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.
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.
Here is a beautifully written, informative and informed post about Debussy’s first book of Images, by pianist Christine Stevenson.
Christine is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth by exploring an A to Z of Debussy’s piano music in a series of blog posts. I am working on Hommage à Rameau as part of my LTCL Diploma programme, and I found Christine’s notes on this piece particularly helpful and well-expressed.
When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.
Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.
So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):
Bach – “counterpoint”
how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.
Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”
to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal
Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”
an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm
Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”
Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar
Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing
Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”
Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!
Several of my students have been learning and enjoying this well-known piece by the Penguin Café Orchestra, and so I thought it might be helpful to have some background.
The Penguin Café Orchestra (PCO) was a collective of musicians, founded by Simon Jeffes in the 1970s. It is hard to categorise their music, but it combines elements of exuberant folk music, and the minimalist music of composers such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. The music also contains references to South American and African music, and uses a variety of instruments including strings, pianos, harmoniums, slide guitars, cuatros, kalimbas, experimental sound loops, mathematical notations and more. A number of their works are very familiar as they have been used in film, tv and advertising.
Perpetuum Mobile is one of PCO’s most famous pieces, and comes from their fifth album, ‘Signs of Life’ (1987). The title is Latin for “perpetual motion” (or continuous motion) and in music it refers to two things:
pieces or parts of pieces of music characterised by a continuous steady stream of notes, usually at a rapid speed
whole pieces, or large parts of pieces, which are to be played repeatedly, often an indefinite number of times.
In both cases, there should be no interruption in the ‘motion’ of the music. Examples from classical music include the presto finale of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. Marked “sotto voce e legato” (literally “under the breath and smoothly”), the entire movement is a musical stream of consciousness of unremitting parallel octaves, with unvarying tempo and dynamics, and not a single rest or chord until the final bars. The difficulty for the pianist, aside from keeping the triplets absolutely equal and even throughout, is the sotto voce (a fairly common marking in Chopin’s music) which suggests a muted sound. Careful pedalling will, in part, create the desired effect but the sound should never become woolly or muddy: we want to hear every single note. This movement has a strange and mysterious cast: Arthur Rubenstein remarked that the fourth movement is like the “wind howling around the gravestones”, and a pianist colleague of mine described performing it as “horrible – like having your entrails picked over on stage”. Interestingly, Chopin himself said of the movement: “The left hand unisono with the right hand are gossiping after the [Funeral] March” (source: James Huneker in his introduction to the Mikuli edition of the Sonatas). Played well it is inscrutable and brief; played badly and it’s just a muddle.
Here is Ivo Pogorelich, with a good view of his hands at work
Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat is another perpetuum mobile, at least in the outer sections (the middle section of the piece is a rough gypsy waltz), which, like the example by Chopin, is built from almost continuous triplets in swirling, tumbling scalic figures which never quite break free from the secure tether of the bass line. The difficulty in this piece, as in the Chopin, is keeping the triplets even, though with some give-and-take/rubato and dynamic shading to add interest: unlike the Chopin, there is prettiness and charm in this piece, and the dance rhythm of the bass line should be highlighted too. My problem when I was learning this piece (or rather relearning – I first encountered it in my teens) was lifting the fingers too high, which produced a chunky, “notey” sound and interrupted the flow of the music. It also made my arm tense. I taught myself to keep the fingers curled into the keys and to start with a slightly higher hand position: the result was a pleasing “trickling” effect in the long scalic runs, and the piece was far less tiring to play.
Pedalling is another issue in this piece, and I had a long discussion with a colleague about this, who kindly heard my Diploma programme ahead of the exam. In the end, I compromised on 1/8 pedal: like the Chopin Sonata, you don’t want a muddy sound (and I’ve heard plenty of live and recorded performances of this work with some very sloppy pedalling!). The beauty of this music, in my opinion, is the clarity of the writing, and the elegant song lines which are subtly embedded in the triplet figures. Careless or over-pedalling won’t highlight these interior elements to the listener.
A further danger of this piece is getting so caught up in the perpetual motion of it that you forget to breathe! This may sound daft, but I can confirm that in my Diploma recital, I probably played the restatement of the opening section on one breath. And in rehearsal one afternoon, my page turner was so absorbed in the music, he forgot to turn over the pages for me!
Perhaps the most famous example of a musical perpetuum mobile is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, an orchestral interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This popular work, often performed as an virtuosic encore, consists of nearly uninterrupted runs of chromatic semiquavers, with leitmotifs (Givdon’s themes) from the opera. It is not so much the pitch or range of notes that present the challenge, but the sheer speed of it and the musician’s ability to move quickly around the notes.
Other famous perpetuum mobiles from classical music include Debussy’s ‘Mouvement’ for piano (from the first book of Images), and Francis Poulenc’s Trois Mouvements perpétuels.
PCO’s Perpetuum Mobile is built on a simple repetitive melody which is put through several harmonic and textural changes, building in grandeur as it goes. The repetitions of the melody make it a hypnotic piece, but the changes prevent it from being boring. Instead, the accumulation of elements and orchestration make this an energetic and exciting piece to listen to, and to play.
A friend of mine has adapted the music for easy piano (Grade 2-3 level), and although simplified, the music retains key features from the original, including the harmonic and textural changes. After the introduction, the main melody is introduced and repeated in the right hand before the left hand joins in with a progression of stern chords in open 5ths and octaves. Further along in the score, and both hands play the melody unison, reflecting the string articulation in the original. The two-bar melody, which is scored in 7/8 and 4/4, contains an octave leap which might be tricky for smaller hands. However, this also offers a great opportunity to practice ‘rotary motion’: I get students to practice the second, 4/4, part of the melody first, as the smaller stretches make rotary movement easier to grasp.
Before playing a single note on the piano, we practice rotary motion above the keyboard, or even away from the keyboard. Many teachers and tutor books describe rotary as “turning a doorknob” (an old-fashioned round doorknob, obviously) or turning cooker knobs. But my teacher and I decided the movement was more like the windscreen wipers of a car: it’s an “out-in” movement rather than “in-out”. To practice it at the piano, start in a 5-1 position, G-C (either Middle C position or an octave higher, if more comfortable), and place the hand in a “karate chop” position on the G with the fifth finger. Allow the hand to “flop” onto C with the thumb, and repeat. Encourage the student to watch the movement of the wrist: if the wrist isn’t moving, it ain’t rotating! Speed the movement up so that the student understands that it is the rolling (“rotary”) movement of the wrist that makes the sound, rather than the fingers. Keep the wrist and hand flexible and soft throughout: this will also help achieve a good tone.
Everyone I’ve taught this piece to wants to play it fast, but to try and play it up to tempo before you have practised rotary motion and grown comfortable with it will lead to tension in the hand and possibly pain. Keep the tempo sensible and perfect the rotary motion and good legato-playing before cranking it up. Meanwhile, enjoy experimenting with different dynamic levels for dramatic effect. The unison section should be light, nimble and nicely articulated to achieve the effect of the strings from the original.
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