Tag Archives: piano music

Music Notes – How to Cast a Spell with Schumann’s #30 From Album for the Young

Guest post from Nancy M Williams

Schumann’s #30 (* * * (untitled), in F major) from Album for the Young has a way of casting a spell of contemplation over its listeners. Whenever I perform this music, I meditate on how I reclaimed my passion for classical piano music. As your guest columnist, I want to share with you my secrets on how to study and play the #30 with best effect.

In April, I performed the #30 as part of “Claiming Your Passion”, a keynote workshop I gave at a Toronto conference. I hesitated before including this relatively unknown piece in my program. How would it fare in a lineup with recognizable works by Chopin and Schubert? I placed the #30 towards the end of my workshop, when participants would reflect on a plan for claiming their passions.

At the workshop, as soon as I rippled the #30’s opening chord arpeggiato, the music’s calming harmonies drew me in. I contemplated the 25 long years, from the summer of my 16th birthday until my early 40s, when the piano had lain fallow in my life. I thought about the bliss that I had experienced once I reclaimed the piano, bliss that had radiated outwards, turbocharging my career as a speaker and writer and strengthening my family life. Now at the workshop, I played the #30’s ending, two Ds ringing out, connected by a chromatic inner voice, followed by a simple, plainspoken resolution to F major. Afterwards, I felt gratified when several participants told me that their favorite piece of music was the #30.

The #30 is one of the pieces at the back of Album for the Young that offers concert repertoire that is nonetheless accessible for the advanced student of adult piano lessons. In order to appreciate this music, we should start with its composer. Robert Schumann loved writing almost as much as composing. In the mid-1830s, he launched, as chief editor, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music). For his journal, he often wrote under the pen names of two distinct personalities, Florestan and Eusebius. While Florestan was impulsive and exuberant, Eusebius was thoughtful and contemplative.

These two aspects of Schumann’s personality also suffused his music. The #30 “is contemplative and expresses the Eusebius side of Schumann’s personality,” says Mark Pakman, adjunct professor at the Cali School of Music and my piano teacher. Once I learned the notes, I agreed with his assessment. This four-minute piece doesn’t have a dramatic arc with crashing chords or chattering scales; the sound ascends to forte on only two brief occasions.

The biggest challenge in studying the #30 is to create its contemplative mood via meaningful phrasing. The phrases in this decidedly Romantic music have less resolution than music from the preceding Classical era. Take, for example, the #30’s opening motif, a C lingering with longing, two As gaining urgency, and then the motif sliding with resignation into a G. This G clearly marks the end of the motif, yet it feels somewhat unresolved, as though the impulsive Florestan had snuck into the music and sliced off the motif. I found that playing only the top melodic notes of the chords helped me to absorb the melody and its phrasing. Away from the piano, I tested myself, making sure I could sing the melody in tune and out loud.

Further complicating the phrasing is the fact that the #30 has a surprising amount of repetition. The opening motif I described above appears four times in the music’s first period, a section that is then repeated, at Schumann’s suggestion, in pianissimo. Moreover, the entire second half of the music is essentially a repeat of the first. When my piano teacher first showed me the music, I silently registered the repetition with some glee: I could learn the notes quickly. Yet once I absorbed the notes I faced the challenge of preventing the music from sliding into a pool of monotony.

One technique for creating variety in the #30 is to use tempo rubato. Take, for example the opening motif, the lingering C, followed by two As, and finished with G. My piano teacher and I decided that the first time I played this motif, I would slightly delay the dotted C note, in contrast to playing the motif strictly in time in its next appearance.

I also used shades of different mood states within my own mind to create a slightly different color with the repeat of the opening section. This music reminds me of my own 25-year-long wandering back to the piano. The first time I played the opening section, I thought about the longing I had for piano music during that time in my life when I was not playing. The second time through, I reflected on how, now that I have reclaimed my passion for the piano, I actively seek to dedicate myself to music.

