About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

January 26, 2013

Monsters of the Steinway, Pt 2: Joel Fan

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Don't miss our next performance on the "Monsters" series by Joel Fan, pianist, on Saturday, February 23, 2013, 7:30 PM at Leffler Performance Center at Elizabethtown College. The final performance for this season by Emanuel Ax will be on Tuesday, March 19 at 8:00 PM. Go here for tickets or call: 717-361-1508. Follow links below to hear pre-concert performances of the program and to learn more about the Hammerklavier Sonata than you have ever known.

Alexander Scriabin, Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 in F Sharp Major

Born in Russia in 1872 Alexander Scriabin started out as a prodigy pianist, studying as a boy with the renowned Moscow pedagogue Nikolai Zverev, a despotic force in the Russian piano world whose other star pupil was Sergei Rachmaninov, Scriabin’s distant cousin. At one point they both lived in Zverev’s home with some other piano students. Scriabin and Rachmaninov were in classes together at the Moscow Conservatory and competed for the large piano prizes upon graduation. A hand “injury” (possibly “musicians’ dystonia”) supposedly while over-practicing the Don Juan Fantasie of Liszt, may have helped turn Scriabin toward composition.

He began composing "...very much in the style of Chopin, and ended it on the brink of madness, composing wild music of the future." --Ruth Laredo.  Scriabin considered himself to be a messianic figure. Near the end of his life (in 1915) he planned a mammoth work, the Mysterium, to commemorate the conflagration that was gripping all of Europe at the time, the “Great” War (WW I), which he thought would purge mankind and usher in a glorious new era of mystical wonder. The performance was to take place in a half-temple to be built in India. Bells suspended from clouds would summon the spectators from all over the world. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Scriabin would be seated at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. Costumed speakers reciting text in processions and parades would form part of the action along with the dancers, whose choreography would include eye motions and touches of the hands in conjunction with odors of both pleasant perfume and acrid smoke. Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. A light show, bathing the cast and audience in changing effects. It’s amazing how accurately he anticipated halftime at the Superbowl! (most of this paragraph came from pianosociety.com)

Scriabin was said to have "visions." ("No one knows whether Scriabin's music would have been the same had he not been possessed by his visions." --Vladimir Askenazy) Indications are that these included “synesthesia,” a rare tendency to conflate sensory stimuli, as described by the contemporary pianist, Hélène Grimaud: especially in concert, "colors can come unbidden, each connected to a particular key. C minor is black. D minor is blue. E-flat major is 'very bright—something similar to sunlight . . . and sometimes switching to green.'” (See Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks.) 

But Scriabin himself reported an even stronger stimulus:  ". . . the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act.  I definitely know that the creative urge in myself has all the signs of a a sexual stimulation with me . . . And note, please, that the creative artist is square in the middle of this -- the weaker he is in the sexual area, the weaker is his art."

Scriabin composed the 5th Sonata in a feverish burst of creative activity immediately after the completion of his popular orchestral work, Symphonic Poem of Ecstasy. The Sonata echoes the orgiastic, prismatic, and highly perfumed sound-world Scriabin evoked in the Poem, and in fact, as an introduction to this sonata, Scriabin attached a portion from the text of the Poem of Ecstasy

"I summon you to life, secret yearnings!
You who have been drowned in the dark depths
Of the creative spirit, you timorous 

Embryos of life, it is to you that I bring daring"

There are a million ways to play this very difficult sonata and almost as many recorded versions. Pianists argue over which performer dropped the most notes as well as how freely to play the printed score. One devotee of Scriabin's music, the pianist and conductor Vladimir Askenazy said: "Although one cannot say that without understanding his philosophy one cannot understand his music, one penetrates deeper into his music, if one studies what compelled Scriabin.  One cannot separate the man-as-philosopher from the composer of such beautiful music.  His music has a unique idealism.  It has its own laws and its own meaning.  His workmanship was nearly always impeccable.  He continues to be a fascinating and controversial figure in musical history, and a man about whom opinions will always differ."

You might start to listen with an early recording (1960?) by Vladimir Sofroniski who married one of Scriabin's daughters and concertized in Russia (where he lived and taught) and Europe on Scriabin's Becker piano. Alexander Scriabin plays (in 1910) his own Etude Op.8 No.12 hereHe died before completing the Mysterium, at age 43 of septicemia extending from a sore on his lip.  

