Madonna and Child (Madonna Litta) by Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519

French composer, organist, ornithologist and devout Catholic Olivier Messiaen began his masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus in 1944, and the work was premiered in 1945 by Messiaen’s piano student and future wife, Yvonne Loriod. The French title roughly translates as ‘Twenty gazes/ contemplations on the infant Jesus’. The entire work is a meditation on the childhood of Jesus, and it utilises recurring “themes” or leitmotifs to highlight certain ideas, such as the Star, the Cross, and the Father.

Messiaen’s music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in the rhythms of ancient Greek and Hindu music) and draws inspiration from many sources, including Indonesian Gamelan music (which also interested and inspired Debussy), Japanese music, the landscape of Utah in the USA, and the legend of St Francis of Assisi. My own serious interest in Messiaen’s music began after I discovered he was a fellow synaesthete, who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia, and in certain scores he actually notated the colours, to help the conductor in interpretation, rather than to express exactly which colours the listener should experience. He also wrote descriptions of the colours of chords, ranging from the simple “gold and brown” to the highly complex “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant”. My own synaesthesia manifests itself in a similar way to Messiaen’s, though each synaesthete’s experience is of course unique and personal, and I find his concept of colour in music – in the sense of real colours, as opposed to shadings of dynamics and articulation – entirely understandable. Indeed, my own score of the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ (No. 4 of the Vingt Regards) is littered with notes about colour.

As I teenager, I visited the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris where Messiaen was organist (my mother had a penchant for visiting places with ‘artist associations’: the same trip to Paris included a fascinating tour of the studio of symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, and a pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery to see the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Fryderyk Chopin). As a pianist, I was for a long time fearful of attempting any of Messiaen’s music – indeed anything atonal (Schoenberg, Hindemith) I regarded with extreme trepidation – but I heard the ‘Regard de la Vierge’ played at a piano course I attended last year, and was very taken with it. Hearing the Quator pour le fin du temps (‘Quartet for the end of time’) at the Wigmore last winter (with Stephen Osborne on piano), a deeply arresting and emotional experience which left me in tears at the end of the concert, confirmed that this was a composer whose music I should explore.

Hearing a selection of his Preludes (1928/9) at a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall, I was struck by how close these pieces are to Debussy and Ravel, with their uncertain harmonies (chords chosen for timbre and colour rather than strict harmonic progression), and impressionistic titles, such as La Colombe (‘The Dove’) or Les sons impalpables du reve (‘The Impalpable Sounds of Dreams’). The Vingt Regards were composed some 15 years later, his compositional style had evolved a great deal, and by that time Messiaen had also experienced the full horror of the Second World War as a prisoner of war, after the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940. While his deeply-held faith undoubtedly informs this music, one does not have to be religious oneself to be affected by it. The sheer scale of it (20 movements, a work lasting around 2 hours), the sounds and images it suggests, it is music that expresses something far greater than us.

While each Regard is different, they are linked by the use of recurring motifs (Messiaen’s “themes” of all-embracing love, the Virgin, the Star, the Cross, God the Father), “flashes” (clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”), tolling bells and chimes, references to devotional texts, portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate, repeating chord progressions, and birdsong. While Messiaen is absolutely specific in his writing, there is room for individual interpretation and variation, and, for me, this links the pieces back to the earlier Preludes, and the impressionist writings of Debussy and Ravel.

Messiaen prefaced his masterpiece with a detailed commentary, and each Regard has its own short explanatory paragraph which offer fascinating insights into his very personal visual, devotional and compositional landscape for these pieces, as well as offering useful pointers for performance.

In the ‘Regard de la Vierge’, the Virgin Mary contemplates the infant Jesus with a simple tender lullaby which demonstrates affection and recognition. A contrasting middle section, with birdsong, “flashes”, tolling bells and portentous double octaves interrupts Mary’s devoted gaze, and is a reminder of Jesus’s fate. The naive rocking theme is then restated with bell-like notes in the upper registers, as an expression of Mary’s intimate motherly response and God’s love for humankind.

