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Free or pay what you can
Free or pay what you can
"Variation" and "Fantasy" provide a theme for a journey through keyboard music from the Italian Renaissance to the Harlem Renaissance. Join pianist David Korevaar for an evening of music by Frescobaldi, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Clara and Robert Schumann and Margaret Bonds.
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Girolamo Frescobaldi: Partite sopra l'Aria della Romanesca; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Rondo in G Major, Wq 59#2; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K. 511; Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes; Clara Schumann: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; Margaret Bonds: "Spiritual Suite"
Featuring David Korevaar, piano
Last fall, I found myself falling in love all over again with Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, Op. 13, a work I haven’t performed since I was in my twenties. Looking at this wild and wonderful masterpiece, I found myself considering the threads that went forward and back through the history of keyboard music linking the ideas of variation, fantasy, improvisation and virtuosity. The result is a program of works that all exploit the principle of variation, although only one piece, Clara Schumann’s undervalued set of variations on a theme by Robert, bears that title.
As I thought about this program, I also saw an opportunity to expand my repertoire and to consider music that I thought was underperformed—works that we read about but don’t actually play; works by women, works by composers of color. The Mozart and the C.P.E. Bach Rondos from the 1780s have been fascinating me for years; Frescobaldi’s bassline generated Partite, composed in the first decades of the 17th century, are works that I always talk about when teaching keyboard literature, but have never played. The Romanesca set on this program is quintessential Frescobaldi—as he suggests, like a series of little madrigals, where every phrase can paint a completely different emotional picture. Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite from the 1960s is a work I only discovered this fall as I was exploring music by Black composers. I’d enjoyed playing a few of her songs in the past, so I was thrilled to find this wonderful suite of pieces based on well-known tunes from the African-American tradition.
Mozart’s autograph manuscript for the A minor Rondo is dated March 11, 1787; the work was published the same year by Hoffmeister in Vienna. In a period when Mozart was going from operatic success to operatic success (Figaro was premiered in 1786, Don Giovanni in 1787), this rondo stands out for its intimacy and miniature scale, and for the melancholy that pervades its primary material. While there is a clear large-scale A-B-A-C-A structure, with both the refrain and episodes presented as nearly self-contained set-pieces, every phrase of the work appears to spring from the opening figure, with its distinctive turn and siciliano rhythm. Elements of improvisation and constant embellishment pervade the piece. Mozart’s manuscript is remarkable for its details of articulation and dynamics, and for the evident care that has gone into his written-out embellishments. In so carefully setting down a work that might have initially sprung from an impulse to improvise, Mozart leaves the modern performer little room to expand on what he has written.
Frescobaldi was celebrated in his own time as one of the most important keyboard players in Italy, known for his virtuosity and invention on both harpsichord and organ. He secured his legacy as a composer through a remarkable series of publications over four decades. The fourteen “Partite” on the Romanesca first appeared in the 1616 edition of the first book of Toccatas, and are representative of his particular style of quasi-improvised variation. The Romanesca is one of the standard basslines of the time—essentially a template for improvisation, with the bassline implying harmonies, but with no fixed melody associated with it. (As a point of reference, the refrain of Greensleeves uses this bass.) To complicate matters for the modern performer, Frescobaldi follows the practice of his era in notating the Romanesca in duple meter, in spite of the fact that it is actually in triple meter. Thus, the bar lines do not correspond to the actual meter of the music. And, in many of these partite, the bassline is so attenuated that the sense of the larger pulse is challenging to project. To modern ears, the music seems to move from B-flat major to G minor, creating a progression of emotion that Frescobaldi takes full advantage of. Taking his cue from the Italian madrigal composers, he engages in a kind of wordless word-painting, where the musical material is extraordinarily subjective, responding to the states of mind that emerge from the succession of harmonies. It has been a wonderful adventure to prepare this piece and to explore how it interacts with a modern piano—and how its idiosyncratic combination of fantastic improvisation and rigid structure can be understood four centuries after its composition.
Composed only two years before the Mozart Rondo that opened the program, C.P.E. Bach’s G major Rondo appears as part of the fifth collection of keyboard works he published at the end of his life für Kenner und Liebhaber (“for connoisseurs and amateurs”). This is intimate music—music that a player can read and savor on their own, or that can be shared in a private setting. The choices of texture would be as well suited to a clavichord as to a fortepiano (the myriad dynamic markings seem to eliminate the harpsichord as an option). Beethoven was a great admirer of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard music, and I suspect that Beethoven’s affection for extreme dynamic contrasts and for the oddly dispersed textures found in his last piano works was in part a result of the spell cast by pieces like this rondo. While there is a traditional(ish) rondo structure here, the piece unfolds in time more like a constant, quirky, improvisation on the music presented in the first four measures, which seems to keep repeating in different versions, with changes of register, articulation, dynamic and embellishment keeping the listener constantly surprised. The form feels like a series of nested boxes, analyzable on multiple levels depending on the field of view. While the musical aesthetic seems to be all about smelling and admiring every flower, the entirety of the meadow also demands our attention.
Margaret Bonds grew up in Chicago, surrounded by music in her home (her mother was a pianist, organist, and teacher) and in college at Northwestern University. She was a protégé of Florence Price, and premiered her mentor’s piano concerto in 1934, a year after being the first Black soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony (playing John Alden Carpenter’s Concertino). In 1939, she moved to New York, where she became a regular collaborator with Langston Hughes. She composed, performed and also started a concert series to promote the work of Black composers and artists. In the late 1960s, she moved to Los Angeles to continue her work building community and promoting the arts. The complete Spiritual Suite was only published posthumously in 2020, thanks to the efforts of Louise Toppin. The third movement had been published in 1967, and then included in a 1990 anthology of Black Women Composers compiled by the pianist and scholar Helen Walker-Hill (DMA, University of Colorado Boulder, 1981). The Spiritual Suite speaks for itself—the spirit of improvisation is ever-present in these variations, which joyfully and ecstatically bring together elements of the music that surrounded Margaret Bonds throughout her life.
In 1853, Clara Wieck Schumann composed her Op. 20 Variations on the first of Schumann’s Albumblätter. This was the same year that the 20 year old Brahms arrived on the Schumanns’ doorstep. In 1854, Robert Schumann attempted suicide and then committed himself to the mental hospital at Endenich where he was to spend the last two years of his life. Also in 1854, Brahms composed his own set of variations on the same theme by Robert, presenting it to Clara shortly after the birth of her son Felix. Clara’s set was already planned for publication with Breitkopf und Härtel; she interceded with the publisher to have Brahms’s set published simultaneously. Both pieces are clearly love letters—Clara’s to Robert, Brahms’s to both Robert and Clara.
When the publication was issued, Brahms brought both sets of variations to Robert at Endenich. Robert’s doctor had forbidden visits from Clara, which seems a heartbreakingly cruel position; Brahms was Robert’s primary connection to the world. Both sets incorporate a theme by Clara that Robert had used as the basis for his Improvisations on a theme by Clara Wieck, Op. 5 (1833). Clara’s set also includes what I believe is a reference to her theme that Robert used as the basis for the variations movement in his F minor Sonata, Op. 14 (1835). Posterity has given Brahms’s set prominence (and, for me as for many pianists, Brahms’s set was the way I became aware of Clara’s), yet it is clear that Clara’s set is in many respects the springboard for Brahms’s (and not only in the matter of publication). For me, this work is a belated discovery: it is a work of great beauty and profundity as well as consummate pianism, with a distinct voice that speaks eloquently of the melancholy, agitation, and resignation of that moment.
Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes have a complicated history—too much for now. The version I perform is that of the first edition, published in 1837, consisting of a Theme (composed by Baron von Fricken, the guardian of Schumann’s one-time fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, of whom Clara was very jealous indeed) and 12 Etudes. The gestation of the piece was tied up in Schumann’s relationship with Ernestine; the years between conception (1834) and publication included Schumann’s decisive breaking off of that relationship in 1835. A number of the Etudes were composed after that, and some of the Etudes composed before 1835 were eliminated in the 1837 version. The relationships between the Theme and the Etudes vary considerably—some are straightforward variations (Etude 2, for example, where the theme is presented complete in the bass), but most are in the realm of fantasy-variation, where some element of the theme is worked with, and neither the complete melody nor structure of the theme are necessarily present. The final Etude is an extended and brilliant work in A-B-A-B’-A-coda form, with a triumphant version of the opening theme showing up in the peroration of the B material.
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