Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat minor, Op. 50
(b. Berlin, 21. March 1863 – d. Berlin, 2. April 1932)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat minor, Op. 50 (1901)
When Hugo Kaun composed the first of his two piano concertos in the beginning of the first decade of the twentieth century, he was still a resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and considered by several critics and leading musicians as an American composer. In spite of this technical attribution, Kaun‘s musical language was still wedded to his native Germany, where he would return one year after composing this work.
With the first piano concerto, Kaun continues to forge his personal musical vocabulary, initially composed by immersing through the music of Brahms, Wagner and Bruckner, in addition to private lessons in composition with Friedrich Kiel, later venturing into new zones in harmony through his studies with Bernhard Ziehn and William Middelschulte upon his arrival in America.
Like many musicians and listeners in his day, Kaun was no doubt taken by the virtuosity of the Polish-born pianist-composer Leopold Godowsky, who made his debut in America in 1884 and later settled in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1891. Both Kaun and Godowsky‘s paths in music were similar: both briefly attended the Kðnigliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin at a young age (Godowsky studying with the pianist-composer Ernst Rudorff, Kaun with the pianist Friedrich Grabau), and both settled in America, Kaun emigrating to Milwaukee in 1887 and Godowsky in New York by 1890, teaching at the New York College of Music, which would later merge with New York University in 1968.
In 1895 Godowsky relocated to Chicago, Illinois to succeed William H. Sherwood as head of the piano department at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, and it was most likely in that city where both Kaun and Godowsky first made contact, as Kaun was privately studying with the theorist Bernhard Ziehn and establishing musical ties with the organist William Middelschulte and the conductor Theodore Thomas, the latter becoming an early and devout advocate of Kaun‘s orchestral works. Godowsky also became another devotee of Kaun‘s work by performing his Piano Quintet at some point in time. It was his performance of the quintet that probably led Kaun to compose his E-flat minor concerto with his friend in mind.
Upon his return to Germany, Kaun felt that his music was closer in spirit to immediate contemporaries like Hans Pfitzner, Max Reger and, to some degree, Richard Strauss, who continued the classic-romantic tradition of German music by subtly infusing harmonic and contrapunctal techniques bordering on the implosion of tonality that they felt were evolutionary, yet never forsaking the tonal center of their compositions.
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