Wagner arr. Liszt 'Liebestod' from Tristan and Isolde
Richard Wagner, one of the most recognised German composers of all time was remarkably known for his operas (or what he referred to as ‘music dramas’). Apart from his legendary Ring Cycle and The Mastersingers Of Nuremberg, his much loved opera Tristan and Isolde greatly influenced composers such as Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss and Alban Berg. The final scene of Tristan and Isolde is best known as the Liebestod, meaning ‘love-death’, and the music is one of the most recognised orchestral excerpts from all of Wagner’s operas.
Tristan and Isolde tells the tragic story of Isolde, an Irish princess who is set to marry the King Marke of Cornwall. However, on the ship journey to her marriage, she falls in love with the King’s nephew, Tristan, after accidentally drinking a love potion together. Tristan dies as a consequence of his betrayal to the King which sets up the final scene where Isolde sings farewell over the dead body of Tristan and ends her own life in order for the star-crossed lovers to be together in death.
Apart from being a virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Liszt the transcriptor often turned to famous operas, most notably Wagner's, perhaps unsurprisingly given his relationship as father-in-law to the composer when Wagner married his daughter Cosima. His transcriptions were mostly literal and respectful to the original music. In Liebestod, Liszt layers tremolos and arpeggios to express the spectrum of orchestral colour in the original score. At the climax, repeated fff chords at the bottom of the keyboard are used to reproduce the sonority and create the incredible resonance of a full orchestra playing tutti, fulfilling Liszt’s aim of making the piano sound orchestral.
Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 31 in A♭ major, Op. 110
I. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
II. Allegro molto
III. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro ma non troppo
Ludwig van Beethoven’s penultimate sonata is a medium of transcendence that reflects the deep pain the composer was experiencing mentally, physically and spiritually which sustained until the final period of his career where his music became much more introspective. Jonathan Biss, a pianist well known for his interpretations of Beethoven, said of this sonata: ‘In none of the other 31 piano sonatas does Beethoven cover as much emotional territory: it goes from the absolute depths of despair to utter euphoria.’
In 1819, Maurice Schlesinger represented his father’s music publishing firm to meet with Beethoven and consequently, his father purchased the three sonatas that are now known as the last three sonatas of Beethoven: Op 109, 110 and 111 for 90 ducats, even though Beethoven had asked for 120 ducats. Following the deal in May 1820, Beethoven committed himself to delivering the three piano sonatas in three months. However, it was his deteriorating health that broke his promise and Op. 110 was only ready to be published in early 1822. Whilst working on his final sonatas, Beethoven also worked on his Missa Solemnis and his Ninth Symphony.
This sonata was unusually published without a dedication, but there is evidence that Beethoven had intentions on dedicating his sonata to his close friend Antonie Brentano, who is the dedicatee of his monumental Diabelli Variations Op. 120. However, he didn’t manage to inform Schlesinger in time of his dedicatee and therefore the sonata was published without one.
The first movement, marked Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo and con amabilità, is reminiscent of the lyricism of the Romantic era. Written in the standard sonata form, Beethoven’s careful handling of the structure makes it almost impossible to make distinctions of the separate sections and the harmony only contributes to the fluency and continuity. Beethoven’s sense of humour is found in the second movement which is written in a scherzo and trio form where the harmony is as unpredictable as the contrasting dynamics and is filled with constant shocks and surprises. Following the descent at the end of the second movement, the complexity of structure is most seen in the third movement with its amalgamation of different elements. There have been several different analyses of the structure of the final movement, with the acclaimed pianist Alfred Brendel identifying six sections and Martin Cooper, a musicologist, describing the movement’s structure as a double movement. The movement starts with an introduction in the style of a recitative and has two slow arioso, which was rarely seen in instrumental music, and two faster fugues in alternation, with the second fugue being an inversion of the first. With the beginning of the first fugue now in the left hand, the coda builds up to a climax with both hands at each extreme of the keyboard, ending with a flourish of passion and triumph.
Gershwin arr. Wild 'Embraceable You'
7 Virtuoso Etudes after G. Gershwin, No. 4 ‘Embraceable You’ (1954)
Often described as one of the greatest transcriber of his time, the American pianist Earl Wild is well known for his transcriptions of jazz charts and virtuosic transcriptions for solo piano. He was also a highly-respected pianist and holds several accolades such as being the first pianist to have a recital performance on the U.S. television as well as being the first pianist to have a performance streamed through the Internet in 1997. On top of these, he remains the only pianist to have played for six American presidents consecutively. Wild was a musician in the US Navy during World War II and toured the United States with Eleanor Roosevelt where he would perform the national anthem before she made speeches supporting the war effort. Despite being held on a high pedestal in his home country, Wild’s name in the UK was relatively unknown, ‘where a classical pianist with a name like a 1950s rock star was viewed with suspicion.’
Wild was no stranger to Gershwin’s music and had arranged several of his works. In the 1950s, he transcribed some of his most famous transcriptions: Seven Virtuoso Etudes based on Gershwin’s popular songs: ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘Somebody Loves Me’, ‘Liza’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Oh, Lady be Good’, all of which he revised in 1976.
The original version of ‘Embraceable You’ was a collaboration between the two brothers Ira Gershwin, who wrote the lyrics, and George Gershwin, who wrote the tune. The beauty in Wild’s arrangement of ‘Embraceable You’ is particularly seen through the running arpeggiated figures surrounding the melody that was once sung by singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, whose recording was taken in by the Grammy Hall of Fame, 61 years after it was recorded.
Bach/Busoni Chaconne in D minor, BMV 1004
Referred to by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin as ‘the greatest structure for solo violin that exists,’ the final movement Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor has stood the test of time as the instrument’s most iconic and well known unaccompanied works. Therefore, the popularity amongst other composers and arrangers for their respective instruments is unsurprising. The Chaconne has been arranged for piano, piano left hand only, guitar, harpsichord, organ among others. However, it is important to bear in mind that during Bach’s time, the 19th century three-pedalled piano as we know it today hadn’t taken over the harpsichord and therefore any work of Bach’s played on the modern piano is technically defined as a transcription as he wrote for almost all performing instruments during his time, with the piano being an exception.
Many composers of the Romantic period such as Johannes Brahms and Ferruccio Busoni found inspiration from the music written before them, and drawed connections from earlier composers such as J.S. Bach. Brahms, who had arranged the Chaconne for piano left hand only, wrote In a letter to Clara Schumann, describing the music as ‘a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind. If one doesn’t have the greatest violinist around, then it is well the most beautiful pleasure to simply listen to its sound in one’s mind.’
Busoni was known as a virtuoso on the piano during his time and his Romanticised transcriptions for the instrument were highly acclaimed. Among his many other transcriptions are those of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, and Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung. Busoni dedicated his monumental transcription of Bach’s Chaconne to a fellow pianist Eugen d’Albert who never performed it due to finding the work excessive. Although Busoni remains mostly faithful to the original score by Bach, he incorporates elements of the Romantic era, adds a flair of Sturm und Drang and writes many specific tempo and dynamic markings which are not found in the original score. With the 19th century piano of his time, Busoni exploits the modern grand piano’s full range of techniques and sonic explorations. In several places, such as the major section, his ideas for an orchestral sound is clearly heard in the quasi tromboni variation. Through the alternations of calm and energetic, pp and ff, the final variation is a wild ride marked Piu vivo ending with a majestical version of the opening theme.
Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile
“What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence”
These are the words of a deeply tormented man suffering from his deafness which can be found in what would be known as The Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802.
The testament is a reflection of the deep pain Ludwig van Beethoven was experiencing mentally, physically and spiritually which sustained until the final period of his career where his music became much more introspective.
Beethoven’s final piano sonata is a medium of transcendence which transports the listener to a world beyond Earth, its exploration of a higher power and the spiritual world is most evident in the contrast of the unusual two-movement sonata. The first and second movements are the epitome of Earth and heaven, intense turmoil and spiritual serenity.
Written in Beethoven’s most significant key - C minor, the first movement is driven by an intense passion, although the tonic key isn’t firmly grounded until the Allegro. The grave introduction marked Maestoso starts with double-dotted octaves, preparing us for the turbulence in the Allegro. In 1821, when Beethoven was working on this sonata, he was suffering from rheumatism and jaundice alongside deafness which caused him to turn to his inner world and discover spiritual independence.
With the fate-like motif in his Fifth Symphony, the heroic three-note motif (C, Eb, B) can be found in every register from the lowest to the highest territory, depicting the vastness of the earth to a higher power. The first movement is filled with all human emotions from fist-shaking fury to an ethereal spirituality. Beethoven also explores a different structure by combining the sonata form with a fugue in the middle.
In his ultimate piano sonata, Beethoven writes the extremes of despair and the sublime. This enigma of a piece brings us away from Earth and a little closer to heaven.
Villanelle for Scriabin's Sonata Fantasy No. 2 Op. 19 ~ Bridget Yee
Years of tears rolling into night
Silent tides rising at the crack of light
Seashore in the South, waves running free
Years of tears rolling into night -
An oasis of peace and shadows unite
Haunting melodies buried at sea
Vast tides rising at the crack of light -
Sky blue, shimmering colours of moonlight
Caressing the darkness, limitless fantasy
Years of tears rolling into night -
Pulsing, swelling, surging with might
Restless depths soaring with every
Raging tide rising at the crack of light -
Twinkling stars shining fearlessly bright
Howling wind sculpting the sea to life, lonely
Years of tears rolling into night -
The clash of waves, a burst of starlight
Scattering flashes flood into a memory
Roaring tides rising at the crack of light
Years of tears rolling into night.