Pianist Stephen Osborne is an acclaimed Messiaen-player, but for me Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of the Vingt Regards is sublime, capturing the mysticism and magnitude of this great work.

Interestingly, while looking up something unrelated to Messiaen, I heard this track by Radiohead, Pyramid Song, which contains a piano riff which could easily have been lifted from one of the Vingt Regards.

Radiohead – Pyramid Song

Messiaen on Debussy and Colour

Regard de la Vierge, No. 4 of Vingt Regards, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

More on synaesthesia and music here

Say ‘Mazurka’ and most people will reply ‘Chopin’. Chopin wrote at least 69 pieces in this form: 45 published during his lifetime, 13 published posthumously, and a further 11, which are known but where the mss are in private hands or untraced. He took the rough Polish peasant dance and refined it, as he did with the Waltz and the Polonaise (also of Polish origin), elevating it to drawing room “art music”. His Mazurkas remain perennially popular; some are much more famous than others and are performed regularly (for example, Op. 7, No. 1, Op. 17 (1-3), Op. 33 No. 2) . I first came across the genre when, in my late teens, I was a Saturday pianist for the local ballet school in Rickmansworth, where I would belt out bouncy Mazurkas on a rather ropey upright, and a group of little girls in pink tutus would prance about the studio before curtseying to ‘Miss Frances’ at the end of the lesson.

Chopin’s Mazurkas show great range and variety. Some are lively, full of rhythmic vitality, others more soulful and melancholy. They are some of Chopin’s freshest and most original works, yet all retain features of their folk origins. One the last Mazurkas, indeed one of his final works, Op. 68, No. 4 in f minor, is one of the most plaintive and heart-rending pieces Chopin ever wrote, suffused with zal, with striking, sliding chromaticism, and an interesting marking (Chopin’s own) after the Trio, senza fine, literally “without end”, suggesting that instead of a regular da capo al fine, the piece should go on indefinitely, or simply fade away to nothing.

The Mazurka, or mazurek, originated in the Polish region of Mazrovia, near Warsaw, a dance in triple time, with an emphasis on the second or third beat. The true folk origins of the Mazurka are two other Polish musical forms, the slow, plaintive Kujawiak and the fast, lively Oberek. The mazurek always has either a triplet, trill, dotted quaver pair, or an ordinary quaver pair before two crotchets. A closer reading of Chopin’s Mazurkas will reveal these different aspects of the Mazurka: for example, the Op. 68, No. 4 is a Kujawiak, while the much-loved Op. 7, No. 1, draws direct influence from the Oberek.

Typical Mazurka rhythm

Chopin’s composition of Mazurkas suggested new ideas of nationalism in music, and influenced and inspired other composers, mostly eastern European, to support their national music. Franz Liszt was a big mover and shaker in this respect, claiming (somewhat inaccurately) that Chopin had been directly influenced by Polish national music. What is more likely is that Chopin heard national music of his homeland when he was growing up. When he left Poland, never to return because of the political climate, the Mazurka and the Polonaise became central genres in his compositional output, allowing him to retain a connection to his homeland.

Karol Syzmanowski

Fellow countryman, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) wrote two sets of Mazurkas, Opus 50 and 62 (22 works in total). He drew musical influences from Chopin, but also from Wagner, Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel and nationalists Smetana and Bartok. I discovered Szymanowski’s music, in particular the Etudes for piano, after a friend said “If you love Chopin, you’ll like Szymanowski”. They were right. However, listen to his Masques or Metopes, and you could easily mistake him for Debussy or Ravel, with their misty, uncertain harmonies, flutters and shimmers of sound, and ambigous keys.

