There are artists, authors, thinkers and politicians who, quite literally, change the world – at the very least, the world of their art or field. There are figures who clearly mark a “before” and an “after”; figures who must be faced by all those who will thread their same path, and who may be loved, adored, imitated, rejected, despised, but who will not tolerate indifference.
In the musical field, Johann Sebastian Bach is certainly one such figure. A genius like probably no other, he was however clearly and admittedly indebted to the tradition preceding him; he carefully, painstakingly and passionately studied the works of the ancient masters and of his most gifted contemporaries, absorbing their knowledge and digesting it, in order to create his own, personal and inimitable style.
In particular, one aspect of Bach’s music which unavoidably strikes the listener is his ability to intertwine the polyphonic and the harmonic language. Polyphony, at his time, was largely the language of the past; it had known its golden age in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, but had slowly given way to the more modern language of accompanied monody, of tonal harmony. Accompanied melodies were better suited for the expression of individual feelings, of subjectivity; polyphony was an enchanted and enchanting language with a generally more pronounced abstract dimension. At Bach’s time, the strict contrapuntal language was of course still widely practised, but was mainly confined to certain genres, such as sacred vocal music. Many of his contemporaries had already abandoned it in favour of the lighter style galante, whose refined and easy-going elegance avoided the intricacies of the polyphonic textures.
However, Bach demonstrated – in a fashion unattained by all of his epigones – that polyphony and harmony could coexist, and that the clarity of the harmonic language could support, rather than destroy, the hypnotic fascination of polyphony.
This Da Vinci Classics album proves both Bach’s interest in the ancient polyphonic tradition, and how later composers engaged with the tradition he represented, patiently learning from his compositional wisdom, and dedicating to him the best efforts of their creative genius.
The album opens with three works by Bach himself. The Toccata BWV 914 is one of Bach’s earliest works, written when he was approximately 23 years old. It is structured into four episodes, including a short Prelude, a slow and reflective Fugato, a densely intense and expressive recitative and a quickly-paced Fugue, demonstrating the young musician’s virtuosity both as a composer and as a performer. In fact, this youthful work by Bach already establishes his full mastery of the polyphonic language, as well as of the conventions of a touching vocal style.
The Fantasy and Fugue BWV 904 is not among his best-known works for keyboard instruments, but unjustly so; it is an admirable construction which does not reveal the complexity of its compositional principles but rather seduces the listener with a seeming simplicity of thought. The Fantasy may surprise the listener at a first hearing; it has nothing of the improvisatory aura inspiring many works by the same name. Instead, it is densely polyphonic and is close in concept to a transcription from a stile severo vocal work – as, for example, a Church motet. Another kind of polyphony – a more agile and fluent one – is found in the accompanying Fugue, which opens with a very expansive and extroverted subject, with a markedly diatonic character, which is later replaced by a chromatic melody; with a fascinating coup de théâtre, Bach manages to combine these two souls and to intertwine them in the closing stretto.
The other work by Bach is the first Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Keyboard. The Prelude was also found, in an earlier version, in a notebook compiled by Bach for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and thus reveals its pedagogic perspective. It is made of supple arpeggios, thus affirming a clearly harmonic principle; however, when considered in their voice-leading principles, these arpeggiated “chords” may also be interpreted as beautiful polyphonic lines. True and solid polyphony is found in the Fugue, whose deceivingly simple subject represents the magnificent opening of this majestic collection of twenty-four (and later forty-eight) Preludes and Fugues.
From Wilhelm Friedemann’s first steps as a musician, this album leads us to the last, and possibly greatest masterpiece written by Beethoven for the Hammerklavier, the fortepiano. Beethoven was among the earliest admirers of Bach, well before the so-called Bach-Renaissance through which Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy would bring Bach’s music to the attention of the larger public. Beethoven knew thoroughly the Well-Tempered Keyboard, and recommended it to his students (including Carl Czerny, whose instructive edition of the WTK claims to represent Beethoven’s own performance practice). In Beethoven’s late style, his study of the ancient polyphony and of Bach’s models became the way for discovering entirely new musical horizons; as had happened with many works by Bach, the road for the future unavoidably touched the past.
In just two movements, Beethoven’s Sonata op. 111 is one of the summits of the piano literature. Its opening gesture is a descending diminished seventh, i.e. an interval which Bach always used to express the most extreme pathos (one has just to think of the Barabbam! Choir, on a single chord, in the St. Matthew Passion). The texture of this first movement is deeply contrapuntal; a “roaring” motif, seemingly unsuited for polyphonic elaboration, is the germinating principle of an enthralling fugato with more than a hint of Bach’s influence. The Arietta, in the same C-major as the “simple” Prelude BWV 846, is an unforgettable masterpiece; its innocence and purity are not those found in childhood, but rather those achieved after a long and difficult life. The essential melodic line of the Arietta is then elaborated in a variety of perspectives, reminiscent of the Baroque art of the diminutio, the process whereby a slow theme is varied with an increasingly thick texture of quick notes. Yet, after some enthusiastic and raging turbulences, the Arietta reaches its end on a transfigured embroidery of astral trills, reminding the listener of the third-to-last Variation in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Under certain viewpoints, the Arietta may be considered also as a chorale – its first harmonization is clearly influenced by the chorale style. Ferruccio Busoni, an Italian-German musician who nourished an immense love for Bach’s music, transcribed ten Chorale-Preludes by Bach for the piano (along with countless other works by the German master). Two of them are recorded here, and both are among the best-loved of Busoni’s collection. In Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, the Chorale tune is sung by the upper voice in a medium-high texture, while the slow and deep bass-line frames an undulating and expressive counterpoint by the middle voice. In Ich ruf’ zu dir the tones are even darker, the pace even calmer; here the polyphonic element is still more pronounced, in the intertwining of several melodic lines above which the chorale tune enters with a more intense tone.
If the Toccata BWV 914 is among Bach’s earliest known works, the Scherzo op. 4 is the earliest of Brahms’ published works, and is the brainchild of an eighteen-years old musical genius. Brahms deliberately positioned himself in the footsteps of the two great “B’s” of classical music, Bach and Beethoven; in turn, he was an expert and passionate composer of polyphony, as shown not only by his many vocal works, but also by his instrumental output (the first example which comes to mind are his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel). While this Scherzo is more clearly oriented to a virtuoso and brilliant style, Brahms’ study of the great masters of the past is evident in his knowledgeable use of the polyphonic techniques.
After Busoni, many other Italian composers engaged with this same tradition, and in particular with Bach’s music. Among them was Luigi Dallapiccola, who came from a zone geographically similar to that where Busoni lived his youthful years (Dallapiccola was Istrian while Busoni came from Trieste). Dallapiccola was one of the most appreciated Italian serialists, and one who, like Busoni, had a really international perspective and career. Indeed, the stimulus for the composition of the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera came from a commission he received from an American festival (Pittsburgh, 1952); this series of eleven short pieces echoes, in its title and concept, the notebook written by Bach for Wilhelm Friedemann. Annalibera was in fact Dallapiccola’s young daughter, but the homage to Bach did not stop here. In fact, the opening piece, Simbolo, is built on a sequence of four notes representing Bach’s name (a sequence frequently used by Bach himself with the same purpose); the Contrapunctus movements in turn echo the eponymous pieces found in Bach’s Art of the Fugue. While the techniques employed by Dallapiccola are exquisitely modern, his outlook is inspired by aesthetical principles similar to those practised by Bach: it is through the observation and study of the past that the music of the future can blossom. As another Italian, Giuseppe Verdi, put it: “Let’s go back to the old times and we will have made some progress”.
And this album clearly demonstrates the truth of Verdi’s statement.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Paolo Rinaldi: Paolo Rinaldi is an award winning Steinway Artist and Fellow of Trinity College London. He was born in Italy to accomplished musicians and pedagogues. After completing his Bachelor in Music in Mantova (Italy) with honours, he moved to London where he completed his Masters in Music and Post Masters Studies with Distinction at Trinity Laban Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music.
Paolo has won numerous competitions including the John Longmire Piano Competition, the Elizabeth Schumann Lieder Duo Competition and the Alfred Kitchin Piano Competition, all in London. In 2019, he was a winner of the Elite Piano Competition of North London International Music Festival and was awarded the David Gosling Prize given to an “Outstanding Pianist” by Trinity Laban.
Paolo has given over 100 recitals in Europe and Worldwide. Venues in London include the Steinway Hall, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Conway Hall, Athenaeum Club, Regent Hall, St. James’s Piccadilly, Southwark Cathedral, St Giles’ Cathedral and the Great Blackheath Halls. He also performed for important associations including the Beethoven Society of Europe and recently at the Wiener Saal in Salzburg, Austria and went on tour in India performing in prestigious venues including the National Centre of the Performing Arts. He is great demand in Italy and the U.K. as concert soloist.
Paolo is also passionate about passing on the right musical knowledge to the next generation and apart from his private teaching practice is also invited across Europe to music festivals as an adjudicator and to hold masterclasses.
Ferruccio Busoni: (b Empoli, 1 April 1866; d Berlin, 27 July 1924). Italian composer and pianist, active chiefly in Austria and Germany. Much to his detriment as composer and aesthetician, he was lionized as a keyboard virtuoso. The focus of his interests as a performer lay in Bach, Mozart and Liszt, while he deplored Wagner. Rejecting atonality and advocating in its place a Janus-faced ‘Junge Klassizität’, he anticipated many later developments in the 20th century. His interests ranged from Amerindian folk music and Gregorian chant to new scales and microtones, from Cervantes and E.T.A. Hoffmann to Proust and Rilke. Only gradually, during the final decades of the 20th century, has his significance as a creative artist become fully apparent.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.
Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.
Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.
Luigi Dallapiccola: The seeds of Dallapiccola’s intense concern for liberty were sown early: born of Italian parents in a disputed territory (then part of the Austrian empire), he was still a child when the grimmer political realities of the time first affected him. In 1916 his father’s school was closed by the Austrian government, and in March 1917 the family was interned at Graz, being suspected of Italian nationalism. Only after the war (21 November 1918) could they return to Pisino, Istria having been transferred to Italy.
During these early years Dallapiccola’s musical education was inevitably disordered. Already in 1912–16 he was learning the piano and even trying to compose. In Graz, where he no longer had access to a piano, his musical horizons nevertheless expanded: he went regularly to the local opera house, where he was impressed by the works of Mozart and Wagner. It was after a performance of Der fliegende Holländer in 1917 that he became fully aware of his vocation as a composer. Back in Istria, he was by 1919 growing discontented with the small-town limitations of Pisino. He therefore made weekly visits to Trieste to study the piano and harmony, the latter under the composer Antonio Illersberg; and he also travelled more widely: it was at Bologna that he came to know of Debussy, whose music (notably some of the piano pieces, Pelléas and Ibéria) soon began to obsess him. So strong, indeed, was Debussy’s impact that in 1921 Dallapiccola stopped composing and did not start again until 1924, to give himself time to absorb this important influence. At about the same time as his discovery of Debussy, Illersberg aroused in him an enthusiasm (shared by many important Italian composers of the day) for early Italian music, notably that of Monteverdi and Gesualdo.
In 1922, having finished his general education, Dallapiccola moved to Florence, where he became a private piano pupil of Ernesto Consolo, entering the conservatory as a student of harmony and composition in the following year. His first composition teacher there (1923–4) was Roberto Casiraghi; later (1929–31) he attended the class of Vito Frazzi, a disciple of Pizzetti. In 1924 he had another crucial experience (not destined to bear fruit in his own works till many years later) when a performance of Pierrot lunaire, at a concert organized by Casella’s Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche, first brought him into contact with the music of the Second Viennese School. Soon afterwards, having gained his diploma as a pianist, Dallapiccola began teaching and giving recitals – notably, from 1930, in duo with the violinist Sandro Materassi. In 1930 he visited Vienna and Berlin; in the former city Mahler’s First Symphony came as another major revelation to him. In 1930–31 he taught the piano at the Florence Conservatory, as Consolo’s substitute during his final illness; but it was not until 1934 that he gained an official teaching post, that of professor of ‘pianoforte complementare’ (i.e. the piano as a secondary study) at the same conservatory. He remained in this post until his retirement in 1967.
