Sunday, September 09, 2018

Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor, and there is controversy over the ending (and the beginning -- is it atonal?)

The Sonata for Piano in B Minor, completed in 1853 when composer Franz Liszt was 41, sometimes strikes us as the very beginning of postromantic expressionism. Is this work where the world of Arnold Schoenberg got started? 

I bring an embedded video of a performance by Krystian Zimmerman.

The work, as a sonata, is revolutionary; yet is was somewhat inspired by the Schumann C Major Fantasy, which in turn is a kind of “Beethoven Sonata #33” (not exactly "33 Variations").  It has an internally recursive form of a “sonata within a sonata”.  Running thirty minutes, the first section corresponds roughly to an Exposition.  After considerable reluctance, it migrates to a slow movement, “Andante Sostenuto” in ¾ time, often referring back to some descending motives in the exposition that never go away.  There follows a fughetta based on the opening motives serving as a scherzo, and then “Recapitulation” comes back, and finally a coda based on slow movement material (in the most accepted version). The piece is said to be an example of “double-function” sonata form.

Now it’s important to note the many components of the Exposition. The work begins on two repeated notes G, and a descending figure that sounds atonal, almost like a Schoenberg tone row to generate an entire work.  But the logic of the chromaticism takes us to B Minor, with several figurines forming the thematic material, finally leading to the famous chordal “Grandioso” theme in the relative D Major (with many interesting modulations built into the theme harmony).  This may be the most heroic (and most “masculine”) theme of all of piano literature. Teenage male pianists love to bang it out to show their own machismo.  Yet, in the usual rhetoric of hymnology, the normal cadence structure of the theme is never completed.  It migrates to other lyrical ideas in the Exposition, which probably could be viewed as “development”.

At the end of the work, if comes back one last time, in B Major, and works to a final climax in F#.  But it never completes itself.  Instead the accepted version of the music offers a coda starting with the slow movement material, as the protagonist of the music slowly withdraws from engaging his own self-chosen battles in his life.  The work ends quietly with bell-like B-Major chords.  There is one last low B, “ppp”. 

This is not so much the idea of a soft ending letting the listener contemplate her experience.  It is simply that the work of the music is done and wants to quit when it is ahead and exit honorably.
Yet Liszt actually wrote an alternate loud ending, where the Grandioso completes itself unconvincingly.  Here are three videos, the second showing where it fits the Grandioso, the third showing Liszt’s original handwriting crossed out.  (Composers in those days did not provide neat manuscripts to submit to contests like I had to.)

I could imagine a revision, letting the accepted soft coda almost finish, to the final bell-like chords, and then suddenly exploding by inverting the descending note and making it rise up for a 15-second flourish.

As I know from looking at completions of the Bruckner Ninth, if you want to solve the problem of the ideal coda of a complex sonata-like work, compose one yourself.  Then you can throw all the music of western civilization into the last two minutes of your final peroration (like Shostakovich does by quoting Bruckner at the end of his Leningrad Symphony – however politically incorrect to do so in a Communist regime).   
I wanted to mention here also the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat, Op. 61, a piece with weird effects, which winds down and withdraws toward the end, until there is one last loud A-flat chord.

Update: Sept. 13

Along the lines of writing your own solution to the B-Minor Sonata dilemma, it strikes me that this is what Eugen D'Albert did with his first piano concerto. The first section is an exposition and development.  The sweet second theme corresponds to the "grandioso" but D'Albert saves the heroics for later. I'm pretty sure that theme became a popular song in the 40s and got used by Hollywood (which loves to loot rarely performed works for themes). The "slow movement" even quotes Beethoven's Funeral March Sonata at one point, and the "finale" is a recapitulation of the opening material, even quoting Brahms's Piano Concerto #1 at one point. The "finale" ends quietly (as does the Liszt) but then D'Albert adds a gigantic coda with a fugue for solo piano on one of the opening themes, making it practically atonal; then a "scherzando" (Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2 sneak preview) leading to a gigantic conclusion on the second theme, which turns into a Liszt-style "grandioso", and then a mad-dash Prestissimo final crash. D'Albert could wait to show his virility until the end, which means he must have been some charismatic teen, composing this at age 19. 

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