Bach – Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach created the Goldberg Variations for “connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits,” according to the title page of the published work. The piece begins with a lovely aria that is slowly performed, but the variations that follow are based on chord progressions and the bass line rather than the melody, which is also done in the Pachelbel Canon.

With the exception of three variations set in G minor, Bach uses the key of G major for the entire piece. He creates canons, where a second voice imitates the first, at precise points in the piece. This by itself is quite a compositional feat, as the successive canon variations use increasing intervals between the imitative voices. The 10th variation is an actual fugue, where four voices are presented in canon. Bach’s settings of canon and fugue, as well as his intentional juxtaposition of slow and fast movements, help to maintain the engagement of the audience.

Bach creates further variety to the entire construct by adding different dance forms familiar to the listeners of his day. Many of the variations also require the use of crossing hands, which keeps the bass and melody lines moving with one hand while the other hand maintains a constant rhythmic structure or sound wall. It is also visually appealing in a live performance.

The 30th and final variation, the quodlibet, is a musical joke taken from Bach’s family tradition, where they would gather to sing sacred and popular songs and tell jokes. Its Latin origin translates as “what pleases,” and it contains several German folk songs spun together. The performer is then instructed to return to the beginning of the piece and repeat the aria as the concluding movement.

Chopin – Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, opus posth.

Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor, op. posthumous, is a languid and lovely solo piano piece that invites reflection and dreaming. It begins with a four-bar introduction and then delivers a melody that is gently repeated with a little embellishment when played the second time. The middle section has its own motif that is repeated down a minor third, and then it leads into a whimsical, percussive section that could be likened to jumping. Chopin did not name his works or give them a programmatic theme, and he disliked it when listeners gave fanciful names to his works, preferring that his audiences make up their own ideas about what they heard in the music.

The last part of this nocturne returns to the opening melody, repeated twice, again allowing the listener to recall its peaceful ambiance. The last eight bars are a coda of transcendent and gossamer beauty. In the first four bars of this coda, the pianist must mesh 18, 11, 35, and 13 scaled notes with the rolling cadence of four eighth notes in slow 4/4 time. These spectacular flourishes are part of what makes Chopin’s piano music so masterfully unique, as he does not adhere to classical or traditional rhythmic structure. The tinkling effect of those four bars and the measured calm of the final four bars of the coda leave the listener in an incomparably relaxed state of mind, and the entire piece provides a special insight into what is possible for the piano’s delicate quality.

Satie – Gymnopedie No. 1

Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, one of three such pieces, is hauntingly simple. Audiences all over the world continue to enjoy the spare quality of this work, as it is free of ornaments, moving eighth notes, embellishments, and superfluous opportunities to demonstrate technical prowess. The composer’s instructions to the performer suggest that it be played slow and dolorously, marked by pain and sorrow.

The piano solo opens with a four-bar introduction, followed by a soaring theme that is repeated. The repeated melody leads into a middle section that occurs like a conversation. It is as if a statement had been uttered, and the following melody said something and then waited for a response. This is notable because the first ending is mostly written in major chords, despite its modal resolution. The response to this first statement is a repeat of the introduction and a reiteration of the soaring theme. However, the second ending is written in minor chords, and the impression is one of hope in the first half of the piece and resignation or acceptance at the end of it.

There are plenty of chances for the listener to apply meanings and motives to the structure of this music. Its simplicity is gorgeous yet solemn, somber and meditative. The note clusters comprising the chords on the second beats of the measures have a chromatic quality that surprises the ear. The final cadence comes with the satisfaction of a real ending, and the melody continues in the mind long after the piece has finished. Perhaps this piano solo asks more questions than it answers, and that is why it has been a favorite among soloists and audiences for decades.

Mozart – Variations in C Major on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

Mozart’s Variations in C Major provides an easy example of the concept of theme and variations. He takes a simple melody in 2/4 time and creates 12 new versions of it.

In the first variation, the tune is placed on the second and fourth places in groups of sixteenth notes, which is not where the ear would normally hear it. Mozart plays with this variation by making the left hand soar through the phrase and then hint at a bass line as it progresses to the resolution. The second variation has sixteenth notes in the left hand while the right hand is playing an exquisite series of suspensions that eventually resolve at the end of this section.

The third variation dances around the melody by using triplets in the right hand. Trills appear in the right hand, and the notation is divided between slurred notes and staccato notes to give emphasis in certain spots. The fourth variation puts the triplets in the left hand while the right hand reiterates the melodic suspensions set forth in the second variation.

The fifth variation springs into a completely different feeling, as both hands take on an impudent and syncopated presentation. Here the listener can find phrases where Mozart has notes in the left hand sustained as the right hand plays the melody, as well as sustained notes in the right hand while the left hand is moving through its part. The sixth variation pairs a detached melody against chromatic sixteenth notes, with the movement crossing between hands. The seventh section uses scales in the right hand and sets of three sixteenth notes to offset the solid bass line in the left hand.

For the eighth variation, Mozart changes the key signature to C minor. Here the arrangement of the melody in the right hand is echoed in the left hand. The ninth variation, which returns to C major, turns the echo of the previous section into a true fugue as four voices take up the melody. The tenth variation features quarter notes played by the left hand accompanied by a sixteenth rest and three sixteenth notes in the right hand. The left hand jumps across the keyboard to switch between the melody and the bass line.

Mozart includes the word “adagio” at the beginning of the eleventh section, which includes some fugal voicing, syncopation, ornaments, and triplets. For the twelfth and final variation, he changes its time signature to 3/4, marks it “allegro,” and uses trills and sixteenth notes to move the listener toward a satisfying conclusion.

The Piano Music by Frederic Chopin

Chopin’s solo piano music comprises mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, preludes, and others. His music interacts with the listener to create a unique intimate environment. Chopin was the first composer to invoke a nationalistic feeling in his music, using folk songs from Poland as the foundation for some of the mazurkas and polonaises, which are traditional Polish dances.

The mazurkas and polonaises sometimes have slower introductions and then burst into joyful explosions of sound. Both are in 3/4 time, but the mazurka has only the first beat divided while the polonaise has all of the beats divided. The melodies are frequently repeated, allowing the listener to easily remember them.

The lilting melodies of the waltzes have maintained their popularity since they were written. The famous “Minute Waltz” was penned after Chopin saw his little dog chasing its own tail, an event the listener can “see” while hearing this piece. In contrast, the nocturnes have an ethereal feel that allows listeners to engage in fanciful ideas or float in a state of dreamy consciousness. While some of these pieces have huge technical demands, all require serious artistic expression to adequately communicate the composer’s intent.

Prior to the publication of Chopin’s pieces, etudes were simply studies to help pianists gain mastery in certain technical areas. However, critics and performers lauded Chopin’s etudes as art worthy of the stage and not just the practice room. Chopin also wrote 24 preludes as short pieces in each of the 24 key signatures, each with power to evoke intense emotion from the listener.

Many excellent pianists have said that Chopin was the ultimate composer for the piano, since he brought colors to the sounds and deliberate manipulations of tempo to his compositions. Further, since he rarely gave concerts but preferred to play in salons for friends, his music has a personal sensibility that allows the audience to be quite affected by this intimacy.

Beethoven Für Elise

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25, known as Fur Elise, has a charming quality that demonstrates why it has been popular since its publication. Beethoven’s only instruction to performers is the phrase “molto grazioso” which means “very gracefully.” This gives pianists plenty of leeway as to dynamics, phrasing, and other forms of interpretive musicianship.

Für Elise is in 3/4 time and has a structure that allows the listener to become familiar with the melody through several repetitions. The name for this structure is the rondo, represented by letters for the different themes, such as A for Theme 1, B for Theme 2, and so forth. Für Elise has the structure of ABACA.

The piece begins with the first part of the melodic statement, which is repeated and then leads to a second part of this statement that ends with octaves on the dominant, almost in the form of a question. The familiar melody recurs, the second part is repeated, and once again the melody answers the second statement. This entire section comprises Theme 1.

At this point Theme 2 is introduced in a new key, and the difficulty level increases. Beethoven has the new theme end on the relative major, repeats it, and then adds a surprise by making it end on the seventh of the original key, thereby neatly returning the listener to the familiar beginning of Theme 1.

After this “A” section is heard, Theme 3 appears with driving sixteenth notes in the left hand for sixteen measures. Arpeggios and chromatic scales follow in the right hand, written in triplets, and kept in the principal key. The final descending cascade of triplets leads back to the familiar “A” section, and the piece ends with an open octave on the last note.

Theme 2 can be played staccato, very percussive, or lightly and gently. The start of the third section sounds similar to the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15, op. 28, and may be played with delicacy or more like a solid statement. Consequently, the listener may be able to enjoy many different performances of this piece due to the variety of interpretations possible.

Mozart: Piano Sonatas

Mozart wrote many piano sonatas throughout his life, and although the “first” piano Sonata that he wrote was not actually his first, it is the earliest that has been found. A 19-year-old Mozart wrote it, and although you can hear and feel the passion and grace within it, it does sometimes showcase Mozart’s inexperience in composition. In Mozart’s second Sonata, the opening allegro is much more mature and profound. It is much more poetic and profound than the first, and provides a lovely Sonata full of lyrical intonations, with a staunch second movement, that ends with a very light and soft statement. Mozart’s third Sonata is a contrasting piece, with the opening very lively and playful, combined with a solid nobility, Mozart’s third Sonata is truly a masterpiece, and is only the beginning of his masterful craftsmanship.

The fourth and fifth sonatas are delicate, and are somewhat dispassionate. They also show humor and memory, respectively, and both are a stunning celebration in art in its purest form. Mozart’s sixth Sonata is truly a wild range of music, with extraordinary variations from playful to wild, this is truly an extraordinary range of variation, from a solidly maturing twenty-something Mozart. In keeping with the playful and wild feel, Mozart’s seventh Sonata is truly very frisky, and maybe the most magnificent conclusive rondo that Mozart has ever written. The eighth of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas was more emotional than musical, which is what makes it one of the most graceful pieces that Mozart has ever crafted. This freshness continues throughout Mozart’s ninth through 12th sonatas, with hints of Beethoven within them. His 13th seems to be an ode to Bach, with truly eccentric, legendary and graceful movements.

As Mozart matured, so did his sonatas. His 14th was a soft and cool rendition with allegro, and the rondo was very reminiscent of Beethoven. However, in his 15th, it is questioned whether it is really an unfinished piece. Mozart’s 16th Sonata also has six different variations on allegretto, and is sort of like a patchwork quilt. With refinement to abandon, this piece is an architectural delight. Mozart’s 17th Sonata was written “for beginners”. This is truly a Mozart at his best, as the 17th provides everything we have come to expect from Mozart, and much more. His 18th sonata was truly masterful and genius, with a trip through his imagination. His 19th sonata, thought to have been composed for the Princess of Prussia, is truly passionate, moving and concludes with heart-wrenching regret.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas

While most people know Beethoven’s symphonies, many do not realize that he also wrote some of the finest piano sonatas ever composed. Between 1795 and 1822, Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas, many of which are as well known today as they were in his own time. Some musical historians suggest that the Beethoven piano sonatas are, as a whole, are some of the most important works in music.

It has also been suggested that Beethoven’s piano sonatas were the first body of musical works that helped to bridge performances from private salons to concert halls. His sonatas were just as beautiful and popular in private rooms as they were in larger halls, open to the public. Prior to this, compositions were performed in one place or the other, but not in both.

In his younger days, Beethoven was trained by the famous composer Joseph Haydn. Beethoven’s first piano sonata (No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1) was composed in 1795 and it was ultimately dedicated to his mentor, Haydn. This first sonata lasts about nineteen minutes in most performances. It should be noted that Beethoven had many other skilled composers as mentors during his young days and many of these mentors had a profound effect on his training and on his future compositions. Still, Beethoven maintained a strong independent flair that set him apart from most other composers.

For those new to sonatas, a piano sonata is written for a solo piano. In general, these sonatas are written in three or four movements. However, some piano sonatas may have a single movement such as those composed by Scarlatti or Scriabin. Some may have two movements such as composed by Beethoven and Haydn. And some may have five movements such as Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata. It is important to remember that the earlier form of sonata was composed for harpsichord. It is during the Classical era that the piano overtook the harpsichord and thus these compositions are known as “piano” sonatas to distinguish them from earlier forms.

Two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas have earned the reputation as being the very best in this music form. They are his Pathétique Sonata and his Moonlight Sonata. Some suggest that this is because Beethoven composed his work with much more of his own personality and force than others who were composing at that time.
Daniel Barenboim plays Sonata opus 13, “Pathétique”:

His musical themes clearly portray his strength and confidence and all but force the listener to pay attention. Of his 32 piano sonatas, no pattern seems to exist in terms of construction. Twelve of his works have four parts, while thirteen of his works have three parts and there are seven works with two parts. This variety is yet another reason his works were considered so unique then as well as now.

Beethoven’s piano sonatas are available at a variety of outlets, including free venues that can be found online. For those interested in hearing some of the most important music ever created, listening to his piano sonatas is the best option. Nothing can express his work as well as the work itself.