Couleur du Temps
The C-sharp minor Prélude, Op.45, was composed during a pivotal time in Chopin’s career. He had spent 18 months in Paris, from October 1839 to June 1841, during which period his reputation grew, despite the fact that he wrote relatively little. Chopin did, however, devote himself to reappraising his aesthetic, and on his return to Nohant in central France in the summer of 1841, he began poring over treatises on counterpoint. This combination of re-examination and study bore fruit. Chopin’s compositional processes became slower, his perfectionism increased; of his Ballade, Op.47 and Fantasy, Op.49 he declared: ‘I cannot give them enough polish’. But the results were consistently outstanding, and among the works produced later in the summer of 1841 was the Op.45 Prélude.
Chopin had written his 24 Préludes, Op.28, between 1836 and 1839. There were to be only two more: the A-flat major Prélude of 1834, and Op.45. The A-flat major piece was the last to be published, which is why it was, posthumously, labelled No.26; but the C-sharp minor work was the last to be composed, and is, perhaps, the most profound of all Chopin’s Préludes.
The piece opens in sombre vein, with a gently ascending accompanimental figure. Chopin manoeuvres this deceptively simple texture into an array of harmonic areas, often rich with chromaticism. In the second articulation of the theme, the brooding tone of the opening lifts and sunshine floods in, but ultimately the music returns to its opening mood of melancholy.
Some years earlier, the ‘nocturne’ had been pioneered by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837), whose first three works in the genre were published in 1812. In the years which followed, certain characteristics of the nocturne were consolidated alongside the development of the piano’s sustain pedal, which enabled widespread arpeggios to provide a rich cushion of sound for a decorative, songlike melody. However, Chopin explored and expanded the nature of the nocturne, introducing into its broad framework elements from other styles. Indeed Chopin’s three Op.15 Nocturnes (1830-33) already show an evolution in style beyond that of his Op.9 set, composed just a few years before, to such a degree that they may be said to redefine the genre. The Op.15 set was dedicated to the composer’s friend and fellow pianist-composer, Ferdinand Hiller, and demonstrates a shift away from the impressive ‘salon’ style, to something more personal, and more identifiable as typically ‘Chopinesque’.
The F major Nocturne, Op.15, No.1, is in ‘ternary’ form (following the pattern ABA), opening with a tender Andante melody. The central section, marked con fuoco, offers dramatic contrast, shattering any soporific spell the opening may have cast. Serenity is restored, however, when the main melody is reprised.
As with his Prélude No.25, Op.45, Chopin’s piano concertos are, somewhat confusingly, published in an order that does not accurately reflect their composition dates. The ‘Second’ Piano Concerto, in F minor, was composed in 1829, when Chopin was 19, but was published in 1836; whereas the E minor Concerto was written in 1830 and published in 1833 as the Piano Concerto No.1. The central Larghetto is justly famous, and lends itself to arrangement for solo piano, with its rich array of melodic material, captivating pianism, and delicious harmony. A theme-and-variations inspired by Bellini, Chopin wrote of the movement that it possesses ‘a romantic, calm, and rather melancholy character... a kind of moonlight reverie on a beautiful spring night.’
When the nine-year-old Debussy played for pianist Mme Mauté de Fleurville, who had studied with Chopin, she declared, ‘But he must become a musician!’, and helped him prepare for the entrance examination to the Paris Conservatoire. Debussy’s Suite bergamasque was first submitted for publication in 1890, but he later revised and published the work in 1905 – by which time his style has evolved considerably. The composer was in part inspired by the poetry of Verlaine, in which masked parties, masques, are sometimes conflated with bergamasques, meaning ‘from Bergamo’, and were sometimes used to refer to old Italian dance tunes.
However, Debussy also sought to pay tribute to keyboard suites of the French Baroque, and three of the movement titles, Prélude, Menuet and Passepied, make explicit that connection. The leisurely Prélude is in ternary form, its elegant outer sections contrasted with central passages of delicate rumination. The Menuet, which omits a ‘Trio’ section, is a playful, enigmatic movement, growing to a surprisingly lush, full-throated passage before a delicately humorous ending. There follows the famous Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’), which was inspired by Verlaine’s poem of the same title. In early versions of the score, Clair de lune includes the subtitle ‘Promenade sentimentale’, hinting that while the serene, sweet character of the piece was undeniably part of its conception, it should perhaps be taken at a walking pace. A passepied traditionally uses triple meter or groupings of three; Debussy avoids both in his Passepied, perhaps because he originally conceived the movement as a ‘pavane’. Yet he conjures up aspects of the style to which he was alluding with rapid figurations underpinned by a stately pace.
