Donald Betts: The Inner Voice
Scenes from Childhood 22:05 / 25.8M Donald Betts

Recorded May 2005 at Janet Wallace Concert Hall
Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota
Copyright © 2005 Donald Betts

Performed by Donald Betts     
Recording and Mastering Russ Borud
Editing and Design Paul Cantrell
Production Assistance Jane C. Betts

Don’s Chopin  |  More Music

Robert Schumann
From Strangs Lands And People 1:51 / 2.2M
Curious Story 1:37 / 1.9M
Catch Me 0:37 / 0.7M
Entreating Child 1:22 / 1.7M
Perfect Happiness 1:30 / 1.8M
Important Event 1:00 / 1.2M
Dreaming (Träumerei) 3:23 / 4.0M
At The Fireside 1:12 / 1.5M
The Knight Of The Rocking Horse 0:44 / 0.9M
Almost Too Serious 1:57 / 2.3M
Frightening 2:02 / 2.4M
Child Falling Asleep 2:01 / 2.4M
The Poet Speaks 2:44 / 3.3M
Sonata No. 31, A flat major, Op. 110 24:15 / 28.2M
Ludwig van Beethoven
Moderato Cantabile Molto Espressivo 8:23 / 9.8M
Allegro Molto 2:26 / 2.9M
Arioso / Fuga / Arioso / Fuga 13:26 / 15.7M
Soundings XI: Lamentations And Lullabies 13:17 / 15.6M
Donald Betts

"Betts has a strong, accurate and uncommonly agile technique … but he puts it to work under the direction of a first class mind, a volatile temperament and an admirable artistic conscience."
— St. Paul Pioneer Press

"Lots of excitement in his playing and awareness of the gigantic spiritual as well as physical force of the music."
— New York Times

"This extraordinary recording is the result of a musical life in which performance, composition, and philosophical exploration are inextricably intertwined. Betts has considered these pieces as few ever have, and the result is revelatory — not merely in that his performances are utterly unique, but in that they live in the very heart of the music. This is playing of the rarest and most powerful kind."
— Paul Cantrell, Composer / Pianist

Donald Betts is both a pianist and a composer. He made his New York debut at the age of twenty-one playing his own music and works by Prokofieff, Liszt and Schumann. Musical America cited his “tremendous technique and bravura style,” and the New York Times called him a pianist of “imagination and poetic feeling.” Soon after, he won the Concert Artist Guild Award and presented two more New York recitals at Town Hall and Carnegie Recital Hall. While doing graduate work at Indiana University School of Music, he was the only piano student given a studio and a roster of music majors to teach. As a professor at Macalester College, he co-founded the Macalester Trio. The group performed virtually the entire repertoire of piano trios and piano quartets and commissioned and recorded several new works. Their recording of Chamber Music by Women Composers was hailed by Newsweek in 1980 as one of the most important recordings of that year. Betts is a composer of over a hundred compositions, many of which have been performed nationally and internationally. A recent recording for the Centaur label, Soundings: Selected Piano Works of Donald Betts, was highly recommended by the American Record Guide as “seductively dreamlike and sensuous, filled with mystery and rapture.” Composer Henry Brant has said of his piano music, “Donald Betts’ proven abilities and long experience as a soloist enable him as a composer to speak the piano’s language with a natural expressiveness and intensity and to develop the instrument’s idioms imaginatively along 20th century lines … In my view these compositions occupy a place of their own in the repertory of 20th century keyboard music.” Betts has recorded for Vox, Centaur, CRI, Golden Crest, Ampira, and Inscape. He is presently a professor emeritus at Macalester and earlier on was a recipient of the school’s Thomas Jefferson Award and the Schubert Club’s Best Teaching Award. His previous recording, an all-Chopin CD for Inscape Records, is also available online.

Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood

In Robert Schumann’s music, it is the interior space, the inner voices often in dialogue with outer voices, which in large part endow his compositions with a unique personal yet universal poetic depth. Children at play and rest are essentially the same the world over. However, against the backdrop of our world today in which countless children, virtually everywhere, are suffering and dying from hunger, war and even nature itself, Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood seem almost out of place. Yet the essential quality of the Scenes from Childhood is their musical lyricism. Lyricism is born through a process of subjective selectivity in which the whole vast panorama of experience — tragedy, sorrow, anger, laughter, play — is mingled in one strongly tempered moment revealing life, not in the guise of any one of its single aspects, but in the infinite blend of its totality. Lyricism is a distillation of experience. If it is dialectically fragmentary, it is nevertheless to be cherished, for its brief vision is that of the sublime mystery of life in tempered wholeness. Through Schumann’s musical genius, these thirteen images of childhood innocence, vulnerability, imagination and playful energy speak to us with the same truth they spoke in Schumann’s time.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 110

