Liszt, Schumann, Franck, Gounod, Busoni: Ad Contrapunctum, 19th Century Polyphonic Piano Music

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Official Release: 15 October 2021

  • Artist(s): Alessandro Mercando
  • Composer(s): César Franck, Charles Gounod, Ferruccio Busoni, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • ISMN: 7.46160912981
  • Period: Modern, Romantic
  • Publication year: 2021
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This is what happens in this Da Vinci Classics album, in which the “contemporaneity” of many musical languages and styles is portrayed, along with the capability of musical works to travel in time, and to provide fresh inspiration to those studying them. Allegedly, Giuseppe Verdi affirmed that true innovations could be found by returning to the past; and many musicians of the nineteenth and twentieth century would have agreed with him.
Prior to the nineteenth century, music was mostly considered as an ephemeral phenomenon: operas from the preceding season were quickly discarded, and there was only little and limited interest in works composed in previous eras. There was, however, a notable exception, represented by sacred music. Here, tunes which could be centuries old had been continuingly adopted throughout the history of the Church. Sometimes, their original form had been preserved remarkably well (although performance practices could change dramatically), as in the case of Gregorian chants originating in the Middle Ages and still sung today in the liturgical worship of the Catholic Church. On other occasions, tunes could be reworked and modified, and also employed as “building material” for works conceived in a style different from the original one. This is the case with polyphonic works based on a cantus firmus, a plainchant tune, which could find its way in a variety of different styles characteristic of later epochs. This is also the case with Gregorian tunes which were modified and adapted by Churches which had separated from Catholicism: the most obvious example is that of the Lutheran Church, many of whose Chorales are directly or indirectly derived from Gregorian models.
Currently, the term “Chorale” indicates what should best be described as a “Chorale harmonization”: properly, a “Chorale” is a tune, which was originally sung monodically (i.e. without accompaniment) but which soon came to be harmonized or contrapuntally developed, as in the case of the Chorale harmonizations or Chorale Preludes. The Lutheran Church, from its inception, was very welcoming towards most musical styles, and so fostered the creation of an immensely rich musical heritage, one of whose leading representatives is Johann Sebastian Bach.
By way of contrast, the Calvinist Psalms constituting the so-called Genevan Psalter were sung in an unaccompanied form in a very strict fashion. Whilst the tunes of many Lutheran Chorales can be traced back to earlier Catholic (and sometimes secular) models, those of the Genevan Psalter were written entirely afresh, although traces of melodic fragments from the Catholic tradition can still be found.
If Calvinist composers could not perform harmonizations or Preludes for the Psalms during worship (but frequently created Psalm elaborations for private worship), this did not prevent musicians from other confessions from adopting and adapting Genevan tunes for use in their Churches. Thus, many Calvinist tunes ended up in Lutheran, Anglican (and occasionally Catholic) hymnbooks, and composers from these confessions employed these melodies in a very creative fashion, both for worship and for private devotion.
This fascinating story of musical/religious encounters is beautifully embodied by Psalm 42, Comme un cerf altéré brame (“As the hart pants after the water brooks”). A typical feature of the Calvinist Psalter was its metrical structure: the Psalm versifications it adopted were built on a very high number of metric patterns, aiming at reproducing the schemes of ancient Greek poetry in the French language. However, with time congregations tend to react inertially to rhythmic variety, and therefore the initially varied duration patterns became increasingly flat. This is observable in the piano transcription realized by Liszt after the Genevan Psalm 42, where the chords’ durations are mostly homogeneous. Liszt rendered the Genevan Psalm in the form of a Lutheran Chorale harmonization, which gradually evolves into arpeggiated chords and broad-ranging arpeggios, with a rather heavenly connotation.
The Psalm heard by Liszt during his “years of pilgrimage” had already found its way in Lutheran Germany, where it was sung as Freu’ dich sehr, o meine Seele; in this version, it had been elaborated by Bach himself (e.g. in his BWV 32). One of the greatest Bach enthusiasts of Liszt’s century – along with Liszt himself and with Mendelssohn – was certainly Robert Schumann, who turned his attention to precisely this Psalm/Chorale in his Album for the Youth. This was a series of short pieces, of increasing complexity, conceived by Schumann as a pedagogical instrument, through which he could educate his children (and countless others) to musicianship, while improving their technical skills. This Psalm tune is found very early in the collection, as no. 4, aiming at the development of legato performance; later, in the second part of the series (conceived for more advanced players), it is reworked as a Figurierter Choral (no. 42), i.e. a Chorale whose tune is embellished and enriched by added contrapuntal parts.
This was one of the many possibilities which were available to Lutheran Church musicians for introducing or closing the congregational singing of the Chorale. And Johann Sebastian Bach had been a true master of all possible Chorale elaborations, from the simplest harmonizations to the most complex polyphonic structures (such as those found in the Chorale Cantatas or the Passions). Among such elaborations are the Organ Partitas, which can frequently be described as variations on a Chorale tune (or on a Chorale harmonization). Among them, the Partitas on Christ der du bist der helle Tag are particularly famous and had enjoyed widespread recognition even in non-Lutheran countries. Arrigo Boito, for example, had realized a version for mezzo-soprano and piano of the first two Partitas on this Chorale. The same pieces were later adopted by Ferruccio Busoni, another unrelenting champion of Bach’s music, who employed them in his Fantasia nach J. S. Bach. Written in 1909, it represents a mournful homage to the memory of Busoni’s father, recently deceased. Along with this Partita, Busoni employed other of Bach’s Chorale works (i.e. the Fughetta on Gottes Sohn ist kommen, BWV 703, and the Chorale Prelude Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott BWV 602). Different from other works by Busoni, this beautiful Fantasia is neither an entirely original composition, nor a “mere” transcription; rather, it employs Bach’s original materials in a very creative fashion, weaving new patterns out of the threads of Bach’s music.
The model for many of Busoni’s transcriptions had been that of Franz Liszt, even though Busoni soon developed his own, very personal technique as a transcriber and arranger. Yet, Liszt had opened the way for later transcribers, including Tausig and Busoni himself. Liszt’s capability to reproduce the powerful organ sounds and the variety of the organ registration on the piano is fully demonstrated in his transcription of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV 545: Bach had written them in his youthful years, probably at the time of his first appointments as a church organist, and Liszt managed to convey the full palette of the organ dynamics and timbre on the piano.
A very different approach – much closer to that of Liszt’s version of the Genevan Psalm – is that found in his Miserere d’après Palestrina, from his collection of Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses. Liszt, a devout Catholic, realized a beautiful piano version of another Psalm, the famous Miserere, which he had heard sung in the Sistine Chapel – although the composer of the original piece was not Palestrina! Here Liszt’s version is sober and composed, and suffused with mysticism.
The expedient of rendering the chords typical for Chorale harmonizations as arpeggios was adopted also by César Franck: his Prélude, choral et fugue is one of the absolute masterpieces of nineteenth-century piano music. The inspiration is, once more, clearly drawn from Bach’s organ music, which frequently combined the traditional pair of Prelude and Fugue with Chorale elaborations; still, the Chorale is entirely Franck’s own, although here too reminiscences of Bach’s works can be found (most notably, after Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen, on which Liszt had created memorable music).
The reception of Bach in the French-speaking countries is also embodied by Charles Gounod, whose best-known piece (possibly to his chagrin) is the Méditation on the first Prelude of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, also known as Ave Maria. The six Preludes and Fugues recorded here have a purpose similar to that of Schumann’s Album, but, similar to it, manage to skillfully combine pedagogical worth and artistic beauty. Some of the Preludes are, once more, Chorale harmonizations, frequently combining the traditional structures of this genre with features typical for a more modern idiom.
Together, all pieces recorded here offer us the possibility of experimenting the flexibility of liturgical music, which is able to travel in time, in space and also to cross the confessional boundaries. It gives us a glimpse on the Eternal Present, at least by suspending the anxieties and worries of everyday life, and by projecting them into a transcendent dimension.

