MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL - REVIEW
1-4 Sonata in B Flat Minor (2nd version) / Sonáta b mol (2. verzia) – after/po 1885
1 Allegro 7.51
2 Andante 6.59
3 Scherzo. Vivace 5.44
4 Finale. Allegro moderato 7.17
5 Sonatina in E Minor. Allegretto / Sonatína e mol – Budapest 1873 5.06
6-10 Variations on the Slovak Folk Song “In Pressburg by the Danube”
Variácie na slovenskú ľudovú pieseň „Pri Prešporku na Dunaji“ (1866/R 1879)
6 Introduction. Adagio 1.01
7 Thema. Andante grazioso 1.00
8 Var. I. Allegro vivace 0.56
9 Var. II. Moderato. Più allegro 1.26
10Var. III. Tempo di mazurka 1.10
11-14 Variations on the Slovak Folk Song “A Swarm, A Swarm is Flying”
Variácie na slovenskú ľudovú pieseň „Letí, letí roj“ – Budapest 1872
11 Téma. Moderato 0.46
12 Var. I. Velocissimo 0.55
13 Var. II. Moderato 1.19
14 Var. III. Finale. Agitato 0.58
15-18 Little Pieces / Malé skladby – 1869 – 1877
15 1 Caprice. Presto 2.08
16 2 Caprice. Vivace – 2nd version – Budapest 1877 2.36
17 3 Fairy Dance / Tanec víl. Vivace – 2nd version – Budapest 1873 2.19
18 4 Capricietto. Allegretto – Budapest 1876 3.31
19-24 St Martin’s Quadrille (Slovak Quadrille) / Svätomartinská (Slovenská) kadrila
19 1. Pantalon 0.56
20 2. Été 0.39
21 3. Poule 1.38
22 4. Trénis 0.43
23 5. Pastourelle 0.41
24 6. Finale 0.53
25 Kremnica Fire Brigade Polka
Kremnická hasičská polka Kremnica 1869 – 1881 1.20
26 Doll’s Holiday, Waltz for Piano Duet. Mässiges Walzertempo
Bábikin sviatok, valčík pre štvorručný klavír – Vienna 1927 1.54
Total time 62.13
Production and Distribution: PAVLÍK RECORDS / Photos: © Mária Švarbová (Aria Baró Photography), 2013, in (the) Primatial Palace Bratislava / Portrait of Ján Levoslav Bella: © Slovak National Museum - Music Museum Bratislava / Graphic design: Eva Pavlíková
With financial support of Ministry of Culture SR.
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The Piano Music of Ján Levoslav Bella
The piano is not the most important focus in the works of Ján Levoslav Bella. His piano works were not accepted without problems, but became the subject of criticism, which allows us to recognize contemporary views. Contemporary documents also allow us to follow the composer's attempts to promote his works with publishers and on stage. The 19th century brought a huge expansion of the piano repertoire. The new works were intended mostly for domestic music-making, while a smaller portion enlivened recitals by wandering virtuosos. The Hungarian part of the Monarchy could boast rich piano works from only a few composers (Robert Volkmann, Julius Beliczay or the still-unpublished Štefan Fajnor). Their work, however, was permanently overshadowed by the monumental piano heritage of Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.
Bella's piano compositions reflect his development from simpler to more complex works, as well as the creative silence which followed the composition of his major work, the Sonata in B Flat minor. This allows us to follow his creative path as it grew from his youth into later age. Bella's first and last preserved piano pieces are separated by a temporal distance of sixty-six years (1861 – 1927). In these compositions Bella worked intently, while setting ever more serious compositional goals.
Appearing first is a small dance composition (St. Martin's Quadrille), followed by minor piano pieces (morceaux or Stücke: Malé Skladby). Next, two sets of variations attempt to combine brilliant pianism with national aspirations (Variations on the Slovak Folk Song "In Pressburg by the Danube" and Variations on the Slovak Folk Song "A Swarm, A Swarm Is Flying"). These are followed by the Sonatina, which also arose from the Slovak environment. Finally, the Sonata in B Flat Minor, which originated in Hermannstadt, is one of the high points of Bella's creative activity. It is a monumental Romantic piano sonata, which builds a compositional link to the greatest composers of piano music.
