This is such a charming piece. It’s quirky and fun and just a joy to hear. The introduction is slow and lyrical, and links directly with the rondo itself, reminding me of the attacca link between slow and fast movements in Beethoven sonatas (and string quartets.) The opening melodic gesture of the Andante is a descending tonic triad (E major), linking the introduction and Rondo thematically. This singing line is embellished, and soon builds into sixteenth-note sequences, leading ultimately to fortissimo descending octaves. The original theme attempts a return, but is thwarted by the bass, suddenly turned minor, and trails off. A dominant arpeggio warily climbs the keyboard, and after wavering for a thought on the leading tone, plunges into the Rondo proper.
The main rondo theme is in e minor, in 6/8, built imitatively (right-left-right). The main motive – a pickup of two sixteenths followed by two eighths – becomes the building block for the rest of the piece. The LH’s supportive pattern is frequently eighth notes, but phrased such that the pickup eighth, downbeat eighth, and subsequent staccato eighth are unmistakably derived from the opening four-note motive. The form is a fairly straightforward rondo: ABACADcoda, with D being a combination of both B and C. The B section itself is fairly short, based largely on the original thematic rhythms and slipping into the fairly unadventurous key of G major. The C section, a rather extended episode, introduces the first lyrically melodic material since the introduction. First in the right hand with repeated chords in the left, then in the left with undulating arpeggios in the right, it eventually dissolves into a flurry of arpeggios and octaves. Another melody makes an attempt over top the original motive, but is thwarted. The Rondo section returns. It sounds as if it’s going to be the B section again, but now it’s in E major. And instead of the Rondo theme returning, it transitions directly into the lyrical theme – this time in E major also (instead of G). (The key scheme is remarkably like sonata form.) Again, it dissolves into a much extended cadence of arpeggios, and the main Rondo theme returns once more, in E minor, to close out the piece in a virtuosic coda full of octaves and V-i. It ends in e minor.
This is a rather Classical set of variations – a theme provides the basis for the entire piece, and is gradually built upon, staying in the same key almost the entire time. The main theme is a mourning, chorale-like song in d-minor, containing an abundance of sighs, semitones, and sadness. The first variation maintains the melody and harmonic structure, and adds a winding sixteenth-note line through the middle of the texture (in the tenor), full of chromaticism. The bass is now punctuated octaves, generally following the original line, but now more pronounced. The second variation maintains the melodic and harmonic structure, but fills in the sustained notes with sextuplets. The alto and tenor have them together while the soprano sustains, and the soprano uses them to fill in before large leaps while the alto and tenor sustain. The bass attempts to maintain its original line, but at times drops out.
Variation three marks the disappearance of the true four-voice texture. This variations is imitative between right and left hand, staccato chords in the right and octaves in the left. It maintains the harmonic structure of the piece, but not the melody. The fourth variation is again imitative sixteenth-notes in four-note groups, but this time concurrent instead of alternating. The right hand also has eighth-notes on the “and”s of beats.
The fifth variation is simple alternation of sustained chords between hands. It attempts to bring back the original melody, but the harmonic structure is changed. It maintains d minor throughout instead of cadencing on F major after the first phrase. The sixth brings back the harmonic structure. It is aggressive chords bouncing between registers, creating two different lines occurring simultaneously. Variation seven is very similar to the original theme in structure (harmonically, melodically). Full RH chords underlined by LH octaves are linked by rocketing RH arpeggios.
Variation eight again does away with melody in favor of harmonic structure. Here are blindingly fast toccata-like triplets in the RH grounded by octaves in the left. In the ninth variation, the left hand joins the party. Both hands temporarily stop on and punctuate several downbeats to serve as a reminder of the original melody, and to underscore the harmonic motion.
Variation ten is a welcome break from this flurry of notes – a fughetta. It is a return to four voices, the first true four-voice texture since the second variation. Also, the A-G# and D-C# of the first two entrances of the fughetta hearken back to the very first notes of the melody. The eleventh variation is built on a texture that reminds me of the Songs Without Words – a lyrical melody, and a bass that alternates with a syncopated inner voice. Harmonically this variation is less stable: it is highly chromatic and tends to avoid tonic.
Variation twelve is back to the flurries of notes. Lots and lots of repeated notes. Original harmonic structure, non-stop double-notes. Thirteen places the melody in the tenor, with the bass punctuating and reinforcing it and the soprano running chromatic arpeggios and other commentary over top.
Fourteen is an absolutely beautiful Adagio in D major, bringing back the four-part texture (the bass doubled at the octave.) At this point in the piece, I am reminded of Bach’s D Minor Chaconne – an ethereal light of major in a sea of minor.
Fifteen is back to D minor, and rather moody – the bass begins in falling tritones, and the right hand is syncopated, sustained over the left, creating suspensions. The sixteenth and seventeenth variations link together, going back to the original harmony, triplets between the hands (downbeat in one, filler in the other). This eventually breaks down, until the original theme appears over a tremolo A in the bass… and then Presto (literally) alternating syncopated chords take over, based on the original material, closing out the piece in a virtuosic cascade of chords and arpeggios, ending solemnly on three D minor chords.
prelude and fugue in e minor
I really like the Prelude. It is both like and unlike Bach. It’s got the typical melody built into a harmonic pattern, but here the melody is stand-alone and the harmonic pattern is really more of an accompaniment (instead of giving rise to the melody itself.) In addition, the melody is in the inner voice, something typically Romantic. It’s a very songful melody, and at times I imagined it could have been from one of Mendelssohn’s songs. It was distinctly Mendelssohn, but respectful of the traditional Prelude we all know and love.
On the other hand, I felt like this Fugue was having an identity crisis. My very first thought was how complicated the subject was. I wondered, what in the world is he going to do with all this chromatic stuff? And to my surprise, he didn’t really do much. Sure, there were some non-tonic notes, but the fugue itself wasn’t nearly as dissonant as its own subject. He seems to have written really good counterpoint that reveres Bach. However, Bach was pretty dissonant. It’s rare to find a downbeat without a suspension, nevermind all four voices landing on that downbeat within the triad! Mendelssohn’s just sounded kind of safe. If he wanted to write Bach, write Bach. If he wanted to write Mendelssohn, stop trying to sound so much like Bach. Then he got into the sixteenth notes and shortened the subject – I figured, okay, he’s creating a new subject from the original. Double fugue… ish. The sixteenth notes get piled thicker and faster, eventually turning into a left-hand line, at which point I said out loud to my speakers, “What are you doing? Who are you?” The sequences, the forshortening, the dissolution of counterpoint, I was hearing the finale of Beethoven’s 110. Then it all slows down and out of nowhere comes the Chorale, in E major. It sounds like Bach. I don’t know which one it is, if it is. It doesn’t appear to have a motivic relationship with the fugue (not that that’s a bad thing, but it adds to its out-of-nowhere-ness.) Then the fugue itself returns, in its forshortened form, in E major, to close it out.
After I finished listening, I sat back and thought. Whereas the Prelude was a quiet nod to Bach, in the Fugue it appeared that Mendelssohn was saying, “I love Bach! I love how he wrote! Listen! I love his music, it is incredible!” However, I lost them all in translation. I heard a lot of Bach imitation; whether or not the Beethoven reference was intentional, it was rather distracting; I heard too much of everyone else to hear much Mendelssohn. I’m still not sure whether I like or dislike it. I’m too confused to form an opinion yet.