Author Topic: Stephen Heller  (Read 17428 times)

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Offline Ten thumbs

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Stephen Heller
« on: September 07, 2011, 10:20:50 AM »
As one of the most (if not the most) original composers for the piano in the Romantic era I think Heller deserves a thread of his own. Maybe he wouldn't be languishing in such obscurity if he had composed a piano concerto or two. However, with such a large portfolio of works of genius there is plenty to talk about, so I'll begin with the second sonata, which has been recorded by John kersey on Rdecs.

Here is what the CD notes say:

A long article appeared discussing both Heller and his place in contemporary composition in the Musical World of 1850, and this periodical also carried a perceptive review of his Second Sonata, quoted from The Athenaeum.
“This is a noticeable production; full of thought, full of energy – original in style, and excessively difficult: as highly-finished an example of the new manner of composition applied to the old forms as occurs to us. There are chords in it which would have made the timid hearts of our grandfathers ache, – extensions of hand (to be commanded at a moment’s warning) such as the Mozarts, Clementis and even Hummels never dreamed of, – passages of melody as richly laden with accompaniment as if every player possessed the composure, force and tone of Thalberg; but also, throughout the entire composition there is that je ne sais quoi of picturesque and romantic taste which reminds us that we are living in a time when Music runs some danger of being pushed across the boundaries which separate it from Poetry and Picture…As a whole, this sonata is too symphonic in style: and not merely so, but also, for a symphonic work, it is too little relieved by contrast and episode. This characteristic is generic to the new school of writers…In this ambitious work…so much genius and science are evidenced, such unmistakeable traces of individuality present themselves, that  he well merits strict truth and plain remonstrance conjointly with high praise.”
This contrasted with the measured and less enthusiastic view taken by Barbedette in his biography of Heller, although he concedes that it is “the work of one who knows his own power. Its style is decisive and concentrated, and there is a loftiness about the whole work.” Indeed there is, and viewing this work from the perspective of hindsight allows us to see the development of its material throughout each movement in a way that foreshadows Bruckner and the Wagnerians, albeit unacknowledged by them. Heller not only understands the complexities of thematic transformation, but is also skilled at creating an atmosphere that often sounds starkly modern because of that very lack of variety that troubled the reviewers of his time. The Sonata is often aggressive, tragic and pessimistic in a way that few of Heller’s contemporaries would have attempted; its edges are hard and its emotional world uncompromising. Seldom can the accusations of sentimentality applied by some to Heller’s music have rung more hollow.

I must say that this sonata is quite a challenge but it gets one used to the fact that much of Heller's music is on a substantial scale, and it is very very different from Mendelssohn.


« Last Edit: September 07, 2011, 10:29:17 AM by Ten thumbs »
A day may be a destiny; for life
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With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #1 on: September 12, 2011, 04:05:51 AM »
The Humoreske (Phantasistuck) Op.64 immediately preceding the 2nd sonata is very much in the same vein. Opening with dramatic repeated arpeggiated chords (Feurig, und mit scharfen Accent) it is permeated by a a persistent but varied motif that drives the music onwards. A slower contrasting section is accompanied by a hypnotic two note accompaniment that reappears in the climactic coda. A very powerful and accomplished work that kills dead any suggestion that Heller was only a miniaturist. I don't have it up to speed yet but it probably runs to 9 or 10 minutes (Minim = 112 The French edition entitles it Presto capriccioso). That I can't find a recording is something of a disgrace on the musical fraternity.
The dedication (zugeeignet) is to Miss Selina Shannon. I can't find any information on her but she must have been a lady who could go some! In the 1871 census there are three of this name (two in Lancashire) but they were all born at a later date.
These pieces represent Heller's middle style.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #2 on: September 18, 2011, 01:50:21 AM »
In the period after the 2nd Sonata Heller composed a number of arrangements of other composers work. This was probably to raise money. Some of these works no longer have a function now that we have recorded music. In those days the only way to hear music was live.
Op.66 and Op.70 are base on obscure operas
Op.67 is a very pleasant arrangement of 'On Wings of Song'
Op.68 is based on Schubert 'Hark, hark, the lark' and involved a lot of very tricky hand crossing.
Op.72 consists of three arrangements of Mendelssohn songs.

