09 December 2010

Third of Three

On Tango in Boston (Dances with Shades),
third movement of the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 102:

For the Tango in Boston, the subtitle Dances with Shades is perhaps instructive: one can assume the reference is not to guys in sunglasses, but to ghosts and the pirouettes they might be making. (Of course, maybe the ghosts are wearing sunglasses!) In either case, one hears a rather mysterious and ghostly opening with our melodic and harmonic friends from earlier: the assorted seconds/sevenths/ninths and assorted fourths and fifths. In the very first bar, an Ab in the bass of the piano is answered by a C/F# and then a D/C#, and soon a G in the Viola joins that bass Ab. This opening section reminds one of an earlier sequence in Fair Warning (cf. bars 82-90). And the melodic motif at 24-27 in the piano’s treble evokes the spirit of Erwartung. After dancing up a quasi E major scale, the Viola sings on C# and D# while the piano provides a tango beat with a chord of B/C/F leading to A#/D/F#. Of interest is the bass rocking back and forth on the fourth-fifth pattern of A-E-E-A, providing a temporary “E” background and a yearning in the Viola line with that C#-D# theme.

At bar 33, the piano begins a bass ground in C-Db-Ab (or A)-F, while the Viola again struggles up that quasi E major scale, finally arriving at the theme from bars 19-22 now played in octaves. Deliciously evocative is the end of the section (bar 47) where the Db octave on the Viola fades away with a chord of Db/G/C in the piano. This continues the minor-second element (Db/C) heard in the first two movements. Also, as part of a final movement’s summation of previous material, the Viola’s music here might be heard as a variational reminiscence of bars 55-62 from the second movement.

And speaking of bass grounds, in the next section (bars 49-69) listen to the “Scott Joplin Channels Schoenberg c. 1915” in the piano’s left hand, where our 5:4 figure dances “with intensity” with (or against) the Viola’s dance played mainly in thirds, and using 5 8th notes tangoing on top of the piano’s 5:4 notes, thereby creating a giddy contrast for the ear. There is also an occasional 7:8 figure with 16ths in the piano: it begins on a low G# and rumbles upward to F (bar 54), then on D to B (bars 58 and 66) before reaching G# again at the end of bar 69. (See Karl’s previous comment on the multi-octave scale in the opening comments about Suspension Bridge.) Our destination is not G#, but (of course) the A, a minor ninth higher (bar 70). But the Viola has been busy during all this too! The 5-patterning is also heard in the descending figure in the Viola (beginning at the treble clef bars 66-67) and later in its ascending figures (bars 68-69). And the 7-pattern is heard in a 7-note descending motif (bars 62-63, 65, 67-68).

The unison on A (bars 70-71) is quickly disturbed by a Bb and G#, which is right in character! We then return nearly to the beginning of Fair Warning with a startling variation on the Viola theme from that movement (cf. bars 71-80 with Fair Warning’s bars 7-18). The piano continues its 5:4 motif interspersed with groups of 7 notes (e.g. the bass in bars 73-74, 77, 79 vs. the treble in bar 80). Suddenly at bar 81 we enter an A minor/major area, with a simple pizzicato theme, which strikes my ear as evocative of an ancient Greek melody. Then after the piano intones a mysterious 9th chord (A/F/B), we hear a transposition of some of the opening bars (24-30) with some variations: rather than the rising pizzicato of bars 33-41, we now have a very lugubrious theme (from the last beat of bar 89 to 104): if it is not quite a danse macabre, it is Herrmannesque, where octaves are just as disconcerting as 2nds, 7ths, or 9ths. This leads to a Largamente where the Viola returns to its cadenza chords of Suspension Bridge, but this time the piano adds its voice (cf. bars 137-142 of Suspension Bridge with bars 105-114).

The Adagietto (bars 115-132) takes us back to Fair Warning’s Meno mosso (bars 45-58) section: if it is not quite a variation, it is certainly a reconfiguration of that earlier section. Two massive hexachords conclude the section, leading to a Vivo finale which the piano insists must be in C, while the Viola plays rhythmic elements heard earlier which emphasize a strident B minor (e.g. the D/B in bars 133-135 along with the C#-B/F# figures throughout the finale). A purely personal and no doubt idiosyncratic reaction to the final page: I was reminded of the thunderous finale to Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. Perhaps it was the repetition of the motifs in the bass of the piano, but the connection was immediate. If the essay has helped to illuminate some things for a listener, then its purpose has been fulfilled. Ultimately, Karl Henning’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Opus 102 sings for itself and will illuminate the listener with its tour through an unknown soulscape.

— Leo Schulte

Here reproduced with the author’s permission.

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