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8.570709 - KUHLAU, F.: Piano Sonatas, Op. 59 / Piano Sonatinas, Op. 20 (Jandó)
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Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832)
Piano Sonatas, Op. 59 • Piano Sonatinas, Op. 20


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 three Sonatinas, Op. 20, are dated 1820 and appear to have been designed either for teaching purposes or otherwise for the amateur market. The first of the set, the Sonatina in C major, starts with a simple eight-bar theme, its opening then echoed by the left hand in a lower register of the keyboard. A touch of drama and then of display ends the exposition, which is to be repeated. There is a short development before the first and second subjects and the closing section return in recapitulation. The very short F major slow movement consists of two repeated eight-bar sections, followed by a final rondo, duly framing contrasting episodes.

The Sonatina in G major, Op. 20, No. 2, is slightly more elaborate, with its introductory unison foretaste of the main theme and its later use of triplet figuration. The main theme is varied, shifting in key, to open the second section of the movement, with the tonic version of the secondary material duly returning. The slow movement, marked Adagio e sostenuto, is in E flat major, its main theme providing a framework for a more harmonically varied central section. The final Allegro scherzando is dominated by its first theme, which returns after a minor episode, but is only alluded to in the final part of the movement.

The third of the set, the Sonatina in F major, has a first theme with an emphatic chord on the second beat of the bar and subsidiary thematic material that brings answering scales from left and right hand and brief hand-crossing. There is a short development, an element often omitted in a sonatina, and a formal recapitulation. The second movement, marked Larghetto, is in B flat major, based on the rhythmic pattern of the main theme. The final Alla polacca is introduced by a rapid passage for right hand only, before the main theme is heard. The movement includes a more dramatic section in F minor, before the return of the more cheerful main theme.

The three works that constitute Op. 59, are often published as sonatinas, although the first edition of 1824 announces them as sonatas, described in their title as Trois sonates faciles et brillantes, pour le piano-forte. They are clearly designed for a similar market as those of the earlier set but are all in two movements only, lacking a slow movement. The Sonata in A major opens with an exposition in which the two thematic elements that form the substance of the movement are heard and repeated. The development opens in F major and with crossing of hands as treble answers bass, before the original key is gradually restored for the final recapitulation. The following Rondo makes good use of the descending figure heard in the left hand as the main theme is stated. The central episode is in a contrasted A minor.

The Sonata in F major, Op. 59, No. 2, follows a similar pattern, the dotted rhythms returning in the second subject. The central development recalls, in its opening notes, the figuration of the first subject, and finds room for a further display of triplets before the main theme returns in recapitulation. The second movement Rondo makes much of the opening rhythm of its principal theme and calls for some modest brilliance.

The set ends with the Sonata in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, its first movement marked Allegro con spirito and introducing passages of thirds in the right hand. The second part of the movement starts with a version of the first theme, with the earlier secondary material duly transposed. The Rondo, with its characteristic principal theme, contains a central episode in G major and is again within the formal conventions of its time.

Keith Anderson

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