Archives for category: Late Masterpieces

Late Masterpieces
The unearthly sound of the opening fugue from Beethoven’s C# minor quartet is partly due to the key (not a resonant one for strings), partly due to the chromatic element in the theme (leading to predominantly dissonant harmony), and partly due to the rhythmic interplay of the four voices, which, after the strict fugal exposition of the first 16 bars, seem most intent on getting into step with each other and staying there. For this is a very free fugue (just as many of Bach’s fugues are free), where the full length subject returns only rarely throughout the movement, letting the intervening episodes carry the main argument. As soon as bar 20, the theme appears to want to return, with the first violin starting to introduce it in the high register three times – but each time only reaching the first three notes. That leads to the first real moment of calm, a strikingly homophonic passage beginning at the end of bar 27 and continuing on for a further six bars of crotchet movement with coordinated phrases. At bar 35 the cello does manage to play a version of the theme, but it’s not answered adequately in the other voices, other than in small fragments.

We head into a crescendo and a change of key (at letter B, bar 54), and here the full subject does appear, though only in diminished form. The rhythmic motion speeds up into quavers at the same point, but the voices once again forgo the chance of flowing rhythmic counterpoint and get back in step with each other for a further nine bars. Again the first violin makes a strong attempt to voice the subject, but this soon drops back into an eerie, canonical passage for the two violins alone, followed by an answering duo from the viola and cello. Another crescendo finally leads to the full theme’s return at bar 92, this time through multiple stretto entries, including a spacious augmented (half speed) version in the cello. This proves to be the climax of the movement, and from here the momentum collapses as the home key returns in stark octaves – before the music shifts up a semitone to move straight into the second, mellower movement, the D major tonality (a much more sympathetic key for strings) like a shaft of sunlight.

Beethoven’s model for this fugue was clearly Bach – there are thematic echoes with the C# minor fugue in the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier as well as with the second Kyrie from the Mass in B Minor. But there’s also some evidence that Beethoven had recently studied some early Renaissance works by Josquin, and the homophonic style may have been partly influenced by that. However, a listener unfamiliar with the piece would be more likely to guess that it was written more recently – Bartok and Shostakovich are sometimes not many steps away from this music.


Late Masterpieces
“Berceuse” is French for “lullaby” or “cradle song”, and like the other famous example, Faure’s 1864 Berceuse from the Dolly Suite (in the UK forever famous as the theme tune for the BBC children’s radio programme Listen with Mother),

Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major is characterized by a rocking motion between two chords (the tonic and dominant seventh), used throughout as a harmonic base. But on top of this basso ostinato Chopin weaves a set of 14 variations of melody and accompaniment, starting with the simplest theme and building up to a peak of complexity and speed in the ninth variation, before subsiding again for the return to simplicity at the end – a return to the innocence of sleep following unrest? Its musical fascination lies in the contrast between the unvarying structure in the left hand and the freedom of the right. This is unmistakably late Chopin, and can be grouped alongside the nine or so other works composed between 1843 and 1847 (the number marking a significant decline in his output compared to earlier years), showing an interest in new forms and increased emotional depth. These works include the third and final piano sonata in B minor, the Barcarolle in F sharp major and the two late Nocturnes, numbers 17 and 18. Although still only in his mid-30s when he composed the Berceuse, Chopin’s health was already failing – as was his relationship with George Sand – and he had only four more years to live.

According to Robert Macfarlane (in The Old Ways), in the winter of 1917 the poet Edward Thomas played this piece over and over again in various billets, mostly large and echoing empty houses just behind the front line at Arras, on a gramophone one of the officers had brought with him. Thomas was only out in France for ten weeks before he was killed at the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917.

    Late Masterpieces
    Writing this blog forces me to listen again to pieces that I know well to try and work out why I like them. I’ve known Brahms’ late piano miniatures (three sets, Op. 117, 118 and 119) for years, but never taken a very close look. The dance-like Intermezzo in C major, number three from the Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119, is a particular favourite. Just by listening it’s clear that the Intermezzo makes clever use of rhythmic ambiguity, and also that it’s very concentrated thematically. The theme in question is just four notes long and it’s stated (characteristically using a middle voice) right at the beginning in quavers – E, up to G, up to A and back down to G again – that’s it. Brahms uses variation and augmentation on the theme, but also uses a battery of rhythmical tricks to change its emphasis and build up tension. For instance: the theme constantly starts at different points in the bar (see the first 15 notes); there’s a constant interplay between 6/8 time and 3/4 time; the accents fall in unexpected places; and Brahms adds dissonant harmonies at the points where resolutions might have been expected. There’s also something of a battle between the home “natural” key of C major and A major (reached via A minor, the relative minor of C). A major is used for the middle section, which nevertheless remains focused on the same motif, just in a different key. Both the rhythmic (6/8 versus 3/4) and harmonic (C versus A major) conflicts are resolved in the coda. Brahms wrote the Op 119 pieces in 1893 on his summer holidays in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl. He was aged 60, had only four more years to live, and only the two Clarinet Sonatas (Op 120), some folk song arrangements, the Four Serious Songs (Op 121) and the Chorale Preludes (Op 122) left to compose.


Late Masterpieces
The music of “Les Six” member Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer born in France, is surprisingly little known, perhaps because it ranges in style from highly serious works like the symphonies, oratorios and operas, through to relatively light, sometimes jazz-tinged pieces. The descriptive symphonic movements, Pacific 231 and Rugby, offer something of a middle ground. But the two pieces I enjoy most are on the lighter side. I’ll return in a future post to the quirky Cello Concerto of 1929. Two decades later came the beautifully scored Concerto da camera, a three movement concerto for string orchestra and two solo instruments – flute and cor anglais – with the flute taking the most virtuosic material, though not dominating.

For sheer beauty of sound it’s difficult to beat, and that’s achieved without compromising the adventurous tonality employed, which is frequently dissonant and polytonal. There’s no hint of jazz here, instead folk melodies pervade the intertwining lines of the two solo instruments that ride above the rich string harmonies, particularly in the first movement. The contemplative second movement has been interpreted as a “prayer of thanks” for Honegger’s recent survival from a serious heart problems – he eventually died from a heart attack seven years later. The scherzo like Vivace provides a sparkling ending.

Late Masterpieces
Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921) was first introduced to the piano at the age of two (when it was discovered that he had perfect pitch), and wrote his first symphony at the age of 16. And he was still composing right at the end of his life, aged 85. Among his very last works are three sonatas for wind instruments: the Oboe Sonata (Op 166), Clarinet Sonata (Op 167) and Bassoon Sonata (Op 168). “I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments,” he wrote. His intention was to write a larger set, but sonatas for flute and cor anglais weren’t completed before his death in Algiers at the very end of 1921. Saint Saens had been a firebrand in his day and a champion of Liszt and Wagner, but in his old age he became a conservative, unable to comprehend the music of Debussy or Stravinsky, for instance.  The sonatas ignore contemporary trends and look back to classical models, while they also conform to the French style of transparency and coolness. The Oboe Sonata is particularly melodic, with a graceful Andantino to start, a lilting 9/8 dance for the middle movement, framed by meditative slow sections, and a lively gigue for the finale, showing that the old man still had some energy left. All three sonatas have retained their place in the repertoire.


Late Masterpieces
I’ll be returning in the future to Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an English composer best known today as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. But here’s a starting point. Enter Spring is a dynamic orchestral tone poem lasting just under 20 minutes, which apparently bowled Britten over when he heard the first performance in Norwich, 1927 (he was just 13 at the time).  Enter Spring travels through a wide range of tempos and moods, breaking out to a series of stunning climaxes as spring wakens vigorously after the long sleep of winter. The rhythmic vitality coupled with an underlying seriousness reminds me of late Rachmaninoff, especially the Symphonic Dances. Apparently it was partly inspired by the countryside and chalk cliffs around Beachy Head, specifically Friston in Sussex, where Bridge had a house. I remember going on something of a pilgrimage there years ago. The working title of the piece was On Friston Down. Enter Spring is one of a series of pretty amazing, full-scale late orchestral works that also includes Oration (a cello concerto in all but name) and Phantasm (essentially a piano concerto).