The Abegg Variations were Schumann's first published work, written in 1830 while
studying law at Heidelberg. Beyond its striking brilliance, the piece is also witty and
abstract as it was named and based upon a friend (possibly fictional) of Schumann's,
Meta Abegg, whom he had met at a masked ball. The first five notes, ABEGG, constitute
the principal theme which is further developed through an elated, and at times frenzied
waltz. The variations manipulate the ABEGG theme in various ways, combining them
vertically as chords, and even backwards, GGEBA. In using these five, rather arbitrary
notes, Schumann composes as if it were a game; a game which foreshadows the later
atonal music of the early 20th century. As a strange combination of logical thought, vivid
emotion and playful games, perhaps thekey to this work is to be found in an inscription
that Schumann wrote in an autograph copy, "Je ne suis qu'un songe" -- "I am but a
In contrast to the dramatic and lyric poetic forms, the ballade as a musical genre is
analogous to that of an epic. Chopin's ballades seem to tell a coherent, intense story. The
opening of the G-minor compels us to attention, saying in effect: "Listen!" From there
the story unfolds over an underlying "narrative" 6-beat meter. What actually follows,
however, is purely in the imaginative realm as we sense fantastic, heroic, and wistful
themes without any specific identifications and associations. Perhaps this is what makes
Chopin so appealing to both performers and listeners alike as his works -- the G-minor
Ballade is especially exemplary -- give us considerable freedom of interpretation.
Chopin's own personality remains curiously in the background, elusive and inscrutable,
much as he is depicted in Delacroix's famous portrait. Who Chopin is, and what his
music means, is up to us.
Paganini, a pyrotechnical wizard on the violin, spurred Liszt in his quest to explore the
limits of piano technique, so it was fitting that Liszt chose some of Paganini's Caprices as
the basis of a series of virtuosic studies composed in 1838. Because the etudes gained the
reputation of insurmountable difficulty, induced Liszt to revise them in 1851 to become
what is now the standard performance version. The third etude, La Campanella was
inspired by the finale of Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 wherein the violin imitates the
sound of a small, high-pitched bell. Liszt takes this theme to embark on a virtuosic
survey of trills, runs, repeated notes, and octaves, culminating in a brilliant coda. Liszt's
own words regarding the piece are worth bearing in mind when playing and hearing the
etude: "...for the artist of the future...may virtuosity be a means, never an end..."
In general, the Polonaise is considered the classic music of Polish patriotism and
associated with drama and spirit. As a musical genre, however, the Polonaise is actually
a rather slow, noble and dignified "walking dance" in a three beat rhythm with the first
and second beats strongly connected. Chopin's A-major work closely follows this
rhythmic structure although by having the third beat lead strongly into the following
measure he has added an element of continuously driving momentum to the otherwise
stately Polonaise genre. The second theme -- marked energico -- is in the more
conventional form but nevertheless retains the dramatic energy and surging confidence
that differentiates this piece from other Polonaises. In addition to its distinction from the
general form, the A-major work is also unlike most of Chopin's other polonaises --
written while exiled from his native Poland. These late polonaises often express
excruciating suffering -- where catastrophes & despair are the more dominant
characteristics. Thus, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its uniqueness, the A-major
polonaise has ironically become a signature work for both Chopin and the Polonaise.
Most of Rachmaninoff's Preludes develop around a simple and brief musical idea, often
suggesting some pictorial association. With the G#-minor, the beautiful melody of the
left hand with its accompanying right hand arpeggios arouses evokes an image of tinkling
bells. The melody also ranges fluidly from one extreme of the piano to the other showing
Rachmaninoff's natural command of the complete tonal range and color of the piano.
Rachmaninoff considered these short pieces more difficult to compose than some of his
symphonic works. In a letter he wrote: "I am at the mercy of my thematic ideas which
must be presented concisely and without digression. After all, to say what you have to
say, and to say it briefly, lucidly and without any circumlocution is still the most difficult
problem facing the artist." The Preludes were his solution to the problem. Moreover, the
grand piano here in Bard Hall, donated by Rachmaninoff's himself, has an exceptionally
clear tone and crisp action. As a physical embodiment of his artistic philosophy and to
render its technical expression more facile, it's no surprise that Rachmaninoff chose this
unique piano as his own.
Brahms composed these two rhapsodies during the summer of 1879 while on vacation.
The pieces are not rhapsodic in the structural sense; the B-minor is in a clear cut ABA
form with the G-minor in sonata form. Brahms own words lends some insight into these
pieces: "...top voice and bass are what matter -- all the rest is stuffing!" In this way,
Brahms was following the Baroque tradition of two-part writing. For example, in the
opening theme of the G-minor, while the right hand rises and then falls, the intervals in
the left hand continuously ascend. The overall, combined effect is thus a heroic one
introducing an adventure...a trial of will. In contrast, the middle sections of both pieces
evoke images of tranquil, glasslike evenings with thoughts of melancholy and
apprehension. Again, both parts are essential to a full interpretation. Thus, in
juxtaposing the Baroque and the Romantic -- fugal melodies over a richly textured
"stuffing," Brahms has become truly rhapsodic.
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