Debussy and Ravel are often lumped together as ‘Impressionists’, yet their compositional approaches were quite distinct; each had his own ‘voice’. Debussy stated that: ‘There is no school of Debussy. I have no disciples. I am I.’ He also credited Ravel with ‘the most refined ear there has ever been’. However, Ravel was not entirely content with his Pavane pour une infante défunte (‘Pavane for a dead princess’) of 1899, later regarding it as too close in style to Chabrier, and complaining of its ‘quite poor form’ (the piece is rather episodic). Yet the Pavane, only the second of his piano pieces to be published, has become one of Ravel’s best-known works, with its simplicity of line conveying a characteristically childlike quality that is exquisitely bittersweet. The origin of the title is unknown; something about it may simply have appealed to Ravel’s rather poignant outlook on life, which he partly attributed to his Basque heritage: ‘Look, they say I’m dry at heart. That’s wrong. And you know it. I am Basque. Basques feel things violently but they say little about it and only to a few.’
Szymanowski was part of a group of composers called Young Poland in Music, determined to bring Polish music up to date at the same time as admiring the music of, among others, Richard Strauss. Szymanowski’s early works are well represented by the Nine Preludes which, as his Op.1, capture his style at an embryonic stage. Inevitably, the works bear the influence of Chopin (who was, of course, also Polish), as well as Debussy and Rachmaninov, but also exhibit a more pared-down style, emphasising clarity of line, as well as harmonic variety. The first Prelude is characterised by the overlapping of a regular accompaniment with the main melodic line; as with Ravel’s Pavane, the effect is at once simple and engaging. The Prelude No.2 is more Romantic, with billowing piano textures and mercurial harmony, whereas the third has a gentler, almost hymn-like quality. No.4 ends without the anticipated harmonic resolution, and the fifth Prelude is turbulent and knotty, with a hint of almost humorous melodrama. The Prelude No.6 is a fascinating piece which vacillates between tension and introspection, preparing the ear for the dreamlike seventh and eighth pieces. The last Prelude combines moments of impassioned Romanticism with the more ambiguous and intriguing harmonic language which would make Szymanowski’s later works so distinctive.
Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, KKIVa/16, was composed in 1830, but was published posthumously, in 1870. The piece is dedicated to Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was one of the last works Chopin wrote before leaving Poland – a country to which he would never return owing to political strife that left him an exile. The piece opens with a surprisingly terse statement, which is then repeated and subtly expanded, before the main theme begins. This famous work unfolds with a tragic air, and demonstrates Chopin’s art at its finest; in lesser hands, trills and decorative lines might act as fripperies detracting from the principal material, but in this piece, they serve to accentuate the tone. This reflects what a contemporary observed at one of Chopin’s performances: ‘When he embellished – which he rarely did – it was a positive miracle of refinement.’ A brighter, but still rather nostalgic, central section brings relief, before the heart-breaking main theme returns. Wonderfully, the piece ends with a ray of hope breaking through the preceding sense of woe.
Chopin’s Souvenir de Paganini is an early work dating from 1829 – although its authenticity has been questioned. However, it is known that Paganini’s concerts in Warsaw, also in 1829, gave Chopin the opportunity to hear the violin virtuoso in action, and the young composer was suitably dazzled by the Italian’s display. Paganini’s Carnaval de Venise has been the subject of numerous variations, and this set opens with the theme incorporated into Chopin’s own style of piano writing, before unfolding variations which emulate Paganini’s violin playing, as well as adapting it to the unique capabilities of the piano. In contrast with prolific virtuosi like Paganini and Liszt, Chopin performed publicly no more than 50 times, to audiences of fewer than 100 people. Even so, as one listener described: ‘The marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing cannot be described. It is perfection in every sense’.
© Joanna Wyld, 2014