Chiara Bertoglio © 2021

Composer(s)

César Franck: (b Liège, 10 Dec 1822; d Paris, 8 Nov 1890). French composer, teacher and organist of Belgian birth. He was one of the leading figures of French musical life during the second half of the 19th century.

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.

Franz Liszt: (b Raiding, (Doborján), 22 Oct 1811; d Bayreuth, 31 July 1886). Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher. He was one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music. In his compositions he developed new methods, both imaginative and technical, which left their mark upon his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated some 20th-century ideas and procedures; he also evolved the method of ‘transformation of themes’ as part of his revolution in form, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem for orchestra. As the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he used his sensational technique and captivating concert personality not only for personal effect but to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composers’ music. As a conductor and teacher, especially at Weimar, he made himself the most influential figure of the New German School dedicated to progress in music. His unremitting championship of Wagner and Berlioz helped these composers achieve a wider European fame. Equally important was his unrivalled commitment to preserving and promoting the best of the past, including Bach, Handel, Schubert, Weber and above all Beethoven; his performances of such works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata created new audiences for music hitherto regarded as incomprehensible. The seeming contradictions in his personal life – a strong religious impulse mingled with a love of worldly sensation – were resolved by him with difficulty. Yet the vast amount of new biographical information makes the unthinking view of him as ‘half gypsy, half priest’ impossible to sustain. He contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician.

Profile from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians

Robert Schumann: (b Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; d Endenich, nr Bonn, 29 July 1856). German composer and music critic. While best remembered for his piano music and songs, and some of his symphonic and chamber works, Schumann made significant contributions to all the musical genres of his day and cultivated a number of new ones as well. His dual interest in music and literature led him to develop a historically informed music criticism and a compositional style deeply indebted to literary models. A leading exponent of musical Romanticism, he had a powerful impact on succeeding generations of European composers.

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