Forty years later Bella returned to piano composition, when he wrote for his grand-daughter the simple "Doll's Holiday" (Waltz for Piano Duet) – his final piano work.
St. Martin's Quadrille (Slovak Quadrille)
The St. Martin's Quadrille was Bella's first piano composition, coming from the time of his theological studies in Banská Bystrica (1859 – 1863). The composer dedicated it to Ján Francisi. Bella's biographer, Ernest Zavarský, dates its origin to the year 1861. He also mentions the concerns of Banská Bystrica seminary rector František Berlica over Bella's decision to arrange with a Viennese publisher for the publication of this work, as evidenced by a journal advertisement (Sokol, I., 1862/12). The quadrille was a popular European ballroom dance. The music consisted of a collection of short dances. In the 1860's, Bella's generational colleague, Senica lawyer Štefan Fajnor, also composed several piano quadrilles. Bella's national aspirations induced him to draw his themes from the first publications containing Slovak folk songs. The first three sections contain songs from the collections of Ján Kollár, Pavol Jozef Šafárik (1823, 1827, 1834, 1835), Martin Sucháň (1830) and Vladislav Füredy (1837): 1. Pantalon/Hoja, Ďunďa, hoja – Ján Kollár I, 3, Füredy 1; 2. Été/Už som pochodiu wšecky dediny – Ján Kollár I, 74, Füredy 9; 3. Poule/Nitra milá, Nitra – Ján Kollár I, 29, Füredy 3; 4. Trénis quotes a record of the folk song Nebuď smutná by Martin Sucháň; 6. Finale contains the folk song Dobrú noc, má milá.
Kremnica Fire Brigade Polka
Bella's next small piece of piano dance music is his Kremnická hasičská polka (Kremnitzer Feuerwehrpolka), which appeared during his residence in Kremnica
(1869 – 1881). Bella never returned to instrumental dance music; his development led him to a more personal and profound expression.
Variations on the Slovak Folk Song "In Pressburg by the Danube"
From Banská Bystrica in 1866, Bella forwarded to publisher Rudolf Pocek his next piano work, one which, like the St. Martin's Quadrille, reflected the composer's attempt to create a national form of Romantic piano music. The new opus bore the title In Pressburg, Variations for Piano. The young priest dedicated the work to the revolutionary director of the Banská Bystrica grammar school, Martin Čulen. Čulen's efforts to teach in the national language led not only to his great popularity among the students, but also to resentment by the Hungarian bureaucracy, bullying and early retirement (1868). The new Variations was thus a manifestation of the composer's nationalist orientation and an expression of respect for its supporter. Bella published it at his own expense, and its publication was advertised in the magazine Sokol. The atmosphere of the time and the environment are brought closer to us by contemporary reviews. Ľudovít Vansa, a student of Josef Proksch, reviewed the Variations in Besednica Pešťbudínskych vedomostí, a generally positive review which linked it to the objectives of the nascent national culture ("The Variations by Mr. Bella in this respect are very satisfying to us, in their technical demands (Ausführung) and form, though perhaps not so much original as tasteful, a nice work with brilliant effects (….) This work shows significant progress in our national art in its initial development").
But the review also warned of the inner contradictions of Bella's work. The disputed subject was the Slovak national element that Bella saw both in the theme of the piece (folk-song) and in its stylized introduction, inspired both by a Lisztian conception in the new-Hungarian style and by the playing of the Liptov Roma violin player Piťo. Piťo's playing was admired not only by Bella but also by the poet Andrej Sládkovič who, in his Svätomartiniáda, called Piťo an "honorable Slovak musician."
Ľudovít Vansa criticized the introduction as having internal contradictions. A contemporary review in the Prague journal Dalibor, however, shows that the new-Hungarian or Gipsy elements Vansa criticizes are perceived in Prague as specifically Slovak. "The composer precedes the theme and variations with a wonderfully bravura introduction which, as can be seen from the rhythmic style, suggests traits of Slovak music."
Bella's variations grow from this introduction, which leads to the entrance of the theme Slovenské spevy I 326, Andante grazioso – a harmonized folk song, also employing such features as rubato and changing tempos. The theme is followed by three variations, the first of which Allegro vivace uses mainly piano sonorities, the second employing imitation pastoral elements ("Couperin-style bagpipes") and virtuoso broken chords, and the third Finale. Tempo di mazurka bringing a mazurka-like variation to the theme, with gradations of tempo and virtuosity. Thirteen years later, Bella's friend Viktor Fellegi published, in the journal Apollo and under the name Variations sur une chanson populaire slovaque (Variations on a Slovak Folk Song), a revised edition of the work (1879). The composer wrote a new introduction which presents motivic and psychological preparation for the entrance of the theme, in the spirit of Vansa's criticism, and which therefore joins with the theme in "an organic union."
During Bella's residence in Banská Bystrica (1865 – 1869) and Kremnica (1869 – 1881), his interest in musical composition began to deepen, aided by his meeting, and making music with, violin virtuoso Eduard (Ede) Remenyi (1869). Thanks to a stipend from the Ministry of Culture, Bella established contacts with representatives of Prague musical life. Dr. Ludevít Procházka, a Smetana student, organizer and promoter, founder of the Art Association and editor of the Czech music magazine Dalibor, showed his affection for Bella. Initially Bella drew Procházka's attention toward his church compositions, but Procházka was more interested in nationally-oriented secular works. His letter dated February 6, 1870 testifies that Bella also submitted to him his early piano works. These were probably works which Bella had gathered later under the title Kleine Stücke (Little Pieces). Their fate is bound up particularly with Rožňava native Viktor Fellegi. Bella met him during his studies in Vienna's Pázmáneum. In Budapest in 1872, Fellegi started to publish the music magazine Apollo, with printed music supplements. In 1873 Fellegi submitted Bella's works to Franz Liszt for consideration; Liszt's words proved to be the greatest stimulus for Bella. Fellegi published eleven works by Bella in Apollo: six piano pieces; Variations on "A Swarm, A Swarm Is Flying" (1872/23); Fairy Dance (1873/17); Sonatina (1873/21); Capricietto (1876/8); Caprice (1877/9); Variations on "In Pressburg by the Danube" (1879); four pieces for violin and piano: Songs Without Words (1874/9-10) and three Rêveries (1875/9); and one work for violoncello and piano: Serenade (1879/6).
The appearance of the Little Pieces can be dated back to the late sixties. But perhaps under the influence of Procházka's criticism and the publisher's requirements, Bella was redrafting them until the time of their publication. They are Romantic piano miniatures, which on the one hand are characterized by pioneering harmony and, on the other, by conventional form. The spirit of Romanticism is seen in their melodies, variable agogics and inventive pianistic stylization.
Variations on the Slovak Folk Song "A Swarm, A Swarm is Flying"
The next Bella piano variations bear the title Variations sur une chanson populaire slovaque. The work is similar to his previous formal solution (the folk song presented as a theme, followed by three variations, this time without an introduction), with the same dominant virtuoso element, evolutionary approach in the thematic variations, and gradational approach to the final variation. Individual variations remain within the orbit of the main key of C sharp minor (the second variation is in D Flat major), and are contrasted in tempo and expressiveness (Theme: Moderato; Variation I: Velocissimo; Variation 2: Moderato; Variation 3: Finale. Agitato.) This composition was probably written during Bella's stay in Kremnica in the years 1869 – 1872, since Fellegi published it in 1872 as an insert in Apollo.
