Alex Ross’s new book. ‘Listen to This’, has been languishing on the floor by my bed since it dropped through my letterbox from Amazon a week or so ago. With an hour’s commute to work in prospect yesterday, I put the book in my briefcase, and read the first chapter on the way to Notting Hill, and the chapter on Schubert (‘Great Soul’) on the way back. I hardly noticed the commute – in either direction….

I did not read Ross’s previous book. ‘The Rest is Noise’, though I expect I will one day (too many books, not enough time – just like the piano repertoire!). I have read various articles by him, as well as the text of his Royal Phiharmonic Society Lecture, given at the Wigmore earlier this year (download the text here).

Alex Ross is no musicologist, nor is he a dry, ‘old school’ music critic, but his breadth of knowledge is clearly very wide, covering not just the world of classical music, but also that of jazz, rock and pop. His writing is lively and erudite, and his engaging style piqued my interest from the very first line.  The opening chapter debunks much of the mythology and traditions of Classical music, reminding us that concert conventions took a rather “anything goes” attitude until the mid- to late-19th century, when concert-goers and promoters took it upon themselves to impose a more formal etiquette on classical concerts, demanding reverential silence and no applauding between movements, a convention that continues to this day (he expands on this subject at length in his RPS lecture).

Likewise, the chapter on Schubert also attempts to unravel some of the traditionally-held views, and urban legends surrounding this composer (Was he homosexual? Did he have syphilis? Should we care?), reminding us of Schubert’s deep love of poetry, his ability to spin the agony (and ecstasy) of his desire in his extraordinary melodies and harmonic shifts, and his prolific output. The subject is sensitively handled by a writer who clearly loves this composer’s music. As Ross says, “[Schubert’s] music is another thing altogether. Its presence – its immediacy – is tremendous…..he could play the entire gamut of emotion as one ambiguous chord, dissolving differences between agony and joy……There were no limits whatsoever to his musical imagination.”

The book is a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip into, and I am looking forward to grazing my way through it over the weekend. It would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in music and culture.

Debussy – Voiles: This is one of the pieces for my students’ concert. It feels “concert-ready” to me – I hope my teacher will agree when I see her on Wednesday.

Debussy – Pour le Piano (Prelude & Sarabande): Both these pieces are at a fairly early stage, though I have made useful inroads in the last week or so. I am looking forward to having my teacher’s critical ear on them this week.

Chopin – Ballade in G Minor: I feel I’ve reached an impasse with this, partly because I over-practised it last month and ended up with a return of the tenosynovitis in my right hand. Some time away from it should renew my interest in it. It is not part of my Diploma repertoire.

Bach – Toccata from 6th Partita: It’s very satisfying to be playing Bach again after a long absence from his music. I hope my teacher will agree this piece will make a good opener for my Diploma recital. I love the intricacies of Bach – to me, playing it is like looking at the traceries of a Baroque church. I’ve only learnt two pages of this so far. Murray Perahia’s recording is a constant source of inspiration – he is so good at highlighting all the intricacies and nuances, interior architecture and harmonies, textures and ‘voices’ in the music (this is also true of his Chopin-playing).

Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus, no. 4: Hearing Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ recently inspired me to learn some of his piano music – and this piece is on the Diploma repertoire list. It is a strange little lullaby, shot through with premonitions of Jesus’s fate. I have done little more than read through it. Not sure how it will fit into my Diploma programme….

At a party I attended recently, several guests, who I had not met before, asked me “What do you do?”, displaying that peculiarly English middle class need always to define one by one’s job.

Some years ago, before I reinvented myself as a piano teacher, when I was just beginning to emerge from the fog of being a first-time (and only time) parent, I was a freelance secretary, but my work was so peripatetic that it hardly constituted a “proper” job, so when asked the dread question, I would cast around for something that sounded convincing, eventually copping out by replying “Oh, I am a full-time mother” and then apologise for this, embarrassed, as if I was a skulking member of the grey economy. I am pleased to say I never subscribed to the tag “stay at home mother”, or, worse “schoolgate mum”, that particularly offensive term coined by Tony Blair and his cohorts which suggests women like myself spend all day hanging around the schoolgate with nothing better to do than chat inanely about panty pads and drink Starbucks takeaway coffee. Ugh!

