Works for Solo Piano Vol. 2
Works for Solo Piano Vol. 2
For her second volume of Kuhlau’s piano music, Marie-Luise Bodendorff takes the three previously unrecorded rondos, Op. 1, as her starting point, some of his most charming and distinctive music. She continues with the composer’s six sonatinas, Op. 55, which remain popular with pianists today. In the Fantasy on Swedish songs, Op. 93, Bodendorff displays all the craftsmanship, elegance and kindness of Kuhlau’s piano music.
The art of the pianist
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 a 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 Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, 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 capitalize 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 (notably his well-known Sonatinas), and grand works for accomplished pianists (including his variation sets and Fantasias). His piano music is melodically rich while the more advanced examples explore the full sonority of the instrument and range in texture from the delicate to the imposing.
Kuhlau’s first opus number demonstrate the point. His 3 Rondos, Op. 1, for piano were probably written in 1809 before the composer arrived in Denmark, but were published in Copenhagen the following year. The score bears a dedication to ‘Signora Contessa de Wallmoden-Gimborn’, a daughter of the German Lieutenant-General Johann Ludwig von Wallmoden, who could well have been a student of the composer. The functional title reveals not only Kuhlau’s pedagogical intent, but also his consumer-facing attachment to straightforward classical forms – in this case a work whose main musical motif recurs or ‘comes around’ throughout each piece. That rather dry description belies some of Kuhlau’s most charming and distinctive music.
Rondo No. 1 introduces a gallant theme of Beethovenian shape and Mozartian grace, whose various reprises are punctuated by developmental sections of increasing complexity and display (and with plenty of Kuhlau’s beloved scales). Rondo No. 2 introduces a puckish melody in a high register that is gradually made more civil and serious as it comes down to earth, though it retains flashes of is original flair right to the end.
The athletic main theme of Rondo No. 3 is more unconventional and rhythmically ambiguous, which sets the stage for one of Kuhlau’s most inventive works, featuring harmonic sequencing and even an accelerando. At one stage, the texture splinters into something approaching pointillist patterning, as Kuhlau’s main theme is atomized about the keyboard, entirely exposed.
Kuhlau’s four sets of Sonatinas (‘little sonatas’) still enjoy currency among pianists looking to hone their skills. The 6 Sonatinas, Op. 55, were published in Copenhagen in 1823, evidently geared towards the growing cohort of aspiring amateurs. The works introduce their executors to some basics of piano technique: finger dexterity, the nuances of balancing two hands (which variously assume both accompaniment and melody roles) and the encouragement of nuanced, elegant phrasing (non-negotiable in Kuhlau). The Sonatinas also familiarize their pianists with the basic structural characteristics of sonata form.
The first three pieces in the Op. 55 set are well known, the last three less so. Kuhlau’s generally sunny, genial disposition is apparent from the first of the set, in the straightforward key of C Major. Its ‘Allegro’ introduces a cheerful melody, visits new material in the dominant key of G Major and then reprises the opening idea. The second movement, a rapid ‘Vivace’ featuring an ascending chromatic scale, would help strengthen the fingers of any fledgling pianist.
There is delicacy concealed within the straightforwardness of the Sonatina No. 2 in G Major, which contrasts a tender ‘Cantabile’ slow movement featuring hints of chromaticism with the surrounding ‘Allegretto’ and ‘Allegro’ movements, the first gallant and the last displaying a touch of humour with its fanfare-like groups of chords. The Sonatina No. 3, back in C Major, presents livewire music across two movements, featuring a theme in parallel sixths (‘Allegro con spirito’) and light-fingered flourishes (‘Allegretto grazioso’).
The first movement of Kuhlau’s Sonatina No. 4 in F Major introduces more complex rhythmic devices including triplets – in which the pianist is asked to play three notes in the time allotted to two – and, in the final movement ‘Alla polacca’, the off-beat accents of a Polish dance. A short but expressive ‘Andantino’ is sandwiched between the two.
Rhythm remains at the forefront of the Sonatina No. 5 in D Major, whose ‘Tempo di marcia’ opening is propelled by pointed dotted rhythms before the right hand spins the melody of the active ‘Vivace assai’. Kuhlau expands the set’s scale and mode of expression for his final Sonatina No. 6 in C Major, in which the secondary theme of the grand ‘Allegro maestoso’ requires its pianist to cross hands (the music also journeys to a wider range of keys). It concludes with a traditional Minuet and Trio, with an added coda.
Kuhlau was known for his tendency to improvise on likeable tunes at the piano, a hobby that fed his many published sets of Variations and Fantasies. He was particularly keen on folksongs from his adopted Scandinavia, including those of Sweden, to which he was a frequent visitor.
Kuhlau toured Sweden for the first time in 1815 at the behest of the German horn player Johann Gottfried Schuncke. One of Kuhlau’s pupils, the pianist Carl Schwarz, settled in Gothenburg from where he maintained close links with his former teacher. With Schwarz for assistance, Kuhlau ingratiated himself with the Gothenburg elite. His Fantasy in G minor on Swedish Songs, Op. 93, is dedicated to a ‘Madame Betty Magnusson of Gothenburg.’
The piece displays all the craftsmanship, elegance and conviviality that raises Kuhlau’s more light-hearted works to the level of genuine interest. In the work’s ‘Maestoso’ introduction, florid passagework interrupts stentorian chords as various Swedish melodies are alluded to. A theme is then clearly presented, re-voiced and passed between the pianist’s two hands in the ensuing ‘Andante mesto’ passage, to increasingly elaborate filigree accompaniment.
Another theme is introduced in the initially serene ‘Allegretto pastorale’, which turns into a self-contained variation section that once again passes the tune between the hands, the passagework florid but never over-heated (this section builds clearly on foundations heard in the Sonatinas). Unison scales and an improvisatory transition lead to the guarded, internal atmosphere of the ‘Allegretto con tenerezza’ section, which lays a string of demisemiquavers over the tune, now in the left hand, in the manner of Beethoven. That section ends with passionate, stormy undertones before a final ‘Allegretto scherzando’ in which the tune is laid over homophonic semiquaver chords that induce a final chase-down.