Sergei Rachmaninov, Sonata No. 2, Op. 32 in B-Flat minor

Unlike his Russian contemporaries, Scriabin, Stravinsky (b. 1882), and later Shostakovich (b. 1908), Serge Rachmaninov (1873 -- 1943) felt that he could not lift his works out of the 19th Century: “I feel like a ghost wandering in the world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today (1939), but it will not come to me.” He might have agreed with Sibelius: “Not everyone can be an innovating genius." As did other leading composers of the early twentieth century--Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, among others--he eventually settled in the United States (mostly in California). Rachmaninov’s new home was on North Elm Drive, in the center of the Los Angeles movie colony.

Despite being stuck in the previous century Rachmaninov’s works, most highly Romantic, still speak to 20th century listeners and beyond, partly because Rachmaninov had his own distinctive voice--you can recognize it immediately when you turn on your car radio--and also because his works thrive when the performer overcomes the astounding technical challenges to allow the themes to fully blossom. As increasingly facile pianists emerge from our current highly competitive conservatory environment, they look to such technical challenges (like “Rach 3” the concerto) to display the talents achieved by a lifetime (so far, short) of practice.

Rachmaninov’s 'full industrial strength' piano concerti are beloved by millions, and performed and recorded often by leading pianists including Horowitz, Earl Wild, Marc-André Hamlin, and many others, and many of their themes have found new homes in films, love songs, church anthems, and even television commercials. 

When Rachmaninov played solo concerts, audiences couldn’t get enough of his Prélude in C-sharp minor so he resisted including it on concerts. His other 'smaller works' are now less often heard: the Preludes, the Etudes, the Moments Musicaux. They mark him as the last of the colorful Russian masters of the late 19th century, with their characteristic gift for long and broad melodies imbued with a resigned melancholy which is never long absent. The songs are at last being recognized to be among Russia's best. In his later years, his style grew more subtle, as can be heard in the Paganini Rhapsody, the Corelli Variations, the last set of songs, and the Symphonic Dances. His operas failed to hold the stage because of deficits in their librettos, but recordings have enabled their splendid music to be appreciated. The four Piano Concerti are an ineradicable part of the romantic repertory, and the symphonies, though still overshadowed by the piano works, have gained in popularity. His masterpiece, according to some, is The Bells, which fuses and unifies all his powers.

In 1915, the year of Scriabin's death Rachmaninov made a memorial tour of Russia playing only Scriabin's music to acknowledge Scriabin's genius. Plenty of recordings of Rachmaninov playing his own music are still available.

Sonata no. 2 is a pyrotechnical tour de force full of lush and beautiful Rachmaninovian themes. Here is a performance by Marc-André Hamelin. 

Ludwig van Beethoven, Hammerklavier Sonata, No 29, Op. 106

Known as the Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, or more simply as the Hammerklavier, this sonata is widely considered to be one of the most important works of the composer's third period and among the greatest piano sonatas. It is widely considered Beethoven's single most challenging composition for the piano, and it remains one of the most challenging solo works in the classical piano repertoire.

Dedicated to his patron, the Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven wrote the sonata between the summer of 1817 and late autumn of 1818, towards the end of a fallow period in his career. It represents the spectacular emergence of many of the themes that were to recur in his late period, the reinvention of traditional forms, such as sonata form; a brusque humor (humor? in Beethoven?); and a return to pre-classical compositional traditions, including an exploration of modal harmony and reinventions of the fugue
 within classical forms.

The Hammerklavier also set a precedent for the length of solo compositions (performances typically take about 45 minutes). While orchestral works such as symphonies and concerti had movements of 15 or even 20 minutes, few single movements in solo literature had a span such as the Hammerklavier's Adagio sostenuto.

The sonata's name comes from Beethoven's later practice of using German rather than Italian words for musical terminology. (Hammerklavier literally means "hammer-keyboard", and is still today the German name for the fortepiano, the predecessor of the modern pianoforte without its metal frame.) It comes from the title page of the work, "Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier", which means "Grand sonata for the fortepiano". The more sedate Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101 has the same description, but the epithet has come to apply to the Sonata No. 29 only. 
The work also makes extensive use of the una corda pedal, with Beethoven giving for his time unusually detailed instructions when to use it. (Thanks, Wikipedia for most of the above.)

As Sarah Palin might say, “there's Walmarts and Walmarts of stuff out there” about Beethoven and his Hammerklavier Sonata, almost all by writers more knowledgeable than I. And if you have made your way through half of the prose above, your eyes may have already glazed over. So for relief I refer you to the hilarious (but fictitious) interview by Jeremy Denk, not entirely devoid of heuristic value. For a pre-concert preview of the Hammerklavier here is a live performance by Jeremy.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this!

    So funny about rachmaninoff...

    I feel his sound is so distinctly modern, yet it does retain the romantic feel.

    It just has an edge to it... like you said, that sorrow... but it does feel modern to me!

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