Szymanowski travelled extensively, and from the 1920s, he spent a great deal of time at the resort of Zakopane, in the Tatra highlands of Poland, where he discovered the local folk music or Górale. With its typical rustic fiddles and flutes, drone basses and pedal points, this became the template for his own music. Like Chopin, he was loyal to the idea of musical nationalism, but neither was he intimidated by it. So, while retaining many of the traditional features of the Mazurka in all its forms (Oberek, Kujawiak and Mazurek), he also extended it beyond the strict 4-phrase dance measure. As a result, Szymanowski’s Mazurkas defy the traditional symmetry of the dance, and instead expand and contract. The longest are just over three minutes long, the shortest just under two. Some are wistful, plaintive and meditative, others bounce and leap, some are witty and acidic, other are just rough and noisy. Within each one, tempos contract and expand, and one might find a slow Kujawiak-inspired passage right next to a section which is pure Oberek. It is these clever juxtapositions which give Szymanowski’s Mazurkas such life and piquancy.

I am including the first two of the Opus 50 Mazurkas in my Diploma programme. The first, a Kujawiak, opens with a plaintive descending figure, redolent of a rustic violin or shepherd’s flute, with a bagpipe-like drone on an open fifth in the left hand, before the introduction of distinctly Debussyan chords at bar 3. The opening melody is then repeated and embellished. The marking ‘molto rubato’ suggests plenty of freedom in the tempo here (while, of course, retaining an underlying sense of pulse), which adds to the wistful nature of this section. The organisation of material here suggests the typical Górale ensemble of first and second violins, and bass. The music then moves into more familiar Mazurka territory, with a repeated drone bass in the left hand and two strands of melody in the right hand, a hint of Górale polyphonic writing. At bar 25 a very characteristic Mazurka rhythm is introduced, repeated in octaves at bar 29, but marked ‘pp dolciss.’ (very soft and sweetly), which suggests a reminiscence, rather than a straight repeat. And this is what I love about these pieces – the way the composer takes distinctive elements of the form and then tweaks them to give subtle hints and nuances, as if the melody were heard from afar.

Interestingly, there is no full double bar between the first and the fourth of the Opus 50, which suggests all four should be played straight through, without a break, and I like to segue straight into the second from the first. The second is much more characteristic of Górale folk music, with off-beat drones, asymmetric phrasing, dissonance, falling melody, abrupt dynamic shifts, voice-crossing between the parts, and bouncy Oberek-inspired repeating rhythmic motifs. However, at bar 53, there is a section drawn directly from the Kujawiak, a plaintive, melancholy dance strongly redolent of Chopin’s f minor Mazurka, Op. 68, No.4. This is fleeting: the Oberek is restated, and once again the music sets off on a lively, astringent strut. But at bar 95, there is another ‘reminiscence’, in a section marked ‘sostenuto’. The opening melody reappears, shared between the hands and rising in pitch, while fading to pianissimo, before an emphatic, sfzorzando and accented closing chord.

Of all the Opus 50 Mazurkas, the first is probably the most popular for many pianists, including Artur Rubenstein, to whom it was dedicated.

(Links open in Spotify)

Vladimir Ashkenazy – Chopin: Mazurka No.1 in F sharp minor Op.6 No.1

Vladimir Ashkenazy – Chopin: Mazurka No.3 in E Op.6 No.3

Vladimir Ashkenazy – Chopin: Mazurka No.5 in B flat Op.7 No.1

Piotr Anderszewski – Szymanowski: 3 Masques, Op.34: Scheherazade/Shéhérazade (lento assai, languido)

Marc-André Hamelin plays Szymanowski’s Mazurkas Op. 50 Nos. 1 and 2

technique |tekˈnēk|
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something

Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintended, have their effect on the sound you produce

Alan Fraser

Technique lies at the foundation of piano playing, and good technique can serve the beginner student right through to advanced level. However, it should never be the “be all and end all”. Rather, it should serve the music – to create when required, for example, the lightest staccato, the most cantabile melodic line, a bubbling Alberti bass, sprightly trills and tremolandos, the most fluid legato.

Pianists are often praised for having “fine technique” or “superb technique”: this can range from obvious things such as physical agility/velocity and stamina to more esoteric, “hidden” aspects such as arm weight, wrist rotation, and alignment. These days, with the prevalence amongst mostly oriental generic pianists for putting technique above all else, piano “technique” has come to mean sheer physical capability, speed and sound production (usually too loud!) without a true understanding of how a particular technique specifically relates to the music, and the effects the composer is asking for.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is staccato, of which there are different kinds:

  • Arm staccato gives equal measure to each note and is particularly useful for a crisp, short or bouncy sound. Involve the forearm and keep the wrist soft. Avoid pure wrist staccato as this pulls up the fingers and creates tension. Aim for a free drop of the arm and then bounce off the keyboard on the rebound.
  • Jeu Perlé literally “pearly playing”, this is particularly useful for semi-quaver passage work in Mozart and the like, also in Debussy, where such passages should be played quickly, lightly and clearly, and where too much obvious articulation would create dryness. It is a type of staccato playing that creates the tiniest sense of separation between each note (like the knots between the pearls in a necklace), and requires small movements and a close attack. Play the note and let it bounce up at you – i.e. do not pick the fingers up.
  • Finger staccato/flicking staccato Possibly the hardest staccato technique to perfect, this requires the fingers to flick off the keys and back towards the palm of the hand. Beware of tension in the hand and wrist when practising this technique, and employ the alignment of arm and wrists to fingers. To play repeated notes with finger staccato, practice using different fingers (say 1,2,3,4) but allowing the wrist and arm to take the fingers into position with a “polishing” movement in the wrist (I imagine there is a tiny pencil under my wrist, drawing an ellipse shape).

A pianist who has done their homework, and has fully studied, understood and absorbed the composer’s intentions and instructions in the score, will know what kind of staccato technique to employ for a particular section or passage.

When starting out with any new aspect of technique, whether teaching it or doing it for yourself, it helps to enlarge the movement. Thus, when I am teaching rotary movement, I get the student to make the movement in a broad brush away from the piano. I like to use the image of windscreen wipers for this – a visual cue which children find particularly easy to understand. Also, one is trying to suggest an ‘outwards-inwards’ movement rather than the reverse. Never attempt to teach a technique you have not learnt and understood yourself first.

Don’t practice technique in isolation, but rather understand how it should be employed in your music and then make a technical exercise out of a small passage or section from that music. Doing exercises like those by Czerny or Hanon are, in my view, less worthwhile than a technical exercise you have devised yourself to practice a particular aspect of your repertoire; it is also more interesting! Having said that, I have found Brahms’s ’51 Piano Exercises’ helpful, and also tuneful to play.

On Saturday 22nd October, it is Franz (Ferenc) Liszt’s birthday. So here’s a small selection of ‘Liszt links’, pictures, music, film and other ephemera, some serious, some not, to celebrate his bicentenary.

Please feel free to comment and/or contribute more ‘Liszt Links’

Notes from a Pianist – Throughout Liszt’s bicentenary year, pianist Christine Stevenson has been blogging about Liszt in a series of delightful, thoughtful and quirky posts.

From The Musician’s Way Blog – Franz Liszt: Self-Made Musician

Liszt’s favourite pudding, as noted in Alan Walker’s biography The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847

Visit the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, near Guildford, Surrey (UK) and see an 1845 Erard, autographed by Liszt’s great rival Thalberg. And many other wonderful pianos and early keyboard instruments with “composer associations”.

Liszt's Bosendorfer piano at the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest

Website of the Liszt Museum, Budapest

Stories from a Book of Liszts, a novel by John Spurling (with accompanying CD)

A close-up tour around the Liszt Apartment in the Budapest Museum

Read journalist Jessica Duchen’s intelligent article in Standpoint magazine

Wilhelm Kempff playing ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de Pèlerinage, 2ème année: Italie, the first piece by Liszt I learnt seriously. (Link opens to Spotify). And here’s a YouTube clip of Marc-André Hamelin playing the same Sonetto


Cartoon of Liszt in concert, with ladies swooning before him

Martha Argerich plays ‘Funerailles’

And Louis Kentner plays the ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude’