Noah Greenberg, 3 March 2016
Partita no 1 in B flat, BWV 825: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
5. Menuets 1 and 2
Four volumes of Bach's keyboard music were published during his lifetime, to which he gave the overall title Clavier-Übung (which might best be translated as 'The practice of keyboard music'). Volume 1, his first major publication of any kind, consists of his six keyboard partitas, and is clearly modelled on a similarly-titled pair of volumes by his predecessor as Kantor of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). Kuhnau's two collections each consist of seven suites, where Bach’s only contains six. It has been suggested that what would have been the seventh eventually became the work known as the Italian Concerto, included in Clavier-Übung, Book 2.
The six partitas which make up Book 1 were published at the rate of one a year from 1726, with the complete volume appearing in 1731, and they appear to have made a considerable impact. According to Johann Nikolaus Forkel, whose biography of the composer was published in 1802, 'this work made in its time a great noise in the musical world. Such excellent compositions for the clavier had never been seen or heard before. Anyone who had learned to perform well some pieces out of them could make his fortune in the world thereby'. Each is built round the four dance movements of the standard baroque instrumental suite: allemande, a moderately-paced dance characterised by a contemporary writer as 'serious, grave, solemn'; courante, in a slowish triple time, thought of as being grand and majestic; sarabande, a slow, stately triple-time dance; and the quick, lively gigue. To this basic scheme Bach added a number of additional movements. The phrase on the title page, 'und andere Galanterien' ('and other gallantries') has been taken to mean a variety of lighter movements in addition to the four regular dances, but it has also been suggested that he meant the word in a wider sense, indicating keyboard movements of any kind, including the dances. Throughout the volume Bach mixed French titles with their Italian equivalents, drawing attention to the fact that he had combined elements of the two national styles.
Each partita has a distinctive first movement, each with a different title from those of the other five. The Prelude that opens No 1 has a similar strength of purpose and forward movement to many of the preludes from The well-tempered clavier. Bach adds a pair of minuets – the first of which, by convention, is repeated after the second – between the Sarabande and the breathlessly lively Gigue.
Two Rhapsodies, Op 79: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
1. Agitato, B minor
2. Molto passionato, ma non troppo allegro, G minor
In the years 1878 and 1879 Brahms's piano music took a new direction. His previous music for the instrument had been dominated by large-scale works – sonatas and sets of variations. Now, after a gap of some fifteen years, his return to writing for solo piano focused on short concentrated single pieces, an approach which was to culminate in the four groups of piano pieces he published in the early 1890s.
The two Rhapsodies, Op 79, were written in the summer of 1879, and dedicated to Elisabet von Herzogenberg. An amateur pianist and singer, she was a close friend of Brahms for many years; her letters to him show a deep understanding of his music. The two pieces contain some of the most passionate music Brahms wrote for the piano, in stark contrast to the more intimate character of the preceding set of eight pieces, Op 76.
Brahms’s use of the title 'Rhapsody' for the two Op 79 pieces, with its suggestion of an improvisatory character, stands in almost wilful contradiction to the tightly organised structure of the pieces themselves. The first opens with a stormy theme which eventually dies down to reveal a more lyrical idea. This, though, barely has time to establish itself before the stormy music crashes back in. It is not until the beautifully tender central section that the lyrical theme comes into its own. After the opening music has returned and run its course, it makes its final appearance deep in the left hand in the final bars.
The G minor Rhapsody's sturdy, aspiring opening is interrupted by an urgent galloping theme and a more resigned idea. This turns fatalistically introspective as a new theme arrives which is marked by its opening repeated notes. A constant triplet motion binds the whole piece together. At the end, Brahms allows this simply to wind down, before ending the Rhapsody with a brusque gesture of defiance.
Out of Doors: Belá Bartók (1881-1945)
1. With drums and pipes
Out of Doors (Szabadban, to give it is original Hungarian title) is one of a number of piano works Bartók composed in 1926, his first for several years. They include his Piano Sonata and Piano Concerto No 1, and all composed to provide him with new concert repertoire, now that he was becoming increasingly prominent as an international performer.
While they reflect developments in his own musical language, Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens suggests that an additional element was the experience of transcribing and editing 17th and early 18th c keyboard music, particularly François Couperin; Debussy’s piano Preludes may well also have been an influence.
Though Bartók himself rarely played all five pieces together in the same concert, their published sequence suggests they were deliberately arranged into the kind of five-movement arch shape that he went on to explore further in works like String Quartets Nos 4 and 5 and Concerto for Orchestra.
After the rough, stamping vigour of'With Drums and Pipes', 'Barcarolla' has the smooth, flowing character implied by the boating-song of the title. 'Musettes' takes its name from the sets of small bagpipes that appear in traditional music all over Europe, and re-creates, to quote another Bartók scholar, László Somfai, not only the instrument's music but also its accompanying mechanical sounds.
Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op 52: Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Chopin’s use of the title 'Ballade' for Op 52 and its three companions suggest links with the kind of narrative poems set to music by Schubert and others, perhaps even hinting at a story-line behind Chopin's own music. Folk ballads, particularly those from the Scottish border region, were enormously popular throughout Europe at the time, and Schumann suggested that Chopin's Ballades were prompted by the work of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. The extent of the connection has been a subject of debate ever since.
Ballade No 4 was written between 1842 and 1843. It sums up Chopin's approach to the ballade form which he pioneered, just as the A flat polonaise, Op 53, and the E major Scherzo, Op 54, do for their respective genres. It combines a set of variations on the main theme with the statement, development and re-statement of a more formal sonata structure. The result creates a feeling of seamless movement, from the gentle introduction, through a lighter development section, to the stormy conclusion, with a magical few moments of stillness before the torrent of energy breaks out again with renewed force at the end.
And that is as close as we can get to a specific story-line. Mickiewicz's poems may well have given Chopin’s inspiration a nudge in a particular direction, but the music is left to stand on its own merits, and listeners are free to respond in their own way.
© Mike Wheeler, 2015