I’ll share with you a few more tips that I assimilated learning this music:

  • Schumann begins the music with a chord arpeggiato, and uses them frequently throughout the #30. Don’t do as I did, and create a bad habit that is later difficult to undo, by playing all three notes of these chord arpeggiatos with equal emphasis. The top note is the melodic one. If you play the first two notes with a delicate touch and allow the top note of each arpeggiated chord to ring out, the music will shimmer.
  • In the #30’s second section (measures 9 to 16, repeated in 25 to 32), half-note, trombone-like octaves ring out, while an inner voice picks its way up and down the keyboard, as though stepping through wildflowers. In order to achieve a contrasting effect, practice the octaves and the inner voice separately.
  • If you’re like me, and you sometimes forget to pedal, especially when you are concentrating on tricky chord changes, then pay special attention to measures 22 and 23 (repeated in 38 and 39). Here a crowd of tied notes, 16th notes, and inner voices create a general confusion, but stay calm and make sure you pedal after each eighth note.

Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young has become a staple of my repertoire. I hope you will obtain as much enjoyment as I did studying this music. For me, the contemplative #30 packages feelings of longing and seeking with a wrapping paper softly glowing when turned towards the light.

Watch Nancy play Schumann’s #30 from Album for the Young

http://www.grandpianopassion.com/2014/01/05/schumann-album-for-the-young-30/

 

Nancy M. Williams is a motivational speaker on “Claiming Your Passion” and an award-winning creative nonfiction writer. She is also the Founding Editor of the online magazine Grand Piano Passion™. An amateur concert pianist, she debuted in 2012 at Carnegie Hall in a master class recital.

“Claiming Your Passion”

www.grandpianopassion.com

 

Franz Schubert's eyeglasses on the manuscript of the song "Gretchen am Spinnrad", Schubert Museum, Vienna

Repertoire in focus: Schubert – Impromptu in F minor

Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert

Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.

The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.

I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.

In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:

  • The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
  • Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
  • Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
  • Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
  • Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
  • Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
Extract 1
Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 3

Download the complete score

Further reading

Charles Fisk – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas

John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms

Music Notes – Stephen Hough plays Liszt’s ‘Benediction…..’

by James Holden

Stephen Hough’s recording of Liszt, ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans le solitude’, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173/III on the CD Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu  released on Virgin as 724356112926.

There are moments when the piano ceases to sound like a box full of hammers being thrown against metal. It ceases to be a blacksmith’s instrument, all anvil-struck notes, all blows and impact.

Stephen Hough’s performance of Liszt’s ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’ is one such moment.

I first heard this recording when I was still relatively unversed in the nineteenth-century piano repertoire. I had listened to some Chopin and knew a few of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.I wasn’t familiar with anything by Schumann and knew no Thalberg, Alkan or work by any of the other virtuosos.What little I knew of Liszt I had learnt from reading, and not least from those references to him in Proust.

Like so many other happy cultural discoveries, I first borrowed the CD on which this recording is to be found from the local library (Barnsley). It was there on the racks with the other discs, compilations, popular classics, opera box sets and the like. Stephen Hough, Liszt: Rhapsodie espagnole; Mephisto Waltz; Bénédiction de Dieu.I turned it over, looked at the track listing on the back, weighed it up and then walked it to the desk. I thought, ‘Why not?’

The love I immediately felt for the ‘Bénédiction’ made me a confirmed musical Romantic.There is something in its combination of simple melody and complex accompaniment that, from the very first notes, seems to care for me, the listener, and seeks to protect me. This is not just music to love but music by which one is loved. I’ve only ever had this same feeling with a few other recordings, including Björk’s song ‘Undo’ from her 2001 album Vespertine.

Under Hough’s hands, Liszt’s notes spread outwards; they diffuse themselves. There is nothing struck here, or so it seems, nothing metallic. All is radiated.

Hough’s gestures respect both the work’s grandeur and the composer’s profound religiosity whilst never straining for emotion or effect. Consider, for example,the moment when the right hand part is extended by a series of arpeggios (the passage marked ‘poco a poco animato il Tempo’ on the score). The upper notes seem to open out of the main melodic material, as though the chord was always already there, in the tune, and has only now risen to an audible volume.What great touch on the keyboard; what pedal control!

No other performance of the ‘Bénédiction’ has affected me in quite the same manner. Leslie Howard’s recording of it for Hyperion is undoubtedly brilliant but its brilliance is that of the bright midday sun reflected off of polished stone surfaces. It’s a little too insistent, too sharp edged, a performance whose volume and clarity causes the overall effect to be lost. The more Howard makes things visible the harder it is to see the work. I own a recording of Claudio Arrau playing this piece that is, by contrast, seemingly formed of those reflective stone surfaces themselves. It gives the impression of blocks of notes being moved into place. The Andante is especially hard, too clearly delineated, too marked in outline.

