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About this Piece

One of the eight keyboard suites published in 1720 under George Frideric Handel’s personal supervision, the cozy, domestic Suite No. 5 has long borne the descriptive—and most likely spurious—title “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” Popularized and elaborated after Handel’s death, the story goes that Handel (1685–1759) once heard the infectious, folksy tune that becomes the subject of five ingenious variations in the last of the Suite’s four short movements when he sought shelter from the rain in a blacksmith’s shop.

The ringing sound of hammers striking the anvil allegedly inspired him to write the ringing “hammered” repeated notes that intensify in velocity as the variations progress, growing from the eighth notes in the original tune to 16th notes, then to 24 and finally to 32 notes per measure, assigned first to the right hand and then to the left in mirrored E-major symmetry. Although Percy Young writes with sober disapproval that “there is no recorded instance of Handel’s having had dealings with blacksmiths, harmonious or otherwise,” the image has stuck fast. Preceded by a Prelude and two courtly dances (a folksy Allemande and a courtly Courante), the “Air con Variazioni” provides plenty of rigorous finger exercise. The Suite served as a handy “party piece” for Handel’s many students, who included Princess Caroline, future Queen of England, and other members of European royal families.

Born 148 years after Handel, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) held his music (especially Messiah) in high regard. In his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, composed in 1861 and published the following year, Brahms engages in an intricate and exuberant stylistic dialogue with his predecessor, applying an encyclopedic variety of genres and styles to Handel’s slim Baroque model, an aria only eight measures long from the 1733 Suite de Pièces pour le Clavecin. Brahms’ friend Max Kalbeck described Handel’s sturdy theme as “chiseled from marble.” The 25 variations—set in sharply contrasting moods, rhythms, and harmonic textures—build in increasing intensity and vigor to a majestic concluding fugue that revisits preceding motifs and ranges dramatically over the entire keyboard.

For Brahms, it was the bass line that provided the anchor for the variations, “the firm foundation on which I then build my stories.... On the given bass, I invent something actually new, I discover new melodies in it, I create.” The set contains numerous references to earlier creators of variations, especially Bach (the Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (the Diabelli Variations), but also employs more contemporary styles, including the spicy Hungarian rhapsody of variation 13. Even Richard Wagner acknowledged Brahms’s accomplishment, observing that the set exhibited “what could still be done with the old forms.”

Some 17 years later, in 1878, Brahms composed the Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76 (Klavierstücke). Although he had written three piano sonatas early in his career, later he came to prefer smaller and more flexible forms such as capriccios, intermezzos, ballades, scherzos, rhapsodies, and variations. But Brahms completely rejected the idea of “program” music, in stark opposition to Wagner and Liszt, instead embracing abstraction and “pure” music without descriptive titles or narratives. This does not mean, however, that Brahms’ music is devoid of feeling or emotion. His piano miniatures are brimming with seething sensuality and turbulent outbursts of passion, expressed in a concise but dense harmonic and rhythmic language.

Op. 76 offers a fine balance between four capriccios (fanciful, agitated, and daring) and four intermezzos (lyrical, pensive, and playful). Throughout the set, ingenious cross-rhythms (especially quarter notes against triplets) and constantly shifting accents create a restless, dynamic mood. The second Capriccio is the one of Brahms’ most famous piano pieces, beloved of students, a jaunty dance in 2/4 marked grazioso that distills the atmosphere of Viennese gemütlichkeit. By contrast, the fifth-movement Capriccio is a study in what one critic has called “polyphonic frenzy,” with three distinct themes and swirling rhythmic crosscurrents, its complexity heightened by the metrical framework, veering obsessively between 2/4 and 6/8.

One of the most important influences on Brahms both personally and musically was his long friendship with Robert Schumann (1810–1856) and his wife, Clara (1819–1896). Before Clara, however, Schumann was briefly engaged to another woman: Ernestine von Fricken, aged just 17 at the time. Their flirtation developed rapidly, and Schumann even used a theme composed by Ernestine’s father, the Baron von Fricken, an amateur flutist, as the basis for his ambitious Symphonic Etudes, originally composed in 1834–35. Only a year after their engagement, Schumann and Ernestine split up, and immediately afterward, he began his lifelong and often stormy relationship with Clara, who would develop into a major talent in her own right as a piano virtuoso and composer.

The Symphonic Etudes exist in a confusing variety of versions. First published in 1837, the work was revised and republished several times: in 1852, 1861, and finally in a 1890 edition overseen by Brahms, who included five more variations cut in earlier versions. Today, these five are often inserted (as an “appendix”) somewhere in the performance according to the pianist’s preference. Schumann called the work “symphonic” to show the keyboard’s orchestral potential, capable of blending, contrasting, or superimposing different timbres. Here, the principle of variation expands to a complete transformation of elements of the original (somber and serious) theme, to the point where it occasionally disappears entirely under an impressive cascade of sharply changing moods, reflecting the two extreme facets of Schumann’s creative personality: “Eusebius” (lyrical, melancholy, introverted) and “Florestan” (excitable and dynamic). The set concludes with a fiery and triumphant Finale, marked Allegro brillante.

Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931) has throughout her prolific career found fertile inspiration in classical forms and composers, using them as a framework for her own decisively personal and always innovative style. Gubaidulina often uses these classical models to convey deep spiritual meaning. She has said she believes that the composer’s role in the modern world is to “serve,” like a priest at a mass, assisting the worshippers (the audience) in their search for the divine.

The Chaconne, one of her earliest works, composed in 1962 for a fellow student at Moscow Conservatory, Georgian pianist Marina Mdivani, provides a brilliant example of her compositional method. The piece uses a classical genre (in this case the chaconne, a continuous 16th-century dance variation form similar to the passacaglia, usually written for lute or guitar) and ascends to an entirely new musical sphere. The eight-measure theme heard at the outset undergoes vast transformations “from solemn stateliness through impulsive drama to quiet lyricism,” as her biographer Michael Kurtz writes. With its harsh dissonances, extreme chord registers and shifting dynamics, the Chaconne exploits the wide range of the keyboard’s sonic possibilities, and presents exciting challenges for pianists, who have given it an esteemed place in the contemporary piano repertoire. —Harlow Robinson