Four Duetti, BWV 802-805
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Surprisingly few of Bach’s compositions were published in his lifetime.  Noteworthy exceptions are the series known as Clavier-Übung, which means “keyboard exercises” or “keyboard training.”  Part I of the Clavier-Übung consists of the six keyboard Partitas, which appeared between 1726 and 1730.  Part II (1735) includes the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 and the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831. Part III (1739) is a substantial collection of organ music.  The so-called Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741) are generally considered Part IV to the series, although they were not specifically labeled as such when published.  Each component work in the Clavier-Übung is much more than a study piece.  All of them boast musical substance, extraordinary compositional technique, and great beauty.

When Bach used the terms Clavier (also spelled Klavier), he usually meant clavichord or harpsichord.  Part III, however, is frequently referred to as the German Organ Mass.  Its bookends are the mighty "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue, BWV 552.  Those two movements enclose twenty-one organ chorales (BWV 669-689) setting portions of the Lutheran Mass and Catechisms.  That makes 23 individual pieces.  The four Duetti complete Clavier-Übung III, rounding out the total to 27 pieces.

The numbers are significant.  Bach is known to have been fascinated by number symbolism, and the sacred emphasis in this collection is heavily Trinity-based, beginning with its publication as Volume III.  The “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue are in E-flat major, which has a key signature of three flats, and the fugue has three subjects.  The 21 chorale preludes constitute another multiple of three, and the four Duetti add up to that total of 27 pieces, yielding a ‘trinity’ of threes: 3 x 3 x 3.

Bach’s preoccupation with number symbolism has given rise to many hypotheses about the significance of the Duetti.  Music theorists have suggested that they represent the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), the four cardinal virtues recognized in classical antiquity (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage), the four major prophets of the Christian Old Testament (the Book of Isaiah, Book of Jeremiah, Book of Ezekiel, and Book of Daniel) or the four rivers of Eden (Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates).  The English musical scholar and organist David Humphreys has suggested that the Duetti represent the four teaching precepts in Martin Luther’s Lesser Catechism.

Independent of any extra-musical meaning, these Duetti are sui generis, unlike any other pieces that Bach composed.  One biographer flatly describes them as ‘weird.’  Their harmonic language is unusually chromatic and occasionally bitonal, since the second voice’s entrance comes in on the dominant [a fifth above the home key] rather than the tonic [the home key].

It is unclear whether Bach intended them for organ manualiter [without pedal] or another keyboard instrument.  In a letter dated 10 January 1739, his secretary Johann Elias Bach stated that Clavier-Übung III was a collection “chiefly for those who play organ,” and the Duetti’s relatively narrow range suggests that Bach wanted them to be played on virtually any organ.  They are playable on all keyboard instruments, including the modern piano.

The term duetto refers generically to a piece for two independent voices - or for a two-voiced piece on one instrument.  Bach’s two-part inventions are thus all duetti - but the four Duetti in Clavier-Übung III are the only time that he used the term.

As for the music, it is intellectually rigorous and often inscrutable.  Bach provides no tempo indications, leaving the performer a considerable amount of latitude as to pacing.   Key centers are carefully organized in ascending tonalities (E-F-G-A), with two each in minor and major modes.  Textures are imitative, embracing fugue, canon, inversion, and double counterpoint.

The E minor Duetto contrasts a scalar figure with syncopations complemented by slower-moving chromatic octaves.  No. 2 in F Major opens with a broken triad, seeming to unfold like a diatonic invention, but its chromatic middle section introduces quasi-Arabic harmonies.  The form is a da capo, with a full repeat of the first segment.

Duetto No. 3 is the most dance-like of the set:  a sprightly G Major romp in 12/8 meter. The A Minor Duetto begins in the lower voice: stern and enigmatic.  Again, Bach introduces new material midway through that adds tonal ambiguity. This is music for thoughtful meditation, engaging both mind and ear with the complete equality of the two voices.

Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-1791)

Performers and scholars concur that Mozart’s finest keyboard writing is in his piano concerti.  His solo keyboard sonatas are more workmanlike.  Most of them were conceived as teaching material for students with aptitude, but not necessarily prodigious gifts.

Not so the Sonata, K. 310.  It is unique among Mozart’s keyboard works: dramatic, technically demanding -- and  his sole multi-movement composition in A Minor.  Only one other piano sonata, the C Minor Sonata, K. 457, is in minor mode.  All the rest are in major keys.     

We do not know precisely when Mozart composed the A Minor Sonata, only that he wrote it in Paris, sometime between 23 March and 20 July, 1778.  Traveling with his mother, he had arrived in the French capital in late March in hope of securing a permanent position. In late June, Anna Maria Mozart contracted a fever.  She worsened rapidly, and died on 3 July.  The Sonata it is widely believed to be an expression of Mozart’s grief at his mother’s passing.

What makes K.310 exceptional is its intensity of expression.  Mozart’s emotional range outstrips anything in his earlier sonatas.  Nothing of the entertaining salon piece is present.  In the opening Allegro maestoso, relentless chords in the left hand hammer away beneath angry dotted rhythms in the right hand theme.  The second subject introduces elaborate passage work in both hands that is quite dazzling, approaching the virtuosity of concerto figuration.  

The slow movement is one of Mozart’s youthful masterpieces.  Though the Andante cantabile con espressione opens tranquilly with a poetic theme in F Major, the development section rapidly escalates to turmoil and agitation.  This is as tragic as Mozart gets, and the return to F Major in the recapitulation hardly eradicates the impact of the storm we have weathered.

He concludes the sonata with a restless Presto in galant style.  Uneasy and shadowy, this music leaves us a little breathless with its urgency.  Only a brief Musette in major mode relieves the tension.  The forward momentum is inexorable, and Mozart’s bleak mood persists to the closing measures.

Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, Opus 2 No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)  

‘Early Beethoven’ is a relative concept.  By the time he published his Opus 1 Piano Trios in 1795, he was twenty-five, well-established as a piano virtuoso in Vienna, and an experienced composer.  His previous compositions (most of which are catalogued as WoO, or Werke ohne Opuszahl, i.e. works without opus numbers) included piano trios, piano quartets, an early piano concerto, and fragments of a violin concerto, as well as several piano sonatas.  He wrote some of these pieces in Bonn; others are from the first years in Vienna.  The Opus 1 Trios were simply the first works he felt were substantial enough to merit publication.

Beethoven was primarily a pianist, and his early sonatas for solo piano have a self-assurance, sophistication, and technical polish not generally present in his ensemble works from the same period.  These are not pieces intended for teaching, as were most of Mozart’s solo keyboard sonatas.  Nor were they courtly pieces intended for private performance, like Haydn’s Esterházy sonatas.  Rather, they are like Haydn’s splendid late sonatas for Therese Jansen Bartolozzi:  public concert works with a grand layout.

The A major Sonata, Opus 2 No.2 is a case in point.  Like the other Opus 2 sonatas, it is cast in four movements.  (Haydn and Mozart limited themselves to three, and many of Haydn’s early sonatas are restricted to two movements.)  Beethoven’s expansion, incorporating a minuet/trio or scherzo/trio to the conventional three movements, immediately invites comparison to instrumental symphonies.

He delivers a different mood in each movement.  The initial Allegro begins with an exclamation point followed by a descending scale figure: a playful opening gesture that sets the tone for this flirtatious movement.  In fact, all his principal themes in this first movement are based on scale patterns, handled with impressive variety.  The second theme is bold and startling, beginning in E minor instead of the E major one would expect.  Scale fragments and sparkling leaps define the development of this fertile material.  Beethoven’s use of silence is particularly effective, adding moments of suspense that sometimes presage bold outbursts.  He keeps us on our toes.

Largo is a relatively rare tempo marking in Beethoven.  This one is a beauty, employing a walking bass ‘pizzicato’ left hand to establish dignity and grandeur.  Beethoven mesmerizes us with his control over the pace, allowing for a profondeur that would not occur in his string quartets or symphonies until later in his career.  This movement is the sonata’s emotional core.

