Joseph Phibbs: Preludes – Elegy
Take Beethoven’s late Bagatelles, for example. The opus 126 set display all the characteristics of his instrumental and symphonic music composed around the same time, including the final three piano sonatas, and these brief works demonstrate an extraordinary range of styles and emotions, from terse to serene to heroic or angst-ridden. They divert from strictly classical structures, suggesting improvisation and spontaneity in their design and moods.
Beethoven: Bagatelle in E flat, op. 126
If the pinnacle of the Classical era was the solo piano sonata, by the start of the Romantic period attention turned to smaller or more fluid works, and sequences of miniatures were very much in vogue. Schubert used the miniature form to exquisite effect in his Moments Musicaux, the two sets of Impromptus, and the Drei Klavierstücke, works whose unassuming titles belie the wonders within. Here we find many elements of his orchestral and chamber writing, his songs and his piano sonatas, including long-spun lyrical melodies, textures drawn from his string-quartet writing, the use of remote keys and strikingly piquant harmonies. The two sets of Impromptus, D899 and D935, remain amongst Schubert’s most popular piano works today, widely performed in concert, either as single works or as a set.
Schubert Impromptu D899/3
Many composers of the Romantic period wrote works that we call “miniatures” today. Famous examples include Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte (“Songs without words”), which are the length of a short song and organised accordingly, yet are for solo piano. Chopin had his Preludes, Nocturnes, Mazurkas and Waltzes; Schumann his Kinderszenen, Romances, Bluemensteuck, and Waldszenen; and Grieg his Lyric Pieces. Brahms called many of his works in this genre “Intermezzo,” a word which translates as “something in-between”. Like Chopin’s Preludes and Schumann’s Romances, they work as stand-alone pieces or performed as a complete set.
Brahms: Rhapsody in E flat, Op 119
Rachmaninov was a master of the miniature form and one finds many echoes of his piano concertos in his Moments Musicaux, Preludes and other small-scale works.
Rachmaninov: Moments Musicaux Op 16/5
Composers have continued to exploit the miniature form right up to the present day, enjoying the challenge of genre’s concision and the opportunity to explore a few specific ideas within a small form.