composed by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931)
Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, written in 1962, applies 20th century sounds to a compositional form over three hundred years old. Chaconnes are generally continuous variations on a repeated harmonic pattern, allowing composers to explore many possibilities from a short germ of musical material. Gubaidulina uses the first eighth measures of the piece to create passionate, lyrical lines, an off-kilter tarantella, a fugato, and a climax featuring left-hand octaves that recall climaxes of Baroque organ fugues.
Gubaidulina, now 91 and living and writing in Hamburg, Germany, has said “Actually, all my works are religious. As I understand it, I’ve never written non-religious pieces… I feel a great desire to realize my religious needs within art.” The Chaconne was written when Gubaidulina was 31 for Marina Mdivani, a fellow student of Gubaidulina at the Moscow Conservatory who “played forceful chords and had a vivacious temperament.” I enjoy this blend of spirituality and virtuosity because it creates a work that is both translucent and powerful. Further information about this piece can be found in Kadisha Onalbayeva-Coleman’s 2010 dissertation entitled “Sofia Gubaidulina: Chaconne for solo piano in the context of her life and work.”
Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Saint Anthony Variations), Op. 56b (1873)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Noah Stone, piano 1
Sage Fogle, piano 2
There are two sets of variations by Johannes Brahms on this program, each based on a theme written over a hundred years before the composer’s birth. Brahms, who from his compositional debut was hailed as the successor to Beethoven, was well aware of the music that came before him. In his studies of older music, he came across a theme labeled “Chorale St. Anthony” attributed to Joseph Haydn, and based these variations on that piece. As many composers in the classical era would connect their work to that of more famous composers by signing a fake name to the piece, more modern scholars have concluded that the theme was likely misattributed. However, Brahms’ interest in the theme led him to compose not only this set of variations for two pianos, but a nearly identical set for orchestra.
Brahms clearly saw many emotions reflected in this theme. Some variations crackle with energy, some have spacious and soaring musical lines, and some are plaintive and yearning. The finale is based on the bass line of the theme, grounding the last variation through many textural changes before finally exploding into a triumphant return of the original theme. The musical material of the original theme becomes a springboard for Brahms to show off his compositional prowess and how he can use this immense technical ability to create an emotional engaging piece of music.
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Here, Brahms once again works with a theme written over a hundred years before his birth. A 28-year-old Brahms turns this old material into a kaleidoscopic mirror, reflecting the many facets of his personality in the twenty-five variations and powerful fugue. George Handel, the composer of the theme, also saw its potential for variation. In 1733, he published it with five of his own variations. Brahms, aware of this, begins his variations by immediately adding syncopated accents and staccatos that proclaim this as his own reflection on Handel’s theme. This does not mean that he fully ignores the source of the theme throughout – in fact, Brahms uses several musical forms Handel would be familiar with, including the canon (variation 6), siciliana (variation 19), musette (variation 22), and of course the concluding fugue.
These variations became one of Brahms’ favorite works. Written for and dedicated to Brahms’ “beloved friend”, Clara Schumann, as a birthday present, they represent a young man using his love for the past and his own compositional talent to express a variety of emotions. Youthful exuberance and virtuosity work side by side with an appreciation for musical expression in this work, making each variation a new treat for listeners and performers.
Thème varié, Op.89
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
“As I got to know Mlle. Chaminade better better I found her to be one of the loveliest characters I have ever met. She is frank in her manner and thoroughly in earnest with her work. She has no bitter words for anybody … The French people idolize her, and her songs are the most popular in French salons to-day. In England and in America it would be difficult to pick up a program of a song recital without finding something of Chaminade on it.” – Ward Stephens, Etude Magazine, 1899
Born in Paris in 1857, Cécile Chaminade studied piano, violin, and composition and eventually embarked on a successful performing career in France, England, and the United States. Her shorter pieces for piano became immensely popular in the first decade of the 19th century, inspiring hundreds of “Chaminade Clubs” throughout England and the United States, some of which still exist today! Her other compositions include a piano trio, concertstück for piano and orchestra, and a ballet and opera. By the 1920s, however, a combination of sexist critiques and the shifting tastes of the classical establishment all but removed Chaminade’s pieces from piano repertoire for decades. One of the things I enjoy most in her Thème varié, Op.89, is her textural variation. Although the majority of the piece is full of lightness and grace, moments of grandeur and dramatism make the delicacy of the theme feel like a beautiful release of breath. I hope you enjoy!