You will hear fanciful music. These compositions are products of the heart of humanism, of the individual. The underlying form or structure is oftentimes hidden though in theory correct as in Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. But in other cases, the form is modified to meet personal expression.
The “Moonlight” sonata is marked “quasi fantasy” and the main sonata-allegro movement is the last not the first. Form in Beethoven’s first movement, like the Schubert programmed here, is barely noticed. “Quasi fantasy” is an appropriate description, but in other works “quasi sonata” might be more descriptive.
The terms fantasy, impromptu, toccata suggest the freedom of the human spirit in the age of the individual. The “moonlight” of Beethoven became more mood and impression in the night pieces of Frederick Chopin. His generally peaceful “Nocturnes” seem to touch delicate and more contemplative moments of human experience.
Prokofiev, on the other hand, expresses a harsher spirit over the underlying form in his Toccata. He uses drive and percussiveness to weave an impression of a mechanized world. There was no hint of Prokofiev’s mechanization during Beethoven’s time, though “Moonlight’s” last movement has a similar drive. However, unlike the other composers programmed here, Prokofiev’s world was rooted in the age of the machine.
Where the quiet fancy of the night, or the fancy of passion, might seem to be the focus of some of this music, the Paganini etudes of Liszt offer a new direction to fanciful. These etudes find delight in the development of physical ability and in exploration of the piano itself. These “Concert Etudes” explore both sound and instrument.
You will find elements of three classical forms in the pieces you hear today. And these forms are secondary to musical expression and not always easily discovered.
Beethoven’s first and last movements, Schubert’s impromptu, Prokofiev’s toccata, Chopin’s fantasy are all precisely or in general sonata-allegro forms.
Beethoven’s middle movement, both Chopin Nocturnes and La Chasse are each generally ABA; though ABA is at the root of sonata-allegro form.
Another form found here is theme and variations. La Campanella and the last Paganini etude are examples.
In general, this music uses strict underlying classical forms with modifications demanded by composers who lived in an age of the individual.
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The “moonlight sonata” might well be the composer’s most popular work, though it is only the first movement that garners that fame. One generally thinks of the first movement as a romantic night piece, although it may well hold another darker mood. The last movement is a generally quiet perpetual motion work with moments of impassioned outburst; and the middle movement is a minuet and trio.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Though known best as a composer of lieder, Schubert wrote for the piano a significant volume of lengthy multi-movement sonatas, short character pieces, and single works of tone poem proportion. He weaves his unique magic around the significant resonance of the piano, around the beauty of baroque harmony in a romantic setting, and the majesty of accompanied song, duet, and an occasional solitary sole.
The opening single line statement in g seems to revolve around the key of c minor. And the key signature would indicate a work in c minor. However, after eight statements of similar tunes around this tonal center, the composer modulates down a third to Ab major and dwells in and around there until the transition back to c minor and a development section. After Schubert’s singular sort of development, he recapitulates much of the opening material surrounding c minor. Then, in a moment of uplift, he alters the key signature and moves through G on his way to a destination in C major. The drama of this change permeates the remainder of the work.
Frederick Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Chopin dedicated most of his musical creativity to compositions for the piano, and the creation of the 21 Nocturnes spanned most of his creative life. These two nocturnes were written around the time of Chopin’s move to Paris in 1831. The F major nocturne is straight forward in simple ABA form. It is similar to the Bb major nocturne in its stormy driven B section.
The Bb nocturne, on the other hand, is significantly more complex. In the first A section, you will find two distinct themes and a chorus. Each of the two distinct themes repeats twice with the chorus following each statement. Note that each statement is altered with varied embellishments, some of which are quite lengthy. The B section is driven, with continually active left hand triplets marked Agitato. This nocturne has elements of minuet and trio, and of rondo form. There are no less than five statements of its chorus.
The Opus 49 fantasy begins its life in f minor and ends its journey in Ab, the relative major. If there is a “chorus”, it is a march, though the march sometimes harbors anticipation, is sometimes subdued, and it even changes mood and becomes a chorale. In its last iteration, it becomes a declaratory statement. If you think of the fantasy in sonata-allegro terms the first theme is a sweeping lyric statement in thirds and sixths, and the second is a march. The opening march is an introduction. It is a fanciful work and modulates by fourths and fifths, but also by thirds and through chromaticism.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Prokofiev was a child of the industrial age and his overlay of imagery on the underlying sonata-allegro base seems born of the age in which he lived. At the start one might imagine a great whirling machine awaiting its load. But later, when load is applied, the hungry yet massive gears grind slower. At other times they spin joyously in unimpeded anticipation. There is the roaring and clanking of metal on metal when the moment arises and then the roaring up into the renewed pleasure of its task.
Paganini-Liszt (Niccolo Paganini 1782–1840, Franz Liszt 1811-1886)
Franz Liszt wrote many etudes and transcriptions during his relatively long life. Of the six “Paganini” etudes, La Campanella is the only one not drawn from Paganini’s 24 violin caprices. The tune is found in the great violinist’s violin concerto; and it’s “bells” ring from beginning to end.
Whereas other composers of etudes generally have a particular technical focus, Liszt’s etudes offer many different challenges. The “Paganini” etudes are considered concert etudes in that their purpose lies beyond simple exercise. Note the lightness, leaps, and brilliant sounds in each selection. Witness fast light finger work, octaves, and all around playfulness for both performer and listener; with catchy tunes!
La Chasse recalls the horns of the hunt with its open thirds and sixths. The last etude, known as the “Variations” etude, uses a popular theme of its day. Numerous composers including Brahms, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Szymanowski wrote significant works on this theme.