Program Notes to the Album of Computer Realizations by John Casten

by Christopher Fulkerson

Shapero Works Discussed:
Sonata for Piano Four Hands
Piano Sonata in F Minor
Variations in C Minor
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Approaching this music, the first thing to be taken into account is its idiom.     All three of these works answer to the description of “Neoclassical.”    But they do so in different enough ways, specifically the first work differs from the other two, that the term merits brief discussion.

All eras of art have had their “Neoclassical” components.    Perhaps the most useful way to think about this stylistic phenomenon is to define it as “A style which not only is informed by that of an earlier era,” as indeed the styles of all literate artists are, “But which also makes conspicuous use of the actual materials, even specific motives, of otherwise obsolete styles, even specific works.”

But at the time these pieces were written, a less general definition was in the air.    Neoclassicism was a movement, led by Stravinsky, which not only partook of the matters of earlier musics, but which inevitably had earmarks of Stravinsky’s own version of any such movement.

Harold Shapero’s precocious Sonata for Piano Four Hands of 1941 suggests this more limited view.    It was only with the later pieces that Shapero was able to break away from Stravinsky’s clever but dryly ironic model and offer one more deeply informed by the past.     In the case of the Sonata in F Minor of 1948 and the Variations in C Minor of 1947, Shapero began to bypass Stravinsky’s and create a Neoclassicism more distinctly his own, based upon heavy reference to Beethoven.

But not to Beethoven as we know him today, as a Classical era composer, rather to Beethoven as he was viewed at mid-century, as a Romantic.    Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to call the latter works “Neo-Romantic.”     They fit squarely into that first, more general definition of Neoclassicism.    Shapero’s later Neoclassicism was just not limited to the brittle sarcastic stuff Stravinsky was usually writing about this time.   

(It may also be helpful to point out that these two “Neo” styles have entirely different bases: “Neoclassicism” means a certain approach to technique and materials, and is therefore quantifiable.    “Neo-Romantic” is a more vague, esthetic term, used more often of conservatives such as Samuel Barber, or of the ignorant, such as the minimalists, as a self defense.)

Within this stylistically proscribed world, Shapero sometimes eaked out surprisingly modern things.    And not modern by courtesy, as Sibelius is sometimes called modern.     Both sets of Variations – the Adagio of the 1948 Sonata, and the C Minor set written in 1947 – anticipate both the voice leading designs, and the details and effect of the rhythmic time-point system of Milton Babbitt and other “uptown,” that, is, mainstream Modernist, composers.      (“Downtown” composers are those associated with John Cage and other Pied Piper figures.)    The harmonic crises, and some of the piano writing, of the Piano Sonata are often close to those of Bela Bartok.    For their use of thin textures over ample time-spans occupied by harmonic stasis, some sections of Shapero’s adagios are quite similar in effect to the music of Morton Feldman.

The Sonata for Piano Four Hands opens with a ternary movement with an introductory adagio that is later recollected, creating a formal sequence of Introduction – A – B – A – Intro – Coda(A).    The slow opening is sharply pandiatonic.    The A Section has syncopated outer voices around a moderately motoric repeated-chord idea.    This music reaches a climax marked “semi-legato” and subsides to a few sparse low notes.    The B idea which follows consists of a soaring tune in octaves over a widely arpeggiated accompaniment.    The texture rises adroitly to a widely spaced minor third on F sharp first achieved in the Introduction.    But this B section is not over.    It receives the most exhaustive development in the movement before eventually wafting away.    The A idea returns, more percussive now.    A brief reference to the introduction offers dramatic contrast before the A theme resumes as  a quick coda, this time in its first, lean version.     This coda thus has a recapitulative effect.

The slow second movement is in what might be termed the “doubled ternary” form of ABAABA.    The first idea makes use of bold secondal and quartile chords.     The B idea consists of lean two-voiced counterpoint, sometimes with, sometimes without accompanying seventh and ninth chords.      This varying of harmonic materials between sections is another quite forward-looking aspect of this music; such procedures were to become paramount to Elliott Carter, who was also a Neo-Classical composer at one time.     Returning, the A idea develops into an ecstatic and frantic triple-octave melody.    A caesura separates the first and longer of the two ternary forms from the second one, but, when the A idea immediately returns, it is its loudest and grandest.    The texture of the returning B section is sparse, and, as with the first movement, the last appearance of the A idea is laconic and cadential.

The brilliant finale is recognizable as a type of Rondo, with the thematic sequence of ABACBA.    The first idea is repleat with minor/major harmonic effects and the motoric underpinning contains a rhythmic detail Shapero seems quite fond of – in addition to a 3+3+2 division of the meter, he often divides the measure into patterns of 3+2+3.     This rhythm is thematic in the Piano Sonata.    Again the second idea is more lean in texture than the first; here it tends toward the flat side of the tonal spectrum.   When the A idea returns, it is in the Key of F, rather than the work’s C tonic.      The central C section has a more easygoing contrapuntal texture in which, due to chromatic inflection, the diatonicism of the lines is more evident than the security of the tonality.     This material soars for some measures and ends in midphrase with a caesura.    The B idea immediately returns, with a new syncopated figure, still favoring flat keys, and slides inexorably back into the C major of the opening idea.    The last passage, marked preciso, sustains this motoric idea for some time, until a sweeping gesture to the final fortissimo C major chord.

The other two works under discussion here not only employ, in a manner typical of Neo-Classicists everywhere, the materials of earlier musics; they actually quote particular works.    In this sense one might say these pieces are “doubly Neo-Classical,” or perhaps that they are “paraphrases” of these earlier pieces.    Listening to them can be almost like listening to two pieces at the same time.

The ambitious Sonata in F Minor owes much to the Beethoven Appassionata Sonata, Opus 57.    Large sections virtually paraphrase it.     The first movement is in a modified sonata form in which instead of the entire exposition being repeated as a whole, each theme is usually stated twice in succession.    From its first measure, and throughout the work, the F minor tonality has E major embedded in it; there is also the flatted supertonic of G flat, conspicuous in the Beethoven Opus 57.     This music is so tonally chromatic that it shares an important characteristic of Brahms’s – the themes are so tonally fluid that it becomes meaningless to effect a “transition” between themes.    When the themes themselves contain many profoundly chromatic detours, transitions in the same style lack directionality and therefore purpose, and, just as in Brahms, they can be dispensed with.     Even development sections can be jettisoned: the first movement of the Brahms First Piano Concerto is a gigantic sonatina.   In place of functional transitions, Shapero uses a type of “signal” device Beethoven had begun to develop in the first Razumovsky quartet, of usually just a few notes, often disjunct, that alert the listener to changes in the musical flow.    At the end of the repetition of the first theme, dispensing with a true transition, Shapero simply signals the upcoming theme by intoning a rising E flat – E flat – F – B flat figure.     With its counterpoint this is a clear reference to the bell motive of Debussy’s piano prelude, “The Engulfed Cathedral.”    The second idea is a low scampering and syncopated perpetual motion with ecstatic outbursts, notably of an A flat major-minor arpeggio which, Beethoven-like, compresses widely spaced chords into a close harmony.    The immediate repetition of this theme is signaled by fortissimo octaves, rising by major seconds, C to D to the F flat of the theme’s opening.     Again the A flat major-minor flashes by; again there appears the signal of the rising major seconds in octaves, this time C, D, D flat, E flat.    This signals the closing theme, which  breaks forth with brilliant descending arpeggios; here is Beethoven throwing boulders from Mount Olympus.    This idea will return in the same formal position in the last movement.   

Not surprisingly, the development begins in E minor.     Soon the compatibility is shown between the work’s opening motive, A flat - E – C, and the key of E.    Notice that the tonality adjusts to the E natural of the theme, rather than the theme to the tonality: this “neoclassicist” is playing radically fast and loose with horizontal and vertical relationships.     Gradually this motive adds tones and their durations increase; soon a chromatic four-part stretto of sixteenth notes worthy of Roger Sessions vollies by.     The end of the development is announced with the rising tones of the first theme’s Debussian signal.    

The recapitulation bends all the material to F minor, but not too tidily; the first theme is its loudest and its E major incursions their most forceful.     This theme’s immediate repetition is given welcome variation as a dreamy and poetic nocturne.    Again the rising transition signal announces the second theme.     This is noticeably different in detail but not in effect, and now the giddy major-minor arpeggio appears obediently on F.     With the inter-theme signal, now at the pitches A – B – D flat, theme two repeats.    A caesura after the closing theme, with its brilliant arpeggios, seems about to conclude the movement, but there is a coda: the closing theme morphs through arpeggios chromatic to the key and the passage rises to one last ecstasy before the final F minor phrase ends with an F major chord.     The A natural of this chord is needed to keep the first A flat of the next movement fresh.

