|bemoaning the rogue dress strap|
Fantasia & Fugue in a minor, BWV 944Bach composed this harpsichord piece upon his return to Weimar in 1708. The fantasia consists of eighteen blocked chords upon which the performer is free to improvise. A majestic E Major chord, the dominant, ushers in an unbroken braid of sixteenth notes in three voices. The subject undergoes transformations of tonality and character as it is passed between the hands.
I love Bach best for two reasons: when I was younger, I played Bach so badly that I failed three times over five years to qualify for the Berkeley Junior Bach Festival; the time spent reversing my misunderstanding created an appreciation for the richness, cleanliness, and often jazziness of his works. Secondly, upon finishing both liturgical and secular compositions, Bach inscribed the initials S. D. G.: Soli Deo gloria -- all glory to God.
Piano Sonata no. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 ‘Pastorale’
Most may know Beethoven’s famous ‘Moonlight’ Sonata No. 14; after moonlight comes the dawn. Sonata No. 15 -- which unfurls in meandering, bucolic waves -- is perhaps the mildest of the piano sonatas. Critics praised Beethoven’s atypical avoidance of “over-tension,” nevertheless marveling at the piece’s “never monotonous identity.”
Indeed, his harmonies seldom stagnate: from the first few bars of the first movement, the persistent D in the bass -- dundundun, dundundun -- is overlaid with a bizarre secondary dominant; the chords waft on pastoral winds. Beethoven, after all, never indulges expectation. The exposition’s first few musical ideas, “classical” enough, swell into a romantic, Schubert-like chorale that is reminiscent of a “whispering forest.” The development elaborates upon a long-short-short particle that telescopes over its 33 measures of repetition, culminating in a mountain of f# minor (at last some semblance of Beethoven!). And as swiftly as it arrives, the tension dissipates with the recapitulation.
|Midd, midd -- I played for you|
Rurality returns with the third movement, a dainty/declarative break from leisurely tempi. The ‘Trio’ section, told in a minor key, consists of a single motive in the treble that is repeated over eight sets of harmony -- masterful and musical management on Beethoven’s part.
The murmuring of shepherd’s bagpipes heralds the Rondo, which is ABACAB-coda in form: I see this sequence of scenes: shepherds lolling on a hillside (Battell Beach in autumn, or whenever it’s most green); flowing water; birds in conversation; sudden banging of Beethovenian hammer; return of shepherds; skipping stones; Bach-like clockwork into thunderstorm; return of shepherds and water, flowers propagating pollen. He concludes with an obnoxious, cadentially-conclusive sneeze: either “Ah, choo!” or “So, there!”
|Bach, Beethoven, Chopin|
By the time he completed the two Nocturnes Op. 28 in the autumn of 1841, Chopin had already been diagnosed with tuberculosis, which led to his death at 39. Perhaps this accounts for a portion (but only a portion) of Nocturne No. 13’s emotional content: German pianist Theodor Kullak noted that “the design and poetic contents of this nocturne make it the most important one that Chopin created; the chief subject is a masterly expression of a great powerful grief."
Chopin tells the story in three elements: Lento, Poco più lento, and Doppio movimento. Unlike his other Nocturnes, which by the third element have returned to the mood of the first, No. 13 builds in intensity (and sadly for me, difficulty). The Doppio movimento has an “almost Beethovenian ethical ring" -- it is a sermon in sound.
I first heard this nocturne performed by my friend Misha Galant in California, and was smitten (with the piece) from the first listen. Misha linked his performance of Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1 to Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Match-Seller,” and I shall also relate the tale:
A little girl lights her own wares to keep warm on winter’s night. Visions of her grandmother -- the only one who ever loved her -- and Christmas trees illumine the night. To sustain them, the little match-seller strikes every match, and they swell into a great golden conflagration. She freezes to death when the matches run out. Her soul is carried to heaven by her grandmother, away from ice and an empty belly.
Listen for it: Chopin’s grief, the match-seller’s misery, and my own desperation, overlapping on the keyboard and vanishing into air.