It’s evening, I am lonely and I could do with a little company, a little entertainment – how often have I felt this when I was young and how much I hated such evenings. I hated the world and myself, self-pity was on the agenda. I often found comfort in a book or a piece of music. Unfortunately I had not yet discovered the composer Clara Wieck and even less her piano cycle “Soirées musicales”, op. 6.
Clara Wieck composed the set in 1835 or 1836, when she was 16 or 17 years old; it is dedicated to a friend of hers, the pianist Henrietta Voigt. Wieck’s early works suited the taste of the time and the way public concerts were structured. Often several artists performed alternatively with one artist in the lead, in our case very often Clara, the “prodigal daughter”. The German writer Dieter Kühn explains this in a detailed and highly critical biography of Clara.
Pieces were to be short and either brilliant enough to capture the attention of the audience or unobtrusive so that the audience could go about its other business without being annoyed: eating, drinking, small-talk, even playing cards in an adjacent room. No, in the first half of the 19th century, the audience would not be quiet and attentive, earnest and tense. And coughs would not have been considered a reason for the pianist to cancel his performance.
Such short pieces had names like Polonaise, Caprice, Valse, Mazurka and Variations on a Theme. You can find these among the works of Bellini, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and even Schubert. The rationale behind the choice of such pieces for a concert was mainly economic, the audience would just not be patient enough to listen to a Beethoven sonata in its full length. Clara Wieck wanted to succeed on the public stage and she did succeed. Following this logic she named the different pieces Toccatina, Ballade, Notturno, Polonaise and twice Mazurka. They have been recorded by Claudio Colombo.
The six pieces could be performed separately or as a whole, but they differ greatly in tempo* and expression, some being fast and brilliant, others being more reflective, melancholic, dreamy. I like the Notturno and the first Mazurka. They certainly would have consoled me on one of those evenings I have described above. They express solitude, a kind of longing and at the same time, they evoke the hope of something beautiful coming true. That would have been sufficient to prevent me from drowning in self-pity!
By now, Clara Wieck and Fanny Mendelssohn rank among my favourite composers for late-night post and after-midnight editing jobs. Strange, isn’t it? But then again who would not feel inspired by such creative women? If only I had a few pancakes with a lot of sugar now – a caprice I share with Clara!
© Charles Thibo