Julius Reubke: piano sonata in Bb minor

performed by whoever plays it in the following videos:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3

Julius Reubke was a student of Franz Liszt, his favorite pupil at one point, as Liszt himself apparently stated. It shows.

While the previous piece I wrote about is a concerto dedicated to the memory of a man whose life was at its end, and written in his style, this piece, dedicated to the composer’s teacher, shows heavy direct influence from the man himself, even quotes directly from Liszt’s piano sonata in a place or two.
The sonata was written in 1857, when the composer was 23, the same year his more enduring (or at least well-known) work, Sonata on the 94th psalm for organ, was also written. It is considered one of the greatest works in all the organ repertoire, while this fantastic, emotionally rich and stirring, moving sonata is practically unheard.
At the age of 17(ish), he “encountered” conductor Hans Von Bülow. That’s what Wikipedia says, and I’m not sure what that is to mean. In any case, Bülow recommended Liszt take on the precocious young musician a student when Liszt went to Berlin in 1855. It was arranged that he would teach Reubke in Weimar, and a place was found for him to live there. He wrote the aforementioned two most famous of his works here, within just a few months of each other. But by this time, his health was already in decline, and Richard Pohl says the following:

Playing us his sonata, seated in his characteristically bowed form at the piano, sunk in his creation, Reubke forgot everything about him; and we then looked at his pale appearance, at the unnatural shine of his gleaming eyes, heard his heavy breath, and were aware of how wordless fatigue overwhelmed him after such hours of excitement. We suspected then that he would not be with us long.

I imagine composition for him could have been an escape. I know it was around 150 years ago (for perspective, this was still pre-American Civil War time, although on a different continent), but life expectancy was still far beyond 20-something years old. Pohl’s comment above makes me think that Reubke himself knew his health was failing him, and I wonder what pressure that put on such a young man. Could it have pushed him to accomplish as much as he could in the short time he (ostensibly) knew he had left? I don’t know.
What I do know is that this piece is intensely rich. It’s commanding, fiery, delicate, emotional, touching, reminiscent, bold, yearning, heart wrenching, driving, nervous, cheerful, virtuosic (to say the least), expressive, confident, deeply structured, and in most ways, just kind of perfect. I have found hardly any other versions of this piece to listen to. There’s a full recording of a gentleman performing this piece in our very own Recital Hall at the Performing Arts center here in Taipei, and I don’t particularly care as much for that video, but it may just be the recording quality. I wish I knew who performed the version I have here (perhaps I will leave a comment on the videos and ask). I find it superb.
There is such a range of emotion in this piece, and part of that is a result of the structure. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s concerto was in the style of Liszt’s second concerto in its mono-thematic nature, this piece is, again, very clearly modeled after Liszt’s own piano sonata in Bm, published only a few years before this piece. I would love to hear Reubke’s performance of Liszt’s sonata. He must have been very familiar with it. In any case, Reubke’s sonata here is patterned after Liszt’s talent of thematic transformation inside a single-movement work. There are multiple themes that intertwine and reappear and transform throughout the piece, while, to me, still retaining a tightly-connected structure. I especially love how the quiet, delicate theme (perhaps the ‘distant E major theme’?) of the first section appears in the latter half of the third, but this time played over a fiery, intense motif so contrasted with the delicate, tender, expressive mood in which it was first introduced. It’s this kind of structure and vocabulary that makes this piece so exciting. Not only are the individual lines and sections themselves beautiful, but the quotes and developments and structure itself is intensely beautiful. It creates at once a stark contrast and a strong unity throughout the piece.
While I am not nearly as familiar with Liszt’s sonata (undoubtedly the more famous of the two compositions), I find this one more enjoyable to listen to. It may be that I find a certain youthfulness, passion, clarity, and liveliness in Reubke’s composition. He wrote it when he was only in his early twenties, while Liszt was around twice that age when he wrote his. That is not to say that Liszt’s sonata (or his music in general, even of his younger years) was in want of vigor, but there’s something that really speaks to me in Reubke’s sonata here. There is a certain passion, a desire, and a melancholy that seems (does this sound cliche?) almost to foreshadow the tragic brevity of Reubke’s life. Who knows what else this young virtuoso could have done with an extra ten years? Even five? He apparently also had plans to write an opera, and while I know very little about opera, if this piece is any indication of his impressive talent, it would have been something.
I don’t actually remember how I even heard of this piece to begin with, but I believe I read about it somewhere and went and looked it up. It makes me think of a few things:

  1. The HUGE impact that serendipitous encounters or ‘chance’ opportunities have on the lives of individuals like this, and how the opportunity to have a mentor such as the great Franz Liszt.
  2. How these chance encounters have such so greatly affected and influenced the young Reubke. It is that kind of interchange, interaction, and path-crossing that I do find fascinating in many walks of life, but especially in music, where this influence is arguably more tangible and concrete than in many other aspects of life. This almost feels like an obligation or responsibility that such great artists have, and I am assured that if Reubke lived to be old enough to have a student, he would have passed on his insight and talent. 

Julius Reubke passed away at the age of only 24, making Schumann (46), Scriabin (43), Chopin (38), Mozart (35), and Schubert (31) seem positively aged at the times of their deaths. I am years older than Reubke at the time of this writing, and cannot imagine having accomplished what he did (in that field) at his age. Alexei Stanchinsky comes to mind, whose death at 26 remains a mystery. He also was a promising genius whose time was cut short, but I haven’t taken a liking to his compositions as I have to this masterpiece of Reubke’s.
I find it endearing and touching, this work, and its unknown nature makes it somehow even more so. If I were to make a list of the pieces I wish I could perform on the piano, the very top would still be Chopin’s fourth Ballade, in F. This would come in at a close second. I find it bewildering that it has not won its place among some of the greatest works of the Romantic era, that in itself also a sad fact. All of that having been said, I feel Liszt himself sums it up wonderfully, who lived to a great old age, and must have also been heartbroken to see his favorite student’s talents end at such a young age. Liszt wrote to Reubke’s father:

Truly no one could feel more deeply the loss which art has suffered in your Julius, than the one who has followed with admiring sympathy his noble, constant, and successful strivings in these latter years, and who will ever bear his friendship faithfully in mind

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