For all its wavering poetry, Hough’s performance is unwaveringly certain of the work’s coherence. As the piece stretches out to over seventeen minutes this is very welcome – essential, even. To take some examples: we can sense the connection between the partial melody in bars 44-49 and that in the later ‘quasi Preludio’ passage; and at the end of that same Preludio, just before the return of the main melodic material, Hough calls our attention to the communication between the hands, the passing backwards and forwards of the notes. In the Coda we can feel everything combine in one final, calm cadence.

Hough’s recording has affected my own playing. I’m only an enthusiastic amateur at best and doubt that I’ll ever be able to play the ‘Bénédiction’ properly and in full (I can play the comparatively simple Andante and quasi Preludio sections). However, my joy at listening to this recording did lead me to learn Liszt’s ‘Schlummerlied’, another work in F♯ major, one with a similar, albeit much simpler, repeating C♯-D♯ right hand figure. When I worked at this piece it was like working at a ‘Bénédiction’ in miniature, only one within my ability range.

As the piece ends, as the last chord dies away I have felt myself suspended, unwilling to speak or move, to intrude into the space created by Liszt and Hough.

Dr James Holden was born in Ashford and educated at Loughborough University. He graduated with his PhD in 2007. He is the author of, amongst other things, In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he posts on Twitter as @CulturalWriter

© James Holden 2014

Concert for NPL Music Society, Teddington

On 8 July I gave a joint concert with my pianist friend José Luis Gutiérrez Sacristán for my local music society based at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington. It was Jose’s idea to present a joint concert and the result was a varied programme which reflected our personal and quite wide-ranging musical tastes. We closed the recital with the ‘Berceuse’ from Faure’s Dolly Suite.

The complete programme:

Mozart – Fantasia in C minor K475 (Frances)
Shostakovich – Prelude & Fugue in C, Op 87 (José)
Part – Für Alina (Frances)
Haydn – Andante with variations in F minor, Hob XVII/6 (Frances)
Villa-Lobos – Cirandinhas W.210 nos. 6, 8, 12 & 11 (José)
Ginastera – Danza de la moza donosa (José)
Fauré – Berceuse from ‘Dolly Suite’ (duet)

Programme notes 8 July

Listen to the entire programme here

‘Eastern Accents’ at the South London Concert Series

The final concert in the South London Concert Series Spring 2014 season has a special accent on music from Russia and the east, and features guest artist Australian-Armenian pianist Vatche Jambazian in music by Galina Ustvolskaya (a pupil of Shostakovich), Mozart’s popular Fantasia in D minor, and a selection of Preludes & Fugues from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 87. Supporting artists Jose-Luis Gutierrez Sacristan, Lorraine Liyanage (SLCS co-founder), Alex Ewen (violin) and Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist & SLCS co-founder) will perform works by Granados, Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninoff, Khatchaturian, Auerbach, de Falla and Takemitsu. This promises to be an exciting and eclectic evening of music, held in one of London’s most beautiful and intimate small venues, the 1901 Arts Club, close to London’s Waterloo Station. The elegant bar and sitting room at the club will be open before and after the concert for the exclusive use of ticket holders, and guests are invited to join the performers afterwards for drinks and socialising.

“A wonderfully creative idea”
Peter Donohoe, internationally-acclaimed concert pianist

Tickets are on sale now: http://www.wegottickets.com/event/252495

“Events blend an appreciation of fine music and music making with conviviality, and blur the artificial distinctions between professional and amateur.” James Lisney, concert pianist

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An evening concert at Brunswick House

A stag with an impressive set of antlers surveys the room, while a white-tuxedo’d Tony Curtis keeps watch over the proceedings from his niche in a corner near the piano, a John Hopkinson baby grand with a rosewood case. Glittering chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating the exposed brickwork on two walls of the room and highlighting the colours of the stained glass panels in the elegant sash windows. Exotic oriental rugs are draped over vintage British Rail first class seats, and at the back of the room, a glass cabinet is filled with antique pharmacy jars. Welcome to Brunswick House, part of the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co, a Georgian mansion just five minutes from London’s Vauxhall Station, flanked by the brand new 5-star hotel and luxury apartments of One Nine Elms. Brunswick House is a treasure trove of antiques and salvaged curiosities, and on Thursday night last week, it provided a wonderful and eclectic venue for a fine evening of music making and conviviality.

