Sanchez-Werner – May 8 & 10, 2014 From Années de pèlerinage: Première année No. 6 Vallée d’Obermann
Franz Liszt 1811-1886
Between 1835 and 1839 Franz Liszt, together with his current inamorata Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, toured Switzerland and Italy for four years, the composer recording his musical impressions in the first two books of his Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). The title derives from Goethe’s Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel), Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Such novels and poems of self-discovery were extremely popular during the Romantic period and spawned generations of literary offspring that can be found by the UPS truckload in Amazon’s adult and young adult fiction warehouse. Liszt’s “coming of age” with the married Countess produced three children, one of whom, Cosima, followed in her mother’s tracks to become the adulterous lover–and later wife of Richard Wagner. While Liszt’s first book covered Switzerland and primarily contained musical reflections on nature, the second was inspired by the Italian poetry of the quattrocento (fourteenth century), specifically Dante and Petrarch. In 1840 he added a supplement to the second book, musical impressions of Venice and Naples. Liszt seldom considered a work “finished.” A compulsive reviser, he repeatedly and extensively tinkered with and tweaked the two books. He finally published them in 1858 in the form we know today. He added a third volume, also descriptive of Italy’s art and landscape, between the years 1867 and 1877. There is no geographical location called Vallée d’Obermann (The Valley of Obermann). Obermann is the name of a Romantic novel by Étienne Pivert de Sénancour (1770-1846), the story of a solitary and world-weary character who searches for a new home in a lonely valley in the Swiss Jura Mountains. The score is headed by two quotations from the book describing Obermann’s torment and sense of helplessness. Another excerpt, from Byron’s Childe Harold, is also in the heading. Liszt captures the shifting moods, from gloomy and sinister to mystical and transcendent. Alborada del Gracioso (The Jester’s Song of Dawn)
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
Alborada del Gracioso was the fourth and the most popular of the set. In 1918 Ravel gave it a brilliant orchestration, a foretaste for his orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition four years later. Alborada, (Dawn Song) was a form of morning serenade from the Basque region of Northern Spain, later becoming a popular folkdance. Ravel’s precise meaning in using the word “gracioso” in the title is unclear. While generally translated as “jester,” the gracioso was a stock figure in the Spanish comedias, the literally thousands of plays written and performed during Spain’s Golden Age. The gracioso was the clever servant – the Spanish version of the “tricky slave” in Roman comedy – who accompanied his master and generally got him out of trouble. Although not a character in a drama, Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza is literature’s most famous gracioso. Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni – itself based on a play by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina – is another. In view of the history of the gracioso, the image, conjured by Ravel’s work is of a servant serenading his master’s lady.
Alborada is replete with Spanish folkloric harmonies and rhythms. It is a three-part work, the first section a light toccata in the piano’s upper register. The second and longest section begins as a recitative, prelude to the serenade, developing in a more somber vein. The final part, involving sweeping glissandi, recaptures the spirit of the opening but employs the entire keyboard as it fragments and transforms the themes. Subsequently, Ravel went on to compose a spate of Hispanic works, including Rapsodie espagnole, the opera L'heure espagnole, Boléro, and the song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Beethoven concentrated his final efforts – almost as if he knew that they would be so – on his string quartets. The final quartets, in a certain sense, take over an important creative task the composer had set for himself: taking the most complex musical form, the fugue, and taking it to a level of mastery and musical transcendence beyond that of the universally acknowledged master, Johann Sebastian Bach. Two immense fugues conclude the Piano Sonatas, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) and Op. 110. But Beethoven continued the project in the string quartets Op. 131 (first movement), Op. 133 (Grosse Fuge) The Sonata Op. 110 was completed during December of 1821 and was followed almost immediately by Op. 111, so that the two works are often thought of as a pair. The thematic material of the first movement of Op. 110 is treated in a quite original way. It opens with a gentle chordal theme that contains within it an abbreviated version of what will become the fugue subject of the final movement. The theme changes character and continues into a cantabile section interrupted by a long digression of arpeggios that create tension as the listener waits for the theme to return and resolve. It is characteristic of Beethoven during this final period to make his themes asymmetrical, sometimes interrupting them or allowing them to flow imperceptibly into new musical ideas. Throughout his career, Beethoven was a brilliant improviser, frequently extemporizing on melodies suggested by his audience. This movement illustrates something of the composer’s improvisatory style, sudden melodies interrupted by rapid cadenza-like figures, abrupt changes in tempo, and surprising excursions into distant keys. The Scherzo is based on mere snatches from two Austrian folk melodies. In this short movement, Beethoven builds up tension through the use of syncopation and abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics. The flowery arpeggiated trio contrasts sharply with the pounding scherzo theme. The final movement is one of Beethoven’s most unusual creations, with a recitative and heart-wrenching aria (called in the score “klagende Lied,” or complaining song) in full operatic style, resolving into a fugue. The fugue subject is loosely based on the main melody of the first movement, only upside down. The whole structure is then repeated in slightly varied form while the second statement of the fugue introduces the subject in inversion and continues with further development and drama. This fugue and the other great fugues from Beethoven’s last period – the final movement of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata Op. 106 and the Grosse Fuge Op. 133, which was the original finale to the String Quartet Op. 130 – are monuments of contrapuntal mastery as well as
flights of spiritual fancy. “To write a fugue is no great art,” Beethoven once said, “ …But the imagination also insists on its rights, and nowadays the traditional form must be penetrated by another, genuinely poetical element.” Polonaise-fantasie in A-flat major, Op. 61
Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849
As the name implies, the polonaise originated in Poland, probably during the late Middle Ages, as a vocal folk dance (polonez) in triple meter, a festive couples dance in moderate tempo with a characteristic upbeat introduction to its short phrases. From its peasant origins, it gradually became popular with the landed gentry. It assumed its characteristic stately character as it progressed up the social ladder. By the eighteenth century, Princess Anna Maria of Saxony (1728–97), daughter of King Augustus III of Poland, enhanced the popularity of the dance in Western Europe, where it acquired its French name, polonaise. During the period it came to be associated with Polish nationalism as the country was continually threatened and eventually partitioned by its neighbors. The polonaise was incorporated as one of the optional dances in the instrumental suite, as in J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2. One of the polonaise’s most enthusiastic Baroque promoters was Georg Philipp Telemann. Examples are also found in the works of Mozart and Beethoven. Chopin is inseparably associated with the polonaise, although he was not the first composer to render it as a musical symbol of Polish nationalism. Yet, he felt constrained by the form and tried to expand it. Writing to his family in December 1845, he refers to Op. 61 as “...something else I don’t know how to name...” Certainly the Polonaise-fantasie is more fantasy than polonaise. Although Chopin retains the opening rhythm of the dance with its characteristic upbeat in the work’s several themes, he transforms and disguises the figure, sometimes distorting it within pianistic embellishments, irregular phrase lengths and tempo changes. The critics of the time, including Franz Liszt, faulted the work for its irregular structure. Moments musicaux, Op. 16 No. 1, in B-flat minor
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergei Rachmaninov was a master of the piano miniature. Between 1887 and 1917 he poured out a constant stream of such compositions in sets with such titles as Morceaux, Moments musicaux, Préludes, Etudes-tableaux, etc. These ranged in character from superficial salon pieces to highly complex and emotionally involved works. Most of the groupings were for publication purposes only, and often can stand as an independent short compositions. The common element in all of them is that they are technically challenging. The six Moments musicaux, Op. 16 were composed in the fall of 1896 at the time when the composer was preoccupied with the upcoming premiere of his First Symphony (which was a dismal failure, in part due to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov). They are Rachmaninov’s first pieces in his distinctive style of piano writing, combining: a sure grasp of the expressive possibilities of the instrument with a masterful use of dynamics; a striking gift for yearning themes; and an air of melancholy that permeates most of his works. No. 1, Andantino, is intensely lyrical and recalls Chopin.
Maurice Ravel 1875-1937
At the outbreak of World War I, Ravel attempted to join the military for what was presumably going to be a short war. Although he made several attempts to enlist in the air force as a pilot, he was rejected on health grounds. Finally, in March 1916, he became an ambulance driver, naming his vehicle Adélaïde after the ballet adaptation of his Valses nobles et sentimentales. Before the outbreak of the war, he had begun work on a symphonic poem that he tentatively called Vienna, but in light of the spreading hostilities he refrained from working on the project and did not return to it until 1919 at the urging of Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets russes, giving it the title La valse. Ravel is said to have described La valse as “a fantastic and fatefully inescapable whirlpool.” On the score he added the stage direction “An Imperial Court, about 1855.” The date was chosen deliberately. This was a period when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in decline, withstanding nationalist movements in Germany, Hungary and the Balkans while trying to hold its own against the continual threat of the Ottoman Empire on its eastern frontier and France in the west. Austria, under the rule of Franz Joseph I, signed a treaty with Pope Pius IX, which terminated the liberal reforms adopted during the reign of Joseph II at the end of the eighteenth century. With it, the empire entered the most reactionary period in its history. At the time Ravel took up his pen to complete his work, the Empire had just suffered its final defeat in World War I. In the Vienna of 1855, the Hapsburg court maintained a show of glittering joie de vivre. The city, dancing on a volcano, swayed to the waltzes and operettas of the Strauss family. Economically, this was the most brilliant and prosperous period of the monarchy. With the hindsight of 1919, however, Ravel had a clear picture of the Empire’s decadence. The atmosphere of the music –if not the harmonic style–is thoroughly Viennese. The opening follows closely the scenic directive Ravel added to the score: “Clouds whirl about. Occasionally they part to allow a glimpse of waltzing couples. As the clouds lift, one can see a gigantic hall, filled by a crowd of moving dancers. The stage gradually brightens and the glow of the chandeliers breaks out fortissimo.” The dance becomes wilder and wilder, a rhythmic and dynamic tour de force; the dancers lose control and are swept in a terrific whirlwind. It is a frightening, deathly riot, cut off at the end as if by a bolt of lightning. Program notes by: Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn [email protected]