Top 5 Contemporary Piano Sonatas: #3

#3: Barber – Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26 (1949)

It’s telling that when I was thinking about my initial ranking of contemporary sonatas, before I had scouted out more obscure pieces, my first thought was “OK, so where is Barber going to end up?” It’s popular, and justly so. But is it a masterpiece? I’m still not sure. I wish it was a little longer, a little more transcendent, and that the first movement had a more logical flow. But it’s an Important American Sonata, better than Copland or Carter, and admittedly more audience-friendly than Ives’ Sonata No. 2 “Concord” (more on that later), so this piece occasionally turns up at competitions and recitals. Barber also had the advantage of an extremely high-profile premiere by none other than Vladimir Horowitz. Even if the sonata had been merely average, Horowitz would have done something to elevate it, and his permanent association with the piece would be an important pedigree no matter what. Apparently Barber had intended to end with the slow movement, but Horowitz insisted he needed a flashy finale. Barber struggled for months until Horowitz called him a “constipated composer.” The panicked Barber wrote the whole fourth movement the next day.*

Besides the involvement of Horowitz, the premiere was additionally high-pressure because the occasion was the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, a society dedicated to promoting American music. Elite figures in American musical society would be in attendance. Barber had previously received some criticism for his Romantic tendencies, and this was an opportunity to silence the critics. Thus, the piece is deeply serious, with acidic musical language and incorporation of twelve-tone procedures. Maybe the compactness of the movements was an attempt to show restraint rather than Romantic excess. It’s odd to think of this as a quintessential American sonata, since it’s so relentlessly dark and anxious – a bundle of nervous energy and despair in the gloomy key of E-flat minor.

The first movement gets right to work with a dotted-rhythm idea that’s kind of ugly but lends itself well to contrapuntal procedures. The whole movement is chock-full of sour little dotted descending half-steps that color the music gray, and weird dissonant characters lurk in our peripheral vision. The second subject here doesn’t really relieve the anxious mood, but it does slightly relax tension with a simpler texture: melody over rocking accompaniment. The tune winds its way lazily up above the treble staff and gets abruptly cut off by stern, hammering chords and flurries of notes. A misterioso section after that feels like the beginning of a development, with more subdued variants of the dotted rhythms and quietly grinding counterpoint. The second subject returns in a more tonal context over a bed of undulating C minor. It’s as if the tune is saying “Is it OK if come out now if I’m more serious?” This once again gives way to more interruptions and a stringendo speeding up of the music into a recapitulation. The first subject is a bit grander here, the second subject in a different pitch center but otherwise mostly unchanged. The movement closes with some lightning-fast flourishes in the upper register (which also happen to be tone rows), over a dirge-like bass, before a final descent into the depths. Quite a striking ending.

The second movement is a lovely, enigmatic little thing, one of Barber’s most fascinating creations. Full of major and minor play, the music has the effect of flickering light. There’s some real melancholy behind the playful exterior. Both hands have busy running eighth notes, which briefly give way to a traditional oom-pah-pah waltz and then resume. The harmony is so masterfully controlled throughout, mostly bitonal but with consonances teasing out of the texture. I love how the ending spins out into a blur of Gmaj9 over C#m9, summarizing the bitonal world of the movement.

The Adagio of this sonata shares a spiritual kinship with the Adagio of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. By that I mean that it’s an extremely introspective, despairing monologue filled with unique ornamentation and grand effects. Despite a duration of about six minutes to Beethoven’s fifteen-plus, it’s unmistakably a contemporary counterpart, just as much of a wellspring of grief as that piece (Barber’s tempo heading of Adagio mesto emphasizes the sadness). The tone row that sounds in the first measure, voiced in two-note chords, creates a bleak atmosphere that continues when wandering melodic lines enter in the treble. The tone row forms a sort of passacaglia, whether set in the two-note chords or spread out into slow arpeggios. Barber was no stranger to passacaglias, having featured one in his First Symphony, but here it’s neat to see an old form matched with the contemporary twelve-tone technique. The music builds to a powerful climax with big major and minor chords sounding in the middle of the dissonance. Then it winds down to end with a whimper.

We’re still in Hammerklavier Land with the fugue of the finale, though there’s no introduction to announce it. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Barber has created another American answer to the Hammerklavier with a fugal finale in a more American vernacular. The subject is pretty ingenious: the upbeat outlines an E-flat minor arpeggio and then hits the downbeat on a D-natural, creating dissonant tension right off the bat. The rest of the subject is full of ragtime-y syncopations, allowing for all kinds of groovy creations. I have to admit I have conflicted feelings about this movement. Though it’s fun and a great pianistic display, there’s a nagging sense of Barber stressing about his deadline, thinking “Must keep filling these pages with notes.” But I can’t fault his procedures, or the way he relaxes the atmosphere with a gentle E major section that’s the most hopeful moment in the whole piece. The movement resolutely ends in a stern, determined mode with colossal cascades of chords. When you hear the final notes, even on a studio recording, you can imagine the instantaneous eruption of applause.

It’s a solid, satisfying piece. Though I still consider the inner movements the most successful, the whole piece has fascinating details and moods to offer.

Where to find it:

HL50328330   G. Schirmer edition

HL50336700   Barber: Complete Piano Music – Revised (G. Schirmer)

*Barber suffered similar writer’s block while working on his Piano Concerto, Op. 38, once again for a major event: the centenary of G. Schirmer, Inc. and the opening of Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Center, New York, NY. With just fifteen days remaining before the premiere by pianist John Browning, he finally scared himself into writing the 5/8 barnstormer of a finale.

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