Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Fantasia in C minor, K. 475
Mozart: Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333 Allegro Andante cantabile Allegretto grazioso
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): Ballade in F minor, Op. 52
Chopin: Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47
Chopin: Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31
Program Notes by Judith Eckelmeyer
In spite of Mozart's short life span, most historians nevertheless consider his output in two time-frames; the "mature" works date from 1781, when he and his patron, Heironymous von Colloredo, the Archbishop of Salzburg, parted company on inamicable terms. From that point on, Mozart lived and worked as a free-lance artist in Vienna. His compositional style quickly intensified and gained the depth of expressive power and cohesion for which works of his last ten years are noted. In this decade, Mozart took up the minor key in a surprising number of genres--the opera Don Giovani; concertos; sonatas and smaller works for piano; the fortieth symphony; songs; a Masonic funeral march; chamber works; an uncompleted Mass setting; and ultimately the Requiem. The minor key compositions seem to peak around 1784-1788, the years of awakening to the symbolic world of Freemasonry and the adjustment to the death of his father, who had shaped Mozart's talent and career.
The Fantasia for Piano in C minor is a product of the mid-1780s effusion of minor-key works. Its Köchel listing 475 (in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel's chronology) places it in 1785, the year after the C-minor piano sonata, K. 457, for which it serves as a separable prelude in most editions of Mozart's sonatas. Like a number of Mozart's minor-key works, this fantasy has some unusual features, not the least of which is that it carries the key signature of C major (no sharps or flats, rather than three flats), with a brief use of the B-flat key signature midway through the composition; all of the other relevant accidentals are given within the music. It also uses the lowest pitch generally available on pianos at the time--F in the third octave below middle C.
The C-minor Fanasia is almost entirely in the "measured" style rather than the "free," improvisatory-sounding style also typical of the time. However, its thematic loose-jointedness, its sectional structure without recurrences of themes within the work, serve as reminders of Mozart's reputation as an improvisatory genius who could provide fresh new themes almost unceasingly. The content and style of each new section unfold as an exploration of rich, satisfying new territory complete in itself, until the transition to the next intrigues us onward. There is a long introduction of great mystery that leads to a beautiful singing melody in the next section by balancing on one pitch; this pitch changes its harmonic perspective in the new section by being set as a tone in an entirely different chord. The musical logic is audible, unassailable; we find that Mozart has gently led us from the original C minor to the poised moment in B minor and the brave new world of D major--all theoretically quite incompatible keys! In other sections Mozart leads us through outbursts of Sturm und Drang, the "storm and stress" style which later Romantic composers loved to expand upon. (The astute listener will appreciate, as well, a few fragments that Beethoven, in just such an impassioned style, evidently found useful some twenty years later in his "Appassionata" sonata and the Symphony No. 5!) The work ends with an intensified reworking of the introductory material.
Mozart's Sonata in B-flat, K. 333, a product of 1778, is predictably sunnier, more charming and less intense than the minor-key works of the Vienna years. A three-movement work, it begins with the "sonata-allegro" process in which several themes are given in contrasting keys, then "developed," or treated analytically (in Mozart's case), in several tonal by-ways and finally reclaimed in the original key of B-flat. The themes are gracious, singing, rhythmically jaunty, and yet occasionally flavored with a minor twist, piquing interest without a serious storm. The second movement begins with one of Mozart's most lovely, lingering piano melodies in a structure bending the "sonata-allegro" process to a lyrical rather than dramatic use. The third movement, technically a "sonata-rondo," seems also to have the whimsy of the fantasia, the obsessive focus on a returning theme of the variation process, and the virtuosic tendencies of a concerto in its use of a cadenza within a cadenza, which appears just before the final return of the movement's first theme.
Beethoven's Thirty-two Variations on an Original Theme falls among the works to which he did not assign an "Opus" (work) number, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1807, the year after it was written. Today the set of variations is designated as WoO 80; that is, it is a "work without opus number," or Werk one Opuszahl, and with the numerical designation of 80 provided by Kinsky and Halm in the 1955 thematic catalogue of Beethoven's works. The lack of formal opus designation by Beethoven would suggest that the composer regarded this set of variations as a minor product--which perhaps they were to him in the context of the years of the "Waldstein" Sonata, Op. 53 (1805); the Sonata in F major, Op. 54 (1804); and the "Appassionata" Sonata, Op. 57 (1807), as well as the Fourth Symphony, Op. 60 (1806). But these variations in the hands of Beethoven, famous in his time as extemporizer and soloist on the keyboard, are not mere bagatelles (although he also wrote some of those). The theme which he designated is most interesting from a number of points, and the piano styles which he employed around the theme suggest far more than a half-hearted approach to the composition.
Beethoven's theme is only eight measures long; it is made up of a slow-moving harmonic progression and a chromatically descending bass line to the sub-dominant, returning to the dominant and a resolution to the tonic; against this is a vigorous rising line peppered with dotted rhythms. Throughout the variations, one or more of these aspects of the theme can be found in an environment of newly created information. The concept of creating variations over or around a recurring harmony and/or bass line formed the basis of numerous compositions in all performing media in the baroque era; the (often interchangeable) terms for the process are "passacaglia" and "chaconne." A few famous examples are Purcell's "ground bass" aria, "When I am Laid in Earth," for the expiring Dido at the end of Dido and Aeneas, Bach's Passacaglia in C minor for organ, and his great D-minor chaconne for violin, to which Philip Radcliffe likens these variations (The New Oxford History of Music, VII, 1982, P. 352). Unlike Brahms, who deliberately immersed himself in the styles and techniques of baroque composers, even writing his own passacaglia in the last movement of his Symphony No. 4, Beethoven was not notably interested in the peculiarities of older music, with the exception of the fugue. Consequently, the "original theme" in the work presents an anomaly among his compositions, and the working out of it is a unique excursion into the variation process, of which he was so fond throughout his compositional life.
The style of the thirty-two variations is a virtual catalogue of technical fireworks, dynamic devices, and stylistic possibilities in Beethoven's compositional arsenal and the potentialities of his instrument. There are major-key variations (numbers twelve through sixteen), technical displays (eight, ten, and eleven), strict canon (twenty-two), delicate variations (four and twenty-eight), and grandly dramatic ones (six and eighteen). Some variations are presented in sets of two or three, linked stylistically and with a full cadence avoided between them. The thirty-second variation is really two extended presentations with a long transition between them and ending with a long coda.
Fryderyk Chopin's early career in Poland had marked him as a musical prodigy; his reputation as a concert pianist and a budding composer was strong enough to encourage him to pursue his career further in Paris, the seat of artistic culture in the third decade of the nineteenth century. His journey to Paris coincided with the Polish uprising against the Russians, and his path home was cut off; later, declining health and new political turmoil within his homeland would prevent him from ever returning to Poland. With the exception of about thirty-five works, all of his output is the product of his life outside his native land. Besides the long list of international figures whom he met in this new world there was as well a large community of Polish exiles living in Paris and other cities in Western Europe. Chopin found through them a tie with his homeland and a constant support in his career and life away from Poland.
Two women in particular entered Chopin's life at the time that he composed the last two ballades and the second scherzo, which appear on this program. Maria Wodzinska had been an acquaintance while they both were still in Poland. Her aristocratic family had escaped the country after the 1830 uprising and settled temporarily in Dresden. Visiting the city, Chopin was received warmly into their home. He fell deeply in love with Maria, but his attentions to her were not favorably observed by her father's elder brother, who began the process of discouraging the suitor. Chopin suffered a bout with illness; the Wodzinski's returned to Poland, and from there continued a genteelly subtle but firm suppression of Maria's response to Chopin. The Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31, comes from the period in Chopin's life when he realized the hopelessness of his love for Maria Wodzinska. It is dedicated to Countess Adele de Fürstenstein. Schumann referred to this stormy work as "Byronic."
