Hyperion Records

Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français, D823
? 1824; movement 1 published in 1826, the other two in 1827

'Schubert: Piano Duets' (CDA67665)
Schubert: Piano Duets
Movement 2: Andantino varié in B minor

Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français, D823
Schubert is unique among great composers in having written almost as much piano music for four hands as for two. Piano duetting was a popular pastime in his day, and the prospects for having such pieces published were far healthier than they were for solo piano music, particularly when it came to works of the ambitious scope Schubert wanted to write. Several of his most significant four-hands works had their origins in his two protracted visits to Hungary, where he was employed as music-master to the daughters of Count Esterházy von Galánta at his summer residence in Zseliz (now Zveliezovce, in Slovakia). When Schubert first went there, in 1818, the younger countess, Karoline, was a girl of thirteen, but when he returned six years later she had blossomed into a young woman, and by all accounts he fell deeply in love with her. Schubert may have intended the piano duets he composed at Zseliz for his two pupils to play together, or he may have taken one of the parts himself, thereby from time to time allowing himself a degree of intimacy with Karoline. In all likelihood, the players would have assumed the primo and secondo parts by turns.

One of the four-hands works Schubert composed during his first visit to Hungary was a set of variations in E minor on a French song (D624). It was his first piano duet to appear in print, and its title-page bore a dedication to Beethoven. Schubert returned to the key of E minor, and to ostensibly French sources, for a larger work which he may have composed during his 1824 stay in Zseliz. The piece had a somewhat chequered publication history: its first movement was issued in the summer of 1826, under the grandiose title of Divertissement en Forme d’une Marche brillante et raisonée pour le pianoforte à quatre mains composé sur des motifs origineaux [sic!] Français par François Schubert. The remaining two movements appeared the following year, under a different opus number, as an Andantino varié and Rondeau brillant. In dividing the work into two halves the publisher no doubt hoped to increase his sales revenue, but also to disguise the nature of what Schubert must have intended as a large-scale sonata in three movements. Just how unfashionable such serious fare was can be seen from the fate of Schubert’s great Piano Sonata in G major D894, of 1826: although the word ‘Sonata’ was prominently displayed on the title-page of his manuscript, it did not figure at all in the first edition, which marketed the work instead as though it consisted of four disparate pieces.

In the case of the so-called Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français D823, the adjective ‘raisonée’ in connection with the opening movement was the publisher’s only hint that the piece was a rigorously argued sonata allegro. The work is seldom played in its complete form, but its slow movement, the Andantino varié in B minor, has achieved the status of a self-contained item—understandably so, since it is one of the most perfect and beautiful of all Schubert’s duets. The inspiration behind it is likely to have been Mozart’s piano duet Variations in G major K501, which have a similar chamber-music intimacy, and in which—as in Schubert’s piece—the theme returns in all its original simplicity to round the music off. Among Schubert’s variations, the second, with its toy-trumpet fanfares, has a Mendelssohnian lightness and transparency; while the third presents a continuous pattern of semiquavers in seemingly effortless counterpoint between the players’ right hands. In the deeply expressive final variation the tempo slows, and the music undergoes a sea-change into the radiant key of B major. Rather than offer a literal repeat of each half of the theme, as in the first three variations, Schubert now presents elaborately ornamented quasi-repeats, so that this is in effect two variations rolled into one. From here, the music dissolves into an abbreviated reprise of the original theme, its unadorned nature highlighted by the intricacy of the music that has preceded it.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2010

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