“Romantic dreams of the counterpoint” with Beethoven, Franck, Busoni and Brahms this December


Announcing our next concert “Beethoven, Franck and romantic dreams of the counterpoint” …

What do we mean by this concert’s theme and why Beethoven and Franck (and Busoni and Brahms)?

Well, the counterpoint is a setting of different melodic lines against each other and Bach is considered a master of the counterpoint.

And foremost in Bach’s composition on the counterpoint is his 48 Preludes and Fugues which continue to be admired and to inspire later composers including a number of well-loved 18th and 19th century romantic piano pieces.

We would argue that one of the most beautiful dreams of the counterpoint comes from Beethoven, who had as a young boy already mastered Bach’s Preludes and Fugues long before they appeared in print and went on to frequently perform them in Vienna’s famous music salons.  That all 3 of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas incorporated contrapuntal elements is breathtaking (for Beethoven, the fugue became almost an obsession in the last decade of his life), and the much-loved piano sonata 30, op.109 is also one of the most songful.  In fact, the Aria in the sonata’s third movement is marked “songful but with most intimate feeling”; in his autograph score Beethoven labelled it Gesang (“song”), but Schlesinger’s edition changed this to Gesangvoll (“songful”), perhaps with Beethoven’s approval; either way, it is clear Beethoven wanted to draw attention to the lyrical, vocal style of the theme.  (There are many, many interpretations of this most beloved of piano sonatas, and we give you here Richter’s Leipzig 1963 version, and Kempff’s 1936 version).

There is another songful connection that has something to do with counterpoints also: Beethoven was writing his Missa Solemnis while he was writing the Op.109 sonata, in the year 1820.  There is significant evidence that Variation 5 in the third movement of op.109 is connected with the Credo of the Missa Solemnis; this latter is of course itself a piece “written largely in counterpoint … Beethoven wanted to show his mastery of this ancient art”, as described by conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas.   

And then there’s that Belgian-French César Franck who had his special brand of imagination: he took Bach’s Prelude and Fugue format and created two three-part, triptych pieces – quasi-sonatas – that are loved by keyboard players: the Prélude, Chorale & Fugue (M.21), a transcendental masterpiece written for the piano and better-known, keyed in B minor and moving to the warmth of the distant key of E flat major for the middle “movement’, the Chorale, and from the Prelude’s falling cascades of demisemiquavers to block chords moving on each crotchet below the melody which then moves to C minor for the actual, hymn-like chorale, and then the much earlier Prélude, Fugue & Variation (M.18), written for the harmonium and piano and with an arrangement for the organ (the piano transcription is by Harold Bauer) (here’s Xaver Varnus’ most beautiful rendition of the version for the organ, played on the Cavaillé-Coll organ in St-Sulpice in Paris).  Both these pieces reflect Franck’s re-imaginations of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue, with the addition of a third movement not only enlarging the range of possibilities but transforming, transcending and remaking the original form.  The Franckian “dreams of the counterpoint”, especially the better-known Prélude, Choral and Fugue, have rightly taken their place as masterpieces in the virtuosic keyboard player’s canon.

And then there’s that counterpoint romanticized on steroids, the spectacular transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the D minor Violin Partita by Busoni, the Chaconne itself being a variation form of sorts that wrings changes over an unchanging bass line rather than embellishing a tune and being an Everest of the solo violin repertory, lengthy, complex, virtuosic, and awe-inspiring, and Busoni the masterful pianist-and-transcriber fully respecting Bach’s original while taking full advantage of the modern piano’s manifold possibilities.  This piece has held forth in the pianist’s repertoire for more than a century, and is so famous that someone once called Busoni himself “Mrs. Busoni”, thinking that Bach was her maiden name (we give you 2 quite different versions, Hélène Grimaud’s and Tatiana Nikolaeva’s)!  

While we only include a short Brahms 4-hands piece in our concert (even if a very interesting piece, still very much counterpoint-filled and one of the last compositions of the composer, being number 8, “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” [A rose breaks into bloom] – here’s the piece played in an arrangement for horns – from the transcription of his eleven “Chorale Preludes”, Op.122, composed for the organ and directly referencing Bach), it is Brahms who made the other monumental piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne, for the left-hand: in a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms famously described the Chaconne thus:

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes 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.”

And so it’s romantic dreams of the counterpoint with songs and chorales in the music.  Of course, there are many transcriptions of Bach’s chorales, by the likes of not only Ferruccio Busoni, but Egon Petri, Myra Hess (here’s the grande dame herself playing her by-now famous transcription of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring), and even Liszt (here’s one of our favourite Bach-Liszt creations, the Prelude and Fugue on A minor).  But we see in the works presented in this concert that composers like Beethoven and Franck and even Brahms (and we would argue Chopin also, though we have not included his counterpoint-filled works in this concert) have also created their own imaginations and fantasies on Bachian counterpoints, and it is as if these composers brought to us their own, distinctive, romantic and awe-inspiring dreams of the counterpoint..

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