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Piano – Fin-de-siècle Romantic Piano Music

In the last few decades of the 19th century, the sonata was not a popular genre in French piano music. Dukas’ monumental sonata was an exception (along with less-well known works by Godard, Jaëll, d’Indy and Dubois), while the unusual title of Franck’s Prélude, aria et final did much to hide the work’s debt of gratitude to the form. Composers preferred the etude (Saint-Saëns), stylised dances that increasingly harked back to the French ‘Ancien Régime’ (Suite bergamasque by Debussy), pieces whose generic title implied an inherent poetic content (nocturne, barcarolle, or impromptu, as cultivated by Fauré, for example), and picturesque vignettes with a more or less overt extra-musical substrate (Pièces pittoresques by Chabrier, Les Beaux Jours and Les Jours pluvieux by Jaëll, Poèmes sylvestres, Poèmes alpestres and Poèmes virgiliens by Dubois). Composers spurned predetermined forms in favour of short or medium-length stand-alone pieces, in collections or sets, which gave an (apparent) impression of spontaneity, and also opted for forms that were rhapsodic in nature. Despite its frequent virtuosity, piano writing became the preferred medium for composers to experiment with harmony and sound, paving the way for future masterpieces by Debussy and Ravel. Modernity was in the air and the keyboard was its first means of expression.