Other works demand more serious consideration.
Firstly
Op.69 Fantasy-Sonata based on Mendelssohn's 'Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rath'
This four movement work may have been composed as a celebration of Mendelssohn's life, since that composer died only a few years earlier. It is very much Mendelssohn at his best.

Another composer who had just died was Chopin and the following is Heller's tribute:
Aux mânes de Frédéric Chopin. Élégie et Marche funebre, op 71 (16’41”)

The Elegy and Funeral March on the death of Chopin is an extended meditation on some of his more familiar themes, again showing Heller’s great skill in combining these into something quite new. Heller knew Chopin personally, and perhaps in this work we gain some sense of how Chopin might improvise and develop ideas off the cuff. Certainly it is one of the most powerful and effective tributes from one composer to the spirit of another.

The principal sources for this are Preludes No.4 and No.6

This brings me to Op.73 - three original pieces but I can't find sheet music for these. Does anyone know where I might find it?
Gottschalk says: Heller's Op. 73 is a very interesting specimen; nothing can be lovelier than his Cradle Song, or more dramatic than his Huntman’s Song. Each is in itself an exquisite little poem.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline thalbergmad

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #3 on: September 18, 2011, 11:34:29 AM »
Heller for some reason seems to be one of the early romantics I have so far ignored. Apart from a private recording of some Beethoven Variations, I do not recall hearing any of his works. Perhaps as you say if he had composed a piano concerto then his smaller works may have attracted some attention.

There are a stupendous amount of composers from this era that were composing operatic transcriptions and variations along with an original works, so one hopes that pianists will eventually get around to Heller.

I do have the Op.73 scanned by a friend, so I will ask him if I can send you a copy.

Regards

Thal

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #4 on: September 18, 2011, 12:08:53 PM »
Heller for some reason seems to be one of the early romantics I have so far ignored. Apart from a private recording of some Beethoven Variations, I do not recall hearing any of his works. Perhaps as you say if he had composed a piano concerto then his smaller works may have attracted some attention.

There are a stupendous amount of composers from this era that were composing operatic transcriptions and variations along with an original works, so one hopes that pianists will eventually get around to Heller.

I do have the Op.73 scanned by a friend, so I will ask him if I can send you a copy.

Regards

Thal

I will be most grateful if you can. Alternatively it would be useful if it were scanned onto IMSLP but obviously this shouldn't be done if it's a modern edition. Some of Op.73 has been on Amazon but it's no longer available.

Fortunately, Heller's most important cycles are all freely available  in old editions and I hope to comment on them shortly, commencing with Op.78. This is Barbadette's estimation, which remains true to this day.

The three collections of which we have just spoken—the Promenades d'un Solitaire, the Dans les Bois, and the Nuits Blanches—form an era in the history of music, for their composer has struck out a new type. The form of these pieces is absolutely novel, for they neither answer to the "Song without Words," to the nocturne, nor to anything previously known. They are an entirely new conception, and are as truly the invention of Heller, as the "Song without Words" is the creation of Mendelssohn. Nothing like them was ever written before Heller, and all which have since appeared of a similar character are due to him.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2011, 02:46:36 AM by Ten thumbs »
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #5 on: September 25, 2011, 06:25:34 AM »
Promenades d'un Solitaire (Characterstücke)