Lately, when asked, I say I am a piano teacher. To say I am “a pianist” sounds a tad pretentious, though I can claim that role too: I am a pianist. As Charles Rosen says in his excellent book ‘Piano Notes’, anyone who plays the piano is a pianist (that’s what I tell my students!). Sometimes, when I’m feeling cheeky, I say I am “a gentleman’s companion” which usually elicits some raised eyebrows. It’s just a fancy of way of saying I am an assistant to an elderly gentleman writer, indeed no more than a glorified secretary, who has the good fortune to work in a smart house in Notting Hill half a day a week.

At the party, it was both gratifying and flattering to be introduced by the hostess, a friend and student of mine, as “Fran, my piano teacher” or “This is Fran. She’s a piano teacher”. What was even more enjoyable and ego-massaging was that several people had actually heard of me, either through the hostess, or via the grapevine that exists at the local primary school gate. The majority of my students attend this school, and my son is a recent graduate from it. It has been a wonderful source of pupils – and continues to be – and just goes to prove that “schoolgate mums” can be gainfully employed AND look after the kids at home! When they learned what I did, several guests expressed a keen interest, or said, slightly wistfully, “Oh I had piano lessons as a child. I wish I’d kept it up!”. Others told me they had wanted their children to come to me, but had been told – again, through the local grapevine – that I had a long waiting list (not true – it’s a small waiting list, but a waiting list nonetheless). They had heard about my termly concerts, my eccentric pets, and, indeed, my own slightly unorthodox teaching habits. One woman, whose children were learning with another local teacher, told me she reached Grade 7 in her teens and then gave up. She had tried to play the piano recently and “couldn’t remember anything!” and maybe I could help her? She asked me how I’d got back into playing seriously, and I explained that after a 15-year absence from the keyboard (apart from occasional visits to a friend with a grand piano), I had set myself the task of getting myself back up to post-Grade 8 standard by just putting the hours in. There had been a few hiccups on the way: a run-in with a very suspect teacher, who I later discovered was probably a pervert, put me off finding a teacher for a year; and a chronic injury to my right hand, which set me back three months. Otherwise, there’s no magic formula: just hard work, every day, if I can, for several hours, fitting in the piano practice and studying with the “reality tasks” of family life.

So, what do I do? Each day, when I sit down at the keyboard, or before I get there, I plot the day’s practising, going back over the previous day’s work and highlighting elements which need attention. Because I have limited time, I am very strict with myself to ensure that each of the pieces I am working on currently gets the right amount of attention. I do not keep a written practice diary – though I probably should. Like the information about my students, much of the detail about the music I am working on is retained in my head. I make notes on the score to remind me – my students seem fascinated by my annotations, my secret code, my arrows, stars, circles and exclamation marks. Some are even discovering their own: Saskia delighted me last week when she arrived with her own marked-up score of ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’.

When I am not physically practising, I try to read around the music I am working on. This helps my understanding of the structure and nature of the music – an A-level in music has given me basic proficiency in musical analysis, but there’s always more to be gained from reading around the subject. I am less interested in other people’s emotional and subjective responses: like the highly hypothetic discussions as to whether Schubert and Chopin were gay or not, I do not find such analyses helpful. A familiarity with the music, which comes from simply spending hours and hours with it – playing it and listening to it – offers far greater insights, in my view. I try not to listen to the pieces I am studying too often as one can be easily swayed by a particular interpretation and while one may admire Claudio Arrau’s Beethoven piano sonatas, or Mitsuko Uchida’s readings of Mozart, one does not wish to emulate or imitate these pianists. Recordings are a useful guide:  for example, I have been struggling with the pulse of Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ and a listen to Stephen Osborne’s ethereal rendering of this piece is helpful from time to time…

What else do I do? When not doing my own work, I teach other people’s children, and a handful of adults, how to play the piano. Again, many people have a misguided and simplistic view of the role of the piano teacher. A lesson may last half an hour (in reality, about 20 mins of actual work after pleasantries etc) but I spend a great deal of time when not physically teaching thinking about and planning lessons. While most of my students are at a similar stage in their learning, they are all individuals, and one of my specialities as a teacher, is to try and tailor my lessons to each student’s particular needs. I do not keep written records and rely on students to remember their practise notebooks each week to remind me of what everyone is doing, but I know each of my students pretty well now and have a notion of what needs to be done each week, in advance of their lessons. Towards the end of term, when the serious work is done, things get a little chaotic and sometimes we spend a lesson learning how to conduct, singing, or setting teacher scale marathons. Anything, as far as I’m concerned, to keep their interest!

There are times, of course, when it just doesn’t go the way I want it to. I can sit at the keyboard for an hour or more and my playing feels forced, wooden, my fingers stiff and unresponsive. I can practice the same phrase 20 times and still it is not right. Sometimes it can be so frustrating I bang my forehead on the music rack or hammer the keyboard with my fists. At times like these, the best antidote is to walk away from the piano and go and do something else, something completely different. I find running very therapeutic – it offers me precious head-clearing time. Ditto cooking. Writing about my activity/activities also helps – hence this blog. It can be lonely and cold in my conservatory/piano room, with just the cats for company, the same page of music confronting me day after day. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that, as a pianist, one can feel trapped in a gilded cage with music an omnipresent landscape. Yet, without my practising regime, my days can feel directionless, without focus. Most days, though, I enjoy it. It’s escapism, of a sort, it takes one out of oneself; it’s mentally and physically challenging; and, more often than not these days, rewarding. Yesterday, when I was working on the Prelude from Debussy’s Pour le Piano, a marvellous thing happened and all the elements I had been struggling with for weeks and weeks – the jagged, urgent opening bars, the Bachian motif in bars 1-42, the triumphant, climactic C major chordal section from bar 43 with its whole-tone scales – all came together, almost perfectly. It was deeply, deeply satisfying, and reminded me, if I need such a reminder, of what I have to do, and what I like to do…..

One does not often have the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and ‘cello (nor indeed the 9 duo sonatas for piano and violin) at one sitting in a single concert. It’s something of a musical marathon, for performers and audience alike, yet it’s a fascinating  and absorbing experience because to hear the sonatas played in chronological sequence, one is offered a unique window onto Beethoven’s creative and compositional development: it is a journey through Beethoven’s life.

The Opus 5’s are a young man’s works: fresh, vibrant, colourful, energetic, humorous. They are clever and witty – take the false cadences in fast movement of the G minor sonata – but nor do they lack depth, or emotion. They also remind us that Beethoven was a fine pianist, and the Opus 5 sonatas were composed at a time when Beethoven was carving a career for himself as a virtuoso. The F Major and G Minor sonatas are works for piano with ‘cello, not the other way around, and the piano definitely gets the greater share of the virtuosity: Beethoven was clearly not going to allow himself to be overshadowed by some ‘cellist! Over and over again in these sonatas, the piano seems to lead, and the ‘cello replies.

The A major sonata, the Opus 69, is from the middle, most productive, period of Beethoven’s life; yet, it was at this time that the composer wrote his moving Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he contemplated suicide. His deafness was now acute, if not quite total. The Opus 69 marks a turning point, particularly in the variety and organisation of its thematic material, and its improvisatory nature. It was composed during the same year as the Violin Concerto and the  Opus 70 piano trios, and the completion and publication of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. It is an entirely classical sonata in its measured, well-proportioned construction, and, in contrast to the earlier sonatas, where the piano and ‘cello are, more often than not, engaged in witty musical repartee, the first movement of the Opus 69 opens with the ‘cello alone; variations of its expansive main theme and a pair of contrasting secondary motifs allow much contrapuntal and melodic interplay between the two players. This an equal sonata for cello and piano, and the material is distributed between the two instruments with perfect symmetry. And at this point, Beethoven had invented a new genre not seen again until Brahms. (Previous ‘cello sonatas were either ‘cello solos with continuo, or like the Opus 5 sonatas: piano sonatas with ‘cello obbligato.)

The final pair of sonatas, the Opus 102, dating from the beginning of the “late” period of Beethoven’s life, sit alongside the beautiful, pastoral Opus 96 violin sonata, and the last three piano sonatas – all truly miraculous works. Like the sublime Opus 110 piano sonata, these sonatas seem to inhabit another world entirely, and exude an almost transcendental spirituality. And like the Opus 96 violin sonata, and the Opus 110 piano sonata, they are imbued with a sense of “completion”, of acceptance (but most defiantly not resignation) created by a composer finally at peace with his life and his God. (As my friend Sylvia says of the Op 110, “there he was, deaf as a f—–g post, unlucky in love, and he still managed to write that!)

The last ‘cello sonata, in D major, contains a prayer in its slow movement, offering an almost Messiaenic vision of eternity: yet the final movement is a life-affirming fugue, that most stable and triumphant of musical devices, bringing us emphatically back to earth.


This is adapted from something a friend posted on Facebook (15 Authors in 15 Minutes).

The Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen composers and/or musicians who have always influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes, and they don’t have to be listed in order of relevance to you.

Beethoven

Bach

Chopin

Schubert

Mozart

Debussy

Satie

Haydn

Albeniz

Handel

Liszt

Brian Eno

David Byrne

Alison Goldfrapp

Claude Challe

 

Please feel free to post your own ’15 in 15′

On Friday 12th November, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, died aged 76. Gorecki is perhaps best remembered for his Third Symphony, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, a work of sacred minimalism whose dominant themes are motherhood and separation through war. More often than not, this work is considered to be a meditation on the Holocaust, but it is more than that. Each movement is sung by a soprano: the first is a 15th century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, while the third is a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her child killed in the Silesian uprisings just after the First War. The second movement is a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the Second War, and has become a ‘soundtrack’ for the Holocaust after a canny film-maker picked it up and used it in the 1990s. Along with Part’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ and ‘Fratres’, this piece more than any other seems to express the inexpressible about this dreadful rupture in modern European history. Sadly, it has been given the “Classic FM treatment”, and its wonder and beauty has now been somewhat devalued through over-exposure.

The music is very approachable, perhaps surprisingly so, since Gorecki’s earlier music drew influences from the dissonant works of Stockhausen and Nono, and this has undoubtedly contributed to its popular appeal: it is not “difficult” music to listen to. It is reasonably straightforward in its construction and its harmonies, and makes use of Medieval musical modes. Premiered in 1977, it remained relatively unknown, except amongst  connoisseurs, until 1992, when a recording was released with the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, with the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It topped the classical charts in the UK and US, and has sold over a million copies.

For me, its Medieval influences, the simplicity of the thematic material and, more than anything else, the soprano line which soars above the orchestra, are what make it so remarkable. It is “tingle factor” music par excellence, and I only need to hear a few bars to feel the hairs rise on the back on the neck. Admittedly,  the greater part of its power comes from its association with the Holocaust. Hear a few bars, and one is forced to pause and meditate on that genocide.

Dawn Upshaw’s clean soprano voice is has a wonderful translucence on the 1992 recording. She lacks the heavy vibrato of “old school” sopranos like Dame Janet Baker or Renée Fleming, and there is an innocence in her voice which reinforces the “story” of the music with an almost painful clarity. The rising, scalic motif in the second movement, sung by the soprano and supported by the orchestra, drives the music forward until the voice climaxes on a top A flat. According to the composer, the soprano voice should “tower” over the orchestra, and there are places in this movement where she almost seems to take flight, soaring ethereally above the orchestra. Beneath the voice, the music pulses and “breathes” with an almost audible “lub-dub” beat of the human heart.

It is a shame that the Third Symphony has largely eclipsed Gorecki’s other music, much of which is very fine indeed, and it would be a great pity if he were remembered only for this work, except amongst more esoteric music lovers and scholars. What is certain is that the Third Symphony, and all that it expresses, will continue to resonate with many people for years to come.