Books on Music, Musical Books

Fiction:

‘Music and Silence’ – Rose Tremain

‘An Equal Music’ – Vikram Seth

‘Grace Notes’ – Bernard Mac Laverty

‘A Disturbance of the Inner Ear’ – Joyce Hackett

‘The Song of Names’ – Norman Lebrecht

‘The Concert Pianist’ – Conrad Williams

‘Longing’ – J D Landis (a novel recreating the extraordinary love affair between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck)

‘The Page Turner’ – David Leavitt

‘The Language of Others’ – Claire Morall

Non-fiction

‘Piano Notes’ – Charles Rosen

‘The Piano Shop on the Left Bank’ – T E Carhart

‘Grand Obsession’ – Perri Knize

‘With Your Own Two Hands’ – Seymour Bernstein

‘Notes from the Pianist’s Bench’ – Boris Berman

‘Piano’ – Louis Kentner

‘Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures’ – Noah Adams

‘A Musician’s Alphabet’ – Susan Tomes

‘Beyond the Notes’ – Susan Tomes

‘Chopin’s Funeral’ – Benita Eisler

‘Mozart and the Pianist’ – Michael Davidson

‘The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience’ – Kenneth Drake

‘Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson’ – Tricia Tunstall

‘The Inner Game of Music’ – Barry Green

‘Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations’ – Bruno Monsaingeon

Seeing Red. And green, and blue….

I picked up Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia at the library the other day. I remember reading several favourable reviews of it when it first came out, and thought I might like to read it, but feared it may be too scientific for my taste. However, having dipped into it over the course of an evening, I find him an engaging writer, whose numerous case studies offer some fascinating insights into music and the human brain.

The chapter which interested me the most, initially, was the one entitled ‘The Key of Clear Green: Music and Synesthesia’. I am a ‘synesthete’, and, like some of the case studies referred to in the chapter, see the musical keys as colours.

Synesthesia literally means “a fusion of the senses”, and was not, until quite recently (i.e. in the last 100-odd years), considered a physiological phenomenon. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a “condition” for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Oliver Sacks states that musical synesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic”. It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it.

As far as I can tell, I have always had it, and, until not that long ago, assumed that everyone else had it too. I regard it as something perfectly normal, and indeed, it came as something of a shock to discover that not everyone experienced a fusion of different senses as I do. For me, letters, numbers, days of the week and months of the year all have their own distinct colours (for e.g. two = blue, five = pink, Monday = red, Wednesday = greenish-blue, January = pale orange), while others are more obscure: murky hues and shades which almost defy description. These colour associations are unchanging and are not dependent on my mood or state of mind at the time of thinking of them.

The same is true of the musical keys, each one having its own distinct colour or ‘colour scheme’. Reading one of the case studies in Dr Sacks’ book, I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the people who contacted him experienced colours when thinking about the musical keys in exactly the same way as I do – though his colours were different to mine, which demonstrates it is very personal. The colours are also entirely inward and are never confused with external colours: for example, if I were to put D major (bright, sky blue) against a yellow background, I would continue to see it as blue, rather than green.

Here’s a selection of my ‘personal key colours’:

Major keys

C = Brick red

D = Sky blue

E = Orange

F = Mauve

G = Greenish with black

A = Red, brighter than C

B = Greenish-blue

E flat = Orange, but softer than E

A flat = Soft red

B flat = sea green

Interestingly, the enharmonic keys do not share the same colours, for they are all distinct (just as D flat major sounds different to C sharp major!):

C sharp major = Dark red

D flat major = Soft blue-green

F sharp major = purple-pink

G flat major = pale yellow-gold

The colours of the minor keys are always related to the major keys, but tend to be softer or more diffused hues.

Baroque and classical composers’ music seems to me, for the most part, to use a simpler palette than, say, the music of Schubert, Chopin and Schumann whose complex modulations and harmonic twists make greater demands on my synesthesia.

The opening movement of Schubert’s great, final sonata, the D960 in B-flat major, is, for me, a movement in sea-green and the colours of water. I see these colours when I hear the music, and when I play it, and it sits very well with my feelings about the music: that it suggests a great river, plotting its final course towards the sea. This metaphor, however, has nothing to do with my synesthesia, for the colours I see are not metaphors: they just are! And, incidentally, my colour schemes for the other movements are II: dark red and burgundy hues; III: yellow, fresh green, blue while the Scherzo changes to cooler colours; IV: cold greens and blues with occasional red patches.

In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Op 27/2, the colours shift with the harmonies, and thus, when the music is reharmonised into E major, I see strong orange hues replacing the deep, red-blacks of C sharp minor.

The word “chromatic” has taken on a fuller meaning for me while learning Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No. 3, for the chromatic passages in augmented 4ths in the stormy middle section of the piece are a riot of almost psychedelic colour as well as sound. Sadly, my synesthesia has not helped smooth the difficult path of learning this piece, but it does make it more interesting when I practise it! And by the way, this piece is mostly orange, green and red.

I have never found my condition peculiar or disabling in any way. Indeed, it positively enhances my experience of music, offering not just aural but also visual pleasures.

I would love to hear from any other musicians who experience music/sound in a similar way.

Composers who saw “key colours” include Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Messaien.

Unveiling Debussy

I have always loved the piano music of Claude Debussy, and my only regret is that I do not play more of it. As a teenager, La Cathedrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral) was my party piece, a ghostly, impressionistic evocation of the story of the drowned cathedral of Ys, full of spooky parallel harmonies, hints of Gregorian chant, rising and falling crescendos, and very high, delicate notes to represent water and light. Another favourite was the dreamy La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin (The Girl With the Flaxen Hair), which makes generous and gorgeous use of Aeolian harmony and the whole tone scale.