In the score, at the massive slow movement in D flat, there is a footnote allowing that “This movement may be performed separately under the title ‘Arioso Varations.’”     There are seven variations of the opening “Arioso.”     The D flat key, the exact spacing of the opening harmony, and some pitch and rhythmic details all reveal that this music is a paraphrase of the Andante con moto variations of Beethoven’s Opus 57.     However, Shapero’s theme has no chromaticism whatsoever, and this is true for most of the movement, which can be perceived as a kind of deliberately characterless shrink-wrap over its Beethoven model.    It must be admitted that Shapero’s harmonic stasis is suggested by Beethoven’s theme, which, unusually, never modulates.     Both themes total 32 measures, though Beethoven’s fourfold eight is met asymmetrically by Shapero’s 5+5+11+11.     Shapero’s first variation varies Beethoven’s second, with the hands reversed.     The repeated notes of Shapero’s second variation may have been suggested by those in Beethoven’s third, or more likely another set of Beethoven piano variations can be identified as a model, that of the finale of the last piano sonata, Opus 111, a set of variations on an original “arietta,” (hence Shapero’s “arioso”).    The syncopations anticipating the beat in Shapero’s second variation are typical of the late Beethoven set, especially its second variation.    Both this early Shapero and the late Beethoven begin their respective third variations with brilliant attaca forte descending arpeggios featuring dotted or triplet rhythms.    Both composers reverse the direction of the arpeggio midway through their third variations.    In his fourth variation Shapero changes key to his first movement’s ubiquitous E major; Beethoven waits until his fifth variation to change key, also up a minor third.     Shapero uses a retransition, marked “Mosso di nuovo,” to get back to his D flat tonic.     The persistent left-hand arpeggios of Shapero’s fifth variation were probably suggested by the more persistent ones in Beethoven’s sixth.     For his own sixth variation Shapero at last begins using some F major chords, providing much needed tonal relief.     Shapero concludes his variations with a recap of his theme, just as in his Appasionata set Beethoven’s fourth and last variation most closely resembles its own theme.

The finale of this huge sonata resembles a rondo, with the ideas grouped into four sections of progressively diminishing length, forming the pattern ABC – ABC – BC – B.     The first idea is a fast perpetual motion, with touches of magic, that goes like the wind.    Note that this effusion of sixteenth notes here is similar to the first theme of Beethoven’s Opus 57 finale.    Shapero’s quiet B idea here is an angular, clear right hand melody over pellucid and syncopated block chords, which soon take over entirely and after some development the music rises to an ecstasy of dissonance – this is the high point of the entire sonata.    The first movement’s transition signal of rising seconds is used again here in the same capacity.    The third or “C” idea makes use of the florid sixteenth notes of the opening, but here the main point is the slower, rising intoning octaves of almost Gothic scope – another reference to Debussy?    As was pointed out earlier, this third idea closes with the same lightening-like descending minor arpeggios with which the third or closing theme of the first movement concluded.     The second ternary ABC group is shorter than the first.    The C section is in the key of C: standard tonal structures certainly do appear here.     The third section is shorter still, having been shorn of its A component.     The familiar transition signal points the way to the last appearance of the C idea, at last in the tonic key.     The lightening bolt arpeggios are in evidence, and now they also conform to the F minor tonic.    A caesura  marks off the final section, a coda fashioned from the B idea but in which the rising C idea is quoted in full chords, instead of Gothic octaves, in the right hand.     The final cadence on F is reached by semitone from above and below: the E that has been with us from the first movement, with the G flat that has been with us since Beethoven.

The last work on this recording, the Variations in C Minor of 1947, is patterned after both movements of Beethoven’s Opus 111, with the famous angular opening descending pickup idea expanded by Shapero from a dimished seventh to a minor ninth.     Shapero then composes his theme motivically from this variant.      Beethoven’s diminished seventh does appear as the first two very high notes in Shpaero’s measures ten and eleven, and Shapero’s measure 29 quotes Beethoven’s measure 11 with the pitches G, A flat, F, in the same manner, and in the same manner, as a phrase link, that Beethoven had used them.    Shapero’s first variation resembles Beethoven’s, both in the alternation of the hands and in its melodic contours.     Over his Opus 111 variations, Beethoven typically describes a gradual accelerando, from quarter notes in the theme, eighth notes in the first variation, sixteenths in the second, et cetera all the way to the trill in the fifth variation.     Shapero’s theme and first three variations describe a similar accelerando, though more loosely calculated than Beethoven’s, eventually reaching triplet thirty second notes and a high written-out trill.     For his fourth variation Shapero moves from the C minor of Beethoven’s own variations; here Shapero reverts to the slow figuration of his theme, now moving through C major to A minor, just as Beethoven’s theme always does.

At his fifth variation Shapero begins to paraphrase yet another Beethoven work, the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata Opus 106.    That movement’s measure 27 transition is the probable source of Shapero’s variation five cantilation.     His sixth variation, in C major, clearly derives from the Hammerklavier’s recapitulation, especially from measure 95 on.    But by the end of this variation Shapero is describing the same right hand ascent that Beethoven does in the fourth of his Opus 111 variations.     After a last brief reference to the Hammerklavier, for his seventh variation Shapero again takes up his minor ninth motive, now in the key of A minor.    There are resemblances to Beethoven’s sixth variation: the arpeggiated left hand; the part writing with repeated notes played by the thumb.     By his eight variation Shapero has made his way back to C minor for a dressed up version of his theme.     Like his Viennese master, Shapero closes his variations with a short, thematic cadenza.


Written Ca. 2008. First Posted 2/15/2010.