I recently finished a book of essays by the Ardent Wagnerite Ernest Newman, in which he several times proclaims the death of sonata form. In the essay "Brahms and the Serpent," for example, we find
The creative musical imagination at its best, its most logical, should work as Coleridge described Shakespeare's imagination working: he 'goes on creating', says Coleridge, 'and evolving B out of A, and C out of B, and so on, just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body, and seems for ever twisting and untwisting its own strength'. That, perhaps, will be the ideal of the instrumental music of the future; the way to it, indeed, seems at last to be opening out before modern composers in proportion as they discard the last tiresome vestiges of sonata form. This, from being what it was originally, the natural mode of expression of a certain eighteenth century way of thinking in music, became in the nineteenth century a drag upon both individual thinking and the free unfolding of the inner vital force of an idea, and is now simply a shop device by which a bad composer may persuade himself and the innocent reader of textbooks that he is a good one.
Don't bother bringing up Brahms, since Newman notes problems in the "continuity" of all of Brahms' large-scale works. In fact, just about the only composer he feels has solved the conundrum of Romantic feeling in classical form is Sibelius. I, of course, disagree, or at least note the same amount of "padding" in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as Newman claims in Schumann and Brahms. I suspect what Newman considers extraneous to the "organic growth" (since that's what Coleridge is talking about) of a piece of music I would find a perfectly legitimate rhetorical relaxation. In a longer piece - music or poetry - you really don't want the kettle at full boil all the time. The argument begins to lack differentiation and thus lose interest.
As the liner notes to this CD point out, the composers represented here each try to reconcile a Romantic idiom - in particular one that modulates more rapidly than 18th-century music - with classical forms. As we know, classical forms are generally articulated through key changes, and thus the more frequent modulations post-Beethoven pose a problem to those working with classical form. One solution, of course, is the Alexandrian one: ignore classical form, as Liszt does in his self-styled "sonata." Another is to try to adapt the Schumann dramatic character-piece to classical forms, as Strauss does in Til Eulenspiegel (rondo), Don Quixote (theme and variations), and Sinfonia Domestica (sonata-allegro). Still other composers, particularly after Bruckner and Mahler, distinguish classical parts through changes in rhythm and texture and through distinguishing "momentary" modulations from more stable "points of arrival." Stravinskian neo-classicism, on the other hand, makes classical form part of the "game" of composition by essentially alluding (often with the most minimal of hints) to "standard practice" and eliding joins. Franck and Giannini show some kinship in the way they handle form. Bloch, as befits his highly original and exploratory musical mind, stands by himself.
I confess that Franck's music, for the most part, leaves me cold, precisely because his form is so clunky. I believe Newman's criticism has a great deal of point in his case. To me, Franck is at his best in small forms and song forms - nothing longer than three minutes. That is, essentially Franck is an improviser. I don't say that consequently he's an inferior composer because of it, but it does exacerbate the problem of what to do over the long haul. The improviser generally has a great deal of trouble with longer forms, precisely because he's usually "in the moment" and not in the habit of thinking several moves in advance. He generally works out miniatures, songs, and, in longer forms, theme and variation. I don't think it a coincidence that Franck's successful pieces include the slow movement to the symphony and the Symphonic Variations. His other tries at form generally remind me of a birdhouse held together by duct tape. The joins are obvious and the structure in itself gives no aesthetic pleasure; it seems beside the point of the "momentary" music. I know of nothing in Franck to compare to the peroration to Brahms' Haydn variations or the introduction to the finale of Brahms' first symphony. Brahms binds up the entire set of variations with one magnificent (and non-repetitive) stroke and makes the Prélude before the march-like theme of the symphony's finale a necessary exploration to find that theme. Considered simply as a feat of compositional skill, it impresses me more even than Beethoven's similar exploration in the finale to his Ninth.
The lack of even one first-rate idea in the Prélude, Chorale, and Fugue amazes me less than Franck's inability to spin gold from straw. After all, first-rate ideas are hard to come up with. Composers more often impress us with how they play the cards they hold. Franck's pleasures come a couple of bars here and there. There's no direction to most of these notes other than to take up time. The Prélude for me succeeds best. The Chorale occasionally shows some interesting keyboard writing. The Fugue is somewhat optimistically named. The fugue breaks down immediately after the initial restatement of the themes, and Franck has a devil of time trying to start it up again, simply because he can't resist following the will-o'-the-wisp of a beautiful, non-fugal fragment just because it's occurred to him. In short, except for the Prélude, the piece goes anywhere for no good reason. The far less ambitious Danse lente, in its two-minute span, shows far more musical purpose. The pianist, Myron Silberstein, seems to me a musician who responds at his interpretive best to structure rather than to color, and thus in the PC&F, despite the advertisement of the title, Franck gives him nothing to do. The piece really needs a Gieseking or an Argerich - someone able to lavish a variety of color on a drab.
The Giannini pieces are witty, attractive trifles without apologies, and succeed much better than the Franck in filling old bottles with new wine. The Prélude and Fughetta take an inherently static theme built out of fourths out for a nice little spin. The Variations on a Cantus Firmus hearken back to the "freely expository" bass lines of Renaissance vocal music and apply them to Classical and post-Romantic forms. Silberstein makes a case for these works admirably, without inflation.
It seems to me that Bloch's stature as a composer has to be an "all or nothing" deal. He is either one of the greatest ever to set dots on a staff or a pretentious windbag. I stand steadfast in the former camp. Unfortunately, few makers of reputations agree with me. His works are full of ambition. They do Big Things structurally and emotionally. Not everything he wrote succeeds, but, like Brahms, when he fails (as in something like the "epic rhapsody" America), it's because his reach exceeds his grasp. He excelled in every major form except the symphony. Like Wagner, his work is symphonic without clicking in actual symphonic form. Again, his symphonies seem to want to do more than they are capable of (he was an early and vocal advocate of Mahler; a performance of the "Resurrection" symphony, under Mahler's baton, made a tremendous impact on him). His opera, Macbeth, has been called by more than one Big Name critic the greatest setting of a Shakespearean tragedy by anybody, and, yes, they have heard of Verdi. Roger Sessions considered his string quartets among the finest since Beethoven. Ernest Newman was a long-time advocate. Today, only Bloch's Schelomo keeps the composer's name alive. Epic, powerful music waits for a new hearing.
Bloch, a violinist rather than a pianist, did not write idiomatically for the piano. The writing tends to thickness, as if the piano were really an orchestra. Nevertheless, Bloch produced at least four major works, all well worth reviving: the Concerto Symphonique, Visions and Prophecies (an adaptation for piano of Voice in the Wilderness), Scherzo Fantasque, and this sonata. The last poses terrific interpretive challenges. Bloch's usual method of composition of building up larger units from tiny cells - very similar to Wagner's Leitmotiv method in the brevity and number of these cells - often tempts pianists to break up the music into small fragments, much as the Liszt sonata does. Unlike Liszt, however, Bloch really does build these cells into much larger structural units and such stopping and starting ruins the larger architecture. To a great extent, Bloch is influenced by Franck's notion of cyclical form, since the same motives appear in each movement. Nevertheless, Franck's parade of motives comes across usually as mechanical and arbitrary. In Bloch, the announcement of a new cell variation seems a necessary and inevitable outcome of the music thus far.
Bloch's basic problem for his interpreters is that they must find the overall line. Silberstein is my kind of pianist. He plays the music, rather than the notes. Indeed, sometimes the fragments get washed out with excessive pedal, but this is just a quibble. Silberstein gives you Bloch's very imposing architecture. Movements become arguments, rather than a succession of moments. At one point in the final march, I was struck by how softly Silberstein played a particular passage, pounded out by every other pianist I've heard (Kassai, Nadas, Jensen, the first two not currently available), and it became immediately apparent that he was building to a climax several passages ahead. The mood of the sonata is nocturnal, from the wild alarums and "Black Riders" fanfares of the first movement, through the meditative second, to the heroic third. Silberstein's performance shows a hard-working musical mind. The short piece "In the Night" (subtitled "A Love-Poem") shows these same emotional moods in little and adds a highly sensual languor rousing itself to passion (Bloch's music is nothing if not passionate). Again, Silberstein resists the temporary jolt for the overall line of the piece - a fine performance.
Not everything suits Silberstein's approach. I'm not sure, for example, I'd want to hear his Debussy. Based on his Bloch, however, I think I'd find much to like about his Brahms.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz