About this Recording
8.223644 - BELLA: Sonata / Sonatina / 4 Little Pieces

Jan Levoslav Bella (1843–1936)
Sonata • Sonatina • 4 Little Pieces


Jan Levoslav Bella was born in 1843 in Liptovsky Sv. Mikulas, a town of some 2800 inhabitants and a centre of Slovak nationalism. The eldest child of a teacher, he showed an early inclination for music, encouraged by his parents in a musical household. With the assistance of the Bishop of Zips he was able to study from the age of ten at the Catholic school in the historic town of Levoca (Leutschau), a place that after 1867 became greatly subject to Hungarian influence. He remained here for six years, receiving a good general education, and in music acquiring further practical ability as a violinist, pianist and organist, as well as in choral singing and theoretical musical studies. He owed much here to his teacher Leopold Dvořák, whose name he took at confirmation, later to be changed into its Slovak form of Levoslav. He completed the last two years of his studies in Banská Bystrica (Neusohl), where he began his theological studies, while developing his musical interests, writing liturgical music and profiting from the cultural opportunities the place offered. There followed two years of study at the pazmaneum in Vienna, where he involved himself in the musical reforms of the Cecilian movement and conducted the choir of the Pazmaneum, which performed in its own chapel and in the University Church. Vienna also offered opportunities of contact with some of the leading musicians of the time, including Simon Sechter, from whom Schubert had once sought lessons and with whom Bella was now able to study.

In 1865 Bella returned to Banská Bystrica, where he was ordained priest the following year. As a member of the cathedral clergy he was able to devote himself to music, teaching singing and music at the theological seminary and writing liturgical music, in addition to secular vocal and instrumental compositions. It was here that he met Ede Remenyi, the Hungarian violinist with whom Brahms had undertaken his first concert tour in 1853. In 1869 Bella moved to Kremnica (Kremnitz), where wider opportunities offered, taking the position of city director of music, with its manifold duties. Here, in 1870, he conducted a concert to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Beethoven, concentrating his attention very largely thereafter on the great classical composers, while himself writing works on a larger scale, in particular compositions for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, some of which were performed in Vienna. Travel in Germany revealed to him the repertoire of romantic and neo-romantic music and literature, the music of Schumann and the writing of Heine and of Chamisso. He also turned his attention increasingly to Slovak music.

1881 marked a turning-point in Bella’s career, when, leaving the priesthood, he took a position as Stadtkapellmeister and cantor in Hermannstadt (Sibiu), now in Romania, a much larger city than Kremnica, with a considerable German population. In 1882 he married and in an active career enjoyed considerable success as a conductor, with a proficient orchestra and choir, and the possibility of opera. He was able to direct performances of contemporary works and was an important figure in music education in the city, during the forty years he spent there, establishing links with the leading musicians of the time, including Brahms, Hans von Bülow, Dohnányi, Joachim and Richard Strauss, in addition to Liszt, with whom he had had an earlier connection. It was in Hermannstadt that he completed his own opera Wieland der Schmied (Wieland the Smith), first staged in Bratislava in Slovak translation in 1926. He retired in 1921, when he moved to Vienna to live with his daughter, spending the last eight years of his life in Bratislava, where he died in 1936.

Bella wrote his B-flat minor Piano Sonata in 1882, the year of his marriage. The first of the four movements opens with all the stormy activity of Liszt, its first subject followed by a more lyrical second subject in the relative major key. The movement, after much use of a short rhythmic motif, turns to a contrapuntal treatment of the material, before ending in the spirit in which it had begun. The G-flat major slow movement starts with gently arpeggiated chords, alternating major and minor, and an expressive melody. A maestoso section introduces a contrapuntal element, leading back to the gently lyrical opening theme, its complementary secondary theme and are turn to the more forceful maestoso. The first theme returns to end the movement. There is some ambiguity of key in the opening of the D major Scherzo, although the key is eventually firmly established, to allow the appearance of a more lyrical melody. There is a contrasting passage in B major, the equivalent of a trio, after which the sinister opening of the scherzo re-appears, with traces of the more expressive theme, as the movement comes to an end. The last movement opens with the strength of Schumann at his most robust, giving way to music of more tenderness, before a C-sharp minor funeral march. Counterpoint again appears as the material is developed and the sonata moves toward its triumphant B-flat major conclusion.

Bella’s Piano Piece in C minor, the first of two movements of an unfinished sonata, opens with an introductory flourish, before the announcement of the principal theme. This is followed by a second section in which thematic material is presented with a running triplet accompaniment and then with semiquavers, before a modulation to F minor, the principal theme now augmented and accompanied by a quaver counterpoint. Further adventurous modulations now lead to the key of D-flat and are turn of the gentler secondary theme, with its triplet accompaniment, turning again to semiquavers, followed by the principal theme in its original form. A second movement, in A-flat major, opens with a gently descending theme, with a running contrapuntal accompaniment. This re-appears to frame passages of greater force, finally bringing the piece to a serene conclusion.

“The Variations on In Pressburg, by the Danube” were first published in Banská Bystrica in 1866, described on the title-page as Variations sur une chanson populaire slovaque. The work starts with a dramatic introduction, with fragments of a dance, suggesting a preparatory improvisation. The theme of the song is presented in the simplest form. The first variation has a semiquaver accompaniment, while the second variation opens in a lower register, and is marked pastorale, moving on to a passage marked con brio and a conclusion con energia. The third and final variation presents the theme as a mazurka, before the syncopations of the conclusion. Bella’s Variations on Letf, letf roj open with the theme itself in C-sharp minor, followed by a rapid variation and a second of more moderate speed, now in the enharmonic tonic major of D-flat. The set of variations ends with a Finale that returns to the original key in an imaginative derivative of the material.

Bella’s Sonatina in E minor was first published in the Hungarian Viktor Fellegi’s Apollo, a periodical in which a number of his compositions appeared. It was written in 1870, during the composer’s time in Kremnica. The repeated exposition has more than a suggestion of national dance rhythms and there is a brief development, before the re-appearance of the first theme in the key of B minor and a fuller recapitulation.

The Four Little Pieces, written between 1866 and 1869 at Banská Bystrica, open with a Caprice in F-sharp minor, marked Allegretto, dominated by its opening motif. It is followed by a Vivace in A major, in which a modulating central section provides contrast. Tripie time continues in the following F-sharp minor Fairy Dance, allowing the fairies of the title to waltz. The E minor Capriccietto, first published in Viktor Fellegi’s Apollo in Budapest, contains, in its relatively simple form and texture, further evidence of Bella’s adventurous sense of harmony in a subtle series of unexpected modulations.

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