Sonatina in E Minor
The Sonatina in E Minor was published in 1873 by Fellegi. The composition is not a version of the classical sonatina form, which was a miniaturized sonata intended for use in teaching piano. Bella's work is built on the base of one-movement sonata-form, in which can be distinguished the stages of exposition, development and recapitulation. The formal and tonal contrasts of the themes within the exposition are minimized, all three themes have the character of binary song-form, and the modulating sections take on an evolutionary character. The development grows from the first theme and does not dominate the composition, but rather contrasts with the subsequent recapitulation, which is conceived as a mirror. The evolutionary process also grows in the connecting sections of the recapitulation, which, after the final entrance of the main theme, concludes with a short coda. The basis of the composition is thus motivic-thematic: the expositions of the themes bring a stable element to the dramaturgy, while the application of the dramatic element is limited to the evolution of linking sections. Thanks to this dramaturgy, the lyric element prevails over the dramatic in this composition. The moderate pace, songful themes and pianistic style reveal its classical inspiration.
Sonata in B Flat Minor
The Sonata in B Flat Minor for piano is not only Bella's most important work – it belongs to the most significant Slovak compositions of the 19th century. It has, however, suffered a very interesting fate. The Sonata is preserved in two manuscript copies, one of which provides this closing detail: Hermannstadt, September 28, 1885. A preserved title page of the composition includes the author's dedication: meinem lieben Freund Herrn Victor von Heldenberg. Sonate in B Moll für das Pianoforte von J. L. Bella (to my dear friend Victor von Heldenberg: Sonata in B Flat Minor for piano by J. L. Bella). Piano virtuoso and educator Victor von Heldenberg was also the first to perform the work, according to E. Zavarský, when he played the premiere at the concert of the Hermannstadt Music Society on September 21, 1887. The second manuscript copy does not contain any further details, but displays quite a large number of notations and cuts throughout the course of the composition. Detailed analysis of the musical text shows that we are dealing with three layers of text. The oldest is the Heldenberg specimen (1885), while the other manuscript contains the second and third layers of the text. This analysis dates the emergence of the original version to the year 1885, while the dates of the second and third versions of the work remain hypothetical. Perhaps the composer rewrote the composition after seeing comments by other specialists, preserved particularly in the notes of Richard Strauss (1889). Bella's attempts to promote the Sonata can be dated back to the year of its premiere (1887), when the cellist Hanuš Wihan (1855 – 1920), during a concert visit of the Czech Quartet in Hermannstadt, proposed to convey the Sonata, through the help of the young Richard Strauss, to Hans von Bülow. Although this attempt had no favorable outcome, the preserved correspondence between Strauss and Bella makes it possible to illuminate a number of issues. On August 27, 1888 Strauss wrote to Bella: "Thank you very much for your kindness in sending me your extremely interesting piano sonata, which I consider a very original, ingenious, deeply heartfelt work of art; acquaintance with it has given me great joy and it definitely deserves to be performed often. I assure you that, with pleasure, I will win it such a circle of friends as it deserves. If you allow me to keep your Sonata longer, I will show it to the foremost local pianists and try to find one who will perform the Sonata publicly here. Perhaps I can get Mr. von Bülow interested in it, but unfortunately, I cannot promise. You surely know that he is not very receptive to unknown novelties which are sent to him or recommended to him by friends. In any case, I would not advise you, if you do not know him well personally, to send him a composition – it might only be rejected. If you trust me, I promise you that when the right opportunity presents itself (which, as I said, may only happen within six months), I will draw attention to your work, but that, unfortunately, is all I can do."
Strauss kept Bella's manuscript almost one and a half years, documented by the following Strauss letter, written in Weimar on October 25, 1889: "Your piano sonata (sorry that I kept it so long) I am only now returning. Would it not be possible to fix it, in the sense of making the writing for the piano (technically) a bit more comfortable to play? Your work is excellent in terms of expression, but I think that, because of the uncomfortable writing, no publisher (apart from the distaste of these venerable men against piano sonatas) will print it, and no one among the pianist-professionals, who--as is known--have a patent on the true piano style, will want to study it. Don't you have in Hermannstadt a pianist who knows the Chopin and Liszt piano techniques well – today, finally, everyone has them in their fingers – and with whom you can discuss this? Before I send you the Sonata I'll play it for Bernhard Stavenhagen, and maybe I can manage to interest him in your superb work. They are all so stubborn and stupid, these pianists of today!" Strauss thus warned Bella of the possible anti-pianistic character of his work and that is perhaps why Bella proceeded to revise the Sonata.
Bella's correspondence with Strauss, however, also challenges another handed-down conclusion regarding the supposed program of the work. The question of a work's program was, for Strauss, the most important current issue; the consideration of accounts of programmatic musical compositions are one of the main lines of their correspondence. His understanding of program and absolute music as a personal artistic credo was expressed by Strauss in an extensive letter to Bella on March 3, 1890: the detailed programmatic concept of Bella's symphonic poem Osud a ideál ("Fate and Ideal") we know from Bella's letter to Strauss on April 15, 1890. Thus, it is quite inconceivable that Bella would conceal from Strauss any intended extra-musical dimension in his piano sonata, if there were any.
Bella's Sonata in B Flat Minor for piano presents the four-movement sonata cycle in perhaps its most monumental architectural form. The first movement (Allegro) is composed in the manner of sonata-form, using Bella's favorite device of a mirror recapitulation. It is precisely in this movement that Bella reveals his goals for the revision of the piece. He removed the doubled climax of the movement and concentrated the compositional procedures in the development. The new design has not only a clearer piano texture, but also a distinct architectural shape. The second movement (Andante) is the lyrical hub of the composition, built on a rondo base. The main part of the movement functions as a ritornello; the contrasting section (Eroico) delivers a strong dramatic impulse. The new revision affects the contrapuntal elaboration and piano textures in the contrasting sections. The third movement (Scherzo. Vivace) moves furthest away from the main tonality (A Major). Its themes bring the most obvious programmatic associations, supported by the contrapuntal layers used in the recapitulation of the movement and the reminiscences inserted. The new revision totally simplifies the piano texture and clarifies the thematic profiles. The final movement (Finale. Allegro moderato) provides the contrapuntal climax of the work. Apart from the counterpoint and rondo principles, the composer uses the element of reminiscence, monumentalizing the entire composition. Also in this section, simplified thematic material and piano textures are adopted. Although Bella's musical poetry grew mainly from "new-Romantic" aspirations, his Sonata in B Flat Minor builds on the Beethoven-Brahms cyclical conception of piano composition. And the key to the inspiration for this work is Beethoven-like pathos, characterizing not only most of the thematic starting-points of the composition, but also its overall artistic tone.
Doll's Holiday, Waltz for Piano Duet
While the composer's first-mentioned piano composition was written by an eighteen-year-old student, the epilogue of Bella's creations for piano is contained in Bella's piano piece written by the eighty-four-year-old master for his grand-daughter: Puppenfest, Vierhändiger Walzer für die Fünf Finger des Primspielers komponiert und meinem 6 jährigem Enkelchen Dagmar Krafft-Bella gewidmet von J. L. Bella (Wien, Ostern 1927) (Doll's Holiday, Waltz for Piano Duet, composed for five-fingered primary player and dedicated to my six-year-old grand-daughter Dagmar Krafft-Bella) (Vienna, Easter 1927).
Dagmar Krafft-Bella, later Dagmar Sturli-Bella (1920 – 1999) was the daughter of Bella's older daughter Augusta (b. 1880). She later worked as a pianist and professor of piano at the Vienna City Conservatory. Bella watched with high hopes the musical growth of his grandchild, in whose company he spent his last years in Vienna and Bratislava. While the part of the first player uses the hand's natural spread of a fifth, the piano accompaniment of the second player helps to create an impressive whole.
Vladímir Godár/English translation by Larry Newland