Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Andante Favori in F major WoO 57
The Andante Favori occupies a unique place in musical history. It is the only movement discarded from a major work because it was too good. It was intended as the central movement of the Waldstein Sonata which is contemporary with the Eroica and was every bit as revolutionary as the symphony.
It consists of a rondo in F major (the sonata outer movements are in C major). It has central passages in D flat and is quite substantial with a hauntingly beautiful theme.
However, although it fits in with the pattern of the first movement, it is too heavy for the finale which is one of Beethoven’s most dramatic. A year after its composition, in 1805, one of Beethoven’s friends suggested it should be replaced. The inevitable explosion resulted, but then Beethoven had second thoughts and substituted a short ‘Introduzione’ less than thirty bars long, leading without a break into the finale.
The problem is that the theme of the finale (G<G<E<D<lower G<C<E) is so overwhelming that it needs to emerge out of something directly opposite, seemingly unstructured and without a memorable theme. This was to be the pattern of Beethoven’s ‘Big’ themes; for example, the main theme in the finale to the Eroica, or the Shepherd’s Hymn at the end of the Pastoral, both of which emerge out of apparent chaos.
The theme will be well-known to many. Beethoven played it as an encore, as did Alfred Brendel at our club. Some of you will have attempted it on the piano. For the rest of you who are wondering why the piece is so familiar, it’s what Georgiana Darcy played to her brother and future sister-in-law in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60
Chopin only wrote one Barcarolle, in 1846. The Barcarolle was originally the song of a Venetian gondolier and it is tempting to sit listening to the wonderful music imagining gondolas gliding through the canals of Venice. As Chopin never wrote programme music, we can be quite sure that this is not what he intended.
Of course, most of you will know the work. It is in F Sharp major and is technically demanding because of the huge leaps in the left-hand part, which Chopin’s contemporaries would have found challenging. Chopin probably wrote it for his own performances at private concerts. And in the last three years of his life, many of those concerts would have been in England or Scotland.
Stephen Heller (1815-1888) Variations on a theme by Beethoven
Stephen Heller was born in Pest, Hungary. He was a friend of Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt and was much in demand as pianist and teacher. He composed a number of compositions for the piano, many of which were variations or fantasies on other composers’ themes.
Heller’s choice of theme is from the Andante of the Appassionata Sonata, which is itself in the form of variations. One can say that, in a way, he picks up where Beethoven left off, as Heller's first variation could be based on Beethoven's last. From that point onwards, however, Heller leads his piece in directions Beethoven never would. The first obvious difference is that unlike the latter's relatively short movement, here we have a large-scale work that wanders between keys and styles. For the most part, the general structure of the theme is maintained, but Heller takes freedom in terms of texture and harmony, sometimes alternating between major and minor keys within the same variation and ending some variations with a short coda.
In ways that can't be missed, Heller evokes themes, and even textures, from the other movements of 'Appassionata', from other works by Beethoven, including the famous 'Allegretto scherzando' movement of the 8th Symphony, as well as from Schumann and Chopin. He does so in an innovative, witty and masterful manner, while the original theme remains recognizable throughout the piece. The finale, which begins just like the introduction to Appassionata's finale, albeit in a different key, continues to combine its main theme with that of the Andante – with which we started off – in a way that feels almost miraculous.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major
Allegro moderato – Allegro – tempo di valzo lentissimo – Vivace
This is the first of three ‘War Sonatas’ composed and first performed in 1940 in Soviet Russia. Profofiev would get into trouble later with the Communist authorities for apparently not towing the party line.
It’s difficult to understand why this sonata didn’t attract similar (ludicrous) criticism for its avant-garde style. Perhaps the war meant that composers were free of criticism, although Shostakovitch had run into problems recently over his opera ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtensk’. Perhaps the sheer quality of the piano writing in the finale saved it.
The opening movement starts off effectively in two separate keys, played simultaneously, A major and A minor. The movement is not completely atonal but is often difficult to hear what the key signature is. To make the mood more mysterious, there is an underlying motif rocking between A and D sharp, an augmented fourth. The point being that an augmented is logically the most remote interval. Think of C and F sharp. C has no accidentals, F sharp (or call it G flat) has six. So that the octaves of the two keys have only two notes in common.
The second movement is a march with a more reflective central section.
The third is a slow waltz.
The last movement is a pianistic tour de force. It contains material from the opening movement and what, suspiciously, sounds to me like a quotation from the Finale of Shostakovich’s lesser-known piano concerto of 1933. I suspect the Shostakovitch was itself a quotation of an earlier Prokofiev work.