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Jayson Gillham
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Wigmore Hall recital 27 January 2014

Written by Jayson, Monday 27th January 2014

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Rondo in C major, Op. 51 No. 1 (c. 1796, possibly earlier, first published 1797)
   Moderato e grazioso

Rondo in G major, Op. 51 No. 2 (c. 1798, first published 1802)
   Andante cantabile e grazioso

The period between Beethoven’s relocation from Bonn to Vienna in 1792 and roughly 1802 is generally seen as the consolidation of his early style or ‘first maturity’.  On arrival in Vienna he studied composition with Haydn, and the oft-quoted prophecy by Count von Waldstein that Beethoven was to ‘receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn’ is rightly famous, because in this first period we indeed witness Beethoven taking on the grace and balance of Mozart as well as the wit and characterisation of Haydn, assimilating these elements into his own style, and beginning to rebel.

Interestingly all of Beethoven’s stand-alone rondos were written before 1800 and are thus early works.  The form survived into his middle period only as a movement within larger works, usually in the hybrid ‘sonata-rondo’ variety.  In his later years he almost totally abandoned the form, as part of his move towards compression and away from direct repetition.

The young Beethoven

The Two Rondos Op. 51 were not written (or originally published) together, but they make an attractive pairing.  Both contain the markings grazioso and dolce, but contrast is to be found between the light, innocent charm of the C major and the deep, warm cantabile of the G major, which is aided by its more spacious Andante pulse.

The C major Rondo, for all its charm, is not completely benign.  It contains the dramatic element in its C minor section, after which there is a ‘mis-statement’ of the theme in the remote key of A-flat major, a drop of a major third (aka the flattened submediant).  (Submediant and mediant relationships recur frequently in Beethoven’s works and our trusty flattened submediant will re-appear later tonight in the Sonata Op. 101.)  Beethoven returns to the realm of flats in the coda for an entrancing sequence of pianissimo arpeggios around D-flat major.

Richer and on a larger scale than its earlier counterpart, the G major Rondo is full of tender affection.  One of the first things to strike the listener is the greater exchange of material between the hands; the left hand frequently takes an active role.  This rondo is in the hybrid sonata-rondo form ABA-C-AB’A, where the B theme first appears in the dominant and then later resolves to the tonic.  The C theme, which replaces what would be the development section in sonata form, is a wholly unexpected diversion, introducing a new tempo (Allegretto), meter (6/8), mood and key (E major – the submediant).

 

Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 (1816)
   Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung
   Lebhaft. Marschmäßig
   Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll—Zeitmaß des ersten Stückes—
   Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit

Of Beethoven’s so-called ‘fallow’ years (1813-17), the Piano Sonata Op. 101 is his greatest creation.  The other major works are the Piano Sonata Op. 90, the two Cello Sonatas Op. 102 and the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98.  Each of these works shows Beethoven searching for a new path and beginning to forge his late style or ‘third maturity’.

Op. 101 bears a dedication to the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, a close friend of Beethoven’s, and a formidable pianist.  She and Beethoven obviously shared an intimate musical empathy, as evidenced by this touching anecdote.  In 1804 Dorothea lost her only child, and at first Beethoven could not bring himself to visit her in her home.  According to Mendelssohn’s account (as told to him by Dorothea in 1831):

Finally he invited her to visit him, and when she came he sat himself down at the piano and said simply: ‘We will now speak to each other in tones’, and proceeded to play continuously for over an hour. She remarked: ‘He told me everything, and at last brought me comfort.’

Another version of events was suggested by the actress Antonie Adamberger:

After the funeral of her only child she could not find tears…General Ertmann brought her to Beethoven. The master spoke no words but played for her until at last she began to sob, and thus her grief found both expression and relief.

The mature Beethoven

Although Op. 101 was written some years afterwards, a shared experience like this would not be forgotten and must surely play a part in the conception of this sonata and its dedication.  It certainly equates with the intimacy of the opening movement.  Marked to be played ‘somewhat lively and with the deepest of feeling’, its tenderness is unmatched in any other sonata.

The work begins as if mid-sentence with a series of questions, carefully avoiding the tonic key A major.  A near-continuous melody spins out, but the graceful sighs and balanced rhetoric hide something deeply painful, touched upon in the brief development section and then fully witnessed in the fortissimo outburst near to the movement’s end.

A sturdy march featuring the obsessive use of dotted rhythms, the second movement is an obvious precursor to Schumann.  The tonality here is the flattened submediant key of F major, and at one point the movement briefly visits its own flattened submediant:  D-flat major.  The whole of Op. 101 is infused with counterpoint and canonic imitation, but it is in the Trio of the second movement that Beethoven’s increasing enthusiasm for Bach is exposed in all its nakedness.  A two-part canon at the octave, it brings momentary relief from the dotted rhythms of the surrounding march.  (We will revisit both obsessive dotted rhythms and baroque inspiration tonight in Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes.)

The third movement, in A minor, is not a fully developed slow movement, but more an intermezzo, providing a link back to the first movement as well as a preparation for the finale.  Despite the direction to play ‘full of longing’ (sehnsuchtsvoll), the beginning seems emotionally withdrawn, almost disembodied, and takes some time to gradually thaw and eventually blossom into that magical moment that is the recall of the first movement.  After a small hesitation, the tail of this idea is enthusiastically seized upon to form the basis of the theme for the finale.

