Tag Archives: Debussy

The Oxford Piano Group – Teachers’ Edition

The Oxford Piano Group – Teachers’ Edition, directed by Sally Cathcart, has become firmly established over the last four years as a vibrant and forward thinking community of piano teachers. The beautiful setting of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and the use of a Steinway Model D provides the backdrop for teachers from all over the UK.

TOPG offers a series of workshops and study groups for teachers, and indeed anyone with a interest in the piano and its literature, with renowned visiting lecturers, including Debussy expert Paul Roberts (May 2014). The study days also focus on aspects of piano teaching including best practice for fee setting, studio policies and developing a teaching practice, and offer piano teachers a forum for discussion and the exchange of ideas. The 2013/14 season focuses on the teaching potential in Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Bartok’s For Children. The final session of the season includes a performance by a gamelan orchestra, and will explore the influence of gamelan on the music of Debussy and Ravel.

Early application is recommended, especially for the May meeting, as places are limited. Full details of all courses and an application form here

Sally Cathcart’s piano teaching blog:
The Curious Piano Teacher


Takemitsu’s musical landscape

Toru Takemitsu (source: Wikipedia)

“My music is like a garden – and I am the gardener”

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

It was rather wonderful to wake to the sounds of the music of Toru Takemitsu on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning. An unexpected pleasure, as such music is usually reserved for the wilder shores of Radio 3.

Takemitsu was a composer, but he was also a writer on aesthetics and musical theory. His music is delicate and refined, as beautiful as Hokusai print or a carved jade netsuke. Largely self-taught, his music combines elements of Japanese and western philosophy with the subtle manipulation of instrumental and orchestral timbre, using both western and traditional Japanese instruments, and the use of defined silences to create a unique and extraordinary soundworld.

Takemitsu admired Debussy and Messiaen, as is evident in his piano music, and was drawn to composers who were themselves deeply influenced by the musical and philosophical culture of Asia, including John Cage. After my very positive experience with Messiaen for my ATCL Diploma programme, and my love of the piano music of Debussy, the desire to explore the piano music of Takemitsu seemed a natural one.

Takemitsu composed his Rain Tree Sketch II in 1992 in memory of Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992), the French composer who had a strong influence on Takemitsu. The work was composed for a concert “Hommage à Olivier Messiaen” at Les Semaines Musicales Internationales d’Orleans, France, and was premiered by Alain Neveux on 24 October 1992. The name of the work was probably inspired by a quotation from a novel by Kenzaburo Oe about the miraculous rain tree, whose tiny leaves store up moisture and continue to let fall raindrops long after the rain has ceased. The work is also a dreamy meditation on the flow of life, and was the last piano piece Takemitsu wrote (his first Rain Tree Sketch was written in 1982). It is in a clear ABA (ternary) form, with a rhythmic opening which is reprised, in shortened form, after the melodic middle section. Its tonal language is redolent of Debussy and Messiaen, with chords used for colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progressions, and, like its dedicatee, Takemitsu employs recurring motifs (such as an ascending three-note broken chord figure) and well-placed silences to create a carefully nuanced atmosphere and colouristic shadings. Directions such as “celestially light” and “joyful” contribute to the metaphysical nature of this work.

There are some written in pedal markings, and these should be adhered to as the composer directs. Elsewhere, use of the pedal is at the discretion of the pianist. I tend on the side of restraint and use half or one-third pedal to avoid obscuring the clarity of the chords and melodic figures. Regarding the bars of silence, these should sound expectant and anticipatory, rather than dead; using the pedal to allow sounds to “ring” will help achieve this.

The metronome markings in the piece are somewhat ambiguous. On the dedication page of the score, the duration is given at 5 minutes, but if one adheres to the metronome markings exactly, the piece comes in at around 3 minutes. I have opted for a calm moderato, a sense of the music moving forward, but without pressing ahead. In my Diploma programme, this piece comes between the Bach D minor concerto BWV 974 and Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511. The contrast is, to me, rather special, and I feel it works well.

While researching the programme notes on this piece for my Diploma, I came across an interesting piece of research in which the author discusses the suggestion of traditional Japanese instruments in this work, and other piano works by Takemitsu, specifically the Taiko drum (the low D pedal point at the opening of page 2), and the long zither koto and the short-necked lute biwa (the ascending arpeggio figure suggests the plucked sound of these instruments). The article contains many interesting thoughts about Takemitsu’s piano music, and is definitely worth exploring further.

As for performances of this work, when I heard Noriko Ogawa perform it at the Wigmore last autumn, I was struck by the incredible soundworld she managed to achieve, producing “droplets” of notes and really evoking the miraculous rain tree (my review here). The recording I have been using for reference in my study of this piece is by Ichiro Nodaira: I particularly like the relaxed tempo of the opening melody.

The pianist Paul Crossley has recorded Takemitsu’s complete piano music, sadly, now out of print, though available via some music streaming services and Spotify.


Further listening:

Rain Tree Sketch


Les yeux clos

Piano Pieces for Children: No. 2. Clouds

The first page of Rain Tree Sketch II (Schott Music)

An A to Z of Debussy……

Claude Debussy

Pianist and writer Christine Stevenson is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. Each entry contains interesting facts about the pieces discussed, as well as analytical and stylistic notes, video and sound clips. Alongside this well-written and well-researched blog, Christine has been performing piano repertoire by Debussy in a series of recitals.

Explore Christine’s blog here

Twitter: @notesfromapiano


Overwhelmed by Debussy: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Cadogan Hall

In a recent interview for Reuters, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard described Debussy as a “hedonist” of sound, and this definition was clear in Aimard’s performance – one of incredible precision, intensity, sensitivity, and sensuality, which showed Debussy to be a composer of great complexity, a profound and dark artist, and a revolutionary of sonority and musical colour. Read my full review here

Pierre-Laurence Aimard (photo credit: © Marco Borggreve)

Reblogged: I is for Images – Debussy’s Images I

Here is a beautifully written, informative and informed post about Debussy’s first book of Images, by pianist Christine Stevenson.

Christine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. I am working on Hommage à Rameau as part of my LTCL Diploma programme, and I found Christine’s notes on this piece particularly helpful and well-expressed.

I is for Images – Debussy’s Images I.

Debussy at the piano, with friends

Erotic & Exotic: François-Frédéric Guy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at Wigmore Hall

In a neat piece of programming, Monday’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert brought together two French master-pianists to play two French masterpieces for the ballet, Debussy’s erotic and ecstatically playful Jeux, and Stravinsky’s “beautiful nightmare”, The Rite of Spring. Read my full review here

Listen to the concert via the BBC iPlayer here

[Image credit: François-Frédéric Guy © Guy Vivien, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell]

Concert review: Leon McCawley at Wigmore Hall

Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

British pianist Leon McCawley presented a programme of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann, all played with evident relish and enjoyment, at a charming lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley kindly participated in my ‘Meet the Artist….’ series. Read his interview here

Diploma programme

Going back over old territory here, but by chance I found a film I made when I was rehearsing for my ATCL Diploma recital last winter with my page turner (who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, and one of my piano students). I’ve edited it into a more watchable programme. The pieces are played in the order in which I performed them in the exam recital on 14th December 2011


Messiaen’s ‘Preludes’

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than ten years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (The Intangible Sounds of the Dream) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).

The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano work, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus. Messiaen described his Preludes as  “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I studied the fourth of the Vingt regards, ‘Regard de la vierge’, for my ATCL Diploma exam. This was my first contact with Messiaen as a pianist, though I was aware of his music and had even visited the church in Paris, La Trinité, where he was organist for many years. I am not a religious person, yet playing the Regard de la vierge put me in touch with a profound spiritualism, which I found deeply arresting and absorbing. Interestingly, Messiaen’s writing is so perfect that one does not need to share his faith to create a sense of the spirituality which imbues his music: it is all there, in the notes and the directions.

For my LTCL Diploma programme, I’ve chosen the second of the eight Preludes, ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ (Song of Ecstasy in a Sad Landscape). Written when his mother died, it combines the emptiness of loss (as expressed in the weary quaver figure of the opening ‘A’ section, which is later expanded with additional textures) with the joy of memories (the “ecstatic song” of the title in a B section which definitely owes something to Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse in its vivicious, dancing measures). It also occurred to me, while pondering this music as I was enjoying my morning swim (a great opportunity to allow the mind to wander along more abstruse by-ways), that, given Messiaen’s Catholic faith, this piece may also suggest the ecstasy of religion (unquestionably a recurring motif in the Vingt Regards and his organ music). I have recently seen the film The Way, starring Martin Sheen, in which a bereaved father walks the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. While not a film about faith and religion per se, there is an excitement amongst the travellers, a rather rag-tag group of people each with “issues”, on arriving at the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and the awe-inspiring experience of a mass within the cathedral. Forgive me if this seems fanciful, but I find references such as this helpful in thinking about how to convey the “story” of the music.

Messiaen’s printed music can appear complicated, often with three staves, which can be confusing. However, he is very clear in his directions, and because he was a pianist himself, the notes tend to lie comfortably under the fingers once learnt.

When I played the ‘Regard de la vierge’ to a friend, who kindly heard my entire Diploma programme a month ahead of the exam, he commented that the piano and pianissimo measures can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone. This is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity. This also applies to Debussy, whose music seems to suffer these days from a desire to make it gentle and soft. Remember that Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia. And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal. Another helpful tip, from pianist Murray McLachlan, who also heard my ‘Regard de la Vierge’, is to highlight the contrasts, of colour, rhythm and dynamics: this way, the music is truly brought to life with vibrancy, and subtle nuances of shading, beauty and expressiveness.

Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:

Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste

And here is Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a pupil of Loriod):

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’