On CAB’s new blog, we’ll explore the links between storytelling and sound. Be sure to visit often for new musical adventures!
Welcome back to CAB’s new blog! If you missed our inaugural post on 11/15, please scroll down to check it out.
The blog will soon feature individual perspectives from the musicians who make up our outstanding orchestra and chorus. Posts will run every two weeks, usually on Thursdays. Be sure to check back often for new updates, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Today’s post takes our theme of “storytelling and music” in a slightly different direction, and borrows again from the blog of our box office manager, pianist and writer Kris Faatz. As a dual-discipline artist, Kris is interested in the ways in which verbal and musical storytelling can complement and dovetail with each other.
The music featured in today’s post is Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 49 No. 1, one of the two “Leichte” (light) sonatas. Beethoven was an early proponent of program music, music written to tell a specific story, as seen in our featured music from 11/15 (Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2) and as exemplified in Beethoven’s own Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”). Beethoven also employed the “program” technique in a few of his piano works, particularly the Sonata Op. 81a, “Das Lebewohl” (more commonly known by the French “Les Adieux”).
The Sonata Op. 49 No. 1 is not a program piece. Instead, in a different twist on the “storytelling and sound” theme, Kris has paired her rendering of the piece (in the video below) with a reading of a short story. This music-and-words combination provides a unique experience of both.
Please enjoy the video, and visit us again soon!
Featured music: Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1. (Andante; Rondo: Allegro)
Flying Slips of Paper: Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2
Text and video by Kris Faatz, Concert Artists of Baltimore’s Box Office Manager. Originally published on 4/13/2017 at krisfaatz.com.
Schumann belongs to the Romantic era in music history (about 1825 to 1900). He is a member of the generation of composers who followed Beethoven, the generation that had to decide what to do with all of the new musical ideas Beethoven explored. Schumann himself had a challenging life. He was a pianist, but lost the ability to perform after some of the exercises he used to strengthen his hands backfired and damaged his muscles. He struggled with depression for most of his life; his mental health deteriorated further as he got older.
Papillons is an early work for Schumann. It belongs to a time when it was easier for him to tap into energy and enthusiasm, and we can tell from the notes he left about this particular piece that he loved writing it. The title translates literally from the French as “butterflies,” but Schumann himself translated it as “flying slips of paper.” When he was working on the piece, he said later, the ideas came so fast he could barely keep up. Pieces of paper flew around his workroom as he scribbled ideas, tossed pages aside when they were full, snatched fresh paper, and scribbled some more.
The inspiration for Papillons came from a story Schumann had read that featured a costume ball. The work itself is a series of twelve very short pieces, mostly waltzes. Schumann wanted to put the pianist, and in turn, the listener, in the ballroom he imagined. We’re meant to admire the spectacle, the lights and costumes, the dancers whirling around the room, the excitement and laughter. Schumann is giving us a musical kaleidoscope.
Papillons is a perfect example of program music: music written to tell a specific story. Another, earlier, example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven gives us a series of scenes including a brook in the countryside, a thunderstorm, and a country dance. A later, iconic example is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, a tour de force and rite of passage for many pianists. In Pictures, each movement is a musical “translation” of a specific painting or drawing. Program music was a relatively new idea in Beethoven’s time, but became very popular during the Romantic era.
As you listen to the recording, I’d invite you to close your eyes and imagine the ballroom scene. Schumann tells us a little about the characters he had in mind, particularly a pair of star-crossed lovers, but the music might suggest different characters to you. At the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a short theme: a scale of ascending notes. The same lilting, ascending scale comes back in the last movement. Also in the last movement, you’ll hear a single high repeated note, cutting through the rest of the musical texture. That’s the clock striking, telling us that the party is over. The final measures of the piece feature a chord where the pianist lets go of one note at a time, so that the sound fades away. After all the drama, we end with a charming, funny whisper.