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Jeremy Denk c. 1300 – c.

2000
Disc 1
1 . Guillaume de Machaut: Doulz amis ( 2 : 2 1 )
2. Gilles Binchois: Triste plaisir ( 1 : 5 8 )
3. Johannes Ockeghem: Kyrie – Christe eleison from Missa prolationum ( 3 : 0 1 )
4. Guillaume Dufay: Franc cuer gentil ( 2 : 0 5 )
5. Josquin des Prez: Kyrie from Missa Pange lingua ( 3 : 0 7 )
6 . Clément Janequin: Au joly jeu du pousse avant ( 1 : 1 7 )
7. William Byrd: “A voluntarie, for my ladye nevell” from My Ladye Nevells Booke ( 3 : 3 8 )
8 . Carlo Gesualdo: “O dolce mio tesoro” from Madrigali, Book VI ( 2 : 5 6 )
9. Claudio Monteverdi: “Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti,” sv 251, from Scherzi Musicali (1632) (4 : 3 8 )
1 0. Henry Purcell: Ground in C Minor, Z. T681, from Ye Tuneful Muses ( 3 : 2 8 )
11. Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 551 ( 3 : 3 9 )
12. Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, bwv 903 ( 1 1 : 5 5 )
Disc 2
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 – II. Andante (4 : 3 4 )
2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – I. Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato  ( 8 : 2 9 )
3. Robert Schumann: “In der Nacht” from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, No. 5 (4 : 1 2 )
4. Frédéric Chopin: Preludes No. 1 in C Major & No. 2 in A Minor from 24 Preludes, Op. 28 ( 3 : 02 )
5. Richard Wagner (tr. Franz Liszt): “Isoldens Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde ( 7: 24 )
6. Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo in B Minor from Klavierstücke, Op. 119, No. 1 ( 3 : 5 5 )
7. Arnold Schoenberg: “Mässige Viertel” from Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11, No. 1 ( 3 : 1 9 )
8. Claude Debussy: “Reflets dans l’eau” from Images, Book I ( 5 : 0 9 )
9. Igor Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music ( 3 : 0 7 )
10. Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück I ( 2 : 3 3 )
11. Philip Glass: Etude No. 2 (4 : 24 )
12. György Ligeti: “Automne à Varsovie” from Etudes, Book I, No. 6 (4 : 2 3 )
13. Gilles Binchois: Triste plaisir ( 2 : 1 3 )

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T
his impractical sequence of music exists for a semi-practical reason. Lincoln Center asked if I could come up with an unusual
piano recital, something like a happening or an installation, for its annual White Light Festival. I confessed to them that as I
progressed through my forties, and navigated through what seemed like my third midlife crisis, I found myself thinking more
about a story I first encountered as a blond, wide-eyed seventeen-year-old at Oberlin College, in good old Music Appreciation 101.
That story, the history of so-called classical music, feels closer to me now, not just more relevant, but more alive. Back in class, it
had been a series of cool revelations; now, it was more like an emotionally necessary resource. Wouldn’t it be amazing, I wondered, to experience
this sweep and arc in one sitting? To get the perspective of time, to hear sounds and their priorities shifting? The Lincoln Center people also felt
the idea was intriguing, and so here we are.
You might call this album a version of time-lapse photography, which brings us from the 1300s to the present day in a series of sonic
snapshots. I was aiming for a healthy mixture of light and dark, of optimism and pessimism—wonder at unfolding human ingenuity, along with a
sense of loss from the relentless replacement of one achievement by another. As I constructed the program, I kept imagining protagonists in time
travel films, who are often hapless, accidental historians, just trying to make sense of it all. They constantly ask questions, to fill in the gaps. How
did we get here? And where the hell are we now? 

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A
n obvious disclaimer up front: I’ve curated a partial account of a corner of music history—the Western classical music canon. I
didn’t feel it was possible to attempt more, from my position at the piano, and I don’t mean to privilege this story, but only to tell it,
affectionately. Lincoln Center’s mandate was eighty minutes* without intermission, so history had to be experienced without even a
bathroom break. Impossible choices had to be made. I’m sure every listener will be outraged by some omission or other, but I made choices based
on a mixture of personal affection, historical awareness, and the desire to provide a compelling narrative. Many of the early works were written
to be sung, and I transcribed them as simply as I could for the piano so you can hear the fascinating notes, minus the words.  
To find a foothold, I started in the medieval era with two threads—the secular and the religious, worldly love and love of God. At the same
time I felt it was essential to deal with a more purely musical love: the art of counterpoint, a foundation of the long story to come. If you don’t
care about counterpoint, you should. It is music’s superpower, something it can do that no other art form quite can. Great writers occasionally
  The power of musical counterpoint lies in two or more things going on at once, continuously, acting upon each other from moment to moment.
You can define it as the interaction of independent musical voices, but the word “interaction” feels insufficient to describe the magic of the way
voices converse, intertwine, and conflict with each other—the infinitely expressive possibilities of combination. Adding a second voice to a lonely
singer is exponential. It adds another dimension—not just notes in a row, horizontally, one after the other, but also vertical distances between
simultaneous notes: intervals. Intervals can feel more or less resolved, more dissonant (painful?) or consonant (soothing?); passing smoothly from
one to the next, or grinding against each other with difficulty, they create a form of musical breathing, an inner drama, a frame for meaning.  
I chose to begin with a short song by Machaut—Doulz amis (Sweet Friends)—not because of any particular musicological primacy, but because
it seemed to capture some of the haunting beauty of medieval counterpoint. The simplicity of two voices allows us to hear the intervals contract
and expand, and to meditate on the building blocks of a language. In the first few seconds, Machaut visits many of the essential combinations
(octave, fifth, third), the same that will govern musical structure hundreds of years later. But the sense of things—why one pair of notes comes after
another—is subtly alien. Sounds, and the grammar of sounds; feelings that are familiar, recurring, intensely personal, love and loss, but experienced
and expressed at a remove.  
The Binchois lament Triste plaisir adds one voice, to get to three. In the text of this song, the lover expresses himself in a sea of paradoxes:  

Sad pleasure and grievous joy,


Bitter sweetness, painful discomfort,
Laughter in tears, forgetful memory
These are my companions so long as I am alone.
 

*Admittedly, this eighty-minute mark has been stretched. After some consideration, also, I felt that the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 10 wasn’t enough to represent his
mark on history, so now we have the first movement of Op. 111—also in C minor, also restless, but with more of the existential angst of Beethoven, more of his mature thinking.

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I’ve been ambushed by them, so that anyone can see them
Within my heart, in the shadows of my eyes.
        Sad pleasure and lover’s joy!*
 
The voice of the poem’s speaker dominates, on top. The two lower
voices work discreetly behind the scenes, casting the lover in changing
lights. Irreconcilable notes in the melody reflect the poem’s impossible
conjunctions, creating a web of contradictions and tensions in a compact
musical space. But the final sonority is an open fifth—a G and a D with
no note in between. I like that word “open” (unusually communicative
for musical jargon) to refer to an interval that feels neither light nor dark,
major nor minor: just pure sound, empty of connotation.  
With the Ockeghem mass, we add another voice to make four. (I
curated a stepladder in the first few tracks, 2, 3, and 4, to create the
sense of an evolving language, of voices added to voices in the saga
of music history.) Four gives richness, a sense of group, of communal
worship. No lonely lover—just the plea for mercy from God—and so
no voice dominates, all are equal, often indistinguishable, handing off
notes to each other, overlapping and eliding. This new permutation of
counterpoint creates a totally different expressive world—serene, liquid,
seamless, blissful.
The second half of the Ockeghem (Christe eleison) returns us to just
two voices, in close and intricate dialogue. They somersault around and
about each other, like children exploring a sophisticated game—a child’s
game that is actually tremendously serious, and will obsess centuries to
come. You could call it the art of imitation (Simon Says)—the idea that all
musical voices must spring from the same material and address a shared
fundamental idea, a few shared notes or shapes. So not only must voices
be harmonious with each other: they must also possess the same genes.   
*Lyrics to Triste plaisir translated by David Wyatt © 2012, courtesy of LiederNet Archive.

