The B Minor Sonatas of Chopin and Liszt
These are the liner notes I wrote for Chad Bowles' Chopin/Liszt CD, released in 2017. (http://www.chadrbowles.com/recordings/chopinliszt-piano-sonatas-2017)
The solo piano sonata blossomed from the years 1750-1820; the Classical Era. During this period, a vast number of brilliant sonatas were composed by Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, C.P.E. Bach and others, but no composer expanded and changed the style as much as Ludwig van Beethoven. With his thirty-two piano sonatas, Beethoven took the sonata to new heights of expression and formal complexity, leaving a profound mark on the genre. After Beethoven’s time, the composers of the 19th century faced a dilemma: any newly-composed sonata would inevitably be tied to the Viennese model and judged in the shadow of Beethoven. The only way to avoid an unjustly critical comparison to Beethoven was simply to compose in a new style altogether. And so, the era after Beethoven saw the birth of many new kinds of piano music, including miniature forms and programmatic music; genres in which Beethoven did not show great interest. Mendelssohn wrote Lieder Ohne Worte, Schubert wrote impromptus, Schumann focused on miniatures with fanciful titles, Chopin took inspiration from his Polish roots and composed polonaises and mazurkas, Liszt turned to programmatic music with his Années de pèlerinage, and even Brahms, the heir to Beethoven, used descriptive titles that had no connection to him; capriccios, intermezzi, rhapsodies, and ballades.
During the 19th century, piano works became increasingly expressive and complex, due to the enormous wealth of musical ideas in these new styles and the ever-increasing virtuosity of pianists. However, the solo sonata did not progress in the way one might expect. The thirty-two sonatas of Beethoven set such a high standard of piano writing, that no one composer dared to surpass him. Instead, the Romantics put all of their efforts into writing only a few sonatas that represented their work as a whole (for example, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms wrote only three piano sonatas each). Two of the most representative piano sonatas of the Romantic Era are Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata op. 58, and Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor; the program for this recording.
Much has been written about the indelible structure of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. Composed in 1852-53, it is a large, single-movement work performed without any break, like a fantasy. In fact, there is evidence to show that Liszt thought of this piece as a kind of sonata-fantasy, as can be seen from its free thematic and formal techniques, and its influence from the fantasies of earlier composers. An example of double-function form, the sonata’s single movement can be heard either as a large-scale sonata-allegro form or, alternatively, as a four-movement work with each movement played attacca. Liszt’s compositional techniques are incredibly economical in this piece. Using an innovative process known as thematic transformation, he uses only four themes throughout the entire work but develops and recomposes each theme in new harmonic and melodic contexts. This process creates a wide amount of expressive variety while keeping the piece cohesive, despite its length. The sonata is influenced from Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie, a piece Liszt adored and orchestrated as a piano concerto. Schubert’s work, like Liszt’s sonata, also uses a four-movement sonata-like form with all movements played attacca and uses thematic transformation. Similarly, Beethoven’s sonatas op. 27, nos. 1 and 2, labeled “quasi una fantasia” are also to be performed without any break in between movements. Liszt dedicated his sonata to Robert Schumann who, 15 years earlier, dedicated his Fantasie to him, so it is clear that Liszt had Schumann’s grandest piano work in his ear while composing his own. Liszt’s only other attempt to compose a sonata was his Apres une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, a work that also uses thematic transformation and was conceived as a sonata-fantasy. Though it is important to understand the close ties between the sonata and fantasy genres in Liszt’s mind, it is also important to note that Liszt chose the title “Sonata” and not “Sonata quasi una fantasia.” Even though his Sonata in B Minor contains similarities with programmatic music and other fantasies, Liszt chose to keep this title purely objective and abstract, which is quite rare for him. By doing so, he is claiming to write a true sonata ‒ not a “quasi sonata” or a programmatic sonata, or even a Beethovenian sonata, but a new kind of sonata; the sonata of the future.
If Liszt’s sonata could be considered to be the most influential piano sonata for the next generation of composers, then Chopin’s sonata, op. 58, could be viewed as a traditionalist’s sonata. Unlike his earlier sonata, op. 35, which was remarkably inventive, the sonata op. 58 follows the Viennese model closely. Composed in 1844, nine years before Liszt composed his sonata, it is a typical four-movement form; a sonata-allegro opening movement, a scherzo/trio, a nocturne-like slow movement, and a rondo-finale. All four movements are structurally clear despite the enormous wealth of musical ideas and distinct use of chromaticism. Unlike Liszt’s sonata however, there is no thematic transformation nor are there even any recurring motives from movement to movement. From this point of view, Chopin’s sonata reflects the classicism of Mozart and Haydn. But it would be shortsighted to elevate Liszt as a noble pioneer anticipating the trends of 20th century, while labeling Chopin as just an elegant craftsman but lacking innovation. Such comparisons miss a crucial point: Liszt, while exploring new musical styles and trends, was also avoiding critical comparisons to Beethoven. In contrast, Chopin’s musical conservatism was, in a way, fearless. It allowed his sonata to be compared to a more conventional model and one would be hard-pressed to find another Romantic sonata that uses such established forms and, yet, is not overshadowed by Beethoven’s sonatas. Over a century and a half later we are still mesmerized by Chopin’s work, which is proof of its uniqueness in the canon of classical music.