Grieg and Chopin: Romantic Genius
As with many of history’s greatest composers, both Edvard Grieg and Frédéric Chopin were also incredibly talented and accomplished pianists. A native of Norway, Grieg is widely considered one of the world’s foremost Romantic composers and a leader in helping to establish a distinctly Norwegian musical language. The first half of this program features two exquisitely romantic works by Grieg, each piece being the only work Grieg composed in its respective genre—the Opus 7 Solo Piano Sonata in e minor and the Cello Sonata in a minor. The second half of the program explores the scintillatingly beautiful world of Chopin’s pianistic and compositional virtuosity, as displayed through two of his pieces for cello-piano duo. While the Cello Sonata in g minor is a brooding foray into the feelings of darkness and despair, the Introduction and Polonaise brillante concludes the program with dramatic contrast on an incredibly joyous and exuberant note. Each and every work on this program offers a deeply personal yet unique statement from either Grieg or Chopin, two of the most revered composer-pianists of the Romantic era.
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Piano Sonata in e minor, op. 7 (1865)
Alla Menuetto, ma poco più lento
Finale: Molto allegro
Sonata in a minor for Cello and Piano, op. 36 (1882–1883)
Andante molto tranquillo
Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849)
Sonata in g minor for Cello and Piano, op. 65 (1845–1846)
Scherzo: Allegro con brio
Introduction and Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano, op. 3 (1829–1830)
Notes on the program
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)
Piano Sonata in e minor, op. 7
Composed in 1865.
The Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg is celebrated as his country’s most skilled melodist, and perhaps one of the finest of the Romantic era. Grieg was an extremely talented pianist; though his compositional output is primarily for the piano, his catalog of compositions also includes vocal music, orchestral music, and a limited number of chamber works. He was deeply inspired by the likes of Schumann and Tchaikovsky, and a strong, Romantic, vocal element is apparent across the span of his oeuvre, in both his vocal and instrumental works.
Born in Bergen, Norway in 1843, Grieg began his piano studies with his mother at the age of five and began composing by the age of 15, and upon the encouragement of Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull, began more rigorous studies at the Leipzig Conservatory. Upon the completion of his studies in Leipzig, Grieg spent three years in Copenhagen composing and furthering his studies, and he produced his first major piano work and his only piano sonata, the Opus 7 in e minor, over the course of 15 days in the summer of 1865. Grieg dedicated the piece to his Danish composition mentor and friend, Niels Gade (1817–1890). Having become deeply interested in Norwegian folk music during these years, Grieg returned to Norway in 1866, determined to make his mark as a composer, performer, and conductor in his homeland. In 1870, Grieg met with Franz Liszt in Rome, at which time he received guidance and encouragement for some of his earlier pieces, including his Violin Sonata no. 2, op. 13 and the Piano Concerto in a minor, op. 16. Grieg composed the incidental music to the play Peer Gynt between 1874 and 1876 at the request of the author, Henrik Ibsen, and subsequently served as Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra from 1880 to 1882. In the following years, with fewer professional commitments and thus fewer constraints on his time, his compositional output increased: these years saw the creation of such works as the Cello Sonata, op. 36, Holberg Suite, op. 40, Peer Gynt Orchestral Suites, the Lyric Pieces for Piano, and collections of songs. Grieg died in 1907 of heart failure; his last words were, “Well, if it must be so.”
The e minor Sonata’s opening Allegro moderato movement begins with an agitated, declamatory theme, employing a compositional technique most prominently used by J. S. Bach, and later, Dmitri Shostakovich: the opening three notes in the right hand spell out the composer’s own initials, E – H (H in German is B) – G. The music is heavily imbued with Romantic pathos, waxing and waning through various, florid figurations in the left hand. At times, there is equal weight between the treble and bass lines in call-and-response fashion, each voice pleading to the other in an uneasy discourse. The movement concludes with the same assertive, full-voiced energy as the opening.
Providing soothing respite from the Sturm-und-Drang unsettledness of the first movement, the opening cantabile (“singable”) theme of the slow movement is cast in C major. Though still marked cantabile, Grieg introduces harmonic shifts that lead to heavily romantic melodic swells, virtuosic, sweeping chromatic lines, and at the climax, a deep sense of impassioned longing. This chromatic wandering ultimately relaxes and lands back in the key of C major, providing an ending to the movement as tender as its opening, similar to the return of the opening material at the end of the first movement.
Marked Alla Minuetto ma poco più lento to signify a slightly slower tempo than one might usually take for a Classical era minuet, the third movement is a short, compact statement in the style of a minuet. The stately opening theme, in piano dynamic and marked cantabile and semplice (“simple”), is somewhat reflective, though growing markedly louder at its high points and simultaneously displaying some of the adamant, declamatory qualities of the first movement. The movement continues to what appears to resemble an imitation of a second minuet in the Classical style, a new melody placed over the same rhythmic motif accompaniment as the opening. Almost as quickly as the movement began, the music returns to the opening theme in its hushed, piano dynamic before concluding on a more forceful note.
The sonata’s finale, cast in 6/8 time, opens with a pseudo-orchestral six-bar introduction that ends with a held, fermata (“pause”) dominant chord. After the brief pause, which holds the listener in suspense, the finale takes off with exuberant spirit in the key of e minor, dotted rhythmic figures propelling the music steadily forward, with virtuosic chromatic runs in the right hand providing additional fireworks. A more poised cantabile melody in bright E major is introduced as the second subject, which is soon interrupted by the return of the rollicking dotted rhythmic figure and chromatic episodes. The music continues in this fashion, alternating between sweet, cantabile melodies and the boisterous, rollicking motifs before concluding triumphantly in E major.
Sonata in a minor for Cello and Piano, op. 36
Composed between 1882 and 1883.
Premiered on October 22, 1883 in Dresden by cellist Friedrich Ludwig Grützmacher and the composer at the piano.
“Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights. My aim in my music is exactly what Ibsen says about his plays: ‘I want to build homes for the people in which they can be happy and contented'”. Like Bartók, Grieg discovered his musical mission in the culture of his native land. Formally schooled in Leipzig, he rejected rule-bound composing and instead adopted the romantic spirit of Schumann. He traveled widely and met many great musicians, including Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt, who was an admirer. Perhaps his broad knowledge of music contributed to insecurities about his own compositional technique; it took him over six months to complete the cello sonata. “Every other day I decide not to compose because I am less and less satisfied with myself.” (1882).
How quickly the first of many storms in this movement comes up! This is in no way the relatively calm La Mer of Debussy, but the crashing waves and howling winds of the north. The cello begins with the main theme quietly over the piano’s nervous accompaniment, but the piano, like the storm itself, soon rises to fever pitch and all but drowns the cello in crashing chords and octaves. All this is over in a few moments, closed by a brief and even more violent coda, and we are left in stunned silence. Then, magically, three peaceful C major chords announce the arrival of fair weather (or the second subject, if you must). As the cello sings the theme over rich harmonies so typical of Grieg, one can feel the warmth of the sun or a glowing fire. An expressive dialogue between the instruments carries the theme through various keys before C major reemerges, this time excitedly, and cascades of arpeggios sweep us into the development. One senses trouble on hearing the second subject in a minor key, and sure enough, “big storm number two” soon hits in f-sharp minor. Frantically, the cello and piano exchange lightning bolts in ever-quicker succession. This storm never totally dies, and reappears in full force again as the recapitulation. In the coda, as expected, we are again drenched and blown about, hopefully lashed to the mast.
The gorgeous slow movement opens with one of the most poignantly beautiful chord progressions imaginable, as if the piano itself is dropping down from heaven. By the cello entrance we are seated on rich earth. I find particularly inspiring Grieg’s seemingly endless resource of harmonies that color the single, oft-repeated notes of the melody. Contentedness gives way to brooding, however, and tempers rise, giving way to succeedingly violent outbursts, culminating in a passage where the pianist is called upon to practically bang the piano to pieces. As if knocked unconscious, we hear, in pianississimo, a trace of the first theme, and gradually warmth begins to flow in our veins as the first theme returns, this time with an even more beautiful harmonization. After a climax worthy of Rachmaninov, a delicate and sentimental coda concludes the movement.
Grieg’s finale is in folk style, with a jumping, dancing theme. However, there is also a bit of mystery here in the ghostly little solo cello line that bridges from the slow movement. It’s like something that you know will come back to haunt you later, and it does! After an exuberant virtuosic episode, two big cantabile phrases in the piano and cello bring in the second theme, which is actually made from the first subject slowed to half tempo. But how different it sounds! Would you have recognized it? Of course we’re still in Norway, so we must have some more storms and sailing before we get to a very curious passage that, although obviously out of Grieg’s imagination, seems like an explosion brewing in a nuclear reactor. When the blast finally comes it goes on and on, and, as if saved by aliens, we are transported out by the reappearance of the opening other-worldly melody, now harmonized. A full recapitulation follows, with a brilliant coda in which the mystery theme makes its final, triumphant, and ultimately dominating appearance.
Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849)
Sonata in g minor for Cello and Piano, op. 65
Composed between 1845 and 1846.
Chopin’s Cello Sonata represents an extraordinary effort on the part of a composer who, only a few years from the end of his life, determined to master a genre he had never before attempted. Only five chamber works by Chopin exist; three of them are for cello and piano. That the cello was Chopin’s favorite instrument after the piano is not in doubt for me! In poor health and the middle of an anguished breakup with George Sand, Chopin found it within himself to labor extensively on this work, making numerous sketches and revisions. “…with my cello sonata I am now contented, now discontented.” The result is a grand sonata on the scale of Chopin’s most serious and significant works. A big, virtuosic cello part is counterbalanced by masterful piano writing in which Chopin never compromises his unique style. All cellists owe a debt of gratitude to Auguste Franchomme (1808–1884), Chopin’s close friend during his later years, for whom the sonata was written.
A melancholy piano solo foreshadows a long and complex story. A fragment of the main theme is introduced, supported by rich and intense harmonies, and gives way to an impressionistic flourish. The cello, interrupting, states the theme in its entirety, and both instruments proceed together through melodic episodes, culminating in a heroic transformation of the theme. The excitement quickly dissipates to allow for the appearance of the second subject, beautifully still and thoughtful, only ten notes long. As if sacred, this theme is not further developed and is heard again only in its original form. Chopin continues rhapsodically, bringing in new melodies in both the cello and piano, until a spectacular climax is reached in which the two instruments play a rapid scale in opposite directions. The exposition is repeated, and the development is again introduced by a piano solo. A standard recapitulation is abandoned in favor of a sudden reappearance of the magical second subject. The movement concludes in an appropriately stormy fashion.
The second movement’s energetic theme uses repeated notes in rapid succession, giving it a hammering momentum, especially when played by the piano. This scherzo is almost quirky, alternating lyrical phrases with thunderous chords and virtuosic flourishes. In the cantabile trio, the cello is given the upper hand the whole way, spinning out a seamless melody over plangent harmonies reminiscent of a folk song.
The heart of the work is indeed the gorgeous Largo, as tranquil and brief as its neighbors are troubled and lengthy. Words cannot adequately describe this little gem, the only really extended peaceful experience in the sonata.
The finale is again in a minor key, its main theme dramatic and complex. There is something of a martial air about the first and second subjects, which both utilize dotted rhythms. But seriousness soon turns to fun as the dotted rhythms, repeated over and over, are turned into a rollicking rollercoaster ride. The main theme then reappears, but Chopin has worked it into a canon, and a highly contrapuntal episode creates the development section. The second subject returns, curiously drained of its energy by the disappearance of the dotted rhythms. The rollercoaster leads us to an even faster coda, full of brilliant writing for both instruments. Chopin’s great work ends triumphantly, its penultimate chord somehow reminding us of the magnitude of the experience.
Introduction and Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano, op. 3
Composed between 1829 and 1830.
Frédéric Chopin is rightfully remembered most prominently for his solo piano compositions—one of Western music history’s foremost virtuoso composer-pianists, he composed approximately 20 nocturnes (“songs of the night”), four sonatas, eight sets of variations, 57 mazurkas (dance miniatures), 16 polonaises (a popular Polish dance), 25 waltzes, four impromptus, four rondos, 24 preludes, three books of études (27 études in total), and two concerti, among numerous additional compositions for the piano. Though his chamber music output pales in comparison to his corpus of works for solo piano, the chamber pieces (including the Opus 3 Introduction and Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano the Opus 65 Cello Sonata in g minor) nonetheless exude Chopin’s unmistakable mastery of melody and harmonic fluidity.
It is no coincidence that the majority of Chopin’s chamber works, composed at various points in his life, are written for the cello—he enjoyed close friendships with several cellists, including the Duke Antoni Radziwiłł (also an accomplished composer in his own right, though an amateur) and Joseph Merk. These individuals in particular exerted an undeniable influence on Chopin’s cello writing and served as cellist muses to the otherwise piano-centric composer. The story of the genesis of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante is inextricably intertwined with both of the aforementioned cellists.
In the summer of 1829, Chopin, already an internationally recognized pianist and composer at the age of 19, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory. He was deeply in love with a young singer he encountered in Warsaw earlier that spring, but was not able to work up the courage to approach her. In an attempt to distract the young Chopin from his obsessive, romantic fixation and nudge him toward greater focus on his musical career, his father convinced him to accept an invitation by the Duke Radziwiłł, who was one of Chopin’s earliest supporters and patrons, to spend time at the Duke’s summer residence in Poznań. It was during his stay with the Duke that Chopin composed the Polonaise, in “brilliant” style, for cello and piano as a gesture of gratitude and friendship for the Duke.
The Polonaise was modeled after the popular Polish dance form of the day, as with Chopin’s signature polonaises for solo piano, and features virtuosic, showy writing for both instruments. In reference to this Polonaise, Chopin is quoted as saying, “Nothing to it but dazzle, for the salon, for the ladies.” (Perhaps his mind was still on the captivating singer from Warsaw, after all.) The Polonaise reflects the showy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek virtuosic writing that was common for salon pieces of the day, which were intended for casual entertainment. The Introduction, featuring highly vocal and sentimental melodies traded back and forth between cello and piano, was composed later in 1830. The Introduction and Polonaise brillante was published as the composer’s Op. 3 in 1831 and was dedicated to Joseph Merk, of whom Chopin reportedly said, “He is the only violoncellist I really respect.”