IMG_2438
Lorraine Banning, Frances Wilson & Lorraine Liyanage (and Tony Curtis) at Brunswick House

“A superb evening – huge fun was had with a mix of musical genres in a delightfully decrepit and stylish Georgian mansion. Best of luck promoting these salon recitals, the way music is meant to be played and heard.”

Rosalind, audience member

The concert was part of the South London Concert Series, and featured a recital by BBC Music Magazine’s “rising star” Emmanuel Vass, together with supporting performances by three talented members of the London Piano Meetup Group, who despite not being “professional” pianists, played with equal poise, musical sensitivity and professionalism. The diverse programme matched the unusual setting, with music by Bach, Chopin, Turina, and Mozart together with Emmanuel’s own transcriptions of pop songs by Queen and The Prodigy. In keeping with the SLCS ethos of recreating the nineteenth-century musical salon, an hour of music was followed by much conversation and socialising in the ante-room next to the Saloon, and continued downstairs in the restaurant adjacent to the house.

“The South London Concert Series is both innovative and traditional. Events blend an appreciation of fine music and music making with conviviality, and blur the artificial distinctions between professional and amateur”

James Lisney, international concert pianist

The final SLCS concert of the 2013/14 season is on Friday 16th May at the 1901 Arts Club. Entitled ‘Eastern Accents’, the concert includes music from Russia and Japan, and features a performance by guest artist Vatche Jambazian. Further details/tickets here

View more photographs from the Brunswick House concert

A selection of videos from the concert:

www.slconcerts.co.uk

Reviving old repertoire

Returning to old repertoire can be extremely satisfying, and one often discovers new things about the music when returning to it after a break. I also recall all the reasons what I like about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place.

My teacher has cautioned me about reviving repertoire I learnt as a teenager. This is good advice, for despite a gap of over 30 years, all the impetuous errors of youth seem ingrained in the piece and the fingers, and undoing these problems can be nigh-on impossible. Against my teacher’s advice, however, I revived Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu for my ATCL Diploma in 2011, because I needed a “fast piece” in the programme. I had not touched the piece seriously for over 30 years, yet I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I could remember (it must be said that this is not a particularly difficult piece to memorise, being constructed from repeating patterns and motifs). But working from the old Editions Peters score I had as a teenager meant that all the errors were still there, as well as my then teacher’s annotations. In order to learn the piece carefully, I ditched the dog-eared score and purchased a new Henle urtext edition. In effect, I started again from scratch with the piece: I learnt new fingering schemes, thought carefully about the structure and atmosphere of the piece, and was delighted to have it described as “an assured and stylistically accurate performance” by the diploma examiner. Having taken the trouble to re-learn the work carefully, it is now very securely lodged in fingers and memory.

People often ask me whether it is “hard” to revive old repertoire. In general, I have to say I have found it relatively easy to return to previously-learnt repertoire, though this isn’t always the case (the ‘Toccata’ from Bach’s 6th Partita will take some careful work if I want to revive it). However, one can take steps to ensure that once learnt a piece can be revived and made ready for performance relatively quickly.

Lately, I have been enjoying revisiting some of Szymanowski’s Opus 50 Mazurkas, the first two of which I played for my ATCL recital. The pieces felt different without the pressure of an exam hanging over me, and I felt I was playing them in a freer way as a result. I am also working on Rachmaninov’s G minor Etude-Tableau (Opus 33, No. 8), for my debut in the South London Concert Series in May (the piece will be paired with Szymanowski’s Mazurka no. 1). It is a mark of how carefully I practised the piece in the first place that within an hour of practising earlier today, I felt it coming back together nicely. Of course there are elements that will need some careful, detailed work (the cadenza, for example), but overall, it is still in pretty good shape. Getting it “concert ready” should not take too long.

Professional pianists will have many pieces “in the fingers” which can be downloaded and made ready for performance in a matter of days. This may include 20 concertos or more, most of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, many of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, plus other pieces which are ‘standard’ repertoire: Mozart and Schubert sonatas, works by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, much of Debussy and Ravel etc., and popular ‘standards’ from the 20th Century repertoire by composers such as Messiaen, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, Berg, and Schoenberg. Careful learning and preparation mean that repertoire can be learnt, revived and kept going simultaneously. It is this kind of deep, thoughtful practise that is essential for ensuring repertoire remains in the fingers (and brain) even if one is not practising it every day.

