Doing it her way – with a little help from her friends

Omen? © Charles Thibo

A dark premonition must have been haunting the composer went she sketched this Lento. Or was it the legacy of her teacher, the influence of the late German Romantic masters? Franz Liszt is not very far indeed, for Marie Jaëll stayed with him in Weimar for quite a number of years, and Richard Wagner, well, Richard Wagner was omnipresent at the time. In 1871 Jaëll wrote her Sonata for piano in C major, dedicated to Liszt.

The beginning of the first movement may seem innocuous, however, the left hand sketches already a sombre, dramatic mood. Light and darkness, innocent joy and oppressing forebodings alternate in this movement. I can only guess at Jaëll’s intentions, but I can ascertain that the composer had impressive expressive skills. The Adagio starts on a reflective note, a meditation evolving into a more agitated, complex and increasingly passionate theme before returning to another meditation with darkness and light again held in a delicate balance.

The third movement is a lively little thing as the name “Tempo di minuetto” suggests, not without dramatic highlights recalling Jaëll’s teacher Liszt. The final Allegro features a playful alternation of a forceful, majestic, solemn theme with on the one hand light-hearted and one the other hand meditative parts – a kind of recapitulation of the previous movements. The German pianist Cora Irsen has recorded all of Jaëll’s piano works and this is one of the pieces that got me really hooked.

Pianist or composer?

In 1871, Jaëll had decided to let her career as a pianist rest for a while and devote her time exclusively to composition. After having shared the piano sonata with Liszt, Liszt wrote her a letter on July 18, 1871 saying: “I have read with passionate attention your Impromptu, Petits Morceaux and the grand sonata; these works have a strange note; they are full of new and keen ideas, that I do not dare criticize. However I would appreciate them even more, if I had the pleasure to hear them performed by their courageous, ambitious and sensitive composer.”

While Liszt was the dominant factor in encouraging Jaëll to keep composing and not restrict herself to a career as a pianist, another composer would complement her education in composition and become a friend and a paragon: Camille de Saint-Saëns. The two met in 1872. Initially the 16-year-old pianist, organist and composer from Paris struck her as mystic, according to Cora Irsen. But Jaëll sensed that their personalities had much in common and admired Saint-Saëns “encyclopedic spirit”.

Jaëll was a well-read person and the link between literature and her compositions is one of the hallmarks of her piano works. She hoped that with Saint-Saëns’ help, she could find answers to the many questions she had after having read works by William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Dante Alighieri. Poems by Victor Hugo would later inspire her to a piece called “Les Orientales”, while Dante would inspire her in 1894 to a large piano cycle of 18 piano pieces in three sections relating to La Divina Commedia, part of which I have discussed in a first post on Jaëll. More will follow. Spring is female.

© Charles Thibo


“Looking for hope that did not come”

Double concerto Martinu-2
The peace did not last.

March 1938: German troops occupy Austria, supported by thousands of local Nazi sympathizers. April 1938: Adolf Hitler orders preparations to invade and annex Czechoslovakia. September 1938: Through bluffing and unscrupulous blackmailing, Hitler wins French and British approval to annex the Czech territories of Moravia and Bohemia. While political tensions in Europe reached a first culmination point, a Czech composer was busy writing a concerto upon a commission of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher for the Basel Chamber Orchestra, a concerto grosso in three movements. It became known as Bohuslav Martinu’s Double Concerto, H. 271. It has been recorded by the Essener Philharmoniker under Tomas Netopil and the pianist Ivo Kahanek.

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Intelligible music – To memorize means to understand

The other half. © Charles Thibo

Perpetual postponement – such was the fate of this post. It just never seemed right, the muse took more than two years to come up with an idea. Today is the day, no, tonight is the night to write something about Arnold Schönberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23. A special piece requiring a special mood, and perhaps I first had to write that post about Schubert’s String Quartet in C major and its link to Mozart’s “Dissonant Quartet” before I could write anything about this work.

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The lady likes strange and wild harmonies

The violin rules. © Charles Thibo

It felt a little like meeting an old friend after many years. I sat at my desk on a rainy Saturday afternoon and listened to a piano trio written by Edouard Lalo. I was writing letters and my thoughts drifted. “Lalo, Lalo…”, I wondered. “Have I written about him?” Actually I have, in a post in November 2016. So why had I forgotten about him? The trio is beautiful, and he surely has written other lovely pieces. A quick research yielded a wealth of pieces unknown to me, and my joy over these discoveries was such that I had to insert an unscheduled post about Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F major, Op. 20 in my publishing schedule.

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