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Masters of the Keyboard

Masters of the Keyboard

Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, all masters of the keyboard, created works that challenge and expand both the instrument and the artist.

The challenge; take three keyboard masterworks by three brilliant composers and illustrate the increasing importance and development of the piano. While Bach spent most of his performing life at the harpsichord, clavichord or organ, he was introduced to the piano in 1747 by Frederick the Great, who owned, it is said, 15 Silbermann instruments. In the mid-18th century, the piano was still a relatively marginal instrument; in England, it was not played at a public event until 1767, yet by 1795 it had replaced the harpsichord in the King’s Band. Beethoven’s inexhaustible desire to innovate is almost unthinkable without the rapid developments made in piano building and design during his lifetime. By the time Schubert composed his first keyboard works in 1815, the piano’s invasion of the Western world’s drawing rooms had begun, but the instrument also had the carrying power to be heard in public performance; in its rich expressive possibilities, it had become the keyboard instrument of its day – and our day as well.

J S Bach

The dazzling keyboard music of Bach

‘Bach’s music seems likely to last as long as our civilisation itself,’ composer and pianist Christopher Headington once said, but Bach’s genius was unknown to most of his contemporaries. Unlike the cosmopolitan Handel, he did not journey widely; in fact, in his lifetime Bach’s travels would not have taken him beyond a radius of 200 miles. Moreover, until 1726, when he was 41, none of Bach’s music had been published – even though he had by then been composing for 20 years. 

You might say that his decision to have his six keyboard Partitas published and declared his Op.1 marked the beginning of a long period – almost the last 30 years of Bach’s life – in which he put his musical house in order, essentially enacting a grand scheme that would see, for example, existing cantata movements re-thought and shaped into a mass, or individual works for keyboard collected to become part of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

As with so much of Bach’s music, dates can be misleading, and ‘1726’ almost certainly disguises pieces written over a number of years prior to that date. The first Partita appeared in published form that year, and one each year followed thereafter until 1731, when all six were published together and were sold at that year’s Leipzig Fair. The name Partita denotes a suite of dance movements all written in the same key, but Bach’s Partitas were certainly not intended for dancing. And since the public keyboard recital as we know it did not exist in the 1720s, you might wonder: for whom were these works composed?

In the published score, Bach indicated the Partitas were ‘offered to music lovers to refresh their spirits.’ Today the term ‘music lovers’ is usually taken as a collective term for audiences but, as pianist and author Charles Rosen observed: ‘Bach’s keyboard music is written to act on the emotions, to move, even to dazzle; but it is not directed at an audience. It is the performer that the music is written for… – the performer, who was at least half a composer himself at that time, a student of composition or already a connoisseur.’ The Partitas were some of the pieces which brought Bach close to creating public musical encounters of a secular kind. While they were not meant to be played complete in public, it is easy to imagine Bach and his circle of friends enjoying them in musical companionship. 

Bach’s models for the Partitas were the dance suites by his French and Italian contemporaries, including Couperin and Corelli. While the Partita, as a genre, usually contained an allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, a range of other dances could be added, and in this respect no two of Bach’s keyboard partitas are identical. The Fourth, along with the Sixth, is the grandest, and is in the celebratory key of D major, the brilliance of which gives such regality to much of Handel’s Fireworks and Water musics. The ways in which the Partitas could almost take on that kind of orchestral brilliance is clear in the Ouverture, with its trills, flourishes and ceremonial double-dotting. This kind of expansive, majestic opening movement was one of Bach’s most original contributions to the world of the Baroque keyboard suite.

The Allemande which follows is a wonderful contrast in its wistful songfulness, but it has a deceptive discursiveness to it, and is as substantial as the Ouverture. The joyful, rhythmically playful Courante is succeeded by an Aria that maintains the buoyant mood, before the lyrical beauty of the Sarabande. After a brief Menuet, the suite ends, as most partitas do, with a Gigue that has such jauntiness and vigour that – to again use an orchestral analogy – you can virtually hear trumpets and drums. 

That so much of Bach’s music was not published in his lifetime, or even for many years afterwards (the Brandenburg Concertos had to wait until 1850), did not stop his music circulating in hand-written copies; many such 18th-century copies of The Well-Tempered Clavier have survived. The first printed editions did not appear until 1800, yet Haydn and Mozart owned copies, and Beethoven played it as a boy. So it was that – with apologies for staring a cliché of musical history in the face – the old testament of keyboard music was well known to the composer of the new, for so the Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are frequently described.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven, a prolific composer and celebrated virtuoso of the piano

As with his string quartets, Beethoven created piano sonatas throughout his creative life and, as the pianist, broadcaster and writer Denis Matthews put it, ‘they epitomise the immense journey, musical and spiritual, that this life encompassed.’ The keyboard was a key testing-ground for Beethoven’s ideas; of the 32 published sonatas, he composed 23 in a virtually unbroken line, between 1793 and 1805. 

The final phase of Beethoven’s relationship with the piano sonata is often said to begin with the A-major Sonata, Op.101, which he created in 1816. His outer world had changed – this was Europe after the Congress of Vienna – and his inner world was dominated by the protracted and traumatic battle for guardianship of his nephew Karl. His experiments with form are considerable: in these final sonatas there is a new pre-occupation with fugue and variation form (the Diabelli Variations come from this period), and there is the titanic farewell to the four-movement sonata in the Hammerklavier.

