In the aftermath of Jeremy’s death, one of the few activities that took me out of myself and provided solace was the piano. At the keyboard, the emotions surging through my mind and body – grief, regret, anger, sadness, recrimination, doubt, exhaustion, acceptance, loving remembrance – could find expression and release. At other times, the music was a door through which I could step outside myself, focused only on the sounds, the instrument, and the musical text in front of me. During a tumultuous time, music was a lifeline.
I played music I
was already somewhat familiar with from previous study, sight-reading,
recordings. I was
first: Bach sinfonias, the slow movements of Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin
mazurkas, but also the collections of Broadway standards I had grown up
with. Then, at Penny’s
suggestion, in 2006 I started
attending Sonata adult piano camp for a week each year. That
experience brought home to me the
importance of making music in my life, and also the commitment required
as well as I am able. It remains very much a work in progress.
While I play mostly for myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Penny’s opening. The experience of living with loss has been a joint endeavor that neither of us could have weathered alone.
Preludes (from Eight Preludes for Piano) Frank Martin
No. I Andante
No. III Tranquillo ma con moto
No. II Allegretto tranquillo
Sonata in B-flat minor, op. 35 Frédéric Chopin
Grave, doppio movimento
ABOUT THE MUSIC
The works I have chosen for today have within them many of the emotions associated with deep loss. But they also bound those emotions within a clear-eyed intellectual structure that condenses and sharpens them, much as the strictures of meter, rhyme, and form heighten the impact of a well-wrought poem.
Frank Martin (1890-1974), Preludes
Swiss composer Frank Martin is more widely known in Europe than in America. In his 40s, he became interested in the 12-tone theories of Arnold Schönberg. He incorporated elements into his own musical language, synthesizing chromatic and 12-tone techniques without ever abandoning the notion of a tonal hierarchy. This language is evident throughout the Preludes, composed in 1947-48. While the ‘vocabulary’ of the Preludes is distinctive to Martin, in form they are clearly evocative of the earlier preludes of Bach and Chopin.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Sonata #2 in B-flat Minor, op. 35.
Chopin completed this sonata in 1839, though the famous “funeral march” third movement was written earlier, in 1837. The date November 28 on the manuscript suggests it may have been written to memorialize the defeat of the abortive Polish uprising against Russian rule in November 1830. The other three movements had a more personal inspiration during a period of both intense creativity and severe physical debility.
To me, the unity of this sonata is grounded in a deep engagement with the realization of mortality. It is not without consolation, but solace is hard-won and provisional. From its ominous opening chords and hard-driving principal motif, the first movement intimates, but does not fully accept, a terrifying possibility. In the tumultuous scherzo, agitation threatens to be overwhelming, but is interrupted briefly by a gentle waltz-like melody of great beauty. The agitation returns and builds to a climax, then modulates into a final reminder of the melody that dies away to nothing. The funeral march that follows is now so familiar as to be an archetype, but try to hear it as if for the first time: the muffled drumbeat over sighing footsteps, with the simplest, sweetest song of consolation in the trio. The final presto is a complete enigma, a sweeping, swirling chromatic line, doubled in octaves, that finds no place of rest until the final definitive chord.
I first heard this sonata performed by Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli in 1975 in Bordeaux, and it floored me then. It still does.
I want to thank my teachers, Polly van der Linde and Ashlee Mack. Polly is the director and owner of Sonatina Enterprises, in Old Bennington, VT, and an amazing teacher. She and her staff have greatly deepened my understanding of the piano and its repertoire. Here at Knox, Ashlee has helped me immeasurably with her insights and her patience.
Penny and I first heard the music of Frank Martin at one of Laura Lane’s Nova Singers concerts. By luck, we were sitting with Nancy Eberhardt, who told me of his piano music and generously gave me her copy of the Preludes. Thanks to Laura and Nancy for enriching my musical life with Martin’s music.
Finally, to Penny, simply Thanks. For everything.