Chaconne in D Minor

Piano Sonata in C Major, Opus 53 "Waldstein"

La Leggierezza

3 Etudes-Tableaux, Opus 39

Pictures at An Exhibition

By Lawrence Budmen

The Chaconne is a Baroque dance and variation form. It originated in Latin America as a dance-song and became popular in Spain and Italy in the 17th century. Chaconnes were a hallmark of the ballet sequences in the operas of Rameau and Lully as well as in German keyboard music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bach and Purcell elevated the Chaconne to concert ("art music") status. The pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni, one of music's bold visionaries, had the greatest reverence for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His numerous keyboard transcriptions of Bach's music are remarkable reinventions of musical masterpieces. His 1920 keyboard transformation of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita in D Minor is a brilliant virtuoso display piece. Busoni preserves all of Bach's contrapuntal mastery yet reconceives the work in purely pianistic terms. Busoni also challenges the skills of the performing artist with a daunting bravura showpiece. 

The 16 string quartets and the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) are pillars of musical creation - works of daring, path breaking originality that redefined both the keyboard sonata and chamber music. The Olympian level of inspiration in these scores set a standard for all future composers. (In the case of Johannes Brahms, this would be a heavy burden indeed. Despite the praise of Schumann and others, he would destroy most of his chamber music scores rather than have them compared to Beethoven's masterpieces.) Beethoven's "Sonata No.21 in C Major," Opus 53 was composed in 1803-04 and was dedicated to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, one of Beethoven's patrons. The score is an unabashedly exuberant bravura vehicle. Yet it has the soul of a poet. The opening Allegro con brio is marked by thematic material of a highly dramatic character. The brief Introduzione: Adagio molto serves as a contrasting harmonic connection to the finale. (Originally Beethoven intended a lengthy Andante for the sonata's second movement. He eventually published the music as a separate work - the Andante favori in F Major of 1803.) The principal melody of the Rondo: Allegretto moderato finale is like a sunburst - at once positive and sweeping with a sense of musical inevitability. 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the Paganini of the piano - a bravura virtuoso who defied the instrument's limitations. His piano studies are some of his most imaginative compositions. They are also some of the most difficult piano music ever written. Perhaps Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" (1851) are his most famous works in this genre. In 1848 Liszt wrote "3 Etudes de Concert." The second of this group "La leggierezza" (A capriccio - Quasi allegretto) represents the composer's Chopinesque side. (Liszt was a great admirer of Chopin's music.)

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was the last great exponent of the Russian Romantic tradition. For Rachmaninov, the world of Tchaikovsky and the Imperial Russian opera and ballet represented the zenith of Russian musical culture. Even as the world embraced the new Russian music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and the cosmopolitan Stravinsky, Rachmaninov continued to write in the highly Romantic style of the 19th century. He was a master craftsman and an inspired melodist. He was also one of the great piano virtuosos of his day. His "Etudes-Tableaux" (Pictorial Studies) are virtuoso vignettes. The Opus 39 set of "Etudes-Tableaux" was composed in 1916-17. In a letter to Ottorino Respighi (who orchestrated several of the etudes) Rachmaninov revealed that No.2 in A Minor was a sound portrait of the sea and seagulls. Interestingly, the composer uses the Dies Irae motif in this piece. (This was a signature theme for Rachmaninov. Among the works that feature this motif are "The Bells," Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," and the composer's swan song "Symphonic Dances.") In the etude the Dies Irae is presented as a repetitive ostinato. This is similar in manner to the composer's use of the theme in his 1909 symphonic poem "The Isle of the Dead," where it suggests the lapping of waves. The Etude No.6 in A Minor (according to the composer) was inspired by the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. This music finds Rachmaninov at his most demonic (in the spirit of Liszt and Scriabin). 

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was one of music's true originals. Essentially self taught, Mussorgsky was an ardent Russian nationalist. He evolved a distinctive style based on Russian folk art that encompassed bold dissonances and somber harmonies. (His operas "Boris Godunov" and "Khovanchina" are landmarks in the history of Russian music.) In a letter to the Russian art critic and theorist Vladimir Stassov, Mussorgsky set out his goals as a creative artist: "Life, wherever it is shown, truth, however bitter, speaking out boldly, frankly, point blank to men - I am a realist in the higher sense - that is, my business is to portray the soul of man in all its profundity." Once a member of "The Five" (a group of nationalist composers that included Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov), Mussorgsky found himself increasingly isolated because of his uncompromising creative ideals. He felt a greater kinship with the work of artists than that of his fellow composers. In mid 1870, Stassov introduced him to the painter and architect Viktor Alexandrovich Hartmann. Hartmann was an artistic revolutionary whose nationalist aesthetic was parallel to Mussorgsky's. Unfortunately, their friendship was short lived. On July 23, 1873 Hartmann died at age 39. In February of 1874 Stassov organized a Hartmann Memorial Exhibition in St. Petersburg. This exhibition featured four hundred of Hartmann's works - architectural plans, sketches, watercolors, stage designs, craftwork, and jewelry. Mussorgsky - who had viewed Hartmann as the hope for a New Russian Art - was deeply moved by the exhibit and resolved to commemorate his friend's artistic vision in music. He conceived a piano suite - musical portraits of Hartmann's works. In June 1874, Mussorgsky wrote (to Stassov), "Hartmann is seething within me just as "Boris Godunov" did…I can hardly manage to put my music down on paper fast enough." The work was completed by June 22, 1874 and was dedicated to Stassov "in memory of our dear Viktor." The score was not published until 1886 - five years after Mussorgsky's death. (Later the work was orchestrated by numerous composers. The version by Maurice Ravel has become standard orchestral repertoire. However, Ravel made several omissions from Mussorgsky's original piano score.) 

The opening Promenade theme (which recurs throughout the work) portrays the composer walking between the pictures in the exhibition. The movements are titled after Hartmann's works (only some of which were actually in the St. Petersburg exhibition). Although most of his works are now lost, Mussorgsky's imaginative musical imagery has kept Hartmann's vision alive. The final movement "The Great Gate at Kiev" (a Hartmann project that was never realized) is almost orchestral in scope. At the conclusion, the Promenade theme rings forth brilliantly. This score is a formidable test of a pianist's stamina, technique, and artistry. If Mussorgsky had written only one work, "Pictures at an Exhibition" would have guaranteed him musical immortality! It is the unique creative vision of one of music's true originals! 

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