by James MacMillan

I was in London this week working with a group of young composers ( This has been a marvellous new initiative over the last few years from the education and outreach department of the London Symphony Orchestra. Basically, six young new composers are chosen every year to compose a short work for the orchestra. They are mentored through the year by the composer Colin Matthews. They regularly meet the players, some of whom give specialist workshops and instruction. I have seen and heard sessions on writing for viola, harp, percussion etc. The class also attend many orchestral rehearsals and concerts throughout the year too. They get to know the players.

Last year Colin had a sabbatical so I was asked to step in and do the mentoring. I met the young composers on various occasions to see how the music was developing and to discuss progress, touching on practical, technical, stylistic and aesthetical questions.

This year, was Colin was back, and I was asked to conduct the final workshop. This is open to the public and takes place at the wonderful St Luke Centre, the LSO’s new base near the Barbican. It was a fascinating insight into the new generation of composers. Most were British this year, but there was also a German and a Korean. Last year some of the composers came from Canada, South Africa and Armenia.

There is no single style or approach discernible, but I have noticed that they are not afraid of writing fast music! It may seem strange to say this, but 30 years ago when I was their age, many of us found it difficult to write fast music. The general pulse was slow, but each beat seemed to be filled with frantic activity. I think we thought it was old-fashioned to write fast music, and the connections between rhythm and harmony seemed broken so long ago that we felt lost as to whether music should have ‘direction’ and ‘aim.’

Not so nowadays with the young. Some felt that the reason for this might have been the influence of minimalism over the last three decades, or perhaps the openness to popular culture. There is certainly less self-consciousness now with harmony and a sense of drama, which may have been off-bounds for composers in the previous generation, more in thrall to the ideological experiments of ‘modernism’.

Anyway, it was intriguing to hear the contributions on all of this from the composers, the players and those who turned up to hear the works being rehearsed and dissected. The place was full of composers! Many were from the London colleges who may have been friends and associates of the chosen group. Their teachers were present, including Julian Anderson and Simon Bainbridge.

I know that this kind of project is taking off all over the country. It helps young composers immensely, and introduces others to the kind of thinking that goes on in the minds of musical creators today. Long may it continue.

© James MacMillan

James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan’s website

London Symphony Ochestra website

Who was the busiest conductor in 2011? Who was the most performer composer? How is opera faring, despite the high price of tickets? What were the most performed works in 2011? Find out the answers to these questions – and lots more – on Bachtrack’s Concert and Opera League Tables

© Wikipedia

2012 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude-Achille Debussy (22 August 1862–25 March 1918), and, all being well, there will be plenty of performances of his fabulous music to celebrate the occasion.

2011 was of course Franz Liszt’s year, but despite many fine performances to mark the occasion (a couple of which I was fortunate enough to attend – reviews here and here), I suspect the case for Liszt still needs pleading (not something Debussy need worry about, given the perennial popularity of his music). Much of Liszt’s music remains obscure or impenetrable, or simply totally ‘over the top’ to many listeners and performers, and a common misconception remains that much of his music is unplayable, except by top flight virtuosi.

Not so the music of Debussy, which is accessible and generally easy on the ear, and which can be enjoyed by the proficient amateur as well as the professional musician. I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard Debussy’s music: I suspect it may have been a recording of La Mer, a richly evocative piece completed in 1905, after the composer enjoyed a stay at the English seaside resort of Eastbourne. The first piano piece by Debussy I learnt was a simplified version of the languorous Prélude ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (‘the girl with the flaxen hair’); my father and I also played a clarinet and piano version of this, and later I learnt the original piano version. In my teens, I learnt another of the Préludes, ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (‘the submerged cathedral’), in which the composer evokes the ancient Breton legend of the cathedral of Ys, which was said to rise from the waves, with its bells tolling, priests chanting, and the organ playing. Subsequently, I’ve dabbled with other Préludes, some of Children’s Corner, and the first two movements of the suite Pour le Piano. This year I’ll be learning more, probably the Hommage à Rameau, more Préludes, and the Valse Romantique.

