It's challenging to write a program note for this recital, in the same way it is to sum up Western musical history in 80 minutes. What I'm after is a story—not a stunt or a lesson—and my hope is that this note communicates some of the wonder of this centuries-long tale, its many twists and turns, its seeming dead ends and sudden epiphanies.

We start with two threads: troubadors and masses, the secular and the religious. Circling laments by Guillaume de Machaut (two voices) and Gilles Binchois (three) are followed by the purity and craft of Jean de Ockeghem, where two voices in close dialogue seem to explore all the possibilities of the intervals, almost to my ear like children learning an incredibly sophisticated game. Back to the secular with Guillaume Du Fay, praising the beauty of a beloved with three playfully intertwined voices, and then again the religious with Josquin des Prez—mastery of counterpoint turned to more austere ends. All of this music has a rhythmic fluidity and unpredictability, a sense of constant reinvention that you may feel gets less present as the centuries pass.

The ongoing glories of the Renaissance are represented by William Byrd, Carlo Gesualdo, and Claudio Monteverdi. Byrd's Voluntarie is the first keyboard work on the program, a tour de force in which four voices are constantly reacting to each other: a joyfully imitative piece where all the voices come together, vocal interplay mixed with keyboard virtuosity. The two madrigals represent opposite harmonic worlds: Gesualdo extremely chromatic, seemingly keyless, concluding with one last, unexpectedly ravishing slide; Monteverdi set over a single measure of repeated harmony, an unremitting G major, exploring all the possibilities of the major scale. You have the sense of a new harmonic understanding—the emergence of a language where everything relates to a single center—and at the same time the crystallization of voices into melody and accompaniment.

"The aim of this recital is to hear all the centuries of music in a single arc, and to be conscious of a life cycle."

With the end of the Renaissance, we have arrived in the realm of tonality, as we currently understand it. Domenico Scarlatti's wild sonata is like the appearance of virtuosity on the grand stage, along with the seeds of a new structure: sonata form. There is something fateful about the appearance of Johann Sebastian Bach at this point, someone who can understand the evolved language of music in its totality, like surveying the whole universe. Bach is an odd choice for a historical hinge, since he was essentially ahistorical—he wrote against fashion, pursuing a contrapuntal and chromatic mastery while the musical world was becoming simpler. But then he lurks over us. He sums up the great imitative tradition of many centuries past, while also setting out the boundaries and possibilities of the tonal language of the century-and-a-half to come.

After Bach, I tried to suggest something of a clean slate. How do you choose a single piece to encapsulate the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? I hoped this slow movement might do the trick, which starts with the most basic texture, just a melody and a harmony, and then reveals unexpected emotional depths. Ludwig van Beethoven shatters the calm of the Mozart—shatters the politeness of the classical style, turning the same language to more violent, and individual, ends. Robert Schumann takes up the restlessness of Beethoven, transmuting it into Romantic fantasy, and this restlessness begins to infect the harmonies themselves. With Franz Liszt's faithful transcription of Richard Wagner, we have the epitome of chromaticism (a theme we may recognize from Gesualdo or Bach), dissolving the sense of a center, a magnificent climax that is also, in a way, the end of a long road. Johannes Brahms's little Intermezzo has the same essence, on a smaller scale but just as deeply felt. It begins with a series of falling thirds, giving a sense that harmony, and even a whole style and tradition, is dissolving. A waltz appears as an emblem of this lost style.

Arnold Schoenberg begins by waltzing, too, but by this time tonality is well and truly gone—we have crossed over into Modernism. The same expressivity is there, without the comforting center. Claude Debussy presents a quite different face of Modernism, a revolution in sound, and Igor Stravinsky yet another—the fragmentation of rhythm, the cubist rethinking of time. In a way that period from 1890 to 1910 feels like another Renaissance or Classical period, with so many geniuses finding new ways to go, but all this brilliant exploration of fragmentation creates a question: trajectories to where? Following one road, we come to Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstücke I, with total control of pitch, rhythm, duration, dynamic—extreme music freed from choice. Following another, we arrive at the minimalism of Philip Glass, a new and extreme simplicity, seeming to reject all of it (Romanticism, Serialism, what have you). Paired with Glass's Etude is György Ligeti's—both of them on falling figures, musical symbols of sadness, repeating themselves over and over. And at that moment, when all seems lost, we return to the beginning of the story with Binchois.

The aim of this recital is to hear all the centuries of music in a single arc, and to be conscious of a life cycle. Styles die, like we do. It is no longer possible, for instance, to write in the style of Mozart, so this recital is a story of constantly emerging possibility, with impossibility right behind.

—Copyright © 2016 by Jeremy Denk


Jeremy Denk is one of the world's foremost pianists. He has received a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, the Avery Fisher Prize, and Musical America's Instrumentalist of the Year Award.