Artur Schnabel’s Seven Piano Pieces

[Christopher Ungerer’s bio appears at the end of these notes to a recital the pianist gave in 2002. Ed.]

Christopher Ungerer

[March 2005.]

Written in 1947 at Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps, Seven Piano Pieces is Schnabel’s last composition for piano, and in his own estimation, his best. Schnabel loved the mountains and drew a great deal of inspiration from them. To him they represented, among other things, one of his favorite musical concepts: that of hinauf, or reaching up. He believed that all great music embraced this idea of reaching up to the light.

An acquaintance with Schnabel’s compositions provides a fascinating confirmation of his understanding of, and approach to, the music of the great composers. Schnabel prized the idea of the motif: a tiny nucleus of tones out of which a potentially enormous structure is evolved through the elaboration and extension of this small sound shape. An awareness of the motif allows the performer to enter into the mind of the composer, to experience the flowering of the whole structure from the tiny seeds of the motif(s). It also allows for a skillful building of various lengths of shapes by combining a shorter number of bars and grouping them together with longer periods into full phrases. Schnabel recommended counting these groupings and becoming aware of the forward rhythmic thrust of each full phrase. Just as Schnabel often marked these counts with roman numerals in his edition of the Beethoven sonatas, he has also marked them in the Seven Piano Pieces.

We are presented with, in the first piece, all of the material from which the set develops. The structure of the cycle is of extraordinary complexity and ingenuity. Following the opening Largo the pieces progress through number 6 after which number 7, an Epilogue, looks back and quotes from each of the previous six. At the same time the structure is a mirror image with number 4 as its center. Number 1 provides the initial statements of every shape to be developed in the following pieces and ends with a tone cluster encompassing all 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Number 7 offers a retrospective of what has become of the initial motifs. Number 2 is related to number 6 thematically, motivically, and even in terms of its spirit. Numbers 3 and 5 share common thematic and motivic essences. In number 5, the spiritual high point of the set, a certain deeply mysterious quality — a transcendent silence in sound — is introduced. Number 4, the center of the set, is a dizzying exploration of the tones F-sharp, B, C, G, A, E-flat, D, B-flat, A-flat, immediately stated in the left hand. The order of these tones is thereafter presented in every conceivable permutation including retrograde (backwards) and non-retrograde (mirror image), and even simultaneously as tone clusters or chords. Thus number 4 also represents a microcosmic version of the whole cycle’s structure.

On first hearing, one might be shocked at how modern this music sounds. How could the masterly interpreter of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart conceive such dissonant, non-traditional music as his own? On further reflection, one is not at all shocked. Although the harmonic language is extremely advanced, all of the ideals Schnabel recognized and espoused in the music of the great composers are also present in his own compositions. One might also note that Schnabel does not subscribe to any one theoretical generalization of the compositional process. We occasionally hear, for example, 12-tone techniques in these pieces, but he does not strictly nor exclusively adhere to them. Schnabel valued the creative imagination and its autonomy. His musical ideals were of the highest order, and he lived by and taught them, uncompromisingly, thereby moving a whole generation of musicians to new levels of awareness and quality. Schnabel’s compositions, like his playing and teaching, were a reflection of these ideals.

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Pianist Christopher Ungerer was born in Wooster, Ohio, in 1974. An early fascination with his older brother’s practicing led to supplications for lessons, and ultimately, to a career in music. Moving to Pittsburgh in 1992 and forgoing the conservatory in order to study with then 84-year-old and legendary pianist Eunice Norton, his life was completely transformed by seven years of intensive work. Norton’s eight years of training with Tobias Matthay and three years of coaching with Artur Schnabel, combined with her own meticulously honed craftsmanship, artistry and transcendently spiritual approach to music, inspired Ungerer to strive for the same levels of simplicity, honesty and fidelity. Mr. Ungerer currently resides in New York City.