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You hear a loose version of this imitative game in Dufay’s Franc cuer gentil, a song praising the beauty of a beloved. The three voices constantly
relate and connect to each other, but not systematically. Dance makes its first serious appearance on this disc, with flurries of joyful interplay
and subtle, elegant interactions of rhythms. In Josquin’s famous Missa Pange lingua, which takes us back to religious austerity, a few fundamental
notes govern everything and there is a cumulative effect of the self-similar voices piling on. This sense of drive brings us a lot closer, already, to a
modern sense of musical drama. You almost feel some regret; music seemed more innocent, before.  
The rest of the first half—stepping through the remaining Renaissance and early Baroque, leading up to Bach—oscillates between the serious
and the light. The Janequin is counterpoint as pure entertainment: a volley of voices tossing around ideas, occasionally coming together for a
simple, unified phrase. (I think of it as an interlude: history isn’t all work and advance; sometimes it takes a day, or a decade, off.) William Byrd’s “A
voluntarie” translates the vocal contrapuntal idea into a virtuoso tour de force for keyboard (the official first keyboard work of the album!—written
for the virginal, a sort-of harpsichord). Five voices inhabit the ten fingers; the hands split into personalities and talk amongst themselves. Each new
section is set into motion by an idea that finds its way through all the voices; the next section takes up some part of the last—but never all; there
is a sense of a chain of association, ideas spinning off of themselves, and the joy of syncopation merged with the learnedness of counterpoint, the
dance of ideas.  
There is so much going on in the High Renaissance that it makes it nearly impossible to choose, but I felt the Italian madrigal was an unmissable
landmark—the close mirroring of word and text, the supple musical phrases, the intense emotionalism (more love and loss). The two examples on
this album represent opposite moods and harmonic worlds. Gesualdo’s is meandering, almost keyless, sliding; Monteverdi’s is dancing and light,
mostly set to a single measure of repeated harmony, allowing the joys of spring to emerge from the seven notes of the G major scale.   
In these last pieces, one of the things you hear is the gradual erosion of the old church modes (Dorian, Lydian, etc.), and the replacement
of those various gods with just one bickering married couple: major and minor, our still-thriving binary. Purcell’s Ground is like an essay in the
haunting, dark power of the minor scale, while the Scarlatti Sonata is pure major mirth. Scarlatti brings instrumental virtuosity onto the grand
stage, along with the seeds of a new structure—sonata form—a staple of the post-1750 world.   
Counterpoint is receding in these last works, which means that there is something both fateful and disruptive in the appearance of Bach. Bach
wrote against history, pursuing contrapuntal mastery while the musical world was becoming simpler. But that makes him the perfect historical
hinge, summing up centuries past while setting out boundaries and possibilities of the major/minor tonal language of the century and a half to
come. So many threads run through the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue: the urge to instrumental virtuosity; the freedom to use all twelve notes of
the chromatic scale; the ability to slide from harmony to harmony mixed with a columnar sense of structure so that you don’t feel lost; allusions to
the richly inflected operatic style (now around for a century or so); deference to the ancient majesty of voices in combination. When I am playing
this recital and come to Bach’s final major chord, I can’t resist feeling some borrowed pride in human achievement, a coalescence—as though I’m
standing on top of a great edifice of understanding.  

