October 27


Further to my "invention" of the EFB♭ Sonata (see below), I have now discovered that Robert Schumann did something similar, in conjunction with two of his pupils - and not just any pupils either: one was Albert Dietrich, the little-remembered German composer and conductor, the other the young Johannes Brahms. Between them they wrote what they called "The F.A.E. Sonata for Violin and Piano", after a concert given by that other "greatest violinst of the 19th century", the one who wasn't Paganini, Joseph Joachim, in Düsseldorf, on October 27th 1853, itself under the direction of Robert Schumann.

According to Dietrich, Schumann had, some while before, suggested as a surprise birthday gift for Joachim a violin sonata that was to be written by the two of them; soon after which they encountered Brahms, and invited him to make it a trio. The day after the concert the sonata was presented to Joachim, who played it by sight with Clara Schumann on piano, and was asked to guess who had composed which parts. He did so correctly: the 1st movement was by Dietrich, the second and 4th were by Schumann, the 3rd was by Brahms. 

Of the three, only the Brahms movement remains in the standard repertoire, "a driving Scherzo extremely varied in style," according to the musicologist Knut Franke, "clearly showing his trademark rhythmic focus; the rhythms of the dance, the 'gypsy' idioms and the whirling off-beat syncopations". Apparently "the rhythms first demonstrated here are linked in Brahms to his use of C minor, and will influence his later Scherzos in the Piano Quintet, the C Minor Piano Quartet and the first movement of the First Symphony...", all of which is fascinating, though I am slightly more interested to see that Brahms cheated by converting the intended major E♭ into its relative Cm.

Why am I so interested in the "F.A.E." Sonata? In my 1990s novel "The House on Shaftesbury Hill", the somewhat autistic piano prodigy Toby Schwartz creates his own version of an atonal alphabet (the intention was a satire on contemporary classical music), "making words out of the names of the white keys of the main octave A-G...", and then, "by using the Doh Reh Mi Fah Soh Lah Ti nomenclature in addition, giving the remaining three vowels to the first three black notes (C# = I, D# = O, F# = U), and allowing the final black notes to stand one for the definite and one for the indefinite article (G# = an; A#= the), he was able to increase the range considerably and begin to set more complex sentences to music." The satire takes about two more pages to elaborate, and gave me much amusement at the expense of the various cul-de-sacs into which avant-garde modern composition seemed to have vanished; at its end, Toby is able to say anything that he wants through musical notation, and what he wants to say is...

"Of all his compositions, his favourite was the piece he called 'The EFB♭ Sonata', a series of not terribly polite statements in septet form about his father, each stanza ending with the repeated tremolo BCEC – 'My Father Is Dead' - appended to the musical phrase with which every line commenced - the very simple and eponymous EFB♭ (E = Mi or my; F = Fah, BFlat = the) itself. The modulation from B Flat to B Major was awkward, but necessary, as there was no simpler way of constructing the word 'is': B = Ti or Si, one octave down to reverse the letters; but by playing the B he also made a musical pun on the European pronunciation of Ti as Si with the letter C, and by specifically selecting the B below middle C he effected both a reversal and a mirrorisation, allowing the Si to be transmuted into its optical image, the word 'is'. This double achievement of the same result was typical of the ingenuity of Toby’s method."

So, to ask my question again, but slightly differently this time, why was the gift for Joachim named the "F.A.E. Sonata"? Had they done something similar to Toby, creating their own musical alphabet, perhaps retelling the Wagnerian epic in the key of Vienna rather than Weimar (no, too early for that), or predicting the Soviet revolution with three C majors as its starting point (unclear how you do the P, which is pronounced R in Russian anyway; Beethoven does it in his 5th, by minoring the C à la Brahms, so three Gmajors, with an E♭ therefore serving for the P/R)? Bach did it - but B-A-C-H is musically uninteresting unless you are prepared to treat the H as "whatever note I feel like at the time". John Cage could certainly play himself in such an alphabet (C-A-G-E# would Flamenco it, or traditional folk-song it; C-A♭-G♭-E would blues or jazz it), though I'm not sure that Shostakovich could do the same so readily (actually, he could, and did, by using the German names for the notes instead of the Russian, the Latin, the English: writing it as DE♭CB, which in the German is D(really Des but let’s not be pedantic)SCH (explanation here).

And were they - Schumann and co - as I was (still am, I guess), trying to make satire, or was it mere homage? It turned out to be the latter. The letters F.A.E. are taken from Joachim's personal motto, "Frei Aber Einsam" - "free, but alone" is a better translation than the customary "free but lonely" - one that described his marital status rather than his political or metaphysical let alone his musical persuasion. I'm not certain that Wagner would agree with this statement however; not, anyway, based on the comment that he made to Nietzsche, and which brought their friendship (Nietzsche's idolatry and Wagner's enjoyment of it) to an end. You can look up for yourself what exactly it was that Wagner said. Try here.

The score-extract is from the Intermezzo at the beginning of the 2nd movement. You can see the motif F.A.E in the piano part (left hand) and in bars 3 and 4 of the violin. The handwriting is Schumann's.

You can hear the full and energetic F.A.E. Sonata, free and entertainment-guaranteed, by following an elink, just click here.

Amber pages

Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch scholar, theologian and satirist, born today in 1466

James Cook, English sea captain and explorer, born today in 1728

Niccolo Paganini, Italian violin virtuoso, born today in 1782

Isaac Singer, developer of the first practical home sewing machine and the reason why the Yiddish novelist who wrote "The Slave" and "The Magician of Lublin" also insisted on the Bashevis in the middle of his name; born today in 1811 (the needlepoint man, not the novelist, he was born on November 21st) - but see October 3

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US president, born today in 1858

Dylan Marlais Thomas, Welsh poet and playwright, born today in 1914, still sober; click here for my tribute to him in "Private Collection"

Oliver Tambo, South African political activist, born today in 1917

Roy Lichtenstein, pop artist, born today in 1923 - "pop" in the sense of "popular", but also in the sense of "another very superficial bubble that people like for a while until they see the soap through it, and then this is the sound it makes when they burst it"

Sylvia Plath, emerged from the bell jar, today in 1932, already bleeding (see November 17)

John Cleese, python and Old Cliftonian, born today in 1939

Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed arrested, today in 1871 - see September 27

The word "jazz" first used in print, in Variety magazine, today in 1916

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