PROGRAM NOTES CONCERT: NELSON GOERNER (5/14/04)
Piano Sonata in D Major, Opus 53, D.850
24 Preludes, Opus 28
By Lawrence Budmen
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) invested much of his creative energies into the composition of operas and stage works. These ambitious scores were all failures. (They were dramatically inert despite the melodic beauty of Schubert's music. Unlike Mozart, he was not a born opera composer.) After 1823, with his health deteriorating, Schubert resolved to devote himself to instrumental composition. Stylistically, these later composition are very different from the sonatas and symphonies that had preceded them. The earlier works were taut, often bright and vigorous. Now Schubert's music became more expansive. His scale became large, his pace more leisurely. These later works were imbued with an autumnal glow. In 1825-26 Schubert authored the "Great C Major" Symphony - the "Symphony of Heavenly Length." Similar spaciousness characterizes the piano sonatas that followed. The "Sonata in D Major," D.850 was written during a three week summer vacation in Bad Gastein in 1825. The score is dedicated to Schubert's friend the pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet. (At a memorial concert for Schubert in January, 1829, Bocklet joined the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the cellist Josef Lincke in a performance of the "Trio in E-flat Major," D.929.) The D Major Sonata opens with a strongly voiced subject (Allegro vivace). This is followed by a more lilting second theme. The development section is unusually extended. A songful Con Moto second movement precedes a vigorous Scherzo. The concluding Rondo: Allegro moderato introduces a gentle country dance which, after several variations, fades to a quiet conclusion. All of the sparkle and lyricism of Schubert's earlier works remains intact in this sonata. Yet now the music approaches sublimity.
During the 18th and much of the 19th century, the term "prelude" referred to an introduction to a larger work (particularly opera and ballet). Yet Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) had much larger artistic ambitions. (Chopin was one of the few major 19th century composers who did not write an opera or a symphony. Despite a few works for cello, voice, and orchestral forces, Chopin regarded the piano as supreme. George Sand commented "Chopin created a revolution in the language of music but with only one instrument.") Chopin greatly admired the 24 Preludes and Fugues of the "Well Tempered Clavier" by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). In composing his own "24 Preludes," Opus 28, Chopin sought to write a single prelude in all 24 keys - major and minor. Unlike Bach, his order rises from a circle of tonalities - a circle of fifths. These preludes are not introductions to other pieces. Composed between 1831 and 1839, they are poetic evocations that stand as independent works. Initial response to Chopin's technically and musically sophisticated concept of the "prelude" was one of confusion and bewilderment. Robert Schumann wrote "I would term the Preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruin…all disorder and wild confusions." In 1841 the ultimate virtuoso Franz Liszt had a different opinion. Liszt noted "Chopin's Preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal."
Over the century and a half since their composition, each of the 24 Preludes has been given a subtitle which gives some indication of the evocative mood of the piece: No.1 in C Major, "Reunion"; No.2 in A Minor "Presentiment of Death"; No.3 in G Major "Thou Art So Like a Flower"; No.4 in E Minor "Suffocation"; No.5 in D Major "Uncertainty"; No.6 in B Minor "Tolling Bells"; No.7 in A Major "The Polish Dance"; No.8 in F-Sharp Minor "Desperation"; No.9 in E Major "Vision"; No.10 in C-Sharp Minor "The Night Moth"; No.11 in B Major "Dragonfly"; No.12 in G-Sharp Minor "Duel"; No.13 in F-Sharp Major "Loss"; No.14 in E-flat Minor "Fear"; No.15 in D-flat Major "Raindrop" (a depiction of the rain at Valldemosa, according to George Sand); No.16 in B-flat Minor "Hades"; No.17 in A-flat Major "A Scene on the Place de Notre Dame de Paris"; No.18 in F Minor "Suicide"; No.19 in E-flat Major "Heartfelt Happiness"; No.20 in C Minor "Funeral March"; No.21 in B-flat Major "Sunday"; No.22 in G Minor "Impatience"; No.23 in F Major "A Pleasure Boat"; and No.24 in D Minor "The Storm." The pianist and teacher Barbara Nissman has written that "Chopin always remained master of the miniature. How well he understood the subtle art of variation…Yet, more importantly, Chopin managed to achieve what seemed impossible on a percussive instrument: he possessed the magical gift to sing at the piano….Chopin can be considered the true heir to Mozart's natural lyricism and also the forerunner of Debussy's unique color sense." Chopin's very personal sense of color and harmony burns brightly in the 24 Preludes. Indeed these vignettes capture a universe of pianistic pyrotechnics and human emotions!