The great flowering of Heller's genius begins here. He is often referred to as the poet of the piano but in another sense he is the painter. Here, Rousseau's contemplations of nature are turned into musical landscapes. The melodies are no longer the subject, as in the song without words but become objects within the structure of the piece. Often the elements are dabbed on repeatedly in the manner of brushwork.
Initially, there are two sets of six apiece, Op.78 and Op.80.
Sandwiched between them is another cycle of pieces, the Traumbilde, Op.79. The intent is even more obvious in these, even from the title (Dream Pictures). The sense of stasis in No.5 is very much a precursor of Satie.
Of the Promenades, Op.80 no 4 has I think been used as the theme music for something on TV. I'm trying to find out exactly what it was.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #6 on: September 26, 2011, 11:57:52 AM »
Op.81 24 Preludes (1853)

This is (as far as I've found) the first example of this form after Chopin and the first thing that strikes you is how different it is, much more so that later works in this genre, eg Scriabin. Heller gives a new form to these pieces, which is particularly noticeable in performance because of the change in hand movements that one has to adapt to.
Arguably, they deserve the same standing as Chopin's but in Heller's case, there are many more to come.
Heller follows Chopin's sequence of keys and I think I prefer his original concept, without titles. They were composed as pure music and the titles were only added to suit the publishers in Paris ( as the line of future development runs through Fauré to Debussy perhaps I will forgive them for this). For me the playing instructions are enough, even if they are in German (Heller always preferred this). For example No.10: Mit rascher leichtigkeit hingeworf, in der Art einer Federzeichnung, No.11: Lebhaft, mit prägnantem Rhythmus or simply No.18: Keck, energisch.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #7 on: September 30, 2011, 07:44:54 AM »
Op.82 Blumen-Frucht-Dornenstücke

In spite of the title, this cycle has nothing to do with nature study. It refers to a novel by Jean Paul ( pen name of Richter) and presumably refers to the miscellany of moods and emotions arising through the book.
There are 18 pieces in the set and, judging by the key sequence, it is intended to be played as a cycle although obviously individual pieces can be played alone. Most of them are greatly rewarding.

The novel is Blumen- Frucht- und Dornenstücke, oder Ehestand, Tod und Hochzeit des Armenadvokaten Siebenkäs ("Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces; or, the Married Life, Death and Wedding of Siebenkäs, Poor Man's Lawyer") in 1796-97. The book's slightly supernatural theme, involving a Doppelgänger and pseudocide, stirred some controversy over its interpretation of the Resurrection, but these criticisms served only to draw awareness to the author.

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siebenkäs

It was in this novel that the word Doppelgänger was first coined and presumably Schubert knew of it.

Whether or not there is a Doppelgänger amongst these pieces I don't know. The French publishers changed the title altogether to 'Nuits blanches' and gave headings of their own to the individual pieces.



A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #8 on: October 03, 2011, 11:55:06 AM »
Op.83 Feuillets d'Album
These 6 little pieces are exactly as it says on the can.
They are dedicated to Joanna Marques Lisboa


Op.84 Impromptu
This piece with its repeated notes alternating between the hands has a Bachian feel. It almost wants to be a toccata. Very enjoyable if you can keep it under control!
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2011, 12:46:24 PM »
As Chopin only produced one tarantella, Heller's contribution would constitute a welcome addition to the repertoire.
They begin with the Venetienne Op.52 but as I don't have access to a score, I'll have to pass on it for now.

Tarantelle No.1 Op.53
A large work running to over 500 bars. It has a catchy main theme, which is developed throughout, reappearing in the major in the joyfully exhilarating coda - great fun to play.

Tarantelle No.2 Op.61
Another large piece, somewhat dissonant in places and less approachable. The molto vivo, which picks up an element from the earlier material is very pleasing - again a triumphant ending.

Tarantelle No. 3 and No.4 Op.85
These two shorter dances were dedicated to Clara Schumann. The second seems to be relatively well known and may possibly have been used as an encore (apart from the abominations Rubinstein is reported to have performed upon it).