The Psychological Evolution of a Musical Style

The passionate, often intensely introspective nature of Beethoven’s psychological temperament finds its ultimate strength and expressiveness in the autonomy and logic of Eighteenth-Century musical style. Although Beethoven altered, qualified, deepened and expanded Eighteenth-Century musical classicism — at times close to the breaking point — he never abandoned it. It was through the circumstances of musical history, as well as his own personal circumstances, that his deep subjectivity and passion found final expression in the condensed immediacy and the resultant unifying energy inherent in Eighteenth- Century Classical style. It was a style enabling him to project his imagination and personality to such heights of universality as to create an unprecedented kind of musical humanism and a true musical macrocosm from the microcosm of his own being.

The power and strength of this style lies in its ability to be at one time both abstract yet discrete and immediate. Its energy and rationale are different from the Baroque style, which predates it, and Nineteenth-Century Romantic style, which follows it. In general, Baroque music reaches outward, often in a web of long polyphonic lines, while Romantic music seeks out less traditional and more personal forms and modes of expression. The energy of Eighteenth-Century musical style is the result of condensation, reduction, and simplification, which abstracts and reveals musical essences captured and concretized as pared-down musical elements. These abstracted, discrete elements become specific and sophisticated stylistic building blocks: the two note motif, the first note accented and often creating a dissonance while the second note is softly resolved as a consonance (these two-note motifs are virtually everywhere in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven); the single note, compacted and energized, often separated from other single notes by rests; the rest itself, which becomes highly organic, often in the service of defining distinct and contrasting phrases; and the diatonic scale and scale fragments, again creating musical strength through greater essential simplicity.

This style evolves (as all things do and must) to become an integral musical aspect of the so-called Enlightenment, with its historically brief yet overriding secularized philosophical optimism and acceptance of the natural order of things. In its early stages, dubbed Gallant, it emerges overly simplified, and somewhat shallow. Even so, a counter style aimed at middle class sentiment, the Empfindsamkeit, was already in place. The style emerged in northern Germany, through a host of composers, as a kind of wedded mixture and composite of two seemingly opposing historic trends: an enlightened rationality pointing towards greater simplicity and an effusive, demonstrative emotionality, the result of a uniquely German reaction to the late Baroque Rococo.

C. P. E. Bach emerges as the most important and influential composer of this style, which as it gained dramatic momentum came to be known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) after a play of that name. C. P. E. Bach’s music represents a kind of powerful emotional outbreak of a romanticism waiting to be born, yet not yet stylistically and culturally sustainable: a kind of premature romantic intensity, if you will, in its fetal stages.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all were influenced by C. P. E. Bach’s music. It is commonly acknowledged that Mozart supposedly once said, “Bach [C. P. E.] is the father and we are the children.”

But it was Haydn who first and most importantly blended and wedded these two styles — the Gallant and the Sturm und Drang — followed closely by the younger Mozart. Their efforts and genuine deepening of the classical style reached a stage of intellectual and emotional maturity, particularly in the instrumental music, in which the duality of form and content became non-existent. Conception and perception were inseparable one from the other. The raison d’etre of their instrumental music lay in the internal dialogues within the music itself. Ideas became totally musical ones, independent of external programmatic references, and philosophic, religious and mythological ideas.

The deepening was destined to continue, however, and there was only one avenue left in which this could occur. It had to be — and through Beethoven was to become — a gradual psychological deepening in which the language of instrumental music gradually became more and more imbued with an elated humanistic transcendency.

One of the most important and observable aspects of this deepening lies in the musical weight of first and last movements. In Eighteenth Century classical style, including much of Beethoven’s first period, the psychological intensity lies in the first movement, more often than not a sonata form with its contrasting themes, its ability to break those down, select, develop and blend their inherent musical aspects in contrasting tonalities and to recapitulate the original continuity in the principle tonality. The sonata format became a kind of philosophically, musically expressed dialectic. The final movements, again more often than not, rondos or sonata-rondos, were energetic but more often more light-hearted in character, designed to send the listener home in good spirits. In the middle period, Beethoven raised the musical weight of last movements, whereby first and last movements shared an equal musical intensity. What comes to mind immediately among many examples is the Fifth Symphony with its heroic C Major final movement in sonata form, or the Piano Sonata, Op. 53 (Waldstein) with its extended sonata-rondo last movement, blending harmonies to create a fluid lyricism, as well as virtuosic pianism and dramatic energy.

In Beethoven’s last period the psychological weight shifts to the last movement. The last five piano sonatas (Opp.101, 106, 109, 110, 111) are cases in point. The Piano Sonata, Op.110, stands alone in containing a uniquely structured final movement. It is an unprecedented keyboard Passion, with a recitative; an Arioso marked “Klagender Gesang” (“Song of Lamentation”); a fugue in chorale-like grandeur; a variant of the lament marked “Ermattet Klagend” (“exhausted, lamenting”) and “Perdendo le forze, dolento” (“losing energy, sadly”); and a return to the fugue in inversion, marked “poi a poi di nuovo vivente”(“little by little new life”).

The entire sonata is in three connected movements. However, the connection is far stronger than simply moving from one movement to the other without pause or a pause in measured rests, as is indicated between the first and second movements. Rather the three movements are connected through a set of intervals derived from the structure of the fugal subject within the third and last movement. The fugal subject consists of an ascending fourth and a descending minor third; another ascending fourth and descending minor third; a final ascending fourth and a descending diatonic scale fragment containing two whole steps and a half step.

It is well known that a suggestion of the third movement fugal subject is embedded within the opening measures of the first movement of the Opus 110, and again, in part at least, in the alto voice at the end of the movement. What seems to have been overlooked, however, is that the entire first movement sonata form, with its lyrical warmth and song-like imaginative pianistic figurations, comes out of — that is, is directly derived from — those intervalic entities which comprise the third-movement fugal subject: thirds, fourths and different degrees of scalular fragments containing whole steps and a half step. In short, the entire first movement, virtually every phrase and musical idea, is the result of a compositional process in which Beethoven extracts the third-movement fugal intervals and gives to each one an independent autonomy as a kind of building block to be used in any combination and order.

Even the unconventional harmonic choices in the recapitulation of the first movement reflect this compositional process. The principle theme is recapitulated in D-flat major, a fourth above the expected A-flat major. The ensuing transition to the secondary theme, as well as the first half of the theme itself, are both placed a minor third above the D-flat major tonality in the complex key of F-flat major (spelled enharmonically for clarity and simplicity as E major). The return to A-flat major to finish the secondary theme is done by shaping a kind of scale-like ladder, in octaves and thirds, which hesitantly climbs upward to establish the tonic tonality, creating an intriguingly imaginative lyrical structure within an already uncommonly lyrical movement.

The second-movement scherzo is also so derived, particularly in the trio. The scherzo itself is probably inspired by two different folk songs. One at least has a somewhat bawdy text, but both were chosen by Beethoven in part, no doubt, for their scalular structures, out of which Beethoven makes much. The trio combines all three musical entities of the fugual subject by creating a rather mind twisting rapidly played set of downward cascading patterns of fourths and thirds with insertions of one or two scalular notes. As the patterns continue downward a D flat Major scale emerges, embedded within and punctuated by the left-hand quarter notes in ascending intervalically and rhymically spaced single notes.

Nothing like this had been done before Beethoven, particularly to the degree found here in his last period in which he carries the sense of reduction to an unprecedented degree. Greater condensation invites and allows greater potentiality for expansion and unity. In the Op. 110 both the reduction and the ensuing expansiveness go beyond the sonata structure to embrace all three movements. The appearance within the third movement of the fugal subject in the simplicity and clarity of its final crystalized shape, endows the entire sonata with an organic scaffolding of enormous intellectual and emotional strength. The psychological weight of the last movement emerges as a natural outgrowth of a deeply wrought expressive architectural cohesiveness, unrealized before Beethoven’s time.

The third and final movement begins by consciously embracing a Baroque-like style; the few opening bars sounding not unlike a J. S. Bach cantata. A free recitative follows and leads to the Arioso/lament. The overall personality of Beethoven’s philosophically introspective and outwardly passionate nature, inspires in him a kind of romantic fervor to reach both backward in history as well as forward, to gather and reinterpret aspects of the past, while simultaneously building anew and beyond the present. This endeavor becomes most meaningful when it is not one of self aggrandizement, but rather a psychologically motivated attempt to recognize and reveal common experiences through shared metaphor.

The Arioso/lament is introduced by slow, soft, evenly-spaced chords in A flat minor and repeated chords continue throughout the lament supporting and contrasting its long continuous melodic lines. Strangely and mysteriously, the opening nine notes of the lament’s melodic lines are the same as those found in the introduction to a soprano aria, “It is finished” in J. S. Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Because of the long period in which much of J. S. Bach’s music lay dormant, and yet, because in many musical circles, particularly in Germany, not all of Bach’s works were completely unknown, this observation of similarity creates a kind of dilemma. Therefore, whether or not this is a direct quotation or a compositional coincidence may never yield a firm answer. However, neither way can change the sonata’s uniquely humanistic, musically expressed metaphor, with its essential revelatory and affirming nature of what it means to live and be alive.

