Recalling the Archduke

Friday morning, and I was enjoying fairly leisurely tea and toast in bed (not having to get up early, for a change, to chivvy my son off to school) when I switched on Radio 3 and caught the charming Scherzo of Beethoven’s Opus 97 Piano Trio, the ‘Archduke’.

This work was one of the set pieces for my music A-Level (circa 1984), and has remained a favourite ever since. Pubished in 1811, it is Beethoven’s last piano trio. It comes from the same period of the composer’s creative life as the Opus 96 Sonata for violin and piano, and shares some of the same qualities of this work in its elegant long-spun melodies and nobility of expression. I was fortunate in my music A-Level group in that the other students were a violinist and cellist respectively – and we were all of a similar standard, having all done our Grade 8 exams at roughly the same time. The A-Level syllabus required us to analyse the complete work, and as well as studying it in the classroom, we spent a great deal of time playing it together, which was both enjoyable and educational, since it reinforced many of the things we had been discussing in class.

The opening movement is in B-flat major, the same key as the first movement of Schubert’s great valedictory D960 sonata. The two works share some characteristics aside from the key, which is both serene and grandiose, poignant and wistful: both begin with a stately and graceful, long-lined opening theme, establishing the nobility which permeates the entire work. The Archduke is full of sweetness and spaciousness, monumentality and intimacy. Its emotional core is the third movement, an ethereal set of variations on a hymn-like theme, and one of Beethoven’s most profoundly moving accomplishments. Player and listener are reminded of similar movements in the late piano sonatas (especially Opp.109 and 111), the Ninth Symphony, or the “Heiliger Dankgesang” of the Op. 132 string quartet.

Of course, I didn’t know these things when I was studying the work in my teens. We tended to do the analysis, without regard to the historical or compositional context of a work, studying it in isolation, blanking out all the other music that Beethoven was writing at the same time. But the work must have touched me, because whenever I hear it now, I experience a great rush of memory which can transport me right back to the music studio at school in the mid-1980s.

My school was blessed with an extremely fine music department, headed by a very energetic and hands-on music master. I was an active member of the department from the day I joined the school, and belonged to the senior orchestra (playing first desk clarinet), chamber orchestra (playing harpsichord continuo), choir, wind and recorder ensembles, and the madrigal group. I was a rather argumentative, opinionated and competitive A-Level student, always picking a fight with my music teacher (memorably, over my use of the word “bucolic” to describe Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony), and behaving in a (totally unjustified) diva-ish way about my piano playing. I thought I was the brightest student in the A-Level group, and I still cringe at the memory of my pretentious, know-it-all behaviour. I’m not sure what the other students thought of me, but when we were playing the Archduke Trio together, we were all equal before the music – which is how it should be. The violinist used to stand by the piano in her imperious violinist’s stance, tuning her instrument with much huffing and hair-tossing, while the ‘cellist, a clumsy, rather nervy girl who could be guaranteed to knock over all the other music stands when taking her place in the orchestra, struggled to secure the spike of her ‘cello. Then the music would begin, the quietly beautiful opening melody in the piano, and we would forget ourselves for awhile, enjoying the music and that particular give-and-take that comes from ensemble playing. Playing with other musicians can be so satisfying – far more enjoyable that hours of grinding practise alone, with no one to chat and joke with. It’s like belonging to a very special family with its own vicissitudes, petty niggles, tears and triumphs, and, like a proper family member, one has a responsibility towards the others, to be generous and open-hearted, and to keep going, no matter what, transcending oneself. It forces one to be modest, before the music and the other members of the ensemble.

We never performed the Archduke at school, though all three of us worked together on other works, including the marvellous Bach ‘Double’ Concerto (I was on harpsichord) with the chamber orchestra. I still have the manuscript of the Trio somewhere, covered in my analytical notes, a souvenir of some very happy and memorable years of music-making.

Visual Aids

I admit it: I’m a frightful purist and unashamed pedant when it comes to learning new music, preferring a careful, methodical approach, working slowly with a pencil behind my ear. I like to work things out for myself, and only very occasionally will be completely stumped by something in a score, which will either have me searching for some hints on the internet, or arriving at a lesson to consult my teacher, who knows that I prefer to work at problem-solving on my own, and is often happy to point me in the right direction and leave me to get on with it.

