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8.570710 - KUHLAU: Piano Sonatinas, Opp. 55, 88 (Jando)
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Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832)
Piano Sonatinas, Op. 55 and 88

 

The son of an army regimental musician, grandson of an oboist and town musician, and nephew of an organist and town musician in Aalborg, Friedrich Kuhlau was born in 1786 at Uelzen, near Hanover, and moved with his family successively to Lüneburg and Brunswick. In Lüneburg he had piano lessons and started writing music, and in Brunswick completed his early education at the Katharineum. At the turn of the century he went with his parents to Hamburg, studying there with the organist, composer and mathematician Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwenke, who had succeeded C. P. E. Bach, his own teacher, as Hamburg Stadtkantor in 1788 and had held the position of organist at the Katherinenkirche since 1783. A year earlier C .P. E. Bach had arranged for Schwenke to study with Marpurg and Kirnberger in Berlin.

In 1804 Kuhlau began his career as a pianist and remained in Hamburg until the occupation of the city by Napoleon in 1810 and the compulsion to military service, from which it seems blindness in one eye, the result of a childhood accident, would not have excluded him. He then took refuge in Copenhagen under an assumed name, attempting to establish himself there as a pianist and composer and making his first appearance as a pianist at the court in 1811. In 1813 he was naturalised and the following year was appointed a court chamber musician, a position that was unpaid until 1818, when token payment was allowed. In the same year he was joined in Denmark by his parents and sister, making it necessary to earn more money for their support, increasing his work as a concert pianist and as a teacher.

In 1815 he had enjoyed success with a Singspiel, Røverborgen (Robbers’ Castle), at the Royal Theatre, where he found employment for a season as chorus-master and was able to have his first opera staged. At the same time he was winning a reputation as a pianist throughout Scandinavia. He visited Berlin and Leipzig on various occasions and was twice in Vienna, on the second occasion in 1825 spending an evening with Beethoven and his friends, of which subsequent memories were hazy. The party had walked in the countryside, before dining at an inn, where the consumption of champagne had a similar effect on Beethoven’s powers of recall, although he had written a canon punning on Kuhlau’s name, to the words Kühl, nicht lau (Cool, not lukewarm), which he sent to Kuhlau, while the latter had responded with a canon on the name of Bach.

In 1828 Kuhlau wrote music to celebrate a royal wedding, Elverhøj (The Elf Hill) and was awarded the title of professor with an increased stipend. In 1831 a fire at his home at Lyngby, near Copenhagen, where he had rented a house since 1826, a year after the death of his parents, not only destroyed many of his unpublished compositions and writings but had a deleterious effect on his health, leading to his death the following year.

Kuhlau, as a successful pianist and teacher, wrote a quantity of music for the piano, although his second piano concerto was destroyed in the fire of 1831. These compositions included salon music and pieces of varied technical difficulty that were of practical use in teaching. In addition to his stage works, which enjoyed variable success, he left songs and chamber music, with a particular emphasis on compositions for the flute, an instrument that it seems that he did not play himself, profiting, however, from the technical advice of a flautist in the theatre orchestra. His first attempts at writing for the flute had been in Hamburg, but it was in the 1820s that he embarked on a series of works that earned for him the title of ‘the Beethoven of the flute’.

The six Sonatinas, Op. 55, were published in Copenhagen in 1823 and, like the other sonatinas, seem to have been designed either for teaching purposes or otherwise for the amateur market. The first of the group, the Sonatina in C major, follows conventional procedure, as is usual in Kuhlau’s sonatinas. The first theme leads at once to a second, in the dominant, and a brief development is soon succeeded by a formal recapitulation. The second of the two movements is in sonata-rondo form, the main theme followed first by an episode modulating from G major, with an ascending chromatic scale displayed. The second episode is in F major, before the return of the principal theme and the first episode.

The Sonatina in G major, Op. 55, No. 2, follows a similar form in the first movement, leading to a ternary C major slow movement and a more extended final Allegro in broadly ternary form, with the outer and central themes each subject to some development.

The Sonatina in C major, Op. 55, No. 3, starts with the principal theme first in sixths and then in thirds, a pattern that recurs. The second of the two movements, marked Allegretto grazioso, makes much of a central section in A minor.

The fourth of the set, the Sonatina in F major, Op. 55, No. 4, opens with an Allegro non tanto in 3/4 with triplet figuration. The short second movement, marked Andantino con espressione, is in B flat major and in ternary form, and the last movement, Alla Polacca, has a main theme characterized by the off-beat accent that was a conventional feature of the Polish dance. There is a da capo repetition of the first section of the movement, which ends with a short coda.

The Sonatina in D major, Op. 55, No. 5, offers some contrast with its opening Tempo di Marcia and the dotted rhythms of the main theme, echoed in the secondary element. The second sonata-rondo movement, marked Vivace assai, is in 6/8, and finds the usual place for relatively undemanding scale passages.

Opening with a martial Allegro maestoso, the Sonatina in C major, Op. 55, No. 6, has a second subject that demands crossing of hands, and a development section that makes a dramatic excursion into other keys. The second subject returns in recapitulation, with the first theme finding its place again in the final coda. The sonatina ends with a Menuetto, used to frame an F major trio section.

The four sonatinas of Op. 88 were published in Copenhagen in 1827. As before they make relatively modest demands on a performer. The first of the set, the Sonatina in C major, Op. 88, No. 1, starts with an Allegro in the customary form. The second movement, marked Andantino, is in F major, with the conventional right-hand melody duly accompanied by the left. The work ends with a rondo.

The Sonatina in G major, Op. 88, No. 2, in the opening Allegro assai offers a principal theme based on the ascending tonic arpeggio, with a left-hand accompaniment. The short central development finds room for harmonic adventures, before the return of the main theme in the original key. There is a C major Andante cantabile and the sonatina ends with a rondo bringing a varied display of scale passages.

The third of the group, the Sonatina in A minor, Op. 88, No. 3, is the only one in a minor key. The first section of the opening Allegro con affetto leads duly to the relative major. The antiphonal element of the main theme is explored in the second part of the movement, with its varied recapitulation of the material. An expressive F major Andantino leads to the final Allegro burlesco, with its quirky main theme, sequential writing and chromatic scales.

The Sonatina in F major, Op. 88, No. 4, starts with a 6/8 Allegro molto in clear traditional form. The second movement, Andante con moto, is in A major with melodic interest, as so often, in the right hand. The final Rondo alla Polacca opens with a theme that at once declares the rhythm of the Polish dance, its main theme providing the framework for the briefest of contrasting episodes.

Keith Anderson


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