The finale itself is a wonderfully ebullient and life-affirming piece, the perfect antidote to what has come before.  There is subtle humour, and Beethoven even finds scope for a bit of country dancing and amateur yodelling.  Throughout the movement there is a preoccupation with counterpoint; even the first appearance of the theme is in imitation.  It is all a preparation for the final test:  a monumental four-voice fugue that beats Bach at his own game – but will the pianist survive?

 

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13 (1834-37, revised 1852)

Thème      (Thema)      Andante
Etude I      (Var. 1)        Un poco più vivo
1st Posth. Var.
2nd Posth. Var.
Etude II    (Var. 2)        Espressivo
Etude III                         Vivace
Etude IV    (Var. 3)
3rd Posth. Var.
Etude V     (Var. 4)        Scherzando
Etude VI    (Var. 5)       Agitato, con gran bravura
4th Posth. Var.
Etude IX                          Presto possibile
Etude VII    (Var. 6)     Allegro molto, sempre brillante
Etude VIII   (Var. 7)     Sempre marcatissimo
5th Posth. Var.
Etude X       (Var. 8)    Con energia sempre
Etude XI      (Var. 9)    Con espressione
Etude XII    (Finale)    Allegro brillante

[Etude numbers are from the first edition (1837); Variation numbers in parentheses show the corresponding movements from the second edition after Etudes III and IX were removed (1852); the Posthumous Variations are numbered according to Brahms’s edition (1893).]

Robert Schumann

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes have a complicated history.  The work is at times otherwise referred to by Schumann as ‘Etudes in the Form of Variations’, ‘Fantasies and Finale on a Theme by Baron von Fricken’, and ‘Etudes of an Orchestral Character by Florestan and Eusebius’.  The confusion partly comes about because the piece is at once a set of variations and a collection of etudes, but the two forms do not always overlap:  some variations are clearly not etudes, and some of the etudes stray too far to be considered a true variation on the original theme.  But the chief cause of confusion is a failed love affair.

During 1834 Schumann became secretly engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, daughter of Baron von Fricken who was an amateur composer.  It was at this time that Schumann took a theme by the Baron and began writing variations.  To start with there were eleven variations, including the five that we now know as the ‘posthumous’ variations.  In this preliminary version the contrasting Florestan and Eusebius elements of Schumann’s personality were fairly well balanced.  Schumann had difficulty completing a finale, and so for the time being the piece lay unfinished.

Crucially, after little more than a year, in August 1835 the engagement with Ernestine was broken off, and it wasn’t long before Schumann’s romantic attention turned to Clara Wieck.

When the opportunity arose in 1836 for Schumann to have his Symphonic Etudes published, he put aside the five ‘posthumous’ variations and wrote six new etudes (Etudes III, VI-IX and XI) which were more virtuosic than any of the others.  It seems most likely (though not often noted) that the break with Ernestine and the blossoming attachment to Clara was the principal reason for this extensive re-planning of the work.

It would explain why he was quick to remove the most beautiful and introspective movements (as Brendel notes, ‘Their withdrawal caused almost the entire Eusebius to be deleted from the work’), as they would have been a musical representation of Ernestine and of his former dedication to her.  He would not have done this purely for his own sake, to help him forget, but more likely for Clara’s sake, as she was the one who would go on playing the work.  She would not want to be reminded of Ernestine every time she played the piece.

If this theory is correct, then the increased virtuosity of the six new etudes (and Finale) makes perfect sense because they were designed specifically to show off Clara’s formidable technique, and to test its limits.  The final piece of evidence in support of the theory that Schumann attempted to erase Ernestine from Op. 13 and re-appropriate the work to Clara is the G-sharp minor Etude XI, which is the most musically inspired of the six new movements added in 1836.  It features two intertwining voices in the right hand—a passionate love duet—and contains the descending five notes often cited as the ‘Clara theme’ (the same as in the Fantasy Op. 17, also from 1836).  Isn’t Schumann saying to Clara, ‘This is your piece now’?

 

Ernestine von Fricken

Ernestine von Fricken

After Schumann’s death Brahms discovered the five discarded variations from the ‘Ernestine’ version and published them as an appendix to the work.  It is left to the performer whether to include some or all of these posthumous variations, as well as how to position them within the work.  As Brendel remarks:

After many years of working with Schumann’s ‘Symphonic’ version [the 1837 first edition], I would not want to go any longer without the five posthumous pieces; it is their inclusion that makes Schumann’s Op. 13 one of his finest compositions.

On inserting the posthumous variations, the performer has two basic choices:  to insert all five posthumous variations together towards the middle of the work (as if a slow movement), or alternatively to sprinkle them throughout the whole piece.  Tonight’s performance favours the second option, which seeks to highlight the contrast between Schumann’s dual personalities Florestan and Eusebius.  In this way the unique character of each movement is enhanced by its juxtapositions and the piece is set free from the shackles of both etude and variation to become a set of character pieces with a unifying element, in a similar fashion to Schumann’s other major piano work from the same time – Carnaval, Op. 9.

Copyright 2014 Jayson Gillham

P. S.  One final and rather silly note, simply to express how chuffed I am that we ‘round out’ tonight’s programme by revisiting the rondo form in the finale of the Schumann!


MoleculeCategorised under: Programme Notes

LabelTagged under: Beethoven, Schumann, Wigmore Hall

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