Guest post: Composers – but not as we know them

by Madelaine Jones

Say the name Balakirev to a musician and the first word to pass their lips will most probably be Islamey, the terrifyingly difficult Oriental Fantasy that the composer is most renowned for. Try Wagner, and Tristan and Isolde or Tannhäuser will closely follow suit. Dare to mutter the name Schoenberg, and horror at the thought of yet another piece of serialist, ‘plinky-plonky’ atonal music will turn them pale. And yet Balakirev has over 100 published works (and a great deal many more surviving manuscripts), Wagner wrote symphonies, piano sonatas and choral works as well as his operas, and Schoenberg didn’t write any atonal music at all until 1908, when he was 34 years old. It’s the same for almost any composer: we have a set handful of things that we most associate them with, and we mentally fill in the blanks from there, meaning that there is a whole catalogue’s worth of music that musicians don’t play, explore or programme because they simply don’t look beyond the obvious choices.

I decided last year that I was going try something a little different, so over the past 6 months, I have purposefully searched for some pieces I had never heard of before by (fairly) well-known composers and set out to learn them. As a result, I have had the pleasure of studying some fantastic pieces of music I would never have been exposed to had I not ventured a little off the traditional path. Here is a selection of pieces I’ve come across on my hunt for new repertoire:

Saint-Saëns: Mazurka in G minor, Op. 21

We all know Chopin was a prolific mazurka writer, but it turns out Saint-Saëns actually wrote a small handful of them too. Three separately published mazurkas written by Saint-Saëns exist, the earliest (the op. 21 in G minor) written in 1862, 13 years after Chopin’s death. The G minor Mazurka is full of cheekiness and wit, from the repeated ‘ping’ of the bass line to the waltz-like lyrical middle section. The whole thing sparkles with charm, and makes a great little character piece, or alternatively, the three in a set make an interesting item for any programme (the other two mazurkas, op. 24 and op. 66, are also both full of character and rhythmic intrigue). The link I’ve included is not necessarily the best recording of the work I’ve heard, but it’s a recording by Saint-Saëns himself, which I personally found remarkably interesting to listen to.

Balakirev: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor

As I mentioned earlier, we tend to know Balakirev for his Islamey and nothing else, but he was in fact a prolific writer for piano and a far greater figure in Russian music history than we frequently credit him for. After listening to a BBC podcast about Balakirev last year, I heard a short clip of the B Minor Scherzo and became determined to learn it, despite having to have the music shipped in from Russia (and finding only one recording on Amazon!). The piece was written in 1856, and juxtaposes a fierce, majestic opening with a beautifully poignant, lyrical middle section. Dainty filigree in the right hand is then followed again by rich, virulent chords, the calm of the middle succeeded by a drama and passion with a triumphant coda to finish. In my opinion, the piece easily rivals the famous Chopin Scherzos for its dramatic outbursts, twists and turns, though with a distinctly Russian feel to the harmony. Learning-wise, it’s not an easy piece: the octaves are an absolute killer (a struggle for anyone with small hands, definitely!) but it is well worth struggling through for the sake of learning such a wonderful piece of music.

Shostakovich: Aphorisms, Op. 13

While pianists probably know Shostakovich best for his Preludes and Fugues, a modern take on the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier, there are some delightful (yet slightly more experimental!) sets of pieces by Shostakovich out there. His Aphorisms, Op. 13, was written in 1927, and consists of 10 short ‘character’ pieces which are, interestingly, far more atonal that some of his later works. The work is kicked off with the Recitative, a contrapuntal yet lyrical introduction, with the set going on to include a Nocturne (in free-time, very improvisatory), an 8-bar Elegy, a Dance Of Death (the initially child-like tune mixed with the Dies Irae theme proves to be very macabre) and a Lullaby (surprisingly soothing despite the innovative choices of harmony). The set really shines a different light on Shostakovich, allowing us to see how his remarkable nature for innovation developed from his artistic experiments as a 21-year-old, and the set is a wonderful work to play, being both technically challenging and stretching the imagination with regard to interpreting the titles.

Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.

Twitter: @madelainemusic

2 Comments

  1. Thank you – I know exactly what you mean RE: the Bartok connection – lots of lovely rhythmic intrigue, isn’t there? Not quite as hypnotic in terms of repetition, but similar streaks of style at times. And the Schoenberg is something I hadn’t heard before – it’s simply wonderful! Sounds a bit like a richer Beethoven to me.

  2. Great post, and you’ve found some really interesting rarities! Those Shostakovich pieces are particularly intriguing and some remind me of Bartok (eg the Nocturne).

    As you mentioned there’s a great back catalogue of little-known Schoenberg including lots of early piano pieces. I came across his obscure but very sweet Weihnachtsmusic a few weeks ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR94CiqtFLs

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