The mid-1930s were a particularly important period in Dallapiccola’s development. His musical horizons continued to broaden: by now the music of Busoni, Berg and Webern had entered his field of vision, and he got to know Berg personally in 1934. Meanwhile he was himself becoming known as a composer, greatly helped by Casella’s propaganda on his behalf: though more naturally in sympathy with G.F. Malipiero (a hearing of whose Torneo notturno in 1932 was yet another important milestone in his experience), Dallapiccola nevertheless retained a profound sense of gratitude to Casella for all he did to further his career, like those of so many other young musicians, in that period. Meanwhile important developments were taking place in Dallapiccola’s inner life, with profound repercussions on his music. His preoccupation with liberty had lain comparatively dormant since its first awakening in his troubled childhood: indeed, until the mid-1930s (like so many Italians of otherwise sound judgment) he was sufficiently misled by Mussolini’s flair for propaganda to give surprisingly whole-hearted support to the fascist regime. But his political views began to change under the impact of the Abyssinian campaign and the Spanish Civil War: as he himself put it, ‘the world of … carefree serenity closed for me, and without the possibility of return … I had to find other timber in other woods’ (1970, p.138; 1980, p.381). Soon afterwards, a mood of impassioned political protest found expression in his music, especially in the Canti di prigionia and Il prigioniero. The former was first conceived when Mussolini adopted Hitler’s race policies (thus threatening the safety of Dallapiccola’s Jewish wife), while both works gained still greater urgency under the cumulative experience of World War II. Dallapiccola’s refusal at this time to bow to the dictates either of fascism or (in due course) of the occupying Nazis inevitably handicapped his career. But only for a short while was he forced to withdraw entirely, first (October 1943 to February 1944) into the relative safety of the village of Borgunto, outside Florence, and then (March to September 1944) into hiding in various apartments in Florence, including that of Materassi. Otherwise he managed to go on giving recitals, though only, as a matter of principle, in countries not occupied by the Nazis, notably Hungary and Switzerland. He nevertheless seized the opportunity, when passing through Austria in 1942, to meet Webern.
After 1945 Dallapiccola’s life was relatively free from external disturbances. A few obstructive antagonisms survived from the war years, but on the whole he had little difficulty in resuming all his old activities and in adding a few new ones: for example, for two and a half years from 1945 he regularly wrote for the Florentine periodical Il mondo (soon renamed Il mondo europeo). In 1946 he played a major part in getting Italian composers readmitted to the ISCM, at whose first postwar festival the Canti di prigionia at last came before a large public, revealing Dallapiccola’s major stature to the world at large. During the 1950s his travels abroad became even more wide-ranging: in 1951 Koussevitzky invited him to give a summer course at Tanglewood, and thereafter he visited the USA regularly, sometimes for quite long periods. He continued to travel in western Europe too, and his easy command of German, French and English, combined with his wide culture and his warm humanity, won him international success as a lecturer and so assisted the spread of his music. By the time of the première of his opera Ulisse (1968; fig.1), the eyes of the whole musical world were upon him; and if the critics may not on that occasion have been unanimous in their praise, that première may nevertheless be regarded as the climax of Dallapiccola’s postwar career. After Ulisse he composed only intermittently: for several months after completing the work he concentrated instead on assembling and adapting his most important lectures and writings for the volume Appunti, incontri, meditazioni. In 1972 a brief crisis in his health persuaded him to curtail his travels and public activities and lead a more sedentary life. Thereafter he completed no more compositions, though a few fragments have survived, among them a sketch for the opening of a vocal work, left on his piano a few hours before his death.