Some thoughts on reviving repertoire successfully:

  • Recall what you liked about the pieces in the first place. What initially attracted you to the pieces? Rekindle your affection for the pieces when you revisit them
  • Don’t play through pieces at full tilt. Take time to play slowly and carefully.
  • Trust your practise skills. Be alert to issues as they arise and don’t allow frustration to creep in.
  • Look for new interpretative and expressive possibilities within the music. Try new interpretative angles and meaningful gestures.
  • Don’t hurry to bring the piece up to full tempo too quickly. Take time to practise slowly and carefully.
  • Schedule performance opportunities: there’s nothing better to motivate practise than a concert date or two in the diary.

CD review: Ronald Center, piano music

Ronald Center: Instrumental and Chamber Music 

Volume One:

Music for Solo Piano

Catalogue Number: TOCC0179
EAN: 5060113441799
Release Date: 2 September 2013

Christopher Guild, piano

Sometimes described as “the Scottish Bartok”, composer Ronald Center (1913-73) was born in Aberdeen, the youngest member of a musical family. Despite his active working life as a soloist, accompanist, organist and teacher, his music was somewhat overlooked during his lifetime and after his death, and the centenary of his birth was rather lost amid the furore of last year’s composer anniversaries of Britten, Wagner and Verdi.

Fellow Scotsman and pianist Christopher Guild is a crusader for the neglected Center, and makes a persuasive case for Center’s piano music in his new disc on the Toccata Classics label. There are intimations of the percussive spikiness of Prokofiev, the folk idioms and harmonies of Bartok, the simplicity of Poulenc, the wit and humour of Shostakovich, and the sensuality and stately parallel harmonies of Claude Debussy (in a work entitled ‘Hommage’ which is dedicated to Debussy). Hints of Scottish airs make intriguing appearances in the music, reminding us of the composer’s heritage. There are moments of haunting beauty and wistful lyricism, such as in the ‘Larghetto’, the middle movement of the ‘Sonatine’, the ‘Impromptu’, or the first of the Six Bagatelles. Meanwhile, the Piano Sonata opens with a sprightly Bartokian Allegro molto,

Alert to the musical and emotional cross-currents in the music, Guild offers a sensitive reading of these interesting and varied works that is insightful, colourful, brimming with rhythmic vitality, and meticulously presented on this high-quality recording. An excellent introduction to Ronald Center’s oeuvre.

Toccata Classics

Meet the Artist……Christopher Guild

Scriabin’s Preludes

Alexander Scriabin

This week I had the pleasure of a “house concert” at my home, during which the pianist Anthony Hewitt played Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 on my lovely antique Bechstein. This was an opportunity for Tony to put the programme before a small invited audience of friends ahead of public concerts and a recording. It was a very enjoyable evening of “music amongst friends”, enlivened by beautifully rich, textural and colourful playing.

Scriabin was following in a great tradition of prelude writing which stretches back to Bach, and beyond to the Renaissance, when musicians would use an improvisatory Praeludium (Prelude) as an opportunity to warm up fingers and check the instrument’s tuning and sound quality. Keyboard preludes began to appear in the 17th century as introductory works to keyboard suites. The duration of each prelude was at the discretion of the performer and the pieces retained their improvisatory qualities.

German composers began pairing preludes with fugues during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of course the most famous of these are Bach’s ’48’ from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which influenced many composers in the following centuries, most notably Fryderyk Chopin who based his 24 Preludes op 28 on Bach’s model, traversing all the major and minor keys. Chopin freed the Prelude from its previously introductory purpose, and transformed these short pieces into independent concert works, which are widely performed today, both in programmes and as encores, and remain amongst Chopin’s most popular and well-known pieces.

Other notable composers of Preludes were of course Debussy and Rachmaninov, as well as Olivier Messaien, whose Huit Preludes hark back to Debussy in atmosphere and titles, but also look forward to his later piano music in their colourful harmonies and unusual chords. Shostakovich followed both Bach’s and Chopin’s models by writing sets of Preludes and Fugues and Preludes, and Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53, and a set of Preludes and Fugues. It seems the genre is alive and well.

