‘Arpeggione’ Sonata D821
Some things pass, and some things last. The syphilis Schubert contracted in 1823 would not pass – it would ultimately end up taking his life. The ‘arpeggione’ created that same year, an amalgamation of the cello, in its shape, and the guitar, with its six strings and its frets (the metal rings surrounding the neck), would also soon become extinct like Schubert. The luthier Johann Georg Stauffer would only see his invention flourish for a decade or so: the absence of an endpin, which obliged the performer to hold the arpeggione between his legs, and the six strings, which made bowing difficult, never allowed it to enter the large family of orchestral instruments. But the sonata intended for the instrument by the musician so tragically infected would go on to make its mark in history.
Published posthumously in 1871, the work was automatically offered in a transcription for cello, but was played by guitarists, violists and even clarinettists. Given the experimental aspect of the ‘target’ instrument, Schubert discarded the traditional form in four movements, preferring the freedom of a pyramid with three levels – as if in a nod to the concerto, a genre Schubert never tackled. But from the opening of the Allegro, the lyricism of the Romantic genre emerges, like a blast of oxygen proclaiming its poetry. It cannot be stated often enough that some artists seem to have the capacity not so much to invent melodies as to discover them, as if they have always been present in our hearts. The second distinct theme – a flurry of sixteen notes – is often coupled with indications of piano or pianissimo, given the difficulty of combining speed and volume on the arpeggione. According to the musicologist Rémy Campos, from the palpable emotion of the scoring to the virtuosity of the songlike effects called for, ‘the composer seems to have wanted to offer a panorama of colours and of the instrument’s technical possibilities’.
The Adagio that follows trades rhetoric for nostalgia. But life remains, thanks to its breathing: from the very first bar everything seems to gasp, blow, exhale tenderly. This cantilena has something of a gondolier’s song about it: Vienna, after all, is not so very far from Venice… As it dies away, as it were in a puff of cigarette smoke, the end of the movement weaves its way into the beginning of the concluding Allegretto. After this meditation, the body sits up again, seeming to span a day through whose course several stages are scattered: having danced an unexpected rondo with a young lady, after lying down on the grass to gaze at the clouds and chased a few butterflies – pizzicati – the performer sprints for shelter as the heavens open. We can imagine the joy tinged with sorrow on Schubert’s face as he premiered this piece at the piano with his friend Vincenz Schuster, an exceptional guitarist and brief champion of the arpeggione, for whom he had written the sonata.
Souvenir de Florence op.70
Writer and member of the Académie Française Dominique Fernandez recently discussed in Artpassions the quixotic relationship that connected Tchaikovsky and his patron Nadezhda von Meck. She fell in love with her compatriot’s music, but resolved never to meet the man himself, in order that the spell between the two would operate only via the expression of his art. That being said, patron and artist remained friends, frequenting the same places at the same times, but never in the same residence. So it was in Florence, where the baroness invited her protégé in June 1890, every morning ‘sending a servant to inform [Tchaikovsky] of the itinerary she had planned,’ Fernandez explains, ‘and the museums she intended to visit, so that he might avoid encountering her on the way’.
Though we do not know where Tchaikovsky’s wanderings took him in the Tuscan capital, it is very evident that the Slavic spirit is the dominant mood in his Souvenirs, from the very first note. What the composer took from Florence is perhaps nothing other than the famous syndrome named after Stendhal: ‘that emotional point where one encounters the heavenly sensations provided by the fine arts and passionate feelings’. Passion – this is the word, from the Allegro, that explodes like a demonstration of the kalinka, the dance where the performer crouches and then rises again at top speed, kicking his feet… But this was also the period of the composition of The Queen of Spades, and it is undeniable that the world of the opera shines through from this landscape of creatures both earthly and magical, swept along by an endlessly jolting chorus. For Fernandez, the Adagio cantabile depicts the recollections of the musician’s affair with a ‘street boy’: he remarks that ‘in the dialogue between cello and violin, between the deep voice and the high voice, made up of pizzicati and long, intertwined phrases, an entire tale of poignant eroticism is expressed, that might have been sparked by this brief moment of ecstasy between a mature man and an adolescent’. In contrast, the third movement turns out to be full of anguish: after pleasure, guilt? But melancholy is never fully dissipated in Russia… Tchaikovsky was very proud of his finale, a genuine contrapuntal tour de force that recalls Swan Lake: ‘What a masterly fugue at the end! A real joy!’ he wrote to his brother as he completed the work. And yet, for two years he had bemoaned the ordeal of a form ‘with six independent, yet similar parts’. What a labyrinth, indeed. But what a summit!
Translation: Saul Lipetz