Tuesday, 12 January 2010


I never really got into that, which is perhaps a bit odd for a musician with academic leanings. Anyway, a little certainly goes a long way; there is no doubt that my appreciation for music was boosted by music A-levels in 1997 (at the time, poorly understood, if I'm honest), a diploma in musicology (AMusTCL) in 1998 and by occasionally dipping in to academic works since then. But listening to Charles Hazlewood's programme Discovering Music on BBC Radio 3 has been about as helpful as all that study - I can't recommend it more strongly!

Anyway, before Christmas I had to knock up something a little more high powered than my usual chatty programme notes, and this is what came out...

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Sonata No. 62 in E flat major, Hob. XVI/52

I Allegro

II Adagio


Haydn’s last and grandest sonata was written in 1794 during a visit to England. Along with Sonata No. 60 in C major, it was composed for and dedicated to Therese Jansen, a rising star of keyboard performance.[1] The thick opening chords and dramatic gestures of the first movement almost prefigure the changes Beethoven was to bring to the keyboard, and to musical taste in general. At every opportunity Haydn surprises the listener in this Allegro, whether in the frequent harmonic shifts, often unprepared, or in the radical contrast between the grand opening theme and some of the other material. James Taggart points out the humour introduced with the ‘laughing notes’ in the tune at bars 27-9, very redolent of the opening bars of Sonata No. 60.[2] Haydn totally disregards convention when he jumps into E major at the close of the development section – a development section very short on the dominant but bursting with other keys. That leap prepares us for the unusual choice of E major/minor in the Adagio. This is in ternary form, but is essentially monothematic. All the melodic material is generated from the rhythmic organisation and relative pitches of the first three notes. Although slow, there are many flamboyant touches and often a feeling of improvisation. The final movement is in a more conventional sonata form, much more tightly constructed than the Allegro and taking in fewer surprising key-centres, though still highly chromatic in places. Haydn scattered pauses liberally throughout the Presto, adding to a sense of tension and urgency created by the insistent repetition within the main theme and the very early use of the supertonic minor to re-state that theme.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924)

Nocturne No. 4 in E flat, Op. 36

The interval of a falling fourth characterises this elegant, deceptively simple work. The structure is loosely ternary, but since the middle section has two quite distinct melodic ideas (albeit in the same key and bracketed by the same semiquaver figuration) perhaps ‘ABCA’ would be more accurate. Each section is essentially a double statement of its main melodic idea, the second iteration more elaborately accompanied than the first. In each case this double statement of the tune is followed by a transitional passage. There are thematic links between ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘A’ and ‘C’ in particular. The falling fourths with which the main theme opens find their place in the second section – bell-like semibreves head each bar, appearing in pairs a compound fourth apart. Section ‘C’, which contains the climax of the work, employs material from the tail-end of the main theme of ‘A’ – a falling fifth preceded by rising triplet figure. A coda in the style of ‘B’ over a tonic pedal ushers in the calm conclusion. Musicologists delight in finding parallels between Impressionist art and the sound world of French music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: ‘For Fauré, as much as for Debussy and Ravel, evocations of bells are a recurring colour, standing out rather in the manner of Van Gogh’s characteristic crimson splashes’.[3] It is not hard to find sources in the composer’s life for this love of bell-like sonorities. He grew up under the sound of church bells and his career began in the Catholic church. Between 1866 and 1892 Fauré worked as organist or choirmaster for churches in Rennes and Paris.[4] To take just one other example from his large output for piano, the monumental Thème et Variations closes with a fortissimo peal of bells on a long descending scale.[5] It is intriguing that Fauré chose to set that peal against a slower-moving rising scale in the lower register, and that his long falling scale moves from right hand to left, just like at the climax of this less ambitious but no less beautiful Nocturne.

Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)

Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 35, No. 1

As Fauré owed a great debt to Chopin for much of his piano writing, so Mendelssohn drank deeply from the wells of past great musicians. Fellow Lutheran J.S. Bach was undeniably an important influence, and the extent of that dependence has long been the subject of great debate among musicologists. This negatively affected Mendelssohn’s reputation for more than a century.[6] However, the six Preludes and Fugues are more Romantic than neo-Baroque, more innovative than conservative.

The most striking feature of the un-Bachian prelude is Mendelssohn’s skilful employment of the “three-hand technique” of virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg (1812-71), in which an inner tune is decorated on either side with florid figuration.[7] But there is much more to this restless work than first meets the ear. Although a midget in comparison to the weighty fugue the prelude has great structural integrity in its own right – almost a miniature sonata form. After the main melody is stated in the tonic minor it is repeated with a modulation to the dominant (minor) via an upward leap of a seventh. New thematic material made up of alternating rising and falling note-pairs (like a second subject) builds to a climax. A chromatic fantasia rippling downwards from the dominant opens the ‘development’ section in which the main theme with diminution (the leap of a sixth becomes a tritone, anticipating the crucial interval of the fugue theme to come) is heard twice, abortively. A fleeting passage relying on major harmonies gives way to a diminished seventh that slides into the dominant seventh which introduces the ‘recapitulation’ back in E minor (a single statement of the main melody with slightly altered accompaniment). The ‘second subject’ is then heard in the tonic before an extended coda over a tonic pedal. Mendelssohn could hardly have made his E minor more emphatic here – despite the taunting intrusions of E major harmony (which serves to prepare for outbursts of the modified first subject in the subdominant) the heavily chromatic contrary-motion scales pull the music relentlessly back to the minor, and the simple arpeggios of the final bars underline that harmony in no uncertain terms.

