Pianist Robert DeGaetano to mark the anniversaries of Chopin, Schumann and Barber, Nov. 7

Robert DeGaetano
The first generation of Romantic composers to labor under the shadow of Beethoven is turning 200. Last year the music world celebrated Mendelssohn, this year it is Chopin and Schumann, next year it will be Liszt. Suffice it to say, they have all fared well over the last two centuries.

On Sunday, Nov. 7, at 2:30 p.m., Rhode Island College will be paying tribute to this year’s bicentennial composers when noted pianist Robert DeGaetano presents a Performing Arts Series recital in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall. The program will include Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” Chopin’s Scherzo No.2 and DeGaetano’s own “Crystonix,” Op. 7, No. 8.

And DeGaetano will add a special perspective to the celebration: he will be playing the Piano Sonata, Op. 26, by Samuel Barber, whose centenary occurs this year.

DeGaetano has given recitals at Carnegie Hall, at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and in all 50 states, as well as the major music capitals of Europe. He has been a frequent guest soloist with orchestras across the United States and has recorded eight acclaimed CDs. In addition, Alice Tully commissioned DeGaetano’s “The Challenger,” a suite for solo piano written in tribute to the seven astronauts killed in the 1986 space shuttle tragedy. (Visit www.degaetano.com for more on his career.)

In a telephone interview for his upcoming RIC appearance, DeGaetano quickly pointed out that Schumann was a great admirer of Chopin. He quoted what Schumann once wrote in a review of Chopin, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

In addition to being a major composer, Schumann was noted a music critic who had co-founded the music journal “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” (New Journal of Music). German musical thought of the day was divided into two camps: one espousing a classical orientation and one, the newer, freer forms. Chopin and Mendelssohn belong to the former category and Liszt and Wagner to the second.

DeGaetano pointed out that Schumann was an acute enough critic to see the beauty in the newer tendencies as well as the old.

Schumann also had a strong interest in Romantic literature, and this manifested itself in “Kreisleriana,” whose title derives from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional character Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, a mercurial figure whose many moods set the tone for Schumann’s work.

Written in 1838, the work consists of eight fantasies and was dedicated to Chopin, who later returned the favor with his Ballade No. 2. These were the only instances of one dedicating a work to the other.

Speaking about the varied texture of “Kreisleriana,” DeGaetano said, “Schumann’s repeats don’t sound like repeats. He makes the moods change but plays the same music. The shifts are subtle and fast. They sound like today’s music.”

DeGaetano went on to note that Schumann’s eye toward the future characterizes other compositions as well.

“‘The Prophet Bird,’ he remarked, “could have been written by a 20th-century composer.”

While a classicist at heart, with roots going back to Bach, Chopin also had ways of looking ahead. According to DeGaetano, he used chromaticism early in his music, a style that later figured prominently in the work of Liszt, Richard Strauss and Mahler.

“What makes Chopin so inviting,” he said, “is his ability to make harmonies that keep your ear interested and that hold your attention. Great writing keeps you involved.”

Scherzo No. 2, which will be on the RIC program, is an 1837 composition and is one four that Chopin wrote between 1832 and 1842. In these works Chopin took a form that usually was used as the third movement of a larger work, such as a symphony or string quartet, and turned it into a virtuoso piano piece.

With the Barber Piano Sonata, relationships are quite complex. Respected critics have applied different terms to the piece. Wilfred Mellers has called it Romantic. Paul Griffiths found in it a “vein of American neo-classicism,” and DeGaetano himself sees the work combining the angular and lyrical, with a 12-tone movement (yes, as per Schoenberg) that is “absolutely lyrical.”

The variegated nature of the work may well speak to the nature of the man who composed it; Barber pretty much followed his own, mostly conservative, path. In this independence of spirit Barber was essentially American, even though his music was not idiomatically so, as was, for instance, Copland’s, although as DeGaetano observed, the angular aspects of the Piano Sonata reflect the country’s post-World War II optimism and aggressiveness to “get to work and make the planet right.”

Barber’s approach served him well for most of his career. He had a number of early successes, including his “Adagio for Strings,” which won him international stature when Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcast it in 1938, along with his “Essay” (No. 1). Later on, Barber was awarded two Pulitzer prizes and in 1966, his opera based on Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra,” opened the Metropolitan Opera’s new house at Lincoln Center.

Written in 1949, the Piano Sonata, which is considered one of his best works, was commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers for the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers, and was premiered by Vladimir Horowitz in 1950.

DeGaetano and Barber’s Piano Sonata have an interesting history. He first performed it at the Aspen, Colo., musical festival as a last minute substitute.

“I was too young to really know how insanely difficult it was,” he said. “Learning it fast, it never really stuck, like cramming for a test.”

But as time went on the pianist learned his lessons, for he played it in his New York City debut at Alice Tully Hall in 1975, with the composer in attendance, and it began a friendship that lasted through the last five years of Barber’s life.

When asked if knowing Barber changed the way DeGaetano approached the sonata, he recalled taking some indirect cues from the composer, “I discovered that Sam was crazy about my Rachmaninov playing. My original approach to the sonata wasn’t as Romantic.”

Barber had another kind of influence on DeGaetano. He got him to start composing.

“I was visiting Sam in Santa Cristina in Italy,” DeGaetano recollected. “He suggested that I write a song. I was still at Juilliard at the time and didn’t see myself as a composer.

“I wrote a song called ‘Whispers’ and played it for him. He put his finger down on some measures and said ‘repeat these.’”

That was Barber’s only comment. About a year and a half later DeGaetano finally go up the courage to ask the composer if he liked the piece. Barber replied that he did, and that he had no comment because he liked it.

As for DeGaetano’s more recent works, such as “ Crystonix,” they have definite Romantic roots, and he places them in a category he termed “passionism” because “they come from a place of passion” and are “resonant.”

He sees the pieces of “Crystonix” – and they are individual pieces – relating to the physical development of the piano.

According to the DeGaetano, early pianos had wooden frames that couldn’t stand up to aggressive playing. Pianists had to take care not to break strings or even the frame itself. But as the instruments got stronger, they could accommodate the great physical players like Liszt.

For contemporary music, pianos need to have even greater resonance to go along with the louder and bigger sounds of our culture, like traffic noises.

Although DeGaetano noted that the piano has not changed much in the past 60 years, he does see it as having more strings and more resonance in the future.

For now we will have to enjoy what Robert DeGaetano and his predecessors have to offer. To state it in a very un-Romantic and American idiom: that’s a pretty good deal.

Tickets for Robert DeGaetano are $35, with discounts for seniors, RIC faculty/staff/students/alumni, and children. For your convenience, tickets can be purchased as follows: in advance via Visa or MasterCard by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; online at www.ric.edu/pfa; or in person at the Roberts Hall Box Office, which will open for sales two hours prior to performance start time.