The nineteenth century was the age of
the piano. The newly developed instrument, decorated in the domestic taste of the time and strengthened by the use of an iron frame, making maintenance much easier,
proved an admirable centre of home entertainment. The piano enjoyed also a social cachet.
Young ladies with any pretension to gentility were expected to play the instrument, which
had the additional advantage of being self-sufficient and a useful adjunct in the
accompaniment of singers or other instrumentalists.
Composers and music publishers were
quick to realise the importance of the new market for short piano pieces that were not too
demanding. Tekla Badarzewska-Baranowska's well known Maiden's
Prayer was an aptly named response to just such a maiden need for playable and
attractive repertoire, ensuring the otherwise unknown composer a measure of immortality.
The genre produced attractive compositions from more distinguished composers than this.
The Czech Antonin Dvorak, no great pianist himself, sketched his famous Humoresque in America, where he spent a few years as
director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, writing it up in the
tranquillity of his native Bohemia in 1894.
In Vienna at the turn of the
eighteenth century and into the nineteenth the presiding genius, Ludwig van Beethoven,
also turned his hand to sets of dances for the piano, music that had an obvious practical
application. Among such compositions came several sets of minuets, published in the
mid-1790s, with the Minuet in G the best
known of all.
The French composer Camille
Saint-Saëns had no intention of publishing his famous Carnival
of the Animals, a jeu d'esprit designed for the private entertainment of his
friends. The carnival, after all, brought a rare collection of animals, including fossils,
critics and pianists. The Swan, however,
originally a cello solo, was published, and has continued to please ever since, not least
in soulful accompaniment to languishing ballerinas.
It has been the fate of some composers to be remembered ,
popularly at least, by relatively
trivial compositions. Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and one of
the most famous virtuoso pianists of his time, as well as a prolific composer of operas
and symphonies, is known above all as the composer of a Melodie
in F, an undemanding little piece.
Jacques Offenbach, son of a cantor
from Germany, established himself in Paris as a cellist and, in particular, as a composer
of light opera. His Tales of Hoffmann,
derived from the work of the writer of the title, includes a scene in Venice, with the
scene aptly set by that most Venetian of songs, a Barcarolle.
The Russian composer Pyotr Il'yich
Tchaikovsky is represented on the present release by two pieces. The first is a
transcription of a song, None but the lonely heart, while the second, in similar vein, is
a sad song conceived for piano solo, the Chanson triste
in G minor.
Mendelssohn's particular contribution
to the piano album lies in his Songs without Words.
The title is in apt description of these little pieces, which have the form and melodic
content of songs, but require the services of no singer. Strangely enough, On Wings of Song, for all the world a song without
words, was actually written with words and is a setting of a poem by Heine. It is,
however, familiar enough in arrangements such as the present one.
Luigi Boccherini, a cellist who spent
much of his career in Spain, produced music of great charm, leading to the description of
him as 'the wife of Haydn', a reference to certain similarities of style with his great
contemporary. His Minuet, from one of his
many string quintets, is familiar from various arrangements.
Among the great violinists of the
twentieth century Fritz Kreisler occupies a special position. His compositions, chiefly
for the violin, included a deceptive series of pastiches, pieces attributed to great if
forgotten composers, but in fact his own work. He was able to acknowledge openly his Liebesleid (Pain of Love), here performed in a
transcription by the great Russian pianist and composer Sergey Rachmaninov, and his Caprice viennois, a recollection of the city of
Vienna, where he spent his youth.
The Rustle of Spring, a piece that sounds rather more difficult than it
really is, has delighted amateur pianists anxious to impress their audience. The Norwegian
composer Christian Sinding was a more substantial figure than this piece might suggest,
with Wagnerian operas and symphonies to his credit, and a formidable number of songs, some
250 in all, ensuring him a place as a successor of Grieg in the musical history of his
Music and politics seem a world apart.
The great pianist Paderewski, however, was to become Prime Minister and Minister of
Foreign Affairs in newly independent Poland in 1919, positions from which he retired in
the following year, later resuming his international career as a performer. Although he
did not write exclusively for the piano, Paderewski's works include a number of smaller
scale piano pieces, among which the Minuet in G major
enjoys particular favour.
Gustav Lange's Edelweiss is familiar in many arrangements, as is
the Moravian Frantiek Drdla's Souvenir, originally written for violin and piano by
this violinist composer. Grieg is a composer of greater stature, an important figure in
Norwegian musical nationalism. In a series of albums of
Lyric Pieces he added significantly to domestic piano repertoire, as in his very Norwegian
Wedding Dar at Troldhaugen.
With the French composer François-Jospeh
Gossec we return to an earlier period of musical history. He enjoyed fame in France before
the Revolution, after which he turned his attention to the provision of acceptable music
for his new masters, only to lose his position when the Bourbon monarchy was restored.
His Gavotte 'Rosine' is taken from an opera
of that name, written in 1786.
Edward Elgar's Salut d'amour was written in response to a poem
from the middle-aged spinster who was to become his wife, and was followed at once by his
proposal of marriage. Originally entitled Liebesgruss,
it sold very much better under the publisher's new French title than it had under its
original German, a source of great profit to them and of very little to the composer.
The Merry Widow returns us to the world of Viennese operetta and the
music of Franz Lehar, a Hungarian-born bandmaster who made his career in Vienna. The work
deals with the marital complications involving the widow of the title herself and her
lover and suitor.
The name of Zdenek Fibich may be
joined with those of Dvorak and Smetana, the founders of Czech musical nationalism in the
second half of the nineteenth century. His Poème
is taken from a set of Moods, Impressions and
Reminiscences, published in 1894.
The album closes with Leon Jessel's Parade of the Tin Soldiers, one of the better known
pieces by this German composer, who produced a number of similar short character-pieces
for an immediately welcoming public, at the same time winning himself a contemporary
reputation with his operettas.