Today BBC Radio Three began a week-long Schubert-fest, called ‘The Spirit of Schubert’, to mark the 215th anniversary of Franz Peter Schubert’s birth. The season will attempt to get inside the music and mind of the man in c200 hours of continuous broadcasting. Live concerts, discussions, requests, a ‘Schubert Salon’ and ‘Schubert Lab’, this will surely be a “must” for Schubert fans and anyone who wants to explore his music further.
His music remains perennially popular, from the sunny, holiday moods evoked in the ‘Trout’ Quintet, to the serene beauty of ‘Ave Maria’, through the symphonies and string quartets, to the late works for piano and the great song cycle ‘Winterreise’. His music spins the agony of his desire, yet at every turn he draws back from the void, and surprises us with warm melodic lines, striking harmonic shifts, rich textures, dances and songs. There is sunshine, as well as darkness, in Schubert’s music.
For me there does not have to be a specific anniversary or reason to play or listen to Schubert’s music. I have loved and lived with his music all my life: as a young child hearing my father play Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsem (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’) on the clarinet, my own LP of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, my first encounters with the ‘Impromptus’ for piano in my mid-teens, as a precocious, know-it-all student who could play the notes, but who understood little of where this music came from.
On my iPod I have a playlist called ‘Schubert Favourites’ – not some naff compilation torn from the front of ClassicFM magazine, but my own selection of my most favourite pieces of his music. One of my piano students, Ben, regularly asks me “Who’s your favourite composer, Fran?”, to which I always reply “Beethoven”(Beethoven is Ben’s favourite composer too!). I love Beethoven – for his wit and humour, his mercurial mood swings, and his sheer weirdness and unpredictably in his later works. But I love Schubert too, though I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why I love his music so much. Maybe because it encompasses so much: the grandeur of Beethoven, a swooning romance which looks forward to Liszt, and beyond, the tenderness of Chopin at his most introspective and intimate?
From my Schubert Favourites list (in no particular order):
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
Classical Musicians of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but other people’s prejudices that we are all stuffy, elitist and live in ivory towers.
Classical Revolution takes classical music out of its traditional home of the concert hall, and into bars, cafes, clubs and other unusual venues to allow audiences to engage with the music and the musicians in new and alternative ways.
It was started in San Francisco in 2006 and has migrated to some 25 cities across Europe and the USA. Classical Revolution London is curated by energetic and innovative violinist Simon Hewitt Jones (the Road to Jericho project, Musbook, Music Teacher Map). Classical Revolution encourages both “indie” classical musicians and more established professional performers to showcase their work, and offers “open mic” sessions to allow up and coming performers the opportunity to present their music as well as headline acts and “chamber music jam sessions”. The informal presentation allows the audience to connect more closely with the music and musicians, to chat informally over a drink, and the opportunity to play with the musicians in the Chamber Music Jam sessions.
I am a huge fan of this kind of “democratisation” of classical music, which makes it more accessible to a wider audience, and breaks down stereotypes about classical music and classical musicians. Come and get to know us – we are mostly harmless!
The first event, on 23rd March, takes place at The Red Hedgehog, an intimate arts venue in Highgate, north London, and features pianist Christine Stevenson, playing Liszt.
I’m flagging up this interesting project which a colleague of mine in the US (and contributor to this blog), Catherine Shefski, is undertaking this year, to learn and record one piece of piano music per week. As she says in the blurb to accompany her recordings on SoundCloud “Like many piano teachers, over the years my own piano playing has taken a back seat to teaching and all the administrative work that goes along with running a music studio. This year I’ve decided to change that. I am making a commitment to record and upload one piece each week. By setting these weekly deadlines, I’m hoping to overcome my tendency towards procrastination and perfectionism.”
I think Catherine’s comments probably chime with many piano teachers – that we don’t play enough as we focus more of our attention on teaching. If one runs a busy teaching studio, it can be hard to find the time to play oneself, and at the end of a long teaching session, one may not feel like sitting at the piano. However, I think it is crucially important for a teacher to play regularly, if possible. One should be constantly exploring new repertoire, and honing one’s techniques and skill-base. All useful in teaching, and to me, more useful than reading dry pedagogical texts and music theory away from the piano.
I admit I am very selfish about my piano playing: this is partly because having got one Diploma (with Distinction!) under my belt, I am now working towards the next one (LTCL). I learnt from my preparation for the first Diploma, that if I don’t put the hours in at the piano, I won’t be properly prepared – and preparedness is essential. On another level, I really really enjoy playing the piano. Even if I am working on some particularly knotty passages of Liszt or a finger-twisting Rachmaninov transcription of Bach, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from playing. I am rarely bored, because if there is nothing else to do, I will nearly always play the piano. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this – even a busy professional pianist has to love his or her job to do it well.
Take a look at Catherine’s accompanying blog to read more about the Go Play Project, and visit her SoundCloud to hear her pieces.
As for playing the piano, in the words of the slogan of a famous sportwear company – JUST DO IT!
I’ve always been fascinated by music written in unusual rhythms and metres. Right from earliest childhood I was very much a counter, an enthusiast of number, and one of my instinctive reactions to music is to count the beats. So I love those rare times when the beats don’t add up as you expect – in the usual twos, threes, fours, sixes, eights.
I think this fascination with number and desire for the dance to be unsquare is at the heart of it, and is something that divides both musicians and listeners, almost as if by brain-wiring. There are composers and songwriters for whom playing around with metre is the most natural thing in the world, and there are those who simply aren’t interested, and go on to write a lifetime of great music in 4/4.
And I think that cuts across all types of music. There have certainly been genres and periods in history when complexity with time was fashionable – psychedelia, prog rock and much of the twentieth century in classical music. But that experimentation is mostly about disruption, disorder, complexity, rather than actually setting down a regular rhythm in an unusual metre that is intended to be heard and felt. Though some 20th century composers like Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen really did have a taste and a talent for bold funky rhythmic eccentricity, it’s consistently been extremely rare – even in modern classical – to hear a proper tune in say 5, 7 or 11 beats.
In some ways it seems most surprising to find these strange metres in pop music, where we expect technical simplicity. But of course in every genre you find the whole range of human personality, just expressed in different ways. I’m interested in those occasional songs that break the mould and surprise us. We might hear them on the radio, in a shop, in a bar or club; we might even try to dance to them. We might be half-consciously puzzled, we might sort of feel something strange is going on, we might trip over our feet – or we might not even notice. As I said, I think receptiveness to this varies very much between individuals.
So I’ve listed ten songs that are all in one way or another metrically odd, dating from the sixties to the present day. Most of them I consider great songs. Several have had me counting furiously over the years, but having figured them out, I’m always left enjoying the slippery strangeness of their rock, bounce and swing.
This mysterious harpsichord-led ballad which reached no. 2 in the charts in 1982 is utterly unique and timeless. The introduction and interludes have a seven-beat off-waltz pattern that contributes to a potent sense of the surreal.
Originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967 but now probably better known in the darker version by Aretha Franklin, this song starts off straightforwardly but switches to a puzzling 11 beat pattern in the chorus.
1969 was apparently a difficult year for George: according to wikipedia, he was not only arrested for marijuana possession but also had his tonsils removed. But this song is incomparably sweet, and its unusual rhythms come from an interest in Indian music rather than any dark expression. Bridge passages are in 6/8 + 6/8 + 2/4, and the middle ‘eight’ repeats a twisty 4/4 + 7/8 + 11/8.
At the height of prog rock in 1973 quite a few bands were experimenting with time signatures, but this Roger Waters song is unusual for its strikingly bold bass riff in a very clear 7/4 rhythm. (I’ve always assumed this was the inspiration for the Are You Being Served? theme, but I’m not so sure after researching it today.)
This song from 1999 is one of many by Radiohead using an unconventional metre – others include ParanoidAndroid(Radiohead – Paranoid Android) (sections in 7/8), Pyramid Song, Morning Bell [Radiohead – Morning Bell](another very slippery 5/4), 2+2=5 (7/8), Go to Sleep, and 15 Step (a banging 5/4). It features a highly syncopated keyboard riff that divides five beats into slippery semiquaver patterns with a dark dissonant harmony.
More Beatles, this time from John Lennon in 1967, with the most famous piece of music ever written in septuple time. John had a habit of dropping and adding beats to mix up the rhythmic flow of his songs – Strawberry Fields Forever, Good Morning, Good Morning, Across the Universe – but in this case there’s a real 7/8 rhythm in the verse sections. This song could just as easily have been written in 4/4, and I wonder if it was a last minute decision to chop off the final half beat to increase the energy.
One of the fattest tunes ever written in quintuple time, this has a swagger and perhaps a hint of a broken tango. There’s an virile energy appropriate to its purpose that comes from having to stop and shake your head twice at the end of every bar.
Although dance music is all about rhythm, and the best producers have spent the last quarter century dividing up time with astonishing innovation and refinement, almost nothing departs from a fundamental 4/4. I guess the reason for this is simply mixing – DJs have to be able to blend one tracks into the next – as you don’t really need 4/4 to dance (at least I don’t). So the best I can find by way of ‘unusual’ metre in dance music is this 2000 track in 6/4 by Dave Lee aka Joey Negro aka Jakatta.
