Sonatas K98, K380 and K213 by Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)

Although I cannot speak from personal experience, I have always felt that a Royal Pupil could be a mixed blessing – Salieri’s struggles with the Emperor as seen in ‘Amadeus’ would seem to bear this out… But Domenico Scarlatti seems to have struck lucky in entering the service of the Portuguese royal family and thereby acquiring the Infanta Maria Barbara as a student. His keyboard sonatas were written as ‘essercizi’ (exercises) for her, and if both her technique and her musical sensibilities were able to do justice to them, then she must indeed have been a rewarding student. There are well over 500 of these single-movement works displaying a very wide range of mood and method and at the same time expanding keyboard technique into quite new areas. When Maria Barbara moved to Madrid as bride of Crown Prince Fernando, Scarlatti went with her and stayed based in Spain for the rest of his life. Hence the clear Spanish flavouring found in many of the sonatas, for instance K380. K98 is a restless and poignant triple time dance, K213 a melancholy aria.  

Nocturne Opus 62 No2 and Polonaise Fantasie by Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849)

Chopin is such an easy composer to underestimate. His style is so fatally easy to imitate – badly; a song-like melody supported by a richly flowing left hand, something by way of contrast for a middle section and then a reprise of what came before but this time larded with some tinkling decoration. This was the formula which innumerable imitators followed, imagining that that was all there was to it. But how quickly one realises that these were only the externals of Chopin’s language and that what lay behind this beguiling surface was a highly disciplined musical mind, an incredibly fertile imagination and a remarkable, highly individual keyboard technique. The ‘sub-Chopin’ style has become so familiar to us that it’s hard to remember how startlingly original his work was when it first appeared; there are tales of teachers forbidding their female students from meddling with such emotionally subversive stuff long after the composer’s death.

The two works we hear tonight both first appeared in 1846, a troubled time in Chopin’s all too brief career. His relationship with the difficult, eccentric novelist George Sand was descending into acrimony and there was unmistakable deterioration in his health as the tuberculosis which was to kill him in agony only two years later took ever firmer hold on his fragile constitution. The E major nocturne has already moved beyond the formula outlined above; there is an increasingly decorated melody richly accompanied but the growth of the form is organic and there is some powerful writing which moves the music well beyond the charm of some of his earlier nocturnes. The Polonaise Fantasie, a substantial piece, begins hesitantly but then gathers momentum with a melody in heroic vein and the characteristic rhythm of the national Polish dance. His polonaises are amongst his most powerful pieces – however settled he was in the urbane surroundings of post revolution Paris, he never lost his deep love of his homeland and felt keenly the political unrest which beset it so often. His fellow countrymen responded strongly to his music in this vein; a girl with whom he had had “an understanding” before he left Warsaw wrote in his album ”…Never forget that we in Poland love you. In foreign lands they may reward you better but they cannot love you more”. (Several years later, after she had married someone else, Chopin wrote in the margin “Oh yes they can!” )  

Suite Bergamasque by Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

I: Prélude

II: Menuet

III: Clair de lune

IV: Passepied

We should hold two dates in mind when considering Debussy’s ‘Suite Bergamasque’ – 1890 and 1905. In 1890 the composer was one of the young bloods, recently escaped from the arid confines of the Paris Conservatoire and intoxicated by two visits to Bayreuth.  He had some interesting songs and piano music to his name but as yet had written no really arresting work on any scale. By 1905 his style had matured and his true stature had emerged in a succession of highly original masterpieces in a variety of genres: orchestral, chamber, keyboard and opera. It was in this year that his publisher suggested that he should look out some of his earlier unpublished works, subject them to what revision he felt they needed and then allow them to be issued. The composer was at first lukewarm; his language had developed radically over the intervening fifteen years, evolution demonstrated as clearly in his piano music as anywhere. It isn’t known exactly what revisions were made, though we do know that ‘Clair de lune’, long hailed as a magical evocation of moonlight, was originally called ‘Promenade sentimentale’.The publisher’s scheme succeeded and ‘Suite Bergamasque’, more approachable by both players and listeners than some of Debussy’s more recent piano works, soon became and has since remained a popular work.

This popularity rests partly with the presence of ‘Clair de lune’, one of the composer’s best-loved works, very often performed as a separate item. It does indeed stand somewhat apart from the other movements stylistically. The title ‘Suite Bergamasque’ suggests reference to the seventeenth century commedia del’arte tradition which enjoyed something of a revival in late nineteenth century France and the three other movements of the suite nod in the direction of the French eighteenth century harpsichord composers; the Prelude is bold and arresting, the Menuet a delicate dance with a modal flavour to the harmony and the final Passpied a wistfully cheerful reinvention of a baroque dance.

Preludes: Opus 23 Nos. 2, 4 & 6; Opus 32 Nos. 3, 8 & 12 by Serge Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

Rachmaninov, like Chopin, spent much of the latter part of his life exiled from his homeland. From 1918 he was based at first in America then increasingly in Switzerland making annual lengthy recital tours; his prowess as a pianist was legendary and audiences flocked to hear him. But he was resentful of the fact that, in order to earn a living, he was forced to adopt a way of life which left him insufficient time or mental energy for much composition. He did produce some fine work during this latter period of his life (including the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances) but, however enthusiastic the audiences’ response, he was aware that his music now had a rather dated feel to it. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me”; so he wrote in the late 1930s.

But in the early part of the twentieth century he was a commanding figure in contemporary Russian music, active as a conductor as well as a composer of a wide range of music including operas, songs and orchestral music in addition to the inevitable works for piano. It is to this period of his career that the two sets of preludes Opus 23 and Opus 32 belong, powerful, assured works, naturally writing up to his remarkable piano technique but never employing virtuosity for its own sake but rather using it to convey a wide range of emotion through an inexhaustible variety of texture and figuration.

© 2022 Richard Hall