listen magazine feature
In an ambitious program, Jeremy Denk surveys the history of Western music.
By Catherine Womack
An interval, by definition, is simply the distance between two notes — and yet it is so much more. When two pitches sound simultaneously, they tell a story. Is that story pleasing (consonant) or disconcerting (dissonant)? Does it communicate joy (major) or sorrow (minor)? Is it from our current time or a more distant century? Whatever the question, the interval — definable, revelatory — supplies the answer.
Which is why, when Steinway Artist and writer Jeremy Denk set out to tell the seven-century-long story of the history of Western music in one eighty-minute solo piano program, he started with the most stringent, stripped-down intervals he could find: the medieval counterpoint of Guillaume de Machaut.
Denk says he was drawn to the 14th-century French poet–composer’s sound because it felt like a “launching place for the whole story, the beginning of dealing with intervals.” And so Denk sets off on his accelerated survey of music history with “Doulz amis,” a two-voice Machaut ballade he transcribed for keyboard. The piece takes just one minute to perform, yet grabs the listener’s attention with its simple, heartfelt statement.
“The austere beauty of the Machaut piece for two voices came through poignantly in Mr. Denk’s subdued performance,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times in a November 2016 review of Denk’s Lincoln Center performance of the ambitious, era-spanning program.
Denk conceived the idea for this pianistic tour of the middle ages and Renaissance years ago. “I’m always dreaming up programs,” the pianist tells Steinway & Sons. “I kept coming back to this idea of telling the story of Western musical history not like a lecture, but like an epic.” That idea found a home when New York City’s Lincoln Center heard about the idea and commissioned a recital for its 2016 White Light Festival. The institution asked Denk to present the program in eighty minutes with no intermission. This survey of Western music would need to move along at quite the clip — which is why no piece on the program takes longer than eleven minutes to play, with most clocking in at around three minutes.
From the simplicity of “Doulz amis,” Denk wends his way through Renaissance vocal music he transcribed for piano, pinballing back and forth between the religious and secular. There are excerpts from masses by Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez and troubadour songs by Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Du Fay. With each piece, intervallic relationships become denser and more complex.
Along this tour of pre-keyboard music history, Denk reveals the ways in which active, rhythmically charged Renaissance counterpoint can sound as vibrant on a modern Steinway grand as it does on period instruments. This is in part because the most basic musical materials — the intervals and rhythms — remain the same regardless of the instrument on which they are performed. It is also because Denk is particularly adept at communicating complex counterpoint and a variety of styles in rapid succession through his fingertips.
Midway through the first half of the program, Denk arrives at music written for his instrument with William Byrd’s “A Voluntarie.” “You can feel the vocal quality of that, too,” Denk says. “It’s not such a stretch. You feel the way keyboard music arose out of vocal music.”
From there it is a race towards contrapuntal complexity. Denk arrives at Bach via Frescobaldi and Scarlatti. He says he was “thinking like a theater person” when he chose to use Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, as the culmination of the program’s first half. He describes the piece, which visits all twelve pitches on the keyboard, as the “climax of chromaticism, harmonic complexity, and counterpoint.”
When Denk originally conceived this program, which he has now recorded (forthcoming via Nonesuch Records), he imagined an intermission after the Bach, a moment of reprieve to let all that dense counterpoint sink in.
“It’s as simple and uncluttered as possible,” Denk says of the Andante movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major, K. 283, which follows the Bach. Here, against the backdrop of an Alberti bass, simple harmonic and melodic intervals are as transparent as they were in Machaut’s music. It’s a complete clearing of the air after the Bach. “There was something about that particular Mozart that seemed to absolutely clear the slate of all that [counterpoint],” Denk explains. “Here we start with a fresh page.”
Once again, Denk begins with a simple statement, from which he spins an epic, increasingly complex tale. Now spanning the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, this half of the program tells the story of the dissolution of harmony. From Mozart we go to Beethoven (the Allegro movement of Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1). There are pit stops along the Romantic highway — Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin all make appearances — and then we arrive at Brahms.
“For me, the crucial moment of this story comes around late Brahms, Wagner, and then Schoenberg,” Denk says. “I tried to craft that particular place very carefully to tell [the story of the dissolution of harmony], the turning from the way in which the Romantic impulse to stretch harmony lends itself to the unraveling of the whole edifice.”
‘Everything in this program is a regret of choices not made.’
Using the Intermezzo (Adagio) from Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Op. 119, as source material, Denk reveals the aching beauty of late Romanticism. “Even while he is dissolving tonality, Brahms is heartbroken about it,” Denk says. “The Brahms is such a desperate farewell. Wagner seems less heartbroken.” Denk lets Franz Liszt do the transcribing for him here, using that pianist’s version of Isolden’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Combined with the Brahms, the Wagner acts as a launching point for modernism.
Denk finds a place to sit for a moment in the early twentieth century, where he gives Schoenberg, Debussy, and Stravinsky their say. “I couldn’t skip any of them,” the composer says. “For me, those three modernists represent a glorious period of invention or reinvention. They seem to be so important. Certain moments in history have more going on than others.”
Stockhausen picks up the narrative line from there, which leads, finally, to works by Philip Glass and György Ligeti. Having arrived in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it becomes clear that even through Bach’s contrapuntal maximization and the twentieth century’s inevitable tearing down of harmonies as we knew them, there are still emotionally charged stories hiding between each interval Denk executes.
“It’s not just an academic endeavor,” Denk says. “There are also emotional ramifications.” In choosing what pieces to include in the program, he tried to balance those two concerns. Which piece propels the narrative or best represents a period? And which of those pieces did he also just really love and want to play?
“Everything about this program is a regret of choices not made,” he explains. “And it invites everyone to say, ‘Well, what about...?”
But in the end, Denk did his best to choose pieces that both captured the story of Western music history and appealed to his heart.
After the Ligeti, he returns to the early Renaissance with a performance of Binchois’ “Triste plaisir,” the piece he played immediately after Machaut’s “Doulz amis” in the program’s first half. It’s a piece an ex of his introduced him to and one he finds “incredibly haunting... [because of the way] the main voice goes up a sixth and keeps revisiting the same intervals, painfully, plaintively.”
And, he adds, repeating this piece at the end of the concert makes his point: that music “history has both a narrative arrow and a circular, recurring aspect.” Composers may exploit counterpoint and destroy harmony, but in the end they are all creating art from the same fundamental materials — two or more notes, sounding simultaneously, telling an epic tale.
photos: Michael Wilson, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.