A Public Letter

Jonathan Bellman

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.

Dear Joel,

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,

Jon

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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8 Responses to A Public Letter

  1. Adam Solomon says:

    That sounds fantastic! Sadly I’ll be in wintery New Haven then – any chance it’ll get recorded at some point?

  2. Jonathan says:

    Well, Adam, how can it be avoided? Once the piece is published (as it certainly will be) I feel sure it will make it into The Repertoire, if for no reason other than a relative paucity of works for two pianos and orchestra. It will certainly be recorded.

  3. Ralph Locke says:

    Most intriguing! I don’t know the Weber march, but what you say about the use of Hungarian-Gypsy style for a work purportedly set in Spain makes me want to hear both the Weber and this two-piano pieces based on it. Good luck with the two performances!

  4. Jonathan says:

    There was a story that Weber made use of a melody he heard some Spanish Gypsies singing. The march, though is clearly *style hongrois*. I’m sure Eastman will have a recording of at least some of that material. For the *Fantaisie und Variationen*, Moscheles himself later published a (somewhat inferior, in my opinion) version for one piano, four hands. It was recorded at least once, by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, in 1988, and I bet Eastman has that too (we do, after all). The original version is, of course, more colorful, though I won’t deny that the four-hand was of great help to me in reconstructing the piano parts of the original.

  5. glen says:

    Jonathan that sounds like a really interesting project, I think you did a great job of describing and contextualizing its significance as well. What piqued my interest the most was the idea of composers actually collaborating in such a way in 1833. Am I wrong to think of this as somewhat of an anomaly at that time? It seems to me that the climate for upper-echelon composers of that time would have brought tremendous pressure from what I believe Nicholas Cook referred to as the “Beethoven Cult” (esp in the VSI to music, hopefully I’m not misrepresenting, I don’t have the book handy). I would think that paradigm would really press hard for the solitary, “autonomous” composer who would be so intent on expression of his own self that this kind of collaboration would be unthinkable. But then again, maybe it does manifest itself in the fact that they took turns on variations, each with their own personal segment, rather than having critical input on each other’s ideas?

  6. Jonathan says:

    Glen, I think this is where we’re prisoners of our training and reading. OK, there was a Beethoven cult, but there were also pianists pleasing crowds, and Paganini imitating farm animals for that matter, and the entertainment aspect doesn’t fit the Romantic notion of the fiercely independent Beethoven of the Heilegenstadt Testament at all. Here were two pianists, close friends, who decided to put together An Entertainment for the finale of one of their concerts (Larry Todd’s word “extravaganza” seems very appropriate). Maybe a better image would be guys in a band: “You take a two-chorus solo, then I will—all over that popular tune we chose, in the same popular style—then we’ll do something really special at the end. They’ll love it.” No Artist’s Message, no Angst, no Anxiety of Influence, not much (given their compressed schedule) compositional self-criticism: the gig’s on top of us, man! Let’s get it together!
    Particularly in the piano world, that kind of thing was a major part of the performing environment throughout the nineteenth century. In our understanding, we’ve let the romantic music-appreesh images of Brooding Beethoven and The Solitary, Tormented Artist condition our understanding of a much broader and deeper musical culture. As far as collaborations, they weren’t common, but others do exist: Joseph Joachim composed the violin cadenza that Brahms published with his violin concerto, and there’s that antic “Themes from Wagner, worked out as a quadrille for piano, four-hands” piece by Gabriel Fauré and Andre Messager. In poetry, we know that Stefan Witwicki helped Adam Mickiewicz complete *Pan Tadeusz*; Mickiewicz acknowledges as much. So whether credited or not, it may be that collaboration was more common than we have allowed ourselves to imagine.

  7. Jeff says:

    For Glen: There’s also the “Hexameron” Variations from a few year’s after Jonathan’s piece, a collaborative effort from Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny, and Chopin. And such works would have seemed the natural off-shoot of collaborative concerts (like when Liszt, Chopin, and Hiller performed the Bach Concerto for 3 keyboards in Paris ca. 1833).

  8. Good article.It sounds like a really interesting project, I think you did a great job of describing and contextualizing its significance as well..

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