Tarantelle No.5 Op.87
This is a relatively wild beast that justifies being classed as a masterpiece. It is a good example of the boldness of which Heller's style is capable and deserves the attention of today's top pianists. Okay, it's not death-defyingly difficult but that is not what music is about.

The 6th and 7th tarantellas in Op.137 will be reviewed if I get to them!
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Josquin des Prez

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #10 on: October 09, 2011, 01:15:34 PM »
I remember hearing a few Heller pieces. They were boring, dry and utterly uninspired. Care to post some examples that would contradict this impression?

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2011, 08:41:15 AM »
I remember hearing a few Heller pieces. They were boring, dry and utterly uninspired. Care to post some examples that would contradict this impression?

You've probably been hearing some of his studies. These are meant for instruction rather than performance.
Seeing as I've been working on it and it's next in line, I recommend you look at the following:

Op.86 Im Walde
This is an integrated suite of seven pieces. It is full of poetry and mood swings leading up to the exhilaration of the  6th leading to the finale in which earlier section are subtly interwoven to bring closure. This is not like any other composer's music and it is not easy to play: the hands often need to be moved very rapidly from one part of the keyboard to another.


Oh, and I don't know how anyone could be bored by the Op.87 Tarantella!
« Last Edit: October 14, 2011, 10:49:28 AM by Ten thumbs »
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #12 on: October 14, 2011, 10:48:13 AM »
I'm not sure what status Heller will ultimately hold. This record of my investigation into his music is for information only. However, it is quite clear that the unthinking and unresearched opinions usually trotted out by the lazy (e.g. that he was merely a pedagogue) are worthless and should be ignored. Fortunately his star appears to be rising, which is as it should be for such an original genius.

Op.88 Sonata No.3 in C (1856)
This sonata is like a breath of fresh air on the Romantic scene. It is bold and stimulating from beginning to end.
One thing to note in performance, Heller was particular about his pedal markings. Where there are none, the pedal should not be used - otherwise you may find yourself in a heavy fog!
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #13 on: October 20, 2011, 11:23:20 AM »
Op.89 Promenades d'un Solitaire (Characterstücke)

This is the third set under this title. These pieces are larger in scope than the earlier ones and their formal organisation is clear and is quite distinct from the kind of melodic extensions and transformation one might find in a 'song without words'. The initial motifs are set out and the rest is thematic development. Returns to the opening material are usually partial or fragmentary. Of the six, number three is I think my favorite with an example of evolutionary development that is reminiscent of Medtner.
« Last Edit: October 29, 2011, 01:34:48 PM by Ten thumbs »
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #14 on: October 29, 2011, 01:39:51 PM »
Having reached Op.90, it is time to consider Heller’s studies in general. I was brought up on the Op.16 Art of Phrasing and still obtain great pleasure from them. These were not composed for publication but how much we have gained from their availability. They introduced contemporary music in the then new Romantic style. The studies, Op.45, Op.46, Op47 are still at the core of courses in piano playing for the very good reason that no other composer has surpassed them. As one commentator explains:

‘His studies are less for the fingers than for the heart and mind. They inculcate music in its ethereal essence rather than its mechanical magnifications. They are loved by teachers because they are poetical beyond their technical purpose; they are loved by pupils because they are stimulating, not killing, to the soul.’

Heller’s own instructions are as follows:

‘A great number of studies for the pianoforte already exist solely intended to form the mechanism of the fingers. In writing a series of short characteristic pieces I have aimed at a totally different object.
I wish to habituate both students and amateurs to execute a piece with the expression, grace, elegance, or energy required by the peculiar character of the composition. More particularly, I have endeavoured to awaken in them a feeling for musical rhythm and a desire for the most exact and complete interpretation of the author’s intention.
In order that my object may be the better attained, I may be permitted to request teachers to watch that their pupils carefully render the following studies with all the nuances, details, and sentiment, appertaining to each of them.’

I think the comments above should put to rest any suggestion that Heller’s music is ever dry. As to inspiration, that can hardly be lacking in a composer who didn’t follow others but created his own individual style. I suppose any composer can be found boring, so one can’t really comment on that.

The next set are in my view even better:

Op.90 24 Etudes Characteristiques

There are a number of interesting features in this set. In the first place they are arranged in the same key sequence as that used in a standard set of 24 preludes. Secondly, some of the pieces are connected: nos.7 and 8 form a scherzo and trio (da capo), whilst no.18 concludes no.17. Playing it as a cycle makes sense although as these pieces are longer than typical preludes, the whole is quite lengthy. The wealth of fresh new ideas in this set is extraordinary: it is a veritable treasure chest.  The little commentaries sprinkled over the score (in French) may have influenced Satie.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Leo K.

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #15 on: October 30, 2011, 07:20:39 AM »
Excellant thread! I'm keeping track, as I have a few Heller disks I shall listen to soon  8)

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #16 on: November 01, 2011, 04:08:52 AM »
Op.91 3 Nocturnes

This heading is not strictly true, as Op.103 was published as the 3rd Nocturne.

As Barbedette puts it:
HELLER'S Nocturnes are not equal to those of Chopin, which are almost unapproachable in their perfection and finish.
In this class of composition (Op. 91, 103, 131), he has launched out in fresh waters. It is certain that No. 2 of Op. 91 is quite sui generis. No. 1 of Op. 131, the most beautiful of all, is interrupted by the introduction of a very lively tarantella movement, the effect of which is peculiar. No. 3 opens as a polonaise, and ends with a brilliancy unusual in that class of composition. For originality, we prefer No. 3 of Op. 91, called Nocturne-Sérénade, dedicated to Mademoiselle Ninette Falck, a very effective composition of a most poetical character, but which is really simply a serenade, and a very beautiful one too.

Of Op.91, I'm only able to track down the Nocturne-Serenade (No.3) and I'm in agreement with Barbedette's remarks above. However, his comment on No.2 should be enough to provoke anyone's curiosity. The rest of Op.91 is therefore high on my WANTS list! Can anyone help?

Op.103 3rd Nocturne
This very lyrical nocturne is far closer to Fauré than it is to Chopin. The reappearance of the syncopated theme towards the end over a G pedal point is most beautiful.

I will discuss Op.131 (3 Ständchen) later, although it was the discovery of this work that convinced me that here was a composer really worth exploring.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #17 on: November 02, 2011, 02:13:34 PM »
Excellant thread! I'm keeping track, as I have a few Heller disks I shall listen to soon  8)

Thank you for your support. Maybe I'll encourage others to review methodically a composer in which they have a special interest (mm. . how about Elgar?)

Op.92 3 Eglogues

Once again I have big items on my wants list. The first eglogue I have and, believe me, every pianist should have it because it is a superb flight of fancy. How far Heller has come from his early Romantic beginnings! A most beautiful piece. So why aren't these eglogues in print? Do the other two measure up to such an extraordinarily high standard? Surely there must be some old copy somewhere.
« Last Edit: November 03, 2011, 01:28:50 PM by Ten thumbs »
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #18 on: November 03, 2011, 01:27:04 PM »
Op.93 2 Waltzes

These could almost be by Chopin. The quality is there and they are certainly worth playing but Heller doesn't really seem to add anything new to the genre here.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.

Offline Ten thumbs

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Re: Stephen Heller
« Reply #19 on: November 06, 2011, 01:54:48 PM »
Op.94 Genrebild

I think we can now say that we have here the recognisable work of a master. As implied by the title, it is of an internal nature. It might almost have been titled a sonata in a single movement, following as it does, Heller's own version of sonata form, viz: first subject, development, 2nd subject, further development leading back to 1st subject, 2nd subject and coda. It runs to 16 pages of music.
A day may be a destiny; for life
Lives in but little—but that little teems
With some one chance, the balance of all time:
A look—a word—and we are wholly changed.