Scriabin wrote some 85 Preludes, and his Op 11 set (1896) follow Chopin’s in their organisation (cycling through all the major and minor keys) and even make direct reference to Chopin’s music. Indeed, such is their closeness to Chopin’s model in style, texture and harmonies, many could easily be mistaken for Chopin’s own music. Some appear to “borrow” directly from Chopin – one opens with the unmistakable motif of the Marche Funebre from Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata – while others seem more akin to Chopin’s Études in their technical challenges and sparkling passagework. The Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are sometimes called The Travel Preludes, though they were not explicitly a travelogue by the composer; rather examples of how his travels around Europe allowed him to absorb different musical styles. (It is easy to forget, given Russia’s turbulent history in the 20th century, that at the end of the 19th century, the country was a major player in western European culture.) These Opuses also demonstrate how rapidly Scriabin’s musical style was developing at that time. The later Preludes are more redolent of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and show the influence of French music in their sensuous colourful harmonies and lush textures. All share one distinct characteristic: they are, in true Prelude style, short works, some so fleeting they last barely a minute.

In our house concert, Tony presented the Opus 11 set in the first half of the concert, and the Opp 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the second. As my husband commented afterwards, what was so charming about this programme, was that one was able to enjoy a huge variety of music in one sitting, and the programme was sufficiently involved not to require any additional material, such as an Etude or other short work.

Anthony Hewitt performs Scriabin’s Preludes at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on Tuesday 18th March. Further details here. He will also be recording the complete Preludes of Scriabin, for release in 2015, the centenary of the composer’s death.

New year, new repertoire!

What better way to start a new year at the piano with some new repertoire? But where to start? Perhaps the greatest joy – and frustration – of being a pianist is the vast and wonderful repertoire available to us, from Baroque arabesques to über-contemporary fancies. One could spend a lifetime exploring the piano music of Beethoven or Chopin and still only scratch the surface. For many of us, our tastes are shaped from our earliest days at the piano, usually by our teachers, and they continue to form and develop as we learn and expand our musical horizons.

With such a vast repertoire available, it can be difficult to know where to start when selecting new music. For me, a constant source of inspiration is concerts. You hear it live, which gives a wonderful sense of the music – and don’t think that just because the pros are playing it, it must be impossible. Many concert pieces are not nearly as complicated as they may sound. The radio is also a useful source of ideas, as are music streaming services such as Spotify and LastFM, which offer recommendations based on your listening habits. Spotify has a particularly large archive of classical music, with some wonderful rarities, including recordings of both Rachmaninoff and Ravel (and others) playing their own piano music – wonderfully inspiring. YouTube is another good resource.

Recommendations from friends and colleagues can be very useful too. For example, a pianist friend of mine flagged up the recordings from the annual Rarities of Piano Music festival, which have proved a rich source of potential new repertoire for me. It is also interesting to explore lesser-known repertoire.

It’s important to keep variety and spice in what we choose to play, whether we are studying for exams and diplomas, preparing for a concert or competition, or simply playing for pleasure. If we grow bored of our repertoire, we can get lazy about it and silly errors and hard-to-erase mistakes can creep in. I always have quite a broad range of music “on the go” at any given time, and lately I have tended to focus on one or two quite challenging works (LRSM/FRSM standard), music that lies easily within my playing “comfort zone”, and some easy pieces (for example, Elgar’s Dream Children, which I enjoyed playing during the autumn and which found its way into a couple of concert programmes). I like to have wide chronological sweep too, and at the moment I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Bartok, Messiaen, Britten and Cage. I am also looking forward to tackling some piano music which has only just been written (Portraits for A Study by Jim Aitchison).

Even if you are busy with repertoire for an exam or Diploma, I think it is important to supplement your main learning with other pieces to guard against boredom (it is also a good idea to “rest” pieces on which you have been working for some time). Maybe consider some “lateral repertoire” – by which I mean, if you like the music of Chopin, for example, why not explore the piano music of fellow countryman, Karol Szymanowski? And if you like Debussy, and would like to try some later French piano music, how about Olivier Messiaen? His ‘Preludes’ (1929) show Debussyan influences and also look forward, in their harmonies and idioms, to his greatest piano work, the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus. These kind of musical explorations can often throw an interesting new light on existing repertoire and offer useful food for thought.
There is plenty of copyright-free music available on the internet, which can be downloaded and printed out, or saved on a tablet device. Always remain open to new ideas and inspirations, and you will enjoy a wealth of fabulous piano music.

Happy new year, and happy practising!

 

Copyright-free music online:

IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library

Piano Street