In an earlier post, I talked about familiarity with the music, not just the physical sensation and the patterns of the notes under the fingers, but also of seeing the score in front of me, day in day out, so that I begin to recognise the shapes and patterns of the printed music. I try to instill similar habits in my students, but I would be naive if I thought any of them practised as meticulously as I do. There are no budding Kissin’s or Lang Lang’s amongst my students, for which I am relieved as teaching a very talented student would fill me with dread, but there are one or two who show a real affinity for the instrument, and are sufficiently interested to practise regularly. One or two hardly practise at all – I know who they are! And one makes it look easy – ggrrrr!! With an age range of five to mid-forties, my student all have plenty of other things going on in their lives – drama, sport, after school activities, work – and piano practise just has to fit in around everything else. My adult students tend to be more committed and focussed, but that is because they are learning piano for slightly different reasons to the kids and are all self-motivated people.

To help with the learning of new music, I ask a student to read through the score and highlight any signs or markings which they don’t understand. Then we look for recurring patterns, breaking the score down into manageable pieces. Sometimes, being confronted with a whole A4 page of music can be very daunting for an early learner; showing them where the music repeats itself (either a straight repeat, or a repeated pattern or motif) can demystify it, making it simpler to understand. I use quite a lot of visual cues too – words or little drawings to describe the mood, tone or “story” in the music. I also ask my students to imagine the pictures and stories in the music. I like to think all these things combine to make the learning process more enjoyable. We also listen to other music to gain insights into context, both compositional and historical, and to highlight that piano music should not be considered in isolation.

I never been particularly keen on things stuck on the keyboard or behind the keys to help with note-learning, partly because I think such things are a distraction, forcing the eye down to the keys, instead of straight ahead at the score. However, one of my adults regularly uses one of these devices, ‘IMP’s Keyboard Indicator’, which shows not only the layout of the keyboard, but also the notes as they are written on the stave. She has found it invaluable in improving her knowledge of the geography of the keyboard and as a consequence, her confidence has also improved a great deal. My only concern is that she may not be able to cope without it if and when it is removed from the keyboard.

I ordered a Keyboard Indicator to keep in my piano room, and yesterday it arrived from Amazon. Setting it up on my piano (to make sure it fitted properly), I found myself checking some chords in both the Debussy and Gershwin preludes I am learning, where the right hand is taken to the very upper registers of the keyboard, a place I do not visit that often. I must say it was jolly useful to be able to make a quick check, annotate the score and then play the music, but fearing “dependence”, I quickly consigned the indicator to the top drawer of my desk, and carried on with the Debussy in my usual fashion. At the end of the day, only repetitive practise will truly fix those high chords in my head and fingers.

Sore Fingers

At the party on Sunday, one of the guests, a friend of mine who is a regular companion at the Wigmore and other concerts, was talking about Alfred Brendel’s habit of protecting his fingertips with sticking plaster. He’s been doing it for years: my mother, who was a bit of a Brendel groupie years ago, remembers seeing his bound fingers at concerts, and I noticed it while watching a tv programme of him playing at the Aldeburgh Festival the other year.

I have always felt that Brendel’s sticking plaster is a virtuoso affectation, and I know I am not alone in this view. I cannot believe that his fingertips are so fragile that five or six hours of daily piano practice can really do that much damage. It’s true I have skinned a fingertip, playing glissandos (incorrectly, as it turns out) in a piece by Debussy, but I have never practiced so much that my fingertips actually bleed. Maybe I am not practising enough?!

What also puzzles me about Brendel’s sticking plaster habit is that so much of piano playing is about touch, particularly through the sensitive tips of the fingers, through which we draw information about weight, tone, quality of sound, transmitting this back to the brain which in turn processes it, enabling minute adjustments in touch to be made all the time. At my lesson last month, my teacher actually made me play the opening of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes shut, forcing me to concentrate on touch (and quality of sound). So, if Brendel’s fingers are bound in plaster, how does he collect information from the keyboard? Or is he so supremely confident in his art that he does not need to?

Practising the aforementioned Poulenc this morning (8.30 am, definitely the right time of day for Poulenc!), I was aware of my fingers tingling after I’d been playing for about 40 minutes. It was not unpleasant; rather, it was akin to the sensation in my legs when I have been running for about 10 minutes, a pleasing sense of physical exertion. The sensation remained after I left the piano to get a drink of water, but it had passed by the time I started work on Chopin at 9.30.

The Chopin Etude, however, makes my hands and fingers hurt. I have to be careful with my right hand as I suffer from chronic tenosynovitis, which can flare up at a moment’s notice if I have been playing octaves or not allowing my hand to return to its natural position, and can keep me away from the piano for days or weeks at a time. In the “dreaded sixths” passage, my fingers and hands ache, which makes playing the remainder of the Etude much harder. Sometimes when practising this piece, my hands feel like claws: tense and hard. I have discussed this at length with my teacher, someone with a special interest in hand health and flexibility, and she said I would probably have to live with it. The notes in this Etude do not always lie comfortably under the fingers, probably a deliberate ploy on the composer’s part. It is meant to be a study after all – and one which tests the strength and sensitivity of the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand throughout.

Instances of the Number Five

“Practise a tricky section five times. If you make a mistake, go back and start again. Play it perfectly five times, and you can consider it “done” and then move onto the next thing….”

This is a mantra oft-repeated to my students, most of whom greet such useful, teacherly advice with much shrugging of shoulders and rolling of eyes. One or two remember it, and so when I ask them how they intend to practise a problem area, they will repeat my mantra back to me. I assure them that I also use the same dictum when I am practising, but they don’t always look convinced!

In reality, I probably practise a tricky section many more than five times at one sitting, but the “five times rule” is helpful in keeping me focussed when a problematic passage is beginning to frustrate. “One more go and you can move on…” I mutter to myself as I repeat that same passage for the nth time and wonder if I will ever permit myself to move on to another section. Sometimes, when I’ve been practising the nasty bits of the Chopin Op 10 no 3 Etude over and over again for nearly an hour, I treat myself – and my neighbours who are probably forced to listen to the tedious repetitions – to a complete play-through of the piece. This is not just self-indulgent wish-fulfilment, where I hope that everything will fall into the right place at the right time; it also serves a practical purpose – to check that what I have been practising really has been taken in by head and hands.

Repetitive practise breeds familiarity, not just with the music open on the rack in front of you, annotated with all sorts of very personal markings, fingerings, reminders and hints which become crucial signposts on the map (pink dots to highlight to remind me to pedal carefully, the words “WATCH IT!!” in bold, gestural strokes, exhorting me to keep focussed in a passage where my attention is liable to wander to check what my hands are doing, causing me to lose my place in the score), but also with the landscape of the keyboard and the physical sensation of the notes under the fingers. Repetition informs muscular memory, enabling the fingers to fall in the right place more often than not, and, eventually, one hopes, every time. Learning the patterns, the feel of a particular passage as well as the sound, all contribute to the overall process. In time, all these ‘learning components” come together, and one can enjoy that special moment when everything seems to slot into place and you play as if standing back from the music momentarily, playing at arm’s length, as it were. I love this sense of disengagement, of watching myself play. I feel it sometimes when I’m swimming, or running – a rare, special synergy. Yet, as my teacher pointed out when we were discussing it once, it is at this point that the mind and body are fully engaged, concentrating fiercely.

Even though I tend to employ the same strategies for learning new work, it never fails to amaze me how an hour of going over the same passage again and again can result in noticeable progress along the sometimes steep learning curve. There are times too, though, when a passage repeated again and again just fails to “go in”. I remember feeling this with a short piece by Delius I tried to learn last winter. It was a gorgeous piece, but full of bear traps to trip up the unwary, and it always felt awkward under my hands. However hard I tried with it, it never felt comfortable, and in the end, I reluctantly had to admit defeat and set it aside. It is rare, these days, for me to give up on a piece of music, but sometimes even the “five times rule” fails to achieve the desired outcome.

When is the Right Time for Haydn?

Practising yesterday at the end of the afternoon, when the temperature had cooled a little and it was more comfortable to work in my piano room, it occurred to me that often there is a right time, and a wrong time, to practise certain pieces.

I’m learning a late Haydn Sonata, his penultimate one (Hob. XVI: 51 No. 61, composed in London in the 1790s) in cheerful D major (that’s royal blue, if we are talking ‘synaesthesically’!), with a first movement that is both sprightly and gentle, moving forward from a proud opening voice to a dialogue which alternates between melody and accompaniment. The brief, graceful development section shows some unexpected twists, with a truly Beethovenian climax, and some delightful cantabile passages. It closes surpisingly quietly. The second movement has chorale and fugal qualities, with offbeat dynamic accents, again prefiguring Beethoven. It moves forward with a clear purpose towards an abrupt ending. This is a grandiose sonata, though perhaps not as august as the E-flat major sonata which succeeds it.

I used to play quite a lot of Haydn when I was in my early teens, and then rather forgot about him, favouring Beethoven and Schubert instead. Although the D Major sonata lasts little more than five minutes, there is nothing mere about its content: it is one of those pieces which looks easy – the notes are not difficult and are comfortable under the hand – but has hidden depths, requiring some careful learning. It’s a good compliment to the rest of my current repertoire (Chopin, Gershwin, Debussy and Poulenc). I love the clarity of a Classical sonata, and it has warmth and nobility within its two short movements.

Yesterday, I practised for an hour and a half, Poulenc first, then Chopin Op 10 no 3 (just the tricky bits – the chromatic augmented fourths, the dreaded sixths, the brief cross-rhythms in the last section), before throwing myself, rather too energetically it must be said, at Gershwin’s first Prelude, which I love at the moment (and hope I will continue to love as I have another three pages, and the Third Prelude still to learn!). The Haydn seemed a good piece to round off my practise session, but as soon as I started to play it (badly!), I knew I had come to it at the wrong time of day. My hands and arms felt leaden and tired, my fingers fat and jelly-like, sliding all over the place, smearing notes and muffing easy runs. The octaves dragged, the triplets were uneven, and I ended up feeling very hot and frustrated.

Haydn merits an early start, I think, when one is clear-headed and fresh, and the piano room is cool. The piece deserves care and attention as each note must be heard and valued. It needs to sound unforced, yet elegant, lofty yet unprententious. Today I began my practising with the Haydn and the difference was noticeable: it was a whole lot better –  indeed, it felt like a different piece!

The Poulenc Suite in C is another case in point. This too benefits from early morning practising. Like the Haydn, it needs great clarity, with a pureness of expression which highlights both the naive and the elegant qualities of the melodies.

Debussy, on the other hand, seems to fare better when practised in the afternoon – and the hot days, with a light breeze drifting in through the open French doors, are the perfect backdrop for his ‘Voiles’. I find myself listening to the wind rustling the bamboo trees in my garden, lifting leaves off the ground, swirling little eddies of dust – and sometimes, just sometimes, I find I can recreate the same sensations at the piano.

Music on a Summer’s Afternoon

It’s my mother’s seventieth birthday and I have organised a little party in my courtyard garden for her, her family, and her ‘London friends’, people she met when she still lived in north London, before she escaped to the country.

Some of the friends go back a long way: two colleagues from her History of Art MA at Chelsea College of Art in the 1980s, a fellow artist whom she met while doing her Fine Art BA (the friend’s daughter is a good friend of mine; in fact, we were at university together), a couple who have been family friends for 40 years. In the hot July sunshine, the friends gather in my little garden, drink rosé wine, and eat the selection of salads and dips I have prepared. The atmosphere is cheerful, relaxed and friendly.

“I hope you’re going to play,” my mother said the day before the party. I assured her that I would, but that I would not be playing Farewell To Stromness, a favourite of my mother’s and the piece she has chosen for her funeral ceremony, because I had not practised it. “Oh, I don’t want you to play that anyway,” she declared, leaving me to think of up a suitable mini-programme for an afternoon birthday party in July.

