François Morel (1926): Étude de sonorité no.2
François Morel, composer, pianist, and conductor was born in Montreal in 1926. He studied composition with Claude Champagne at the conservatory. His rhythmic drive and constant search for a rich sound palette are reflected in his music, particularly in his Deux Études de sonorité. He was educated in the French tradition with analysis of form and structure of works by Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. His musical language then followed in the direction of Bartók, to finally embrace Varèse. The Étude de sonorité no.2 was written in 1954 in the classic A-B-A form using dazzling and varied sonorities to achieve an effective jazzy work which has become a benchmark for all Québécois pianists.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): French Suite no. 2 BWV 813
The Cothen years (1717-1723) were special for Bach. He was the highest paid and most respected member of the Court of Prince Leopold but he had no access to his most beloved instrument, the organ. It is not an accident therefore that during these years, almost exclusively, he wrote secular compositions for the orchestra and solo instruments such as the harpsichord violin and cello. The well known and popular French suites were composed at the end of this Cothen period and were revised many times later. They were dedicated to his second wife Anna Magdalena and their structure and content reveals that Anna Magdalena had to be an accomplished player.
These suites are multi-movement keyboard works (their lack of specific designation makes mute the argument weather they should be performed on the harpsichord, clavichord or piano) and are based on the dance forms of their time. Although they vary in sequence and content, most of them – like he Suite no.2 – contain an Allemande (German-like, usually in two part, with dense texture) a Courante (usually of lighter character) a Sarabande (vocal-like melodies of longer breath) one Menuet (elegant, lighthearted dance) and a closing Gigue. The French Suite no. 2 has an Air, a delightful, short, charming little ditty inserted between the Sarabande and the first Menuet.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): L’isle Joyeuse
“I believe,” wrote Debussy “that music has until now rested on false principles. We search for ideas in ourselves when we ought to search for them in the world around us. We combine, construct and imagine themes which attempt to convey ideas; we develop them or modify them when they collide with other themes representing other ideas. In this manner we create a metaphysic, we do not create music. We do not listen to the thousands of natural sounds which surround us; we are not sufficiently on the look-out for the varied music which nature so abundantly offers. Nature envelops us, yet we live in her midst without perceiving her… It is more useful for a composer to watch a sunrise than for him to hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.” There you have it – the whole aesthetic manifesto of Debussy. No doubt the environmentalists of today love it and no doubt the abstract-serialists hate it.
Keeping faith with his manifesto, Watteau's painting, The Embarkation for Cythera was the direct artistic inspiration for this most irrepressibly scintillating piano composition of Debussy. The Island of Joy was composed in August 1904 at Dieppe, on the Atlantic Seashore and premiered the following year by Ricardo Vines. Debussy recognized the difficulties he might be causing to the performers. He wrote to his publisher, Durand, as early as September 1904: "Mon Dieu! How difficult it is to perform... [it] seems to combine all various possibilities with which to attack a piano, since it unites force and grace." This quasi sonata form work starts with a cadenza-like passage, which returns at salient points, for example between the first and second subjects. Sets of developments follow and then a recapitulation, including the cadenza material before a brilliant and exciting coda leaves us dreaming about our own islands of joy.
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Schumann’s piano compositions, generally eschewing large-scale, monolithic structures with vast harmonic expanses, take their shape from the several smaller forms within their boundaries. Fantasiestücke is a collection of eight pieces taken from a number of stories and sketches written by E.T.A. Hoffmann. One of nineteenth-century Germany’s most prolific journalists and traveled bon vivants, Hoffmann took his inspiration from a series of prints by the French engraver Jacques Callot, whose extraordinary skill and concentration of figurative details within a small space were well known. Though Schumann probably never saw these, the stories Hoffman drew from them suited Schumann’s endless imagination perfectly.
Unlike his other large works – most of them collections of widely divergent miniatures - such as the Carnaval and the Kreisleriana, which revolve around a story or characters, Fantasiestücke’s “content” is not driven by a narrative plan. The unity of imagination and expressiveness, like that of Callot’s pictures and Hoffmann’s stories, bind these miniatures together. Originally published in 1837, none of the eight pieces are alike in shape, style or mood, yet together they form a remarkably homogeneous whole. Conversely, each piece can be performed alone, which explains in part their continued popularity in the repertoire. How can one resist the introspection of “Des Abends” (In the Evening), the impulsive energy of “Aufschwung” (Soaring) the bashful charm of “Warum?” (Why?) the rhapsodic mood of the “Grillen” (Whims) the breathless passion of “In der Nacht (In the Night), the obscurity of “Fabel” (Fable) or the fleeting mystery of “Traumes Wirren,” (Dream Visions) And the closing “Ende vom Lied” (End of Song) is a confession from Schumann the poet; I gave you my soul, I loved writing these miniatures, I hope you will love them, too!
Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Hungarian Rhapsody No.13
Before another word is said, let’s get one thing absolutely clear - Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are not Hungarian. Their musical content has nothing to do with Hungarian music - it is gypsy music. As such, its closest relative is the flamenco of Spain. Liszt, who vehemently proclaimed that he was Hungarian (although he never lived in Hungary or have learned the Hungarian language) visited Hungary often and heard various gypsy bands perform. In the Hungarian “society” of that time, the real music of Hungary was totally unknown although it lived in the countryside in the tradition of the “folk”, waiting for the epochal discovery by Bartók and Kodaly. Gypsy bands, consisting of violin, viola, double bass and a cimbalom – a harp-like instrument, placed before the player like a table, on which he played with two felt-tipped sticks, one in each hand – roamed the country-side and provided the music for entertainment and dancing. Liszt was captivated with the virtuosity of these gypsies, their special sound ignited his fertile imagination and he recreated their free-flowing music in his “Hungarian” Rhapsodies.
The 13th of the eighteen Rhapsodies starts with an elegant, stylized dance, giving ample opportunity to the pianist to exhibit technique and imagination. The rhythm is fluid, and the melodic fragments are connected with fantastic, improvisatory virtuoso runs, imitating the violin and the cimbalom. The Rhapsody closes with two fast, foot-stomping “czardas” (two quick steps to the right, two quick steps to the left) - the first for featherweight fingers, the second an ever faster forte-fortissimo.