Beethoven’s Minuet pushes the boundaries of that 18th-century dance.  It is a scherzo in all but name, with characteristic dynamic shifts.  Listen for contrary motion between the two hands in the A-minor trio section.  The imitative writing is simple and very clever.  The concluding Rondo is tender, graceful, and full of charm, almost Schubertian.  With the exception of one turbulent episode, it otherwise sustains the grazioso directive of its tempo marking, and ends quietly.     

Grande Sonate in G major, Opus 37
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

We do not often hear Tchaikovsky on piano recitals.  As dominant as his First Piano Concerto is in the symphonic concert hall, his music for solo piano is a rarity in the recital hall.  That is not the case in Russia, where his The Seasons, Op. 37b and concert fantasy Dumka, Op. 59, remain popular.  His Album for the Young, Op. 39 was modeled on Schumann’s eponymous collection, and are useful teaching pieces for less advanced pianists.

Most of Tchaikovsky’s piano music consists of salon pieces.  He was more at home writing for orchestra, and his most enduring compositions are substantial pieces for large ensemble:  the concertos and symphonies, the symphonic poems, the operas and ballets.  Traditional Germanic forms such as sonatas were less prevalent in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly among nationalist Russian composers.  Yet Tchaikovsky did write two substantial sonatas, in addition to an early student work that remained incomplete.

The German pianist and conductor Karl Klindworth (1830-1916) was the catalyst for Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate, Op. 37, completed in 1878.  Two years after founding the Moscow Conservatory in 1866, Nikolai Rubinstein invited Klindworth to join its piano faculty.  There Klindworth met and befriended Tchaikovsky.  Although Rubinstein played the first performance in Moscow on 2 November 1879, the Sonata bore a dedication to Klindworth when it was published.

Tchaikovsky began work on it in March, 1878.  He had taken refuge in Clarens, Switzerland during the fraught months following his impulsive, ill-advised marriage to Antonina Milyukova.  He finished it at Kamenka, his family’s estate near Kiev, later that year.  It is his most extended and ambitious work for solo piano and, by any standard, a behemoth.  In performance, depending upon whether the pianist observes repeats, it takes a solid half hour.  The scale is enormous: longer than Liszt’s B minor Sonata, approaching the dimensions of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

Many aspects of this sonata pay homage to Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century German predecessors, starting with the sonata-allegro form of the opening Moderato e risoluto.  Aggressive chords deliver the powerful opening theme, which feels like a march despite triple meter.  Tchaikovsky offers classic contrast in his tranquil second theme, but the dense textures and chunky chords dominate the development and anchor the movement’s structure.  Attentive listeners will catch a fleeting reference to the Dies irae chant in the brief coda.

The slow movement, in E minor, rocks gently in 9/8 meter.  A mournful theme unfolds from two pitches just a semitone apart.  Tchaikovsky’s imaginative harmonies illuminate this minimalist motive, mesmerizing the ear.  He alternates variations on the opening ‘theme’ with contrasting episodes.  The first is in dotted rhythm; the second, more extended one shows the composer at his melodic best.  The structure, texture, and differences in musical character, are reminiscent of Schumann, but the themes are pure Tchaikovsky, as is the quasi-orchestral buildup to the movement’s dramatic climax.

His Scherzo is arguably the Sonata’s most successful movement.  Cast in the unusual meter of 6/16, Tchaikovsky employs unexpected accents and brilliant passage work in this finger-buster.  The difficulties it presents are myriad, but one of the most challenging is maintaining delicacy amid the perpetual motion.

Listeners familiar with Tchaikovsky’s symphonies will immediately grasp the symphonic character of the Finale, which strains at the limitations of the keyboard to deliver the orchestral ideas.  In form, it is a fairly straightforward Rondo.  The technical demands include rapid repeated chords, octave passages, and fleet arpeggiation, often alternating with each other in dizzying succession.  Tchaikovsky’s conclusion is resolute, reminding us of the principal theme over an insistent pedal point.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017