Louis Spohr: “Andante con Variazioni,” Octet in E Major, Op. 32
He was known by a number of strange personal habits, colorful prose, and some rather unusual music “possessing the supreme virtue of never being dull.” Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was widely acclaimed as one of the most gifted concert pianists of his generation who favored gaudy outfits of his own design and pushed his favorite piano stool around in a wheelbarrow. He even devised his own rating system for composers, and placed himself ninth of all time. In this rating he came in just below Delius, but above Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Grainger explored the frontiers of music with idiosyncratic folk song settings and in later years attempted to bypass the “absurd goose-steeping” of standard notation. In fact, he envisioned an embryonic synthesizer capable of generating scaleless, pulseless, and synthetic sound; something he termed “Free Music.” Written in 1911, Handel in the Strand originated under the title “Clog Dance.” According to Grainger, “my dear friend William Gair Rathbone (to whom the piece is dedicated) suggested the title “Handel in the Strand,” because the music seemed to reflect both Handel and English musical comedy…as if jovial old Handel were careering down the Strand to the strains of modern English popular music.
Percy Grainger: Handel in the Strand
Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) already was a prodigy pianist at the tender age of 9! Studying with the great Alfred Cortot, he also became a composition student of Nadia Boulanger at age 14. He performed his own piano concerto at Covent Garden in London at age 16, and the following year Serge Diaghilev invited him to collaborate on a ballet with Boris Kochno. In fact, Diaghilev hailed Markevitch “as the composer who would put an end to a scandalous period of music of cynical-sentimental simplicity.” And in a personal letter Béla Bartók wrote, “you are the most striking personality in contemporary music, and I am happy to thank you for the influence you have had on me.” By the time Markevitch turned twenty, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest living composers. Supposedly, he was hailed as the “second Igor,” after Igor Stravinsky. Eventually Markevitch devoted the majority of his time to conducting, but in October 1941 he completed his last original work, the Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Handel for piano.
Igor Markevitch: Variations, Fugue et Envoi on a Theme by Handel, Op. 105
Sir Donald Francis Tovey considered the Brahms Handel Variations “one of the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written.” Completed in Hamburg in 1861 and dedicated to Clara Schumann on her birthday, this set stands on the summit of his solo keyboard compositions. What is more, however, it is also a compositional statement as it presents the summation of the composer’s extensive study of music theory and history. The choice of the Handel theme, the richness and scope of the piano technique and the “lavish display of contrapuntal learning in the concluding Fugue combine to present Brahms in the role of preserver and representative of tradition.” Brahms once played the set for Richard Wagner, who commented “that it showed what could still be done with the old forms by someone who knew how to use them.” The theme originates in Handel’s B-flat major harpsichord suite, and Brahms explores a veritable kaleidoscope of moods and characters all culminating in a decidedly un-Handelian fugue.
George Frideric Handel: “Aria con variazioni,” Keyboard Suite No. 1, HWV 434
Johannes Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24