J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor,
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, BWV 883 (1742)
J.S. Bach composed his second book of preludes and fugues while living in Leipzig, Germany, where he was known as a composer of both secular and religious music. In addition to his regular composing and teaching schedule, Bach had fathered nearly 20 children-–10 of which died in their infancy. The Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp minor was written for the Well-Tempered Clavier, a newly invented, 18th century instrument that allowed the performer to play in all major and minor keys. It has a meditative quality that is enhanced by a slower tempo and an attention to Bach’s choice of intervals, which add series of unfolding tensions and releases.
Paul Sayed (b. 1987)
Seven Morsels in the Form of a Persimmon (2013)
I. – VII. Monday – Sunday
In the summer of 2013, Paul Sayed gave me his set of piano miniatures, Seven Morsels in the Form of a Persimmon, in hopes that I would perform them at some point. The work went on to be premiered at the Charlotte New Music Festival in North Carolina by Tomoko Deguchi. The piano miniature, as a musical genre, is one that has long existed and has become more popular with contemporary works like György Kurtág’s Játékok (“Games”). Each movement of Sayed’s piece is introduced in a relaxed, cheerful manner by a speaker and is enhanced by a series of lighting effects -– the lighting grows progressively brighter as the piece continues. Each movement, labeled by the days of the week, features a specific type of compositional language, including serialism, Morton Feldman-esque sound atmospheres, and the minimalist technique of Steve Reich. It is my hope that the stage set-up today will enhance the experience of hearing these seven musical hors d’oeuvres.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101 (1816)
I. Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung (“Somewhat lively and with deepest feeling”)
Allegretto ma non troppo
II. Lebhaft, marschmäßig (“Lively, march-like”)
Vivace alla marcia
III. Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (“Slow and longingly”)
Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto
IV. Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit (“Swiftly, but not too much and with determination”)
Allegro ma non troppo, risoluto
For those who play any of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, an aspect of the pieces that is commonly forgotten is for whom each was written. In the case of Sonata No. 28 in A (Opus 101), it was the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, a student of the middle-aged composer. In reviews by Schindler, Mendelssohn, and Johann Reichardt, her performance style ranged from sensitive to insightful to powerful – three adjectives that may seem contradictory but could also be used to describe Beethoven’s later compositions, themselves. These later works, as a whole, marked a change in Beethoven’s style, which switched from a dramatic, Romantic style to an intimate, introspective one, possibly due to the isolating effects of his deafness. The opening movement of Opus 101 is a perfect example of this, as the tempo indication contains the instruction, “with deepest feeling.” After an imaginatively bold scherzo-trio movement, Beethoven writes a deeply-felt slow movement that features a restatement of the theme from the first movement. The fourth movement contains a fugue, a musical form that was usually not included in a sonata of the Classical era. However, Beethoven’s use of fugues (which happen to appear mostly in his later works) is reserved for his attempt to express something beyond the normal spectrum of a piece’s emotions –- perhaps it is his salute to Bach’s formidable, reverent fugal writing.
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1909/10)
A couple of years before the completion of his Piano Sonata (Opus 1), Alban Berg was quoted as saying: “We have come to the realization that sensuality is not a weakness. Rather, it is an immense strength that lies in us…only throughout the understanding of sensuality, only through a fundamental insight into the ‘depths of mankind’ (shouldn’t it rather be called the ‘heights of mankind’?) can one arrive at a real idea of the human psyche.”
This quote certainly foreshadowed Berg’s focus on sensuality in his compositions, even against his society’s connotations of femininity upon the word. But how does one achieve this effect musically? First, Berg’s harmonic language is extremely chromatic, verging on atonality. Nonetheless, Berg’s series of chords contain jazz sonorities that help support an always-legato, seductive melodic line. Second, Berg’s use of multiple climaxes in the sonata reinforces ideas of femininity. In other words, if Berg’s sonata contained only one, definitive climax, the work would undoubtedly come across in a more “masculine” tone. Third, the piece was one of the first musical attempts to express a Freudian human psyche.
Like other late-Romantic or Expressionist composers, Berg was interested in portraying a multi-faceted human mind, rather than idealistic Romantic depictions of nature, death, love, and the supernatural. Around the time that I began working on the piece, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they were featuring an exhibition of Edward Munch’s works. Strangely, after seeing the following painting and inscription, I found Berg’s music to be reminiscent of the style.
"I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
Through Munch and Berg, we can sense the unease and darkness of our own human psyche -- a sort of primal scream at the full realization of our nature.
Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)
Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988)
Galina Ustvolskaya’s music is shocking and violent -– you have been warned. Ustvolskaya was a Soviet composer who spent her entire life in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was trained at the Leningrad Conservatory by Dmitri Shostakovich, who proclaimed, “I am convinced that the music of G.I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance.” While these feelings were not reciprocated, the young female composer was able to create an intensely original style after her study with Shostakovich. Stylistically, all of her music features an intensity of dynamics, two-part polyphony, resonant dissonances, and a harsh emotional spectrum that can most accurately be described by the tempo marking of her Second Symphony: “Scream Into Space.” Piano Sonata No. 6, one of her most radical and violent works, utilizes chord clusters in a way that’s timbre and intensity remains unmatched. The piece begins with a series of clusters, to be played expressivissimo with the edge of a rounded hand. The top note of each cluster is instructed to carry a melodic line, which is woven throughout the piece overtop accented, fffff clusters. One minute before the end of this earth-shattering cataclysm, a series of six chords, played as softly as possible as a chorale, suddenly emerges and provides a momentary stillness. It is music that is as relentless and unwavering as a hammer striking nails, though an expressive depiction of Ustvolskaya’s life and society.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (1849)
The program concludes with a programmatic work that is usually referred to as the Dante Sonata. In the late 1840’s, Franz Liszt attended a public reading of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy and decided to compose a piece based on the story. The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s descent into Hell, Purgatory, and ascent to Heaven -– all of which are an allegory of the soul’s journey towards God. The work is epic, imaginative, and widely popular; much like Liszt’s other works from this time. He was, after all, the “rock star” of the mid-1800s. Enjoy the journey!