully well after a year-long illness during 1822-23, Schubert went into sudden decline in the fall and died suddenly in November at age 31. Yet even at that age (an age at which Beethoven and Haydn were virtually unknown), Schubert had achieved an artistic maturity that makes the works of his final year among the most remarkable and moving in all of music.
Schubert began work on the Piano Sonata in C Minor on September 1, though evidence suggests that he was working from sketches made as long as a year earlier. Everyone feels the influence of Beethoven on this sonata; Schubert’s biographer John Reed believes that he was consciously trying to assume the mantle of Beethoven (who had died the previous year), and certainly the choice of key, the dramatic gestures, and the character of the thematic material suggest the older composer.
The beginning of the Allegro resounds with echoes of Beethoven, both in the emphatic opening chords and in the muttering, nervous main theme. Yet quickly this theme turns serene and flowing, reminding us to value this sonata as the music of Schubert rather than searching for resemblances to other composers. The chordal second subject is pure Schubert, and the extended development–built around the collision of these quite different kinds of music–brings a great deal of emotional variety. It also takes the pianist to the extreme ends of the keyboard before the (quite Beethovenian) close on a quiet C minor chord.
The Adagio, with its elegant, measured main theme, has also reminded many of that earlier master. Schubert marks the opening sempre ligato, yet with its fermatas and pauses and pounding triplets this movement too brings a range of expression. The Menuetto seems at first more conventional: the initial statement of the main theme is in octaves in the right hand, and soon Schubert is inserting one-measure rests that catch us by surprise as they break the music’s flow. The finale begins as what seems a conventional tarantella, yet it is remarkable for its rhythmic and harmonic variety. Throughout this extended movement, Schubert maintains the expected 6/8 meter of the tarantella, yet he accents that meter with such variety that the pulse sometimes feels completely different. Similarly, he moves with graceful freedom through a range of unexpected keys, including B major and C-sharp minor, so that this movement–while long–seems to be constantly evolving, right up to the two thunderous concluding chords.
Preludes, Opus 28
Born February 22, 1810, Z• elazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849, Paris
Approximate Duration: 30 minutes
As a small boy in Poland, Chopin fell in love with the keyboard music of Bach. Like Beethoven before him (and Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich after him), Chopin was particularly drawn to The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. Haunted by Bach’s achievement, Chopin wished to try something similar, and in 1836, shortly after completing his Études, Opus 25, he began to compose a series of short preludes, but it would take him three years to complete the entire set of 24. In the fall of 1838, Chopin sailed with George Sand to Mallorca, taking with him a number of Bach scores. On the island, living in an abandoned monastery high in a mountain village that was alternately bathed in Mediterranean sunlight and torn by freezing rainstorms, he completed the Preludes in January 1839; they were published in Paris later that year.
While certain scholars have heard echoes of Bach in the Preludes, this is very much the music of Chopin. And while these preludes do proceed through all the major and minor keys, Chopin does not write accompanying fugues, as Bach did: these are not preludes to anything larger, but are complete works in themselves. The entire set of 24 preludes lasts about 45 minutes, so these are concise essays in all the keys, and they encompass an enormous variety of technique, ranging from very easy preludes (played by every amateur pianist on the planet) to numbingly difficult ones, playable by only the most gifted performers. They cover an unusual expressive range as well, from the cheerful sunlight of some
to the uneasy darkness of others.
Each prelude exists as an independent work and may be played separately, or the entire cycle may be played at once, revealing a full world of sharply contrasted moods and music. Rather than describing each prelude in detail, it may be best to let listeners discover each for themselves. Some of the best-known preludes are of course those accessible to non-professionals. These include No. 20 in C Minor, inevitably nicknamed “Funeral March” (Chopin despised all such subjective titles and the effort to attach programs to pieces he wished to have considered solely as music). Also in this category are the graceful No. 7 in A Major (only sixteen measures long) and No. 4 in E Minor, which however over familiar it has become–remains some of the most expressive music ever written. At the other extreme are such preludes as No. 8 in F-sharp Minor, with its nervous, driven quality, and No. 24 in D Minor, full of bravura brilliance. Many have noted Chopin’s unusual use of repeated chords or notes throughout the set: the tolling sound of these chords is used for quite different expressive purposes in No. 15 in D-flat Major (nicknamed the “Raindrop” by George Sand, to Chopin’s exasperation), in No. 17 in A-flat Major, and in many others.
One of the particular pleasures of a performance of the complete Preludes is not just to hear each individual prelude, some of which pass by in a matter of seconds, but to experience the totality of the world Chopin creates in this set. It is a world of the most dazzling variety, by turns cheerful, dark, lyric, dramatic, friendly, and terrifying, all superbly disciplined within the tight compass of the 24 keys. Bach would have found much of this music strange, but he would instantly have understood Chopin’s achievement in it.