Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1
Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1
Friedrich Kuhlau is known as Beethoven’s strongest advocate in Denmark and the man who wrote Elverhøj. But Kuhlau was first and foremost a pianist, one whose works for the instrument have a depth and character of their own. In the first of a new series, Marie-Luise Bodendorff reassesses Kuhlau’s contribution to the piano literature with fresh, muscular performances of music including the previously unrecorded Divertissement, Op. 37.
A German in Denmark
By Andrew Mellor
On 23 January 1811, the curtain at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre went up to reveal an unfamiliar German musician on stage. ‘His bony form seemed somewhat clumsy in his black concert attire’, read a report of the event. ‘He had a good head of curly hair and a long ruddy face marred by the lack of one eye […]. Then he sat down and began to play the piece, his Piano Concerto in C Major, and the impression of awkwardness that had encumbered his overall appearance vanished. He proved to be a master’.
The musician was Friedrich Kuhlau. Weeks earlier, in the final days of 1810, the 24-year-old had escaped to the Danish capital under the name Kasper Meier. For years, Kuhlau struggled to make ends meet as a pianist in the northern provinces of Germany and when Napoleon finally took control of Hamburg, he faced conscription into the army. The decision to travel north proved to be one of the most astute of his career, even if it was only conceived as a stopgap. Kuhlau was no stranger to bad luck, but as newcomer to Denmark he easily worked his way into the country’s musical and aristocratic milieu. Within three years he was walking the corridors of its palaces as a Danish citizen, and would live in the country for the rest of his life.
Daniel Friedrich Rudolph Kuhlau was born in Uelzen, near Hanover, in 1786. When he fell down a staircase as a child, a shard of glass from a bottle he was carrying injured the young Friedrich’s right eye, which he eventually lost. During his convalescence, Kuhlau’s bandmaster father bought his son a piano, sealing the young man’s relationship with the instrument that would come, as much as the flute, to define his career.
By 1803, his family had settled in Hamburg, where Kuhlau quickly progressed and soon was studying with Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke, who had succeeded Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach as organist at Hamburg’s Katharinenkirche. His decision to head north may have been influenced by his uncle’s employment as an organist in the north Jutland town of Aalborg. Either way, Kuhlau hit Danish soil running. The Royal Danish Theatre performance of 1811 was well received, as much given the Danes’ natural affection for an awkward, underdog figure as for their genuine interest in Kuhlau’s music. Denmark knew of Beethoven and sensed Kuhlau’s connection to the German master’s style in his own music’s sense of drama and elegance. Kuhlau had already played Beethoven’s Op. 16 Quintet for Piano and Winds in Denmark before introducing the Royal Danish Theatre audience to his own concerto.
Kuhlau’s continental provenance prompted aristocrats to seek him out as a teacher. With the memory of poverty lingering still, the pianist developed a fierce worth ethic but was never entirely satisfied teaching. At the request of Adam Oehlenschläger, he wrote his first singspiel for the Royal Danish Theatre, Røverborgen (Robbers’ Castle), which premiered in 1814. The sometimes-bumpy relationship with the theatre that ensued would reach its height in 1828 with Kuhlau’s music for the play Elverhøj (Elves’ Hill), written to celebrate the wedding of King Frederik VI’s daughter. The score would become a touchstone of Danish culture, its status sealed a century and a half later when parts of its overture were elaborately choreographed by a band of score-reading robbers in the movie Olsen-banden ser rødt (The Olsen Gang sees red, 1976).
Kuhlau’s career was characterised by loose relationships with both the Royal Danish Theatre (he spent one season as its chorus master) and the Royal Court (with which he wangled his own semi-freelance position of ‘Court Chamber Musician’). His life was similarly ill defined, chaotic even, and he developed a voracious appetite for alcohol and tobacco. In 1814, Kuhlau’s struggling parents and youngest sister moved from Germany to live with him at his house in Lyngby, north of Copenhagen. The arrangement put a strain on the composer’s finances, at which point he started to churn out numerous works for rapid publication, among them over a hundred scores for flute that have ensured his name retains currency in woodwind circles.
It was as a pianist that Kuhlau was best known in his lifetime. In that capacity, he would travel to Sweden and Austria as well as returning to his native Germany. On one such trip in 1825, Kuhlau had a well-documented encounter with his musical hero Ludwig van Beethoven, whose five piano concertos he had already premiered in Denmark.
As described in Thayer’s The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven, a party including Beethoven and Kuhlau took a walk in the countryside before stopping at a tavern to fill up on drink, retiring to Ludwig’s quarters to partake in some intellectual horseplay which included both composers writing out musical canons. Kuhlau wrote a canon on the name of Bach while Beethoven’s took as its theme a version of his companion’s name: ‘kühl, nicht lau’ (cool, not lukewarm). Beethoven wrote apologetically to ‘my dear Kuhlau’ after the event, apparently embarrassed that he may have overstepped the bounds of good humour. Both Beethoven and his publisher Schlesinger liked and admired their Danish-German acquaintance, to whom they affectionately referred in correspondence as ‘the cyclops’.
Back in Copenhagen, life’s stresses caught up with Kuhlau. He lost both his parents in 1830 and six months later, in February 1831, his house burned to the ground, with it all his unpublished manuscripts including that for a second piano concerto. He never fully recovered from a night in the bitter cold watching the blaze, which put him in hospital for three months having aggravated an existing chest ailment. He died in Copenhagen a little over a year later.
Kuhlau’s music bore all the hallmarks of early Romanticism at a time when Danish music was only just cottoning on to it. He was also a stylish pianist who relished the instrument’s rapidly advancing technology and was well placed to capitalise on the middle class fashion for having the instrument at home. His piano music can be divided into works intended for teaching or improving the technique of talented amateurs, and grand works for accomplished pianists. Across the board, his best piano music is melodically rich, explores the full sonority of the instrument and ranges in texture from the delicate to the imposing.
Beethoven’s influence is obvious in Kuhlau’s Divertissement in E-flat Major, Op. 37, published in 1822 but composed the year before. The first and last movements of this through-composed work can be considered an introduction and coda respectively. A Beethovenian theme emerges in the variation-form second movement. It is passed from high to low, tracked by accompanying features and given new incarnations in different registers – beautifully so when, at 4’42, it stalks the discourse in a low left hand that takes its own unusual turn.
Kuhlau’s ‘Marcia’ is more than a march. It uses a refracted version of the same theme to examine aspects of ‘march’ form with not inconsiderable charm, even indulging in some light counterpoint. The ‘Rondo alla polacca’ has plenty of interest besides the composer’s toying with the distinctive polonaise rhythm, not least his fluent way of observing a theme from multiple angles using contrasting register, perspective and harmony. It leads straight into the firework finale.
Kuhlau’s three Sonatinas, Op. 20 date from 1820 and were probably conceived for teaching. No. 1 in C Major is built simply but has its own luminous charm and symmetrical satisfaction. It distils some of Kuhlau’s preferred methods down to their simplest form, such as the transferral of the theme from right to left hand in the opening movement.
No. 2 in G Major is more dramatic and also more elaborate, right from its opening unisons. We hear simple versions of the scalic figures Kuhlau deployed in more complex works (including the Sonata Op. 4) and which suited the technologies of the modern piano. The ‘Adagio e sostenuto’ in E flat surrounds its more decorative central episode with lyricism cast in close-quartered harmonies, a fitting set-up for the playful finale.
No. 3 in F Major is more complex still, its opening movement requiring the pianist to cross hands and including a development section in miniature. The Larghetto toys with the repetition of melodic notes and chords while the finale, another polonaise, sees Kuhlau’s scale figurations metamorphose into full-on rollercoasters.
Kuhlau composed a total of 22 piano sonatas between 1809 and 1831. The first, his Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 4, was written before the composer had left Germany. It is obviously the work of a young man, but one well acquainted with the modern piano’s sonorous capabilities and with a sense of musical fashion. Sometimes Kuhlau can appear to borrow innovative devices from others, pasting them into an essentially conservative musical language. But the dramatic potency and arresting clarity of the music here are rarely in doubt. Both qualities are established in a 39-bar introduction full of Kuhlau’s favoured dotted and double-dotted rhythms that also features a twisting weave of arpeggios which casts a spell over the music.
The opening movement proper starts with an Allegro in Beethovenian mould alternating thick, dotted-rhythm chords with strings of sixteenth notes. Those two ideas dominate the movement. Next comes a set of variations on a folk-like theme built of two halves. Kuhlau disguises his theme with rhythmic devices including triplets (variation 1), the relative minor key (variation 2) and a quickstep melodic adaptation (variation 3). Finally a free variation in a funereal style gives way to an Allegro Scherzando passage built from a segment of the theme, followed by a cadenza and a chordal coda.
Kuhlau’s ‘Adagio’ is notably imaginative. Both the varied accompaniments and the right hand’s elaborate figurations anticipate Chopin, as Edmund Noel Dawe has suggested. Once again we hear Kuhlau’s emotive way of rendering a theme as a tightly and beautifully harmonised chorale. The Vivacissimo finale has few of the contrasts of its predecessors but some telling touches, such as its consistent flipping or ‘inverting’ of the two voices of the right hand. Technical interest and clarity take precedence over virtuosity, but the young Kuhlau carefully avoided sullying the dramatic with the inelegant.