For Beethoven, in Denis Matthews’s memorable phrase, ‘there was no need to conquer Everest twice,’ and the three final sonatas, which follow the Hammerklavier, display, overall, a concision, warmth, intimacy and an almost sublime sense of indifference to convention. In this music, as in his final quartets, we tend now to hear the visionary Beethoven, but it was not always so, and Tchaikovsky was not alone among composers of later generations in finding ‘glimmers and nothing more’ in Beethoven’s final works.

The centre of gravity in the penultimate sonata, his Op.110 – completed in 1821 – is the finale. The Australian-born pianist and pedagogue Ernest Hutcheson described this as ‘one of the most continuously lyrical’ of all Beethoven sonatas, and the opening movement is marked con amabilità or ‘amiably’. There is peace and contentment here, but no diminution of Beethoven’s inventive power; as in some of his other late works, the trill (here and in the finale) takes on a grand expressive force, and there is a sublimely unexpected key change leading into the recapitulation. The allegro molto is terse and witty, much of the humour deriving from the play of dynamic extremes. The quiet ending to this movement helps establish the mood set by the opening bars of the finale, a movement in which, as Hutcheson put it, ‘greatness banishes levity.’ The opening recitative poignantly, hesitantly, works its way through several different keys before settling on A-flat minor, in which key you hear the first arioso, from which arises the fugue subject which will vie for dominance with the arioso theme through to the sonata’s triumphant final bars. The vivid sense of renewal and regeneration in this music is not interpretation after the fact; the word ‘ermattet’ (‘exhausted’) is written over the second arioso, and over the second, exuberant fugue, Beethoven wrote ‘wieder auflebend,’ or ‘gaining new life.’

Franz Schubert

Neglected at the time of composition, now core piano repertoire

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were created over three decades. If we include incomplete or incompletely preserved works, we can count 22 piano sonatas by Schubert, all composed between 1815 and his death in 1828.

As writer and producer Mischa Donat has noted, ‘Schubert composed his piano sonatas at a time when the genre was in decline,’ and even when he managed to get them published – and only three were published while he was alive – they did not always emerge as Schubert intended. When the D-major Sonata, D.894, appeared in print in 1826, it did so as four separately-titled pieces, so as to avoid the unfashionable word ‘sonata.’ 

During his lifetime and for most of the 19th century Schubert was regarded primarily as a composer of songs and short piano works. In the midst of the commemorations for the centenary of Schubert’s death in 1928, Sergei Rachmaninoff – then one of the world’s great concert pianists – was asked if he played any of Schubert’s sonatas. He admitted that he had no idea that Schubert had written any. Even in the late 1960s, Paul Badura-Skoda, a passionate advocate for Schubert’s keyboard music, could refer to the ‘unknown’ Schubert. A few sonatas were in the central repertoire then, but many were not.

The knowledge that the Sonata D.960 was Schubert’s last sonata, completed in the final months of his life, has had a profound influence on the way we hear it. How could it not? Schubert biographer John Reed says: ‘The tone of reconciliation and valediction in this wonderful work is unmistakable.’ Like other works written in Schubert’s last year, in particular the String Quintet and the F minor Fantasia for piano four hands, this Sonata has the epic songfulness that was Schubert’s special gift. The first movement, in particular, has a feeling of time unfolding slowly, suggesting the beating of giant wings. The recurring, mysterious bass trill and the powerful pauses, enmeshed in an atmosphere of long-breathed lyricism, have an effect of tremendous emotional power. In the outer sections of the Andante sostenuto, on the other hand, time seems to stand still, the repetition of a cross-hands figure decorating the theme with an almost painful sweetness. Some of the modulations in this movement, although they come to us slowly, are exceptionally unexpected, making the homecoming in the final bars all the richer. The dancing lightness of the Scherzo is a lilting contrast to what has come before, while the held note which begins the main theme of the finale gives all that follows a special urgency. As writer and broadcaster David Garrett has put it, listening to this sonata is akin to ‘surrendering to the flow of a slow current, in which the depths stir occasionally … At the end the listener has the sense of having traversed a vast and profound world, paradoxically in an intimate medium, in which the voice is rarely raised.’ 

When Sir Andras Schiff was in Australia last year, he spoke to Andrew Ford on The Music Show about the prevailing quietude in so much of Schubert’s music. Referring to the Viennese fortepiano of 1820 he had recently acquired, Schiff said: ‘It is not a spectacularly brilliant instrument, but Schubert is not a spectacularly brilliant composer. He’s a very intimate composer; yes his music does have its shadows and darknesses and storms, but what makes his music unique to me is the soft music, what happens in piano and below piano, how many shades and colours there are … Schubert very often uses triple pianissimo, or ppp, and he is the first composer to use that. This is very intimate music.’ 

© Phillip Sametz 2019 Phillip Sametz is the alumni coordinator at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) and reviews regularly for Limelight magazine.

Hear the great American pianist Stephen Kovacevich perform all three of these keyboard masterpieces in an illuminating program this week. Click here to discover more and to buy tickets.

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