The play of twos and threes against each other is ubiquitous in dance, but American Dream is distinctive in what it does with this. Dance music typically ‘resolves’ rhythmically to phrases of 2, 4 or 8 four-beat bars (e.g. by having a 3 + 3 + 2 pattern). This doesn’t – it is fundamentally triple. I’d be interested to know if this affects how people respond to it on the dancefloor.
Back to the late sixties for one final tune in quintuple time. This is a folky example that uses the same 3+3+2+2 pattern as Mission Impossible. There’s a lot of folk music that plays around with metre, and it’s been hugely influential in classical music.
With music in five I often find myself wondering if it is basically 4/4 plus one, or triple time minus one. The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is definitely a disturbed waltz with a missing beat. A pure quintuple rhythm (if it is possible) would perhaps feel like neither of those things.
And finally, right up to the present day with this delicate harp-led track from Biophilia (2011). Many songs on the album use experimental rhythms (and experimental everything), and this one combines 4 and 5 beat bars into phrases of 17, inspired (in none-too-obvious ways) by lunar cycles.
“As the lukewarm hands of the gods
Came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls”
Does anyone have any other songs to add to the list?!
Tim is a mobile technology specialist living in London who also sings, dances and makes things. He has recently started a blog – mangofantasy.wordpress.com – which explores music, art and more through the prism of his life.
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on this day in 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. He left Poland when he was 20 and never returned. He settled in Paris for the rest of his life. His heart was returned to Poland when he died.
He is, dare I say it, one of the greatest composers for the piano ever, and he wrote some of the most arresting, absorbing, sublime and touching music for the instrument, music which has become part of the pianist’s standard repertoire and is regularly performed around the world by pianists amateur and professional. It is also some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, yet it is wonderful to play because, as a pianist himself, he knew what he was writing, so to speak.
The Nocturnes: as I said in an earlier post (Must Plays for Pianists), the Nocturnes are amongst his most exquisite miniatures for piano, and are some of the most charming and expressive pieces he wrote.
The Études, Opus 10 and 25: Chopin took the student study, a genre developed by earlier composers such as Clementi and Czerny, and elevated it to a concert piece while retaining the crucial attributes of the form – that it is intended to practice specific technique or techniques. There is huge variety of mood, texture, sound and technical difficulties throughout the two opuses; some are very famous, others less so. Here is Sokolov in one of my favourites, and the first Étude by Chopin I learnt:
The Mazurka and the Polonaise: peasant and folk music from his homeland, like the Études, Chopin elevated both forms into refined, drawing room music. He gave the Waltz the same treatment: these are not pieces to dance to, but to perform and enjoy, in the salon or at home, amongst friends. The Mazurka in F minor, Opus 68, No. 4 is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces Chopin wrote, with the ambiguous direction in the score regarding the repeat: ‘D.C. al segno senza fine‘. In effect, the keep repeating and eventually fade away to nothing). My teacher told me she “never teaches” this piece because it is so special. Here is Ashkenazy:
The ‘infamous’ Marche Funèbre from the B-flat minor Sonata. Much has been written and posited about this work, many commentators suggesting that Chopin wrote it with intimations of his own death in mind. In fact, it was composed some years before he conceived the Sonata, and he then included it in the work. Played well it is grandiose and soaring, its darkness offset by the trio with its beautiful cantabile melody.
The Ballades. Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)
Chopin and me:
Hearing English pianist John Lill play the B-flat minor Sonata on the Southbank, circa 1980. A highly emotional experience (Lill was in tears at the close of the work) and the first time I’d seen red roses thrown onto the stage at the end of a concert.
Visiting Chopin’s frugal accommodation at the monastery in Valldemossa, where Chopin and Sand spent their ill-starred holiday in 1838 (documented in Sand’s book A Winter in Majorca). The museum there contains some touching memorabilia – a lock of Chopin’s hair, letters and manuscripts.
Hearing Chopin’s music played on a piano which belonged to him when he visited England in 1848, held in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. The programme – the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Sonata in B minor. That same day, in the evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I heard Nelson Freire play the B minor sonata on a modern concert Steinway – the difference was extraordinary, yet it was clearly the same work.
Learning to play some of the Études, and feeling I had finally “arrived” as a pianist. This sense of having entered a rather exclusive “pianistic club” was enhanced further when my teacher suggested I should learn some of the Ballades and/or Scherzi.
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