Close your eyes as you listen to Debussy and you see the misty, muted colours of Seurat and Monet, Vuillard and Pissarro. It is the “impressionistic” nature of his music which, I think, makes it so difficult to play well. It’s not just about processing the notes correctly, or observing very careful pedalling; it’s about creating mood and sensation – painting pictures with the music, if you will.

In a bid to learn more Debussy, I have selected Voiles as a starting point. This extraordinary piece, with its strange, nebulous harmonies, is, like a number of his other works, built almost entirely on the whole-tone scale. The title means both ‘sails’ and ‘veils’, and our imagination immediately links both definitions to the wind. Sails are visible means to capture the invisible – the wind. A veil hides a woman’s face and suggests purity. Another meaning of the word “veil” –  hidden or unclear emotions – is also suggested in this piece. Edgar Varese, who knew Debussy quite well, said that the piece was really about the dancer Louise Fuller who used diaphanous veils in her routine, which conjures up further, rather more erotic imagery.

The piece literally seems to float off the keyboard, the opening measures in double-thirds suggesting a clean, white sail capturing the wind, a gauzy curtain, of voile, billowing in the breeze, or a semi-transparent scarf caressing the skin. Debussy actually uses the word “caressant” (caressing) at the opening: I feel this refers to tempo, quality of sound, and touch. Even as the textures become a little thicker, there is still an amazing lightness to the music. There is an almost “drowsy” quality to it: this is not a strong breeze. Rather, it is faint, just felt, as tender as a lover’s touch.

I have only just started to learn this piece, and am “doing a Richter”, that is, following the pianist Sviatoslav Richter’s habit (so he claimed!) of learning a piece a page at a time. But already the piece has hooked me in, and I find myself thinking about it when not at the keyboard. I hear it in my head and find myself playing the opening measures on my knee, the arm of the sofa, the soft underbelly of my cat. The warm summer days which have returned, with an accompanying faint, soft breeze, seem the ideal backdrop for learning such a piece. It is also a near-perfect foil for the other pieces by Debussy I am looking at from Pour le Piano, the Prelude and the elegant Sarabande.

Listening to Schubert on the District Line

The elderly writer (author of two biographies of Pushkin’s contemporaries, Griboyedov and Lermontov) for whom I work on Mondays, gave me a CD of one of Imogen Cooper’s ‘Schubert Live’ recordings last week. He chose it, knowing my love (and practice) of piano music, especially that of Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven, and it is just one of many fine recordings he has either loaned or gifted me over the years of our acquaintance.

I never got to any of Imogen Cooper’s recent Schubert recitals on the Southbank, which, according to the reviews, were very fine. Much as I love live music, concert-going these days is proving to be something of a logistical nightmare because of my teaching schedule. Some of the best concerts I have missed this past year have been on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, both days when I teach too late for me to hop on a train to spend the evening at the Wigmore, Cadogan or QE Hall.

So, I was thrilled when Laurence produced the Imogen Cooper CD the other day, with a barked order to “listen to it and tell me what you think of it”. Clearly imagining that I spend the rest of my days, when not engaged in doing his correspondence and filing, lolling on the sofa drinking Lapsang Souchong and listening to Schubert et al, he rang me the very next morning to find out what I thought of it. I confessed I had not had a chance to listen to it.

It takes me just over an hour to commute from my home in SW London to Notting Hill where Laurence lives. That time is often spent reading or listening to music on my iPhone. For commuting, my favourite music tends to be some uplifting Handel songs and arias (sung by Ian Bostridge), a good helping of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the complete Haydn piano sonatas (played by Marc Andre Hamelin) or a mix called “Oddments” which includes pieces as diverse as John Adams’s China Gates, a Bach Sarabande, Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts or the Dvorak ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio (the connection is that all the pieces feature a piano!). Today, I forgot my book and instead spent the entire journey grazing the Imogen Cooper Schubert Live Vol 3 album. I say “grazing” because I admit I did not listen to everything – I wanted to be able to give Laurence my general impression of the album. I loved the twelve German dances which open it: here, in microcosm, are all Schubert’s shifting moods, from playful dancing through grandiose to plaintive and poignant. Even in these miniatures, Imogen Cooper makes every single note count, and every note seems thoughtfully and carefully placed. She demonstrates immaculate pedalling, especially in the D899 Impromptus, where even in the rapid, scalic, cascading No 2, every single note can be heard and valued. I did not listen to the D960 B flat sonata, but I have every confidence that this too is played with conviction, thought and meaning. It’s a wonderful album and I can thoroughly recommend it – almost as good as actually being there!

Imogen Cooper is an acknowledged fine Schubert-player, and also a one-time pupil of Brendel, arguably, also a fine Schubert-player. A few years ago, when interviewed on Radio 3 for the ‘At The Piano series’, she told an amusing anecdote about the first time she played for Brendel. She struck the first note (it may well have been of a Schubert sonata) and he immediately said “Stop! Do it again!”. This process was repeated at least twenty times, while he paced around the room behind her, considering what he had heard. Eventually, when he was satisfied, he allowed her to continue – but only to the next note. I sometimes quote this story to my students, when I am being particularly nit-picking and want them to consider carefully what they are doing instead of charging through a piece without really listening to it.

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture