When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?
As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..
Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.
It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.
Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.
It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.
Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.
The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….
The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.
The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.
when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after
– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)
The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the sparkling arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The Scherzo serves several purposes in the overall scheme and narrative of the sonata: it provides a breath of fresh air between the Andantino and the Rondo (to omit a third movement and go straight to the finale would be too ponderous for Schubert), and through its tempo, concision and directness, highlights the breadth of the finale.
The second section of the Scherzo (m 17) begins with a LH figure redolent of the rambunctious opening of the third movement of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony and rich in ‘cello and double bass resonances. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by “startling flashes of irritability” (Schiff): a dramatic descending scale which recalls the middle section of the previous movement, with a reference to the desolate main melody of the Andantino in the ensuing passage. For a moment it seems as if the desolation of the previous movement has returned, but the atmosphere is quickly dispersed by a chord (m 47) before the effervescent opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, scored in D major, Schubert re-imagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serenity redolent of choral writing or a choir of woodwind, closing with a sequence of ethereal chords.
The opening section is then reprised via the Da Capo marking. The musicologist David Montgomery makes the case for observing all the repeats during the reprise. Like many piano students, I was taught that DC repeats should be dropped, a practice Montgomery suggests developed during the late nineteenth-century and certainly when early recordings began to be made, for reasons of limited disc or piano roll space. In the case of Scherzos or Minuets, there is almost complete agreement amongst performers that the DC repeats should be omitted (I have only heard one performance of the D959 in concert where the DC repeats were observed), regarding them as “vestigial” and unnecessary in such a diminutive movement as a Scherzo. In the case of the D959’s third movement, there is a good argument for maintaining them because 1) they make the movement longer, roughly equivalent to the Andantino, and thus create a sense of structural balance between the first and final movements and the inner movements (a “golden ratio”); 2) repeating previously heard material reiterates Schubert’s unusual harmonies and musical signposts (the same argument applies to exposition repeat in the first movement).
Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)
Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)
Hetenyi, G: The Terminal Illness of Franz Schubert and the Treatment of Syphilis in Vienna in the Eighteen Hundred and Twenties (Bulletin Canadien d’Histoire de Medecine, 1986 Summer;3(1):51-64.)
Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)
Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)
A longer version of this article will appear in a future edition of The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK
A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (read previous posts here)
With a good deal of reading, of both the score and books and articles on this sonata and Schubert’s piano music in general, and listening, and thinking, by late November 2014, it was time to embark on some serious note learning……
As noted in an earlier post, Schubert’s late piano sonatas are large-scale works: their first movements alone, with exposition repeats intact, can last as long as an entire sonata by Beethoven, and this “heavenly length” can pose problems for the performer in terms of stamina (it takes me around 43 minutes to perform the D959 in its entirety, with repeats), retaining a clear sense of the cyclic elements which recur throughout the work, and appreciating the overall narrative of the work. From my reading of the score, and other materials, I had concluded that the second movement, the infamous Andantino was the most “difficult” (though this is all relative when considering such a large piece of music!). This is the movement which provokes the most discussion and theorising amongst pianists, musicologists, critics and audience members, many of whom believe this movement is the clearest indication we have of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Musically, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of the D959, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic in its character and prevailing moods, and it is unlike anything else Schubert wrote. “Its modernity is incredible even today” (Andras Schiff, Schubert Studies). It has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Alfred Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section. Its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the majesty and expansiveness of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. In my own practical approach to this movement, I decided to ignore much of the psychobabble and work with what is given in the text.
The movement is in straightforward ABA (ternary) form, the A section reprised with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.
The middle, B, section unfolds initially like a Baroque fantasia (bars 73-86), with descending diminished seventh arpeggios which take the music into C-minor. Gradually all the elements speed up (Schubert indicates this through note sub-divisions, striking modulations and volume of sound) and the music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords (bars 120/121). A short recitative-like section follows, interrupted by dramatic chords, before a serene passage reminiscent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3). The A material returns at bar 159.
The opening A section combines a barcarolle bass line with a right-hand melody redolent of several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Some pianists like to treat this movement as a barcarolle with a storm in the lagoon (the middle section). Daniel Barenboim has called A section “a melancholy folksong”, a description which I particularly like: the lilting style of a folksong is implied by the recurring bass figure and the simple melody from which is unleashed the turbulent and chaotic middle section.
A rather chilly, tread-like quality in the bass is created through the use of staccato on the first note and the slur on the second and third notes, with the third note lighter (although this is not indicated specifically after bar 2, we can safely assume that this is what Schubert intended throughout). I found it helpful to think of this in terms of a cello or bass pizzicato figure: it needs resonance but should also be balanced with the right-hand melody. I don’t sustain the staccato note with the pedal here, and indeed the pedal is used sparingly throughout this section. The repeated use of falling seconds and a limited range, together with largely understated dynamics, create a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation. With so many repetitive elements in this section, it is necessary to create contrasting musical colour (for example between bars 1-8 and 9-12). At bar 19 the music moves into A Major, one of those magical Schubert moments where the mood seems at once warmer and yet even more poignant because it is expressed pianissimo. I like to use the una corda pedal for this pianissimo passage, and the corresponding passage at bars 51-54 to create a sense of other-worldliness.
Other details worth noting throughout this section (bars 1-32) are the inner voices in bars 7, 15, 16, 25, 29 and 31 (and then at bars 39 and 57), and the ornaments which should be played on the beat (though many celebrity pianists prefer to do otherwise, admittedly to beautiful effect). For example, in bar 15, the A sounds with the E sharp on the beat and the turn at bar 23 begins on the note above, but need not be pedantically with the bass C sharp. (See David Montgomery Franz Schubert’s Music in Performancefor more on ornaments.)
At this point I feel it’s important to mention the overall tempo of the movement. It is marked Andantino, and needs a sense of forward propulsion. Despite this, some pianists tend more towards Adagio, and at this speed there is, in my opinion, a very fine line between the music sounding meditative or funereal, or even boring, which I do not feel is appropriate. I have aimed towards a metronome mark of quaver = c90 bpm. A quick browse through Spotify reveals quite a broad range of tempi, with some versions of the Andantino coming in at well over 8 minutes (Schnabel, Pollini, Uchida, Perahia) and others at around or under 7 minutes (Lupu, Schiff, Goode).
Here is Uchida
And so on to the B section, which leads to the most passionately and extraordinary part of the movement and indeed the whole sonata. It is typical of Schubert to create sections in the music which are vividly contrasting yet also complementary: the A sections are reflective in their lyrical subject while the middle section completely destroys this frame of reference, only for it to return at the reprise of the A section. It is the strong contrast between the A and B sections which makes this movement so arresting and so powerful.
The bridging passage begins at bar 69, and is preceded by three bars whose dark, descending chords mirror in their reverse movement the chords which form the opening sentence of the sonata (and a figure which recurs elsewhere). I like to create a sense of mystery in bars 69-72 with a wetter pedal effect and a little rubato to suggest improvisation as the music unfolds. The main difficulty I encountered in the entire B section was maintaining a sense of the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse and clarifying the different note hierarchies, while also continuing the improvisatory/fantasia feel. In order to achieve this, I drilled the section strictly with the metronome for several weeks, a tedious but necessary task for once the note hierarchies and subdivisions were well learnt, I could let the music break free, particularly in bars 102-122, to create a rising sense of hysteria.
A clear sense of pulse is required through bars 124-146, as the recitative section takes over. After all the “busyness” of the previous page, I like to create a sense of the music being restrained once again, with the contrasting disruption of the FFz chords. At bar 147 the music arrives in C-sharp major in a passage which seems directly drawn from the G-flat Impromptu. At bar 159 the A section returns, this time with the more elaborate LH figure and the triplet figure in the RH, which should have the quality of a separate, “other” voice. Throughout this section, it is important to retain a sense of the opening melody and a similar lightness in the LH to that in the opening bass figure (note the demi-semiquaver rests at the end of each bar). Bars 177-182 the RH accented E’s sound as tolling bells above the melody, and once again I like to use the una corda pedal here to give a more ethereal quality and to create contrast with the forte chords in bars 185/66 and the descending figure in bar 187. The movement closes with dark, arpeggiated chords which echo those at bars 65-68, and which are transformed into sparklingly joyful spread chords in the Scherzo which follows. I try to keep these in tempo until bars 198/9 at which I introduce a rit. to signal the close of the movement. The dynamic landscape here is very quiet and muted, and I feel una corda is perfectly acceptable in these closing statements.
It took me three months of fairly consistent work to bring the movement to a point where I felt confident enough to perform it for others (for friends at home). I then “rested” it for some weeks while I turned my attention to the first movement, the subject of the next article.
A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata
The journey continues…..
My nature tends towards the intellectual when studying and learning music, and my approach to the Sonata in A D959 was no different. After an initial sight-read through the entire work to gain a sense of the overall structure and narrative arc of the piece, I set about reading and listening around the music as far as possible to understand the context and background to this music before the serious note-learning process began. Here I share my reading list and “background listening” Spotify playlist. I have starred the books/articles I found most useful
Schubert’s Late Music: History, Theory, Style – Lorraine Byrne Bodley (ed) and Julian Horton (ed) (Cambridge: CUP, 2016)*
Music Sense and Nonsense – Alfred Brendel (London: The Robson Press, 2015)*
The Cambridge Companion to Schubert – Christopher H Gibbs, ed (Cambridge: CUP, 1997)
Franz Schubert: an essential guide to his life and works – Stephen Jackson (London: Pavilion Books/ClassicFM, 1996 )
Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance – David Montgomery (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)
Schubert Studies – Brian Newbould, ed (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1998)*
Schubert: The Music and the Man – Brian Newbould (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
The Classical Style – Charles Rosen (London: Faber & Faber, 1997)
‘Schubert the Progressive: The Role of Resonance and Gesture in the Piano Sonata in A, D. 959’ – Robert S. Hatten Intégral Vol. 7 (1993), pp. 38-81
‘Schubert’s Dream’ – Peter Pesic, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 136-144
‘Schubert’s Volcanic Temper’ – Hugh MacDonald, The Musical Times, Vol. 119, No. 1629, Schubert Anniversary Issue (Nov., 1978), pp. 949-952
In addition, various reviews of the sonata in performance, interviews with pianists, blogs and other resources, the internet proving a rich and varied source of reading material.
Alongside the reading, I undertook a lot of listening to immerse myself in Schubert’s distinct and very personal soundworld. This included some 15 recordings of the D959, from Arthur Schnabel and Shura Cherkassy to Inon Barnatan and Shai Wosner (whose recording of the sonata includes an interesting “take” on the andantino by Missy Mazzoli), and 5 live performances of the Sonata (including by Piers Lane, Andras Schiff and Richard Goode). This kind of listening is incredibly useful – one does not seek to copy or imitate these pianists in their interpretation of the work, but comparative listening and concert going offers useful context/insight into interpretative possibilities and how to present the work in performance. As the playlist below reveals, I have also listened to songs, chamber music, and symphonies. The idea that Schubert’s piano music is informed by his lieder writing is true up to a certain point, but the late piano sonatas are also rich in orchestral and string-quartet writing.
Getting all the notes of a piece under our fingers is only the first step on the way to performing. It’s what happens after this that engages the listener and makes the performance memorable. Of course, we naturally want to be different and make our playing stand out from the crowd, but it’s no good if we go a little overboard and play in the wrong style. Style is very important, and can be quite subjective. It’s something that we can always look into at a greater depth, and just one reason why musicians are always students.
Style is often dictated by the period in which the music was written. You wouldn’t expect a character in ‘Downton Abbey’ to come into a scene wearing a pair of skinny jeans, would you? Similarly, you wouldn’t want to play a piece in such a way that the listener is no longer able to understand how it could have been written in a certain period. The tone we use has a huge bearing on style. Recently, I played the beginning of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in B flat major (BWV 825) to one of my teachers, and his first comment was that I needed to alter my tone. The sound I was producing would have been far more suited to the work of a romantic composer such as Brahms, so I needed to lighten my touch in order to make my style more appropriate for the work. The same principle can be applied to flexibility; a performer may choose to pull the tempo around in a Chopin Nocturne to a degree that would be out of character in one of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.
A good way to implement style is to think about the instrument for which the music was written. Yes, you’re probably going to be thinking “erm… piano”, but remember that our instrument has come a very long way from the first pianos of Cristofori in the 1700s. Of course, the music of Bach and Scarlatti would have been written for harpsichord, an entirely different instrument indeed! This does sometimes throw up disagreements over certain aspects of playing, such as the use of sustain pedal, but as long as you think generally about the instrument, then you will be far better off than if you’d disregarded the matter!
