In Pieces: Program notes

Program:

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Suite, Op. 14:

Allegretto; Scherzo; Allegro molto; Sostenuto

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19:

Leicht, zart; Langsam; Sehr langsame Viertel; Rasch, aber leicht; Etwas rasch; Sehr langsam

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Fantasien, Op. 116:

Capriccio. Presto energico; Intermezzo. Andante; Capriccio. Allegro passionate; Intermezzo. Adagio; Intermezzo. Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento; Intermezzo. Andantino teneramente; Capriccio. Allegro agitato

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Miroirs:

Noctuelles; Oiseaux tristes; Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso; La vallée des cloches

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Trois Pièces, FP 48:

Pastorale; Hymne; Toccata

The turn of the twentieth century brought great change. Amidst political unrest, technological advances, and the birth of psychoanalysis flourished a wealth of artistic styles and movements that dealt with the concept of modernism in very different ways. The five works on this program present musical glimpses of Europe between the years 1890 and 1930, with widely varying takes on what a set of piano pieces is or can be.

Béla Bartók’s (1881-1945) use of the word ‘suite’ in titling his Op. 14 indicates both that the work looks back to past forms and the Western tradition, and that the movements within it are part of a conceptual whole. Originally a five-movement work with a symmetrical pattern of tonalities (B-flat - F-sharp - B-flat - D - B-flat), the Andante second movement was then removed to leave the present four-movement suite, which nonetheless maintains a dramatic arc and sense of cohesion. It was written in 1916, around the time that Bartók was also working on the Second String Quartet, Op. 17 (1914-1917), and a one-act ballet, A fából faragott királyfi (‘The Wooden Prince’), Op. 13 (1914-1917). While the Suite is an original work, as opposed to the numerous folksong arrangements of Bartók’s oeuvre (the year preceding its composition, 1915, was his ‘Romanian’ year, yielding works such as the Román nepi táncok [‘Romanian Folk Dances’]), influences from Bartók’s ethnomusicological research can still be seen. His encounter with the drumming-centered Arabic folk music of north Africa in 1913 reveals itself in both the Allegro molto third movement of the Suite, as well as the Allegro molto capriccioso second movement of the Second String Quartet. Both have a striking rhythmic vitality and use non-diatonic scales that emphasize the tritone, and the Suite movement’s insistent ostinato and limited melodic range lends it a particularly obsessive quality. The Allegretto first movement is a rustic dance whose initial simplicity becomes complicated as the piece progresses. Even at the first appearance of the tune, Bartók’s use of a mode of the acoustic scale (beginning on the seventh note of C acoustic), with raised 4th and 5th scale degrees, corrupts one’s expectation of a tonic-dominant outline into the juxtaposition of chords a tritone apart. The Scherzo second movement enters boldly with a different kind of detuned fifth: the augmented triads, unapologetically outlined note by note, are yet another manifestation of Bartók’s penchant for symmetrical structures. Looking back on this Suite in 1944, he described his aim in refining piano technique towards “a style more of bone and muscle.” The final movement of the work is more reflective than the preceding three, in its stark textures perhaps more bone than muscle, and it is suffused with an air of nostalgia and melancholy that one can only expect in the midst of a world war that laid society to waste.

In a diary entry following a request in 1912 by his publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, to provide titles for his Fünf Orchesterstücke (‘Five Orchestra Pieces’), Op. 16, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) wrote the following:

Do not altogether like the idea [of titles]. Music is fascinating because you can say everything so that the knowledgeable will understand it all, without having to give away your secrets, the secrets one does not even admit to oneself. Titles, however, give things away. Besides, the music has already said what there is to say. Why are words needed? If words were necessary, they would be there. Music says more than words. The titles that I may assign will not give anything away, partly because they are quite obscure, partly because they refer to technical matters. Namely: 1. ‘Premonitions’ (everyone has these); 2. ‘The Past’ (everyone has this too); 3. ‘Chord Colors’ (technical); 4. Peripeteia (probably general enough); 5. ‘The Obligatory Recitative’ (maybe ‘fully developed’ or ‘endless’ would be better).

It is therefore of no surprise that his Op. 19, written in 1911 and published in 1913, is called nothing more specific than Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (‘Six Little Piano Pieces’), though the added qualifier is by no means insignificant: the longest piece is a mere seventeen measures. Despite their aphoristic nature and atonality, some tethers to the Classical tradition remain, with the formal principle of return/recapitulation subtly manifesting itself in some of the pieces, as well as occasional motivic development and evocation of dance. The first five pieces were written in a single day, on February 19, 1911, as Schoenberg neared the completion of his treatise on harmony, Harmonielehre. On May 18, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) passed away; Schoenberg attended the funeral and painted the scene in response. About a month later, he wrote the sixth piece of Op. 19. According to Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), a student of Schoenberg’s and his first biographer (in 1921), this piece “came into being as the result of the impression made on him by Mahler’s funeral.” Schoenberg’s ability to capture emotion in vivid moments of time is perhaps best described in the following excerpt from his manifesto, written to the pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) in 1909:

Away with harmony as

cement or bricks of a building.

Harmony is expression

and nothing else.

Then:

Away with Pathos!

Away with protracted ten-ton scores, from erected or constructed towers, rocks and other massive claptrap.

My music must be

brief.

Concise! In two notes: not built, but ‘expressed’!!

The Op. 116 Fantasien of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) were most likely written during a summer sojourn in Ischl, Austria in 1892, with their composition apparently motivated by the many women pianists at this resort (including the Hungarian pianist Ilona Eibenschütz [1873-1967], who championed Brahms’s music in England). At the age of 59, Brahms was surrounded by the illnesses and deaths of those close to him: his friend, the pianist and composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (1847-1892), passed away in January 1892, and his sister, Elise Grund (1831-1892), followed in June. He once referred to his contemporaneous Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, as the “lullabies of my sorrows.” The Fantasien possess a greater sense of emotional outburst, being comprised of not just the more contemplative Intermezzo movements, but three fast Capriccio movements as well. The seven pieces bear a sense of cyclic unity, with the set beginning and ending with D minor movements, and the fourth, fifth, and sixth movements forming a triptych of pieces that have E as a tonal center. Repeated notes are also found throughout the set in different manifestations. They are of melodic importance in the first three and the sixth movements, and in the seventh, repetition is found in the downbeat fixation on the tonic in the bass. The fifth movement is almost an attempt to break free from this repetition, with its two-note slurs that point away from the central tone. In the fourth movement, the emotional center of the work, the feeling of insistence is borne by the opening motif and its transformations throughout the piece. Brahms’s signature use of metric dissonance also creates complex rhythmic layers throughout the work, and his inventiveness in keyboard textures is seen particularly in the fifth movement, with interlocking chords between the hands; it is postulated that Brahms is playing this movement in Willy von Beckerath’s (1868-1938) famous portrait (complete with his nonchalant smoking).

The Miroirs form a collection of pieces for piano which mark a change in my harmonic development pronounced enough to have upset those musicians who till then had had the least trouble in appreciating my style. The earliest of these pieces to be written, and the most typical of all to my way of thinking, is the second of the set, ‘Oiseaux tristes’. It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.

Such were the words of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in his autobiographical sketch, written in 1928 with the help of his friend and student Roland-Manuel (1891-1966), who recorded the following statement in addition:

The title Miroirs [‘Mirrors’], five piano pieces composed in 1905, has authorized my critics to consider this collection as being among those works that belong to the Impressionist movement. I do not contradict this at all, if one understands the term by analogy. A rather fleeting analogy, at that, since Impressionism does not seem to have any precise meaning outside the domain of painting. In any case, the word ‘mirror’ should not lead one to assume that I wish to affirm a subjectivist theory of art. A sentence by Shakespeare helped me to formulate a completely opposite position: “the eye sees not itself / But by reflection, by some other things” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2).

Despite the dating of the work’s composition to 1905, Oiseaux tristes (‘Sad Birds’) apparently had its first hearing in October 1904, at a meeting of Les Apaches (‘The Ruffians’), an informal Parisian group of musicians, artists, and writers that Ravel joined in circa 1902. Each of the five pieces of Miroirs is dedicated to a member of this group: Noctuelles (‘Moths’) to the writer Léon-Paul Fargue, Oiseaux tristes to the pianist Ricardo Viñes (who gave the first performance of Miroirs in January 1906), Une barque sur l’océan (‘A Boat on the Ocean’) to the painter Paul Sordes, Alborada del gracioso (‘Morning Song of the Jester’) to the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, and La vallée des cloches (‘The Valley of Bells’) to the composer Maurice Delage. The motive of a falling third appears in all of them in different guises, perhaps lending unity to a set of pieces that are otherwise greatly contrasting in subject matter.

Noctuelles was inspired by lines penned by its dedicatee: “Les noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, Cravater d’autres poutres” (The nocturnal moths launch themselves clumsily from their barns, to settle on other perches). According to Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1892-1961), a violinist and friend of Ravel’s, Ravel was inspired by the piano writing of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), in particular his étude Feux follets (‘Wills-o’-the-Wisp’); the musicologist Roger Nichols describes one of the final passages in Noctuelles as a “post-Lisztian cascade ... representing some kind of extreme activity in the moth world.”

The arabesques of Oiseaux tristes depict the call of the blackbird, and the static repeated-note motive that they dance around is reminiscent of the B-flat ostinato that pervades Le gibet (‘The Gibbet’), from Ravel’s later set of piano pieces Gaspard de la nuit (‘Gaspard of the Night’, 1908). Apart from perhaps reflecting Ravel’s lifelong fascination with clockwork and machines (his father was an engineer), the ostinati in both of these pieces give the music a feeling of oppression. The repeated figures in Une barque sur l’océan, on the other hand, evoke the expansiveness of the sea. Ravel orchestrated this piece the year after composing it, but was not pleased with the result; Nichols quotes the composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) in explaining this: “there exists an orchestral kind of piano writing which is more orchestral than the orchestra itself and which, with a real orchestra, it is impossible to realize.”

Ravel’s interest in Spanish music, stemming in part from his maternal Basque heritage, manifests itself in Alborada del gracioso. Alborada refers to music played at daybreak, and is related to the French aubade, a song or poem about lovers parting at dawn; in Ravel’s case, the gracioso buffoon character from traditional Spanish comedy provides a rather rude awakening. The biting rhythmic energy of the dancing outer sections frames the recitative-like evocation of cante jondo (‘deep song’) in the middle section. Nichols asserts that: “[f]ollowing in the steps of Domenico Scarlatti, [Ravel] turns the keyboard instrument into a huge guitar;” this emerges in the prominent use of arpeggiated chords and repeated notes. With regard to the notorious double-note glissandi, Ravel told the pianist Gaby Casadesus (1901-1999) that she could “play them in single notes, or with your nose if you want.” (The latter option has since been found to be unfeasible.)

In the final piece of the set, La vallée des cloches, Ravel turns to Javanese gamelan music, which he encountered at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. On April 6th, 1928, Ravel performed this piece at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Houston, under the auspices of the Rice Institute (now Rice University), as part of one of two recitals that accompanied his lecture on contemporary music. In this lecture, we get a glimpse of Ravel’s process and view of art, which perhaps helps us to imagine how he came to write a masterwork such as Miroirs:

When the first stroke of a work has been written, and the process of elimination begun, the severe effort toward perfection proceeds by means almost intangible, seemingly directed by currents of inner forces, so intimate and intricate in character as to defy all analysis. Real art, I repeat, is not to be recognized by definitions, or revealed by analysis: we sense its manifestations and we feel its presence: it is apprehended in no other way.

Between 1914 and 1917, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) studied with the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943). In an interview sometime between October 1953 and April 1954 with the music critic Claude Rostand (1912-1970), Poulenc described the direct impact this had on his composition:

CR: Was it your studies with Viñes that inspired you to write piano music?

FP: Undoubtedly. At the time of my first lessons, I composed some preludes of unbelievable complexity, which would amaze you today. They were sub-Debussy, written on three or four staves. These preludes from 1916 have never been played. Auric was the only person to see them.

Then I dedicated to Viñes three pastorales in 1918. They remained unpublished for some time, but in 1928 Casella* wrote to me: “What happened to your pastorales? I liked them a lot,” so I had the idea of going back to them. They were published as Trois pièces pour piano. The first of them is almost identical with the original version; I kept the opening four bars and the conclusion of the second and turned it into a ‘Toccata’, well known now thanks to Horowitz**; finally I replaced the last one with a ‘Hymne’, in the style of my Concert champêtre.

*Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), Italian composer, conductor, pianist and author

**Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989), Russian-born pianist who settled in America

The version of Trois pièces published in 1928 had the movements in the order Pastorale - Toccata - Hymne; when republishing the set in 1953, Poulenc switched the order of the last two movements, such that the Hymne, which ends in a quietly unsettling way due to Poulenc’s removal of the tonic from the final sonority, now formed the emotional center of the work, and the Toccata ended the set with a bang (but not before making a fleeting reference to the E-flat major of the Hymne). All three pieces showcase Poulenc’s signature use of non sequiturs in harmony and mood, as well as his inventive use of extended chords and unusual voicings. His frankness and biting wit, evident in his music, shine forth at the end of the above-quoted interview:

CR: To conclude, may one ask you which of your piano pieces find approval in your eyes, and which are your bêtes noires?

FP: That’s very simple. I tolerate the Mouvements perpétuels, my old Suite in C and the Trois Pièces (originally pastorales). I’m very fond of my two volumes of Improvisations, an Intermezzo in A flat and certain Nocturnes. I condemn beyond redemption Napoli and the Soirées de Nazelles. As for the rest, they don’t interest me.

CR: That makes a tidy ending.

FP: May I say one more thing?

CR: Of course!

FP: If pianists trusted my metronome markings, which have been calibrated very carefully, then many calamities would be avoided.

(Listen to this recital here.)

(Brahms image {{PD}} https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Willy_von_Beckerath_-_Brahms_am_Fl%C3%BCgel.jpg)

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