On a program of Beethoven and Chopin

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Here, a few words in regards to my Beethoven and Chopin program.

The next couple months feature this program on several different occasions, in partial or full form, and it is one quite close to my heart. I began these four significant works for solo piano each at a very different stage of my pianistic study and artistic development. It is of personal significance and marvel that they come together here in a one-hour presentation.  

This past Spring, I found myself absorbed in the works of Franz Liszt, in studying and performing his “Deuxième année: Italie” from Années de pèlerinage. It is a cycle inspired by painting, sculpture, song, and poetry of the Italian sort, in which Liszt reflects a nineteenth century view of the Italian Renaissance, of course through his characteristic compositional virtuosity and sophisticated emotional expression.  

The works of Beethoven and Chopin are as much staples of the piano repertoire as the programmatic works of Liszt, most especially those aforementioned. One would be hard-pressed to find a performing pianist or even an average piano student without an edition of the Beethoven sonatas as well as one of the ballades of Chopin. That being said, both composers’ respective sound and coloristic worlds differ entirely from that of Liszt. Indeed, it is in differentiating these contrasts that I find the potential for piano playing to be tremendously engaging and exciting. 

Beethoven wrote thirty-two piano sonatas, Chopin, four ballades. The two sonatas in my program,  op. 90, and op. 110, reside quite solidly in different periods of Beethoven’s compositional development. Scholars and musicologists largely agree on the division of Beethoven piano sonatas into three periods: early, middle, and late. Op. 90 is at the height of Beethoven’s middle period, as well as a significant product of his experimentation with two-movement sonata form - an experimentation which culminates in his very final sonata, op. 111. The two movements of op. 90 are clearly juxtaposed from an aural, and even visual perspective at first glance of the score. The first movement, passionate and restless, full of contrast and change, is contrasted by the second, a more easy-going, song-like movement in rondo form. This form, with its inherently repetitive principle theme, is a direct contrast, even foil, to the unpredictability of the first movement. Anton Schindler, a friend of Beethoven/s and one of his early biographers, reported that the original titles of the two movements were to be “A Contest Between Head and Heart” and “Conversation with the Beloved”, respectively. These titles certainly imply the contrast between the two movements of the sonata as a whole

By contrast, Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, op. 110, embodies a more complicated form as a whole. The first movement is somewhat of a composition on the art of composition itself: it is abstract and experimental in nature, albeit contained in radically simple first movement sonata form. The second movement is an unsettled scherzo, sharp and abrupt, leading directly into the third, which alternates two slow ariosos and two fugues. An arioso, less formal than an aria, is intimate in nature, and vocal, as an aria. By contrast, fugues are compositionally cold-blooded; the subject is introduced by one part, and taken up by others, as well as developed and interweaved among all part throughout varying textures. Op. 110’s first arioso gives rise to the first fugue, which descends in despair back to the second arioso, which, in turn, rises to the second fugue, and leads to the sonata’s triumphant conclusion. To me, as a performer and a listener, this demonstrates Beethoven’s faith in the human intellect, and ultimately, the human spirit, in overcoming any personal or existential strife. This is a faith obviously reflected in Beethoven’s very act of composing to his own end given his own life struggles.

I have not studied let alone performed all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas, but I have performed all four ballades. A ballade comes most visually directly from the English word “ballad”, which was a form of verse and narrative often set to music. Alternatively, the Italian “ballata” was a poetic and musical form in use from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Chopin ballades are distinctive from any previous literary versions. They are one-movement narrative works that have the important quality of being and feeling “staged”. That is, there is a conscious and compositional sense throughout the work that an epic narration, or rather, story, is being told. The greatest contrast among the ballades is between the two I perform within this program, the third and the fourth. The third ends joyously, even with humor. Its lightness as a composition is perhaps paralleled by the fact that, of the four ballades, it is the one with the tightest structural construction. The fourth ballade, by contrast, ends tragically. It is largely melancholic throughout; an important compositional feature to note that further differentiates the fourth ballade from the third resides in its use of subtle and complex counterpoint, which parallels the more subtle and complex emotional world of the work as a whole.

Interestingly enough, this circulated program was originally to be one of Beethoven and Schumann, contrasting the same Beethoven sonatas, op. 90 and op. 110, with Schumann’s very dramatic Kreisleriana, a work just as representative of Schumann’s solo piano writing, as the third and fourth ballades are of Chopin’s. Due to varying discussions with presenters, the romantic composer of choice became Chopin for now. With that being said, please stay “tuned”!