Recomposed: Program notes

Program:

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924): Chorale Prelude: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 645), BV B 27/2

References:

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (Op. posth. 164): ii. Allegretto quasi Andantino

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849): Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prelude, Book II, No. 5: … Bruyères

Karim Al-Zand (b. 1970): Pattern Preludes, Book I (2005):

Moderato; smoothly (after Bach)

As quickly as possible, chirring

Slowly; delicate thrumming (after Chopin)

Very swiftly; restless, agitated

Slowly; lyrically (after Debussy)

Quickly; vibrant, full of life

Franz Schubert: Sonata in A Major, D. 959:

Allegro

Andantino

Scherzo. Allegro vivace

Rondo. Allegretto

What does it mean to recompose a work of music? This recital presents three composers’ vastly differing responses to this question: Busoni’s piano transcription of J. S. Bach’s chorale prelude, itself based on a tune by Philipp Nicolai; Al-Zand’s Pattern Preludes, taking its inspiration from preludes by Bach, Chopin, and Debussy; and Schubert’s reworking of his own music, the central movement of a sonata written by a 20-year-old later transformed into the finale of one of his last and greatest piano sonatas. These works offer a glimpse into the dense network of interactions that belie a piece of music: abstract musical thought, compositional input and manipulation, and interpretive performance.

In his 1910 essay “Wert der Bearbeitung” (Value of the Transcription/Arrangement), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) writes:

[N]otation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea.

The moment that the pen takes possession of it the thought loses its original form. The intention of writing down an idea necessitates already a choice of time and key. The composer … determine[s] more and more clearly the course to be taken and the limitations. … The idea becomes a sonata or a concerto; this is already an arrangement of the original. From this first transcription to the second is a comparatively short and unimportant step. Yet, in general, people make a fuss only about the second. In doing so they overlook the fact that a transcription does not destroy the original; so there can be no question of loss arising from it. The performance of a work is also a transcription, and this too - however free the performance may be - can never do away with the original. For the musical work of art exists whole and intact before it has sounded and after the sound is finished.

It is, at the same time, in and outside of Time.

While a transcription of a piece is closer to its source material than other recomposed or referential music might be, some transformation of the original idea is inevitable, and Busoni describes how reworking occurs at various stages in the creation of music. An Italian composer and virtuoso pianist who spent much of his life in Germany and Austria, Busoni is perhaps best-known now for his piano transcriptions, even though he was a prolific composer of original works, including four operas and several orchestral pieces. “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Awake, the voice is calling us) is one of ten chorale preludes, originally written for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), that Busoni arranged for piano in 1907-9. Busoni’s contributions include doubling the bass part in octaves to evoke the resonance of the organ pedals, writing out realizations of some of the ornaments, and suggesting additional inner voices. Bach’s chorale prelude for organ is itself a transcription of the fourth movement of his BWV 140 cantata, originally scored for tenor, violins, viola, and continuo. The cantata, first performed in 1731, is based on a Lutheran hymn tune from 1599 by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608), a German theologian, poet, and composer.

The next three pieces on the program are the sources referred to by the final two works: Schubert’s Allegretto quasi Andantino, the middle movement of the A-Minor Sonata (written in 1817), is the basis for the final movement of his A-Major Sonata; and the Chopin and Debussy preludes (written in 1838-9 and 1911-3 respectively) were the inspirations behind Al-Zand’s Pattern Preludes No.s 3 and 5. The subtitle of Pattern Prelude No. 1 refers to J. S. Bach’s C-Major Prelude from the first Prelude and Fugue of Das wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), Book I. Regarding his work, which itself encompasses three different approaches to recomposition, Karim Al-Zand (b. 1970) writes:

“Pattern” pieces abound in the piano literature, pieces constrained by a single idea (usually a rhythmic or textural ostinato) through which a composer expresses a narrowly focused thought. Patterning is especially well-suited to preludes, which are by convention short, concise and introductory. Most of the patterns in Pattern Preludes, book 1 are immediately identifiable: a repeated-note motive in no. 2; asynchronous cascades between the hands in no. 4; and a gesture bouncing between interlocked hands in no. 6. In addition, three of the pieces give a nod to other famous preludes in the piano repertoire. No. 1 is a gloss on what is likely the most famous prelude ever written. Within an innocent arpeggio, Bach skillfully intertwines several syncopated rhythmic patterns, something exploited in my paraphrase. No. 3 takes its cue from Chopin’s Op. 28/4, which every student of harmony knows (and which a professor of mine once called the epitome of “creeping chromaticism”). No. 5 was written as a retirement gift for my high school music teacher, whose lessons were inspirational preludes to my own study of music. In mood and phrasing it echoes some well-known Debussy preludes.

Pattern Preludes, book 1 was written for Calogero Di Liberto, who gave the work its premiere on October 5, 2005 in Houston, TX.

Due to the unfortunate brevity of Franz Schubert’s life (1797-1828), the piano sonatas in A minor (D. 537) and A major (D. 959) constitute for us the difference between his early and late styles, even though they were written only 11 years apart. Neither sonata was published during Schubert’s lifetime: D. 537 appeared in ca. 1852, and D. 959 appeared in 1839, along with the Sonatas in C Minor and B-flat Major (D. 958 and D. 960); Schubert had planned these three as a set dedicated to the pianist and composer Johann Hummel (1778-1837). The A-Minor Sonata, written in 1817, is daring in harmony and texture but concise in structure and scope, while the A-Major, written in the last year of Schubert’s life and completed two months before his death, has the expansiveness of form that we have come to associate with his instrumental music, such as his String Quintet in C Major (1828). In the outer movements of D. 959, Schubert luxuriates in textures that are at times sonorous and orchestral, and at others intricate and glittering, all the while expertly maneuvering the listeners into unexpected tonal realms. The song-like refrain theme of the second movement of D. 537, initially in E major and varied with each of its returns, is transformed yet again when it appears in A major in the finale of D. 959. Melodically and harmonically modified, yet recognizable, the tune now functions as the primary theme of a sonata-rondo form, not just a lyrical melody but a source of motivic material that evolves over the course of the movement. The middle movements of the A-Major Sonata present opposite ends of the emotional spectrum; the gaiety of the capricious and Ländler-like Scherzo provides a stark contrast to the dark inevitability of the Andantino. The melancholic outer sections of the latter movement have a somewhat obsessive quality, insisting upon and circling around certain pitches in both melody and harmony; they enclose a violent interior section, a soul raging against its fate.

Even though Schubert was afflicted with syphilis (which he probably contracted in 1823) and frequently experienced ill health, his decline and ultimate demise (ascribed on his death certificate to “nervous fever”) in November 1828 was not necessarily expected so soon. Earlier in 1828, on March 26th (the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death), he held a concert devoted entirely to his music for the first time in his career, to great success. With his career on the upswing, one can only imagine what path his compositional style would have taken had he lived longer (what if the A-Major Sonata were representative of his “middle period” instead?), and perhaps what else he would have chosen to recompose; as Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872) wrote on the epitaph at Schubert’s grave: “The art of music has entombed here a rich treasure but even fairer hopes.”

P. S. For an extremely creative take on the idea of recomposition in visual art, check out works by Dave Pollot https://www.davepollot.com/original-paintings/ .

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