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T
he second half of this story is not as rounded or as
comforting. The narrative shifts from one musical frame of
reference to another—from counterpoint to harmony, from a
language of interacting voices to a language of chords. This sounds like
an academic distinction, but it has enormous emotional consequences;
the new frame proves more prone to dissolution, a house built on sand.
With the Mozart sonata, I aimed to evoke a clean slate, a new, radical,
post-Bach simplicity, one that feels like the viewpoint of a child. Although
Mozart’s simplicity is part of a larger stylistic trend, it sounds as if it came out
of nowhere. In this short andante, he mostly relies on basic chords; the texture
is rudimentary, tune plus accompaniment; the melody, though alluring, is
repetitive. Despite all these limits, the piece discovers unforeseeable depths:
dissonances hiding in the innocent major scale, flashes of pathos. The High
Classical style of 1770–1825 mostly strips or hides away the complexity of
counterpoint, but at its best substitutes something priceless in its place.
After this brief glimpse of classical paradise, in all its elegance and
refinement, Beethoven shatters the calm. We skip to the classical period’s
complicated epilogue, when Beethoven is looking back at his life of
achievements, conjuring the quintessentially stormy “C minor mood”
that made him famous. The opening rhythms of the Op. 111 sonata
are dissonant jabs and leaps, followed by quiet, almost parenthetical,
resolutions. The allegro (calling back to Bach, trying to find a foothold
in history, in counterpoint) constantly searches for an arrival, finding
instead ellipses and stoppages. I’d hoped with this piece to evoke the role
of violence and disruption in the classical style, the way it tugs against its
delicate equilibrium—and the way that the urge to destroy follows upon
the urge to create.   
Schumann takes up the restlessness of Beethoven, transmuting it into
Romantic fantasy, the outer section a storm, with a lyrical middle section:

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song-as-paradigm, a whole new style built not on Beethoven’s iconic motives, but on soaring melodies. Inevitably, this emotional restlessness
begins to infect the harmonic language it is built on. Chopin’s first prelude is a brief, joyful, Romantic surge, but the second discloses a darker
instability, something close to atonality, a slippery slope. Wagner’s “Liebestod” shows that we are fully sliding, and that there is no way to stop it: an
epitome and apotheosis of chromaticism, eroding the sense of a grounding single chord, a magnificent climax which is also in a way the end of a
long road—the lines of it could be traced back to Bach, Gesualdo, even as far as Machaut. Brahms’ Intermezzo approaches the same territory on
a smaller, gentler scale. It begins with a series of falling thirds blurring between chords, evoking a dissolving language and style. A waltz appears
as a confirming emblem of loss.   
With Wagner and Brahms, fateful and iconic enemies of the Romantic era, both perched on the brink of the end of the century, the question
is posed: how will music go on? Schoenberg takes us over the edge, beginning with a waltz rhythm (evoking Brahms)—but the harmonic center
is gone, the tonal language as we’ve known it has vanished. The question—what key is the piece in?—is no longer ambiguous; it simply does not
apply. The writing roams the keyboard in unpredictable whorls, merging Romantic expressivity with nightmare. This, you sense, is where all the
pulling and stretching of Romantic harmony and feeling has led us; with freedom comes uncertainty, even terror.  
In addition to Schoenberg’s atonality, it is vital to visit two of Modernism’s other great figures, as they find other solutions to the impasse of the
end of the 19th century. On one hand, there is Debussy’s luxuriant rethinking of sound and texture, “Reflets dans l’eau,” calling upon his dictum
“pleasure is the law.”  On the other—a rare piece of comic relief in this second half—we have Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music, a cubistic painting of a
ragtime, in which the law seems to be the destruction of every reasonable expectation. Schoenberg and Stravinsky’s solutions, however wonderful,
feel destructive, like undermining and overthrowing a regime, whether harmony or rhythm; Debussy’s seems more constructive—his revolution
is subtler, but no less powerful.
I’ve always loved this period of 1895–1920, when old ways have run their course, and new solutions are in the works. Style is breaking apart but
isn’t yet an absolute wreck; the fragmentation is thrilling; each new set of musical ideals keeps implying different trajectories and hurling question
marks into the future. Following one road (via Schoenberg, twelve-tone method, Webern), we come in the 1950s to Stockhausen’s Klavierstück I—
music as an extreme assertion of control, freed from chance, where all events (rhythms, notes, dynamics) are quasi-mathematically predetermined
by some initial principles. (This edge of the avant-garde can be seen as the continuation of a centuries-long dream, a fantasy of total musical unity,
where all the parts derive from a mysterious whole.) Following another road, you come to the minimalism of Philip Glass, an extreme simplicity,
rejecting all this complex fuss. With these two pieces next to each other, linked by a G (I really savor the wicked transition from one to the other
in concert), I wanted to evoke and create for the listener the sense of a dizzying range of musical ideals, a yawning abyss of style—the sense that
we can’t even agree what music is for anymore.    
We arrive at the end of the twentieth century with Ligeti’s etude, “Automne à Varsovie”—a foil to the Glass, because both of them are obsessed
with falling figures, musical tropes of sadness and farewell. The Ligeti is rigorous and desperately contrapuntal; it calls back to Bach, Josquin,

