Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
• Prelude & Fugue in A flat Major, BWV 862
• Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 855
• Prelude & Fugue in G Major, BWV 860
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Klaviersonate, Op. 1 (1910)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia Op. 27 no. 1 (1801)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Serenade in A (1925)
• Cadenza Finale
Gavin Gamboa (1984*)
He aquí! El volcán! (world premiere)
Teatro Peón Contreras
Mérida, Yucatán, México
December 5th, 2013
The theme of this program, Music of 100 Years Ago, does not feature a single work from 1913, and a few that are 200 years old or older! It would seem that the two pieces that meet the requirement are Alban Berg’s Klaviersonate of 1910, and Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales of 1911, along with a piece by Igor Stravinsky that is 88 years old (a correspondence pianists will enjoy). There are as well some works by Bach & Beethoven. These programmatic decisions may seem strange, given the theme, but I believe there is a fluidity at play which link these pieces under an umbrella of 20th century resonance. My aim in the following will be to explain the rationale behind the choice of these works, some background of their creation, and why music of 100 years ago seemed important to address, programatically speaking, in 2013.
In 1913 a now well-known disruption took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris when Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps was given its first performance, and its effects reverberated throughout the cultural landscape, modifying musical attitudes in the process. It was with this event in mind that I decided to pay tribute to the composer (whose stylistic versatility earned him his reputation as ‘The Chameleon’) 100 years later, with a piece which echoes the rhythmic complexities and the harmonic/contrapuntal angularities of that exemplary ballet which so effectively provoked and galvanized his contemporaries, bringing with it international notoriety and acclaim.
The Serenade in A of 1925 represented Stravinsky’s new instrumental style, which embraced a detached, sterilized romanticism with an orchestral logic in the articulations and textures, all within the limitations of the piano dynamic. The four phases which make up this work convey the properties of a classical Serenade in the abstract (dynamics, texture, rhythm, melody), and lead to a conception of the dance associations without actually being dance pieces in and of themselves.
The state of the displaced motion and lyricism of the Serenade allow for transformations and transpositions of all kinds; a controlled interplay of accents, dynamics, and rhythmic irregularity. It is the opposite of impressionistic texture, more suitable to a mechanical exactness rather than ephemeral nuances. It also stands in contrast to everything else Stravinsky wrote for the instrument — one of his most inventive and original — sharing only faint resemblances to the technicalities of the Piano Sonata or Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.
If Stravinsky’s work was serving to enhance his exposure, the eight ‘waltzes’ contained in Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales could be considered an exercise in anonymity. It was first performed at a concert sponsored by the Société Musicale Indépendante, which also featured pieces by Zoltán Kodály, Charles Koechlin, Vincent d’Indy, and Erik Satie. The pieces were performed without indicating who the composers were — the idea being that it would function to supplant a certain deftness in critics’ predispositions when critiquing new works. Whether or not this was successful is unclear. Furthermore, as was the case with Le Sacre du printemps, Ravel’s Valses generated a negative reaction of boos and cat-calls.
The audience may have misinterpreted it as parody or a provocation, since the waltzes themselves are understated and distributed throughout a landscape of brooding dissonances. There is a deeply cosmic quality to this work that is capable of being lost in a hurried, blithe performance. Ravel, in a direct allusion to Schubert (who in 1823 composed a set of 34 dances titled Valses sentimentales, and in 1826 another set of 12 titled Valses nobles) seems to have been prompted into his own explorations, channeling sensual sonorities, buoyant figurations, and profound elegance and restraint into the Viennese waltz form, filtered through his Parisian sensibility. It seemed appropriate to pair this effervescent, evocative impressionist work with the diametrically opposed angularity and rigidity of Stravinsky’s cubist conception of the Serenade, achieving a coherence and binary oppositional balance that each composer may have found mutually reinforcing.
Alban Berg’s Opus 1, a piano sonata from 1910, is unusual for a sonata in that it is comprised of a single movement; it represents a compression, a latitudilization of multi-movement time, and it follows a strict motivic economy, imbued with a thick chromaticism that negates any key center or orbit (although it does begin, end, and momentarily imply the key of B minor throughout). Berg composed the sonata while studying with Arnold Schoenberg, whose ideas of ‘developing variation’ nurtured the motivic unity internal to the work.
Wagnerian operatic gestures form the gestalt as well as the point of departure for the organicism of Berg’s tightly-knit structures, which are also marvelously pianistic. Extensive use of the whole-tone scale recall impressionistic tendencies, pointing to Ravel. The rhythmic complexities and disjunct harmonic progressions remind us of similar occurrences in Stravinsky’s Serenade, although the latter seems more sparse and adroit. One enters and leaves its realm as if enveloped in a wandering dream; the musical equivalent of time-travel; manifold transfigurations.
After Berg’s Klaviersonate we are introduced to another idiosyncratic piano sonata, this time by Beethoven: Op. 27 no. 1 in E-flat Major, his 13th sonata, and the companion of the famous ‘Moonlight’ sonata Op. 27 no. 2. Beethoven wrote this piece in his early 30s, at a time during which he must have felt the onset of his irreversible total deafness. Beethoven designates this a Sonata ‘Quasi una fantasia’, which is the only sonata with this odd subtitle. The four movement plan of the sonata actually disregards the formal rules of sonata-allegro form, and each movement flows into the next — attaca — or without pause … another uncharacteristic feature. For being so forward and rule-bending, I found it appropriate to include in the program; it looks ahead to the future, it rearranges itself, it becomes something different. Like Berg’s Sonata, it flows continuously from start to finish. Like the Rondoletto in Stravinsky’s Serenade, the concluding 4th movement is a Rondo hybrid with a similarly incessant, driving rhythm, always returning to the familiar refrain. Like the Epilogue in Ravel’s Valses, it quotes thematic material which occurred in earlier movements. It represents a departure for Beethoven, one in a long series of departures he would continue to make throughout his life.
The music of 100 years ago is grounded in individualistic use of counterpoint, and it seemed relevant to connect the lasting influence of J.S. Bach to these keyboard works. The program opens with three selections from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier : E, G, A-flat — a major/minor mixture (if you hear the pitches simultaneously) which I felt exemplifies the thrust of the modernists, who chose dissonance when expressing the clashing, mechanized forces of the external world in their music. Bach, an adventurer in his own right, seems useful here, in order help us conceptualize the sounds of order and symmetry, establishing the context by which we can then gauge the asymmetrical, the unruly, the ahistorical harmonic substrates and abstract forms of the future.