Mephisto Waltz

Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata

Ballade No.2 in F Major, Opus 38

Polonaise in A- flat Major, Opus 53

Dance Macabre

Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat Major, Opus 83

By Lawrence Budmen

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was one of music's bold innovators. From the age of eight he concretized as a piano virtuoso. His essays embrace modern compositional aesthetics- atonality, microtones, and electronics. Yet he idolized Bach and Mozart above all others. Many of his compositions attempt to reinvent old musical forms - the "Fantasia Contrappuntistica" for solo piano, the "Piano Concerto" with choral finale, and the unfinished opera "Doktor Faust." Even as he attempted to break the boundaries of musical convention, Busoni reasserted his belief in the clarity and formal rigor in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He published seven volumes of transcriptions for piano of Bach's organ and instrumental works. His transcription of the Chaconne from the "Partita No.11" for solo violin is a reconception of the music for keyboard. Busoni's Bach transcriptions are strikingly original in their inner voicing and contrapuntal writing for the piano. In this version of the Chaconne, two B's (Bach and Busoni) stand as near equals.

Liszt was often drawn to the Faust legend. The "Mephisto Waltz" (originally written for orchestra) is demonic in spirit. Yet it is also a musical charmer. The music blends excitement and sensuality in cascades of pianistic brilliance. Another of the composer's favorite subjects was Dante's "Inferno." Written in 1837 and revised in 1849, his "Après d'ne Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata" or "Dante Sonata" is one of Liszt's most strikingly original creations. It is not a sonata is the classical sense. Here a free, almost improvisatory form assimilates elements of the classical sonata form. In this work, Liszt developed his concept of the transformation of themes. The unifying element of the score is the recurrent descending chains of tritones. Since the Middle Ages the tritone has come to signify "the devil in music." The insistent repetition throughout the work of this interval signifies the inferno. The middle Andante section alludes to the figure of Francesca da Rimini. This second subject is lyrical yet agitated. Liszt develops and overlaps these contrasting subjects to an overwhelming, unforgettable climax. This is a unique and visionary work. Program music is combined with the composer's personal version of sonata form. Liszt stretches the capacities of the piano to its very limit. This is a grandly romantic work requiring impeccable pianistic technique, a flair for the music's grand gestures, and interpretive imagination. This is a score that separates the merely proficient technician from the true artist. 

Chopin was at his most dramatic in his "Ballades." Here he employed ambiguous chords, sliding modulations, and excursions into chromaticism. The polonaise is not so much a dance as a processional in triple time. Chopin infused the form with romanticism and Polish nationalism. His "Polonaise in A flat Major," Opus 53 is his most popular work. For that reason alone, it has tended to be underated. Here Chopin displays his mastery of keyboard writing. This music is both brilliant and dramatic. A grand polonaise indeed! 

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a prolific composer and formidable piano virtuoso. Liszt greatly admired him and Saint-Saens organized concerts of Liszt's symphonic poems. While his greatest works are his symphonies, concertos for piano, violin, and cello, and instrumental sonatas, he was greatly drawn to program music. He wrote four symphonic poems in a style influenced by Liszt and a series of descriptive orchestral suites. "Dance Macabre" is one of his small scale orchestral works - a Halloween piece depicting a gathering of demons and creatures with the devil playing the violin. Liszt turned this vignette into a dizzying display of piano fireworks. In the 20th century, Vladimir Horowitz revisited Liszt's transcription and added his own bag of pianistic tricks and treats.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a musician of immense gifts. A pupil of Gliere, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, and Tcherepnin, he achieved fame as a brilliant pianist and an enfant terrible of the creative avant garde. Yet he was torn between modernism and romanticism, East and West. Between 1918 and 1936 he lived in America and Paris. During this period he wrote music that was lyrical and neo-classical in strong contrast to his early modernist orchestral and instrumental works. In 1936 he returned to the Soviet Union. At first he composed music for the ballet ("Romeo and Juliet"), film ("Alexander Nevsky"), and children ("Peter and the Wolf"). With the outbreak of World War 2, Prokofiev turned to writing patriotic cantatas, his eloquent Fifth Symphony, and a cycle of three monumental piano sonatas (numbers 6, 7, and 8). The "Sonata No.7," Opus 63 abounds in musical illusions to the violence and desolation of that moment. The clashing chords and dissonances of the outer movements are a call to arms while the inner movements hardly provide solace or respite. Here is a composer demanding that his message be heard. This music demands steel like technique from the pianist. Leonard Bernstein once observed that not all music is beautiful, but a musical depiction of ugliness and desolation can be beautiful. In its relentless speed and pounding rhythms, this powerful sonata is the work of a musical genius. It requires nothing less from the performing artist.

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