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Machaut, bringing the intersection of musical voices into our sped-up, digital, apocalyptic age. At first transparent, shimmering, and Debussyan,
the forces within it (the contrapuntal urges) cause it to destroy its own beauty—an apt message. By the time we get to Glass and Ligeti, I have the
feeling that composers aren’t incrementally working on top of the accomplishments of the past. They are attaching to various parts of history for
survival, sending lines back for security like spelunkers or rock climbers.
The Ligeti ends by careening off the bottom of the keyboard, breaking off suddenly, abruptly, and violently. This would have been a dark way
to end the story. So there and then, when all seems lost, we return to (nearly) the starting point—to the circling melody of Binchois, ending on its
open fifth. In concert, when I find myself playing those medieval sounds, after all that creation and destruction, they feel uncanny, charged with
meaning, newer than they were before.   

D
espite the lengthy liner note, I intend this recital/album not as a lesson but as a story—or perhaps something more like an open
epic poem, to which artists add on as the centuries pass. It has climaxes where everything seems to be about the miracle of creation,
and it has moments of impasse, where it’s not clear how things can go on, or if they even will. Above all, it makes one conscious of a life
cycle: that styles die, like we do. It is no longer possible to write in the style of Mozart, or Josquin, or any of them. With every emerging possibility,
impossibility sneaks in from behind.  
While writing these notes, and contemplating paradigms for viewing the past, I came across Emerson’s essay “History.” At one point he writes
beautifully of time as a lesson: 
“There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time … the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained
by the hours.”
But not much later in the same essay he writes what seems to be an absolute contradiction:
“A mind might ponder its thought for ages, and not gain so much self-knowledge as the passion of love shall teach it in a day.”  
And there it is, the paradox of this album. We must contemplate history for all its beauty and for all the understanding it gives us—but at the
same time all its whys, its causations and contexts, can vanish in the heat of one musical work, in the emotional space a composer creates.

—JEREMY DENK, July 2018

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Produced by Adam Abeshouse

Recorded January 2017 at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center,
Purchase College, State University of New York

Engineered and Mastered by Adam Abeshouse

Cover: Martin Puryear, Ladder for Booker T. Washington. 1996. Wood (ash and
maple). Overall: 432 × 22 3/4 × 3 in. (1097.28 × 57.79 × 7.62 cm) . Collection of the Modern Art
Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by Exchange.
Inside booklet: Byrd’s “A voluntarie” from My Lady Nevells Booke, published by
Dover Publications; Original manuscript of Brahms’ Intermezzo in B minor.
Portrait of Jeremy Denk by Michael Wilson

Package Design by Evan Gaffney

Executive Producer: Robert Hurwitz

Jeremy Denk is a Steinway Artist.


Recording of Beethoven Op.111 originally appears on Ligeti/Beethoven, Ⓟ 2012 Nonesuch Records Inc.
530562-2

Nonesuch Records Inc., a Warner Music Group Company, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Ⓟ & © 2018 Nonesuch Records Inc. for the United States and WEA International Inc. for the world outside of the United States.
563316-2 Warning: Unauthorized reproduction of this recording is prohibited by federal law and subject to criminal prosecution.