In my later twenties, while attending Indiana University School of Music, I enrolled in a course on Beethoven with a well-known Beethoven scholar, Paul Nettl. He was already in his later years, spoke softly and dispensed great amounts of information. He had written, among many other things, a Beethoven dictionary. He was intensely sensitive to the humanistic nature of Beethoven’s music, yet was often reluctant to expand upon it. I usually managed to sit in the first row to the left so I could hear him and also be closer to a studio upright piano pushed flat against the left-hand wall at the head of the class. He often demonstrated by quietly playing. This day he was demonstrating a rather obscure early work (I no longer remember what).

As he played, he turned somewhat to the left, and as much to himself as to the class (nor did he elaborate when he finished playing) simply said, “repeated notes……cosmic.”

Now, many years later, I am still grateful for that quiet defining moment. I had not, at that time, played the Op. 110 but had given three New York recitals and in the middle one at Town Hall performed Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata. I was always deeply moved by the repeated softly measured chords in the Op. 111 in the variation following the triple trills in the final movement. I’ve clung to Paul Nettl’s insightful remark, simply because it is so.

In the Arioso of the Op. 110, the left hand evenly-spaced soft chords beneath the lament’s melody create a probing profundity. The chords do so, not only by contrasting the right hand’s long melodic lines, but also by defining and making tangible an inherent relational tension between time and the timeless. Each vertically compacted chordal entity, by becoming momentarily stilled, is manifestly compelled to be recreated as repetition and spacial forward motion. The result is, indeed, cosmic.

The fugal subject softly follows carrying within its final concretized intervalic structure the culmination of all that had come before it. As the fugue gradually unfolds, it is supported by long contouring smooth lines. Gradually the whole fugue structure gathers intensity, and with a powerful G Major bass entrance, the entire polyphonic structure takes on a definite vocal character, much like the grandeur of a great choral work, thereby further defining the innate metaphoric narrative of a Passion.

The fugue slips back into G minor while slow repeated chords introduce a variant of the lament. The left-hand slow repeated chords continue throughout while the right hand takes the shape of quicker two-note motifs, seemingly sighing and searching, but gradually losing strength and coming to rest in G minor. Very soft single notes, doubled in octaves and separated by rests, follow. They do so by moving a half step downward, followed by an ascending fourth and a descending minor third, which instantly changes the harmony to G major.

As if encouraged by the unexpected affirmation of a sudden soft major resolution, there follows one of the most remarkably astounding primal passages in all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The soft G major resolution is followed by nine more G major chords in a row. Each slowly paced chord is evenly spaced and separated by rests. Each chord is sounded on a syncopated off-beat, and through thickening textures, a continuous crescendo, and the damper pedal held down throughout, the overall G major tonality is held in check and rendered static, while the sonority and intensity of its affirmative resolution expands in volume and energy.

From this massive G major sound, the left hand climbs upward in slow diminuendoing intervals of thirds and fourths. Arriving at a simple softly held note, D in an alto register, it continues on to softly shape the inversion of the fugal subject in G major in the section marked, “little by little new life.” The fugue continues in a veritable tour de force of polyphonic writing, in which the voices are represented in varying degrees of diminution, fore-shortening and augmentation, overlapping one another (strettoing) in different upright and inverted positions. The fugal structures gain in volume and energy and finally spill over into A-flat major to gradually become a chordal upright realization of the subject propelled by the left-hand rapid contoured figures, at first suggesting the shape of the subject, but becoming freer and more intense. At the climax, an A -flat major chord in a full sonority is catapulted downward, then upward, in a full-bodied series of thirds and fourths, followed by a widely spaced, fully textured A-flat major final chord and a rest. The ending of the sonata is not that of a tumultuous triumph, but rather a powerful spiritual affirmation in which the collected energy of the A -flat major sonorities is momentarily held to be released and absorbed into a prolonged, stunned silence.

Soundings XI: Lamentations and Lullabies

Victims of disease, devastation and war have always been a part of the world’s reality. However, in so many different ways, technological communication has rendered the world’s tragedies as less removed and far more a part of everyday consciousness. Lamentations and Lullabies is a through-composed, intense, often dark musical essay. Yet it also yields and embraces passages of lyricism and recurring themes, sorrowful but essentially affirmative. The overall sounds are layered, in part from specific uses of the damper pedal; the more aggressive sections of the composition are built upon fragments of the Doxology, which, in the middle of the work, appears momentarily in its recognizable form. Near the end of the composition, from a large gesture arching upward and then falling to the lowest note on the keyboard, a quiet passage in the upper register appears as a kind of mechanical dance. A child’s music box or a mechanized irony? Perhaps both. A tender slow lullaby, first heard early on, brings the work to a close.

Program notes by Donald Betts