It was on the rebound, so to speak, from his loss of Maria Wodzinska that Chopin deep in despair, began to associate with Aurore Dupin, known to the world as George Sand. Their friendship began primarily on a sympathetic basis, with Madame Sand as surrogate mother. Their liaison of nearly a decade spanned some of Chopin's most productive years and afforded him comfort and companionship in the early stages of his final illness, the years from 1843 to 1846. The third Ballade, in A-flat major, Op. 47, was written in the better years of Chopin's liaison with George Sand, 1840-41; it was published in 1842 with a dedication to Mlle. Pauline Noailles. The fourth Ballade, in F minor, Op. 62, composed in 1842 and published in 1843, is dedicated to Baroness Rothschild, one of Chopin's aristocratic piano students and a devoted friend to the end of his life.
The term "ballade" has its origin in the Italian word meaning "to dance;" the earliest ballades associated dancing with singing in performing the verses of a poem. However, Chopin's four ballades appear to be products of the nineteenth-century romantic search for links between creative media--in this case, music and literature. The piano ballade genre, in the hands of both Chopin and Brahms, its two greatest exponents, became a dramatic, even epic statement. It contained several contrasting parts that seemed to reflect literary concepts of narrative dramatic poetry dealing with medieval heroes and ladies. While Brahms went so far as to give titles to his ballades (for example, the "Edward" Ballade, Op. 10, No. 1), Chopin avoided any further programmatic implications than the name "ballade" itself. His four works in the genre all have a dance-like meter and show contrasting dramatic and lyric styles.
The Ballade in F minor, Op. 52, begins with a delicate, lyrical introduction leading into a lovely melancholy melody against a rocking chordal accompaniment. After a contrasting major-key section, the first melody returns, decorated with inner voice motion. After a passionate transition, another digression appears, almost barcarolle-like in B-flat. The subsequent contrasting section is filled with development-like chromatic changes and great rhythmic activity, and yields to the original theme, now very ornate. A passage of sweeping arpeggios and expanding chords ends in a three-chord gesture, followed by a sequence of five breathtaking long, contracting chords and a silence: the rest is the coda, brilliant and tumultuous to the end.
The Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, seems to fall into a sonata-ronda pattern. The first opens with a graceful rocking motion in a theme enhanced by delicate filigrees, inner melodies, and wide-ranging flourishes. The second main idea is a lilting melody with a kind of skipping rhythm; subsequent material ranges into contrasting keys and, for a while, the minor, in a style seeming to be influenced by Schumann. Following a return of the second main idea, a developmental section intervenes--or in some views, a grand variant on the original material which opened the piece. Elements of the second theme are fused with the first in the course of returning to the last grand presentation of the original theme.
Like the symphonic scherzos of Beethoven and Haydn, Chopin's piano scherzo in B-flat minor is related to the form of the old minuet and trio, which by the first decade of the new century had become obsolete, or at best suspect as a remnant of the days of court domination of society. This structure typically consisted of two separate triple-meter dances, each dance having two repeated sections. In symphonic minuets and scherzos it was usual to perform the two dances with repeats of all sections and then perform the first dance again without repeats. Chopin preserved this large three-part structure with modifications.
The first section, the scherzo proper, analagous to the first minuet, begins in B-flat minor with a characteristic sotto voce rising figure followed by silence--almost Verdian in its feeling of pent-up anticipation. This leads with a giant spring into a dramatic fortissimo exclamation. After a repeat of this material, a second section begins in D-flat major with descending arpeggios and chromatic scales, followed by a free, lyrical passage moving from G-flat to D-flat. Again the opening section is given, with its brief internal repeat, followed by the major-key material, all varied only slightly by the appearance of a magnificent octave trill in the bass which leads from the minor opening to the cascading arpeggios of the major-key section.
The second large section, analagous to the gentler "trio" of the symphonic minuets and scherzos, begins in A, sotto voce, with a lightly rhythmic melody and delicate ornaments and flourishes. This is soon contrasted by a more vigorous section in C-sharp minor that concludes in E, with extended arpeggios. This material is repeated and proceeds into a developmental section (quite uncharacteristic of the old minuet and trio), which then serves as a transition to the original scherzo, with its mysterious opening motive. The entire works ends with marked increase of tempo and tension in an almost frantic dash to the brilliant final cadence.