E minor and a mostly dark, dissonant mood dominate the double fugue. The chromatic principal subject comprises rising tritones and falling, sighing scales. Mendelssohn frequently shrinks the subject’s opening interval of a minor third to a tone or a semitone, giving him great flexibility in the direction the music will then take. Major harmonies begin to predominate from the fifth entry of the principal subject, in the tenor part, and the music is firmly established in the warm relative major by the time the tenor again has the tune. This is a false dawn, however, for after the cadence the music begins to fragment. Falling away from G major the voices enunciate dyadic gestures as they fade, at first overlapping and then breaking apart into separate, halting breaths. The return of the principal subject in the bass brings unity to the voices and a long accelerando begins along with greater dynamic range. The acceleration continues through the first dynamic climax and the introduction of a second fugue subject (an inversion of the principal subject, now featuring staccato articulation) right up to the emphatic return of the principal subject in the tonic minor – first in the highest voice (bar 73) and then in bass octaves (bar 77). At the climax of this radical fugue, the left hand octaves produce an effect reminiscent of organ pedals going at full blast. When the right hand enters again Mendelssohn gives it not the fugue subject but a glorious E major chorale of five stately lines. The last of these is instantly recognisable as the second line of Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott. Tempo 1 is reaffirmed in the coda, which gently explores the principal fugue subject in a calm tonic major. Since the fugue was written as a response to the death of Mendelssohn’s friend August Hanstein, it is not too fanciful to accept R. Larry Todd’s suggestion that its dissonant path represents the course of Hanstein’s fatal disease while ‘the culminating chorale… distinguished by smooth stepwise motion, [depicts] his release through death and spiritual redemption’.[8]

Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Étude V (pour les Octaves)

The programme closes with a second up-beat, highly chromatic work by a composer nearing the end of a glittering career whose contribution to the piano repertoire was as important as his influence on the development of musical language was far-reaching. Unlike the Haydn Sonata, however, this piece is very short. Written in 1915, it betrays little of the well-known anxiety and depression that Debussy experienced as a result of the First World War, though several other Études from the set of twelve seem to have the shadow of conflict over them: III – pour les Quartes, IX – pour les Notes répétées or the brutal XII – pour les Accords, for example. If there is anything unsettled here then it is in the slightly sinister central section. The form is loosely ternary, and each main section is further subdivided.

The opening section is expansive and bravura, elaborating in turn on significant elements of the first ‘paragraph’ (bars 1-4). Thus from bar 11, the falling triple semiquaver motif and the off-beat melodic phrases are developed, while from bar 23 Debussy returns again and again to the rising, overlapping flourish that traverses almost the entire keyboard. This flourish has been the cause of some confusion among pianists, since Debussy reportedly said that the penultimate (left-hand) pair of notes was printed an octave too high in the first edition. Unfortunately, he apparently did not comment on the final (right-hand) pair, which is thereby potentially left out on a limb above its fellows, but perhaps ought also to be brought down an octave.[9] Given this ambiguity, I have decided to retain the first edition’s notation for my performance. This permits the flourish to expand dramatically in pitch as it rises, as if the rate of change was itself changing, which seems in keeping with the mood and virtuosity of the work.

The central section’s extended diminished whispering eventually gives way to a pentatonic romp. Instead of being shared out between the pianist’s two hands, in different registers, which had produced a rather unsettled effect, the three-note groups of melodic material are now united, without accidentals, in four bars of Strepitoso double-octave passage work. This leads to a reprise of the opening material in E major (the tonic). Debussy avoids the slip down into E flat major that he had employed in the first section, and provides a dreamy episode in the upper register of the piano, based on the fortissimo passage from bar 11. As he heads back to the tonic, for six bars the elements of the first bar – bass octave, central chord, high triple semiquaver motif – are taken apart and put back together in a slightly different order, then insistently squeezed and sharpened. There is a final chromatic rush before the jubilant conclusion.

[1] Tom Beghin, ‘Thoughts on performing Haydn’s keyboard sonatas’, in Caryl Clark, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Haydn (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), pp. 203-25 [p. 14].

[2] Franz Joseph Haydn’s keyboard sonatas: an untapped gold mine (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon, 1988), pp. 60-61.

[3] Roy Howat, The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009), p. 15.

[4] Biographical information about Fauré is taken from the notes to the Naxos recording of Nocturnes 1-6, online at http://www.naxos.com/mainsite/blurbs_reviews.asp?item_code=8.550794&catNum=550794&filetype=About%20this%20Recording&language=English# (accessed 19/12/09).

[5] Howat, French Piano Music, p. 15.

[6] For a balanced and contextualized approach, see James Garratt, ‘Mendelssohn and the rise of musical historicism’, in Peter Mercer-Taylor, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), pp. 55-70.

[7] Steve Lindeman, ‘The works for solo instrument(s) and orchestra’, in ibid., pp. 112-29 [p. 124].

[8] ‘On Mendelssohn’s sacred music, real and imagined’, in ibid., pp. 167-88 [p. 180].

[9] Howat, French Piano Music, p. 235.