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ClassicsOnline Home » FROMMEL, G.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Blome)
Gerhard Frommel rejected vapid pre-war Nationalism and Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, finding his voice in individuality and tradition. His highly contrasting Piano Sonatas are rooted in a blend of romanticism and the rhythmic propulsion of Stravinsky, articulated with tenderness in No 1, clownish grotesquerie in No 2, and sensual impressionism in No 3.
By Kare Eskola
YLE Radio 1
Gerhard Frommel (1906–1984)
Piano Sonatas Nos 1–3
“I see my seven piano sonatas as a compendium of my output in microcosm; they run like a thread through the various stages of my development”, writes Gerhard Frommel in his autobiography Skizze (Sketches) in 1976. “From them it is also apparent how each work is unique stylistically and technically, and is an expression of individual form.” This recording contains the first three of these sonatas.
Gerhard Frommel was born on 7 August 1906 in Karlsruhe. He studied first with Hermann Grabner and then, from 1926 to 1928, attended masterclasses given by Hans Pfitzner. He was Professor of Composition at the universities of Frankfurt-am-Main and Stuttgart, among other institutions, and during the war he was active in the Frankfurt Musikhochschule. After 1950, tonal music, including that of Frommel, was regarded in Germany as fascist and was supplanted by dodecaphony and its further developments. Frommel died on 22 June 1984 in Stuttgart.
The defining influences on Frommel’s artistic stance were Pfitzner, whose roots were in Romanticism and, above all, the poet Stefan George. George‘s rigorous stylistic approach acted as a ‘modern’ opposite standpoint and might explain why Frommel occupied himself with the classicism of Igor Stravinsky in the 1920s. To that end, in 1937 he published his essay Neue Klassik in der Musik (New Classicism in Music) in which he placed himself in opposition to the prevailing Nazi ideology. He displayed also his predilection for the transparent musical language of romantic composers such as Puccini, Bellini and Fauré, and this thinking led to a whole series of essays on the subject.
Frommel’s output is straightforward: mention should be made of two stage works (which still await performance), a full-length choral work Herbstfeier based on texts by Ludwig Derleth, two symphonies (the first of which was given its première by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942), two violin sonatas, more piano pieces and over thirty songs, mostly settings of poems by Stefan George. His generation was influenced hardly at all by Arnold Schoenberg but more by Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky. Frommel’s music has its origins in a blend of romanticism and a Stravinskyian vitality allied to an expressive plasticity, a catchy melodic sensuality and a springy, dancing rhythmic drive, all of which imbue his music with a distinctive individuality.
The Piano Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor was written in 1931 and was published in a revised form by the South German Music Publishing Company in 1942. Frommel made further revisions to the work right up to 1981 (a final version was also published in 2009). The original 1942 version is played on this recording. The three movements—Allegro moderato, poco rubato – Langsam und träumerisch – Allegro giocoso (Finale) in the key sequence of F sharp minor, B major and F sharp major—conform rigidly to the traditional romantic sonata form. The first movement of the sonata contrasts a spacious sweeping theme with a sharply outlined solemn theme (is this the influence of Stefan George?). In the development section two powerfully sonorous climaxes emerge, while the harmony becomes increasingly piquant, with dissonant sixths constructed from fourths. The slow movement could be a love poem. Its main theme is solemn, similar to the second theme of the first movement. A tender subsidiary theme leads into a virtuoso cadenza, after which the ramped-up repetition of the main theme rounds off the movement. The exposition of the finale presents a raw main theme, a brilliant triplet over duplet episode and a sharply rhythmic final group. Stravinsky can be heard in the chromatic development motif, in both the main subject and the closing group; this reflects not so much the neo-classical aspect of his output as the Stravinsky of Petrushka or The Rite of Spring.
The Piano Sonata No 2 in F major, Op 10, Allegro – Andante cantabile – Allegro quasi una grotesca, in the key sequence of F major, A minor, F major/A minor, was written in 1935 and in the following year was the first of the sonatas to be published by Schott. It is the polar opposite of the First Sonata. It is more spare, is harmonically and rhythmically sharp and and appears so ‘modern’ as if it were an expression of a hardened anti-romantic style. The composition of the sonata came at a time when Frommel, together with some like-minded colleagues, established a working party at the University of Frankfurt and presented music which was contemporary and did not adhere to party principles. One could interpret the grotesque clownish nature of the Sonata No 2 as an expression of subversive thought. In the first movement we are confronted instantly by a whirling first subject with accented rhythmic motifs and then in the second chord an F major which is discoloured by clusters of dissonant minor seconds. The extraordinary vitality and rhythmic verve are impressive. The middle movement emphasizes the two noble and lyrical melodic lines, while the piano part is eventually pared down to just two lines and becomes tonally fuller only just before the recapitulation. The finale, a rondo, confirms the sonata’s proximity to clownishness. First the rondo theme is hammered out in turn by both hands, interrupted by chordal repetitions which sound like shrill laughter. Even the subsidiary themes are derived from the main subject so that the movement seems to be tightly unified, even though its progress is greatly disrupted.
The Piano Sonata No 3 in E major, Op 15, written in 1940/41, revised in 1962 and 1980 and published posthumously by the South German Music Publishing Company in 1992, stands apart from the other sonatas in having two titles for its single movement—“Sisina” and “Ein Traum” respectively—in addition to being called Sonata quasi una fantasie. The precept derives from the closing verses of Baudelaire’s Le vin des amants (from Les fleurs du mal) in the translation by George: “My sister, swimming at my side, let us fly without rest or pause towards the paradise of my dreams” and to the fact that Frommel was a despatch rider in the Wehrmacht in France in 1940/41. “The days…give rise to my dream of France, as I have nurtured it through my love of two such complementary artists as Baudelaire and Gabriel Fauré, to brief reality, perhaps even through the unreality of the external situation”, writes Frommel. The Sonata—like the 5th—is a sonata of one movement. “I was deeply influenced by Mallarmé and it was as if a cloud of sound symbolism hovered over me. In Mallarmé events in the sensory world become indissoluble symbols of spiritual happenings, so here, in the same way, sound, melody and the development of form must become extra-musical, indefinable symbols. In the place of compulsory, logical progressions according to the concepts of classical composition, there has to be a free play of associations over a barely perceptible background of the three-movement sonata form.”
The Sonata begins with a Moderato sostenuto followed by a Moderato rubato, a slow section ben sostenuto then a Tempo di Tarantella with an introductory Moderato, ending in a closing Largo which recalls the beginning. The thematic essence is the theme of the first moderato section; out of this the themes of the sections grow correspondingly. From a technical perspective everything is in a state of continuous development, the harmony rambling (instead of being described as being in E major, the tonality is really in E minor and the ending veers towards C sharp minor and E minor). The melodic style is intensely expressive. In the Tarantella the rhythm and harmony become more astringent—in all a “psychological form”. (Frommel). The coherence of the sonata is achieved through the relationship of the themes and by the unique aroma of French Impressionism which emerges from the use of whole-tone scales.
The three sonatas, therefore, present a compositional development which proceeds in contrasting ways and which is continued in the later sonatas. They are as far removed from the artistic beliefs of the Nazis as can be imagined and stand as representations of the great tradition of European romanticism which was abandoned in Germany after World War 2.
Johann Peter Vogel
English translation by David Stevens
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FROMMEL, G.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Blome)