In terms of piano repertoire that is commonly heard in concert halls, Debussy is usually reduced to just a few sets of pieces: the Images, Estampes, and Preludes come to mind. I’m always struck by how readily pianists consciously overlook the French impressionist’s early works by labeling them as pedagogical pieces. As with any composer, the study of his or her early works can lead to greater understanding and love of later works. The Suite Bergamasque is unique in its ability to straddle multiple periods of Debussy’s stylistic maturation, as it was written around 1890 and was revised a number of times before its publication in 1905.
Throughout Debussy’s entire life, the poetry of Paul Verlaine serves as an inspiration and impetus to many musical works. In Fêtes galantes, Verlaine wrote:
“…qui vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leuers déguisements fantasques.”
(“…they go to charming masques and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing, somewhat
Sad beneath their fantastic costumes.”)
“Masques” refers to a French social practice that is similar to a salon gathering, though on a larger scale. These parties involved a night of poetry, music, dance, and costumes. The word “bergamasque” describes a certain type of gathering that involved somewhat grotesque jester/clown costuming. The work is divided into four movements and each serves as a separate event or impression of a Parisian bergamasque. The music’s sophisticated sense of drama allows listeners to easily create their own storyline for one of these charming social events.
Composer’s program note:
" /Hush/ is in part a return to one of the first compositional forms I ever worked with, the nocturne. This piece is also a personal response to Reiko Fueting’s instrumental and choral music, and to Leopold Mozart’s Violin Treatise of 1756 from which the material and form are drawn. From Mozart’s chapter on basso continuo and the varying differences in chord-dissonances within passagework, I generated a dozen different groupings/layerings of chords characterized by different dynamic hierarchies. The combination of layering these and different formal aspects became the technical attributes of the piece, in addition to differing speeds of movement from layer to layer, dynamic clarity, and articulation between layers. This sudden illumination became clear upon completion of the work, whose impetus was inspired by the news of a colleague’s illness and my vision of what music could be like if dreamt up at the end of someone’s life. "
The first time I heard /Hush/, I found it to be very meditative -- like a slow progression of momentary thoughts. The experience of playing the piece is quite different. Peter's rhythmic ideas are gestural and cavernous, yet his pedaling effects (which include percussive, metered "attacks" of pedal releases and depressions) allow for a sense of forward motion. The sound of echoes can frequently be heard in the music, as well, with repeated lines of music that contain omitted notes (like half-remembered thoughts?). Each of these clever features of /Hush/ gives the music both a zen-like quality and a visceral, physical one – all attributes of Peter’s compositional voice, as a whole.
In Bartók’s Piano Sonata, the listener is confronted with a mature composer who found a way to successfully incorporate elements of eastern European folk music into western art music. Played in the same program as the Debussy work heard first, it is easy to hear the changing role of the piano – instead of lush harmonies and melodic lines that had been associated with stringed instruments, Bartók utilizes the piano as a percussive force. As a pianist himself, Bartók’s writing is ingenious, yet fiendishly difficult. The first movement is a forceful and perpetual ritualistic hunt that is full of unexpected twists and suspense, weapons always at the ready. The second movement is a lament that begins with a somewhat dissonant tolling bell before a colorful, slow build to a harsh climax. The Sonata’s final movement is an immediate juxtaposition with its rhythmically frenzied, yet jovial, dance.
Concerto for Piano and Strings
Since learning the piece two years ago, I’ve been asked many times why I chose to play Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Strings and Piano. I understood the question at first, as Schnittke is not a well-known name to many American classical musicians and can be difficult for our 19th-century-minded ears to enjoy.
Nonetheless, I play this music because of a general fondness for 20th-century music, especially music with such an uncompromising style. Art should be a reflection of life and should always insist upon provoking some form of response from its audience. Schnittke’s compositional intensity mirrors the terror and strife that many felt across Europe and Russia in the mid-1900s.
I play this music because it contains great humanity. From the opening few notes, there is a sense of childlike innocence (the entire concerto is a kind of fantasy on Alberti bass, after all). Not a page into the piece, however, the listener is confronted with the first of many chord clusters, which leaves one to wonder what the purity of those opening notes represented: remembrance? Melancholia? Hope? What is to come is a series of memories that depict suffering, hopelessness, irony, even violence: all common themes in Schnittke’s compositions.
I play this music because there is great truth to what Schnittke says through music. During the entire piece, the character of the solo piano always struggles to be the prominent voice of harsh reality and always seeks to force the orchestra’s empty consonance – light between dark clouds – into submission. There are moments in the piece, usually chorales in the orchestra, that seem to offer a more hopeful perspective. The solo character’s dissonant response seems to shriek, “No, this is truth; this is reality!” For a Jewish-born composer who lived through Russian anti-Semitism, World War II, the Cold War, and the death of his mother and mentors, perhaps this stance is justified.
None of Schnittke’s ideas about humanity are new, however, as they further Pascal’s 17th-century vision: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all condemned to death, some of whom are executed daily in sight of the rest; then those who are left see their own fate in that of their fellows, and regarding each other with sorrow and without hope, wait till their turn comes. This is a picture of man’s condition.” Life’s futility in Schnittke’s music is most evident in the final minute of the Concerto. After the strife and intensity of the preceding musical material, the solo piano line wanders, questioningly, and ends with a whimper.