Michael, a long-time friend of both my mother’s and mine, arrives with a sheaf of scores but won’t reveal what he is planning to play. He played La Cathedrale Engloutie at my students’ concert the previous weekend, and I have a suspicion he might play it again as it’s another of my mother’s favourites. I realise, as I rifle through the scores which live on the lid of my piano and which represent my current learning, that my repertoire is varied and disparate: Poulenc, Chopin, Haydn, Debussy, Schubert and Gershwin. And nothing really ‘concert-ready’. The Opus 25 No. 7 Etude, which I played at my teacher’s concert in March, is very beautiful, but too melancholic for a sunny afternoon. The late Haydn Sonata in D is rather too grandiose, and the Poulenc is still a little rough round the edges. Schubert’s fourth Impromptu from the D899 set is also a favourite, but the trio seems too passionate, too pleading. In the end, I settle for the Gershwin Prelude No 2, which I played at my students’ concert, segueing straight into Debussy’s Le Petit Negre. The Gershwin, with its nod to Summertime and its lazy, languid tone, seems just about perfect. Afterwards, I decide Schubert’s second Klavierstück, from the D946, will round off my recital nicely. True, this piece has its storms and passions, like the Impromptu, but the opening melody – an aria from a forgotten opera – which returns twice, is charming and elegant, and pretty enough for the occasion. I’m not sure if Schubert should be played on two glasses of wine, but it does give me the necessary chutzpah to play for the assembled guests!

The room in which my piano lives is very hot at the moment (something my tuner continually bemoans when he comes to visit), and by the time I’m on the last page of the Schubert, I’m inelegantly pouring with perspiration and desperate for another chilled glass of something. I retire to the summer house to “talk piano” with Michael. We discuss ‘rubato‘, that subtle slackening of tempo. “It’s ‘stolen time’, so you have to give it back eventually!” I say bossily. Michael insists that there should never be rubato in Bach, nor in Beethoven, who, he says (quite rightly) is very firm about the tempos of his music, but I argue that even the music of Bach and Scarlatti demands some slackening in tempo here and there, to emphasise shape, mood, colour or cadence. “It’s a different kind of rubato,” I explain, remembering that Michael’s repertoire is more Romantically-oriented than mine: he favours Schumann (the score of the ‘Kreisleriana’ is often left on the rack of his Steinway when I go to play it, just to torment me), Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Granados. The discussion about rubato leads us onto the subject of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 3, which I am learning at the moment. “How on earth do you play the sixths?” he asks, referring to the fiendish Con Bravura passage which marks the climax of the piece. “They have no pattern or coherence to me.”

“There is a pattern to them,” I say. “And the fingering scheme helps too. I spent a week practising it on the kitchen table in the chalet in France at Easter. The other guests thought I was bonkers, but it worked a treat!”

Michael persuades me to play it, and I tell him that only he, and possibly one other person in the garden, will know where I get it wrong! Unsurprisingly, I go to pieces with the sixths. I am just aware of Michael standing behind me while I’m playing, and afterwards I say, “You shouldn’t have mentioned the sixths! I was worrying about them too much and that’s why I went wrong!” Of course, I know I can play them – painfully slowly at the moment, but accurately.

Michael then sits down to play, beginning with some really charming Elgar, Dream Children, a little winsome, very pretty. Then a transcription of the Fauré ‘Sicilienne’ from Peleas et Melisande, and finishing off with Debussy: Clair de Lune and La Cathedrale Engloutie (aahh!). I sit in the cool of the sitting room with his wife, enjoying the great pleasure of hearing my piano being played so very well (usually, I only hear my students banging away at it, with the odd moment of vaguely cantabile playing – and I don’t always enjoy my own playing either!). I had been worrying that the piano was slipping badly out of tune in the heat, but it sounds wonderful in Michael’s hands. And what a treat for the little audience gathered in my garden, and beyond – my immediate neighbours and the friend who lives across the road – to hear such beautiful music on a summer’s afternoon.

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture