STEPHEN HELLER: op. 119, 32 PRÄLUDIEN FÜR LILI (1867)
Description: 32 short to very short pieces without titles.
The order is according to tonality, along the circle of fifths (major & minor); first sharps, and from no. 16 on flats.
Difficulty: mostly level 4/10
Availability: not in print anymore (as far as I know)! Antiquarian copies can still be found relatively easy.
Stephen Heller (1813-1888), born in Budapest, and after a traumatic period as a travelling infant prodigy stranded in Augsburg in 1830, lived in Paris from 1838. Though he befriended celebrities like Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt, he lived, increasingly aloof from all fashionable fuss, for music, his beloved books, and far too many cigars. After 1871 he slowly became blind. Out of his 158 opus numbers, (almost exclusively for the piano) only some six are still in print. And that’s a pity!
In 1911 Rudolf Schütz writes about opus 119: Es wird in der gesamten ungeheueren Klavierliteratur nicht leicht ein Werk nachzuweisen sein, daß bei so mäßigen Ansprüchen an die Technik des Spielers einen so reichen Inhalt mit großem Wohllaut in kleinsten aber immer interessanten anmutigen Formen zum Ausdruck bringt. (…) Spiele selbst und empfinde!
(It will not be easy to find a work in the collected enormous piano literature, which while making such moderate demands on the player’s technique expresses with such sonorous beauty such a rich content in the smallest, but always interesting and enticing forms. (…) Play yourself, and discover!)
…and this still holds true in the ever ungeheuerer labyrinth of piano music. Clear as water, one piece tumbles over the other, some only two lines short, but always full of atmosphere, rich in contrasts, precise and lovingly, and often surprisingly capricious. Many pieces talk, or depict a short dramatic scene. Others sing an old song, or a lonely melody, or a careless walking tune, through which the wind blows. You hear it, and it has already gone. Heller, city-, chamber-dweller, hermit: of course a lot of it has to do with nature, a glistening nature which never really existed, except during short moments, or in romantic stories, poetry and painting. And in movies, shopped photos, tourist brochures and mythical games, in short in the heads of us, dreaming city dwellers, for we recognise him.
And it’s German music, and German nature. Not surprising though for a lifelong admirer of Schumann. Heller corresponds with him from as early as 1835, and writes for the New Periodical for Music, founded by Schumann. The latter reviews seven of Heller’s opus numbers, calls him a real romantic, an artist’s nature, and writes that they have a lot in common.
Of course there are differences. Heller covers a much more limited area. All his life he only writes for the piano, and obviously feels most at home in the smaller, the smallest forms. His music, alert and inventive as it is, never gets severe, or elaborately polyphonic, never massive and awe-inspiring, but in essence always remains naïve and direct; an idea, melody, harmony. And timbre! In this he resembles Schubert a little bit. And maybe, by rarely trodden paths round the back, has had more influence on French music after his death than we know. But that’s for another time.