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Characteristic [character-]piece (Ger. Charakterstück)locked

  • Maurice J.E. Brown

A piece of music, usually for piano solo, expressing either a single mood (e.g. martial, dream-like, pastoral) or a programmatic idea defined by its title. The term is usually applied to pieces written since the early 19th century, although a number of harpsichord pieces by Couperin and Rameau and other earlier composers anticipate the genre. An early use of the term occurs in Beethoven, who called his Leonore Overture no.1 a ‘characteristic overture’, by which he must have implied that it was characteristic of operatic overtures and dramatic in style. The two marches by Schubert published posthumously as op.121 (d968 b) were called ‘marches caractéristiques’ by the publisher Diabelli, no doubt to suggest that they were characteristic of Schubert’s marches, many of which had already been published; at that time (1830) the term was still unusual. An early frequent use of the term is in the piano music of Stephen Heller. He gave titles to many pieces, sometimes of a general nature, e.g. Four Arabesques (op.49) or Three Albumleaves (op.157), and others more definite in their implications, as in Spaziergänge eines Einsamen (op.78) and Voyage autour de ma chambre (op.140); he also composed an ‘Etude caractéristique’ for Moscheles’ Méthode des méthodes. Schumann gave the subtitle 18 Characterstücke to his Davidsbündlertänze op.6. His use of the term there perhaps refers to the characters of Florestan and Eusebius: the pieces bear the initials of one or other (sometimes both) and are accordingly either passionate or meditative.

All of Mendelssohn’s seven Characteristische Stücke op.7 are characteristic of a mood. Smetana’s second set of characteristic pieces, written in 1875, was published under the general title Rêves; each of the six pieces has an individual title. These pieces indicate a trend towards a wider use of the idea of the genre: two of them – Le bonheur éteint and Consolation – depict moods, but others are called Près du château, La fête des paysans bohémiens and Au salon, the last extended waltz. All are written in an elaborate, decorated style, and represent the beginning of a tendency for the characteristic piece to embody a mood widened to embrace human characters, scenery and literary conceptions. This can be seen in the Five Pieces op.103 of Sibelius (1924): the titles of these five pieces – The Village Church, The Oarsman, etc. – give the listener a clear idea of the music’s character, thus applying the term in a different way from its original usage. On the other hand, in Stanford’s Six Characteristic Pieces op.132 (published 1913), which include a study, a toccata and two romances, the collective title is apparently used simply to indicate that the individual pieces are typical of their particular genres.

Bibliography

  • W. Kahl: ‘Das lyrische Klavierstück Schuberts und seiner Vorgänger seit 1810’, AMw, 3 (1921), 54–82, 99–122
  • W. Kahl: ‘Aus der Frühzeit des lyrischen Klavier-Stücks’, ZfM, 89 (1922), 177–82, 201–6
  • M. Vidor: Zur Begriffsbestimmung des musikalischen Charakterstücks (diss., U. of Leipzig, 1924)
  • E. Bodky, ed.: Das Charakterstück (Berlin, 1933, 2/1960)
  • W. Kahl: Das Characterstück, Mw, 8 (1955)
  • E. Glusman: The Early Nineteenth-Century Lyric Piano Piece (diss., Columbia U., 1969)
  • M. Štědroň: ‘Zur Semiosis des sog. “Charakterstücks’, Musica communicatio: Brno XIV 1979, 247–55
  • J. de Ruiter: Der Charakterbegriff in der Musik: Studien zur deutschen Ästhetik der Instrumentalmusik, 1740–1850 (Stuttgart, 1989)
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