However, to play a piece stylistically doesn’t mean that you are to play in a certain way when it comes to interpretation. This is what brings originality to your playing, and makes the music as current now as it was when it was written. To demonstrate my point, below are two famous recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BMV 998), both recorded by Glenn Gould. The first was recorded in 1955, the second in 1981: both are examples of style fitting to Bach’s writing, but both recordings differ dramatically when it comes to Gould’s interpretation. You only need to listen to the opening few bars of the Aria to see my point:
Lewis Kesterton is a pianist currently studying at Birmingham Conservatoire. Read his blog here
Schubert. This entry on the letter S would not be complete, for me at least, without a mention of Franz Peter Schubert, a composer whose music I have loved and lived with all my life: as a young child hearing my father play Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsem (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’) on the clarinet, my own LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, my first encounters with the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux for piano in my mid-teens, as a precocious student who could play the notes, but who understood little of where this music came from or its emotional depth. Returning to the piano in my late 30s after an absence of some 20 years, it was Schubert’s music to which I turned first, revisiting the Impromptus initially, and then the late piano sonatas, with the benefit of musical maturity (the result of a lifetime of listening and concert-going rather than playing at that time) and life experience. As an argumentative teenager, often to be seen at weekends on CND marches, the old radical Beethoven had been my hero, a composer who wore his heart on his sleeve and whose life-affirming music declaims his existence, at once full-bodied and triumphal, but also other-worldly and philosophical especially in his late works. Schubert speaks more quietly: his soundworld is introspective, and intimate. He takes us into his confidence, and he is often at his most tragic when writing in the major key. His music packs a vast emotional punch – the range of emotions expressed within a piano miniature, such as the Impromptu in f minor D935/1, are startling, their unexpectedness underlined by his daring use of harmony and his expansiveness (which Schumann described as his “heavenly length”), underpinned by an innate sense of musical geometry and architecture. As a consequence, there are many interpretative possibilities in his music.
If Beethoven is notable for his musical structures and energy, Schubert is the spinner of beautiful melodies, music which speaks of his life in Vienna, of socialising and music making with friends, country rambles and joie de vivre (think of the joyful holiday moods of the ‘Trout’ Quintet), but always shot through with darkness and heartbreak. He had plenty of intuitions of mortality during his brief life: he contracted syphilis in 1822/23, at that time an incurable and shameful disease, and lived in a city on a continent wracked by revolution and war. These were turbulent times, both personally and politically, and his music reflects this in its emotional voltes faces – all those layers of feeling and chains of emotions – perhaps most strikingly expressed in the slow movement of the Sonata in A, D959 or in the Fantasy in F minor, D940.
Frances Wilson – pianist, writer, teacher and author of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog.
Nostalgia has a two-fold meaning: firstly, it is a longing for the past, and secondly, within such longing, an attempt to recreate and glorify the values of a bygone age. The 19th century’s obsession with nostalgia can be traced back to the Romanticism itself, where the name of the movement is a reference to the old French word romance, which referred to the often extravagant and fanciful literature of the Middle Ages. Don Quixote (published 1605 and 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (not to be confuse with the fictitious Cervantes de Leon of the Playstation and Xbox fame) was perhaps the most notable of such literature it was also referenced in some of the 19th century’s most famous novels: Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1844) and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). All three novels have been adapted into films during the 20th century with varying degree of success.
Though it is not often implicit in the musical text, an example of nostalgia can be found in the Romanze of Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto (1830), the composer himself described this movement as: ‘Calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.’ A more obvious example of nostalgia can be found in Liszt’s Ninth Transcendental Etude entitled ‘Ricordanza’. The title itself has a two-fold meaning. It can mean ‘recollection’, possibly even a literal reference to the fact that this etude looks back and adheres to its 1827 prototype as no other etude in the ‘Transcendentals’ does (Liszt himself wrote three versions of the Transcendentals Etudes, the 1827 juvenile prototype, the 1839 Paganini inspired Grandes Études, before the final version in 1857 which stripped the exorbitant technical demands of its intermediate predecessor). In Italian, the term ricordanza can also refer to a memento, an object that was stored over a period of time to recall a specific moment of the past. The eminent pianist composer Ferruccio Busoni famously compared the musical content of this Liszt etude to ‘a bundle of faded love letters from a somewhat old-fashioned world of sentiment’.
It is also possible that Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved, 1816) is a musical reference to the composer’s own Unsterbliche Geliebte (Immortal Beloved) letters. Written in 1812 and never sent, the anonymity of the intended recipient triggered what was perhaps the most comprehensive sleuthing exercise in the history of Western Art Music. In fact, the controversy about these letters is such that they have been the subject and title of a Hollywood film (Immortal Beloved 1994), which was dismissed by scholars for its lack of historical evidence and speculative ending (casting Gary Oldman as Beethoven didn’t exactly help…), as well as making a brief appearance in the award winning HBO Series Sex and the City. In these letters, Beethoven expressed his longing for the beloved, and how he looks forward to the day of their next meeting. A similar situation appears in An die ferne Geliebte, where for reasons unknown to the listener, the poet and his beloved are also separated. Here Beethoven recalls the opening song as a symbol of memory within the last song, which not only gives the song cycle a sense of completeness and closure, but also signifies that the distance which initially appear between the poet and his beloved has now been bridged by the songs he sang to her, showing that music has the ability to transcend time and space. And just as in the Immortal Beloved letters, hope springs eternal in the poet’s heart with regards to his next meeting with the beloved.
In Romantic music, nostalgia can represent either a bitter sense of lost happiness or a wistful yearning of the past, both of which are often linked with the idea of cyclic reprise. This can be found in the coda of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und leben (both composed in 1840). Further significant examples can be found in Schumann’s Fantasie (1836) and Fantasiestücke (1837). In the former work, Nostalgia took the form of Beethoven as the Fantasie was an attempt to raise fund towards the construction of a Beethoven monument in Bonn – this is most evident the majestic march-like second movement in the key of E-flat major – a key reserved for some of Beethoven’s most heroic compositions such as the Eroica Symphony, and the Emperor Concerto. The element of longing and passion in Schumann’s Fantasie was prefaced firstly by Schlegel’s quote:
Durch alle Töne tönet
Through all the notes
Im bunten Erdentraum
In earth’s motley dream
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
One soft note
Für den, der heimlich lauschet
Can be heard by one who listens stealthily
Second and more importantly, nostalgia adheres to a musical quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte as a mean to express the unattainability of his own love for the then seventeen-year-old Clara Wieck. This haunts the first movement in its fragment before appearing fully in the coda. Schumann’s sketchbook showed that there were actual attempts to quote the Beethoven quotation in the valedictory last movement before he changed his mind.
Similar to the Fantasie, Schumann also uses a falling five-note motif to enshrine the image of Clara in the Fantasiestücke. This motif appears prominently in Des Abends, a piece which evokes the haunting stillness of the Fantasie’s final movement, before returning in the opening and the coda of Ende vom Lied, a piece which Schumann confessed that had him dreaming of ‘wedding bells’ (evident in the middle section) before realising that there was still much distance between himself and Clara. Worth mentioning is that the third piece of the set – Warum? – with its persisting motif, was perhaps Schumann’s own way of asking fate why the lovers remained apart.
Although she is just a peripheral figure in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister Apprenticeship 1795), the enigmatic Mignon has been immortalised in the lied by composers such as Reichardt, Schubert, Schumann, Spohr and Wolf. In Goethe’s novel, the eponymous hero first encounter the androgynous Mignon after meeting a group of assorted actors who not only seek his wisdom but also funding for their aspiring theatre troupe. Having learnt that Mignon was abducted from her country of birth in Italy (one of the spiritual homeland of the Romantic imagination), Wilhelm proceeds to rescue her by buying her from the acrobats who had taken her. In Wolf’s setting of Mignon’s Kennst du das Land (Do You Know the Land 1875), Mignon nostalgically recalls the land where ‘the lemon blooms and the orange grows, and remembers the house with ‘marble statues and pillar roof’. Here nostalgia is two-fold, as Mignon longs for her distant homeland, and for a vaguely remembered past.
In Schubert’s Winterreise (1827), the poet’s recollection of the past serves only to remind him of his present suffering and lost happiness. The images of rural life and (in particular) of nature became symbols of his lost love: the gate of his beloved where he passes to bid her farewell (Gute Nacht), the weather-vane that reminds him of her fickleness (Die Wetterfahne), the frozen stream which became a metaphor of his own heart – frozen, but overflowing with passion beneath the icy exterior (Auf dem Flusse), the ‘town of inconsistency’ where two eyes captivated the poet (Rückblick), and the linden tree that recalls past happiness and promises rest (Der Lindenbaum). It is possible to interpret Müller’s text in such a way that the ‘rest’ here signifies death as this is the only release from the poet’s longing and pain. Schubert’s Lindenbaum looks forward to the final song of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer 1885), where the poet recalls the ‘two blue eyes of his beloved’ also by symbolically embracing death under a linden tree.
The title Rückblick also appears as the title in the fourth movement (Intermezzo) of Brahms F minor Sonata Opus 5. Literally translated, Rückblick means retrospect, or remembrance, and this is evident in the way the music recalls the second movement (Adagio espressivo) in its thematic materials and programmatic intentions. Prefaced by Sternau’s poem Junge Liebe (Young Love), the Adagio espressivo depicts the image of two lovers embracing beneath a moonlit sky:
Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint
The evening falls, the moonlight shines
Da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
Two hearts are united in love
Und halten sich selig umfangen
And keep themselves in bliss enclosed
The emotional directness of this movement such that one of the 20th century’s greatest pianist, Claudio Arrau, described it as ‘the greatest love music after Tristan, and the most erotic.’ However, whilst Brahms was obvious in regards to the programmatic intentions of the Adagio espressivo, the composer was far more cryptic about the subject matter behind the fourth movement. Although is it not identify in the score, the Intermezzo is based upon Sternau’s poem Bitte (Request), which depicts a love that has grown cold similar to a withered tree or a barren forest.
Furthermore, it is possible to see Brahms’s late piano and chamber works as music which verges on the dream-like realm of nostalgia. Unlike the early works, (in particular the F minor Piano Sonata and the D minor Piano Concerto) which place titanic demands on the soloist in terms of technique, emotion and physical stature, the late works (in particular Opus 117, 118, 119 and the Clarinet Quintet) are much more intimate in their conception and exude an autumnal atmosphere. In these works, we no longer hear the intense, passionate young composer haunted by Schumann’s attempted suicide as well as his love for Clara (as attested by the opening bars of the Concerto and its slow movement, written as Clara’s ‘portrait’). The drive, the titanic tussle, and the composer’s allegorical triumph over adversary fate (in the finale of both the F minor Sonata and the D minor Concerto, Brahms utilised the frequently adopted 19th-century compositional device of transition from the minor key to the tonic major identical to that in Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies), all of which were hallmarks in the Brahms’s early, large-scale works, were replaced by a sense of contentment, acceptance and serenity in the composer’s late musical essays.
In a similar way, Schumann’s Kinderszenen (1838) is the composer’s own nostalgia of childhood. Although it is difficult to speculate the autobiographical content (or the lack of) within these pieces, Schumann himself admitted to Clara that they were inspired by her comment in regards to the composer who seemed ‘like a child’ at times. Most poignant is the first piece of the set entitled Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Land and People), which (to me at least) is a musical portrait of a toddler’s foremost interaction with the outside world. Perhaps the most famous piece of set is Träumerei (Dreaming), immortalised by Vladimir Horowitz as a favourite encore and used in the 1947 Hollywood film Song of Love, starring Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann and Katherine Hepburn as Clara Wieck.
Romanticism’s idea of nostalgia has been one that was well adapted by Hollywood. In Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1996), Almásy’s heavily annotated copy of Herodotus’s The Histories serves only to recall his torrid love affair with Katherine Clifton (expertly captured under Minghella’s direction), which was to have devastating ripple effects on those around them. At the same time, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ is a mere reflection of the Almásy’s state of mind (and heart) for it is only in heaven (hence death) that he is able to ‘find the happiness that he seeks’. In David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Daisy Fuller’s deathbed merely serves as the only consistent variable throughout the course of the film as Daisy recalls her life, along that of her lover, Benjamin Button, whilst her daughter Caroline reads from the protagonist’s diary. The film was also haunted by the use of Scott Joplin’s Bethena Waltz (1905) which serves as a reference to period when the film was set. And finally, it was the grown up Peter (Pan) Banning (played by Robin Williams), who enlist the help of Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) as he rummages through his childhood memory in search of the one big ‘happy thought’ that will enable him to fly in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991).
Recommended listening (All of which can be found on YouTube)
Ludwig van Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte Opus 98
Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor Opus 5
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Opus 15
Johannes Brahms: Sehnsucht Opus 14 No.8
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor Opus 115
Johannes Brahms: Piano Pieces Opus 117, Opus 118 and Opus 119
Frederick Chopin: Larghetto from Piano Concerto in E minor Opus 11
Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etude No. 9 in A Flat Major ‘Ricordanza’
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz
Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise D911
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke Opus 12
Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen Opus 15
Robert Schumann: Fantasie in C Major Opus 17
Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und leben Opus 42
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe Opus 48
Robert Schumann: Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)
Hugo Wolf: Goethe Lieder: Mignon (Kennst du das Land)
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