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8.572204 - RIES, F.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete), Vol. 3 (Kagan) - Op. 9, No. 2 and Op. 26, "L'infortunee" / The Dream, Op. 49
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Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838)
Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas • 3


Ferdinand Ries is known mainly through his connection with Beethoven, as his family friend, piano student, and early biographer. Ries’s connections with Beethoven began in Bonn and continued in Vienna, and later in London. Born in 1784, when Beethoven was fourteen, Ferdinand was the son of Franz Ries, violinist in the Electoral Court orchestra, who taught Beethoven the violin and befriended his family during Beethoven’s youth. Largely self-taught, Ferdinand first studied in Munich, but around 1803 he went to Vienna to study the piano with Beethoven, who sent him to the noted theorist-composer Johann Albrechtsberger for composition lessons. Ries was probably Beethoven’s closest friend during this period, carrying out all kinds of musical and secretarial tasks for him, copying parts, making transcriptions and arrangements, proof-reading and seeing to publications. Later, after years of touring as a concert pianist and a short stay in Paris, Ries settled in London and married an Englishwoman. Even then he continued to act on Beethoven’s behalf.

Ries was a gifted and prolific composer in every instrumental genre, whose works, like those of so many composers of the time, were largely overshadowed by Beethoven’s huge presence. Still, in his lifetime his music was published and widely known to the music-loving public. A brilliant pianist, Ries made his début in Vienna in 1804, playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. He toured for many years throughout Europe, including Russia, to great acclaim, and was made a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In his lifetime virtually everything he composed was published, and often issued again by different publishers, attesting to his popularity. Eventually he and his family left England, settling finally in Frankfurt am Main in the Rhineland, where he conducted and continued to compose until his death.

Ries began composing his piano sonatas at a time when the genre was undergoing significant changes. His models were those of the great classicists, C.P.E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, who had perfected the sonata “ideal”. Later he was influenced by new trends in sonatas of Beethoven, Clementi, Hummel, and others. Ries was a master of the prevailing classical forms, sonata form, ABA (song) form, rondo, and variations, and that mastery, as well as striking originality, can be seen in all his compositions. What is most remarkable, however, is Ries’s anticipation of the style of the great piano composers of the early Romantic period, of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, who were not yet born or still young children when he was at the peak of his piano sonata composition, from about 1805 to 1818. Schubert’s poignant harmonic language, Mendelssohn’s expressive, sweet melodies, Chopin’s brilliant figuration, all of these features figure in Ries’s piano writing in his sonatas, well ahead of their full flowering in the Romantic period after 1830. His last two sonatas, composed in 1826 and 1832, reflect the change to a showy style more appealing to public taste.

Robert Schumann, reviewing a work by Ries in 1835 in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, noted his “remarkable originality”. Like Schubert he had an abundance of lyrical melodic ideas in constant flow. This is borne out in his many sonata-form movements, where the first theme, the second, and the closing theme are each distinctive, and ingeniously developed. Among significant characteristics of Ries’s style, many of which were to become hallmarks of the language of Romanticism, are dramatic dynamic contrasts, abrupt changes in tempo and mood, harmonic shifts, fluent ornate figuration, wide stretches and leaps, and radical use of the sustaining pedal to blur harmonies.

Although the publication of the two sonatas of Op. 9 was announced in 1812, the composition of the Sonata in C major, Op. 9, No. 2, dates from about 1809, when Ries went to Vienna following his unhappy (but sonata-productive) sojourn in Paris. This sonata is somewhat unorthodox: the first movement combines the rhythmic characteristics of a stately polonaise within a rondo form. A very fast, terse scherzo and trio is followed by a brief slow movement in G minor, which leads without a pause into a finale (in C major) of virtually non-stop rhythm, a perpetuum mobile, an exciting procedure often employed by the composer.

The Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 26, ‘L’infortunée’, the only example of one given a title by the composer, dates from about 1808 and Ries’s Paris sojourn. Because his music, adhering to the Viennese style, had failed to win him recognition in the French city, this sonata’s title may well be self-referential, reflecting his unhappy state of mind. Its first movement in particular is a remarkable harbinger of the Romantic style that was to flourish two decades later. The influence of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13, is apparent in the structure of the first movement, an Adagio introduction with ambiguous harmonies and poignant “sigh” motifs, followed by an impassioned and stormy Allegro. As in Beethoven’s Pathétique, the Allegro is abruptly interrupted twice by shortened returns of the music of the Adagio. The lyrical, calm slow movement, Andante, is in D major. It serves as a brief contrast to the storms of the first and third movements, leading without pause into the F sharp minor finale, marked Presto. The basic figuration of a fast triplet accompaniment propels the music forward, with short interludes of a lyrical second theme. It is a brilliant and effective climax to this emotionally charged work.

Ries composed the one-movement piano work The Dream, Op. 49, in London shortly after establishing himself there in 1813, as a means of introducing himself to the English public. He published it himself in 1814, and it became an immediate success, republished with French (Le Songe) or Italian (Il Sogno) titles. While it is more of a fantasy than a sonata, it incorporates some features of sonata style. It is a multi-sectioned work in which each distinctive section flows almost seamlessly into the next. Although no programme is included, its various sections suggest a programmatic narrative. Following an Introduction, there are six sections in varying keys (related by thirds), each of a pronounced individual character:

A. Introduction: Larghetto con moto (E flat major)
B. Moderato e molto espressivo (E flat major)
C. Andantino: Dolente e tranquillo (G major)
D. Andantino con moto (B major)
E. Tempo di Marcia: Maestoso moderato – Mesto (D major)
F. Adagio (cadenza-like transition to return of B section)
G. Allegretto: Grazioso – Più vivace (E flat major)

With its Chopinesque figuration and affective harmonies, Ries’s language foreshadows that of the early Romantic piano composers. Among the programmatic elements heard in The Dream are recitative-like passages (Section B); a “call to arms” and military music, followed by doleful sounds of mourning (Section E); and British characteristics such as the “Scottish snap” rhythm (Section D) and a near quotation from Rule, Brittania (Section E). It is not difficult to imagine a story behind this dream.

Susan Kagan

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