January. The first word that comes to mind when hearing this piece is “bleak.” The outer registers of the keyboard, the sparse textures, it all sounds like a snow-covered dead world. The opening descending bass sounds like the hopelessness of winter. The high chords that attempt to counter it are the weak sunlight trying to push through the clouds and melt the snow, but to no effect. Even the more lyrical, major middle section is searching more than declaiming – saying, “oh, it’s not so bad, remember it will be over soon.” Then a look back out the window reminds us that winter is still everywhere.
February. This charming little scherzo is a fun romp in the snow. Snowflakes, snowmen, snowball fights, snow. Little gusts of wind nip and bite, and the sun shines a little brighter. So what if there’s a blizzard? There’s more daylight! At least we can enjoy it.
March. The coming of spring. First, the rain showers, and the puddles. Not particularly beautiful, but necessary for new life. Then, what sounds like a spring prayer. Incidentally, I immediately identified this chorale-like section with a Lenten prayer, the kind I used to sing in church as a child. The kind of song that only gets sung in drab, grey weather, hoping for new sun. Then, finally, the song of Thanksgiving. The sun! The glorious warmth of a new day. All the grey waiting was worth it, and the world has returned anew again.
April. Alternating between enjoying the new weather and a flurry of activity. Air out the bedding! Clean out the storage! Company is coming! There is work to be done! Tend the garden! But oh, isn’t the air wonderful? Stop and breathe for a minute, don’t waste it after such a long winter. Then everything stops… was that a raindrop? Oh no, take cover! Thunderstorm! The rains aren’t over yet. It is, in fact, still spring.
May. A time for social outings. Enjoying each other’s company. The lilting rhythm gives a laid-back feel to the whole atmosphere, but do I sense some anxiety in the trills and harmonies? (Does she like me?)
June. To me, this movement is staring up at the starry sky and getting lost in thought. Concern about every day problems, love, life, family, reaching out to existential issues – why am I here? I am so small, in comparison with the rest of this world, of this sky. What’s beyond the sky? What that I do here in my infinitesimal life will have an impact on anything out there? And then, having found no answers, going to bed.
July. The harmonies tell us it’s getting hot. Hazy. Oppressive. Nobody wants to move, they just want to sit around and try to be as comfortable as possible. Are those clouds on the horizon? Can’t really tell for the haze.
August. Is that… Yes! The fair! The entire neighborhood is out enjoying themselves. Socializing, playing games, seeing the sights, eating, haggling, staying out late, watching the parade, having a great time. The horn calls must be played by a live band, and announce its opening.
September. It’s starting to get colder, the leaves are starting to change. The wind swirls around, there’s a chill in the air. A short uplifting middle section asks, aren’t the leaves beautiful! Yes, they are, and it’s getting darker earlier. Time to pull out the heavier blankets, light a fire in the fireplace.
October. Horn fifths can only mean one thing: the hunt! All the excitement and chase of the hunt is captured here. The tromping through the forest, running after the prey, and finally triumphantly returning home to the women, who absolutely glow over the catch.
November. The opening betrays concern about the upcoming winter. There is wonder about how bad it will be, whether they are prepared enough. Attempting to reassure themselves, that it is just another winter. But why does winter have to come, why can’t it still be summer. And then, the first snow. Swirling and flurrying and dancing and blowing. This blustery episode gets everyone excited for a while before it ends. And then, in descending motion, everyone understands: winter has begun.
December. This begins with seeming disbelief at the snow, then acceptance and even joy at seeing it. Then, once more, the song of thanksgiving. However, this time it’s a different kind. It’s thanks for the past year, for family, friends, and all the joy that it brought. It’s a warm blanket instead of a shout to the heavens.
Postlude. This chorale reminded me of a Bach chorale. I didn’t need to know the words to imagine that it was a prayer, asking for a blessing, for guidance in the coming year, for wisdom, and love.
My favorites: March, July
four character pieces op 5
Impromptu, “Le Sabbat”. This scherzo-like piece is quite playful. Its semitone grace notes and constant leaps give it the attitude of a troublemaker. The dance rhythms, strong accents, and triple meter keep it moving forward.
Caprice a la Bolero. This sprightly Spanish dance is full of fiery energy. With strummed broken chords in the left hand and rapidly picked scales and repeated notes in the right, it is every bit the imitation of a guitar. The slower, middle section is more lyrical and more pianistic, with a lovely undulating accompaniment beneath the singing melody.
Romance. A simple, and simply beautiful, Romantic Romance. It is a heartfelt melody brought to life by really beautiful harmonic turns. There are no rhythmic tricks, just an outpouring of emotion.
Scene fantastique (Le Ballet des Revenants). Translation: The ballet of returns. It opens with tritones in the bass in a characteristic dance rhythm, which return throughout the piece either as those same tritones or as fifths. This piece isn’t so much music for a ballet as a musical depiction of the ballet. Fast, light figures depict quick movements across the stage; grace notes show the flash of toes in leaps; a single melody against a thicker background denotes a solo dance standing out from the troupe.
variations op 20
My notes on this piece are in the next paragraph, a play by play per variation. But as I listened to it, what I found most interesting was how it compared to Robert’s variations, how it compared to more traditional Classical variations, and by that token, how of left field the Symphonic Etudes are. Because they are variations, but other than being based on roughly the same harmonic structure and having a scrap of the opening melody, each movement is wildly different. In Clara’s Op. 20, as in most (if not all) Classical variations, the original material is still clearly heard, recognizable. It’s dressed in different colors, under different guises, takes a new mood, but doesn’t vary wildly from one variation to the next and never gets lost. This seems to be the M.O. for Clara’s music: it’s not particularly inventive, but it’s beautiful and well-written. It won’t cause any revolutions or new schools of thought, but it would certainly sell tickets.
(Notes: The theme is simple enough, a beautiful chorale. The first variation embellishes the voices and spices up the harmonies a bit via suspensions. The second is repeated notes, then a rhapsodic outpouring, back to repeated notes. Third, back to a chorale. Simpler than the first, but it avoids tonalizing itself until the second phrase. Seems to be more painful because of its simplicity. Suspensions are much more noticable. Ends in major! Fourth, melody in center of texture, RH has running arpeggios, LH chords or climbing figures beneath melody. Reminds me of Liszt. Fifth, octaves in LH, melody w chords in RH. Sixth, imitation in lower voice. Like a song. Seventh, Sounds like Chopin. Rolling chords, rolling gestures between hands for accompaniment. Transitions into Chorale, in major. Embellished ending.)