Together with Maurice Ravel, Debussy is considered to be one of the most prominent figures in the “impressionistic” movement, though he himself disliked the term intensely when applied to his compositions. It is too sweeping a term, making a strong connection with Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet (the Dover editions of Debussy’s piano music have reproductions of paintings by Monet on their covers), and suggesting that Debussy’s music is all about blurred edges and misty harmonies. In a letter from 1908, Debussy described his music as being “an effect of reality”. His musical influences and style are far wider, and his early music demonstrates his interest in the Symbolist movement of art and literature with its dreamy, often morbid romanticism. Already, he was experimenting with harmonic colour, the use of whole-tone scales, and a move away from strictly classical forms of musical construction towards music with a single, continuous theme.

At times, he seems the natural heir to Chopin, with his sensitive approach to melody, filigree passagework and articulation, and fioriture, and his music bridges the gap between the Romantic period and the twentieth-century. In other works, he looks back to ancient music such as Gregorian chant, or East to Javanese gamelan music. In Pour le Piano, he makes direct reference to his French Baroque antecedents in both the organisation and style of the material. His two books of Préludes are related to Bach’s and Chopin’s, but they are impressionistic tone poems, their titles suggesting literary or artistic stimuli. Each is complete within its itself, but by including the title at the end of the piece, Debussy implied a “story” within the music. Meanwhile, his Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is a revolutionary work, both in style and execution, perhaps the first piece of truly ‘modern’ music, and demonstrating the key features of his music: uncertain or parallel harmonies, unprepared modulations which lack a harmonic ‘bridge’, the use of harmony and chord progressions for colour and timbre, and the use of whole-tone and pentatonic scales.

Debussy is regarded as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. His use of harmony had a direct influence on composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Boulez, as well as the minimalist composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Toru Takemitsu, and jazz musicians including George Gershwin, Bill Evans and George Shearing.

Today, in performance, his piano music in particular seems to “suffer” occasionally from too impressionistic a reading: there is a misconception that all his music is dreamy, fluid and gentle. It was, compared to the style prevailing at the time of its composition, but we have almost gone too far now. In any event, I am sure we can look forward to plenty of varied performances this year.

I expect everyone has their favourite works by Debussy. I list a handful of my own here:

La plus que Lente (literally “as slow as can be”). A decadent, tender and languorous cocktail waltz, full of subtle ambiguities and sly ironies.

Pascal Rogé – La Plus Que Lente

‘Voiles’ (from Préludes Book 1). More eroticism in a piece employing whole-tone and pentatonic scales to great effect, suggesting both veils and sails

Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 2. Voiles

‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’

Nelson Freire – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin

‘La cathedréle engloutie’

Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: Préludes – Book 1 – 10. La cathédrale engloutie

Pour le Piano – there is a pleasing stridency and uprightness in Gilels’ performance, even in the ‘Sarabande’

Hommage à Rameau – another work which harks back to the Baroque, but which shares some of the decadent languor of La plus que lente

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Debussy : Images Set 1 : II Hommage a Rameau


Emmanuel Pahud – Syrinx

Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor

Janine Jansen – Debussy: Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor – 1. Allegro vivo

Further reading/resources:

Images: the Piano Music of Claude Debussy – Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press)

The Piano Works of Claude Debussy – E. Robert Schmitz (Dover Publications)

Debussy at the Piano – interesting website with accounts describing Debussy as a pianist. Some useful insights into his playing style and how he wanted his piano music to be played.

Playing Debussy’s Piano Works – website by an amateur pianist with playing notes and analysis of many of Debussy’s piano music.

Notes from a Pianist – pianist and blogger Christine Stevenson will be writing about Debussy this year, following on from her journey through the music of Franz Liszt in 2011

Unveiling Debussy – an earlier blog post

Here are the ten posts which received the most traffic on this blog in 2011. Enjoy – and Happy New Year!

Describing music – in words and sound

Guest post: FLOW – Transforming Your Practice

Desert Island Discs

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Should You be Practising Right Now?

Music Apps for iPhone and iPad

Cross-Rhythms Without Fear

Maurizio Pollini plays Beethoven’s Last Sonatas

The Top 10 Classical Music Composers

Review: Mahan Esfahani Plays the Goldberg Variations

I’d love more guests posts in 2012. If you are interested in contributing to this blog, please contact me via the comments box on this post, or Facebook or Twitter (@crosseyedpiano).

Many thanks to all my readers.

In a blog post linked to his book The Musician’s Way, author Gerald Klickstein says that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – that it is very difficult to express in words the essence of music, though it is possible to discuss music in theoretical or academic terms, or to describe the skills and activities involved in making music.

Those of us who have had any formal music training will be familiar with the vocabulary, technical terms and explanatory words used when writing about music in an academic way:



Rondo form



Picardy third

Plagal cadence

Dominant seventh

Just a handful, and probably entirely familiar to all of us who studied music at least to A-level (high school) standard. These are all technical terms which tell us about the way music is constructed, and are standard terms when analysing music and describing it in an analytical way. But they don’t tell us much about the essence of the music.

When researching a book some years ago, I became fascinated by the ‘feel’ of piano music under the fingers and hands: what are the physical sensations of playing, say, the opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata or Debussy’s La Cathedrale engloutie? And what emotions are aroused in the performer as he/she plays such pieces? We should never play ‘cold’: even in practice we are – or should be – processing information all the time. How did that passage feel under the fingers? Was it awkward or comfortable? Did I like the sound I made there? What can I do to improve it? Sometimes, you know when you’ve nailed a particularly finger-twisting section when it suddenly flows with a wondrous synergy.

How do we describe that feeling to non-musicians, to the lay reader who simply wants an idea of a concert experience or performance in a review, or to the student who needs a simplified explanation of how to tackle a certain aspect of technique?

I encourage my students to think of descriptive words for the music they are studying. I was inspired to do this largely by the delightful and ever-expanding Musical Adjectives Project. Many students were quite inventive, proving that they had spent some time actually thinking about their music, and a lot of them felt the exercise had been very worthwhile. I fed the words into to create a word cloud – you can see the results here: I now regularly use this exercise in my teaching, and also when learning music myself.

In my music reviews, I’ve learnt to be both concise and descriptive, while avoiding unnecessary analysis or off-putting technical terminology. Most readers want a sense of what it was like to be there, the excitement of a concert experience that will encourage them to book tickets to see a particular performer. As a pianist myself, I know how a professional pianist has achieved a certain effect (ultra-light staccato, pristine passage work, sonorous chords) but I don’t think the average reader wants exhaustive explanations of arm weight! However, one technical term, ‘jeu perlé’, often used in relation to semi-quaver passages in Mozart, is perfect as it is also visual: imagine a pearl necklace, each pearl bead separated by a tiny knot. Well-executed jeu perle playing has a tiny ‘silence’ or ‘knot’ between each note and thus each sound is clearly defined.

I find myself using architectural or artistic words to describe the music I’ve heard in concert: arabesques, curlicues, filigree, arching, soaring, sweeping. Or more physical terms: bouncing, jogging, stamping, limping, dancing, throbbing, breathing, sobbing, hand-filling. Or weather: showering, thunderous, misty, dripping, rumbling, splashing.

We talk about ‘colour’ in music, often in relation to dynamics, from the most delicately nuanced pianissimo to bold fortissimos – and all the subtle shadings in between. Then there is light and dark – ‘chiaroscuro’ – bright, hazy, shimmering, veiled harmonies, tenebrous chords….

Sometimes we might describe a piece of music in relation to another: a passage of Debussy played with “a Mozartian clarity” (back to jeu perlé), Bachian arabesques, Schubertian melodies, Debussyan harmonies. Or we can use the sound of other instruments: brassy, fluting, string or woodwind articulation.

So, taken all together we have a rather fine vocabulary with which to write about music. Of course words can never recreate the exact sounds of a piece, and each listener’s and concert goer’s experience is highly personal and subjective, but if a review or description of a work excites you, moves you or gives the sensation of actually being there, then the writer has done a good job.

More on the Musical Adjectives Project here

Imagery. Emotion and Imagination – blog post by 3-D Piano




I’d love some more guest articles on this blog – on any aspect of pianism, piano teaching, performing or general musical musings. Please contact me if you would like to contribute.

There was an expectant hubbub of chatter, and some rather nervous laughter, when we arrived at Steinway Hall on Saturday for the first EPTA Piano Day, hosted by Scottish pianist and UK EPTA Chairman, Murray McLachlan. I met my friend Lorraine ahead of the event for strong coffee, and, in Lorraine’s case, a big breakfast, at a nearby Carluccio’s. Thus fortified, we walked the short distance from St Christopher’s Place to the hallowed ground that is Steinway & Sons London showroom on Marylebone Lane.

Like many an aspiring pianist, I have pressed my nose to the windows of the Steinway showroom ever since I can remember, marvelling, as a kid, at the big black shiny beasts squatting in the spotlit window displays. I’ve never, until now, had the chutzpah to go in and actually play one. My friend Michael, a fine amateur pianist with a penchant for Rachmaninov and Debussy, bought his Model B there a few years ago: apparently, the level of service was beyond superb. Well, so it should be if you are spending a cool £67,000 on what is, for some people, a glorified piece of sitting room furniture.

The piano - Steinway Model D

Behind the grand showroom, and the Steinway Hall of Fame, there is a small recital space, complete with a big black shiny Model D, a full-size concert grand. The event, the first, (hopefully of many) organised by EPTA, was open to EPTA members and their adult students, and was run in the form of a workshop, with verbal and written feedback on each individual performance by Murray McLachlan.

Although I have attended several courses at my teacher’s house, and performed in her house concerts, I had never participated in an event like this before, which would involve playing in front of 30 people I’d never met before. However, I regarded it as useful preparation for my performance Diploma – plus an opportunity to play a really fine piano.

The repertoire offered was quite varied, with, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good helping of Liszt, some Chopin Nocturnes, two of Schubert’s Opus 90 Impromptus, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata and his Rondo  ‘Rage Over a Lost penny’ (energetically played by my friend), Messiaen’s Prelude La Colombe (‘the Dove’) and my own piece, his Regard de la Vierge, from the ‘Vingts Regards de l’enfant Jésus’. The standard was generally advanced; thus, we all had great admiration for a woman who played a piece from her Grade 4 repertoire. As she told me afterwards, “I was determined to come, no matter. I just wanted to play this piece in front of other people.”. The atmosphere was supportive and sympathetic, and, as Murray kept saying, there was a strong sense of a real love for the instrument and its literature amongst the participants: we were all there because we love it!

Formerly a very reluctant performer, I have learnt the benefits of playing for other people. Interesting things can emerge from a performance and can offer a wholly new perspective on one’s music. Also, it is very important to put it “out there” and to offer it up for scrutiny before an audience. Performing also endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing. After a fairly rigorous morning the day before having my playing critiqued by a pianist friend, I was fairly clear about what I wanted to do with the Messiaen. It was therefore very cheering and encouraging to receive such positive feedback after my performance. Murray was extremely understanding, kind to those people whose nerves got the better of them, or those who stumbled. This was not a professional concert, after all, but rather a gathering of committed amateurs. It was a very enjoyable and encouraging day; my only criticism is that is was perhaps too long. The day finished with a performance of Liszt’s Italian Années de Pèlerinage by Angela Brownridge, but I did not stay for this as I had to get home – and Lorraine was playing in a competition.

Just before we left, we nipped into the Steinway Hall of Fame, and, like proper “piano tourists”, photographed each other at a Model D with a price tag of £115,000.

It was an excellent day of piano music, and I do hope EPTA will organise further events like this in the future.


Steinway & Sons

Some of the repertoire played (links open in Spotify):

Bach/Busoni – Chaconne in D Minor

Beethoven – Rondo a capriccio in G, Op.129 ‘Rage over a lost penny’

Schubert – Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90): Impromptu No. 1 in C minor. Allegro molto moderato

Chopin – Nocturne No.13 in C minor Op.48 No.1

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S.161 – 6. Sonetto del Petrarca no. 123 (Più lento)

Ravel – Sonatine: Modéré

Messiaen – 8 Préludes : I La colombe

The author playing Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge