Joel Shapiro, my piano teacher at the University of
Illinois (where I earned my M.M. in Piano Performance over a quarter-century
ago), recently asked me what was special or interesting about my current
project, the Fantasie und Variationen über den Zigeunermarsch aus Webers Preziosa, jointly composed by Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles, which has not been performed in its original two-piano-and-orchestra form since 1833. As I’ve blogged before (here and here), I’ve been involved in reconstructing the original score, and I’ll be playing one of the solo parts for the twenty-first-century premiere, on February 21 in Austin, TX, and on the pre-premiere here in Greeley, CO on February 9.
It is certainly a fair question, so I will answer publicly, borrowing from the centuries-old practice of public correspondence.
Yesterday we had our first rehearsal with the orchestra, so I now have heard the piece all the way through for the first time. If the piece makes it to the culture-vulture threshold of the popular media, it will doubtless be called a “lost masterpiece,” which it is not. To me, it is something perhaps more interesting: a work explicitly composed by two accomplished pianist-composers, within the space of a week, to entertain the English concert audience of 1833. To learn and perform such a work is to see the rivets and seams, of course, since in such a case “composed by” might better be understood as “assembled by.” The introduction and finale were collaborative efforts; Mendelssohn took variations one and two and Moscheles took three and four. Naturally, we learn something about what figuration each man liked to play—all part of the standard vocabulary of post-classical Brilliant Style writing—and we see how compatible they were, which is no surprise to anyone knowing their biographies. Had I not known of their collaboration, I would have accepted this work as an occasional composition of either Mendelssohn or Moscheles.
The theme is a popular one from the time, the Gypsy march from Carl Maria von Weber’s incidental music to the play Preziosa, which was a retelling of one of Cervantes’s Novellas ejemplares. Although the subject is, of course, Spanish Gypsies (and Weber’s music does have some music of a Spanish flavor), the march (and this piece) mostly reference the style hongrois, a popular Hungarian-Gypsy idiom which as you know has been an interest of mine for decades. I smile to find Mendelssohn undoing his collar button enough to have a good time in such a style, since he was generally uncomfortable with openly vernacular excursions into local color such as this. (Obviously, the “Scottish” and “Italian” symphonies take a very different approach.) There is also, I think, a reference to another style hongrois piece of Weber’s: variation three has a passage strongly reminiscent of the introduction to Ännechen’s comic second-act dream-divination song from Der Freischütz, which opens with a smoky style hongrois viola solo over pseudo-cimbalom tremolos. As our conductor Russell Guyver has pointed out, the orchestration itself is very much in Weber spirit, which would certainly have had a resonance in London of the early 1830s.
Another thread running through the piece, for whatever reason, is Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The second half of the first theme of the first movement serves as a motto for the Introduction of the Mendelssohn/Moscheles, and the broken octaves from the end of Beethoven’s finale—a fairly common evocation of idiomatic cimbalom playing—and the texture of the octave melody from just before shows up in a couple of places in the Mendelssohn/Moscheles finale also. Moscheles in particular was a cult-of-Beethoven type, so it is not surprising from him, but it is interesting that Op. 37 should be so present in an openly style hongrois work. There are some Hungarian elements in Beethoven’s finale, to be sure (and for that matter Peter van der Merwe heard some in the second movement of the Seventh Symphony), so this piece may give some indication of how vernacular elements in the Beethoven were heard and understood in the decades following its composition.
From the perspective of the keyboard, the Fantasy and Variations almost plays itself. Mendelssohn and Moscheles scored the piece with plenty of pianistic craft, so the soloists are able to hear where they need to be, to contrive effective cues, and to put the thing together with a minimum of rehearsal. (Our ensembles are being kinder to us, but I still recognize when subtle fail-safes and safety nets are woven into a piece’s concept.) The piece is ten to fifteen minutes total; beautifully crafted, loads of fun to play, and attractive and entertaining throughout. Frankly, I like it much more than Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto, which I have never managed to like and which, to my mind, has a more limited vocabulary of keyboard figuration and no themes I would want to remember. In comparison to the Preziosa Variations, Mendelssohn’s Op. 25 seems to me to aspire to more and achieve less.
And a personal note: I have always been grateful to you for, among many other things, the fingering principles you passed on to me in the early 1980s—thumbs-together, mirror-groupings, liberation from the standard scale fingerings and so on that both are optimally dependable and facilitate quicker learning and more effective memorization. Such approaches to fingering have proven invaluable here, and some of the slightly quirky passagework (altered scales patterns, etc.) suggest to me that Mendelssohn and Moscheles understood such principles well, particularly when putting together a piece like this on a we’ve-only-got-five-days-and-this-needs-to-work basis. Learning the piece with these fingering practices in mind has made me smile many times, as yet another passage falls neatly under the hand.
Thus my take on the Preziosa Fantasy and Variations for two pianos and orchestra by Mendelssohn and Moscheles. It is a piece for the audience and for the players, well crafted with plenty of bravura and clever contemporary musical references—Freischütz here, a touch of the Spanish Fandango-like two-chord oscillation there, a playful fugato in another place—to please both Kenner und Liebhaber. I am less inclined to think of it as a Work in the sacralized sense, but we’re probably better off freeing ourselves from such needlessly delimiting concepts anyway. It is a real joy to learn a historical piece with no received performance tradition such as this, because I can bring the entirety of my study of the contemporary musical language to it without having to get into arguments with this or that Influential Figure, Famous Interpreter, etc. It is like when Jeffrey Kallberg sent me his reconstruction of an early Chopin Prelude in E-Flat Minor (which can be read about here and heard in my unfortunately incoherent performance here), which he reconstructed from a scrap of Chopin’s score-paper on which it was notated in a kind of shorthand; one doesn’t have to waste time disagreeing.
Back to practicing and grading now. Hoping all’s well with you and yours,